Friday, May 7, 2010

Epiphenomena, emergence, holarchy (Relation is the smallest unit reprise)

I promised (on FB) to post today and so here I am: in the hospital getting freaky with it (don't ask) but here nonetheless, and in California at least it's still May 7th! This'll be a short one, taking off from a comment on a comment on Facebook posted by a new friend and interlocutor, Paul Rossi. Regarding the axiom "relation is the smallest unit", Paul's friend Juno Moon pointed to the distinction between "epiphenomena" and "emergent phenomena", suggesting that while in the first case the direction of causation heads from "part" to "whole" - and never vice versa - in the latter case the "whole" might be said to precede and cause the "parts". For some reason my dim memory (of undergrad readings in philosophy of mind?) had assigned "epiphenomenon" a different meaning, one that was more synonymous with "emergent" phenomenon, but it does seem that the concept of the "epiphenomenon" implies an effect that is, indeed, a mere "side effect", one that cannot have any impact on the "fundamental" elements in play. The most common example of this is the mind: if the mind is merely an epiphenomenon then the mind can have no impact on the "fundamental" parts that cause it - the brain, the senses, the neurons, etc. If, on the other hand, it is an "emergent phenomenon" then the mind itself exists only in the relations: in this case you have to have enough neurons, enough brain mass, enough relations - perhaps - to get to this emergent mind. If we introduce the axiom that Two Descriptions Are Better Than One into this mix, then perhaps we can see that epiphenomena and emergent phenomena are two different descriptions of the same thing. Can both be true? Undoubtedly, although they contradict each other! Now we're talking. Of course, the axiom Relation is the Smallest Unit seems to refute in principle the methodological reductionism implied by the concept of the epiphenomenon.
Urg. I have the feeling that my last few posts are needlessly overcomplicated. I suppose I can hold onto the hope that they are complex rather than complicated... In any case, I'd like to point here in the end to one of my favorite distinctions, Arthur Koestler's "holarchy". Unlike the "holism" that often comes to mind as the opposite of reductionism, "holarchy" confuses in the first case any facile distinction between parts and wholes: in a holarchy, there are no parts and no wholes, but only "holons", that is, partsy wholes and wholsy parts. A holon is part of a larger whole and contains its own parts, which are themselves both wholes and parts. And in the end? It's turtles all the way down, of course!
Until the 11th!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Another quick post, from Guelph, Ontario: I've glanced over the past few posts and the comments my friends Andrew, James, and Oona were kind enough to offer, and I'm thinking tonight about the plurality of selves. In many academic contexts, following on the focus on "identity politics", people have learned to be suspicious of the "we", asking always and ever who in fact is included in this "we"? Who are "we the people"? Do we really mean "white people", "landed gentlemen", or some other restrictive if transparent category that includes (or excludes) by effacing all those who don't fit the norm? And yet this suspicion of the word "we" - especially when combined with the encouragement, in pop psychology as well as in pop intellectual work, to use "I statements" - actually implies that the word "I" is not a similarly problematic term. Indeed, what exactly do we mean when we say "I"? It seems to me that this question is an important one, especially if taken in light of most if not all of the axioms I've advanced so far: Two Descriptions Are Better Than One, It Takes Two to Cogito, Relation is the Smallest Unit, Map is Not Territory. Take this last one, an expression coined by the important early twentieth century philosopher Alfred Korzybski. I haven't discussed it in detail yet, but the implication is fairly clear, and even clearer when expressed in its fuller form: "Map is not territory, and the name is not the thing named." In other words, a representation or description - no matter how detailed, no matter how exhaustive - is not the thing it represents, and must not be confused with it. This seems simple at first, but more often than not we find ourselves acting as if the word "I" - for example - actually were a complete representation of this knot of organisms, ideas, impulses, thoughts, etc., that is, as if it actually were equivalent to the thing itself. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has called this the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness", while Marxist theorists would call it the error of "reification", that is, the "thingifying" of vastly networked and complexly evolving processes like "Capitalism". While acting as if an ineffable process could be summed up in one simple word is vital, I think, to the usefulness of language, it also betrays the true power language can have. In other words, if the map were the territory then why would we bother making maps at all? Why would we even need them? Long story short - and so I can slope off to bed where I desperately want to be - there is nothing transparent about the word "I", any more than there is anything transparent about the word "we", or any other word for that matter. Learning to think - and truly taking on thinking about thinking, as I'm doing here in Axiomatix - begins in a skepticism about how words get taken for "self-evident", for "axiomatic", when really they offer only one description, and two or more would be better! I? We? Or, indeed, to return again to the Rimbaud: It. It Thinks...

See you again on May Day, and in a flurry of primes thereafter: 1, 3, 7...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

It Takes Two to Cogito, Reprise

So far I’ve blazed on ahead, keeping my posts short and allowing each axiom to cascade into the next. Indeed, at the end of my last post I promised to turn to another axiom in the current post – After Two, Things Get Interesting Real Fast – but given the difficulties that an axiom like It Takes Two to Cogito offers, I am choosing now instead to dwell for a bit, to slow down, to offer examples and argue my case. The thing about the axioms I’ve been offering so far is that they are not, in fact, self-evident for most of my readers most of the time; in other words, they are not axioms in the “we hold these truths to be self-evident” sense, but instead in a utopian – or mutopian – sense of “if only we could hold these truths to be self-evident”. As I’ve suggested, the gistification of Axiomatix is actually to generate some new ways of thinking about and being in the world, since the ways that we modern humans have been going about things do not, it seems, have a very bright outcome in the near-to-middle future. In other words, I bring to the question of new ways of thinking – of new axioms – a lifelong concern with ecological ethics, and a recent turn to what I call the ecology of everyday life.

So, to make It Takes Two to Cogito a bit clearer, it might indeed help to draw on an ecological metaphor, one that also folds in the closely related axiom that Relation is the Smallest Unit. Consider that, in the common-sense way of thinking about things, the individual – the unique and separate being – always precedes the group, rather than vice versa. By this logic, in the beginning was the autonomic individual, and groups are only ever created by the social instinct that pushes these (suddenly plural) autonomic individuals together. And yet, many of our most basic experiences reveal this way of thinking about individuals and groups to be nonsense; as the fact of pregnancy and childbirth should well reveal, even “two” is not enough to begin with, for in the case of mammalian reproduction at least three separate individuals are always required! In no way does the individual ever precede the group – and yet, at the same time, how could the group ever precede the individuals that “make it up”? This is the classic problem of the chicken and the egg, a problem which can only persist if one insists that some particular unit is the smallest, most basic unit rather than, as I have, asserting instead that Relation is the Smallest Unit. Neither chicken nor egg comes first, but instead it is the relation between chickens and eggs that precedes them both, that makes them what they are. Feminist science studies scholar Karen Barad calls this kind of relationality between units that do not precede their relating “intra-action”.

I hope that these two axioms – It Takes Two to Cogito and Relation is the Smallest Unit – are starting to become a bit clearer now. As with the paradox of the chicken and the egg, the problems presented by Descartes’s Cogito axiom – “I think therefore I am” – simply evaporate when we replace it with “it takes two to cogito”. While the cogito is the ultimate expression of the autonomous self-creating being – leading to not only solipsism but to the infamous “mind/body problem” – the rejoinder that it takes two to cogito reminds us that without at least two there is no thinking, no tools for thinking, no language, no invention, no communication. This is not to say that you cannot have thoughts over there in your own little head, or me have thoughts here in my own little head, but it is only to say that the condition that makes those thoughts possible is not some purified, godlike space of absolute solitude and self-creation but instead a networked space of shared tools and materials for thinking. Indeed – as I’ll explore more in future posts – the notion that we “have” thoughts “in” our heads is itself an unfortunate offshoot of the Cartesian cogito: another implication of both Relation is the Smallest Unit and It Takes Two to Cogito is that thoughts, too, are relations, and so they can never really take place inside our skulls without also taking place "out there" in the world. Maybe thoughts don’t belong in “heads” at all! To again quote Rimbaud: “It’s wrong to say, I think; instead we should say, It thinks me.”

See you on the 23rd!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

It Takes Two to Cogito

On the fly, a bit drunk, and on Santa Cruz time we'll call this a prime day, even though at the moment I'm in Boulder. Incidentally, today - April 11th - is my brother's birthday, good and suicided now for over 5 years. It Takes Two to Cogito: It takes two to 'I think'. In line with my previous posts - Relation is the Smallest Unit and Two Descriptions Are Better Than One - this axiom suggests that the tools of thinking are never in one head - it takes two (and a lot more than two) to get thoughts flowing. Flying in the face of the monadism that is axiomatic in much western philosophical thought, It Takes Two to Cogito suggests paradoxically that thought itself is distributed, that dialogue - and much more, from trialogue to undecimalogue and beyond - is the very motor of logos, of thought, of language. Taken as an axiom, this gets us out of much of the solipsism and egocentrism implied by the philosophy that is alas the case. It reminds us that, to quote Rimbaud, "I is another", and that when we are thinking it is perhaps indeed another who is thinking through us. The notion of "original" ideas is another fiction of the philosophy that is alas the case: how, indeed, could any idea be "original" when it can only form as part and parcel of some other idea, as a refutation, an agreement, a conversation with the world, a world that is not original to us but that is instead a crazy and incredible composite of actions, ideas, words, critters, widgets and agents that always and ever exceed our individual efforts and effects? I personally hold to the idea that ideas themselves have their own agency, and It Takes Two to Cogito implies that "two" gives them room to move, to shuttle and jostle along an axis, to transmogrify as much as one dimension allows. As for the higher dimensions, see my next, more extensive and less drunken post (on the prime date after this next one): After Two, Things Get Interesting Real Fast.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Relation is the Smallest Unit

As my last post might have illustrated, it actually takes a fair amount of words to spell out an axiom; indeed, axioms are arguably arrived at by talking, writing, or thinking a lot, which is exactly what Axiomatix is all about. Eventually the whole process can be boiled down to some essential slogan or saying, simple and poetic enough to be memorable, one that can then be explicitly applied to a situation, not as a universal law but instead as a rule of thumb. Usually such an axiom has to be reconstituted - "just add water" - or at least recontextualized so that people can understand it; in other words, it is actually the relations of that axiom with situations or with other axioms that allow it to make sense.

This leads me to another axiom I'd like to expand on here, one that makes further sense of Two Descriptions Are Better Than One: Relation is the Smallest Unit. This axiom is a saying that Donna Haraway likes to use, and one that took me some time to understand. Indeed, what I like best about this axiom is the way that it turns common sense on its head, giving logical priority to difference rather than sameness. Rather than consider that "relation" is something that happens between pre-existing "units", Relation is the Smallest Unit suggests that it is in fact the relating that is the most basic and fundamental "unit". Consider what this axiom does, for example, to Platonic idealism: while Plato argued that the very existence of chairs or triangles implied a universal idea of chairNess or triangleNess, Relation is the Smallest Unit suggests instead that chairs and triangles are not only constituted by their internal relations but also by their external ones. You don’t get a chair without certain relations between the materials that make it up, without its relations with other kinds of furniture and other objects, or without its relation to some critter – human or otherwise – who might sit on it, knock it down, or what have you. Platonic chairNess, then, can be seen instead as a vastly complex knot of relations which for convenience we call “chair”.

Applying this axiom in our practices and theories can sometimes be hard, because the folk philosophy we grow up in and speak inside of in our everyday lives leads us instead to see a simplified world of discrete and separate objects and ideas which can then be related to one another. Taking it seriously, we can understand – for example – that “defining” something by what it “is” is hardly effective, and that the best way of defining things is through their relations with other things.

We can also understand that thinking never actually happens in just one head – or, to rephrase it as an inconsistent, ornery, and downright paradoxical axiom: It Takes Two to Cogito. Comments? Rants? Axioms?

Shall we cogito?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Two Descriptions Are Better Than One

Well, my first post didn't really provide a hook, explaining instead the gistification of this blog project; I hope to make up for that with this post. Specifically, I want to focus on one of my own axioms, choosing from a few of those that have helped structure most fundamentally my thinking and thinking about thinking:

1) Relation is the smallest unit.
2) Two descriptions are better than one.
3) After two, things get complicated real fast.
4) Map is not territory.

Now, the thinking about thinking that I'm doing here in Axiomatix definitely has a goal, and I won't hide it from you: to arrive at and express in an axiomatic way what I call the ecology of everyday life, thereby making a difference in the futures we humans have before us. For some expressions of that end state, see my other blog on sense of wonder, here. For the moment, though, and in reference to the excellent comment my mathematician-philosopher friend Andrew Marshall provided on my first post, let me focus on axiom 2 above, "Two descriptions are better than one." This axiom is drawn from Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (1979); for anyone interested in axioms of thinking expressed by one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, check out his chapters "Every Schoolboy Knows" and "Multiple Versions of the World", available here.

For me, two descriptions are better than one expresses something vital to my discussion of axioms in general. First off, it suggests that no axiom is "universal". Indeed, anything that is universal - rooted in "one" - is supposed to be true all the time and in every situation. But if two descriptions are better than one, then there is no description which can claim to be the right one, the true one, the "universal". Is it your right eye or your left eye that gets the "right" perspective? Neither, of course: what you see is a composite of the two, giving you three-dimensional vision thanks to parallax. In other words, while one view suggests access to the truth, two views suggest instead that for every situation there are truths. An interesting misunderstanding that derives from this pluralization of the truth is known as "relativism": basically, since all perspectives are true, anything goes. What the doctrine of relativism gets right is that no one perspective can ever capture it all, can ever establish a universal, can ever get to the capital-T Truth. What it fails to take into account is the usefulness of multiple descriptions of the world, and the fact that having access to the so-called truth is not necessary for taking a stand and making a difference in the world that is (alas) the case. I understand the desire to found one's authority in the God-like perspective that capital-T Truth offers, but I advocate instead an ethics of power and knowledge that resituate that authority in myself and my choices, always open to correction and modification through relations with others, never final, never universal. In other words, the axioms I'm discussing here in Axiomatix are situated, local, and very possibly inconsistent. They do not express eternal verities. Instead, with the axioms I express here - and, hopefully, with those my readers offer - I hope to capture those contingent truths that pattern an ecology of everyday life that might lead to not only the survival but also the thrival of human beings on this planet.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Axiomatix?

Why “Axiomatix”? Well, one way of understanding how we learn, how we think about the world, and how we imagine new and different worlds is to assume that we hold to certain basic axioms, that is, unproven and unprovable statements that we consider true. Indeed, that we do hold to such axioms might be the first axiom of this blog I’m calling Axiomatix. While axioms may be argued for and justified – while scads of evidence can be accumulated to “prove” them – what makes them axiomatic is that they are “self-evident”, as in one of the scriptures of U.S. American society: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” The word “axiom” comes from the ancient Greek, and means something like “worthy”, “required”, or “proper”, and among the Greek philosophers an “axiom” was understood to be true without any need of proof or argument. Now, the reason I’m interested in exploring my own axioms and giving the readers of this blog some opportunities to explore theirs is that they demonstrate how important simple faith and self-evident understanding can be in establishing the tenor and texture of our everyday lives. Axiomatix does not aim to prove that any particular axioms are “wrong” – indeed, that would assume that they could be “right” – but instead to show how different axioms generate different worldviews and how different worldviews literally create different worlds.

For the most part, we remain ignorant of our axioms. This is one reason that the Socratic Method is a powerful teaching tool: by asking questions and exploring the logical consistency of the answers, Socrates helped bring to light the axioms of his students and fellow philosophers. Unless you belong to a group that places great importance on orthodoxy – that is, one that includes the possibility of heresy – then you probably don’t have a very good idea of what your axioms are. The problem is that those axioms – self-evident truths that are often sexist, racist, heterosexist, speciesist, etc. – have even more power by being invisible to you. In the context of Axiomatix, therefore, I hold this truth to be self-evident: Knowing our axioms is the first step towards changing them, or, indeed, in embracing them more fully. I think, for example, that the Golden Rule – Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You – is a very cool axiom; I also think that, while many in U.S. American society pay lip-service to it, most of us do not in fact attempt to fully articulate it in our everyday lives. This is just one example of the kinds of axioms I’d like to explore here.

In my own work as a theorist and ethicist, I've had the opportunity to bring to light, reject, and transform many of my axioms. With Axiomatix, I'd like to continue that process, and I invite you to join me. What truths do you hold to be self-evident? What worlds and ways of being do those truths imply? And indeed, do you truly hold to them – do you practice them – or do you simply hope to? If you wanna play, try answering these questions, and maybe through conversation we can come up with some interesting new axioms - and some interesting new worlds and worldviews to live in.