POSTACTIVISM

Image result for Bayo Akomolafe

The world that the climate activist hopes to save kills him. Dismantles him. Tears him apart. Diffracts him so that what was once quintessential is now spread abroad. Things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.

Instead of an independent agent – the vaunted unit of social change whose intentions and motivations and exhaustions are the engine room of world change – surrounded by the paraphernalia of her vocation, we must now turn our attention to the whole assemblage and what this organization of bodies is doing. The climate activist is no longer the human separate from the furniture of activism, but the ‘human’ and the materials: the computer screens, the concepts, the classifications, the categories of thought, and the city in its subjectivizing effects. As such, the classical self is decentred as the focus of our attention and prayers; social change is not predicated on the unilateral moves of the human self, but on assemblages breaking through (deterritorializing and reterritorializing) other assemblages. Continue reading “POSTACTIVISM”

THE FALSE MIND-MATTER DICHOTOMY

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The notion of a dichotomy between mind and matter arises from language. In order to speak of the substrate of experience we must give it a name, such as “mind” or “consciousness,” thereby linguistically objectifying the subject. Then, we conflate language with what language attempts to describe, implicitly assuming that mind is an object just as matter allegedly is. We forget that there is no epistemic symmetry between the two.

Indeed, because the concept of mind-independent matter, as an explanatory abstraction, arises in mind, as an “excitation” of mind, to say that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is akin to saying that ripples and water constitute a dichotomy. Dichotomies can exist only between different kinds of ripples – say, those that flow mostly to the right versus those that flow mostly to the left – not between ripples and the substrate where they ripple. Mind is the substrate of the explanatory abstraction we call matter, so when we speak of a mind-matter dichotomy we fall into a fundamental category mistake.

The notion that idealism and materialism are mirror images of each other arises from a failure to grasp this point. Lucid contemplation of these ontologies shows that idealism attempts to reduce an explanatory abstraction (physically objective matter) to that which articulates and hosts the abstraction in the first place (mind). This is prima facie eminently reasonable. Materialism, in turn, attempts to reduce mind to mind’s own explanatory abstractions, an obvious paradox that constitutes the crux of the “hard problem.”

There would be no “hard problem” if one did not conflate explanatory abstractions with concrete ontological primitives, if one did not attempt to paradoxically reduce mind to abstractions of mind. The “hard problem” is not something empirically observed but the salient result of internal contradictions in a logico-conceptual schema.

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The pervasive but unexamined assumption that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is an error arising from language artefacts. Members of dichotomies must be epistemically symmetrical and, therefore, reside in the same level of abstraction. Physically objective matter – as an explanatory model – is an abstraction of mind. We do not know matter in the same way that we know mind, for matter is an inference and mind a given. This breaks the epistemic symmetry between the two and implies that materialism and idealism cannot be mirror images of each other.

Failure to recognize that different levels of epistemic confidence are intrinsic to different levels of explanatory abstraction lies at the root not only of the false mind-matter dichotomy, but also of attempts to make sense of the world through increasingly ungrounded explanatory abstractions. Lest we conflate science and philosophy with hollow language games, we must never lose sight of the difference between an abstract inference and a direct observation. Keeping this distinction in mind allows us to construct useful predictive models of nature’s behaviour – which ultimately is what science is meant to do – without restrictive and ultimately fallacious inferences about what nature is. This, in turn, liberates us from thought artefacts such as the “hard problem of consciousness” and opens up whole new avenues for making sense of self and world.

Kastrup, Bernardo., 2018. Conflating abstraction with empirical observation: The false mind-matter dichotomy.

THE BLIND SPOT

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers. 

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate. 

So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.

Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.

The fields of complex systems theory and network science add mathematical precision to these claims by focusing on wholes rather than the reduction to parts. Complex systems theory is the study of systems, such as the brain, living organisms or the Earth’s global climate, whose behaviour is difficult to model: how the system responds depends on its state and context. Such systems exhibit self-organisation, spontaneous pattern-formation and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (very small changes to the initial conditions can lead to widely different outcomes).

Network science analyses complex systems by modelling their elements as nodes, and the connections between them as links. It explains behaviour in terms of network topologies – the arrangements of nodes and connections – and global dynamics, rather than in terms of local interactions at the micro level.

Inspired by these perspectives, we propose an alternative vision that seeks to move beyond the Blind Spot. Our experience and what we call ‘reality’ are inextricable. Scientific knowledge is a self-correcting narrative made from the world and our experience of it evolving together. Science and its most challenging problems can be reframed once we appreciate this entanglement.

Let’s return to the problem we started with, the question of time and the existence of a First Cause. Many religions have addressed the notion of a First Cause in their mythic creation narratives. To explain where everything comes from and how it originates, they assume the existence of an absolute power or deity that transcends the confines of space and time. With few exceptions, God or gods create from without to give rise to what is within.

Unlike myth, however, science is constrained by its conceptual framework to function along a causal chain of events. The First Cause is a clear rupture of such causation – as Buddhist philosophers pointed out long ago in their arguments against the Hindu theistic position that there must be a first divine cause. How could there be a cause that was not itself an effect of some other cause? The idea of a First Cause, like the idea of a perfectly objective reality, is fundamentally theological.

These examples suggest that ‘time’ will always have a human dimension. The best we can aim for is to construct a scientific cosmological account that is consistent with what we can measure and know of the Universe from inside. The account can’t ever be a final or complete description of cosmic history. Rather, it must be an ongoing, self-correcting narrative. ‘Time’ is the backbone of this narrative; our lived experience of time is necessary to make the narrative meaningful. With this insight, it seems it’s the physicist’s time that is secondary; it’s merely a tool to describe the changes we’re able to observe and measure in the natural world. The time of the physicist, then, depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time.

We can now appreciate the deeper significance of our three scientific conundrums – the nature of matter, consciousness and time. They all point back to the Blind Spot and the need to reframe how we think about science. When we try to understand reality by focusing only on physical things outside of us, we lose sight of the experiences they point back to. The deepest puzzles can’t be solved in purely physical terms, because they all involve the unavoidable presence of experience in the equation. There’s no way to render ‘reality’ apart from experience, because the two are always intertwined.

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge. It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture, in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as a source of nature’s self-understanding. We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson