Toy Philosophy Universes (part 1)

As I mentioned previously, the posts on this blog will be more like compilations of overextended post-it notes than carefully crafted papers. It is like lifting up the hood and letting other people look at the fragile components of a prototype engine you have designed and how such components tentatively hang together in spite of the fact you have just noticed the engine not only works at a sub-optimal level but also someone else has made a better one.

Much like engineers who are always obsessed with how crazy contraptions work, philosophers are curious about how people think particularly those whose activities in one way or another involve modeling the world, making systems and concepts about it. Having come from an engineering background and being a philosopher, I am doubly fascinated with how other philosophers or theorists (whether a scientist, an artist, a political theorist, etc.) model their worlds, conduct their research and practice so as to arrive at a specific set of theoretical, practical or aesthetic claims. This fascination—call it a chronic cognitive voyeurism—is centered on the implicit know-hows and know-thats behind theorists’ works and visions as well as structural flaws in their thoughts and Weltbilder. The fault-finding tic comes from not just the philosophical penchant for the criteria of trueness but also from the engineering perspective of whether an argument, a system of thoughts or a world-picture can be examined, optimized or revised, or should it be discarded altogether. If it can be revised, then what does it take to revise it? But a comprehensive revision requires accessing certain information about the structure (roughly speaking, how things hang together in the broadest possible sense) of the said system or world-picture. Now it is becoming obvious that the question of revision or optimization is not easy after all. For how can one at the same time inhabit a system or a model and examine or more precisely, make well-formed sentences about its structure so as to be able to consequently revise it. This is a Gödelian puzzle and the question from which Rudolf Carnap begins his work post-Aufbau (much on this issue in toy philosophy universes series and future posts on Carnap’s revolutionary work, until then I draw your attention to the recent brilliant work of Steve Awodey on Carnap).

Let me reformulate the above puzzle with regard to something like language. If our natural languages are at their base anchored in our intuitions in a Kantian sense and furthermore, if our intuitions (say of space and time) are bound to a certain type of transcendental structures and again if these transcendental structures (e.g., memory, perception of space, natural language, locomotory mechanisms, etc.) are the products of our own local and contingent constitution or evolution as subjects, then how can we know that our objective descriptions of phenomena in the world are not anything other than the overextension of our local and contingent characteristics? How can we ever step outside of the limitations of our natural language or the egocentric framework? Ergo, Wittgenstein’s problem: the limits of our world are the limits of our language and insofar as our natural languages or for that matter any representational system are shackled by—just like Kant’s intuition—a particular transcendental type, then our objective descriptions of reality are doomed forever to simply reiterate a variation of our local and contingently characteristics of experience and nothing more. Kantian philosophers usually have the habit of understating the consequences of this epistemic hell but just because they downplay its significance, it does not mean that this hell does not exist.

This problem, of course, is nothing new. Ludwig Boltzmann offers a shining example of it toward the end of Lectures on Gas Theory (§89-90) with regard to our intuition of time and the possibility of arriving at new facts of experience (a detailed discussion on this problem is in the forthcoming Intelligence and Spirit).

Did you just say other beings, extraterrestrials and stuff like that?

Even Kant himself in the Critique of Pure Reason (CPR), inadvertently, poses a similar question. In the section concerning general remarks on the transcendental aesthetic, Kant says something along the line that there might be other beings in the universe—i.e. species inhabiting other transcendental types—whose representations of space and time as forms of appearances differ from ours (A42/B60), but it would be an exercise in dogmatic metaphysics to speculate how such different intelligences intuit the world in order to see or conceive it as something dissimilar or even incompatible to our conception of the world. In other words, “[we should solely be concerned with] our way of perceiving them [i.e. things-in-themselves], which is peculiar to us, and which therefore does not necessarily pertain to every being, though to be sure it pertains to every human being.” (emphases are mine) Kant then, in later chapters, goes on to say that any conception of transcendental logic should always respond to the fact of our experience in order for it to be objective. One can give two different readings of these passages in CPR. One would be a charitable reading and the other an excoriating one. According to the charitable reading, of course Kant is right. We can not immediately step outside of our own forms of intuition and transcendental structures to talk about other beings and their models and conceptions of the world, universe or reality in its objectivity. Any model of other intelligences we provide is going to be modeled on our own theoretical and practical reasons. Any empirical description of such intelligences or beings will bear the characteristics of our own transcendental structures to the extent that the scope of empirical descriptions are dictated by the scope of transcendental structures. In talking about other intelligences or minds, we are always forced to explain and justify the reason we interpret such beings as intelligent or minded. That is to say, without an explicitly stated criterion of what we mean by intelligence or mind, our characterizations of other beings as intelligent or minded are nonsensical. We might just as well talk about angels dancing on the head of a pin, cyber-popeyes, ineffable superintelligences and lava lamps being in a noumenal harmony with other kinds of stuff. My friends Ray Brassier and Pete Wolfendale have done more than a sufficient job to expose these pseudo-posthumanist and object oriented gibberish as the latest exercises in speculative farce.

Now the non-charitable reading which is the one I am interested in, but without dismissing or rejecting the charitable reading that I just outlined: Even if we accept Kant’s remarks on other beings qua transcendental types as a reasonable cautionary tale that we should all take by heart, there is still something missing in this story. For Kant at the same attempts to underline the particularity of our transcendental structures (forms of appearances in particular) and emphasize the universality of our objective descriptions of reality. It could be non-controversial, if Kant’s definition of universality simply meant ‘as a matter of a necessary rule’ but we know that what Kant in many occasions in CPR means by universality is universal with capital U i.e. our description of universe or reality is Universal in a stronger sense. That is to say, it is the objective description. But in all due respect to the transcendental luminary of Königsberg, how is this even possible? How can we at the same time endorse the particularity of our transcendental type and claim to have Universal objective descriptions of the world of which we are part? Herr Kant, surely you don’t expect us to simultaneously believe in the possibility of different transcendental types and also rule them out in favor of our own merely given transcendental type on the ground that talking about such possibilities is an exercise in armchair speculation? Because if that is what you are saying then you are nothing other than a benighted humanist, an errand boy of the given. You claim that our objective descriptions are universal only to the extent that you do not know the exact limitations of our transcendental particularity because you think that our specific form of intuition should be the sole concern of our philosophical inquiry. In other words, you have already gerrymandered the boundaries of our particular subjectivity, turning them from locally bounded to universally unbounded.

In this framework—the Kantian straightjacket—how can we ever know that our empirical descriptions of the universe in its objectivity are not simply the overextension of the particular given characteristics of our own transcendental structures which can in fact be local and contingent? But even more insidiously, even when we sufficiently differentiate local and contingent characteristics of our forms of intuition from the objective descriptions of phenomena in the universe, what does guarantee that the bracketed characteristics of our intuition don’t encroach upon and distort our rational scientific models of the world? This is the very problem that vexed Boltzmann’s later work in the context of bridging statistical entropy and thermal entropy, micro- and macro- scales. To paraphrase Boltzmann’s words: If renewing our relation with objective reality requires renewing the structure of our experience then how can we at the same time exclusively inhabit a particular structure of experience and arrive at new facts of experience? Simply put, how can we be in X-space and see the world beyond it? Certainly achieving the latter requires us to adopt a new transcendental type, one that is at once the subject of speculation and in contiguity with our existing transcendental resources (i.e. intelligible). To sum up, our model or conception of the world ought to be both in contiguity with our given resources and also beyond the limitations imposed by our particular transcendental structure. As we now see, this problem is not only serious on a theoretical ground but also quite difficult to tackle with on methodological grounds. However, this is not exactly the topic I would like to focus on, even though it can be seen as a primary motivation behind what I shall explore in the future posts.

The subject that I would like to write about is the metatheory of the practice of philosophy or if you prefer—with some caveats that I will hopefully elaborate in the future—the metatheory of theorization. Essentially, I would like to talk about the labor of modeling, but also toy models and eventually toy philosophical universes as systematic models in which the aforementioned Kantian problems don’t simply go away but nevertheless are mitigated. So with that said this post is the first installment in a long series where I will talk about modeling, about the relations between models and cognition, and more importantly, about the kind of models that might rescue us from the current quagmire of philosophy and the idleness of thought. Hopefully, the connections will become clearer as we move forward.

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