Saturday, April 09, 2011

Morlocks & Eloi

I spent a good chunk of Friday involved with two Latour-ian events -- one, where I was presenting a slice of my paper (with a hefty Latour section) to a seminar at work, to a bunch of straight techie types who were not very sympathetic, and two, where I went as a spectator to an event devoted to "speculative realism" and "object-oriented ontology" at the California Institute for Integral Studies. I felt roughly equally out-of-place at both -- well, no, not really, I am far closer to the hardnosed engineers at work than I am to the ethereal scholars of "philosophy, cosmology, and consciousness".

During the talks, I had to suppress my internal voice saying this was all nonsense, and appreciate that these people, like me, are just trying to frame an understanding of the world in which they find themselves, and if it suits them to do it through reference to dead Germans (Schelling) and live Frenchmen and Buddhism and Wordsworth and I don't know what all -- then it deserves to be appreciated for what it is.

But for a great deal of the program I could not for the life of my figure out what the fuck they were going on about, all this stuff about noumenon and phenomenon and withdrawal and primary vs secondary sense data and apodicity and on and on. I have spent some of my energy critiquing cognitive science and mechanistic theories of mind, but that's because I have internalized their ideas, which are built on science. These people seem to have not a clue or the slightest interest in, say, what's known about the physiology and computational structure of vision that could contribute to an understanding of what goes on when we perceive something, preferring instead to natter on about what Schelling thought about what Kant thought about what Plato thought "red" meant. Not only are they uninformed by science or mathematics, indeed, they seem to be deliberately avoiding it.

Another hint of what might separate me from these beautiful souls -- I sensed that all this philosophizing was based around a hidden assumption that the universe revolved around humanity and the human mind -- hence the attraction of idealist philosophy. The appeal of speculative realism, in fact, is that it starts to hint that the universe may just not be all about us. That's a good trend in philosophy, but my starting assumptions -- based on personality and training -- are quite the opposite, I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that the universe is a soulless and uncaring machine that happens to have accidentally coughed up some self-regarding chunks of protoplasm out on the edge of an obscure solar system. Not these scholars of consciousness -- for them, the mind is more primal than anything else and the problem is reconciling the rest of the world with it. Hence the whole program seemed devoted to simply teetering on the brink of allowing that objects might have a reality in their own right, separate from the mind. Well, duh.

These humanists are no doubt nicer, better adjusted, perhaps saner people than me. Mechanism has some serious flaws; the image of the universe as a mindless machine is not really all that attractive or life-supporting, which is why I seem to be constantly looking for ways to modify or enhance it. The intent of the philosophies on display last night is to try to bridge the gap between mind and world, ideal and real. I want to do that too, these people are just coming at it from the opposite side.

8 comments:

TGGP said...

"These humanists are no doubt nicer, better adjusted, perhaps saner people than me."
I'd like to see some data on those traits vs philosophical positions.

TGGP said...

I tried looking to see if philosophy phds or grad students self-report higher happiness than others and had little luck. The closest I found on happiness by subject matter was here.

Adam said...

Your points here are all well taken, however, and I can speak only for myself here, I am not at all opposed to science, a scientific account of perception or any sort of "mechanistic" account of the universe. Nevertheless, philosophy is its own specialized discipline with its own history and technical terminology ("noumena" and "phenomena" for example) that cannot be reduced to or explained by the latest findings of scientists.

I suppose its a little late to clarify, but the point about objects having an existence outside of the mind is obviously something that is not contested by empirical evidence (or common sense), rather, the point was to articulate the sense in which the interpretive nature of the human experience of objects is not unique to humans alone, but that interpretation is a part of the nature all objects as such (you could invoke here other technical terms like "pantranslationism" perhaps). All of these are things built straight out of Latour (and before him Whitehead) so I am a little surprised that it was so foreign to you.

I definitely appreciate and agree with your statement "this is all nonsense" as in some ways philosophy is about sorting through the interface between sense and nonsense. I am happy to travel inbetween both.

The primary and secondary distinction I don't think is very hard to grasp (primary = what is there without human mediation, secondary = what is sensed as a result of the human perceptive apparatus) this basic distinction is what much of empirical science is based on. The realization of the need for this distinction was the result of philosophical labor, which led to things like the scientific method and has greatly enhanced our practice of science.

So, while I agree that physiological accounts of perception were not a part of the discussion, that is not what we set out to do, nor did we claim to. The fact that people can have a discourse about perception without invoking physiological mechanisms is troubling to some (and to this I am sympathetic), and yet there are multiple methods for evaluating an experience of the world or of sense objects that do not require anatomical knowledge. Again, I am absolutely not opposed to scientific explanations, but they only go so far. Also, for the record, I am not an idealist in any philosophical sense, nor am I a humanist. One of the major advances of ANT/OOO, is precisely its engagement with the nonhuman, a point which I tried to express in both my introductory statements and my own presentation.

I appreciate your comments and only wish we could have spoken directly at the event, it sounds like you had a somewhat awkward experience in both places!

mtraven said...

Er, um, well. Please understand that I'm at best a clumsy amateur in the philosophy game. And I try to recognize that philosophers have their own technical vocabulary, and if it doesn't make sense to me that may be my problem, not yours.

...the interpretive nature of the human experience of objects is not unique to humans alone, but that interpretation is a part of the nature all objects as such (you could invoke here other technical terms like "pantranslationism" perhaps).

See, that doesn't make sense to me. The "interpretive nature of the human experience" is a function of the nature of the human interpreter (eg, the senses, the body, the nervous system, etc). If two billiard balls collide, they do not collide with each other's transcendential nature, but they also are not doing anything with each other that I would call "interpretation", which has connotations both of semanticity and freedom.

"Pantranslationism" does not appear in a Google search, so you may want to stake a claim on it.

All of these are things built straight out of Latour (and before him Whitehead) so I am a little surprised that it was so foreign to you.

As a tourist, I'm probably just pulling the things out of Latour that make sense to me and leaving the rest. And I've never read Whitehead.

I don't remember what was said about primary and secondary sense data, but the discussion here seems monumentally confused, and it's the kind of confusion that could easily be dispelled by a consideration of the physiology of sensation. The confusion may revolve around the word "direct", since there is no such thing.

Also, for the record, I am not an idealist in any philosophical sense, nor am I a humanist. One of the major advances of ANT/OOO, is precisely its engagement with the nonhuman, a point which I tried to express in both my introductory statements and my own presentation.

I got there rather late so missed most of your presentation, I'm afraid. But my point above was that, from my perspective, the stuff I heard seemed like a bunch of humanists trying to get away from their humanism, but not making all that strong a showing of it, in fact they seem to be imagining objects as if they were humans (cf above about interpretation). In comparision, I come out of the computational intelligence world where we start with the inhuman and try to make it achieve humanness, and generally treats humans as if they were objects (or "meat machines" in a delightful phrase). I've got a a lot of problems with my own intellectual background, which is what draws me into other areas like yours. So perhaps we are converging, but coming at it from vastly different directions.

...It sounds like you had a somewhat awkward experience in both places!

Don't worry, I'm used to it.

Adam said...

Ah, I see, your comments make more sense to me. The final two presentations were more directly coming from an idealist position. Speculative Realism (in case you haven't lost total interest) is all about dealing with problems set up by Kant (a paramount Idealist), object-oriented ontology (OOO) which is an offspring of Latour's work is probably more in your vein, the first half of the event focused more pointedly on that aspect of SR.

The thing that makes OOO so controversial, and precisely what we set out to investigate, is the issue of whether two billiards actually "abstract" elements from experience that are relative to their "billiard ballness." This is a big leap for everyone, including open minded philosophers.

The point that Graham Harman (who suggested the term panstranslationism) is trying to get across is that all objects abstract certain elements of the universe into their experience and so only encounter a world "for them", which is exactly what Kant said about humans. Of course billiard balls dont have "experience" in anything like a human way, but billiards don't, for example, cause pieces of cotton to burst into flame when they come into contact with them, whereas fire would. So in a sense, billiard balls are also engaged in a set of abstract relations with other objects.

These are tightly argued and controversial philosophical issues, I won't bore you with them any longer! But if you are interested Graham Harman, Levi Bryant and Ian Bogost (who is also a computer program- but I have to be honest his stuff is lost on me) are all in the OOO camp, and judging from some of the other stuff on your blog, might be interesting to you.

Cheers!

mtraven said...

Hm...I may slightly get it. Or maybe not.

It seems to be that these abstracted properties are really a function of the (partly imaginary) boundary that delineates an object from the rest of the universe. That is, the "real" underlying physical world is just a contiguous swirl of particles and forces, there's nothing like "shinyness" or "hardness" or "fire" to be found there. Solidity is an abstracted property of an object which is itself a chunk that is carved out of this seamless swirl by our cognition (well, some boundaries occur as emergent physical properties as well).

Once these boundaries are drawn, transactions across them may be said to be "abstract experiences" in the sense you are talking about, and described in these high-level abstract terms.

Adam said...

Yup, I like "a chunk carved out of a seamless swirl."

Harman's philosophy, in addition to being close to Latour's, is also very similar to Jane Bennett's "Vibrant Matter" if you've come across her work. They are speaking together in NY sometime soon I think.

meaningness said...

> "These humanists are no doubt nicer, better adjusted, perhaps saner people than me."

Based on the little I know about Speculative Realism... probably not. By and large, not a nice, well-adjusted, or sane group of people, although somewhat interesting.

You might be amused by my discussion here: http://buddhism-for-vampires.com/lovecraft-harman-nihilism