Review: Deacon “Incomplete Nature”

The book here is 6 years old but only recently reviewed by me. Somehow it escaped my attention until now. This is one of those books that no short review could do justice. I said so much in the review, but I will stand for now on what I wrote in it albeit I emphasize that it is summary, oversimplified, and confusing because terms like “teleodynamic” are not defined (in the review) not to mention a half dozen other terms that Deacon creates for the sake of necessary abstractions with which to continue the narrative. In the book, every one of these new terms is carefully explained, defined, and justified.

In this commentary, I’m not going to expand on or further clarify the review but rather say something about what “isn’t there”, something I think Dr. Deacon will appreciate. In “Singular Universe and the Reality of Time” the authors build a case that amounts to saying what is important about the way the universe turned out is the particular historical path followed by its events. At different points of the universe’s history different things might have happened, but what should be informing present science, theories about origins and destinies, is what actually happened. The material world is contingent; things might have happened otherwise, but they happened to happen the way they did and that way was not only perfectly compatible with the regularities of physics but just as likely to have happened as any other outcome compatible with those regularities. The question of why things went one way rather than another can be asked, but not answered (if even then) until after the fact.

This view is perfectly compatible with Deacon’s account of the rise of life and consciousness but Deacon emphasizes what Unger and Smolin leave out. As goes life and mind what didn’t happen, that is what was excluded and made impossible (or improbable) by what did happen, is the real key to understanding how the particular path that is history came out as it did. As in “Singular Universe”, from any given temporal viewpoint, we can no more predict what exactly will be excluded in the future than we can predict what will happen. Why certain possible histories were precluded can, again, be answered only after the fact. While this viewpoint may make it possible to more fully understand the relation between basic physics, the origin of life, and the nature (and causal efficacy) of consciousness (a case Deacon makes well), it doesn’t in the slightest demonstrate that the path actually taken was accidental.

Since historical outcomes (and exclusions) were just as possible as alternatives that “might have been”, if in fact such outcomes were not literally accidental, there would be no way to tell. To put it another way, if God wanted to make physics do the maximum possible work (sans intervention) to result in life and consciousness, the possibility of this pathway, this set of exclusions (emergent constraints resulting in emergent attractors), perfectly lawful and equally likely, would be the very sort of process involved. Because the information bearing nature of the final outcome is the result of possibilities subtracted away from the infinite possibilities present at earlier stages it stands out only after the fact. Rather than there being no evidence for teleology added up-front, there couldn’t be (evidence) by presupposition because what happened was always one possibility among others.

Deacon is a materialist and insists that his theory at least suggests how life and consciousness could arise out of nothing more than the regularities of physics. He insists that his theory explains these phenomena without resort to anything but physics and he is right, in a way it does. But the theory relies on the fact that the “telos” of the physical process appears only after-the-fact and that renders anything non-accidental (provided it does not violate the regularities of physics) occurring before-the-fact completely invisible.

But perhaps this is a superficial criticism. It can be applied to any purely physical theory whatsoever. Deacon has a bigger problem. Truly an absence, a hole for example, is not a material thing; neither substance nor process. So we have an easy route from physics to non-materiality. It is less clear how absences are causes, formal or efficient (the two levels Deacon relies upon). Surely they can contribute to efficient causes (contributory cause) by being one of a combination of circumstances that together are a cause. They can also be a component of formal causes, of the form of a thing that determines its causal efficacy. But I cannot think of an example where absence qua absence is the sole, single, cause of anything efficient or formal.

Further, consciousness, at least as I experience it, while it might emerge as a result of constraints resulting in an important non-material absence, an attractor (surely these do have a role to play) in association with other causes, is not itself an absence, but a positive; a presence. It is the most present phenomenon to my experience because it is my experience, my subjective perspective. But nowhere in Deacon’s book does he manage to explain how a causally efficacious non-material presence (not absence) emerges. This is merely another way of saying “the way our experience is and not some other way”, but either way you phrase it, Deacon doesn’t arrive at it. In Deacon’s view, consciousness has to emerge from a constraint that emerges in an attractor. But attractors are empty, while consciousness, that is subjectivity, is not.

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2011)

This is a great book! For years now I’ve read books by scientists and philosophers addressing the origins of life and consciousness. Many often point to “self organizing” phenomena in the universe (a simple example, simmering water in a pot organizing itself into columns of bubbles, or the way in which water flow in a chaotic rapid can here and there form stable whirlpools) and claim that life’s origin, and eventually even consciousness, are nothing more than complex examples of this process. But none of them make the attempt to cross the divide between these simple regularities and the far more complex nature of life and mind.

In this long book Dr. Deacon uses every page to meticulously build argument upon argument and example upon example in an effort to show exactly how this might be possible both for life and consciousness. His key insight, carefully crafted and expanded all the way along the narrative, is that it isn’t what is present in any particular material organization that matters, but rather what is absent; what the structure of any given complexifying phenomenon constrains away. It isn’t what happens that matters so much as what the evolving structures (structure here should be understood as both stuff and process) prevent from happening. To take a simple and non-dynamical example, a house functions as a home not because it has a certain structure but because that structure precludes it being something else, a boat, a bridge, or a pile of rubble.

Deacon begins by setting a very high bar. He insists that any theory of life and its origins respect its extraordinary complexity and the near impossibility of the dynamic relations between its parts falling together accidentally. Similarly with consciousness he insists that any theory of mind takes into account its patently dualistic nature and causal efficacy. Mind cannot be illusory or epiphenomenal. Life and mind are both teleological (purposeful, end-directed) by nature and he insists that the appearance of teleology in life and mind be accommodated in any theory of its origins and functions. But he also insists that all of this be accounted for by the laws of physics and in particular, the second law of thermodynamics. He spends a chapter explicating and rejecting a generalized theory of homunculi, that is solutions requiring anything, structure, process, or information, imposed from the outside. Somehow, we have to get from physics to mind while recognizing that mind is not physics. Instead, in his view, the solution amounts to a foreground/background reversal. It isn’t the physical stuff or process that results in life or mind, but rather what physical evolution (non-living, then living, then mental) constrains out of possibility.

Deacon carefully crafts his argument focusing on the physical concept of work and the logic of attractors. In physics, work is possible only when there is a thermodynamic gradient. In unbounded (having no formal boundary like a cell wall) physical dynamics, thermodynamic gradients, under the right conditions, can become morphodynamic; taking on a shape (the self-organizing process) that serves to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic dissipation. But in bounded systems (in the first instance boundaries formed by natural conditions having nothing to do with life) a new type of dynamic becomes possible, one that reduces dissipation internally in exchange for increased dissipation between the bounded system an the outside. This is the beginning of teleodynamic organization. He is careful to note that “telos” here is not something imposed from the outside, but rather the appearance of end-directedness stemming from the emergence of the constraints against dissipation on the inside. Once a teleodynamic emerges, other teleodynamic constraints can emerge from it compounding constraint upon constraint which, when viewed after the fact, amount to a compounding of information.

This then is the core of his theory which he then traces up from proto-life to life and from life, via Darwinian evolution (which never adds information, but rather selects out information emerging in compounded teleodynamics relevant to the [then] present environment) to mind. In each step it isn’t what happens or what exists that matters so much as what is progressively constrained or prevented from happening. I want to emphasize that this statement is a highly simplified summary of Deacon’s far more complex but clearly enunciated argument. In the end, mind has causal efficacy because it is itself a hole, an attractor, and by disturbing the metaphorical shape of its own attractor (constraint on constraint on constraint) affects the underlying (metaphorical) shape of the attractors (now neurological) that support it.

This is a book to which no short review can do justice. It is well argued and written for a general audience with a basic grasp of physical principles. Readers with a grasp of high school physics will do fine. But does he succeed? In his last chapter he notes that even the emergence of human social systems, government, economics, even values, amount to further constraints that operate to reduce entropic dissipation in the social system that bounds them. All of this makes perfect sense in the context of his fundamental insight, but he never explains why it all should come out as the experience of subjectivity that we have and not something else with equal capacity to dynamically constrain. This however is not a shortcoming in the basic argument. The emergence of all these constraints (and thus the attractors they manifest) can only be recognized after the fact. Before the fact there are always other possibilities. In short, Deacon goes farther than anyone else in crafting a pathway leading from physics to mind.

Review: Two by Harman

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Graham Harman is the third of the three “New Realists”, a group that consists also of Maurizio Ferraris and Quentin Meillassoux. The links will take you to their individual reviews. Each differs from the others in significant ways. What they seem to have in common are roots in continental antirealism and yet discover that they can say something positive, something we can know, about the world beyond the horizon of human experience. Meillassoux and Harman claim to be doing speculation (hence “speculative realism”) and not metaphysics, but their speculations are clearly on metaphysical themes. Of the three, Ferraris is the most straightforward and commonsensical (hence his “commonsense realism”).

In “Personal Agency” (2006) E. J. Lowe anticipates Harman. For Lowe all cause is “agent cause” though not all agents are animate. Humans and animals are agents of course, but so are rocks, hurricanes, and fires. Agent-cause seems to be an entailment of Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, an entailment he alludes to in the first book reviewed below. He says that causal efficacy is associated in the end with being itself, that it is the being that withdraws from us, the being of the object that interacts causally with other being, other objects. This seems to me not only compatible with Lowe but provides speculative metaphysical support for it.

Towards Speculative Realism: Essays & Lectures (Kindle Edition 2010)

Harman is one of a small school of contemporary philosophers (including Meillassoux and Ferraris) who are both continentals (in Harman’s case in style only as he is an American) and broadly consider themselves “realists”, something out of fashion in continental philosophy since Kant. But despite this loose grouping into a “new realist” school, all three of these philosophers are very different. Harman calls his own variation “Object Oriented Ontology” and this book traces the evolution of Harman’s thought into OOO from 1997 as an expert Heidegger interpreter to a brief statement of his thought on the subject in 2009, the date of the last essay in the book.

The book is therefore mostly of historical interest as concerns the development of OOO from Hurserl’s phenomenology, Heidegger’s tool-being, and Whitehead’s process philosophy to a full fledged metaphysics of objects. While we see this thought-development in action here we never get more than pieces of the fully fleshed out OOO even in the last essays of the book. Essentially Harman states his position not in a positive way for itself, but as contrasted with contemporaries (like DeLanda, Deleuze, and Latour). The book makes clear the contributions of this lineage to Harman’s own thought (especially the “assemblage theory” of Latour and DeLanda) and I suppose that is its purpose after all. For me, Harman’s OOO seems like more of a starting point than a finished ontological system, but then as noted above, Harman never does give us a fully elaborated ontology in this book. All in all the whole text strikes me as an answer to the question “why do ontology” rather than the ontology itself.

As E. J. Lowe pointed out in “The Possibility of Metaphysics” and “The Four Category Ontology”, a good ontology can help to clarify the margins of scientific investigation and contextualize the relation between mind and matter, goals also embedded in Harman’s OOO. But while ostensibly “realist” in outcome, Harman’s style (like Meillassoux but unlike Ferraris) is continental antirealist demonstrated by his distinction between “objects” and “intentional objects”. “Speculative realism” is, after all, antirealism speculating about “the real” within and beyond the horizon of experience. But again, perhaps this distinction is only another way-station in the evolution of Harman’s thought.

If you are a Harman fan you should read this book. If you are looking for a concise statement of Object Oriented Ontology there might be a better Harman book or paper out there.

Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory Redux (Kindle Edition 2016)

Immaterialism is a better read than Harman’s “Toward Speculative Realism” which I also reviewed. My own interest in Harman is the result of his inclusion in the “New Realist” school, though all three of its core members (Harman, Ferraris, and Meillassoux) hold very different positions. This book is a clearer though yet only skeletal summary of Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology”. Harman claims not to be a materialist but an immaterialist. If this suggests a view peculiar to Harman, it is.

The book begins with a summary of Object Oriented Ontology in comparison to the earlier “Assemblage Network Theory” of Latour from which Harman evolved it. The book’s second-to-last chapter also comes back to the relation between ANT and OOO. In his last chapter, Harman lists 15 characteristics or principles of OOO. I would like to know if and where he has supported the development of OOO in some more formal way, but as yet I find only statements of its conclusions.

The core of this little book, a somewhat strange choice here though there is method in Harman’s madness, is the history of a corporate entity, the Dutch East India Trading Company shortened, in the book, to its Dutch initials VOC. In OOO everything is an object. Rocks, stars, and individual animals are objects as are chairs and statues, ideas, and also the atoms of which all of these are composed. Parenthetically, like a few other philosophers I’ve read recently, Harman is strangely sloppy with scientific allusions stating repeatedly that “hydrogen is produced in stellar fusion” for example. But back to objects, we also have such things as societies, economies, clubs, along with more fleeting entities like the meeting of a particular board of directors on a certain day. Everything that can be conceived as having any sort of unifying principle (recognized by mind as a “joint in the world” — my interpretation, Harman does not use this phrase though it seems to fit), however enduring or fleeting in time, is an object and all objects are equally real, though not all equally important.

The unequal importance idea is one place Harman’s OOO gets into trouble. Since everything is equally real there isn’t any objective purchase for a hierarchy of importance other than the human/world divide Harman aims to flatten out! OOO wants to reintroduce being to philosophical respectability. We cannot “know being” directly, or for that matter even indirectly, and Harman admits that it is a posit for the sake of understanding, that is making more coherent, what we can know, qualities and properties through which we (also objects) experience. Objects (even inanimate objects), similarly experience us. This is not taken to mean “psychically” in the case of inanimate objects, and the significance of the encounter is not (though it can be) symmetrical. If, skiing, I run into a big tree, the impact has little effect on the tree but could dramatically change the course of my life, possibly even ending it. But being that cannot in principle be known cannot be connected up to its qualities (the connection is always mysterious) and so might or might not exist (be real) at all.

In Immaterialism, Harman is at pains to show how OOO works in the social realm and thus the object of his attention is a corporation, the VOC, technically in business for 193 years from its founding in 1602 to its nationalization in 1795. An amazing history. Such objects obviously have an impact on history, broadly conceived, in every year of their existence, but only some of these impacts rise to awareness in the present day. The same is true of events, and other objects (in the case of the VOC these turn out to be a turning-point document in 1619, the character of certain individuals, and the evolving technology of naval weapons) that impact or redirect this history of the entity. The big events he terms “symbiotic” because while perhaps fleeting objects in themselves (a naval engagement) they end up having a disproportionate effect on the subsequent history of the object under investigation.

Harman traces all of this out through the history of the VOC making the case that the changes which history records presuppose an entity with a being (the VOC) “to which” these things occur and which responds by transforming (over time) in particular ways. What the introduction of being supposedly gives us is the contingency of those transformations. Things happened the way they did, but they need not have happened that way. That there was the potential for something else to have happened seems to be what the “unknowability of the object’s being” gives us. As I’ve said, Harman doesn’t argue for any of this here but only states it and illustrates how it applies to a social construct. The kindest interpretation I can give to Harman here is that the history of a particular social structure gives evidence that there are always latent potentials in a thing that never get realized. Further, beyond potentials, hidden being is not merely hidden because no history ever exposes all its potentials, but because by nature those potentials are infinitely fine, inexhaustible!

My question is does it matter to anything that happens to anything in the universe if OOO is true or false? In OOO, even events are objects and have a being in which their unitarity (as an event) inheres. But exactly the same things happen (qualities interact) and the same infinite latent potentials in objects across time exist whether being itself is real or the object is nothing more than the sum of these. Even if Harman manages, somewhere, to argue properly for OOO, I wonder if it is not something of a Pyrrhic victory. I do not see what accepting it accomplishes; how it enhances our insight into the world of our experience.

Review: Three by Ferraris

I’ve read three books by Dr. Ferraris reviewed here in order of my reading. Of the three the first, “Introduction to New Realism”, was the best read. The second, his “Manifesto of New Realism” is specifically a comparison between New Realism and Antirealism. The third book, “Positive Realism” is an extension of the Manifesto focusing on New Realism itself. Overall I think Ferraris’ work on social systems is the most innovative. I would love to read his “Documentality” which focuses on his social realism, but as yet there is no Kindle version. I’m starting something new with this post. I’ve read and reviewed multiple books by a few authors like Ferraris. Rather than multiply these postings with individual reviews and commentary, I will gather these reviews into a single post (all separate reviews with links to their books included) and comment on all of them as a group — which from a philosophy viewpoint makes sense anyway…

I’ve read books now by all three of the philosophers said to be the core of the “New Realist” school of continental philosophy, Ferraris, Meillassoux, and Harman (Harman an American but continent-ally inclined). I will have to work up an essay comparing the three one of these days, but for now I will say that of the three, Ferraris is the most straightforward and commonsensical. In fact his variation on the school name seems to be “commonsense realism”. He begins with what is apparently real, physical objects of natural and artifactual kinds along with social constructs like economies or nations, and examines those properties that ground their reality in the physical — either substance, process, or both. It turns out, there is always something.

Harman simply goes too far off the object deep end. Everything, even temporary accidental relations (Ted is taller than Fred) is an object equally real. He does not say that they are equally important however, but importance here must not be construed only as “importance to humans”. I think some of what he takes to be features of his theory are distortions that amount to the very selective attention to details of behavior (what effects an object has) or composition (what an object is made from) that his theory (called “Object Oriented Ontology”) eschews. My Harman review is here.

Meillassoux retains the most continental flavor of the three. I have a Meillassoux review (“After Finitude”) up now for my take on him. He is a great example of analysis in a continental vein. Of the three authors he is the only one who ultimately gets to his version of realism (“speculative realism”) from purely continental-antirealist roots.

Introduction to New Realism —

This is a very good read if you are looking for a solid introduction to the New Realism movement in 21st century philosophy. Ferraris is at the very core of that movement which, as with most philosophical movements, also has a few variations.

The book begins with an introduction by Iain H. Grant. It is meant as a survey of a survey, but it seems muddy compared to the text by Ferraris. As it turns out, once you’ve read the text itself, the meanings of the introduction become much clearer and it becomes an excellent introduction to the introduction,

This is the first “continental philosophy” I’ve read in a while. It points to the presently fashionable anti-realism in continental and analytic philosophy stemming all the way from Kant and updated in what is called Correlationism in which the phenomenal and noumenal are at least connected to one degree or another. A recent book, the author refers to cultural phenomena from movies (The Matrix) to YouTube to illustrate some of his points.

Ferraris begins by telling us the world out there is much as we perceive it. What we take to be common sense distinctions, what contemporaries call “joints in the world”, like animals, trees, chairs, statues, stars, and galaxies are all really out there and not superimposed by mind. We perceive the joints! This is not to ignore the discoveries of science, and the present day realization that underneath all of what we perceive is a reality that can only be measured indirectly and inferred. Ferraris says this is real too. Nor does he deny that our minds project additional meaning onto what is perceived. So as concerns physics this is all pretty straight forward, genuinely “common sense” as in “Common Sense Realism”, another name for this movement. The book gets really interesting when the author moves into the social world.

Human institutions like money, marriage, traffic laws, and nations are the product of human minds. They are not “out there” in the universe independent of us. What is real (and here’s where New Realism comes back in) are the documents and recordings that serve now as the ground of these creations. Documents are everything from national constitutions, contracts, menus, and traffic tickets. They can be in any form written or electronic. What’s important is that once the record is made it exists outside of us. Unlike stars and trees of course, the record becomes worthless, just another object, if there is no one who can interpret it apart from its existence as an object. This is where the social and physical sphere differ. The foundation of the social is the recording AND the capacity of mind to interpret it.

Following the text there is an afterword in the form of an essay by Sarah De Sanctis (who is also the translator) and Vincenzo Santarcangelo which compares and contrasts the New New Realism of Ferraris with a variation called Speculative Realism. In this it does a fine job illustrating their common ground and the subtle distinction between them.

In all of this I have to give credit to the translator. Some of the sentence structure is a little less concise than it could be, but I understand that in the original Italian the sentences are much more convoluted. If the introduction is a little muddy, the main text and follow-on essay are very clear and easy to read. This book is, as it says, an introduction, and the author does not try to apply his insight everywhere, but only to cite examples helpful in illustrating the salient features of the core philosophy. Well written, and well translated.

Manifesto of New Realism

First published a few years prior to his “Introduction to New Realism” (2015 — Also reviewed on Amazon) in 2012, this book is cast as a contrast to the dominant philosophical (more properly anti philosophical) movement, Postmodernism, it evolved to critique. New Realism can stand on its own, a more grown-up version of the realism underlying the Enlightenment. Ferraris gives it that emphasis in his later book. In the “Manifesto” he explores New Realism more historically as a response to the increasingly antirealism metaphysics and epistemologies of the 20th century (though first taking root as far back as Kant) leading to mid to late 20th century Postmodernism. He addresses Postmodernism’s metaphysics, epistemology, and their consequences for social philosophy — which includes aesthetics, ethics, and everything else having to do with human beings in a social setting. In part then this book is a critique of both Antirealism and Postmodernism from the New Realism perspective.

As goes metaphysics and epistemology Ferraris argues convincingly that the conclusions of the antirealists (his approach is towards what he calls “constructivism” which is something of a corollary of antirealism) are mostly not true here despite the presence of ambiguous cases. As concerns the social sphere, he grants much more to constructivism, but argues that this tells only half the story, the other half being the ubiquity of documentation, something that, once created by humans, becomes the independent reality underlying the persistent social arena. Constructivism engenders Postmodernism, but in the latter all trust in and reliance on “reality” collapses and philosophy consumes itself in what amounts to a “new nihilism” and even a “new solipsism”. New Realism is a good dash of cold water not only waking the self-contradictory philosopher, while providing a positive but not naive foundation on which to build.

This is a short book and a bit over-priced in my opinion, but that onus lies with the publisher and not the author or Amazon. High priced or not, it is a good book especially for setting a proper context for New Realism in relation to Postmodernism. I liked the newer “Introduction to New Realism” a bit better but there is different material here and the student of Ferraris’ work will certainly want to understand both.

Positive Realism

This book something of an addendum to the author’s “Manifesto of New Realism”. While the former book illustrated New Realism by contrast to Postmodernism, this book moves over to a stand-alone statement of what New Realism stands for on its own beginning with the metaphysical, then moving to the epistemological and the social. As such it stands also as something of an introduction to Ferraris’ “Introduction to New Realism” written somewhat later. There is a little more focus here on New Realism’s approach to art, especially literary fiction, and a final chapter exploring what New Realism has to say about possibility, potentials that aren’t yet real. Cast in the form of a dialog this last chapter ends up being more about the fact that sometimes the line between what is independent of us (of the constructs of our minds) and what is not is sometimes blurred.

This is a short book and thankfully reasonably priced in the Kindle edition. The production is good and the translation clear and smoothly done. Ferraris has a great translator in Maria De Sanctus. Any one of these books would serve as an introduction to New Realism, each covering all the ground but written with a different focus.

Review: N. Rescher “Free Will”

I’ve read two books by Rescher. The first “Process Philosophy: A Survey of Basic Issues” (2000) I did not review for Amazon because there is no Kindle version and I managed to find the complete text as a PDF or online read here. This book inspired my essay “Process, Substance, Time, and Space”. Rescher’s examination of the free will issue, often the gorilla in the room for philosophy of mind, epistemology, and metaphysics, not to mention ethics, is nothing short of thorough and well articulated. Another of my essays “An Epistemological Argument for Free Will” was written prior to my reading Rescher’s “Survey” or “Free Will”. It addresses some of the same issues, but Rescher does a much better job.

In the review I mention Lowe (“Personal Agency” 2006), but I didn’t want to add my own philosophical commentary to a book review. Here I will note again the two works are complimentary. Although Lowe is a substance and Rescher a process ontologist, the compliment arises because Lowe’s focus is metaphysical, while Rescher’s is phenomenological and epistemological. Lowe’s book is directed more towards establishing the metaphysical possibility of free will in a deterministic and/or random (quantum) universe. He looks at causal process and asks what freedom means, what it must accomplish, its “existence criteria” to be called free and willful (purpose directed) in the context of a causal universe. By contrast Rescher gives us an explosion of distinctions in types, kinds, or categories of experience in which we explicitly and directly recognize the freedom and willfulness of our acts. For Lowe it is about what we understand freedom to be, while for Rescher it is about how we experience it. Along the way, Lowe must, perforce, delve into the epistemological, while Rescher only rarely touches on the metaphysical.

Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal, Second Edition (Kindle Edition 2015)

This book has been out on Kindle for over a year and a half now and I am its first reviewer. I suspect this has something to do with its $40 price which is frankly obscene for a Kindle book. My opinion here casts no aspersions on Amazon for it is the book’s publisher who sets the price. This is a particularly greedy publisher especially as it appears that a bit of sloppiness crept into the production here but I will save that at the end.

Sometime ago I reviewed a book on the same subject by Richard Swinburne (“Mind, Brain, and Free Will”) and in that review I said that Swinburne “conceded too much to the determinists.” Having read Rescher now I come away with the conviction that even in my own writings, with a much more expansive view of freedom than Swinburne, I have conceded too much to the determinists!

If this is not the best book I’ve ever read on the subject of free will it is a very close second to that of E. J. Lowe, “Personal Agency” 2006 (it’s a tough call). I was surprised to discover that Lowe is not cited in the book’s bibliography. Lowe’s focus is more metaphysical, the nature of agency, while Rescher aims squarely at the phenomenological, the subjective qualities of free will, but their thought runs in parallel streams detectable throughout the book. Rescher’s arguments are thorough. He spends the first 2/3 of the book making distinctions and investigating what free will would have to be like if it existed. His first and most important distinction is that between metaphysical and moral freedom. He does not mean what either of these terms normally connote. “Moral freedom” for Rescher is commonly addressed by what philosophers call Compatibilism, the notion that an act is done without constraint from outside the actor, like a thief with a gun to your head ordering you to open the safe. For Rescher, moral freedom is simply the freedom to act free from “undue external constraint” whether or not the act has any traditionally moral implications. Metaphysical freedom, by contrast, is the freedom to choose, to make a decision prior to an act, and that such a choice arises from the deliberation, “the thought” (conscious or subconscious, though not unconscious), of the decider. In contemporary philosophy, Compatibilism is a response to the fashionable notion that Rescher’s “metaphysical freedom” is impossible, not supported by physics. Rescher stands the matter on its head and notes that moral freedom, the possibility of a “freedom to act” (in a manner fully compliant with physics, not to mention the limits of one’s biology) depends on having a prior freedom to deliberate (even subconsciously) and choose. Even with a gun to your head you have “metaphysical freedom”. You can deliberate over alternatives like fighting off the thief. That you would not actually succeed, are likely to die, is what revokes your moral freedom, but deliberation, the choice to deliberate, remains available. The choice “in mind”, prior to any final decision to act, is “metaphysical freedom” in Rescher’s sense.

Rescher raises many issues usually addressed in the negative. Besides making important and obviously useful distinctions here, He effectively demolishes many of the challenges to free will like Galen Strawson’s claim that for a decision or act to be free every input to it, including every motive, belief, and inclination of the actor would have to have been both consciously and freely chosen going back to the earliest life of the actor. Rescher also demolishes the notion that one could, in principle, trace the neurological basis of some particular choice or action back indefinitely in the history of the actor, and addresses various interpretations of the infamous Libet experiments. He points out and argues extensively and well that without some stopping point in the thought of the actor not only is there no room for freedom, but consciousness itself becomes pointless. Without eventually referencing thought itself, there is always something that is left out of the description of most human behavior. That such “leaving out” is an inevitable outcome of a purely physical description, is evidence that something genuinely important is being missed.

It is not until the book’s last two chapters that Rescher addresses the metaphysics of “metaphysical freedom” as he understands this. His case here is entirely circumstantial, but convincing nevertheless. He notes explicitly that there can be no empirical demonstration of free will one way or the other. He argues that broadly speaking evolutionary advantage accrues to animals the more they have the power to choose and revoke choice in thought prior to acting. Mind and brain exist together in lock-step such that there is never a “mental eventuation” without there being some correlative brain activity. The mental is not causal in the traditional sense but “initiating”. Exactly what the difference is here is not really explained but at least one difference is initiation’s lack of temporal precedence. At no time is there a mental eventuation (there is a distinction Rescher makes between “events” and “eventuations”) without a corresponding brain activity. Rescher is, in the end, a materialist. From the traditional metaphysical viewpoint he argues that free will, like the consciousness (capacity to think) underlying it, is simply emergent from physics through biology (Darwinian mechanism) and that therefore there is nothing mysterious about it metaphysically speaking. The agent herself emerges from the bundle of tropes that constitute her consciousness. That we do not know (and can never discover because it is not strictly causal) precisely the mechanism by which thought takes control and initiates does not mean it doesn’t happen. He argues persuasively that the entirety of our experience not to mention the subjective meaningfulness of consciousness itself suggests that it, that is free will, is real, and it is always rational for us to proceed on that basis.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book I did notice a curious production issue. There are places in the book where whole paragraphs (sometimes two or three successive paragraphs) are lifted from one part of the book and placed in another. At first I thought this a curious stylistic device as in each case the following discussion takes different turns. But as it began to happen more and more, not only between successive chapters but inside chapters and in the last case even within the same subsection, I began to wonder if this was not a production error on the editor’s part?

Nobody interested in the free will problem from one side or the other should be without this book. Dualists and monists of all stripes will find if not a complete answer to their questions, a host of useful distinctions and considerations bearing on the problem. It is unfortunate that it is so expensive. The publisher is doing the community of philosophers-at-large no favors here.

Review: Unseen Reality; Kastner

Kastner’s is one of two “most important” books in physics and cosmology that I’ve read (and in my opinion of course) over the past 7+ years, the other being “Singular Universe” by R. Unger and L. Smolin. How many books have I read addressing the subject of “quantum mysteries”? Paradoxes of the “double slit experiment”, “action at a distance”, “the impact of the observer”, and so on. Except for hidden variables, mostly rejected for good reasons these days, all of the *explanations* are either mere speculative descriptions of phenomena taking place independently of their observation, or they explain them away. Dr. Kastner (building on the work of her mentor John Cramer) does actually explain these phenomena without hidden variables! Whether you like her hypothesis or not, it has to be a contender.

“Unseen Reality” is Kastner’s very good explanation for a popular audience familiar with the basic issues of quantum mysteries. She also has a more technical version for physicists: “Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”, very expensive, and filled with the math to back her up. I include a link to it here for completeness. If you can follow this more technical version, you probably aren’t interested in my opinion anyway!

I have taken the liberty of modifying this review by adding (following Kastner) a short review of “Quantum Ontology” by Peter Lewis. Lewis’ book is a summary of the ontological implications of various interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. Most was review for me but I read the book because he mentions Kastner’s “Transaction Interpretation”. I criticized Lewis (in the review) for failing to note what Kastner claims is the ontological implication of her interpretation, but I now realize the possibility that Lewis was working from her longer more technical book which I have not read. It is possible she does not introduce the ontological implications of her work until “Unseen Reality” published only the year before Lewis.

Understanding Our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles (Kindle Edition 2015)

Ruth E. Kastner resolves 100 year-old quantum mysteries. Moreover, she explains them without explaining them away and all-the-while retains the fundamentality of the particles (as compared to the Schrodinger wave) and forces in spacetime. She calls her theory a “transactional interpretation”. We’ll see why in a moment. The solution proposed supposes (an inference anlogous to the status of atoms in 1850) that physical reality, the universe explored by science (particularly physics), includes something besides spacetime. She calls this Quantumland and compares it to the bulk of an iceberg which exists beneath our sight while the tip, spacetime, is only a small part of all of what is the physical universe.

All quantum phenomena (“incipient transactions”) happens in this bulk part of the iceberg. It has important qualities. Foremost, it is outside spacetime. Second, unlike the bulk of a real iceberg, incipient transactions are in principle invisible to observation as that is commonly understood by science. What science can observe is what makes it from an incipient transaction to a real transaction, and in that transition moves from Quantumland to spacetime. At that point, an event becomes measurable, essentially observable. This has nothing to do with whether or not it is observed by human beings. It isn’t human observation that turns an incipient transaction into a real transaction but the response of absorbers to an emitter. An absorber might be a molecule in a human eye that evokes some response in human consciousness, but it might also be an atom on the surface of a rock. Our instruments are absorbers, the environment, the whole of spacetime, is filled with absorbers whose transaction-capable atoms can respond to an offer wave outside spacetime.

Here’s how the system works as I imperfectly understand it. Inside Quantumland there is constantly going on an exchange of virtual particles. These are “offer waves” of an emitter (say a photon or an electron), and these waves are met by corresponding “response wave” that comes from the side of every particle surrounding the emitter that can potentially absorb the particle implicit in the offer wave. Individual absorbers can only respond to a fraction of the offer wave, that fraction that the response encounters. When offer wave and response wave meet (remember this is all taking place outside spacetime) we have an “incipient transaction”. The meeting sets up probabilities for any part of itself to become a real transaction. No part of the offer-response (incipient) process transfers energy. Only one of a possibly near infinite number of incipient transactions can become a real transaction and in doing so transfers a quantum of energy. The process is fundamentally random. When it happens, that event enters spacetime and we can measure it!

Quantumland where virtual particles are the origin of the forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic at least) we experience in spacetime is not particularly controversial in quantum mechanics and is the main reason that physicists believe there is a quantum realm even though we cannot observe it directly. Dr. Kastner explores this origin of forces in her book as well, but her addition to the whole idea is that all of this quantum stuff takes place outside spacetime but remains a part of “the physical universe”. It is a transaction’s emergence into spacetime that makes it observable! Quantum physics merges into classical physics because as quantum events emerge into spacetime, one of many incipient transactions into a real transaction, energy is transferred. As these events cluster, quantum physics becomes classical physics. Kastner makes clear how each aspect of the relation between Quantumland and classical physics in spacetime result in what quantum experiments tell us. She explains action-at-a-distance, incipient transactions take place outside spacetime and are not constrained by the speed of light. But the effect cannot be used to send information faster-than-light because sending information requires actual transactions that have entered spacetime and therefore restricted to the lightspeed limit!

There is even more to Kastner’s book than I explore here. She spends time on the distinction between mind-as-absorber and absorbers generally, that is the physical universe, and explores a role for Quantumland in an explanation of free will. Significantly, her explanation really is an explanation. She writes beautifully for a non-mathematical audience and her analogies (many more than the iceberg) capture her concepts well. At least I thought I was with her at every step. I’m sure some of the concepts are oversimplified for the lay audience (including myself) but I think there is a genuine insight here. Excellent book if you have any interest in quantum mysteries.

Quantum Ontology: A Guide to the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics (Kindle Edition 2016)

A book at the intersection of quantum mechanics and metaphysics. Lewis focuses on the three dominant interpretations of quantum mechanics and various of their variations exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each from a viewpoint of the metaphysical ontology (the philosophy of what exists or what is real) of the universe and our experience. On the whole the book delivers on what it promises. While it fails to come to any definite conclusions, the author is clearly biased towards “the many worlds” view, one of the three dominant interpretations of quantum mechanics.

When I first bought the book I searched it for a mention of my own favorite interpretation, the “transactional theory” of Cramer and Ruth Kastner (see my review of her book “Understanding our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles”). Lewis casts this interpretation as one of a class involving temporally reversed cause. Oddly he fails to mention that Kastner herself rejects this interpretation based precisely on a unique ontological commitment; that quantum phenomena take place outside (as Kastner puts it “underneath”) timespace. In her view, the quantum phenomena only appear to be causally reversed from a viewpoint within time but in reality no such reversal occurs because prior to the phenomena being particularized as energy is transferred in timespace they occur outside of it. This is a big ontological consequence that Lewis utterly fails to notice.

But aside from this quibble, the book is a good review of the dominant interpretations of quantum mechanical phenomena and their associated ontological implications.

 

Review: Singular Universe and Reality of Time

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Of all the physics and cosmology I’ve read over the past 7+ years this book stands out as one of the two most interesting, the other being Ruth Kastner’s “Understanding Our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles”. Now this is a tough call because I’ve read a lot of great books, But this book inspired not only this review but one of my books, while Kastner’s work manages to actually account for phenomena like “action at a distance” and the paradoxes of the “double slit experiment” without hidden variables or merely explaining them away.

The crucial insight of Singular Universe is that time is not only real but the most fundamental (brute) characteristic of our universe. No other property of our universe (including space) could begin to exist in the absence of time. Impressively, Unger manages to disentangle the “global time” that both authors insist must be real from the temporal insights of Special and General Relativity. Einstein discovered that the measurement of time can only be a local measurement (from within some relative reference frame) but that discovery does not at all preclude a global time for the universe as a whole. In terms of shaking up modern physics, this might be Unger’s greatest contribution. Smolin adds to Unger’s fundamental a rationale accounting for the crystallization of “the cosmological settings”. He has a hypothesis grounded in empirically verified cosmology (black holes) suggesting an answer to the question “why did the cosmological settings come out with the values they have?” I think his rationale is far fetched but in the present community of cosmologists it counts as a strong rational hypothesis.

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy (Kindle Edition 2014)

This is a superb and important book. It is quite long and two books in one, the first by Roberto Unger and the second by Lee Smolin. Both address the same topic, the reality (and fundamentality) of time and the failure of the Newtonian paradigm when applied to the whole universe. Each author takes a different approach to the subject on which, for the most part, there is a wide area of agreement between them and a few differences as concerns some details.

Neither book is “popular science”, but rather both are serious attempts at a novel “natural philosophy” that contributes (or should contribute) to advancing the subject of cosmology by illuminating little considered implications and interpretations of the physical (standard model) and cosmological data we already have.

Unger’s approach is more purely philosophical. He begins straightforwardly enough with the common (in science) metaphysical assumption that only the material universe is real. Although he abjures a strong metaphysics and offers instead what he calls a “proto ontology” that does not attempt to fix the kinds of things there are in the universe for all time, he is nevertheless stuck with this basic materialism and that forces him onto one of two horns of a dilema. The mystery is the extreme unlikeliness of “the settings” that make the universe hospitable to life. Most physicists being philosophically trapped in the “block universe” model of relativistic time (which in effect denies the fundamentality of time by casting time in terms of spatial geometry) have gone over to the multiverse as an (untestable) explanation (along with the “anthropic principle) for the unlikely values of the settings in our universe. From Unger’s viewpoint, the opposite tack, assuming time to be both real and fundamental, and that there is a global “preferred time” (perfectly compatible with relativity given appropriate alterations in what Unger calls its “metaphysical gloss”) which all means that there is nothing in the physical universe that is immune from the effects of time including the laws and settings which change (albeit in this universe phase very slowly) and that instead of multiple universes, the unlikeliness of our settings is explained by our one universe having an indefinite (not eternal) past that has gone through phases having various settings and has just happened, in this phase, to end up with the settings it has. Unger believes that this option, the “indefinite past” and a single universe at a time is better than the multiverse hypothesis because it provides for a causal (although the laws governing causal interactions will be different from phase to phase) continuance between phases. Time and causation entail one another, they are both fundamental in that what ever the laws and settings operative at a given moment happen to be, there is still some sort of causal interaction in time. As difficult as it might be to detect records of past universe phases (that is prior to our own big bang) such detection remains possible and therefore within the scope of science, while non-communicating multiverses that preclude any interaction do not.

Unger covers his ground very well. His approach is to revisit the same questions and issues over and over again like a skeleton on which he lays a little more flesh with each pass. In the end he leaves out two things. He offers no specific explanation for our particular settings this time around, and he fails to address how it is that the laws and settings we measure in our universe phase happen to hold over a range of conditions from the cold of interstellar space to the interior of stars. He admits that in our present “cooled down” universe the laws and settings appear very stable. His failure to offer any explanation for their stability does not detract from the argument that time is real and there is only one universe at a time. He explicitly leaves the rest to Lee Smolin.

Smolin is a physicist writing here as a natural philosopher and he is very good at it. His argument here is a reprise of his book “Time Reborn”. He’s had a few years to chew over these ideas, and I think his more concise treatment here is clearer than it was in that book. Smolin does offer two possibilities for explaining what Unger leaves out. The first is his “principle of precedence” which goes only part of the way, explaining how it is that the settings might get set, but not why they are what they are. The second, his notion of “cosmological natural selection” does actually explain both the settings and to some extent their stability across the wide range of conditions in our present universe. But these explanations rely on two rather speculative ideas.

First, new universes arise from the interior of black holes. The point of the settings and their stability is that these two properties are necessary to produce lots of black holes from massive stars. Such black holes in effect set the parameters of the universes they generate. Our own universe is in fact such a baby universe generated by a black hole in another universe. Second, the range of possible (or likely) settings of the baby universe would be different than those of the parent universe but only and always in a small range. This is what sets up the “natural selection”.. Universes whose properties happen to produce a lot of those kinds of black holes will end up dominating a history of branching universes such that the great majority of them have settings similar to ours just so that they can produce a lot of black holes.

Of course the very idea that universes are born in black holes (or that ours emerged from a black hole) is at present utterly beyond observational science, so this is sheer speculation whose only relation to physics (as distinct say from asserting that “God did it”) is that there is a potential causal chain (no matter what transformation the settings might undergo in between) connecting parent (black hole) to child (new universe). Smolin fails to say why it is that the variation in settings through black holes from massive stars (he explicitly rejects primordial black holes as selectable parents for this reason) should vary by only a little.This property is what makes them selectable. If the settings vary by very much, the outcomes (as far as black hole creation are concerned, not to mention life) will be random and not converge to an optimal type. There is no mention here that the coincidence of these same settings being conducive to life AND black holes is itself something of a mystery. Dr. Smolin spends a small chapter addressing the nature of qualia in consciousness, but he is interested in suggesting an example of precedent-agnostic causation (brain correlates of qualia) and not the coincidence of settings conducive to both black holes and life.

Both men address “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, and claim, reasonably enough given their history-first foundation, that present mathematics happens to be fit-able to present physics but that the discipline has no magic insight into the nature of every particular event in the history of the universe (Smolin) or into some Platonic structure that is metaphysically prior to actual history taken in aggregate (Unger). This is one of the more fascinating parts of both arguments because both men get to the same place about math in very different ways.

It is unfair to criticize either author for not solving every problem. For both this book is to be the foundation of a natural philosophy, not its completed edifice. Both author’s arguments rest on a foundation of time, causation, and therefore history as being fundamental. The universe is what it is and if we discover structure in its behavior, that structure, mathematically describable regularities, it doesn’t mean those very regularities weren’t different in the past and won’t change in the future. There is every reason to believe they are both onto something here. Smolin’s illustration of how we slip from an observation of causal stability in the present universe to a mistaken notion of absolutely deterministic precedents is illuminating to say the least. All of this above does not do justice to the over-all philosophical integrity of this work. Drs. Unger and Smolin happen to discover in one another kindred spirits as far as this business of the reality and fundamentality of time is concerned. I hope there will be more collaborations between them in the future.

Review: After Finitude

My intuition tells me this will be an important book in the development of my own philosophical thought. It will prove important to my philosophy and theology although like all materialists, Meillassoux rejects theology as nothing more than “speculative metaphysics”. Yet he is brave enough to call what he writes here “speculative realism”, and it is speculative because his starting point is very much antirealist in orientation. Fundamentally an antirealist (he might disagree with me), he cannot know that he is correct. Like my theology (I cannot know that God exists), the evidence that Meillassoux is correct, is the result; his grounding of the insight that scientific discovery is about the world.

In my essay “Realism and Antirealism” here on the blog I note that “…one of the possibilities for explanations of experience in antirealism is realism.” This comment, made in a marginal note to Zizek’s “Less than Nothing” was made in the context of Zizek’s discussion of Meillassoux, and Meillassoux himself does not disappoint. The point of this little book is to recover realism, that is the genuineness of scientific insight into the nature of a world independent of experience, that there is a world independent of experience and that we can reliably have knowledge of it. Meillassoux achieves this with a very clever argument concerning the relation between necessity (there isn’t any except…), contingency (the only necessary thing about the world is that everything is contingent), and consistency — the reliability of the world’s regularities present to experience really is in the world itself and not merely in the “categories of our experience” a la Kant.

Meillassoux here is after nothing less than establishing a warrant for “scientific realism” on an antirealist foundation. As I note in my review below he doesn’t quite finish the job. He does manage to lay out all the elements of the argument and provide reasons for the validity of the assumption that science discovers truth about the world “as it is” in the absence of our experience of it even as he denies the validity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a principle “scientific realism” implicitly embraces. This is a singular achievement on his part. I’m glad I decided to read him.

Besides Meillassoux, there are two other philosophers who comprise the “New Realist” school Maurizio Ferraris and Graham Harman. I have reviews of both of them now with commentary comparing the three.

Quentin Meillassoux, “After Finitude” (Kindle edition 2013) Reviewed for Amazon

Meillassoux’s writing reminds me much of other top tier philosophers of the present day like E. J. Lowe (recently passed away), David Chalmers and a few others. Not in what he says of course his starting points and subject are different, but stylistically, carefully crafting his arguments and at each point stopping to describe and evaluate alternatives advanced by his contemporaries and historical predecessors. In “After Finitude” he begins, conceptually, with Hume and Kant, accepting with the latter that the proper starting point for philosophy is the world experienced by humans; what can be thought, but rejecting in both the idea that we cannot come to “know”, in the sense of rely-on experience, to deliver genuine insight into the world in itself.

Meillassoux rejects speculative metaphysics (mostly coming down these days to religion) and accepts the generally anti-realist notion that the Principle of Sufficient Reason, need not apply to the world apart from human experience of it, but holds that the principle of non-contradiction should not be abandoned. Even if we cannot conceptually embrace infinite possibility (totalize the world), it cannot be that the world contradicts itself. All of this comes down to there being no absolutes, no “necessary being” and no “thinkable totality of all possibility” except for the fact of contingency. The only absolute for Meillossoux is that everything is contingent and might have been other than it is.

But all of this leaves historical and present day (postmodern) anti-realists in the position of claiming that we cannot know anything beyond our experience at all, and it is this mistake that he aims to rectify. Despite his general acceptance of the Kantian starting point, he insists that the achievements of science over the last two centuries well demonstrate that we can discover (through an objectivity emerging from shared experience, the results of repeated observations and experiments) much that is true about the world of the past and the present even if such truth lacks the a priori assurance of mathematics.

That problem comes down to why, if it is correct to reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason for the world apart from human experience, the world, that is the laws of physics, seem to be so stable? If the history of the universe comes out to its not-necessary “facticity”, that it is the way it is merely by chance, why aren’t the laws and regularities constantly changing rendering our ability to comprehend anything, even to be conscious at all, impossible? Kant’s answer to Hume was that the stability is only the effect of the categories of our consciousness, and if the in-itself (Kant’s noumenon) were not stable there couldn’t be any consciousness in the first place. But Kant accepted the Principle of Sufficient Reason which Meillassoux rejects. Instead he points out than an unstable in-itself might appear stable for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument). Instability need not mean moment-by-moment instability.

Meillassoux argument rests itself on our ability to “mathematize” our shared experience. That we can describe phenomena in-the-world in mathematical terms and discover not only that 2+2=4 (a priori) but also that E=mc^2 (a posteriori) speaks to us of the world’s stability. But he never quite gets around to telling us how mathematics grounds the stability. Indeed I do not see how it can because if it did, that would render the world necessary.

But there is a further problem here. If instability were really a quality of the in-itself and the universe was infinitely (or trillions of years) old, a few tens of billions of years of stability would not be problematic. But if he is right about the meaningfulness of scientific discoveries, then the universe is only 13.8 billion years old and yet the laws have been stable at least since the moment of nucleosynthisis a second or so after the big bang. That means the laws have been the same for 13.8 billion years minus 1 second! Extraordinary stability indeed!

To sum up, a beautifully written book, well argued, a delight to read, with many insights into the relation between human experience (the for-us) and the antecedent (the for-itself) world. But it doesn’t quite finish the job, something Meillassoux says he must let go of (for now I presume) at the end of the book. A fantastic example of how good philosophy is done even if, in my humble opinion of course, he begins from the wrong starting point and never quite finishes.