Category Archives: Metaphysics

Respect: experiences, versus interpretations of experiences, versus…

I listen to other people speak of their experiences, and I also listen to their explanations of their experiences. The former is privileged knowledge: respect entails belief in the other’s testimony. The latter is not: our explanations for the experience belong to our own theories founded in our own philosophies. And here respect entails allowing each individual to hold their own beliefs on what caused the private experience.

Perhaps these two respects deserve different names.

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If you experience God speaking directly into your ear, I must respect your testimony or risk disrespecting you — but you must respect my interpretation of your testimony or risk disrespecting me.

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If my child throws a fit, I must believe she is experiencing real distress or I am failing as a parent — but I must interpret that distress and respond to it as an adult parent or I am failing in a different, perhaps worse way — a way that neglects the obligation of parents to teach their children to interpret their own emotions and to respond to them in a socially reasonable way.

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What should these differing forms of respect be called?

  1. The respecting of direct testimony of experience, taken on faith as true.
  2. The respecting of interpretation of experience, taken as one of a plurality of arguable truths.

There is a third respect I have not mentioned, one in which I might be deficient. This is respect for rigorous comparison of experiences (at least empirical, sharable experiences) and interpretations (at least interpretations that are strictly logical) and their consequences, which means abandoning one’s favored interpretations when another is shown to have more explanatory power. This would probably be called scientific respect. Or… (see below) positivistic respect…?

But, then, there is the respect for precisely those experiences that are least sharable and conclusions that are reasonable but not determined by any logic fed by empirical data, one that recognizes that relevance is a function of framing and that reality infinitely exceeds our perception, conception, comprehension and understanding, and when reality is beyond not only our grasp but even our our touch, it is indistinguishable from nothingness — not that dark nothingness that announces its present absence with a shadow, but that absent absence, the blind nothing that looks like the expected somethings, the reality that can stare directly into each of our pupils and breathe the air directly from our nostrils, unperceived, undetected, unsuspected.

Some assertions are experiential, some interpretive, some positivistic, and these deserve their own kind of respect, but some assertions are none of these and aim at what is beneath and beyond all of them together — and this commands an enforceable philosophical respect. Or is it religious respect?

Solid-gold inspiration

Anxiety is an unpleasant type of inspiration.

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Despising anxiety is not only a waste of inspiration, it is alienating.

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The Golden Rule is not gold-plate — it is solid gold all the way down, and nobody finds the bottom. But a morally serious person follows the gold down as far as it goes, and further.

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What does it mean to follow the Golden Rule deeper?

Starting at the surface: Do you want others to do do to you exactly what they want done to them? Would you like them to feed you only the food they want to eat themselves and make you listen to the music they would have played for them? Clearly this is not deep enough.

Further down: Would you like others to treat you justly, according to their own sense of justice, in disregard of what seems just, fair and good to you? Do you want them to privilege their own instincts and conceptions — their own conscience — which makes their justice seem as self-evident to them as yours is to you?

Do you want them to believe their anxious suspicions that you think and act in bad faith, and to do everything in their power to stop you and silence you if possible?

Clearly, we must mine deeper.

The more layers we dig beneath — and the more we undermine our own moral complacency by applying the Golden Rule as strictly to ourselves as we apply it to others — the more we discover not only changes in what we believe about morality, but we also change how we believe moral truths, and deeper still, why we care about morality.

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When we make others anxious with our ideas, they are full of reasons why they ought to take their anxiety literally, give their paranoid suspicions full reign, and obey its logical consequences and shut us down in whatever way is most efficient.

And if we are willing to apply the Golden Rule symmetrically — as the Golden Rule implies we must — we find we do the same thing to others, all the time, constantly. We can find myriad reasons to silence others, if only in our own head, if only temporarily, if only through saying “maybe later…” It takes tremendous discipline and pain tolerance to do otherwise.

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If we welcome anxiety as inspiration, interpreting what it says to us, letting it work on us, allowing it to be productive through us — everything changes.

Everything, literally.

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Anxiety is how real transcendence feels before our understanding renders it immanent.

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Anyone who wants religion to be an instrument for annihilating or banishing anxiety and having only peace — whether through outer-fight or through inner-flight — is looking for something other than religion.

Religion is for cultivating the fullest possible relationship with reality beyond our understanding. Religion is inherently anxious.

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Liberalism is far deeper than authoritarians will allow themselves to know.

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Maybe we need a Solid-Golden Rule: Apply the Golden Rule to yourself as you would have others apply it to themselves.

Faith in faithfulness

Faith is the relationship we have with reality beyond what is present to our experience, the being that inspires our warmest love and coldest dread, the being upon which we depend for our very being, the being with the potential to shock us with its stark alienness or surprise us with inconceivable fullness. Life without faith is entirely pointless, and this is why reciprocation of faith — faithfulness — seems commanded by reality itself.

We should be faithful to the past and to the future, to what is behind what is nearest and concealed by distances, and to the people around me (human and nonhuman) I can learn from and teach and to the mysterious source of my own selfhood. In the stories we tell ourselves, we should adhere to the existence of these realities and not re-narrate them for the convenience of the moment, because only this gives our own selfhood persistence and coherence.

We maintain ourselves as ourselves both for ourselves and for those who love us, those who we love, those who we hope with be faithful to us. Covenant.

I believe this faith in faithfulness makes me religious. No?

Humility as insight

Objective reality as we all (to some degree) know it is a product of myriad overlapping subjective realities as each of us know it; and each of these subjective realities is in turn a product of metaphysical reality none of us knows in any normal sense of knowledge.

If we are insufficiently alert our objectively-tempered subjective truth seems for all the world to be an imperfectly but adequately known objective reality that faithfully represents metaphysical reality.

The hardest thing for a human is not mistaking oneself for God. Most of us fail at this task and succumb to apotheosis.

Humility is a hard-won insight. Self-humiliation is a grotesque counterfeit.

(I’m pretty sure I’ve written this post before.)

Whitehead, Levinas, Schuon

Reading Whitehead’s Modes of Thought I’m reminded of Levinas’s dichotomy of totality versus infinity, and Schuon’s similar indefinite versus infinite. The former term (totality/indefinitude) is some particular conception of all possibilities, against which all particulars are defined; the latter term (infinity/infinite) is real possibility independent of any and every conception. According to Schuon, the indefinite (within a totality) simply repeats a finite entity interminably. The idea of time extending endlessly backwards and forwards is indefinite time, and should not be confused with infinite time, Eternity. That, at least, is what I took from him 15 years ago when I read Stations of Wisdom.

From within any particular conception the difference between totality/indefinitude and infinity is indistinguishable, and for casual practical purposes we treat them as identical. The difference between the two comes into view only when reality defies our conceptual repertoire by producing an inconceivable actuality that refuses to fit within possibilities anticipated by the totality in question and its indefinite possibilities.

We encounter infinity as such when we experience viscerally an incapacity to comprehend, and I will list three instances where this happens:

  1. When we encounter a natural phenomenon that cannot be understood in natural terms as we know it. If we confront the phenomenon as an anomaly to be understood by changing our understanding of nature as a whole, and we do come to understand it in new term, the before and after of our understanding hints at infinity.
  2. When we encounter another mind who attempts to convey concepts inconceivable within the terms of our current conceptual repertoire. These concepts are used to explain reality in alternative terms that conflict with our own, resulting in apparent factual disagreements, but the intensity of such conflicts betrays that more is at stake than epistemic differences. If we shift from disputing facts to attempting a plurality of understandings to compare, the parallax among worldviews opens a depth vision capable of penetrating further into infinitude.
  3. When religion works on us, and draws us from contemplating the indefinite into a living relationship with infinity, which permeates reality, and addresses us continuously.

I’ve travelled a long way from the passage that inspired this reflection:

Matter-of-fact is the notion of mere existence. But when we seek to grasp this notion, it distinguishes itself into the subordinate notions of various types of existence­ for example, fanciful or actual existences, and many other types. Thus the notion of existence involves the notion of an environment of existences and of types of existences. Any one instance of existence involves the notion of other existences, connected with it and yet beyond it. This notion of the environment introduces the notion of “more and less,” and of multiplicity.

In Taoism the infinite is Tao and the indefinite is “the ten thousand things”. I love thinking about people’s totalities as “everythings” and then imagining a totality of totalities as “ten thousand everythings”, each potentially forming a relationship with infinity, starting with forming relationships with one another and their shared realities. This is not intersubjectivity worship.

Hyperobjective spew

I’ve gotten sucked into Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects. I was reading Kaufmann’s book on Hegel, but after sampling few pages of this book on the recommendation of a friend Morton’s book felt “next”.

A few random notes:

This territory, settled first by Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and developed further by Speculative Realism, truly feels like where the philosophical action is. It is pro-science but anti-scientism, which matters quite a lot, given the left’s metastasis into an aggressively intensifying and spreading scientistic fundamentalism. It is built on the Pragmatist platform, as all good contemporary thinking is. It addresses our basic moral impulses along with our conceptions, and who cares about whatever doesn’t? This movement is for thinking folks beyond the academy. I have come to loathe the odor of papers meant to goose an academic’s scorecard. Back in the day I designed the interface for a system for capturing academic accomplishments for evaluation, so I know what drives ambitious edu professionals. Whoever let the MBAs into the dean’s office deserves to be shot.

This book definitely fits in the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) genre. As a genre, OOO seems not only influenced by, but highly derivative of ANT, and especially Latour, in its delight in dizzyingly heterogeneous lists designed to inflict ontological whiplash, and its ironic oscillations between light whimsy and the heaviest dread. I am writing this post from Paris, and I have to wonder if this literary texture doesn’t have something to do with Latour’s Frenchness. If there is one thing the French are not, it is streamlined. OOO is an unstreamlined genre. OOO profuses.

I’m struggling for a style for my 4-page pamphlet, so I’m a little genre-sensitized right now. I crave severe streamlining, to the point of geometry. The reason for is that I want to provide a minimal skeleton or scaffolding for thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. Now, that I’m writing this, maybe my genre is the genre of design brief. This is consistent with one of my core themes, that philosophy is a species of design. If this is true, and I am no longer inclined to doubt this background faith or its implications, wouldn’t this kind of design, like all others, benefit from a design brief? Design is directed by an intuited problem. Normally a problem is implicitly and instinctually felt by isolated individuals (as inspiration), or no problem is felt (as feeling uninspired). If framed explicitly as a brief, inspiration is socialized and made available to groups of collaborators. Briefs themselves are designed things, and my favorite kind of design is brief design. (By the way, a couple of months ago I developed a simple method for co-designing briefs that feels extremely promising, and I need to write about that. Note to self.) I think this pamphlet might be a universal design brief for designing design briefs. Yeah, you know I’ll stack me some metas. This insight may be a breakthrough, or a yerba mate overdose, or both.

Another thing I’m noticing that I like about OOO is their metaphysical surveying work seems right on. The property lines they’ve drawn between being and alterity, knowledge and reality are very close to my own. The only conception of religion that has ever made sense to me is the cultivation of relationship between knowing self and the barely-known reality of which self is part. Speculative Realism seems built on this well-surveyed property, each herm in its proper place.

And if I am not mistaken, according to this survey, transcendental and transcendent are diametric opposites. In understanding, the transcendental is what we bring to the table of knowledge, and the transcendent is what not-we brings.

George Soros

I’ve been hearing such dark and incredible tales about George Soros’s depravity and deviousness I felt I’d better look into who he is. And what better better place to start than to go directly to the source and read one of their books?

It turns out Soros is a philosopher — a Popperian. Not only does he have a well-developed liberal ethic, he has developed a profound and liberal metaphysic, which is not something I normally expect from an investor.

The profundity of his metaphysic is what makes him truly exceptional, and I suspect it is also what triggers such violent paranoia in far-right circles. This is what happens when souls who know everything because they need to know everything encounter a soul who knows a much bigger everything.

If only the far-right conspiracists weren’t deluded about Soros’s goals and the extent of his power! If Soros were in a position to actualize his political vision we all would be better off.

I intend to continue reading Soros, and to study Karl Popper’s political writings. This might be the re-fortified liberal philosophy I’ve been looking for.

Why our ideas diverge

What are the personal differences that produce pluralism? Here’s a list off the top of my head:

  1. What is our stock of life experiences, which serve as points of reference and call for explanation?
  2. What is our schema of relevance (which determines what draws our attention and what remains unperceived)?
  3. What is our conceptual repertoire (which limits the questions we know how to ask, the answers we can conceive, and which ideas are inconceivable)?
  4. What are our prior conceptual commitments (which limit the range of philosophically acceptable answers to the questions we ask)?
  5. What questions do we habitually ask?
  6. When faced with competing criteria of theory choice, which are given relative precedence?
  7. What is our perplexity tolerance (which limits our appetite for novel questions and philosophically unacceptable answers)?
  8. How do we approach the unanswerable questions of metaphysics?

 

Tragedy-fortified process theology

I think my view of life is more tragic than the process philosophies I’ve encountered so far. I’ve found myself writing “lacks tragedy” in the margins of passages such as this one, from Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy:

It is vital to emphasize again and again that God’s power is not omnipotent unilateral or coercive power. Quite the opposite. God cannot coerce any creature. Every creature has its own freedom. Rather God is the persuasive ground of freedom. So God knows what we may choose and are likely to choose, but not what we will choose. God is omniscient (all knowing) in the sense that God knows everything there is to know, but since the future does not exist it is not there to be known. Only the possibilities for the future can be known perfectly. Nor can God remain unaffected by the world: God is the only one who has the strength, the ability, to be open to every single experience in the world. God is the only one who can take every thing in, integrate it with God’s own infinitely ancient wisdom, and create God’s self out of that relationship in each moment. God is the only one who can then feed back to every creature in the world a lure and call toward those possibilities that are best for it. All the possibilities are there, good and bad, but they come to us, Whitehead says, with God’s call toward the better.

I see no reason why God should always offer a win-win for both the participant and the whole in which it participates. In fact, I think the role of religion is to help us affirm the whole even when it requires us to make sacrifices or even be sacrificed. Attempts at claiming that there’s a possibility of individual benefit built into every crisis lacks credibility and sublimity.

I do believe in “the lure”, and in fact it is the basis for my own belief in God, but I believe this lure demands transcending love from us, and is not itself an act of love of our individual selves. The lure demands that we live from ourselves toward that which includes and exceeds us. 

The miraculous emergence of unfreedom

Reading Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, I just had an epiphany: for the last few centuries we have been asking the question of free-will from a base-norm of unfreedom: “how does freedom emerge from the dynamics of unfree materials?” If you adopt Process Philosophy’s metaphysic, it makes much more sense to ask “how does unfreedom emerge from the interactions of free-willed particles?” This is a fascinating way to reinterpret reality.

Transfinition

When I say that some fact is “definitely true” it means that I cannot conceive how it could be otherwise. Sometimes, however, unexpectedly and shockingly infinity will demonstrate that reality is otherwise than how I thought, despite the fact that this event was inconceivable. 

The very ground upon which things are defined shifts, relationships between thing and thing, each and everything are instantaneously renegotiated. Everything and every thing is somehow different while remaining the same. All this belongs to the phenomenon of paradigm shift. 

But let’s for a moment turn away from the things and from everything, and look into that blind void from which this shock emerges, ex nihilo. Let’s stare into this scotoma, where nothing exists, but also where nothing is missing — because it is from here that metaphysics pours out fresh reality. It becomes visible only through shock of revelation. 

It is from here, from this — from Whom? — that I relearn the difference between “everything” and “infinity”. 

But however many times I am shifted and shocked, I remain finite, despite all appearances and temptations. But each time, my “everything” enlarges, becomes more flexible, grows more permeable, that is, if I can continue to want and to welcome God, dread and all. 

Today “transfinition” seems the right word for this kind of event, where definitional fields shift, changing the meaning of everything as a whole and every thing in part, and implying the permanent possibility of other shifts. This keeps us aware of the radical difference between truth and reality, and gives us our closest approximation of understanding the meaning of infinity. We know infinity through transfinitition. We also believe in the reality of pluralism by way of transfinition. 

Or so things seem to me, at this point in my ongoing history of shifts. 

Secular mystic

I told a rabbi that I am a “secular mystic”.

What do I mean by that? I see the transcendent realm as inexhaustibly understandable. The act of understanding incomprehensible phenomena increases our capacity to understand. The very increase that makes the understanding possible makes us aware of new incomprehensible phenomena (and with it, the limits of our understanding), re-arousing the need to understand.

I am most interested in the experience of these limits. This problem could probably be called “hermeneutical liminality” but these days I’m trying to find clearer, prettier and more pregnant language to express this kind of idea, which is precisely why I’m interested in religion. But I find that most people are so misaligned on what religion is and does that use of religious (or “spiritual”) vocabulary leads to instant misunderstanding. “Threshold” is pretty. Limbo? Border or boundary? For now, I’ll just call them “boundary experiences”.

What are boundary experiences like when we encounter them? How do we recognize them? What are their characteristics? What are our natural responses, and are other, better responses available to us? In other words, what are the ethical implications of boundary experiences? When do we keep going, and when do we stop? When and how do we involve others in boundary-crossings?

And then: where have boundary experiences been misunderstood? And what does that look like?

My hostility toward magic is bound up with this last question: what do misunderstandings of boundary experiences look like? What artifacts of such misunderstandings remain in our culture? My attitude toward magic has nothing to do with how it conflicts with science’s current view of the world (about which I am grossly under-informed, anyway) and everything to do with the functioning of religion. Magic forecloses religious questions, and removes intellectual tensions required for religious insight.

Again, Arthur C. Clarke’s famous maxim comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Or so it all appears to me right now, as I stand at the the threshold of Judaism. And one thing I’ve learned about thresholds is that something unexpected is always waiting in ambush — some unnoticed detail that changes everything.

Pluritarian Pluriversalism

To someone born into an autistic universe controlled by a single set of strictly logical natural laws, the experience of empathy and the subsequent revelation of an empathic pluriverse redefines the meaning of miracle, and of transcendence, and of religion.

Before, miracles were exceptions to the laws of nature. After, miracles are the irruption of something in the midst of nothingness: other minds, each with a world of its own — each with the power to change the meaning of one’s own world.

Before, transcendence was defined in terms of an infinite reality standing beyond the finite objective world.  After, transcendence was defined in terms of an infinite reality standing beyond myriad finite objective worlds, each rooted in the elastic mind of a subject.

Before, religion was the attempt for an individual to commune with a transcendent reality with miraculous powers. After, religion was still the attempt for an individual to commune with a transcendent reality with miraculous powers, but the change in conceptions of transcendence and miracle means that it is the individual and the individual’s world that is transcended, and this means the route to transcendence is not around the world and one’s neighbors, but through them and their worlds. The activity of loving, respecting and learning from one’s neighbors is intrinsic to loving, respecting and learning from the infinite God who cannot be confined to any one world, however vast.

Myriad worship practices are needed to worship myriad aspects of an inexhaustible and inexhaustibly meaningful God. By this understanding, empathy is worship.

Souls

Every soul is the size of the entire known universe, containing every known thing within it, endures for all time from the earliest known pre-history to the most distant imaginable future, and encompasses every conceivable possibility. Therefore, no two souls are alike. 

Souls vary in size, density, variety and complexity. Souls overlap in reality, but weave through realities differently, touching, entangling, moving and being moved by different beings. 

Some souls have space in them for your soul, and are happy to extend you hospitality. Some souls seek your hospitality. Other souls need your soul locked up inside your silent body.

Tillich: ontology speaks analogously

From Tillich’s The Courage to Be:

What does self-affirmation mean if there is no self, e.g. in the inorganic realm or in the infinite substance, in being-itself? Is it not an argument against the ontological character of courage that it is impossible to attribute courage to large sections of reality and to the essence of all reality? Is courage not a human quality which can be attributed even to higher animals only by analogy but not properly? Does this not decide for the moral against the ontological understanding of courage? In stating this argument one is reminded of similar arguments against most metaphysical concepts in the history of human thought. Concepts like world soul, microcosmos, instinct, the will to power, and so on have been accused of introducing subjectivity into the objective realm of things. But these accusations are mistaken. They miss the meaning of ontological concepts. It is not the function of these concepts to describe the ontological nature of reality in terms of the subjective or the objective side of our ordinary experience. It is the function of an ontological concept to use some realm of experience to point to characteristics of being-itself which lie above the split between subjectivity and objectivity and which therefore cannot be expressed literally in terms taken from the subjective or the objective side. Ontology speaks analogously. Being as being transcends objectivity as well as subjectivity. But in order to approach it cognitively one must use both. And one can do so because both are rooted in that which transcends them, in being-itself. It is the light of this consideration that the ontological concepts referred to must be interpreted. They must be understood not literally but analogously. This does not mean that they have been produced arbitrarily and can easily be replaced by other concepts. Their choice is a matter of experience and thought, and subject to criteria which determine the adequacy or inadequacy of each of them.

Seeing, knowing, anticipating

One person sees the same priciples underlying every circumstance, and attributes this to his ability to see the truth. 

Another person sees the same priciples underlying every circumstance, and attributes this to his inability to transcend the truth he’s already learned to know. 

Yet another person, noting both the truths he has learned to know and his belief in the existence of transcendental knowing, wonders what to make of this latter belief, a belief different in kind from the first, yet also a truth seen everywhere and experienced as an ability to see the truth. Can he transcend his belief in inexhaustible transcendence, and if so, how? He suspects that the means will be shocking and will enter from the least suspected nothingness, but that is what happened the last time.

Supranaturalistic distortion of revelation

Tillich via Polanyi: “Science, psychology, and history are allies of theology in the fight against the supranaturalislic distortions of genuine revelation. Scientific and historical criticism protect revelation; they cannot dissolve it, for revelation belongs to a dimension of reality for which scientific and historical analysis are inadequate.”

Supranaturalistic distortion of revelation! — I’ve needed this expression.

Just as resorting to magic to explain scientific phenomena ends inquiry prematurely and produces worse than useless knowledge, ending a religious crisis of faith with pat magical non-explanations prevents religion from doing its kind of work.
This is why I keep insisting that fundamentalisms of every denomination are anti-religious pseudo-religions that act to insulate faithless minds from the anxieties of genuine revelation. Fundamentalism is not extreme religion, it is a displacing counterfeit of religion.

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Faith is not a matter of factual belief, it is a matter of personal relationship with fact and what  stands inexhaustibly beyond fact.

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Magic is the splattering of belief upon the inner walls of inadequate understanding.

Wordworlds

Nothing is improved when we replace worldviews with wordworlds.

To paraphrase Bernadette from the Jerk, “It’s not [the meanings] I’ll miss. It’s the stuff!”

Our problem is not metaphysics. It is metaphysical reductionism. And specifically metaphysical reductionisms that allow us to be individually solipsistic with our eyes, or collectively solipsistic with our ears. If we get our hands involved and through interacting with the myriad beings around us, permit a fluid and indeterminately multidimensional metaphysic to stand beyond our capacity to conceptualize — one whose essence is to occasionally shock us — we’ll be better able to live in a real world.

I really cannot read more minds-in-vats. ANT has ruined me.