Adventures In Quantumland by Ruth Kastner: commentary and review

Picture of me blowing smoke

Ruth Kastner has made another effort to explain the “transactional theory of quantum mechanics”. My Amazon review of this excellent book is included below with a link to her text. In this commentary I address one technical aspect (or consequence) of the theory and separately her more speculative ideas in chapters 6 and 7 (both mentioned in the review). Her first attempt at explaining her ideas to a lay readership, the book “Understanding our Unseen Reality” 2015 is reviewed here.

The technical issue is I hope straight forward. In Dr. Kastner’s scheme, energy is not transferred, nor a spacetime event realized until a virtual or “incipient transaction” becomes a “real transaction”. Incipient transactions happen between any potential emitter of some quantum of energy, and all the possible absorbers of that quantum (the atoms that could absorb it) throughout the universe! They happen outside of spacetime and so their instantaneous virtual interaction throughout the universe is not at issue here.

What is at issue is that as I read her, no real transaction can begin until one of the emitter (offer wave) absorber (confirmation wave) pairs is promoted to a real transaction. A photon cannot be emitted until it has a determinate absorber destination! How does this idea work if the absorber is an atom in the detector of a telescope on Earth, and the emitter is a star in a galaxy 10 billion light years distant? How could there have been an actualized transaction between a star and a telescope that did not exist when the photon was emitted? I have identified two separate problems here.

First, the confirmation waves come from absorbers capable of absorbing the photon which, at the time of its emission, might have been an X-ray photon. But by the time of its real absorption by some atom in our telescope detector has been stretched way into the red end of the spectrum. It is possible that our red-capable absorbing atom could not possibly have produced a confirmation wave for an X-ray photon.

Secondly, at the time of the emission, the atom that ended up in the detector of the telescope might have been anywhere in the vicinity of the Earth/Sun system such as it was at the time, perhaps a just coalescing mass of hydrogen gas and dust swirling around a proto-star. How did that lucky atom end up in our telescope and not in the center of the Earth, or the moon or anywhere else in the solar system? Further the spatial relation between the proto solar system and our emitting star would be completely different than it is now 10 billion years later. But when we trace the path of our captured photon it always appears to have made a beeline (least time) path between the emitting star and that particular place in space where the Earth (and our telescope) just happen to be 10 billion years after emission.

I suspect Dr. Kastner has an answer here, or I am misunderstanding something about what she means about emission requiring an actualization between offer and confirmation waves. I hope she will address a query sent to her. If she does I will update this blog entry with her explanation.

In her chapters 6 and 7 she goes off the rails speculatively speaking. Her aim in chapter 6 is free will. There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before by others (broadly a theory called dual-aspect monism, see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Kastner begins by demolishing the anti-free-will arguments of David Dawkins and others of a similar type. She does a marvelous job from the viewpoint of the idea’s epistemological absurdity. If there is no free will, then Dawkins’ book isn’t really “his” and so on. In this she is entirely right even to pointing out that the view reduces us to automatons, something I have said for years (see my “Arguing with Automatons”).

Kastner points out that if nothing else, quantum mechanics shows the universe is not fully deterministic. Quantum mechanics “makes room” for free will. That’s fair enough. She also recognizes that “making room” and “the phenomenon” (free will) itself are two different things. Why? Because free will is not merely not-determined (indeterminate) but purposeful. Free will introduces teleology and if not for the universe as a whole then at least for the free-willed individual. Choice is always exercised “for a purpose”, and this is something quantum mechanics doesn’t address unless…

Kastner’s next move, the metaphysical move, is where she goes wrong. Perhaps, she says, quantum phenomena are not merely indeterminate. Perhaps they are also proto-volitional; there is in the phenomenon that which leads directly to the human sort of free will through some ascending volitional hierarchy? Something is “built into physics” that bears the germ of volition. She is, in effect, saying: we have a mystery here (free will) and we have a mystery there (Quantumland), perhaps one mystery is the explanation of the other? Now she emphasizes that this move is pure speculation but what is the point of it other than to fix a source of volition in a universe that is otherwise determinate and indeterminate at the same time, but not volitional.

No one (including Dr. Kastner) asserts that virtual quanta are conscious, but nor can anyone (including Dr. Kastner) tell us in what exactly, besides the non-teleological behavior described so well by mathematics, this proto-volitional consists! What is even a single “identity characteristic” of a proto-volition? In what way does (or even might) proto-volition contribute to quantum measurement outcomes? Where would a proto-volitional term fit into the equations of quantum mechanics? If there is no place for it why say it (volition) might be there other than the purely metaphysical need to have it start somewhere coupled with the metaphysical assumption that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical (including Quantumland).

To put the matter another way, Quantumland is speculation but not “empty speculation”. There are observables, particles communicating at seeming space-like distances and being in two places at once. A “foundation to macrophysics” outside of spacetime makes perfect sense in this context. Raw space and time can be seen to emerge from its seething processes. Quantumland explains a lot. It gives us part of the mechanism of spacetime emergence, and it removes the mystery from many of its emerging observables.

By contrast there is no observable that demands volition at the microscopic level. That volition (or proto-volition) is to be located there explains nothing about the mechanism of [much later] emerging consciousness. Free will is expressed only by or through consciousness (human or animal) as far as we know. The speculation here is empty of content. Nothing stands as an example of a property that ultimately adds up to consciousness or the volitional will of consciousness.

Quantum mysteries are encountered at just the point where they enter spacetime, but volition is not encountered in any obvious way until we reach all the way up to macroscopic brains. This is not to say that quantum phenomena are not involved in producing consciousness. It would surprise me if they weren’t! But this does not mean that quantum phenomena are themselves volitional or even proto-volitional there remains no teleology in physics.

This then brings me to chapter 7 where there is a related problem. The problem in chapter 6 is the emptiness of the speculation, the ad hoc quality of throwing volition into Quantumland because materialism has no other place to put it. In chapter 7 the problem is an induction fallacy. That Eastern metaphysics refers to a world beneath (or above or beyond) that of our physical senses, a world that is the source of the physical, does not mean they are talking about Quantumland! A Buddhist or Hindu using the word ‘energy’ and a physicist using the same word are not necessarily talking about the same thing (Dr. Jacob Needleman pointed this out to me a long time ago using “The Tao of Physics” [Capra], one of the books Kastner mentions in this chapter). Of course they could be talking about the same thing, and if you read enough of both you can cherry pick qualities from each that seem to overlap. Kastner does this in this chapter.

At the same time, Dr. Kastner gives herself the clue to their difference. The “spiritual traditions” all ascribe some sacredness to that which underlies our ordinary reality, but she doesn’t fully grasp the implications. Sacredness is intrinsically teleological. The source of our ordinary reality according to the “spiritual traditions” is purposeful, and being indirect products of it, we human beings have some relation, some responsibility to that purpose. But in no wise does it make sense to say we have any responsibility to Quantumland (nor does Dr. Kastner say such a thing), and this is precisely because Quantumland is not teleological.

Kastner must realize this implicitly as she reminds us multiple times that her ascription of volition to Quantumland (chapter 6) has no bearing on her physical theory as such. But nor is the traditional ascription of sacredness to “the other” some sort of mistake on the part of such traditions. It is a necessary quality of the other to which the traditions refer; a demonstration (as it were) that they are not speaking of Quantumland! There is nothing wrong with calling attention to the fact that spiritual traditions refer to “another reality” underlying our ordinary experience. Quantumland is also another possible reality underlying the macrophysical. But they are two different kinds of “other reality”.

If materialists wish to insist that the sacred sort of other doesn’t really exist, I can only say that until such time as there are observables that pick one theory out over another the same can be said of all the competing quantum others advocated by physicists and philosophers today.

I will leave things here because after all neither of these chapters bears in any way on the transaction interpretation of quantum mechanics as a physical theory. Unlike in her addenda to this latest book, Dr. Kastner isn’t resolving any paradoxes in these chapters. Indeed the misapplied logic (chapters 6 & 7) and misunderstood metaphor (chapter 7) is all on her side; though again and to repeat, none of this has ought to do with the explanatory value of the physical theory.

Adventures in Quantumland: Exploring Our Unseen Reality. Ruth Kastner 2019.

In (2015) Ruth Kastner, a physicist and philosopher, published “Understanding Our Unseen Reality”, a layman’s version of her earlier “The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (2014). This book, “Exploring Our Unseen Reality”, is something of an addendum to that earlier work. It is really two books in one. The first half (roughly) is the book, while the last half is a collection of papers authored by Kastner, and sometimes collaborators, each addressing a specific (usually in more technical terms) issue covered in the book’s first half. Kastner frequently refers back (by chapter and page) to her earlier book. It isn’t necessary to have read the earlier book, Kastner makes her overall case perfectly well in this book alone using minimally more technical language (really symbols) to which she introduces us. On the one hand, this book’s explication of the theory’s main points and implications is brief. On the other hand, Dr. Kastner has had a lot of practice explaining the transactional interpretation and this latest attempt is clear and succinctly expressed.

Beginning with the basics Kastner moves us through subjects that are important to understanding her with a particular emphasis on the fact that her theory does not demand (I get the impression she encounters this idea a lot) that some mind be present to “collapse the quantum wave function”. To be clear, there are wave functions that minds do collapse. the ones that end in a quanta-absorbing event in one of our sensory neurons (and from there up the chain to our brains). In general, however, wave collapse is the result, the completion, of a measurement and that means a transaction between a quantum emitter and some absorber whether that absorber is in an eye, a brain, or the detector of some instrument.

The key to the theory is that the transfer of a quantum (measurable energy) requires an interaction between an emitter and absorber. There are two sorts of interactions here, incipient and actual. Incipient interactions happen between an emitter (an “offer wave”) and every potential absorber in the universe (“confirmation waves”), literally every atom that can absorb a photon of that particular energy. It doesn’t matter if these potential absorbers are near to or far from the potential emitter (in the incipient stage nothing has been yet emitted). Every incipient potential occurs instantly and simultaneously throughout the universe. One of these “offer wave/confirmation wave” (confirming that some emitter is ready to emit) “incipient transactions” wins out (remember this has taken place in zero time and across all space from our viewpoint in timespace) and becomes an “actual transaction”. The photon is emitted generating the beginning of a real singular timespace event propagating at the speed of light, and ends when the winning absorber receives the photon. The absorption constitutes a measurement because energy is transferred between the emitting and absorbing atoms. The transaction is complete.

If Dr. Kastner is right here, her theory has implications as revolutionary as the original insight (energy is quantized) resulting in the first generation of quantum mechanics. It would mean that no real photon can leave an emitter until a real absorber is selected out of the incipient possibilities. Personally I do not see how this can be. What if the absorber, the one that completes the transaction, is at the business end of a telescope while the [real not incipient] absorbed photon was emitted from a star 10 billion light years away; long before that telescope existed? There are several potential issues here and I suspect Kastner has an answer, but she does not explicitly address this. See my blog for further discussion.

In the final chapters of the book Kastner gets speculative about quantum mechanics and mind or more specifically the possibility of free will. This is not the “mind collapses the wave function” business, but its opposite. Not only does quantum mechanics give us an escape from absolute macroscopic determinism (fair enough) but rather that the quantum realm is somehow proto-volitional. The last chapter explores some speculations on the potential analogy between Kastner’s Quantumland (beneath spacetime) and various ideas present in ancient Greek and Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) metaphysics. Kastner follows others, citing references, in all of these speculations. I have problems with both of these ideas, but this is not for a review and Kastner is sedulous about these being purely speculative, having no direct bearing on the transactional theory as such.

Following her last chapter, Kastner gives us an epilogue calling attention to (and thanking) her predecessors in the explanatory thread leading to the transactional interpretation, followed by an addendum in which she addresses several long standing “quantum paradoxes”. Her aim here is to show that they are not paradoxes at all, but bad interpretations of data even apart from the transactional theory, and that the transaction idea can make paradox resolution easier to grasp.

In summary an excellent if abbreviated explication of the “transaction theory”. In response to her previous book I said that Dr. Kastner’s theory is the only one I’ve ever encountered that “explains quantum mysteries without explaining them away”. Having read this book I see no reason to change my mind.

Why “One Size Fits All” Ontologies Never Work: Horgan, Harman, and DeLanda

There are three books from contemporary philosophers advocating for “one size fits all” ontologies. Each of them is strikingly different. In this commentary I’m going to focus on the meta-philosophical issue of a problem common to all of these ideas and by extension, all “one size fits all” ontologies. Ontologists do one of two things. They describe or catalog “what exists” or “what is real”, or they try to say something about the foundational qualities or properties of reality; what is “most fundamental” about what exists. All three of these philosophers are doing “what exists” sorts of ontologies.

As always, the three books I discuss are listed below with links to their editions on Amazon. Each title (except Horgan, I’ve linked my separate review of him here) is followed by the text of the review I posted to Amazon. I write these commentaries because their issues are out of place in a book review as such.

I’ll begin quickly with Terrence Horgan whose book “Austere Realism” I’ve reviewed separately (see link above). Horgan is the extreme minimalist. There is for him only one object that fully exists in the universe, and that is the universe in total (he calls it the ‘blobject’). Everything that we humans envision as existing (atoms, stars, animals, artifacts, and our own minds) exist only as affectations of language, a “fashion de parler”. As affectations, and for pragmatic purposes such “existence talk” is all well and good, but it is false to move from there to an ontological commitment; to the literal existence of any of these things. But Horgan is also a realist. The differentiation within the blobject (or of the blobject) are real. They are “mind independent differentiations” of the blobject. They are not “objects in their own right” but merely variations in the one object.

I’ve written before about Graham Harman here, and his collaborative work with DeLanda here. But I haven’t written about this particular book, “Object Oriented Ontology” in which Harman tries to address an issue I brought up in my review of other books, his “ontological idea” seeming to pop out of nowhere. In this book Harman describes more or less where his OOO idea comes from. It reinforces my idea that while proclaiming himself a realist he somewhat straddles the line between realism and anti-realism.

Harman’s approach is exactly opposite that of Horgan. Everything, stars, governments, ideas, relations between ideas or things, arbitrary sets, fictional characters, events, all real, all distinct objects. His is the ultimate ontological plurality but he is careful to say that while all are objects, not all objects are of the same sort. Some for example, like fictional characters, are real yet do not exist. Harman’s goal is a univocal causality. If rocks, governments, corporations, and ideas can be causes what does this say about the nature of causation in general?

Of the three authors, DeLanda’s ideas are the easiest to reconcile with common sense. Basically he observes that most differentiated things in the universe are composed of other things. They have parts that are extrinsic to the phenomenon of which they are parts. That means such parts can be removed and replaced by something similar (but not identical) and still retain their identity. In addition, these things composed of parts can become parts of other wider or larger things exhibiting new causal potentials.

As concerns ontological commitments, for Horgan, planets and governments do not exist as such, only the blobject actually exists but it happens to be differentiated into recognizable particulars that we can label in any way we see fit for pragmatic and scientific purposes. Horgan is interested mostly in what makes scientific discourse (say about stars) true even if stars do not, strictly speaking exist.

DeLanda agrees with Horgan that governments and stars do not belong in a strict ontology. What exists are assemblages each existing in a hierarchy of assemblages. Presumably the hierarchy goes all the way up to Horgan’s blobject, and all the way down to protons. But DeLanda does manage to clearly distinguish between social assemblages having physical expressions and potentials (governments, banks), and physical assemblages like stars and galaxies. What is important in both cases is that it is the assemblage that has ontological gravitas because it has causal potentials whether those are the potentials of a government or an asteroid.

Neither Horgan nor DeLanda are “essentialists” as concerns either what does or does not “strictly belong” in an ontology. There is no “hidden center” or essence to what belongs in ontology. If we had a complete description of everything (which for various reasons, linguistic, and perspectival, we cannot have) we would have fully exhausted being. Harman says no, that each object has an essence or being that we cannot even in principle ever exhaust. This includes “real objects” that do not exist like fictional characters. It is precisely this essence to which an object’s qualities are attached. Like objects have like qualities but their essence makes them individual. Objects are not merely “bundles of properties” described by a spacetime worm. Properties inhere in something and the being of that object, what makes it real, is whatever that something is.

Horgan is after the truth and meaningfulness of scientific discourse. He establishes this even in the face of his extreme ontological claim, and I believe this may be his point; “even given the blobject, science can be true”. Harman is after causation and he gets there but at the cost of an ontology as copious as Horgan’s is sparse. To make it all work, Harman’s objects must be divided up in various ways, much depending on what amounts to the classical distinction between mind and the mind-independent world. Harman does give us a nice account of fictional characters, but not really different from yet another “new realist” Maruzio Ferraris (reviewed here) who gives us the same account without the causal metaphysics. I am not sure how DeLanda would handle fictions. They surely have expressions in the physical (books, films) but I am not sure they could be said to have causal properties of their own. Certainly not outside minds that encounter and interpret the physical expressions.

Horgan and Harman are the two strictest “one size fits all” ontologists, DeLanda is less so, but even viewed as a one size fits all proposal, assemblages require little ad hoc maneuvering (Harman) or stipulation (Horgan and Harman) to fit in with most if not all of our experience. The common sense fact is that almost everything is made of other things. None of these views address mind very well though to be sure all are implicitly physicalist so brains are surely objects, assemblages, or proper differentiations of the blobject.

Harman, taking us back to Heideggar, claims that the contents of consciousness are all objects. This works fine as concerns sensory representations, even beliefs and memories. It is less clear how attitudes and intentions are objects. To the extent that both amount to ideas they have an object-hook. Both intentions and attitudes have causal properties. Ideas can lead us to actions. If that qualifies them for object-hood, so be it.

DeLanda’s ontology is “one size fits all” in the form of things and not the things themselves. He does not insist that literally everything real (fictional or otherwise) is an assemblage. By contrast Harman and Horgan do claim that their ontologies cover everything. That they likely do not is demonstrated by how they must each be twisted to make them work. For Horgan, scientific truth, even epistemology in general, floats free of the “true ontology”. For Harman, objects must be distinguished into partly overlapping classes or kinds, universals like existing and non-existing, symbiotic and dormant, real and sensual (both of these last categories real in the strict ontological sense), and so on.

Only Horgan claims there is literally but one existing thing. Harman counts literally everything (remember even thoughts and arbitrary relations) as real objects but must then divide them up into many categories to make the idea come out. Why not merely objectify the category and claim that these universals are the foundation of the real? For DeLanda it is a structure of relations that is [almost] universal, but what emerges from such a structure is, like Harman, both distinct and real provided we are careful to distinguish between the abstraction naming it (star, or government) and the reality (an assemblage) of its composition and history.

Horgan and Harman are “ontologies of the now”. Neither takes much account of time. Time is involved in the differentiation of the blobject (Horgan) of course and objects (Harman) come, go, and change through time, but neither theory demands time to make its basic point. Only DeLanda’s ontology demands time because both the coming-to-be of assemblages and their impacts have intrinsically temporal dimensions. Assemblages include as a proper part their own history and possible future effects on events, other assemblages.

Though each of these ontologies are different they all suffer from a species of triviality. If literally everything is an X, then to say that “only Xs exist” is a difference that makes no difference. Horgan shows that scientific truths can remain firmly grounded even in the face of a stipulated truth: “all is one”. Harman’s idea is also, ultimately, a stipulation. He can’t really deliver an equivocal causation, only one that can be “thought of” like that. If all cause lies between categories (the real and the sensual) that doesn’t tell us much about it. It also might be that there is something important about the difference between the categories and not merely the objects in them. Non-arbitrary categories (perhaps material particulars and some universals) might indeed exist, while arbitrary ones (random sets, trivially contingent relations — “taller than”) do not.

Harman’s distinction between the important and the trivial is also arbitrary. What appears dormant or unimportant from our perspective might be symbiotic from another. DeLanda’s triviality is a little different. Remember that each of these philosophers is a materialist and so ultimately, whatever should be both “real and exist”, it must begin with atoms that are surely assemblages. So while Harman and Horgan’s ontologies ultimately come down to stipulations, DeLanda’s, by contrast, is observational, and if he is right, if everything is some part of everything else (the universe at least), his observation must be true (at least of the material world) and so is also trivial.

In the end none of these “one size fits all” ontologies fit the universe of our experience because the universe is not a one size fits all arena. If there is a God then there are three fundamental mind-independent joints in reality (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology), spirit, mind (not individual minds but the phenomenon of mind in general), and matter — the material world experienced by individual minds. Even if there is no God and individual minds emerge only from the functioning of brains (i.e. brains are sufficient, a dubious proposition disallowed by physics — see Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind), it is prima facia absurd to assert that mind is material, even more absurd to say it doesn’t exist. Individual minds, once emerged, have an impact on the unfolding of events. Mind is not physical and yet causally efficacious notwithstanding that what propagates its causal effect in the physical is a physical body controlled by a mind.

Aside from these three authors (Ferraris does not try to construct a universal ontology) I haven’t encountered another “one size fits all” ontology. If I do in the future I am confident that like these three any truth it contains will be but a trivial truth.

——————

Austere Realism by Terrence Horgan 2008
See my review and commentary here

Assemblage Theory by Manuel DeLanda 2016

Manuel DeLanda’s book is a mature attempt at explaining what “assemblage theory” is and its relation to the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. Assemblage theory can be applied to other philosophical domains but first you have to understand what it says about what there is. To put it in its simplest form, most things in the world are assemblages. They are (1) made of parts that might be exchanged for sufficiently similar parts (parts are “extrinsic”), (2) have properties and potentials that the parts do not have other than as the assemblage, and (3) they can, in turn, become parts of larger assemblages having novel properties and potentials in part made possible by the contribution of its sub-assemblages.

Assemblages are rather intuitive in fact. We are all familiar with many of them. We are a part of some of them, and it is natural to see in the world differently scaled phenomena (from atoms to galaxies, even the universe) that all appear to be assemblages. DeLanda then begins from a place that matches most intuitions about the world, and he does not insist that everything that is MUST be an assemblage. There are things of the world that are not, but by-in-large very much of our familiar world consists of assemblages.

DeLanda then explores many of these familiar things as encountered through human history. He explores tools (machines), people themselves, language, cities, society, wars, and so on. A particular point he wants to make is that every noun I used in the last sentence is a made-up “making real” (reification or “to reify”) of things that don’t really exist simpliciter. DeLanda understands that to make up these concepts is perfectly legitimate for ordinary discourse, but he is not committed to “their existence” as these things. Rather his commitment is to the assemblages from which they are composed and the higher-level assemblages they can and do contribute to composing. To understand an assemblage we name, “the government”, or “the market”, we really have to understand what it is made of (more assemblages) and how it comes to affect the wider world, other assemblages in which it participates. It is the assemblages and their expressions that “are real” as far as ontology is concerned.

The examination of human institutions is followed by a chapter on the doing of science; the best encapsulation of “philosophy of science” I’ve read! He moves down from social reality to particles, atoms, and molecules in order to introduce us to the concept of a “diagram” by which not only can assemblage be described (its history) but also what future paths in could (possibility) and is likely (disposition) to follow. DeLanda moves away from social phenomena for the sake of simplicity. Future paths for a molecule are vast but still restricted compared to that of a city or person. In theory it is simpler to understand what he is driving at on this level and its significance can be felt in philosophy and other disciplines. Importantly, the same principles apply whether we are talking about a protein or a nation.

He gets a little technical here in the last chapters. Simpler or not I could follow all of this only because I’ve had just enough mathematics background to get the difference between the levels and types of mathematics he talks about here. Some readers will have trouble with this though DeLanda nowhere USES mathematics; there are no formulas or mathematical demonstrations. His aim is to show us that there are mathematical tools that can be applied to assemblages describing their history as well as dispositions and possible futures. DeLanda is keen to show that assemblage theory as philosophy is (can be) firmly grounded in mathematics. Again as from the beginning, this makes intuitive sense. That mathematics can be applied to the regularities of the universe is well known. If those regularities are “qualities of assemblages” it makes sense that math can be used to describe them.

All of this then comes together very well in this book. I have read and reviewed others of DeLanda’s books, but this is the one to get if you want a grounding in his idea from the fundamentals on up.

Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman 2018

In reviews of earlier books by Harman I complained that his “object oriented ontology” (OOO) seemed to pop out of nowhere. He never (before) tells us how ideas preceding it, those of other writers, built up to his central insight. He seems to be making an attempt to correct that lacuna in this book. I think he succeeds in the effort to enlighten us about OOO’s origins, but my issues with the substance of the theory itself are not here resolved.

Harman begins by introducing a distinction between truth and knowledge along with their relation to the doing of philosophy. For him philosophy is not about truth or knowledge though it seeks and approaches both. Instead it is about reality which cannot, nevertheless, be approached directly but only indirectly. With this he begins to give the reader an introduction to his version of realism which is not very realist as I understand that term. But nor is Harman an anti-realist in the traditional sense. Rather he seems to straddle the fence.

The mind independent world is perfectly real and filled with particulars (objects), this being the realist thread. However we never encounter those objects directly but through their qualities, sensual qualities (he should have used the word ‘sensuous’ here not ‘sensual’ but I’ll let you look up that difference), which are qualities of the object as it is reflected in the content of our consciousness. The tree in the yard is a real object. The tree in my mind is its sensual counterpart. But neither the tree in the yard, nor the counterpart in our mind ever reveal themselves fully to us. They are “real”, but their core is always hidden. This is the anti-realist thread in Harman.

In Chapter two Harman gives us the key insight that also belies his Continental inclinations. Philosophy is metaphor and theater. He doesn’t mean here play acting. He means that to do philosophy the philosopher must replace the metaphor with herself to understand what it reveals about the real object. Even the metaphor never completely succeeds in exhausting the object, but it gets us further into it than does any literal or scientific statement. Harman knows that language is metaphorical. In fact (for Harman) the literal tells us less than the metaphorical. No word or collection of words captures everything about that which they denote. But he rejects the notion that language alone is responsible for failing to grasp everything. There is always more to the object, real or sensual, than we can ever know.

From this beginning he investigates social and political discourse and then returns to a more detailed view of objects (real and sensual), their qualities, and the relations between them. Harman divides his ontological universe into four different types, the real and sensual objects, and their real and sensual qualities. He does a pretty good job on the objects and the sensual qualities, but I have trouble understanding what a “real quality” can be since like the real object, real qualities also withdraw from direct contact. Harman does a good job of analyzing fictional objects, and we are introduced to his distinction between passive and symbiotic object-relations. Again (as in other of his books) Harman insists that symbiotic is not only about importance to humans, but in fact it always seems to end up being that in the final analysis.

His ultimate target in this part of the book is physical causation (like two billiard balls colliding, though the idea is supposed to apply to causation of all sorts). Even billiard balls do not make contact directly but through their sensual qualities. This part of OOO makes no sense to me unless “sensual qualities” are taken to be something independent of mind. I suppose this interpretation is possible, but Harman does not make his thought clear here at all.

The book moves then to challenge some of Harman’s peers who have accused him of stealing ideas from others. He focuses on Deleuze and Foucault arguing that their views, which some have taken to be foreshadows of OOO are not really that at all. Following this he reviews the work of a number of young philosophers who have broadly adopted an OOO orientation. Harman does a good job here of sketching both the similarities and differences between his work and the others reviewed.

It is not until here, near the end of the book that Harman lets drop his disdain for matter something strange for a realist. He explains himself a bit more in the last chapter, but his explanation fails to bridge a gap. It may be true NOW that there is no undifferentiated matter in the universe. Everything is differentiated and hence all are objects. But this was not the case in the opening Planck times of the universe when there was nothing but undifferentiated radiation. Harman’s ontology, even if it captures the universe’s present (and I don’t think it really does) misses its history, something for which ontology should surely account. In this latter part of the book he also lets slip that all relations between objects are also objects. He has said this in other books, but other than this one parenthetical aside, he doesn’t elaborate on this claim at all.

In the end, this book does the job of explaining the origin of Harman’s OOO idea and some (but not all) implications. I remain not a fan. There is too much about OOO that seems ad hoc to me, but after all, differences of opinion are what keep philosophy going and as Harman notes at the very beginning we do not get all the way to knowledge or truth, but only aspire to find ways to get closer to both.

Three Books on the World Order and its Undoing

There are three books reviewed here along with links (in their titles) to the books on Amazon. All three of the reviews are also (and first) posted on Amazon. My reader might wonder why I chose to assemble these three together. The first two are pretty obvious. They are both about the present “world order”, the relation between nations and other entities with global impact. The third book is not about the world order but rather about its systematic undermining. When intelligent and fair-minded people look at what is happening in the world one cannot help but want to improve things, to smooth out conflict, keep commodity prices stable and supplies reliable, insure that people have enough to eat and clean water to drink, and so on.

Nations and other actors, in effort to improve the situation for themselves and sometimes for others, instead, make things worse. But why would anyone want, deliberately, to make things worse? No sane person would, and yet with the election of Donald Trump thanks in large part to the efforts of Steve Bannon that is precisely what is now happening. The government of the United States appears to be deliberately destabilizing the global system. Why this should be is a good question, one I hope here to answer.

To say the world situation today is precarious would surely not meet with much disagreement no matter which end of the political or social spectrum you happen to inhabit. Indeed one could argue that the world situation has been precarious for one reason or another throughout human history. But we are privileged to be living in a particularly dangerous time, and at root, population and energy access (the latter tied directly to the wealth disparity problem) are the main demographic and economic drivers of the problem. The world population continues to rise at a dangerous pace dividing the resource pie into ever smaller pieces. Yet rising populations, today all in Africa, South, and Central America are only part of the problem. In every continent other than the two just named, populations are aging and declining. Most of these are the more advanced industrial and post industrial societies on earth. Ironically, the social saftey nets for a growing cohort of elderly people in these places all depend implicitly on an also growing cohort of working age people to support them. One cannot of course have it both ways. Both cohorts cannot, together, grow indefinitely.

Dr. Kissinger’s book focuses mostly on nations. His aim is to rationalize foreign policy by, among other things, making us realize that not all nations are “like us” in wanting the same things for their peoples. He wants especially to hammer home this truth over the American tendency to idealize every international relation. Dr. Haass also recognize this fundamental difference in national interests and how their own governments view them, but he broadens his view of the pertinent actors to include non-governmental organizations both secular and religious, a role for cities, and regional resource issues: water scarcity, mineral and energy availability, climate change, and the wealth gap. Both authors address non-state-actor terrorism corroding international relations the present and future impact of technology, and changing world demographics.

Both men are, however, broadly on the same page. The trend over the last 40 years toward an integrated global economy is not enough by itself to smooth over the frictions of international relations, but it gives everyone a stake in the process of keeping the whole afloat. We cannot go backwards. First because we cannot return the world to the way it was as concerns populations, the distribution of industrial activity, and so on anyway. Too much has changed. Second, even a nuanced attempt to turn back the clock will result in huge economic dislocations everywhere and a general increase in everyone’s costs. In 1970 the “Chinese supply chain” feeding into American products hardly existed. Even if one could bring these sorts of jobs back into the United States, the people who hold the jobs in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (now hundreds of millions more of them than 50 years past) are not going to just go away.

What makes “The Devil’s Bargain” of interest here is that in the character of Steve Bannon is an agent bound and set to doing just this, dismantling the existing international economic system and not in any nuanced way either. Bannon wants to “burn it all down”. “Devil’s Bargain” is not a foreign policy or international affairs book like the first two. In today’s world there are people who understand that such policies will hurt millions and yet deliberately set out to do it. It illustrates how much damage can be done (it is only beginning) in a short time and how such damage degrades the prospects of many while enriching a few. A few chemicals properly mixed and put in the right place can bring down a bridge, building, or airplane. It turns out that a few people in powerful political positions, reinforcing one another’s desire to destroy those they hate, whether for petty revenge or self aggrandizement, can quickly unravel that which has (mostly) held our peace and economy together now for three generations.

What ties “Devil’s Bargain” in with the other two books is its illustration of the systematic undoing of what the first two authors take to be the only approach to maintaining peace and raising standards of living on a crowded planet. It is almost as if Bannon, reading Haass, decided to systematically do the opposite of his recommendations. Of course Bannon’s distaste for a global order in which the United States is not the sole power able to do what it wishes was settled long before Haass wrote his book. Trump was not Bannon’s first attempt to put in place a figurehead who would cater to his bigotry. He began with the “Tea Party” and Sarah Palin. But Trump proved to be the key to the political organization of the extreme right and Bannon knew an opportunity when he saw one. The book ends with Bannon’s firing less than a hundred days into the Trump administration. But Bannon chose well. Trump shares his various bigotries and did, after all, win the election. Trump is most surely continuing along a course that Bannon, if he did not set it in detail, still very much approves.

The philosophical angle here is postmodernism. “Devil’s Bargain” illustrates that lies can over power truth when a large political cohort believes that “the truth” is whatever they say it is. There is nothing historically new here. Hitler did very much the same thing as Bannon (Goebbels being “Hitler’s Bannon”) to win his election in 1932. Postmodernism may have been named in the latter part of the 20th century, but its roots go back as far as Pilate. But truth does matter. A global system built on lies cannot stand for long. We are witnessing now its accellerated destabilization. Most of us will not survive it.

A World in Disarray by Richard Haass 2017

Richard Haass did not reach the heights of power of a Henry Kissinger (World Order) but his work over several administrations at the State Department and other institutions, presently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, give him as much exposure to the process of policy making and the demands of the international environment, if not the gravitas to have his ideas seriously considered, as the Secretary of State. Dr. Haass here writes from much experience. His view of the world situation is well nuanced, enough so that he knows there are problems in many places and on many levels. Some have no realistic hope of resolution any time soon.

In broad outline this book is like that of Dr. Kissinger’s. Dr. Haass begins with a broad review of how we got where we are beginning as so many of these books do with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid 17th Century. But Haass quickly breaks things down into small chunks encompassing not only the world’s regions and nations in those regions but multiple factors cutting across those divisions. Culture, history, geography, technology, economics, identity politics, human migrations, income disparity, demographics, education, trade, and more are all examined singularly and with regard to their interacting impacts. Haass appears to understand both the central importance of the United States (the world’s largest single economic and military power), and the limits of even an “engaged America” on the trajectory of world affairs.

Dr. Kissinger made broad recommendations and so does Dr. Haass. In fact the two men are very much in line with one another broadly speaking. But Dr. Haass also makes numerous specific recommendations some going some way towards resolving issues, others merely managing the presently unresolveable. His recommendations are all thoughtfully helpful. Some are broad, some very narrow, all difficult to achieve in the present world. Haass’ politics appears to be a little more conservative than mine. On the subject of income disparity for example he says that [absurd] concentrations of wealth are not in themselves bad, the problem rather is that there are too many people with too little. It’s hard to argue with the last part, but for some reason he does not connect up the impossibility of spreading the wealth as long as so few individuals and corporations hoard (and he admits hide) most of it.

On the whole he and I agree, cooperation is, barring gross violations of human dignity, better than competition and conflict. His recommendations are mostly common sense. If any half of his recommendations were to be implemented I’m sure the world would be a better place. The chance that even some half of them will come to any fruition however is almost zero. Even before the election of Donald Trump. This book was published in January 2017 just prior to Trump’s inauguration. Even then, the global situation was deteriorating (had been for some years) with competition more and more coming to replace cooperation. My Kindle edition (not sure of the other formats) has, in addition an afterword written some ten months into Trump’s presidency. As Haass ticks off Trump’s policy implementations the reader cannot help but note that not only are things getting worse but now at an accelerated rate, and not only globally, but also inside the United States. Trump is undoing even that which, however imperfectly, was helpful prior to his election. With almost 9 billion people on the Earth, “globalism is not a choice, but a fact”. We will not survive without major conflict for much longer under the present global effort to dismantle it.

The book is a good and comprehensive take on what should be done, what must be done, and what America could do to stave off disaster. Not only are we not going in the right direction, we are very much deliberately going in the wrong one.

World Order by Henry Kissinger 2014

Surely there are few people in the world more qualified to write a book about geopolitics, present or historical, than Henry Kissinger. For a time of some 20 years he was directly involved in the decisions of American presidents on this very subject. Taking a broader view, Dr. Kissinger is involved in his subject (as I understand it even speaking to D. Trump since his election) even today and going back some 50 or more years!

Without being too long, the book surveys the history of historical political orders in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe both Eastern and Western. He pays particular attention to the European “Peace of Westphalia” following the 30-years war in 1648. There is a theme here. Though there have been many European wars (and revolutions) since the 17th century they all occurred in a Westphalian context. Sometimes the context is respected, and sometimes violated, but even in the latter case, the peace process following the wars has either returned to a Wesphalian context and been, at least for a substantial time, successful in preserving the peace, or it ignored and violated that context leading rapidly to another war. The Marshall Plan following WWII an example of a return to Westphalian principles also the preservation of the French State after the depredations of Napoleon. By contrast, in contravention of those principles, French and English retribution against Germany following WWI resulted rather rapidly in WWII.

Kissinger’s focus on Westphalia sets up the problems he sees with Europe’s and America’s relation to the rest of the world. From the Western vantage point we look out on a world of nation-states and think to ourselves that as different as Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa might be, they all, in the end, want to preserve their statehood in relation to other states. One of Kissinger’s observations is that this is not at all the case. China for example sees itself as the premier culture on Earth and lives within the present Westphalian system of nations for reasons of practical accommodation. The Middle East, and by extension the whole of the Islamic World, sees itself as the only legitimate and righteous inheritor of the entire world order!

In Islam the Westphalian matrix is the most jumbled with nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran accommodating it for practical reasons, while others, particularly non-state actors, try actively to undermine it leaving thousands dead in their wake. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is yet another story. The nations there are the result of recently (20th century) abandoned colonialism and though nominally nations, are riddled with leadership interested in little more than their own personal aggrandizement. Failed or failing states cannot participate coherently in such world order as presently exists let alone contribute to something better.

Kissinger’s first main point is that it is a mistake to continue treating with these nations AS IF they implicitly accepted the Westphalian context of nation states all “getting along”. This doesn’t mean we can stop working with these nations, but we have to be smarter about it and stop assuming they want merely to be like the Western world. Kissinger’s other main point is that technology, the global issues it has already wrought (climate change for example), and the issues that have yet to fully manifest (mostly related to computers and biology), are stressing the existing system to a degree unparalleled in history. One is left with the impression that it is already too late. The existing “world order” has already become too inflexible, its momentum too great, to apply, and ENFORCE, global solutions to global issues. Kissinger doesn’t say disaster is inevitable, but I do not see how any other conclusion is possible.

In roughly the middle of the book Kissinger spends some time on the global effect of U.S. foreign policy from Theodore Roosevelt to Barrack Obama. He makes a number of observations here about the difference between the historical U.S. approach to foreign policy versus European statecraft, and notes of course that the foreign policy pendulum in the United States has shifted from episodic engagement to continuous engagement following the second world war. The force of U.S. engagement is derived from both economic and military power and importantly our willingness to use the latter now and then, though as it turns out mostly with inconclusive results.

I notice he elides his own personal involvement in what might be termed “nations behaving badly” back in the 1970s and 1980s, but aside from this lacuna his point, his final point in the whole book, is that whatever else it does, the United States cannot now withdraw from the world order, even such as it is, without destabilizing everything! This book was written in 2014 the middle of Obama’s second term. I wonder what he thinks now?

Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green 2017

This is a book about how and why Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Primarily it all comes down to three people: Trump himself, his instincts regarding his base, Bob Mercer (and his daughter) and his money, and Steve Bannon, the central figure whose decades long ambition to see the United States rid itself of anything smacking of a global brotherhood of nations (not to mention a world at peace) manifest itself in all of his projects effectively harnessed to elect Donald Trump.

This is a book about Steve Bannon. There is a bit of biographical history, but nothing fully explains his turn to virulent nationalism made in his younger years. Events, like the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that precipitated the turn yes, but many people were exposed to that and did not become xenophobes. Green gives us Bannon’s fascination with fringe 19th century philosophers coupled with wide reading of history. Bannon became the quintessential postmodernist man. No truth was worth preserving if it stood against a political victory for his views however intolerant and hurtful they might be.

Bannon had been acting on the far right political fringe long before he met Trump. In the early stages of the 2016 election cycle he wasn’t particularly a Trump fan. But he came to see Trump as the closest thing to a manifestation of his (Bannon) vision of an intolerant, isolated America, and as Bannon saw his opportunity he took it and carried it through. Evil people are not, after all, automatically dumb.

By the time the campaign really got going in early 2016, Bannon had four institutions under his control and/or guidance, all directed toward defeating Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. To be sure, Hillary was not the best Democrat to go against Trump. This had much to do with various corruption scandals (some legitimate, many made up by her haters since the 1990s) in which she and her husband were constantly embroiled. None of this would have mattered as much against any opponent other than Trump because the others would have distanced themselves from Bannon’s lies (every national politician has some corruption in their background somewhere) while Trump embraced and amplified them. No one other than Bannon realized how much a significant cohort of long-time Democrats disliked Hillary in particular.

Bannon had a four pillar strategy, all funded by Mercer money. First, Breitbart News, the pro-Trump propaganda machine. Second, the Government Accountability Institute, presided over by Peter Schweizer author of the devastating “Clinton Cash”. The GAI was Bannon’s anti-Clinton machine and to Bannon’s advantage there was real dirt to be found. Third was a film company Glittering Steel, a minor player in the drama, and the fourth Cambridge Analytica whose knowledge of tens of millions of racists and xenophobes, Trump’s base, fed exploitable data to the other three pillars. These four organizations together brought Hillary down, her own campaign utterly failing to realize how much anti-Clinton invective existed among democratic voters, with Comey’s revelation in the closing days of the campaign putting the final nail in her coffin.

Like Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s “Fear”, “Devil’s Bargain” is a superb piece of investigative journalism. But it is more. It is a dissection of a political campaign achieving its ends mostly by ignoring truth and firing up tens of millions of Americans whose focus in life is to hate anyone who isn’t them. It details a strategy that has to be the envy of every autocrat on the planet.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

Two Books by Francis Fukuyama

Here are two reviews of books by Francis Fukuyama in which he traces the evolution of political orders from prehistoric times to the modern day. His point is to demonstrate that all human societies, growing larger, must solve common sorts of problems no matter where in the world they are. In these books he carefully describes how these solutions come out in political orders of vastly different types. He is also interested in what and how factors contribute to both the similarities and differences in the present political orders on Earth. These factors include geography, climate, foreign contact, ideas, economic activity, technology, external and internal conflict (war, civil-war, revolution), and ideas, especially the presence or absence of a culture-wide transcendental religion.

In another book, “The Shield of Achilles” 2011, Philip Bobbitt looks at the political evolution of Europe (to which Fukuyama gives much but not exclusive focus) and argues that the evolution of modern European states was very much a product of war and evolving military technology. In large measure Fukuyama agrees with this (especially as concerns Europe) although he suggests that many other factors are also important. Bobbitt distinguishes between four evolutionary stages beginning with Kingdoms in the medieval, and proceeding, in different places at different times and at different rates, through Kingly-States, State-Nations, to Nation-States. Fukuyama’s view cuts across these distinctions tracing the development of his three pillars of the modern political order (not any of them represented in literally everywhere on Earth in the present day) state-bureaucracy, rule-of-law, and upward and downward accountability. It is not the presence or absence of any of these that distinguishes the political orders described by Bobbitt, but rather the particular forms, especially the bureaucracy, taken in each place at various stages of history.

Bobbitt seems most interested in what he believes comes next in political evolution, the Corporate-State, something he notes is well underway in the United States, China, and in other places again evolving in different ways and at different rates. But what Bobbitt sees as a next step in political evolution, Fukuyama sees as “political decay”. The fundamental purpose of a State is to provide services that benefit the entire population as much as this should be possible. Such things as public school, medical care, roads, disaster mitigation, economic opportunity, and so on. Because the need for these things is global, throughout the nation, and because of this best coordinated, even if specific implementation directives are contracted to private enterprise, by the State. But when the State begins giving too much of this responsibility away to private enterprise it loses some control over the process. Moreover, when the private services become large and economically important enough, they become too big to fail and actually capture the political process. They come to control (usually by financial influence) those parts of the government that are supposed to be controlling them! This process weakens two of Fukuyama’s three legs, the State itself, and accountability! What for Bobbitt is the future is for Fukuyama a decline.

Origins of the Political Order

This is volume I of a two volume work. This first takes political and social evolution from pre-human times to just prior to the French and American revolutions. Fukuyama begins with pre-human (ape) social organization to put paid to both Hobbes who believed that the first humans were individually at constant warfare, and Rousseau who claimed that the earliest humans lived in idyllic individual circumstances because they were so distantly separated from one another. Apes live in family bands, early humans probably lived in family bands. These bands evolved into tribes whose organization had several advantages over family bands, and at one point, this stage of development characterized all human societies throughout the world.

Fukuyama distinguishes three broad aspects to any developing political order. A coherent “territorial state” administered more or less uniformly across some geographic domain. To be a true state, the central power (however it emerges) must control, more rather than less, the administration of its domain. Next, the “rule of law” which at a minimum means that the central authority recognizes that there are some (perhaps not many) codified limits to its power especially concerning property (land) rights. Third comes “accountability” which can go upwards (people become accountable to the government) and downwards (government accountable to people). These are broad ideas. Rule of law need not be constitutional (for example) and accountability of the government to “the people” might include only the noble class and not literally everyone.

Cutting across Fukuyama’s distinctions here are evolving groups within an evolving political order. There comes to be the king or other autocrat, some nobility (an elite class of one sort or another almost always land owners) and everyone else. Eventually the “everyone else” divides into skilled craftsmen, traders, professionals, a bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The non-peasant group he calls the “third estate”. There is a lot of variation within each of these groups and Fukuyama covers many of those variations as they bear substantially on how the three aspects (state, law, accountability) come together or fail to do so in different circumstances. The circumstances are the most varied of all as one might expect. War or the threat of war, famine, geography, climate, economics, evolving religion, accidents of succession (the king dies without heirs) and technology all played their part.

Fukuyama begins with China which developed “true statehood” by 300 BC, far earlier than any other polity. This is not to say the first state lasted. There were many ups and downs, reversions to a more tribal form of social organization and the evolution of new states. While China developed true territorial states with meritocratic administrations earlier than anyone else, it has not, even today achieved a true rule of law nor top down accountability. He moves on from China to South Asia where India was next to develop state-like organization while religion in its case (Brahmanism) actually solidified class differences along the lines of earlier tribal organizations. Today India has all three components in its polity, but the state is weak having far to much of the strong tribe-like organization competing with it. I am oversimplifying here. I cannot do justice to Fukuyama’s much more nuanced analysis in a short review.

Next he moves west and explores the emergence of Islamic polities and in particular the Ottomans who developed some of the strangest meritocratic institutions of all. Islam unified all classes in a religious sense, but it never managed to disentangle itself from secular institutions leaving this whole part of the world “caesaropapist” meaning that the head of the state is also the head of the religious order, though often there is a class of priests and scholars who are supposed to be consulted…

Lastly Fukuyama moves over to Europe where he focuses on France, Spain, England, Hungary, Russia, and the Nordic nations. In all of these countries the Catholic church had an enormous influence unifying law across all social classes and eventually separating from the early caesaropapist style into a true church separate from the true state that remained strong enough to impose rule of law (more or less) on kings. “More or less” usually because there were different balances between king, nobility, and all the others. Of these England, for historical and geographic reasons, had the best and earliest balance of all the various social forces leading to genuine rule of law and bi-directional accountability. Hungary had a version of the English Magna Carta, called the “Golden Bull”. But the Magna Carta left in place a strong king and a balanced nobility, while the Golden Bull made the nobility so powerful that its vested interests eventually destroyed the state.

By contrast to Catholic France, Spain, and Orthodox Russia, the Reformation was largely responsible for the evolution of upward accountability in the Nordic region because to realize the Protestant principle, that every man should interpret the Bible for himself, everyone, even the peasants, were taught to read! This enabled the peasants to organize politically, something that did not happen anywhere else except England where it occurred for quite different reasons. Among other factors English peasants were allowed to escape the land and become part of the third estate in evolving cities because the king used them to balance the lords. By contrast France, Spain, and Russia blocked this evolution because their kings aligned themselves with the nobility against the peasantry.

In his second-to-last chapter Fukuyama summarizes how these various balances worked themselves out everywhere from China around to Europe. In the last chapter he briefly covers how the play of these forces changed following the industrial revolution and how present technology and modern economics comes to bear on them.

This is a long scholarly work with lots of references. Throughout Fukuyama writes in an easy style and colors the analysis with enough specifics to keep it interesting without becoming over bearing. I am looking forward to volume II.

Political Order and Political Decay

This is the second of two volumes by Fukuyama on the broad subject of political evolution on Earth. The first volume (reviewed) covered with broad strokes the evolution of political orders on Earth from the times of universal band-level societies through to the French and American revolutions near the end of the 18th century. He chose this cut-off because the industrial revolution beginning in the early 19th century was for many reasons a turning point in the economics underlying political orders throughout the world.

There was substantial evolution of political systems around the globe prior to the 19th century. The universal band-level societies of 10,000 years prior had become tribal organizations of various sizes, and also true states (China long having the lead here with genuine political states preceding anything like them in Europe or elsewhere by a thousand years). In this evolution Fukuyama distinguishes between three threads that comprise separate (though co-influencing) threads of political evolution, the State represented by its administrative bureaucracy, the rule of law (which does not always evolve) and accountability upwards from the population to the government and downwards from the government to the population. There are modern States (China in particular) that have not yet evolved a true rule-of-law nor downward accountability. But all states prior to the 19th century did have one thing in common. All human societies of that time were dominantly agrarian.

The industrial revolution in Europe and the then nascent United States changed everything. Up until that point technological innovation was slow. Every advance in the production of more food and other goods was absorbed by expanding population that prevented any serious accumulation of wealth other than in and to very small classes of political elites. The industrial revolution changed all of this by generating increased food production, goods, and technological change faster than expanding populations could absorb them, leading to surplus wealth. In turn, surplus wealth led to a large scale differentiation in types of labor, specialization, which in turn led to the multiplication of political classes whose members, economic drivers who did not exist in earlier times (or existed in very small numbers), demanded and eventually achieved access to the political process.

In this volume Fukuyama brings his three political dimensions forward in time to the present age and demonstrates how the principle of development (evolution) and decay are everywhere playing out against the backdrop of what motivates them; economic activity, technology, war, ideas, and the changing communities of people themselves. He carefully investigates China, Japan, India, Italy, Greece, France, England, Germany, Russia, and the United States also comparing and contrasting their various forms with modern political and social evolution in South America (especially Argentina), the Far East, and sub-Saharan Africa. In the last, many problems are continent wide but he highlights two, Nigeria almost a failed state, and Tanzania being an African exception (in addition to South Africa) having achieved something of a stable balance between the three dimensions of state, rule of law, and accountability. I learned much about my own country they never taught me in school!

Fukuyama’s general conclusion is that every state must solve similar though not identical kinds of social and political problems and the solutions evolved are often similar but never the same. A combination that works in one place normally cannot be transplanted to another and what can be transplanted depends on what was there before. Furthermore at the present time everyone of these states is experiencing political decay in some of their institutions. The United States invented the political form he calls ‘clientalism’, the mass-oriented impersonal version of earlier ‘patrimonialism’, in the early 19th century. Italy and Greece are clientalistic states even today. America broke free of clientalism by the mid 20th century and built an efficient state which, since the late 20th century has fallen back through a process Fukuyama calls ‘repatrimonialization’ in which the state’s apparatus become captured by special interests.

All in all a very clear-eyed look at political evolution on our planet. There are keen insights and chilling possibilities galore. Fukuyama’s style is not dense and so reads easily. The book is long, but it rewards the reader with a deep knowledge of the nuances of modern political development.