A Revolution in Subjectivity: Utopic or Dystopic?

  1. The revolution in subjectivity: Our definitions of human identity and human fulfillment need to change. Definitions based on how many resources you can stockpile and call your own are not sustainable as our consumption level hits ecological limits. Either we evolve in this direction or we self-destruct. See my notes on a post-technological ethics for the coming age.
  2. The good news: We WILL evolve in this direction, just as any species drifts over time toward conditions of self-preservation.
  3. The bad news: Will the drift reach a critical mass in time to turn things around before the tipping point? Possible, but not probable.

Three Takes on Satan

First, there Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, the guy who would famously rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He created quite a stir in his neoclassical age. The critics of that age liked for everything to fit into their symmetrical boxes, but there was some conundrum about what to do with Satan. Everyone naturally wanted Adam or the Messiah to be the hero of the poem, but no one could deny that Satan was the most interesting, most memorable, the dominant character who lingers in the imagination. Not that Milton had anything subversive in mind, at least not when it comes to the Christian world view. (His regicidal politics are another matter.) Milton is no doubt a God-fearing Protestant, but Satan steals the show nonetheless.

A century later, William Blake finds a way out of the conundrum. Blake also identifies as Christian, but his way out of Milton’s knot gave no succor to more orthodox Christian souls. Blake had his own visions of divine history – quite literally, as a result perhaps of some psychotic or paranormal power – which, he claimed, confirmed Milton’s epic vision in every respect but one: Milton misnamed the Messiah “Satan” and misnamed Satan “The Messiah.” Blake could not deny his own essentially religious visions of divine reality but he could not accept the principles of orthodox Christianity, which he found deadening and counter to the spirit of the human soul. He and Milton would probably agree that Milton’s Messiah represents restraint and reason, and that Milton’s Satan represents an unrestrained desire, a passion that exceeds all accepted bounds. It’s just that for Blake, that means Milton’s “Messiah” represents everything deadening to the human spirit and Milton’s “Satan” represents the liberating and redemptive power. At first glance, indeed, it seems like Blake puts a lot more energy into debunking Christian orthodoxy than offering anything favorable to Christianity. (The archetypal figures in his visionary works can be interpreted in a way that is commensurate with the Christian mythos but they are not limited to that interpretation.) Blake, however, reminds us in a letter to Thomas Butts: “I still and shall to Eternity Embrace Christianity and Adore him who is the Express image of God.”

Leave it to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the man who was kicked out of Oxford in his youth for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism” and mailing it to every Bishop in England, to take the next move. Shelley keeps Blake’s archetypal structures intact, embracing the Romantic view of imagination and passion and desire as liberating forces and conventional thinking and restrained rationalism as deadening, but Shelley breaks the whole mythos free of the Christian shell. Shelley agrees that Milton’s Satan is morally superior to his God, but he would prefer to draw his archetypal heroes from the likes of Prometheus, as someone who can represent the great forces of our collective unconscious without the risk of pulling the reader into the realm of nominal superstition.

So is that the end of Satan? I doubt it. Even today, Milton’s Satan can capture the imagination of readers – both professorial and everyday ones. And I know religious philosophers after Shelley – Kierkegaard and Husserl come to mind – have wrestled with the role of imagination and desire in a religious framework (although I can’t recall them bringing Satan into it in the same concrete way).

Then there’s Dracula and such villains who seem carved from Satanic stone, but I’m not sure we should start down that road. After all, Satan may be the ultimate reference point for all villains (but especially for gothic villains). So maybe we’d better stop here and ponder 😊

“Meanwhile the Adversary of God and Man,
Satan with thoughts inflam’d of highest design, 
Puts on swift wings, and towards the Gates of Hell
 his solitary flight.” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, 1667)

 “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ca. 1790-99)

 “Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [Christianity], of which … it has been a chief popular support. Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost.” (Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, 1821)

Particles and Swarms

Does anyone know about particle swarm theory? It seems close to a unified theory of everything. Or at least like a pebble whose waves ripple through everything – biology and computer science, quantum physics and relativity, metaphysics and religion.

Basically, it says that independent particles form swarms, wherein each particle spontaneously takes advantage of the experience of the entire swarm. Examples in the natural world include fish schooling, bird flocking, and ant colonies. Swarm intelligence (SI) has apparently (I’m no expert) become increasingly important in artificial intelligence and robotics.

Can this bridge the persistent gap between the predictions of relativity and those of quantum physics? The problem as I see it is that relativity assumes a universe with physical matter of determinate location and mass. Quantum theory says that when you get down to the building block elements in the atom, units of matter no longer have such determinate values, but can only be described in terms of clouds of probability.

The relativity/quantum theory discrepancy has been scrutinized lately by “oil drop experiments” and “pilot waves.” It seems that you can drop oil on a liquid surface and as it bounces along, it interacts with its own ripple waves, creating a pilot wave that resembles the blur that quantum physicists see when they look at an electron or elemental particle – this would mean (I think) that underneath quantum physics is a stable physical reality after all.

So what if you looked at all the fundamental particles (or waves or whatever units you prefer) of the universe together as a swarm, all those pilot waves interacting, the every move of each affected by the every move of all the others, all one singular pattern of vibration? Do you get a 21st-century physics that recapitulates Leibniz’s 17th-century metaphysics of the indivisible unit, the monad? To wit, Leibniz:

“Each monad … adapts itself to all the others outside itself … This connection of all created things … the connection and adaptation of every single thing to all others, has the result that every single substance [every monad] stands in relations which express all the others. Whence every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe … They are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view which differ in each monad.”

From Leibniz, it is an easy step to the world view of the Eastern religions. This connectedness of all things, objective or subjective, expressed as material or expressed as Soul – is particle swarm theory the underpinning here also? And in that swarm lies an immanent intelligence, transcendent and mysterious to the individual, but not requiring any external or anthropomorphic god.

To shift from this synchronic view (how the swarm functions across the space of the many particles) to a diachronic view (how the swarm functions across time), the swarm is the intelligence that drives the trajectories of evolution, terrestrial and cosmic, or, more viscerally, all a singular shudder in some vast cosmic orgasm. A fifteen billion year–old orgasm, you say? Why not? From what I know of Einstein and Hawking, the universe may be one minute old from some other reference point, but only seem fifteen billion years old to us because we are near the event horizon of some black hole, where time becomes stretched toward infinity.

I am no expert in these fields, but I hope that my lateral thinking about them can stimulate a few thoughts. Even if I do nothing but stimulate streams of imagination, I hope that that in itself is no mean accomplishment.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)


For Thomas Z., to whom I owe a philosophical entry

First thing in Mainz was to join my philosopher friend, Michael, over a bottle of Spätburgunder, the delicious red wine you can only find in southwestern Germany, and hear about his recent forays into transhumanism. The concept echoed some recurring themes of my blog, so let’s have another go at it.

Here’s a quote from the mover and shaker of transhumanism, Max More.

“Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die – just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves! … What you have made is glorious, yet deeply flawed … We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution … We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence … Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution … We will no longer tolerate the tyranny of aging and death … We will expand our perceptual range … improve on our neural organization and capacity … reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses … take charge over our genetic programming and achieve mastery over our biological and neurological processes.”

An enticing mission statement, no doubt, but which side carries more weight — the passionate, techno-idealism or the Faustian arrogance? What if we expand and magnify all the quantifiable aspects of human identity only to discover that the things of true value in the human experience are precisely the non-quantifiable ones? To paraphrase a fine blog entry by your present correspondent, what if we increase our knowledge a hundredfold, a milllionfold, about neurological indicators of “being in love,” place all our bets for a better future there, and then discover, like J. Alfred Prufrock, that “this is not it at all,” that an infinite and complete set of data about the neurological (objective) facts of being in love turns out to be a mere child’s game, an insignificant correlative to the real thing, the subjective experience of love, love in its non-quantifiable aspect. What if we place all our bets on the objectively measurable and manipulable, and then find that the objective abstraction of reality is just the husk, the crust, empty shell of lived experience? As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, we cling tightly to the banana skin and throw away the banana. The objective aspect of reality may be nothing more than a map whose coordinates correspond to the subjective conditions that make up the real meat and matter of life. Knowing every infinitely granular datum on a map of New York is not the same thing as being alive and in New York.

And the transhumanist’s desire for improvement may seem intuitively good and true, but is it really that intuitive? I would say that the obsession with continual improvement is a modern, or at least post-Renaissance, obsession. As late as the eighteenth century (at least in England, whose cultural history I’m most familiar with), there was widespread and vocal resistance to the apostles of “improvement.” If the ancient Greeks were right that meaning and value for us is to be located in “happiness” (Aristotle) or in living “the good life” (Plato), is the frenetic quest for continual improvement really conducive to those ends? Couldn’t the Greeks be right that a life of tranquility and acceptance and reflection is more apropos?

Or, to take the most persuasive case for the transhumanist, the ethical case, why not modify human beings to be more altruistic? Surely there’s no harm there. Maybe. But what if moral variation turns out to have the same crucial value in our spiritual journey, our collective quest for the good life, as genetic variation has in the biological furtherance of the species? Absent moral variation, is there then no way forward, no dynamic built into the system, no adaptability without a spread of traits across individuals?

Finally, there’s the sense that you can’t beat Mother Nature. In the 1950s, the “improvement” team was telling us that factory-made formula was better than mother’s milk. The most conventional of modern medical practice holds that a lifelong battery of pharmaceuticals and surgeries is better than the body’s natural healing processes. DDT to kill pests sounds great until you realize there’s reason Mother Nature did not carpet bomb her own fields and rivers with DDT. Science is enormously instructive within its scope, but when it goes beyond scope with easy claims of how it can outsmart nature’s millions of years of accumulated intelligence, I would like to keep at least one foot on the brakes.

And even if you could beat Mother Nature, at least temporarily, postponing death, is that really so great? If we don’t grow old and die, children’s voices will no longer fill playgrounds, as the cycle of death and replenishent of the species will have been broken. Is the trade-off really worth it? Extend your old age further and further in a world with fewer and fewer kids at play. This specific point is negotiable, but in general, the “obvious” good might sometimes have a collateral damage that our scientist, or a particular community of scientists, limited by their historical vantage and their own egocentrism, may not see.

Despite all this, I remain intrigued by transhumanism and hope to read up on it. (Full disclosure: I have not studied the actual literature on transhumanism at all; I am merely use my discussion in Mainz as the occasion to develop these thoughts.) I am not against all efforts to improve the human condition. I myself have a hippie idealism about where to go from here that my more faithful readers will know. But when we’re going to improve the moral and social condition of humans, and rewrite our collective idealism, based on the mechanical technologies of the day, I would at least like to know that the transhumanist has fully considered all the counterpoints.

Frankenstein is a tired comparison but apt. The good doctor was motivated by pure idealism, with a passion to use technology to better the human condition. In our narrative, the narrative of living humanity, can we be sure that the transhumanist will really be able to rewrite the ending this time?

P.S. Thanks, Dr. M., for pointing out that the confederacy of dunces has my back (New York Times, 07/26/16).

I and Thou

The way I read the Jewish theologian, Martin Buber (I and Thou, 1923), he offers a humanist variant of/alternative to existentialism. Where Sartre might say, “Existence precedes essence,” Buber might say, “Relationship precedes essence.” In contrast to the stark “thrownness” of the existentialist, who finds himself alone in an indifferent universe, Buber finds identity itself to be a by-product of the “I-Thou” relation (connections both to fellow humankind and to Being itself). Having shuffled off the existentialist’s burden of aloneness, however, Buber is not exactly the Walmart greeter to Happy Valley. Like the existentialist, he is weighed down with responsibility. For now he carries forever — past, present, and future – the built-in burden of all that connection, the “exalted melancholy of our fate” (16).

The meme and the monad

Steve Morris recently posted a curious piece on the “meme.”   Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, coined the term in The Selfish Gene (1976). Predating the Internet, Dawkins’s interest was in how memes – units of cultural transmission – emulate evolution, with successful ones proliferating and duds dying out. Steve points out the irony that in today’s social media, it’s the most “unfit” memes – those that promote ignorance and bigotry – that seem to survive and proliferate. To enhance the scope of the entertainment, I’d like to weave in an additional discourse – Leibniz’s philosophy of the monad.

leibniz keks
h/t: Dank an meine leibe Freundin, Claudia, für den Bild von Leibniz’s Hanover


As a 17th-century German philosopher, Leibniz predated evolutionary biology as well as the Internet, but his speculative philosophy (the metaphysics of the monad) was grounded in his street cred as a mathematician and physicist, and perhaps for that reason it can sound eerily prescient of the holographic models of the universe about which today’s physicists speculate.

As in his mathematical theory of “infinitesimal analysis,”* which in the minds of many gave Leibniz a claim equal to Newton’s as the inventor of calculus, Leibniz sought to base his metaphysics on the idea of indivisible units. These indivisible units, “monads,” were “the elements of all things.” Because they are indivisible, they are in themselves inscrutable. “The monads have no windows through which anything can enter or leave.” After all, only a “composite” can add or subtract something, and the whole point of the monad is that it is a theoretical projection of the simplest, indivisible unit. (Mathematically, as far as I can understand Leibniz’s math, it is the unit that, having no increments, is by definition too small to ever be measured.)

Furthermore, each monad must be unique. For this, we need to get into the physics of space, according to Leibniz, of which I can only scratch the surface. For Leibniz, there is no such thing as empty space. There is only motion, rest, and change. And the fundamental unit of motion, rest, and change we call the “monad.” So there is no “space” per se, but there is a force field consisting of infinitesimal monads, each defined by inherent force, the qualities and laws of which are utterly inaccessible to the outside (no windows, remember). And the physics of the force field requires that “each monad while following its own inherent nature and laws adapts itself to all the others outside itself.” Each monad must by necessity fill a unique orientation point in the force field. And this is how Leibniz teases us to his logical (holographic) conclusion about the universe: “This connection of all created things … the connection and adaptation of every single thing to all others, has the result that every single substance [every monad] stands in relations which express all the others. Whence every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe … They are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view which differ in each monad.”

Leibniz’s holographic conclusion applies not only to the objective world but to the subjective one as well: “Consequently, everybody experiences everything that goes on in the universe, so much so that he who sees everything might read in any body what is happening anywhere, and even what has happened or will happen. He would be able to observe in the present what is remote in both time and space.”

The limiting phrase here is “he who sees everything.” This suggests that although each monad contains all the information to reconstruct the entire universe of which it is a part, it is no simple matter for us to decode that information. Only “one who sees everything” would be able to see the entire universe within the single monad. Each soul is limited in its self-discovery by its own orientation. Each soul “can read in itself only what is distinctly represented in it; it is unable to unfold all at once all its folds; for these go on to infinity.”

So back to the meme. Whether or not it expresses the evolutionary model of adaptation, does it express the mathematical/metaphysical model of the monad? Take as an example this meme that I sent around on the Internet.

alpaca gay

The meme is not completely indivisible. There are letters and pixels and so forth within. But one could argue that the meme as a whole expresses one cultural orientation point, and that none of those simpler units is a cultural expression in the same way – they are not units in the cultural force field of the meme. It might lack the mathematical tightness that Leibniz would wish for, but perhaps that was Leibniz’s limitation. Math aside, it might be very useful to view the meme as a more-or-less simple expression of one cultural orientation point. To what extent is it in a holographic force field? With studious effort, one could certainly infer how the meme defines itself as a unit of force relative to the various positions staked out on gay rights. Perhaps from there, one could broaden the scope and see how the gay rights field of discourses illuminated by our monad-meme in turn illuminates all the discourses of sexuality implied thereby, not to mention various religions and philosophies and political formations at the perimeter, etc. Like ripples from a pebble dropped.

I think Steve is right about the meme’s relations to evolutionary biology. I have serious doubts about whether the Internet is predisposed to favor the “fittest” memes, unless we define “fittest” in an extremely idiosyncratic (and humorous no doubt) way. But the meme might express in its way Leibniz’s metaphysics of the monad. The holographic universe of the cultural dimension. And for those physicists who balk at the holographic universe, we give you the black hole. No, I am not inventing a new insult (“giving you the black hole”), although that in itself might be a tangent meme worth following. What I mean is this: Black holes are universally accepted in today’s physics, and what are black holes after all? Monads, universes unto themselves, with “no windows,” units of force that are utterly inscrutable and yet “perpetual living mirror[s] of the universe” around them. They might be like the mysterious “signs” in the modernist linguistics of Saussure and Wittgenstein, where words/signs have no “windows” to any referent in the world “out there” – there is no peephole into the system of signification – but each sign achieves a unique meaning relative to all the other signs within the system. Like signs in the linguistic universe, so black holes in the physical — monads, my friends, cosmic scale reflections of the sorry memes of which Steve Morris laments.

buttonsI once heard of an art historian who said, “Show me one artifact, one button, from a long-lost civilization, and given time I will reconstruct all the values of that civilization.” Academic bravado aside, this art historian was a monadologist par excellence, a believer in the holographic universe. Perhaps, when we are long gone and re-discovered by some future civilization, some wily future art historian might do me the honor of an infinitesimal analysis of my gay alpaca meme.

*The way I understand it, Leibniz’s infinitesimal analysis offered a solution to the age-old problem of rectifying curvilinear figures – squaring the circle – and thus rendering them accessible to precise geometric analysis. By casting the circle as a series of infinitesimally distant next points, Leibniz could in theory decompose any curvilinear figure into partial triangles.

Oregon bids Mr. Locke goodbye

The U. S. may now be the only country larger than a breadbox where anyone who doesn’t like a law can marshal a vast cache of weapons and take over a federal building. Hence, the “patriots” at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, this week. Ammon Bundy, the group’s leader, cited the Declaration of Independence in a lead-up to the takeover: “Government was created to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In other words, “Goodbye, Mr. Locke.”

John Locke theorized the rights to “life, liberty, and property” a hundred years before Thomas Jefferson sampled him into America’s founding documents. Locke’s other famous line of thought – that we are each born a tabula rasa, or blank slate, with sensory data as our first inputs of knowledge – might seem unrelated to the political theory, but the two theories – political and epistemological – dovetail in support of Locke’s Whig patron, Shaftesbury. The empiricist’s “blank slate” claim strikes at the heart of the old landed order, which rested upon an inborn superiority of rank and innate ideas about social hierarchy.

Bundy’s posse rewrites both pillars of Locke for America’s 21st-century yahoos. Locke’s political theory about “life, liberty, and property” was specifically designed to usher in governance by law rather than governance by the whim of every half-baked squire with an inherited title. The Oregon militants want to supersede governance by law with governance by the whim of any charismatic gang leader who doesn’t like how the law applies to him.

Now Bundy says in a youtube video that he “is only doing what God has asked me to do.” That Bundy’s brain might be the psychic soil in which God’s will is planted seems an awful lot like the “innate ideas” John Locke was at pains to discredit.

So forget about it, Mr. Locke. You lose on both counts. We’ll keep your quaint language in our founding documents. We may even pay lip service to your common sense scientific ideas about human understanding and the acquisition of knowledge. But if you don’t mind, we’ll adjust the meanings to suit the present American zeitgeist, where our “patriots” get their ideas direct from God, resist compromise and pluralism at all costs, and build up enormous personal arsenals with the rugged individualist’s dream of throwing off the cruel yoke of government by law.