From Kant to Chomsky (with a plug for Fr–d)

h/t Matt McManus on Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Human Nature (04/16/20), from which much of this is taken

Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am”), and so glean some certainty about the nature of cognition.

Kant goes a step further. True, all empirical knowledge may be an illusion, but there is a universal structure to the human mind by which we all perceive the empirical world in more or less the same way. E.g., all human beings see the world in terms of space and time. And since we see the world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, this doesn’t mean we gain knowledge of the world “in itself.” Our knowledge is only of the world as it appears to those structures of the mind (what Kant calls the “phenomenal world”). The world of actual things may or may not match the phenomena we experience, but we’ll never know.

Chomsky applies this toggle from empiricism to Kant to linguistics. McManus mentions how Chomsky’s linguistic theory (beginning in the late 1950s) pushed against such behaviorists as B. F. Skinner. Skinner and the behaviorists assume, like the old empiricists, that the mind is initially a blank slate, and only learns things like language from the experience of being taught. To Chomsky, this behaviorist/empiricist approach falters if we look at language acquisition. If we accept the blank slate premise, he argued, it leads to the conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, and much of Chomsky’s linguistic theory is about unraveling those universal grammars.

As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other. The downside is that we are still operating exclusively in the phenomenal world, as our mutual understanding, including cross-cultural communication, is based on the universal structures of how our minds process the world, not on any direct experience of the world “out there.”

I will go the extra step here and align Chomsky in this way with Freud. (As my loyal readers know, I am always eager to shore up Freud’s place in the history of ideas over and against his pitiful detractors, albeit with an occasional concession to those detractors.) What Chomsky rejects in the field of linguistics, Freud rejects in the field of psychology. The behaviorists shunned Freudian psychoanalysis, shunned talking about the internal structure of the mind as if there were something in there anterior to our experience of the world. As in Chomsky the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates language acquisition, so in Freud the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates similarities in development of the psyche across human populations. Whether you see that structure in terms of primitive drives along with mechanisms that develop to inhibit those drives, or as a gradient structure moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious layers of motivation, Freud’s psychology and Chomsky’s linguistics both defy the “blank slate” theory by positing some internal structure, something intrinsic about the human mind, what Kant might call subjective universals that shape how humans process the world, irrespective of the range of individual human experiences.

In neither Freud’s case nor Chomsky’s, it seems to me, does this leave us with an either/or dilemma. Chomsky’s theory might well elucidate the universal grammars that provide the a priori capacity for language acquisition without demeaning the contribution of behaviorist methods on the other side. Likewise, behaviorist psychology might well provide a stimulus-response model that works quite well as a mechanical operation for changing behaviors, but I see no reason (other than that academics must endlessly produce us vs them models and show the superiority of their side over the other as a way of securing tenure) that this should preclude psychoanalytic investigations of the internal structures of the mind that might underwrite human possibilities, human creativity, and human pathways of dysfunction more generally.

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Approaching cosmic oneness

The opposite of oneness is categories. The human mind sorts the chaotic flux of reality into categories to render it intelligible. But pull out the dividers that sort the categories and what you have is oneness, or rather one continuous cosmic gradient. (In my experience, psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms are one way of pulling out the dividers but not the only way.)

Some cognates:

Before Freud, there was faculty psychology. The human psyche was composed of faculties: passion, reason, appetite, etc. – like separate boxes on a shelf. Freud (not alone but he’s the one that pulled it together) switched out this category-based model for something more fluid and dynamic – a gradient moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious drives and mechanisms that exert enormous though unseen influences on our behavior. Though dismissing Freud is something of an international pastime these days, I think his model of the psyche, where old and unconscious impressions continue to affect behaviors later in life, was a remarkable paradigm shift that shaped the direction of psychology. It is still perhaps the prevailing model today, and indeed Freud’s detractors often use Freud’s depth psychology model in waging their attacks. Feel free to demur in the comments.

Or how about the four sheaths in Vedantic philosophies: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. They seem like four separate categories but isn’t it more intuitive to see them as part of one rainbow continuum? Think of the emotional and physical registers during sex. Surely they are part of one gradient of response and not separate categories, unless we deliberately separate them for the purpose of analysis.

Or how about space and time. They were generally considered two separate categories – either objective categories defining physical reality or subjective categories, as in Kant, by which we organize our experience of reality. But categories. Then Einstein. It turns out space and time are not categorically separate but are part of the same continuum. Same with energy and matter in Einstein. No longer separate categories but part of the same continuum. E = mc2.

There are probably a million other instances in the history of ideas, but the point is that categories help us sort, evaluate, and make sense of things, but the categories are not the things. In fact, there are no things. Just the one big cosmic Thing. The kaleidoscope of cosmic oneness, which is of course the same thing as the kaleidoscope of cosmic consciousness. The objective world and the subjective world fold into each other at the cosmic level. There is no other way. You don’t need LSD see your way through to this vision. Well, in my case maybe that LSD trip to a remote Mexican beach helped just a little, but that was almost an accident. Almost an accident. Maybe that’s the window to the next level of discussion 😊

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A brief history of space

If Stephen Hawking could write A Brief History of Time, I can surely write a brief history of space. Indeed, I’ll one-up Hawking and make my monograph actually, and not just putatively, brief.

At first glance in our little history of space, we can follow a trajectory from Democritus and Plato’s view of space as a container, to a view of space as a relation between things rather than a container (Leibniz), and finally to a view of space as a purely subjective construct – a way of organizing the world rather than a thing in the world (Kant – and I’ll welcome comments from expert readers like the ever-helpful STEVE MORRIS on the extent to which this continues into Einstein and modern physics).

Democritus and Plato both saw space as a receptacle but in quite different ways. Democritus (5th century BC) famously said, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space.” This sense of space as a universal void is perhaps still the most common sense of the term. In Timaeus, Plato specifically calls space “a receptacle,” but he seems to mean it in a more local sense, as that which houses a series of shapes. In a weird way, space is matter to Plato, per his example of gold. You see now a pyramid of gold, then a cube of gold, then a sphere of gold. The gold is the receptacle space inhabited by the succession of different shapes. Idiosyncratic maybe, but more of that later.

As we move toward what I perhaps simplistically call the Leibniz position, space is not a receptacle at all – not the local matter that houses shapes nor the void. It is rather a relation between things, and it has no existence other than as a relation between things. Then onto Kant, and space as purely a subjective way of organizing the world. It seems at this point that we’ve come a long way from Plato, but the canny Greek has a way of coming back (nb. Alfred North Whitehead’s comment that all of Western philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato”).

I’ll step back to Plato by way of a convenient half-way point – Boethius (late 5th/early 6th century, on the cusp between classical and post-classical culture, roughly 1000 years after Plato and 1500 before us). To quote my fine former post on Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison pondering his forthcoming execution, “The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

That image of the circle, of seeing reality from two points of view – the still point in the middle and the moving point along the perimeter – can be applied to both time and space. Here, it more directly applies to time. From the point of view of eternity (the still point in the middle), all things are simultaneous. From the temporal point of view (moving along the perimeter), we see reality in its aspect of “always becoming,” as philosophers have called it.

To extrapolate, from the eternal point of view, time does not exist; similarly, from the infinite point of view, space does not exist. Rather, space only exists where that dynamical relation between things exists – distance and extension only make sense within the scope of finite reality.

So is Boethius the great Hegelian synthesizer who can push the dialectic between Plato and Kant forward (thesis – antithesis – synthesis)? Or is the double vision of Boethius merely an indicator of his historical moment, one foot dancing with the wine-bibbing Greek and the other tiptoeing toward the finicky Prussian? Is he just a midway point toward our more accurate modern view?

No, the midpoint reading won’t do. On some level, Plato anticipated the whole circus. Or, to further twist the metaphor, we have circled back to Plato. In the Timaeus, Plato, like Boethius, has a double view, though it plays out a little differently. In Plato, there are two primary levels of reality (which can be further subdivided, as in the myth of the cave): “that which always is and has no becoming” and “that which is always becoming and never is.” The realm of eternal, unchanging ideals (being) is the subject of rational knowledge, whereas the visible world of the senses (reality in its aspect of “always becoming”) is the subject of empirical knowledge. Plato notably privileges the rational side, but he at least here grants the empirical its purview. And this turns out to be crucial to our present argument.

If we focus the history of ideas on the world of becoming – the physical world, we might call it – we can, to recap, follow a movement from space as a container to space as a relation between things  and finally to Kant’s purely subjective construct.

But if we look at the other realm in Plato, the realm of being, the intellectual realm of the unchanging ideals, rather than the realm of becoming, we see that he had already recognized space as an imaginary construct.

He quite explicitly says that the concept of “space” does not apply in the intellectual realm, but is only needed to accommodate the dynamics in the realm of becoming.

Indeed, some time after introducing those two realms (the realm of being and the realm of becoming), he refers back to the two natures corresponding to the two realms: “one … was a pattern intelligible and always the same; and the second was only the imitation of the pattern, generated and visible.” Then he adds: “Now a third must be revealed … the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation,” insofar it enables all the processes of generation or becoming to happen.

The “receptacle,” whether you call it space or matter, is only introduced as a way of explaining processes in the realm of becoming.  But the realm of becoming for Plato is the realm of more-or-less degraded knock-offs from the realm of being. When reality is seen in it most true and stable aspect, the ontologically prior realm of being, space (or matter) does not exist.

Now, one could argue that the spaceless, timeless, immaterial zone of true reality (prior to all the knock-offs in the realm of becoming) in Plato is not truly subjective as in Kant, that Plato imagines this reality as objective reality. To which I say, maybe. I’m not sure how truly significant that distinction is. I don’t think Plato would call it objective in the modern sense of objective (which implies physical, spatial reality). All Plato postulates is that the spaceless, timeless realm of pure being, pure forms, is the true base of reality. That he treats it as an intellectual realm as opposed to the sensible is clear – so does that imply that it IS subjective, as in Kant? I’m not sure but, back to Alfred North Whitehead: we are quibbling about footnotes here. Face it, everyone (especially angst-ridden academics seeking tenure) wants to find the next ground-breaking idea, but it’s still hard to beat the old Greeks. See my other fine post on Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics if you don’t believe me.

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Art at Lechón Illustrado

I was at Lechón Illustrado recently looking at Samara Colina’s paintings with friend and artist, Catalina Gris. What I found most interesting was how the paintings worked on two levels. Up close, you could get lost in a fantastic abstract array of color patches.

Then, as you slowly move away, the image becomes more and more representational.

When the whole scene finally comes into focus, the sheer number of human figures represented is dizzying.

“Maybe,” I said to Cati, “maybe that’s what Kant meant by the mathematical sublime.” (Sidebar: I have more than once bantered my German friends that it takes a German like Kant to see mathematics as a sublime experience.) Anyway, Kant was talking about magnitude, but here it is literally a numeric overload; as you step back from the detail, the multitude is too great to fathom or even to be contained in the frame of the canvas. Even the spatula smears diagonally across the upper left and right warp the time-space curve into something larger than what the senses can grasp.

“No,” Cati said. “This isn’t it – the Kantian sublime.” Not that she didn’t like the painting, she just thought I was forcing in the theory. She was probably right. I always try a bit too hard to wrap my head around the mathematical sublime. (Kant’s power-based dynamical sublime is easier to grasp for me.)

“Maybe if the entire wall was covered,” Cati said.

“Yes,” I said, “That’s it.”

Whether representative of Kant’s mathematical sublime or not, it is a signature feature of Colina’s work (cp. the painting below, also at Lechón Illustrado).

(Click images below for links)

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What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

During a stout and whiskey session with one of my regular interlocutors, JV, the kind of session where you push each other through various adversarial positions on philosophy and politics, the inevitable question came up: What is truth?

At that juncture in the floating debate, JV was in the pure science posture and the question was thrown at me. How can I assign any truth value to mythological systems (including religious ones) that have no scientific basis? And if I persist in such foolishness, how can I turn around and defend science against its contemporary critics from the Right (of the anti-evolution, climate denier sort) and from the Left (the “you don’t know my truth” identity politics that rejects the universals of science and reason and shared humanness, and indeed anything science might say that is politically unsavory at the moment, as vestiges of a racist patriarchy)?

To which I pled guilty on all three counts – the defense of mythological systems against science-based attacks, the defense of science against attacks from today’s political Right and Left, and, most boldly, claiming no contradiction to my impromptu epistemological system.

On the first count, I believe reality is more than just a collection of objects in this space we call the universe. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but lived reality is more complicated – at a minimum we can say it includes objective and subjective aspects. Science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and that there is nothing else to our lived experience. I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons.

It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

Imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love, electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc. Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain? It seems to me that the scientist observing the arc may have her finger on an objective correlative to the feeling of falling in love, but it is still just an objective correlative. She can use it to study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

The scientist gives us truths about the objective world, but the great mythological systems offer “truths” about lived experience that fall outside the scope of science. I put “truths” in quotes to avoid confusion. Myths do NOT give us scientific truths and indeed are often demonstrably false from a scientific perspective. I am not saying that they can compete with science on its own turf. No, when it comes to explaining the physical world, science rules. But “truths” about lived reality can be found in Greek mythology (for example) nonetheless. Indeed, the narrow definition of “truth” in the sense of scientific fact has only become the dominant sense in the past few hundred years. For most of pre-Enlightenment history, the pursuit of such truth about the physical world was a mere sidebar to the study of what were perceived as deeper inquiries into spiritual and intellectual truths.

In saying that science rules in determining truths about the physical world but that a broader sense of “truth” is needed to get at lived reality in its fullness, I have already segued to the second charge against me. How can I defend science against today’s critics from the political Right and Left? The defense against the Right is easy. Evolution and climate change are physical world studies. To claim, e.g., that the Bible has equal stature to science in studying the objective mechanisms of the physical world implies a gross misunderstanding of the difference between physical reality and lived reality, between the two senses of truth (the narrow sense, wherein science rules, and the broad sense, which concerns lived reality more broadly). Whether you agree with me or not, it is easy to synchronize this defense of science against the political Right with my defense of the great mythological systems. My defense of those systems in no way suggests that they be called upon to provide factual data about the physical world.

The defense of science against the political Left takes a similar path. There is a tendency in postmodernism (and I don’t want to reduce it to this tendency but this is the relevant tendency in the present discussion) to see truth as socially constructed. And if truth is socially constructed, science as an arbiter of truth is a social construct that can and must be interrogated. Now apply identity politics to this interrogation and you might conclude that science (and other Enlightenment formations) are not the conduits of general truths about physical reality but are formations that serve the dominant ideology (i.e., white supremacist patriarchy). This, if I may quote Henry Fielding, is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” It is my position that the scientific method, no less than math, helps us to draw universal conclusions about the objective world. By “universal” I don’t mean “certain.” Theories need to be revised, and science can sometimes be hijacked for political purposes, but the basic conclusions of evidence-based science, like gravity, apply regardless of what this or that tribe or social demographic thinks. A very large point of the Enlightenment was to articulate tools that can get us beyond those tribal definitions of truth and worth, which had locked people for so long in darkness and prejudice and distrust across demographic lines. I believe my friends on the identity politics Left make a mistake when they try (however inadvertently) to lead us back down that road.

The final charge against me – the potential contradiction of my defense against science on the one hand and my defense of science on the other – should have resolved itself in the previous paragraph. For clarity, though, I will add that my defense of science against today’s political Left and Right does not negate my earlier defense of those image-filled systems that explore what Carl Jung calls “the subjective inner world … the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” Indeed, to the list of ancient Greek mythmakers and modern visionary poets, I will add this thought by LSD guru, Timothy Leary: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”

Gaston Bachelard, sometime science professor who became the Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, talked at times about two axes in his epistemology: “the axes of poetry and of science.” The power driving the first axis, the axis of poetry, is imagination. If today’s seekers of truth are going to right the ship of planet earth, they need to give up the politicized definitions of truth. They need to respect the tremendous capacity of science to give us valuable information about our world that transcends tribe and reminds us of our shared humanness. And they need to recognize imagination as the power than can exceed science as it harnesses the vitality of those “invisible roots of consciousness” to visions of social reality that transcend tribal divisions and bring us all together for the next stage.

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Subjectivity and the Limits of Science

A computer scientist friend recently told me that science studies the objective world and the objective world is the real world. Period. His abhorrence for religion did not carry over to art, pagan mythologies, and the works of imagination, which he found purely escapist but harmless enough, but did carry over to philosophers, as the latter breed seemed more forcefully to claim access to some truth outside the scope of the scientific method. I could bear with equanimity some of his slings and arrows, but I could not abide the assault on my brothers and sisters of the philosophical persuasion.

I submitted to my scientific friend that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world.  Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane University may have an “object” called Wayne Johnston. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc.  A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne Johnston but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction.  But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from his abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. When I look at the philosophical assessment of nature in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, or the elaborate expression of natural and human forces in the world of Greek mythology, or Blake’s visionary poetry, it’s not at all clear to me that these teach us less about reality than Darwin. I agree that they tell us less about the abstraction of reality called the objective world, but they tell us about the subjective abstraction of reality — love, friendship, betrayal, creativity, despair, all the flora and fauna of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. One could at least argue that this subjective line of vision on lived reality is closer to the heart of human experience than the objective line of vision.

But, you may argue, all this “subjective stuff” is really just the effect of objective stuff happening in the brain. We may be stuck with an irreducible chicken-and-egg problem here. Which is more real and which is the shadow cast? But let me try to work it out a bit.

Picture the first time you fell in love.

Now imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc.

Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain?

It seems like you as the scientist have come close to saying that the feeling of being in love is just unproven, ungrounded nonsense unless and until we can locate the electrical arc that gives it a quantifiable, demonstrable value.

It seems like I have come close to saying that the feeling of being in love is the only reality that truly matters and the electrical arc is insignificant.

How about this: the feeling of being in love is one kind of abstraction from reality (we’ll call it “subjective reality”) and the electrical arc is another kind of abstraction from the same reality (we’ll call it “objective reality”).

Now let’s define “objective reality” as “reality abstracted as information.” When we see red or green or blue, what has happened is electrons moving at certain wavelengths have been decoded as information that is usable to the brain. Same with every other sensation we receive from the objective world. Your pencil is 99% empty space with billions of little atoms flying around, but you see and touch the pencil — you see it as abstracted information you can use (and the fact that you can use it as a pencil is a tremendous tribute to the power of human imagination).

Maybe we could define subjective reality as “reality abstracted as feeling” but “feeling” doesn’t quite seem sufficient in this context.

But somehow I suspect that the feeling of “being in love” is not about getting information. Surely we can study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, and it can yield interesting information (such as the electrical arc) but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

That’s the best I can do for now.