Category Archives: Pragmatism

Other names for design instrumentalism

This whole line of thought I’ve been calling “design instrumentalism” — and the lighly-technical-at-most voice I use for describing it — has become increasingly productive. I can’t write in my own voice and exclude all philosophical language — especially those words and names that have become experience-near for me and are organic elements of my thinking.

I have, however gotten feedback that the name itself might be confusing or annoying, so I’m considering other names.

“Axiopragmatism” is one option — which has the virtue of explicitly introducing valuative/moral/aesthetic concerns to a school which has been accused of excluding them.

I’m still thinking, and I’m open to suggestions.

The pluralism of design instrumentalism

Because design instrumentalism views knowledge as a result of conceptualizations of perceptions of particular experiences — that is, as a product of one of myriad possible praxes capable of producing different and even conflicting truths — with a particular set of design tradeoffs — that is, with varying degrees of descriptive, predictive, prescriptive, logical, practical, valuative and social adequacy — and, further, because some designs truly are better than others — that is, they make fewer tradeoffs overall, or solve particular relevant problems far better than expected — faced with an stubborn and morally-charged controversy a design instrumentalist is more likely to attempt to resolve the impasse with intellectual reframing than direct argument for one or another position within the current conflict.

And intellectual reframing is just another word for philosophizing — finding our way out of the current conceptualizations that make agreement impossible, into that uncanny shadowy region where words provide little help, and tacit thought must grope its way by smell, touch and tone through perplexity from one end to the other, out into the new light, where new ways of understanding are possible, and different ideas with different tradeoffs, perhaps acceptable or even inspiring to a wider range of people, can be produced.

(There are some folks out there who are averse to such reframing and from inability or unwillingness cannot bring themselves to cooperate with it. In design workshops, I can spot them from across the room. They alternate between sitting and crossing their arms and leaning aggressively forward, pushing the obvious truth, insisting that people show how the idea or objection they are asserting is false. They are suspicious of reframing, seeing it as a last resort to use only after existing theories have been shown to be nonviable. They often see themselves as hard-nosed rationalists, proud to set aside personal feelings so that objective truth can be served. That people like this can also, with equal inflexible fervor adhere to magical religious beliefs appears as contradictory to some conceptions of religion, but not to mine: rigid rationalism paired with metaphysical otherworldism go together in certain souls like two wings on a bird. Through various wily tricks of the design trade I keep people like this separated from from where collaboration is trying to emerge, because they make conception of truly new ideas impossible.)

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.

Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

Rorty on public and private beliefs

This passage from Rorty’s absolutely brilliant essay “Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism” made a very deep impression on my politics:

I turn now to the other big difference between Nietzsche on the one hand and James and Dewey on the other. Nietzsche thinks religious belief is intellectually disreputable; James and Dewey do not.

In order to defend James and Dewey’s tolerance for theism against Nietzsche, I shall sketch a pragmatist philosophy of religion in five brief theses. Then I shall try to relate these theses to what James and Dewey actually said about belief in God.

First, it is an advantage of the antirepresentationalist view of belief that James took over from Bain and Peirce — the view that beliefs are habits of action — that it frees us from the responsibility to unify all our beliefs into a single worldview. If our beliefs are all parts of a single attempt to represent a single world, then they must all hang together fairly tightly. But if they are habits of action, then, because the purposes served by action may blamelessly vary, so may the habits we develop to serve those purposes.

Second, Nietzsche’s attempt to “see science through the optic of art, and art through that of life,” like Arnold’s and Mill’s substitution of poetry for religion, is an attempt to make more room for individuality than can be provided either by orthodox monotheism, or by the Enlightenment’s attempt to put science in the place of religion as a source of Truth. So the attempt, by Tillich and others, to treat religious faith as “symbolic,” and thereby to treat religion as poetic and poetry as religious, and neither as competing with science, is on the right track. But to make it convincing we need to drop the idea that some parts of culture fulfill our need to know the truth and others fulfill lesser aims. The pragmatists’ romantic utilitarianism does drop this idea: if there is no will to truth apart from the will to happiness, there is no way to contrast the cognitive with the noncognitive, the serious with the nonserious.

Third, pragmatism does permit us to make another distinction, one that takes over some of the work previously done by the old distinction between the cognitive and the noncognitive. The new distinction is between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self- development. Intersubjective agreement is required for the former projects, but not for the latter. Natural science is a paradigmatic project of social cooperation: the project of improving man’s estate by taking account of every possible observation and experimental result in order to facilitate the making of predictions that will come true. Law is another such paradigm. Romantic art, by contrast, is a paradigmatic project of individual self-development. Religion, if it can be disconnected from both science and morals — from the attempt to predict the consequences of our actions and the attempt to rank human needs — may be another such paradigm.

Fourth, the idea that we should love Truth is largely responsible for the idea that religious belief is “intellectually irresponsible.” But there is no such thing as the love of Truth. What has been called by that name is a mixture of the love of reaching intersubjective agreement, the love of gaining mastery over a recalcitrant set of data, the love of winning arguments, and the love of synthesizing little theories into big theories. It is never an objection to a religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it can be that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project, and thereby offends against the teachings of On Liberty. Such intrusion is a betrayal of one’s responsibilities to cooperate with other human beings, not of one’s responsibility to Truth or to Reason.

Fifth, the attempt to love Truth, and to think of it as One, and as capable of commensurating and ranking human needs, is a secular version of the traditional religious hope that allegiance to something big, powerful, and nonhuman will persuade that powerful being to take your side in your struggle with other people. Nietzsche despised any such hope as a sign of weakness. Pragmatists who are also democrats have a different objection to such hope for allegiance with power. They see it as a betrayal of the ideal of human fraternity that democracy inherits from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. That ideal finds its best expression in the doctrine, common to Mill and James, that every human need should be satisfied unless doing so causes too many other human needs to go unsatisfied. The pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalists is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness. They sin not by ignoring Mill’s inductive methods, but by ignoring his reflections on liberty.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

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.

Pragmatist religion

It seems that in the 19th Century  “metaphysical need” for “metaphysical comfort” was more common than in the 20th Century, where the needs and comforts were anti-metaphysical.

This strikes me as an ontological analogue to the epistemological struggles (or were they actually also ontological struggles regarding the being of knowledge?), which concluded that if knowledge as we conceive it cannot exist, then knowledge itself is impossible, resulting in vulgar relativism.

If God as we conceived him and used him is no longer believable, then God is impossible: vulgar atheism.

objectivism : relativism :: idolatry : atheism

pragmatism :: religion

:::::

So many colons.

Density of soul

“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

*

It seems to me that few people agree with me on what a philosophy is. It is not that they disagree, but rather that they have done so little philosophy themselves that they lack any capacity to agree or disagree. They have not developed a capacity to understand what philosophy is as I understand it.

They have not even developed a capacity to look into why they ought to hear me out on how I think of it, not only for the sake of understanding something new, but for the sake of friendship.

*

Here is how I understand philosophy:

Philosophies are not reducible to assertions. Philosophies are not even reducible to language.

Language and assertions belong to the praxis of a philosophy. Yet a philosophy is not even reducible to its praxis.

Philosophies produce praxis, but they are “behind” praxis, moving and shaping perceptions and conceptions, values and emotions, recognitions and responses. Or let’s say they stand-under these things as capacities for conception, action and feeling: a repertoire of possibilities of understanding the world which activate long before we find words for them, because these capacities are who find our words for us. These capacities are what constitute our soul.

*

But don’t we primarily read or hear philosophy? — Yes, but we do not receive it the way people expect to receive ideas. The normal priority of comprehension is reversed. Normally, when we struggle to understand difficult material, we do so in order to grasp factual content. With philosophy, we struggle to grasp the factual content in order to gain new ways to understand.

Engaging philosophical writing is a mimetic linguistic activity intended to expand our repertoire of understandings, which enriches our awareness of and capacity for pluralism, which I call pluralistic sense.

*

Finite truths overlap in reality’s infinitude. The myriad finite truths are one part of reality. Our pluralistic sense permits us to relate to this overlap with sublime irony. Each of us is a soul among souls, overlapping with souls, swimming in souls, but each of us only gets one. Or at least only one at a time.

*

Doing philosophy is the effort to densify one’s soul.

*

For nearly ten years, I have been uncomfortable with the phenomenological term “horizon”. I think it is because this metaphor suggests that what we cannot see is invisible because it is distant.

The metaphor is not without merits. I like the implications that distant things are obscured by the curvature of the very land upon which we stand. I like that the pragmatic consequence of a horizon is a requirement to get peripatetic. Stand up and move and view things from some other perspective.

But as a young adult I spent too many hours seated in meditation, mining the sensations in my body and mind for insight into being to believe ignorance is primarily a distant thing.

And I have suffered too many ocular migraines, and far too often “seen” the blindspots in my eyes burst into bloom and cover my entire field of vision with nothingness, which is not black. Black is something that marks something missing. Blindness is nothing, including nothing being there but also nothing missing.

Too much we don’t know is close to us and in us. I think much of our ignorance takes the form of insufficient density, not only in our factual knowledge but in our capacities to know.

*

Our souls can lose density if we do not strain them. They can become inflexible, osteoporotic and brittle. We move only one way and see only one way. Trying to move and see other ways is uncomfortable and feels wrong. So we fend off enemies, and refuse to hear any validity in what they say. And as we become brittler, our enemies increase. We begin to discover unacceptable beliefs in our friends. We cling to fondness, but we can no longer converse without fear that words will break our bones.

*

One of my fundamental beliefs is that most misunderstandings are misunderstood as factual disagreements, when in fact the disagreements are artifacts of different modes of understanding. So some of my friends pore over sociological and psychological studies, because sociology gives us substantial scientific evidence for belief, unlike philosophy which only speculates and doesn’t provide enough factual meat. It takes philosophical thought to see what is dangerously ignorant about this kind of epistemology which says philosophy is “too abstract”. Other friends like to bravely entertain forbidden facts — facts which, if properly weighted and thoroughly considered, would wake us up to an imminent emergency requiring immediate action. The facts all point to ominous actors we cannot see directly, but a thorough connecting of dots leaves a lacuna the shape of  diabolical intention.

I think the imminent emergency is that everyone already knows everything, at least in outline, including the obvious fact that their enemies know nothing. No need to listen — there is no point. In fact, listening is folly. Force is the only suitable response. Both sides think they have the numbers to force their will if things go to plan, and if they don’t… well, truth is on their side and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

*

We have failed to teach our children to be citizens in a liberal democracy. Now there is too little tolerance and no willingness to fight for a fellow citizen’s right to disagree with us.

And we have failed to teach our public intellectuals philosophy. There is desperately little pluralistic sense in the upper reaches of our culture. What is known as Political Correctness systematically cultivates brittleness in our elite class by prohibiting all discomfort of pluralism. We are manufacturing narrow ideologues who experience disagreement as life-threatening.

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?

 

Process Theology

I’ve been poking around in several books on Process Philosophy/Theology to see if my own homegrown theology isn’t in fact some version of Process Theology. So far I’m finding some closely matching concepts. (Two big ones: Panentheism and “the lure”.) That is not surprising: it turns out Whitehead was influenced by Pragmatism (which not long ago I considered my religion). Process Theology appears to me to be the religious implication of Pragmatism.

*

For awhile I’ve speculated that Fundamentalism is actually a religion of its own: a distinctive way to interpret scripture and to practice religion. Fundamentalisms are more like one another than they are to other denominations within the same religion. I’ve come to see Mysticism and Humanism as similarly connected. (Note Oct. 3: and the book I’m reading reminded me, also Scholasticism.) There is considerable similarity across Mysticisms and Humanisms (that is, attempts to fit religion inside the Enlightenment framework).  I’ve been calling them “lateral traditions”. I’m sure this is not a new concept, and when I find the language others are using to talk about this idea I’ll adopt it.

I believe Process Theology represents another lateral tradition.

Pluralistic insight

We use whatever concepts we have available to us to understand our experiences. When facing an unfamiliar situation, we intuitively choose a conceptualization that seems to fit in an attempt to make sense of it. And if the first pick fails to give us a handle on the situation, we might “try on” another — if one is available to us.

Having a larger conceptual repertoire gives us more options for understanding. It also raises our expectations with regard to conceptual fit. Perhaps most importantly, the practice of trying out different ways of conceiving subjects us to first-hand experience of contasting experiences of understanding, which produces the insight we conceptualize as pluralism: multiple approaches to understanding always exist, even though it seems only one truth is possible.

Inducing the pluralistic insight, and equipping citizens with a large repertoire of concepts for reaching understandings satisfactory to the greatest possible number of people is the most important function of education in a liberal-democratic society.

Those who make use of a limited set of concepts for understanding the world will be accustomed to making do with semi-adequate understandings. They lack all experience of pluralism: the world they experience is a mysterious and arbitrary world where thinking is barely relevant because it rarely does much good.

One strong argument for public education is ensuring children are taught by teachers who have a reasonably large conceptual repertoire to teach. You cannot give what you do not have. Or to put it differently “if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” — usually the ditch of fundamentalism.

 

 

 

 

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.

Postenlightenment harmony

Tillich (from The Courage to Be):

The whole [Enlightenment] period believed in the principle of “harmony” — harmony being the law of the universe according to which the activities of the individual, however individualistically conceived and performed, lead “behind the back” of the single actor to a harmonious whole, to a truth in which at least a large majority can agree, to a good in which more and more people can participate, to a conformity which is based on the free activity of every individual. The individual can be free without destroying the group. The functioning of economic liberalism seemed to confirm this view: the laws of the market produce, behind the backs of the competitors in the market, the greatest possible amount of goods for everybody. The functioning of liberal democracy showed that the freedom of the individual to decide politically does not necessarily destroy political conformity. Scientific progress showed that individual research and the freedom for individual scientific convictions do not prevent a large measure of scientific agreement. Education showed that emphasis on the free development of the individual child does not reduce the chances of his becoming an active member of a conformist society. And the history of Protestantism confirmed the belief of the Reformers that the free encounter of everybody with the Bible can create an ecclesiastical conformity in spite of individual and even denominational differences. Therefore it was by no means absurd when Leibnitz formulated the law of preestablished harmony by teaching that the monads of which all things consist, although they have no doors and windows that open toward each other, participate in the same world which is present in each of them, whether it be dimly or clearly perceived. The problem of individualization and participation seemed to be solved philosophically as well as practically.

It is the belief in a preexisting harmony that separates the classical Enlightenment view from a Postenlightenment view. I believe in disharmonious reasons, which is another way of saying that I believe in Pluralism. To extend the music analogy, reason does not produce chords, it produces a chromatic scale, from which harmonies can be made, but only if sour reasonable notes are muted, at least until the melody progresses and the key changes, making the formerly sour note sweet. A harmonious truth must be designed, and design always means making good tradeoffs.

A newish political framework

(Updated November 25, 2015)

No word is more loaded and distorted than the word “liberal”.

No word is more crucial, especially right now: deprived of language, the very concept of liberalism is slipping away, its quiet reasonableness drowned out by louder, stupider, more passionate and primitive voices. Liberalism is losing its place in polical discourse, precisely when it is most needed.

For this reason the word “liberal” needs clarification and revitalization.

For the last several decades the word “liberal” has been casually associated with “left”. And among the right, liberal has also been connected with Political Correctness.

The PC-liberal association, especially, makes it impossible to discuss what liberalism really is, because what makes PC objectionable to those who reject it is not liberalism, but illiberalism: the desire to force individuals to conform to collective demands.

Of course, this sort of collective oppression is exactly what liberals accuse conservatives of attempting. Some conservatives cheerfully admit to this, because they believe their institutions are backed by some absolute super-human authority. But the libertarian faction of conservatism balks at this. Libertarians want to maximize all liberty — social and economic — and will not tolerate any authoritarian interference in the private sphere, even if the authority claims to be underwritten by God Himself. This commitment to liberty is what makes libertarians true liberals (and why they have been correctly called “classical liberals”).

In theory, left-leaning liberals are sympathetic to the libertarian goal of maximizing social and economic liberty — but they are deeply skeptical of the libertarian favored means of acheiving it, deregulation. They suspect that those who favor deregulation (and reduction or elimination of the welfare state) are invested primarily in the interests of those Americans who benefit directly from deregulation and shrinking of the state, and that all talk of the Invisible Hand of the market and Trickle Down is justificatory myth.

I am not interested at this point in the merits of the left and right forms of liberalism. Instead I want to point out the important fact that liberals agree on the end — liberty — and disagree primarily on means of acheiving it. My belief is that alliances founded on ends, where the means are contested, make far more sense than alliances founded on means used to pursue divergent ends.

When liberalism is secure, the disagreement between left or right liberal strategies can seem enormous — even the key difference between friend and an adversary. At times when liberalism itself is threatened (and it seems we are approaching that point), liberals of all kinds must close ranks and redraw battle-lines. To join ranks with lesser-of-evil illiberal forces allows liberalism to be divided and conquered.

For this purpose, I am proposing a framework to help liberals of all kinds understand our shared political ideals and to frame discussion of our disagreements.

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The strategy hinges on separating the idea of left versus right from liberal versus illiberal.

The left-right continuum is one of equality. The further left you go, the more importance you assign to actual, achieved equality. The further right you go, the more you believe that some people (for whatever reason) ought to have more power or wealth than others, and that this achievement of inequality is good. In the middle region (where I think most liberals stand) is belief in equality of potential, with the left-middle emphasizing mobility of status and the right-middle emphasizing stability of status.

The liberal-illiberal continuum is one of individual versus collective purpose. At the far end of liberalism is complete disregard for collective purposes. For a pure liberal, collectivities exist solely for the sake of individual purposes. At the far end of illiberalism is the belief that the collectivity is the only thing that gives an individual life purpose. Toward the middle is the belief that individual and collective purposes are at least potentially mutually reinforcing. Those who lean liberal will emphasize the value of individual experience of participation in collective purpose, while those who lean illiberal will emphasize the enduring greatness of institutions while acknowledging the importance of winning the loyalty and faith of those who contribute to its preservation and flourishing.

Having worked far too long in consulting, I’ve made a nice 2×2, so we can link up our understanding to the awesome power of the human mind’s hypertrophied visual intelligence.

ambiliberal-pluralism

Here’s the catch — there is a theory embedded in this diagram, and it is what distinguishes this model from similar frameworks.

In the middle of the diagram is a gray triangle, a region I call the “political gamut“. What falls inside the political gamut is a coherent and practical position. What falls outside of it is impracticable, or requires inconsistency in practice.

According to this model it is impossible to be extreme left or extreme right and also liberal. I think a great many hard-left liberals and hard-right libertarians look at each other and see the impracticability of the other’s position without seeing the impracticability of their own. But this model claims that liberalism is required to be centrist with regard to the left-right spectrum. Or, to put it differently, extreme liberalism requires extreme left-right centrism. I call this position “ambiliberalism“.

Have at it. I’m trying to be a good designer and user testing this conceptual model. Please respond here or on Facebook.

Apeirony

Gorging Ouroboros

Anaximander’s maxim:

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.

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The Greek word for “whence things have their origin” is the apeiron — primordial chaos. The world without form, void, with blindness upon its face — that over which the spirit moves… the element in which when we are perplexed we drown: this is apeiron.

I am vitally interested in the experience of grappling with apeiron. The apeiron in all its dreadfulness is what we encounter when we actually transcend ourselves. (And it is ourselves we transcend when we transcend — not the natural world, like magic-mongers claim!) Bliss might follow transcendence, but it is strictly what follows — and it happens after transcendence has happened, not during it. If you “follow your bliss” you flee transcendence back into your most finite (most conceptually infinity-containing) self: that who you are, not that who you are not but who simultaneously exceeds and involves you.

Nowhere is “no pain, no gain” it truer than in religious activity.

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If I have a positive metaphysical conviction it is in the existence of apeiron.

But if the ultimate reality is apeiron, and apeiron is not an essential wholeness but an infinite profusion of particular views of the whole — a flood of incommensurate meanings — we are morally free to find our own commensurations. Not “everything is permitted” but myriad things are…  But as a liberal, I’m most interested in what we humans permit: and I want to permit what permits. According to Richard Rorty, this makes me an ironist.

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So, metaphysically, I am Taoist. However, I do not think metaphysical beliefs are a suitable foundation for religion. Equating religions and belief systems (ideologies), faiths and factual convictions causes us to make category mistakes that block religious life. My preference for radical pragmatism resembles the religious attitude of a Buddhist. (I agree with Buddhism on what religions do/are.) But ultimately my passionate Judeo-Christian moral commitment to human dignity makes me not only resemble a liberal Christian — it makes me identify as a Judeochristian.

By the way, starting today, I’m removing the hyphen from Judeo-Christian, because Judeochristianity is not a hybrid of two separate things, but a refusal to separate them in the first place.

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This morning I registered apeirony.com and apeironism.com.

Agonistic and tragic pluralism

Agonistic pluralism recognizes that pluralism entails conflict, but the goal is to constrain the conflict to disagreement between adversaries, not violence between enemies.

Tragic pluralism acknowledges that pluralism will never result in a final harmony, and normalizes discord not only in the process but in the outcome. Discontent is a permanent part of the human condition. Agonism can only reduce discontent, not eliminate it. This, however must not become contentment with discontent — tragic pluralism is commitment to perpetually refreshed agonism.

Understanding Peirce’s triad

Let me see if I can paraphrase Peirce’s triad. 

The elements of the triad are distinguishable, but inseparable. They cannot be grasped in isolation, but articulated against the whole to which they belong. Peirce said they are to be prescinded, not isolated. 

Firstness is the immediate qualities of experience, including the entities experienced. It is monadic. It is experience experienced. 

Secondness is the brute reality of experience, most conspicuous in surprise. It is dyadic, composed of effort (of doing, or understanding) and resistance (to doing or to being understood). Secondness is encountered existence. 

Thirdness is — not sure about this — the concept — which is understood in terms of its full pragmatic consequence (a bundle of experienced beliefs each of which manifests with experience as firstness) of a meaningful entity. It posits, predicts, expects, establishes norms against which secondness will accord or discord. Thirdness is understanding that seeks to intelligibly integrate existence (universality) with encountered existence (pluralities).

Firstness is experience.

Secondness is encounter.

Thirdness is meaning.

Without firstness, secondness and thirdness have no material by which encounter or understanding can occur. No monads = nil.

Without secondness, firstness lacks resistant entities to stand out against the experiential flux, and without such entities thirdness is deprived of anything to understand. (No “intentional object” can emerge for thought.)

Without thirdness, firstness and secondness are indistinguishable. Thirdness supplies meaning; meaning animates effort, which invites resistance, and constitutes secondness. The distinction between what is experienced and what is encountered cannot be made.

What I am missing, and what makes me question the completeness of my understanding is this: isn’t firstness possible without secondness and thirdness? Second and thirdness seem interdependent in a way firstness does not. It might be a psychological fact that firstness is always accompanied by the other two elements, but it strikes me as philosophically unnecessary unless we impose a tautological definition that says that experience is only such in the context of the full triad.

So the thirdness that is my understanding of Peirce’s triad is encountering some resistance (thwarting some of what I would expect him to say) that leads me to wonder if Peirce’s idea (its stubbornly real secondness) is other than what I have made of it (thirdness), and in the context of this secondness and its disruption of my own expectations (firstness produced by thirdness?) it is leading me to experience the firstness of his words and his philosophy as a whole (also firstness) with some anxiety.

Peirce on “what pragamtism is”

Some gems from C. S. Peirce’s “What Pragmatism Is”.

First, probably the most famous bit from this essay, one of the funnier lines in the history of philosophy:

…the writer, finding his bantling “pragmatism” so promoted, feels that it is time to kiss his child good-by and relinquish it to its higher destiny; while to serve the precise purpose of expressing the original definition, he begs to announce the birth of the word “pragmaticism,” which is ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers.

Another, which I think is highly relevant to the Design Thinking debate, largely conducted by non-practitioners:

The writer of this article has been led by much experience to believe that every physicist, and every chemist, and, in short, every master in any department of experimental science, has had his mind molded by his life in the laboratory to a degree that is little suspected. The experimentalist himself can hardly be fully aware of it, for the reason that the men whose intellects he really knows about are much like himself in this respect. With intellects of widely different training from his own, whose education has largely been a thing learned out of books, he will never become inwardly intimate, be he on ever so familiar terms with them; for he and they are as oil and water, and though they be shaken up together, it is remarkable how quickly they will go their several mental ways, without having gained more than a faint flavor from the association. Were those other men only to take skillful soundings of the experimentalist’s mind — which is just what they are unqualified to do, for the most part — they would soon discover that, excepting perhaps upon topics where his mind is trammeled by personal feeling or by his bringing up, his disposition is to think of everything just as everything is thought of in the laboratory, that is, as a question of experimentation. … when you have found, or ideally constructed upon a basis of observation, the typical experimentalist, you will find that whatever assertion you may make to him, he will either understand as meaning that if a given prescription for an experiment ever can be and ever is carried out in act, an experience of a given description will result, or else he will see no sense at all in what you say.

And last, a restatement of a simple but profoundly consequential idea from “Four Incapacities” (“Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”) which hit me from a pleasantly fresh angle:

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you shall begin by doubting everything, and says that there is only one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were “as easy as lying.” … Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubt has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all the reality out of you, recognize, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt, in the least. Now that which you do not at all doubt, you must and do regard as infallible, absolute truth. Here breaks in Mr. Make Believe: “What! Do you mean to say that one is to believe what is not true, or that what a man does not doubt is ipso facto true?” No, but unless he can make a thing white and black at once, he has to regard what he does not doubt as absolutely true. Now you, per hypothesiu, are that man, “But you tell me there are scores of things I do not doubt. I really cannot persuade myself that there is not some one of them about which I am mistaken.” You are adducing one of your make-believe facts, which, even if it were established, would only go to show that doubt has a limen, that is, is only called into being by a certain finite stimulus. You only puzzle yourself by talking of this metaphysical “truth” and metaphysical “falsity,” that you know nothing about. All you have any dealings with are your doubts and beliefs, with the course of life that forces new beliefs upon you and gives you power to doubt old beliefs. If your terms “truth” and “falsity” are taken in such senses as to be definable in terms of doubt and belief and the course of experience (as for example they would be, if you were to define the “truth” as that to a belief in which belief would tend if it were to tend indefinitely toward absolute fixity), well and good: in that case, you are only talking about doubt and belief. But if by truth and falsity you mean something not definable in terms of doubt and belief in any way, then you are talking of entities of whose existence you can know nothing, and which Ockham’s razor would clean shave off. Your problems would he greatly simplified, if, instead of saying that you want to know the “Truth,” you were simply to say that you want to attain a state of belief unassailable by doubt.

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.