Harman doesn’t understand structural realism

Posted by | peter | 28.3.13 | 2 Comments

A review of Harman (2010) “I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed”, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 28, pg772-790  

I have finally got round to reading Harman’s engagement with structural realism. It is an attempted exegesis of Ladyman & Ross (2007) Every Thing Must GoMetaphysics Naturalised (henceforth L&R and ETMG reciprocally). The article is replete with misunderstandings and although I normally refrain from commenting on OOP, on this issue I really can’t keep quiet. All references are to this paper unless stated otherwise. And the following acronyms are used:

OSR – ontic structural realism
MSR – moderate structural realism
ESR – epistemic structural realism
QM – quantum mechanics
QFT – quantum field theory
OOP – object-orientated philosophy
PII – The Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles

(sorry there are so many but I’m lazy). Here are some (mostly negative) comments, in no particular order:

On misunderstanding causation
L&R’s engagement with the concept of causation is complex but Harman manages to gloss over its intricacies with ill-concealed prejudiced language.  L&R analyse causation as a threefold concept: a) the folk concept of the manifest image – what Scott Atran calls part of folk-mechanics that we use to track physical reality at the speeds in our manifest image of the world; b) the notional concept of causation which is used in the special sciences to track representational real-patterns; and finally c) the denial that causation is a fundamental property of reality because fundamental physics is better conceived of in terms of “interactions”. Reciprocally, Harman calls these a “folk product” (778), a “concession” of the special sciences (780); and non-existent at the fundamental level (but his tone here smacks of disbelief).

Although Harman has this correct, the way he describes it belies a lack of understanding on his part. Rather than a “concession”; L&R’s notional concept of causation follows directly from their naturalistic principles and their acknowledgement that non-reductionism is the appropriate position for such a metaphysical project. Harman’s misconstruction becomes apparent when he states that L&R’s “ambiguous” position on causation means that “it ought to make it difficult for [a] table to […] block our progress […] if we stumble into it” (782). L&R never deny specific interactions, they just deny an overall metaphysical causal concept for all cases – the sought that Harman would like. 

Furthermore, this error is compounded when Harman goes on to imply that if causation is not a fundamental structure of the world this makes L&R equivalent to occassionalists (779). And subsequently states that real patterns are “discrete” (782). Since L&R deny outright the existence of independently existing and subsisting objects – as the sections on fundamental physics and the metaphysical underdetermination of the non-individuality of quantum particles, spacetime points and particles and fields in QFT makes clear – this comparison is a complete non-starter (see ETMG chapter 3). The only way Harman could have drawn such a comparison is if he didn’t understand the empirical evidence put forward from fundamental physics. This is quite damning, since this is a key component and motivating factor of OSR – as stated on multiple occasions by Ladyman, French and other proponents of OSR (see, amongst others, ETMG, chapter 3; French & Ladyman (2003) “Remodelling Structrual Realism: Quantum Physics and the metaphysics of structure”, (2011) “In Defence of Structural Realism”; and French (2010) "The Interdependence of structure, objects and dependence").

Harman’s brief discussion about PII and Pound Sterling confirms this suspicion (782). Harman states that PII holds in something he calls “classical metaphysics”, which he does not define, but could be interpreted to mean metaphysics devoid of contact with what the physical sciences tell us about reality. He goes on to state that PII does not hold in mathematics and quantum theory because “the relational properties of both Pounds are the same”. Firstly, whether or not PII holds in mathematics is irrelevant since we are in interested in physical reality and not logical reality. Secondly, ignoring the fact that quantum mechanics does not straightforwardly apply to pound coins since they don’t strictly exist at the microscopic scale (this manoeuvre is how L&R and also separately David Wallace attempt to diffuse the measurement problem – for more information see EMGT, 180-183, esp.182); it is not that the relations of quantum particles are all equivalent that renders PII physically fallacious. It is that quantum particles are not clearly individuated in all events such as we would expect if PII held and if straightforward logic held. Instead, fermions and bosons both behave in specific ways that make the concept of “individual” suspect – but rather than then stating that quantum particles are not individuals. OSR is premised on the metaphysical underdetermination of multiple ways of characterising particles that are co-existent and not easily chosen between: haecceity; non-individuals; relationals; contextual individuals. This situation leads proponents to argue that rather than an end of metaphysics – as constructive empiricists suggest – it is suggestive that the metaphysical concept of individual is anthropocentric and inappropriate to mind-independent reality (see French & Ladyman 2011 and ETMG, 132-140). Considering that Harman is after a non-anthropocentric metaphysics, it is a shame that he misses this central point of OSR and the book.

In fact, Harman seems incapable of understanding this point, and the way he describes L&R’s rejection of individuality implies that he seems to think it is an a priori metaphysical prejudice (783) rather than dependent upon empirical evidence. And this is excellently apparent when he writes: “The latter point [that QM suggests there are no objects] is easily disposed of by noting that this is by no means the universal interpretation of quantum theory” (785). This is exactly the point of their overview of the various metaphysical interpretations of individuality/non-individuality problems and the metaphysical underdetermination this creates. All I can say is that Harman needs to reread chapter 3, the empirical evidence is important.  

Furthermore, other structural realists argue that the real patterns that fundamental physics tracks must be thought of as causal structures (see for example, Esfeld and Lam (2009) “Structures as the objects of fundamental physics” and Saunders (2003) “Structural realism, again”). This issue depends upon whether the universe is dynamical or non-temporal – see next comment.

On speculative questions
Harman states that L&R should have a problem with plurality and require pre-existing individuals (782-783). On this point Harman should re-read section 3.5 (ETMG, 154-159) where he would see that this is a debate within structural realism about the need for relata between relations. French & Ladyman 2011 explores this more, and shows that OSR accepts nodes or thin notions of objects – objects entirely defined by their relations.

Harman’s problems here about how these structures “surge into existence from an incompletely differentiated structure” are interesting. And I would suggest that people interested in Iain Grant’s work would also find the puzzle of the generation of structure fascinating. On this note I suggest Lee Smolin and Julian Barbour’s work in seeking a mathematical formulation of Leibniz’s monadology – in which they are trying to articulate “a structure-creating principle” (see Barbour (2003) "The deep and suggestive principles of Leibnizian philosophy" for a less technical examination of this). But L&R, for better or for worse, explicitly reject such metaphysical questions as overly speculative – and so asking them this question is bound to be met in silence. They couch all of their metaphysical speculations in terms of the problem of quantum gravity (see ETMG, 167-175) since this will go a long way to deciding whether we live in a block universe or one in which dynamical collapse and thermodynamics are fundamental. L&R side with the block universe, but this is not central to the thesis of the book. So a suggestive answer to Harman’s question about “surging into existence” is that this is a meaningless question since time and causation are not fundamental, and instead are indicative of philosophising from within the manifest image. A mistake Harman repetitively makes – whilst proclaiming the opposite. And this is my main problem with OOP. Rather than being non-anthropic, its one of the most extreme forms of anthropocentricism you can get – viz. just because objects recede from our attention in the manifest image does not mean that other objects recede from each other when they interact. Such a statement is a straightforwardly anthropic projection: “the world is like this for me, therefore it is like that for things different from me”. Literally, Spinoza’s “god is a triangle”.     

Beyond this, I struggle to actually understand why Harman thinks that L&R cannot have multiplicity (787-788). And his discussion of whether reality is discrete or continuous is a centrally vexing issue in the pursuit for quantum gravity – as L&R acknowledge, and hence, given their naturalistic principles they remain mute on a final deciding vote in this dilemma whilst also exploring the issue and laying out all the various angles to their full extent (see the section on Quantum Gravity in ETMG). I struggle to understand how Harman could want more at this juncture given that physicists have been struggling with this problem for nearly a century.   

On empirical falsification
In answer to Harman’s query about how the real-patterns conception of reality could be empirically falsified (780); if it could be shown that one of Harman’s bizarre conglomerate substances – such as “my left nostril and the capital of Namibia and Miles Davis’s last trumpet solo” (ETMG, 231) – exists, something that L&R deny, then this would demonstrate that their existence claim “to be, is to be a real pattern” is false. What is funny about this collection, as are all of Harman and Latour’s collection substances, is that they are entirely human centred. Entirely. In contrast, L&R’s conception of real-patterns, especially extra-representational real-patterns, fit perfectly into the non-anthropocentric science that is actually being carried out by machines. Humphreys (2004) excellent book, Extending Ourselves, outlines how the exponentially increasing computational paradigm has rendered anthropocentric stances, both anti-realist and realist, null-and-void. Humphrey’s work is also important considering our next issue.

On accusations of correlationism and repetitive pronouncements of the inexhaustibility of objects
When Harman states that there can be nothing outside of human or animal observation for L&R (784), he clearly didn’t read the bits discussing Humphrey’s work on how most of the experiments of fundamental physics are conducted by machines. That would be machines and particles or quasers interacting – devoid of human or animal mediation. So the statement that: “Everything boils down to a correlation between physical structure-in-itself and mathematical structure-for-living-creatures” is simply not true (784). And the amount of errors in Harman’s exegesis is making me wonder how this article was peer-reviewed.   

Along these same lines, when Harman discusses Neptune (786-787), it must be noted that just because Neptune is more than its relations with our best current science does not mean that Neptune is more than its relations with the rest of reality. Nor does it mean that this leads to a difference between relations and relata. It does not matter how often Harman states that objects are more than their relations, the evidence is against this view. And whilst there is a reasonable dispute between MSR and OSR about whether there are relata as relationals or mere nodes, there are not distinct haecceities since this contravenes the diffeomorphism invariance of general relativity and permutation invariance in QM (see French & Ladyman 2011 and ETMG, chapter 3). Although it should be noted intrinsic identity cannot be strictly ruled out by empirical evidence, since it is the claim that it is a transcendent individuality intangibly over and above the empirical. The fact that it contravenes these symmetry translations just heavily implies that it is false and that a more parsimonious view is that haecceities do not exist. To repeat: OSR’s prodecure is to remain agnostic in this debate since it is anthropocentric and point out that fundamental physics operates perfectly well without this folk-metaphysical category. Instead, it can be couched out well in terms of structures – although whether these are dynamical or causal is an interesting and ongoing issue (see first comment above).

In fact, Harman’s repetitive pronouncements for the necessity of objects are tiresome and his statement about the “futility of all other options” couldn’t be further from the truth (788). Chapter 3 of ETMG lists a panoply of reasons for adopting a relational metaphysics and the exploration of reality carried out in fundamental physics works just fine without any thick notions of an object that Harman would like. That Harman is unaware of this after having apparently read the book is amazing. It’s not even as if he disagrees; his statements aren’t disagreements and rebuttals, they’re oblivious proclamations.        
One last note on this subject: on how to actually overcome the correlationist gambit, see Brassier’s (2010) “Concept and Object”, and in particular his discussion of Saturn. It’s really good and shows how to cut through the tautologous gem-like “to think X is to think X…” etc. with a precision and eloquence that is delightful (and, in distinction to OOP, actually works).

On the relationship of the mathematical and the physical
Harman is right to pick out that the peculiar relationship of the mathematical and the physical is not clarified (785). However, it is far from clear that this distinction is the “central distinction of [L&R’s] philosophy”. I would argue that the central distinction of their philosophy is between naturalistic, scientifically motivated metaphysics and scientifically uninformed, neo-scholastical metaphysics.

I wrote my masters dissertation on just this issue and I hope to pursue a PhD in carrying on my investigation – what Mark Colyvan calls the “Wigner Puzzle” (2001, “The miracle of applied mathematics”). I can see why L&R doesn’t want to tackle such a question, since they will see it as going beyond the verifiable remit they laid down as one of their core principles. However, I do agree with Harman that this question is not properly engaged with. But it is not resolving this issue that is at stake, but rather its exploration that is necessary, otherwise OSR is open to the same charges that Ladyman (1998, “What is Structural Realism”) lays at the feet of ESR – namely that it is an “ersatz realism”. Furthermore, I think this question or puzzle can be engaged with in a manner consistent with the principles of naturalistic metaphysics. And given Mark Steiner’s (1998, “The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem) assertion that the Wigner Puzzle implies anthropocentricism, a “user-friendly” universe and a challenge to naturalism, this question becomes even more pressing. 

On this note, when Harman discusses the isomorphism of the physical and the mathematical in the conclusion; although an isomorphism is a “translation” (788-789) I’m not sure about Harman’s Latourian terminology here (I’m sticking with the normal mathematical usage). Isomorphism is a one-to-one correspondence between two structures A and B. Correspondence is not the thing itself, it is a type of relation that suggests an identity of structure in the two separate relata. Therefore, Harman’s comments about knowledge as the thing-itself here miss their target. L&R are not attempting a mathesis universalis of the type attempted by Leibniz and Descartes where the idea was the thing. Instead, OSR is premised on the isomorphic or partially isomorphic relationship between our mathematical models and the world structure itself. This is a normative relationship about a modal structure – and this is the extent of their realism: that there is a real, mind-independent, modal structure, that we call nature. Our relationship to this is best explored through mathematical models – this is a fact. How it works exactly is the Wigner Puzzle, but it is not to mistake knowledge and the thing that the knowledge is about. Again see Brassier (2010) for more on this topic.  

Apart from this misconstrual, Harman is correct to say that there is an issue here in the relationship between the mathematical and the physical. However, this issue is far from the death-blow he believes it to be. And is simply an interesting puzzle that requires further exploration.      

On Naturalism
Harman states “It is not clear why philosophers must prematurely unify their own speculations on space, time, and substance with those of quantum theory and relativity that are not yet even unified with each other” (785). Firstly, does Harman know why these fields in physics are not unified? I think this is an important question, since for him to hold such an aloof attitude as to what metaphysics should be allowed to do and ought to do, becomes interesting in terms of how scientifically informed he is. Viz. to hold a dismissive attitude about something is fine if you actually know what that thing is. If you don’t know what that thing or enterprise is, then your dismissal is potentially wrong, and you won’t even know it. Secondly, purely a priori speculations about space and time devoid of relativity are anthropocentric. Physics tells us how space and time behave and there are a whole host of really interesting metaphysical problems here such as the hole argument (see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia). OOP can’t discuss this physically meaningful metaphysical problem because it is too busy playing around in the logical phase-space of the metaphysical playground. It’s imaginative and fun, but it isn’t about how reality actually is. Thirdly, findings from fundamental physics suggest that substance is an obsolete metaphysical category, and only relevant for couching out our folk mechanics in the manifest image. As Poincare wrote: it is a crutch for our weak anthropocentric minds.       

If you want to do metaphysics properly then you must pay attention to what the requisite physical sciences tell us about nature (see ETMG, chapter 1).

On science influenced by philosophy
Lee Smolin is probably the most famous, to my mind, scientist calling for philosophers to influence science in these troubling times of trying to tackle the intertwined problem of quantum gravity. Harman relishes in this sort of territory. He lists Einstein, Mach and Bohr as influenced by philosophers, such as Kant, and then cites Leibniz as being involved in the physics of his day (785). This statement is fine until you realise that a) both Kant and Leibniz where scientifically literate in the physics and mathematics of their day; b) properly philosophical speculation at the boundaries of our knowledge of reality is being done by people informed by our best theories about that reality (namely fundamental physics – see for example Roger Penrose’s most recent popular work, or David Wallace (2012) The Emergent Universe).

Citing that Carlos Rovelli wants more philosophers involved in the problems of quantum gravity does not override these facts (786). Especially given that in Quantum Gravity Rovelli states quite clearly that nothing has ever been achieved by uninformed speculation: “Wild ideas pulled out of the blue sky have never made science advance” (2003, 5). So when Harman comments that Ladyman gives a “weak answer” (786) to Rovelli’s call to arms because he says that currently only a few philosophers are informed enough to work at the “cutting edge” – such as David Wallace, it’s a little bit misleading. To be fair to Harman, his reasons for thinking this is a weak answer are that Rovelli isn’t calling for philosophers to be on the frontlines of science, but to be “beyond the cutting-edge” (Harman’s emphasis). This would be a somewhat good point. But given Rovelli’s actual views we can ask: if philosophers do not even know where the cutting-edge is how the hell are they supposed to roam around in this speculative territory?   

a) I am struggling to see why Harman thinks L&R’s stating of the difference between Kantianism and OSR is just “table pounding” (783-784). The former says science cannot access noumena; whereas the latter enquires into the real structure of the world. I think that this is quite a clear difference and also draws the distinct between ESR and OSR – a distinction, made clear in chapter 2 of ETMG. And several papers have been written about how ESR is Kantian and OSR isn’t – especially given French and Ladyman’s admiration of the neo-Kantian Cassirer (see 2003). 

b) Harman’s statement that L&R’s approach, of combining verificationism and realism, is nothing new is rendered obsolete considering that he doesn’t even understand what their position is (784). And that is putting it politely.

c) Against Harman I would say that stating that intuition is a socio-biological phenomena is not a “red-herring” (786). Identifying and removing intuitions from metaphysics is how we avoid anthropocentricism. The critique of metaphysics helps us in this task as Peter Wolfendale has brilliantly demonstrated in his essay on Transcendental Realism (and as Schelling rather differently puts it in the introduction to his Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature).    

d) It may seem trite but there is at least one point on which I sort of agree with Harman: “A truly multipolar cosmos requires that the human being be treated as just one kind of entity among trillions of others, not as a full half of a dual monarchy” (772). I completely endorse this sentiment, if not its peculiar phrasing; but only with the caveat that the human brain is the most complex entity we have encountered in the universe. This goes some way towards explaining the abundance of creative relations and activities with which it interacts in the universe and why there are more sciences involved in investigating these than say the various branches of geology – viz. rocks are not as complex as brains. This is not to say that one is more special than the other, just to point out that one has more affective relations in nature (as identified as early as on as Spinoza I would argue). To view them as both “actants” is a far worse form of reductionism than any scientifically motivated metaphysics as Brassier (2010) demonstrates clearly.

On Materialism
Given the title of the paper, this is a central point. As such I have left it till last and as the conclusion of these comments. Harman defines materialism as “a standpoint that breaks down the dualism of subject and object, allowing these two poles to interpenetrate and mutually constitute one another” (772). I am not sure that L&R would recognise this definition since they are seeking a middle ground between van Fraasen’s empiricist and materialist stances (see Ladyman 2011 "The Scientistic Stance" and ETMG, the end of chapter 1), which are more to do with attitudes than substances of subjects and objects. It is likely that they would see this latter issue as a neo-scholastical one: the world is not made of anything.

So when Harman states that “materialism must collapse into object-orientated philosophy” (789), I am sure he is correct for his own definition. But since it is not clear whether it has any bearing on what L&R are talking about, it is meaningless assertion. If you choose to define your opponent in an idiosyncratic way and then undermine this definition, your opponent can merely say “that’s not me” and ignore what you’ve said. 

A positive general point that Harman draws out is that materialism and idealism are quite similar positions in certain ways. A point that he has made before, and so have others. And so his assertion that materialism may not be the best name for a scientifically informed naturalism does hold some water (it’s not an entirely leaky boat). But I think this point is not as important as naturalism – which he does not touch upon sufficiently.

And all this obviously reflects badly on the title – although I did enjoy how humorously violent it is and it reflects Harman’s excellent skills as a communicator and creator. At this juncture I would like to state that Graham Harman’s writings (along with those of Iain Grant, Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillassoux) is partially what recaptured my desire to do philosophy. And I admire his ability to create some excellent philosophical tools and his superb turn of phrase (“rainforest scientism” (779) is particularly great). Beyond this, however, I do not think OOP is a properly credible philosophical position – for more details Peter Wolfendale’s essay on the failings of OOP. And I have nothing further to say on the matter except that anyone who actually wants to know what structural realism – probably the most sophisticated form of scientific realism – is, would be better off reading the entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia or Frigg & Votsis (2011) “Everything you always wanted to know about structural realism but were afraid to ask” or ETMG itself.

Why I can't stand post-modernism

Posted by | peter | 27.3.13 | No Comments

Last night I was subjected to one of those talking heads programs; where z-list celebrities are asked their opinion about X and then the whole thing is treated as gospel. Surprisingly, rather than the usual banal topics, the discussions-via-snippets roamed into "god and death and religion" territory. Subsequently, pop-philosophical nonsense along these lines spouted out of my host's television:

"I don't know the truth, and therefore no one else knows the truth, and anyone can believe what they like, but anyone who claims they do know the truth is scary and weird and shouldn't be trusted... but that's just my opinion"

I felt a rage coming on.

Overlooking the flaws in this kind of subjectivist logic; what really frustrates me is that we do demonstrably know certain truths. Even the most hardcore sceptic has to accept some level of veracity to the findings of science. There is no way out of this. Science works. No other investogation of reality or ideology or enterprise has produced so many instrumental results testifying to some sort of linkage between that investigation and reality. To disagree is tantamount to stating that science works because it is a miracle. Some theological occasionalists may find this view satisfactory, but most people will not. And for good reason, because not only is it an appallingly bad explanation, it isn't even an explanation at all - viz. to state that science works via miracles doesn't explain why it is astronomically more successful than numerology, etc.

Anyone who disagrees is invited to respond via the internet, on their personal computer whilst living inside their houses built by architects. Others may respond that I am being a bit trite here; but I am merely responding to what people said on the telly to millions of people. And no matter how un-famous they are, we know that we're all very suggestible, especially when we are uninformed about a certain subject.

So to say that "no one knows anything about reality" is false. The structures tracked by our best fundamental theories have been proven true to an unprecedented degree - in particular Dirac's equations about the electron are equivalent in accuracy to measuring the distance between New York and London to within the width of a human hair (Feynman quote). And although it is reasonable to protest that we do not have knowledge of intrinsic nature through physics (as Bertrand Russell and more recently Galen Strawson protest - although others such as James Ladyman would argue that there are no such things); from this perspective we at least have knowledge of what nature is not. BUT THIS IS STILL KNOWLEDGE. To take one example (that Russell accepts), the empirical evidence of fundamental physics implies that the world is not composed of distinct things, or objects.

This is knowledge of reality. Does this make anyone who knows this to be true to weird and scary? Or are the people who hold such views idiots who haven't even considered wondering how their fridge works or their i-phones manage to communicate with people on the opposite side of the globe.

So what has this rant about scientific realism got to do with religion, death and god? A lot. If people are uninformed about the scientific findings relevant to a topic but then view their opinion as equally valid as someone who does know the relevant scientific information, then not only are they misguided but they are potentially immoral also. To take the example of souls. Is the belief in a soul a benign thing? No. Firstly, people get in to debates about what does and does not have a soul, and their treatment of animals "as things to be used by man"  follows accordingly. Secondly, research into stem cells and potential cures for diseases has been dramatically reduced and limited and almost shut down because of people's belief in a soul and its spontaneous emergence at the moment of conception. As Sam Harris has pointed out, if you think an embyro of only a few hundred cells, with no nervous system and therefore no way to experience pain, is more important than fully-grown human beings, then your ability to reason rationally about reality has been corrupted by a certain set of a priori metaphysical beliefs for which you assert that there is no need for any evidence.

I disagree, I think you are wrong, and we do know certain things about reality, and stating this is neither weird or scary.  

God as the Eternal "No" - Illness, Disease and Catastrophe in The Ages of the World

Posted by | Chris | 2.1.13 | 3 Comments

The module taught by Iain Grant on UWE's MA in European Philosophy is Past-Kantian Philosophy. This year we read Hegel's Difference essay followed by Schelling's Ages of the World (subsequently WA). Since Alex has recently resurrected this blog, I thought I might write up the notes from my recent MA presentation to share some of my research.

I want look at destruction and disorder, or, in the terms Schelling uses, illness, disease and catastrophe. There are two main reasons for this. The first is personal and stylistic: some of the most striking passages in the WA concern the dark primordial forces of life. The second is philosophical: to be able to account for chaos is necessary. Extinction and ecological disaster are just two examples and if your philosophy is incapable of explaining or at least accounting for these forces then it is inadequate to the world we find ourselves in. I also have in mind that Schelling's account of life poses problems autopoetic biology and I'm expanding this line of thinking in my essay. There is also a third reason for looking at the dark powers in Schelling's work, an understanding of which came to me only after I had begun this research: chaos lies at the heart (literally and metaphorically) of Schelling's metaphysics and an investigation of it take us to the most interesting questions posed by his work.

To begin, I had a question that stuck with me: why is God necessarily the eternal “No” before he is the eternal “Yes”? First, there is a important distinction between God and Godhead. The Godhead is the source and God the consequent nature. As the source the Godhead is absolute freedom and the infinite and eternal power to be anything. There is nothing that it cannot be, for were it to be limited in any way it would not be infinite and eternal and it would become a necessary being. As such it contains all contradictions, or rather it is the source of all possible contradictions.

The Godhead can also be linked with Schelling's concept of “unprethinkable being”. This unprethinkable being is a concept, and therefore thought, but also the being which precedes all thought and is therefore totally unthinkable. The absolute freedom of such being is necessary, because this freedom includes the potential to become anything without limit. If anything is made necessary about this being, whether transcendentally or dialectically, then it becomes thinkable and simply another limited object for thought which is thereby not the absolute.

The Godhead is that which both does and does not have being. It is not Being because were it so then its contradiction would become eternally actual. It is existent but not actual – it is potential - and nothing in it could compel it to actualisation (since it is absolute freedom). It is the infinite power to be.

Describing such a concept of unprethinkable being or the Godhead brings about an almost absurd question: What brought the Godhead to revelation? Schelling answers:
if the Godhead assumed Being and actively revealed itself through Being (which we must discern as actually having happened), then the decision for that could only come from the highest freedom. (WA: 74)
Two concepts must be unpacked in this quote. We discern - we recreate in the present - revelation as happening and as having happened. There is decision – a cutting apart of itself. This revealed being is of the Godhead and a part of it, but no longer the Godhead. This is the first moment of revelation of the nature of God.

The first moment is the eternal “No”. The No is an attracting force which draws Being toward it and consequent upon which the Yes or affirmative force is brought forth. Why is the No first? The No is first because it ensures the consequent freedom of God. The first force of God's revelation becomes the ground on which God may act freely.
God is, in accordance with its nature, a consequently, necessarily self-revelatory being (WA: 79)
  • God has a nature – it has a ground from which it acts.
  • God is self-revelatory – the becoming of God reveals itself to itself.
  • This self-revelation is consequent – upon the original cision of the Godhead and the ground which God gives itself.
  • Self-revelation is consequently necessary – the force which draws Being to itself is a necessary ground of Beings revelation.
There is no revelation without ground. The alternative to this would be the free affirmative prior and then consequently the negatively determined. This Schelling describes as “incomprehensible” (WA: 12) The traditional Christian concept of God as having all the predicates of perfection is a self satisfied stasis in which no development is possible. Such a God can only spit out copies and real creation is unthinkable.

What is interesting is the language that Schelling uses to describe the first force of God: dark, primordial, blind.
In accord with its ground, therefore, nature comes out of what is blind, dark and unspeakable in God. Nature is the first, the beginning of what is necessary in God. The attracting force, the mother and receptacle (WA: 21)
It is also fascinating that God is not originarily good.
God himself moved only in accordance with his nature and not in accordance with his heart or in accordance with love (Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (subsequently FS): 55-6)
Freedom depends upon the dark force as its ground. The Yes comes in response to the No and Love subordinates the chaos which is primordial and necessary in God.

The tension of the forces brings about the systole and diastole of life. This is the living tension through which beings are maintained. The intensification of the forces is an element of Schelling's work which I need to understand better. In particular, the way in which the positive and negative forces may be intensified through the powers. The former brings the tension of forces into a unity, the latter brings the dissolution of unity and a return to chaos.

The dissolution of unity is important, because no unity can ever be an absolute unity. Only the Godhead has the power to absolutely unify opposing powers and the dissolution of the tension of potencies in any being would be its death. Thus, the unification of the dark force in any being is not the end of that force. It is, as Schelling describes it, the sublimation of that force. As sublimated the dark force lies within order and:
the unruly lies ever in the depths as though it might break through, and order and form nowhere appear to have been original, but it seems as though what had initially been unruly had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible basis of reality in things, the irreducible remainder which cannot be resolved into reason but always remains in the depths (FS: 34)
This is order from chaos, always with the possibility of a return of the sublimated forces and a return to chaos. It is this element of Schelling's work that I'm writing on now in relation to autopeosis.

“The Asymmetry of Being” – A reflection on The End of Time by Julian Barbour (1999) and the wider importance of (mainly) Leibnizian ideas in modern physics.

Posted by | peter | 18.12.12 | 1 Comment

In this evocative book Barbour proposes a speculative physics of the All - and inspired by hidden elements within Einstein’s equations (first hinted at by Dirac: “This result has led me to doubt how fundamental the four dimensional requirement in physics is” (pg2)) proposes that the next revolution in physics is that: reality is timeless. From here, and drawing on the history of thought surrounding and leading up to the relativity revolution – Leibniz, Mach and others – Barbour sketches out an alternative framework of physics. Rather than being embedded in an absolute Newtonian space and time, he argues that reality is instead a vast configuration space of all the possible states of the universe called “Platonia”.
Platonia is a timeless landscape of Escher-like proportions; vast with an incomprehensible amount of dimensions – corresponding to the degrees of freedom of all the particles in the universe considered as a system (see fig1 below – pg56). The landscape borders nothingness and opens up from an apex point called Alpha from which it unfolds infinitely. Its infinite plain is composed of infinite points, like grains of sand, each one represents the entire state of the universe at a particular instant of time, what Barbour calls a “NOW'. Each NOW corresponds to the position of everything in the universe at one moment, and all this information is reduced to a solitary point in state space – they are “worlds unto themselves” (pg45). And these are strewn amongst countless others in this gigantic configuration space. What we think of as history equates to paths in Platonia – but in reality these are not joined up threads since each world is a complete picture at one distinct NOW. The paths comprised of these distinct and separate NOWs only begin after the alpha or apex of the configuration space – beyond this there is nothing. Alpha marks the edge of possibility – the point or region of possibility at which all particles in the universe coincide in their positions (pg42). Beyond this there is no possible other configurations and hence nothingness. Barbour calls this the “asymmetry of being” (pg320) since Platonia unfolds from this region into all other possible configurations and this unfolding is infinite since “there is no limit to the size or complexity of things that can exist […there is…] no omega” (pg46).
Barbour uses a toy universe he calls “Triangle land” to pedagogically explain the difference between the standard Newtonian way of doing physics and his proposed physics of the All. Triangle land is the configuration space of a three particle system (with each snapshot of the whole system corresponding to a triangle of a particular shape). Standard Newtonian ways of viewing this system would be to treat each particle as different and show the system like so (apologises for the shocking diagram – see pg84 for much better versions)…
Here, time is represented by the vertical axis, whereas the horizontal axes represent the positions of the three particles, A, B, and C, in space. The thick solid lines represent the worldlines of the three particles respectively. The thin lines represent the triangular shapes traced out by the system as the whole (three have been highlighted: 1, 2, and 3).
Barbour follows a Leibnizian and Machian approach to space and time and wants to eliminate the idea of a necessary external container or framework. Instead, space must be thought of as the totality of the positions of all things. As such, rather than tracing out all the individual worldlines, Triangle land is the configuration space of all possible triangle shapes formed by the particles taken together. I have recreated Barbour’s visualisation of this below (see pg73, 77, and 85 for the originals) – again apologises for the roughness.
This diagram corresponds to the entire topological space of all possible triangles that could be formed by the three particle toy universe. Instead, of an external absolute space, space is entirely composed of the relative positions of the particles, and the triangle-shapes that these relations form. The three boundaries equate to triangles where the angles have become zero (so that all the particles are on one line), the dotted lines represent isosceles triangle state systems and the centre point is an equilateral triangle. Each point in the above diagram corresponds to a triangle formed by the three particles A, B, and C (i.e. one of the states labelled 1, 2, and 3 in Fig2). I have traced out what the history of the system as a whole (as a series of triangles) as the S-shaped path of in the shape space of Triangle land – please note this is there for demonstrative purposes only and does not correspond to the history of Fig2. For proper correspondence please see the originals on the pages cited above.
            Barbour states that Platonia is one of two key concepts in the book (pg208). And we can understand it as a vastly more complicated configuration space than the three particle shape space of triangle land that I have briefly described. To give us an insight into quite how much more stupendously vast, Barbour states that the configuration space of a cloud chamber is 3 x 1027 (3 degrees of freedom for 1027 particles – see pg290 for more details). The other key concept is a static quantum mechanical wave equation of the entire universe (henceforth ψ). Barbour draws on the work of Born, Schrodinger, the Wheeler-DeWitt equation and Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation to elaborate how this will work practically, but ultimately admits that he cannot back this up with equations and he has to stick to speculation. The way ψ works is colourfully imagined as a mist that covers the rugged landscape of Platonia and determines which possible states of the entire universe are realised by the intensity of the mist at these various points. This corresponds to a probability distribution which is affected by the landscape of Platonia itself – like one of Stuart Kauffman’s fitness landscapes in reverse: imagine water poured onto a ragged landscape, it will pool in the deeper ravines and avoid the higher plateaus. Thus, in Platonia, these ravines, or attractors, which are highly ordered special structures (such as this instant NOW in which you are experiencing and reading this sentence) cause themselves to be more probable than other states. This quality is extremely important since Platonia, as the configuration space of all possible worlds, contains vastly more state spaces that are highly unordered than those that are. The difference is unimaginable – states that relate to universes with order are equivalent to a vanishingly small candle in abyssal darkness where order is either rare or non-existent. If it were not for this selective pressure or mechanism orchestrated by the very structure of Platonia of itself, then no higher order structure would be realised considering the gigantic probability gulf favouring chaos.
            In this respect, Barbour follows both Kauffman and Penrose in stating that there must be some mechanism for realising order when chaos seems so much more probable. Penrose has focused on the extremely unlikely initial conditions of the universe and he calculates this as the perplexingly astronomical 1010100 (see either The Emperor’s New Mind ch.7 “How special was the Big Bang?” or The Road to Reality ch27.13). Stewart and Cohen, in an interview for Collapse, have criticised this calculation for the anthropic tendencies it leads to; they state that there are other viable initial conditions with subsequently different physical outcomes – but this does not overly detract from the central point that chaos vastly outweighs order in the scheme of Platonia. Furthermore, since we are following Barbour’s exposition, it is the fact that the universe itself is fine tuning – by having each point in configuration space, or each grain of sand, resonate with each other (pg255) – and this avoids any unnecessary fideism. I.e. the parts resonate with each other in the probability distribution and this draws ψ towards the richer structure creating a “perfect, circle-closing rational explanation for all the relative probabilities” – the paths through Platonia that equate to our universe (ibid). This is similar to the work of Kauffman, along with Smolin, who also explore the notion that the universe is able self-organise itself (see Investigations ch10 for more details). At this juncture, I would like to make two observations: 1. Fideism and possibility of science; 2. Leibnizian roots.
1. On the subject of fideism, fine-tuning and the possibility of science; it is noteworthy that J.H. Spencer has recently written about the necessity of having faith in the rationality of the universe in order that scientific investigation is possible (The Eternal Law 2012, pg17). This, and other similar arguments, about the limits of reason and having ultimately needing to have faith in reason were succinctly paraphrased by a Christian I once spoke to at a wedding: “reason can take you 95% of the way, but the last bit has to be faith”. This last statement is perhaps a rather extreme version of this view, but it captures the sentiment well and also expresses what I think undermines scientific activity. The undermining arises from the fact that science can dig and dig away at enquiring into nature, but ultimately it must have faith. Kant, in the introduction to The Critique of Judgement called this “the principle of purposiveness”: scientific investigation is possible insofar as the universe has been made amenable to its investigation. Now, this seems a reasonable postulate: nature is systematic and unified, and the incredible success of science, especially physics and its use of mathematical beauty in the discovery of the laws of nature, definitely testify to something wonderful going on in nature. But, this does not mean that nature is rational for us. This view falls right into an anthropic and narrow minded way of thinking. It models our way of thinking and then naively projects it onto reality. Furthermore, as a principle, it relies on a  non-sequitur between [a] “judgement of nature is possible” to [b] “nature is purposive for our judgement”. We can deny statement [b] without violating any principles of logic and this reduces a degree of fideism attached to this issue. But furthermore, we do not even have to accept statement [a] in its brute form. Now, at this juncture J.H. Spencer would classify this line of thought as insane, and I assume he would put me in with Smolin when he says that “he really should know better” (2012 pg18) for even considering this line of enquiry. But this rather harsh and derogatory critique relies on two mistakes. Firstly, J. D. Mcfarland (Kant’s Concept of Teleology, 1970 see especially pg86-87) identifies that the principle of purposiveness can be split into two versions: 

Strong – the affirmation that nature is amenable to judgement and is purposive in this respect.

Weak – the non-rejection that judgement of, or the applying logic to, nature is possible.

From this we can see that the strong version need not be affirmed as a condition for the possibility of science – i.e. it is not necessary to applying logic to affirm that it can be applied to nature; instead, it is only necessary that a similar assumption not be denied before attempting to apply logic to nature. McFarland gives a pertinent example to clarify this:

“Someone could say, ‘I am going to see whether I can systematise this body of data’, without positively assuming that it can be systematised, although he could not sensibly make the attempt while denying the truth of the statement.”   

As such, the principle of purposiveness does not equate to a necessary principle and is merely regulative for science insofar as it is a tacit background non-rejection of the principle that science is actually possible.
            Secondly, to use the language of I.H. Grant, science is an ungrounded and an ungrounding activity. It has no definitive roots. This can best be seen by the fact that there is no actual scientific method. There is only a loose set of principles and observations and guesses and rules of thumb and a good measure of awe and scepticism (as Carl Sagan would say). This rickety raft has no real absolute foundations, and this is reflected in the negative usage of a reflective principle that McFarland devises, rather than a fideistic and anthropic standard reading. The latter is homely, the former accepts the abyssal nature at the foundations of our knowledge and does not try to shore it up with faith. Rather it continues to dig, not knowing what it will find. Maybe the laws of nature aren’t necessary, let’s test it and find out. Experiment ultimately determines science. And this view cannot be immediately overhauled by stating that if the laws of nature aren't necessary then they’d be changing all the time (Spencer 2012 pg19). Quentin Meillassoux calls this “frequentialist implication” (After Finitude, 2008 pg94):

“If the laws of nature could actually change without reason – i.e. if they were not necessary – they would frequently change for no reason.”

Following Vernes, Meillassoux identifies that the link between a lack of necessity and a frequency of change is based upon “probabilistic reasoning” and this leads to a fallacy we can call “meta-stability”. Let us suppose the probability of the laws of nature remaining unchanged without reason is analogous to one side on a million sided dice. From this it would appear that the odds of the same event succeeding another with regularity becomes infinitesimally small and therefore that we have ceded the argument to J. H. Spencer and others. But this analogy requires, for its repetition, that the situational framework (in this example, the number of dice sides) remains stable/constant so that the event has an equal chance each time. But this begs the question of stability that we are trying to answer because it places it within a meta-stable framework. Probabilistic reasoning requires a meta-stability within which to ask the question of stability and if this removed in any attempt of refutation it occurs at another level (e.g. a meta-meta-stability). It therefore not only begs the question but also leads to an infinite regress. This suggest that chance is perhaps an inadequate way of thinking about a universe without permanent laws – and also without laws governing this impermanence as well.
Unfortunately, although Meillassoux raises this argument, as well as others, in defence of non-necessary laws of nature, they are of a negative nature since they only deflect prima facie rejections against the notion. To make his case convincingly, a positive case must be made for contingent laws of nature. As yet, he has not done so.
We shall leave this issue at this juncture since I am ambivalent as to whether there are eternal laws or not for nature. My central concern is to prevent fideism from undermining science as a free and sceptical attitude. And, despite my objections to emphasis J.H. Spencer places on faith, I think his recent book examining the Platonic foundations of quantum mechanics and modern physics is fantastic and a must read for anyone interested in philosophy and the nature of reality.  
2. The second main thread I wish to draw is that all these modern considerations have a common philosophical origin in Leibniz – Barbour explicitly states his influence through a series of excellent quotes which he says best captures the spirit of Leibnizian philosophy (if not the exact letter). Barbour interprets Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” as maximal variety with the most possible order – he has written a number of other papers on this very issue (some co-authored with Smolin) – so that best equates to order. And considering that the majority of the “monstrously multidimensional configuration space” of Platonia is chaos (pg289-291), order – or what Barbour calls “rich structure” – can definitely be considered the best for its curious and special nature (since it is not chaos). Barbour adds that our anthropocentric and evolved familiarity with this specialness blinds us from its rarity (pg289). He writes that of the all the possibles, which must be, since Platonia is the configuration space of everything that is logically possible, “we are answers to the question what of can be maximally sensitive to the totality of what is possible” (pg325). And the instant, the NOW that we experience is expressible through a combination of Leibniz’s Monadology and the Pythagorean notion of the music of the spheres: “You are the music of the spheres heard from a particular vantage point that is you” (pg326). This beautiful sentiment is all the more important considering that Barbour sees “Leibnizian ideas [as the] only genuine alternative to Cartesian-Newtonian materialism” (pg240) because of [a] its emphasis on structure and [b] the Principle of the identity of indiscernibles (henceforth PII). These two considerations are both intriguing, since [a] an emphasis on structure has recently been proposed by J. Worrall (Structural Realism: The Best of Both Worlds, 1989) as a way of solving the impasse between the problem of theory change and the no miracles argument in the realism/anti-realism debate. This view, which Worrall calls Structural Realism avoids the problem of ontological discontinuity caused by paradigm shifts by placing the emphasis on the structural content of theories – in which there is a definite accumulation of knowledge. How Worrall’s view is cashed out is still a matter of debate: either as a neo-Kantian epistemic limitation view or as an ontological view that borders on Platonism and Pythagorean thinking (the physicist Max Tegmark is the most explicit in acknowledging this). Either way, Leibniz’s views and thoughts are bound to helpful or as Barbour puts it “suggestive” for this line of thinking. And this can be seen straight away by considering [b].
The role of PII has been found somewhat wanting at the level of the quantum particle. In a seminal paper, S. French and M. Redhead (Quantum Physics and the Identity of Indiscernibles, 1988) demonstrate that quantum particles defy PII. Various other thinkers have attempted to resolve this problem with various other identity principles but this has just further complicated matters (see S. French and J. Ladyman In Defence of Ontic Structural Realism, 2011 pg29 for a good short overview of this) and ultimately leads some to propose that our metaphysical categories should be reconceptualised. On this view, it is not that PII is wrong, but rather that it doesn’t apply to quantum particles. But if it doesn’t apply to quantum particles, does it apply to our universe at all? I believe that the answer is yes, each of the points in Platonia is a different possible configuration of the whole universe, as such, each possible state of the universe as a whole satisfies PII and it holds at a cosmological scale. I find this truly fascinating. It means that every moment, every instant, is truly astonishing and special in a way that our anthropocentric everydayness – to follow Heidegger – hides. I think an excerpt from Rilke’s Ninth Elegy best captures the sentiments that Barbour’s Platonia evokes for me:

“Once for each thing.  Just once; no more.  And we too,
just once.  And never again.  But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.”

Although I have repeatedly derided anthropocentric thinking throughout this essay, I am aware that how we conceive of the universe affects us. My immediate thoughts on the subject of ethics and existentialism turn to Nietzsche's "eternal return" thought experiment and Camus discussion of how we must imagine a defiant Sisyphus happy. Barbour uses the epilogue to tackle some prima facie reflections on the notion that there is no time, only a vast and unending scattering of possible worlds of which we experiencing one of the vanishingly rare ordered ones:
Firstly, everything is eternal and yet nothing moves. What we think of as the past is just a different possible world. Therefore, the me that writes this sentence NOW, is in a different possible world to the me that will re-read and edit it.
Secondly, Barbour’s version of the many worlds theory has a profound effect on causality. Causality has been under serious challenge since Hume, and although he has in certain ways been rebutted, it has never successfully been put in the clear. In the many worlds interpretation, debates about freedom seem to go by the by, since you (or at least versions of you) do all possible things that could conceivably happen – including the extremely unlikely and incredibly unpleasant event of you turning spontaneously into an oversized duck (additionally, S. Harri’s notion of a “moral landscape” of all possible moral worlds – from heaven to hell – are intrinsically contained within Platonia by its very nature). This does through a huge spanner in the works for identity theories of human beings. Furthermore, causation cannot be said to manifest itself in the way that we have evolved to of expect it to. If time is an illusion, then so is motion, and subsequently so is any straightforward notion of causation. Again Leibniz helps us to consider this problem. Each possible state of the entire universe envisioned as a point in Platonia, or as a grain of sand on incredibly vast beach is separate from all the others, they are each a totality, and contain everything they need and are. This matches onto Leibniz’s notion of a monad. Barbour argues that between these monadic-like grains of sand, or NOWS there is

“…a timeless beauty contest to win the highest probability. The ability of each NOW to ‘resonate’ with the other NOWS is what counts. Its chance to exist is determined by what it is in itself. The structure of things is the determining power [i.e. causality] in a timeless world.” (pg325)

The notion of reality as a dynamical structure also ties in with the ontological interpretation of structural realism mentioned above.
            Thirdly, and finally, Penrose has objected to the many world interpretation by asking why it is that we only see one universe and we don’t see the multiverse. Barbour’s Leibnizian answer to this is that we are the universe as seen from a particular: “We are all part of one another, and we are each just the totality of things seen from our own viewpoint” (pg329). 'Trapped', seems the wrong word, perhaps ‘Frozen’ is better, but that is what we are, and a god’s eye view of Platonia would be able to see not a series, but a cloud or bifurcating tubes of similar (near in state space) versions of us at each separate possible world forming paths across this misty landscape. An evolution explanation suffices to some extent – perception is not about seeing reality as it really is, it is about seeing nature insofar as it useful for survival. But since what is is dependent upon how it resonates with everything else this means that the evolved framework of perception must contain this totality: that which is in sense but cannot itself be sensed - “that by which the given is given” to quote Deleuze (Difference and Repetition, 1994). So in a way we are aware of the vastness of reality beyond our parochial view – and although we may struggle to comprehend or think about it rationally – mathematics has allowed us to explore this and thus we can have a speculative physics of the all.