Best Possible World: Gateway to the Millennium and Eschaton



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You see why philosophers have such a struggle with meaning. It is surely not amenable to analysis. There can be only one Meaning, like the one Norm, that does not dissolve into relativity.
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It had not come to me quite so clearly until today that ontology, logically and coherently, has got to be an all or nothing affair. There is no middle ground with ontology. It is everything, or nothing. Ontology is necessarily relational with grades of total relatedness. A creator would be of the highest grade. With ontology there can exist nothing beyond the pale. The convergent teleology of functionalism helped to bring home this message.
The analysis of functions is a method of very limited use, especially outside of engineering. Engineering is no small consideration, but overemphasis on it has had an unbalancing effect on the rest of culture. Control without wisdom is ultimately fatal.
These ideas are pervasively implicit, but they do need to be made explicit at this time in history.
The gestalt-like quality of ontology is impossible to demonstrate in a piecemeal fashion. It cannot be ladled out. There is a leap. Very few, indeed, will not make this leap. The personal drama of it is not incidental to the meaning of our existence. Life is always an all-or-nothing affair. The holism of the wisdom of life simply underscores this truism. Future generations will find it nearly impossible to conceive of the present degree of the fragmentation of human knowledge which has reached its nadir at this turning point. The resulting pain and confusion would almost instantly kill anyone who was acclimated to any other existence. The individual human psyche has been forged in this hellfire for reasons that, of course, we cannot presently imagine.
Let me say that the more mystical traditions have attempted to strike a balance between the all and the nothing, thereby reducing, to an extent, the tension of modern existence. Those on this path may still anticipate a leap. No one will be immune, regardless. No one can avoid history. It is certainly not an intellectual exercise, nor can it be a strictly individual process. It will be historical. I can talk about it, many can, but what do any of us truly know now? We all breathe the same air.
I am, let's be clear, talking about the spiritual transitions that will lead us up to the Eschaton, still generations hence. There is no need to storm heaven. We still have all the time in the world to get our house in order. That is what we are here for.

[11/24]


The only ontology that can count is functional. Functions are essentially relational and normative. Normativity is determined through agency. Agents, at minimum, are self-organizing entities. But agency, too, is essentially relational and open-ended. Agency is essentially microcosmic, as in the case of the nuclear family. The agency of any 'primitive' cannot be assessed other than in a tribal context. Tribes always and everywhere maintain an essential, self-organizational microcosmic mythology, by way of defining and conferring agenthood. There is literally no existence for such 'primitives' beyond that pale.
Then there are organisms. Organismal identity is essentially ecological. Existentialism is unknown in the world of ecology, as in the tribal domain. Would it be unfair to say that existentialism, indeed Existence, is essentially a literary conceit?
Then there are atoms. Yes, atoms are self-organizing, but atomic identity can only be chemically instantiated. Plus, the metaphysical exigencies of the Quantum loom large in this microcosm. Without a Bohrian-type Quantum mythos, identifiable atoms would only inhabit the dreams of Democritus. Individuated atoms exist only at the behest of observational protocols, which are essentially normative, and so are semi-permanently subject to revision, with an emphasis on the vision.
This is ontology in a nutshell. This is El Camino Real. Ontology is essentially an open book. It is an unfinished story: an unfinished vision. The existence of the merest atom is relative to the protocol of the Eschaton. The cosmic Ecos is contained in that Telos. It is only in the Telos of the Eschaton that the wave function of the probable potency of the Cosmos finally collapses. If that is not Judgment Day, then what could it be, pray tell?
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And what is the only extant, non-nihilist alternative to El Camino Real (~4,000 hits)? It is the camino of self-organization (243,000 hits).
It appears that El Camino Real is the Hinayana, while the camino of self-organization is the Mahayana of postmodernism.
I used to have a brother-in-law who was wont to say he was a 'self-made man'. I wondered about that then, and I wonder about 'self-organization' now. Are they not perhaps symptoms of a similar mindset?
Clearly, self-organization is rampant today. To what do we owe this phenomenon? What is its provenance, etc.? Has anyone bothered to look this Gift Horse in the mouth, I wonder?
Off the top, self-organization presents a mixed bag. Most generally it is presented as the essence of evolution. It might even be more accurate to say that self-organization is thought to be the quintessence of evolution. I use that word advisedly:
The Quintessence:
From the Golden Casket of Benedictus Figulus comes the following wisdom: "For the elements and their compounds in addition to crass matter, are composed of a subtle substance, or intrinsic radical humidity, diffused through the elemental parts, simple and wholly incorruptible, long preserving the things themselves in vigor and called the Spirit of the World, proceeding as it does from the Soul of the World. This is the one certain Life filling and fathoming all things, so that from the three emanations of sentient beings (Intellectual, Celestial, and Corruptible), there is formed the One Machine of the Whole World. This spirit by its virtue fecundates all subjects natural and artificial, pouring into them those hidden properties that we have been want to call the Fifth Essence, or Quintessence.
If you can find a more historically apt precedence for the 'self-organizational' ethos than the 'quintessence' of alchemical romance, please bring it forth. There is even the same naively robust, often explicitly Luciferian, animistic hubris. This is the same breathtaking hubris that we previously encountered in Transhumanism (here, here, etc).
We must also recall vitalism. If you can see daylight between the vital principle and the principle of self-organization, your powers of discernment are greater than mine.
The scientific and intellectual core for the ethos of self-organization is usually alleged to be at the Santa Fe Institute. The, hot off the press, centerpiece of the Institute's effort appears to be:
Evolutionary Dynamics Exploring the Interplay of Selection, Accident, Neutrality, and Function -- Edited by JAMES P. CRUTCHFIELD and PETER SCHUSTER (OUP, 9/20/02):
This book is an assessment and review of the recent progress in integrating evolutionary modeling and computation, molecular and developmental evolution, and nonlinear population dynamics into evolutionary theory. It brings together a wide range of eminent researchers in evolutionary dynamics in order to formulate a comprehensive theory that builds on nonlinear mathematics and physics. The text is divided into four sections: macroevolution; epochal evolution; population genetics, dynamics, and optimization; and evolution of cooperation, each containing several in-depth chapters and discussions.
As is evident on his home page, Jim has irons in several fires of interest. But I'm having difficulty locating an intellectual core or vision, amidst the many detailed and descriptive excursions. There are many ducks, but no particular alignment. I see no overarching thesis or integrating principle. I felt somewhat less adrift in the domain of biosemiotics: at least they have the SIGN. With self-organization must there not be a principle of the SELF? How can there be a discipline based on 'self-organization' with no coherent concept of the self? Is this an unfair question?
If I recall, it is Stuart Kauffman (mentioned previously) who is generally considered to be the elder statesman of Self-organization & Complexity. His most recent and only online publication: INVESTIGATIONS: THE NATURE OF AUTONOMOUS AGENTS AND THE WORLDS THEY MUTUALLY CREATE (1996). Here is his most recent book: At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (OUP 1995). In what is often alleged to be a burgeoning field, might we not expect an update from the master? The following is the unusually brief preface:

We live in a world of stunning biological complexity. Molecules of all varieties join in a metabolic dance to make cells. Cells interact with cells to form organisms; organisms interact with organisms to form ecosystems, economies, societies. Where did this grand architecture come from? For more than a century, the only theory that science has offered to explain how this order arose is natural selection. As Darwin taught us, the order of the biological world evolves as natural selection sifts among random mutations for the rare, useful forms. In this view of the history of life, organisms are cobbled-together contraptions wrought by selection, the silent and opportunistic tinkerer. Science has left us unaccountably improbable accidents against the cold, immense backdrop of space and time.


Thirty years of research have convinced me that this dominant view of biology is incomplete. As I will argue in this book, natural selection is important, but it has not labored alone to craft the fine architecutres of the biosphere, from cell to organism to ecosystem. Another source---self-organization---is the root source of order. The order of the biological world, I have come to believe, is not merely tinkered, but arises naturally and spontaneously because of these principles of self-organization---laws of complexity that we are just beginning to uncover and understand.
The past three centuries of science have been predominantly reductionist, attempting to break complex systems into simple parts, and those parts, in turn, into simpler parts. The reductionist program has been spectacularly successful, and will continue to be so. But it has often left a vacuum: How do we use the information gleaned about the parts to build up a theory of the whole? The deep difficulty here lies in the fact that the complex whole may exhibit properties that are not readily explained by understanding the parts. The complex whole, in a completely non-mystical sense, can often exhibit collective properties, "emergent" features that are lawful in their own right.
This book describes my own search for laws of complexity that govern how life arose naturally from a soup of molecules, evolving into the biosphere we see today. Whether we are talking about molecules cooperating [sic] to form cells or organisms cooperating to form ecosystems or buyers and sellers cooperating to form markets and economies, we will find grounds to believe that Darwinism is not enough, that natural selection cannot be the sole source of the order we see in the world. In crafting the living world, selection has always acted on systems that exhibit spontaneous order. If I am right, this underlying order, further honed by selection, augurs a new place for us---expected, rather than vastly improbable, at home in the universe is a newly understood way.
A word from the wise: as I was told in graduate school, whenever 'search' appears in the title of a scientific paper, you may automatically insert 'unsuccessful' in front of it. Is this then an example of hubris, just plain chutzpah, or the dream of an ageing scientist?
It is far from me to hold a brief against dreaming, but when a scientist does it, does that make it Science?
At this point I was about to compare Kauffman with his non-reductionist colleagues the Intelligent Designers. But let's listen in on Dembski himself: Alchemy, NK Boolean Style:
Appropriately modified, the joke about Rudolf Carnap can be retold about Stuart Kauffman and the scientific method he employs in At Home in the Universe. According to the modified joke, Kauffman's method is to begin any scientific investigation with the statement "Consider an NK Boolean network." Indeed, throughout At Home in the Universe just about every real-world problem gets translated into a toy-world problem involving NK Boolean networks. As with Carnap's formal languages, NK Boolean networks have the advantage of complete logical precision. But they also suffer the disadvantage of losing touch with reality. And it is this disadvantage which ultimately proves the undoing of Kauffman's project.
[.......] Indeed, Kauffman admits that he is searching for laws he has yet to find. An obvious question therefore arises: Whence Kauffman's confidence that such laws even exist?
Kauffman's confidence rests in an analogy. In the non-linear dynamics of physics and the simulations of computer science, Kauffman finds self-organizational scenarios that are suggestive of what might have happened in biology. Kauffman's project therefore is to use non-linear dynamics and computer simulations to massage our intuitions, make the search for laws of self-organization seem plausible, and ultimately facilitate the discovery of such laws. And of course, the main analytic tool for carrying out this project is his NK Boolean networks.
Before considering the details and merits of Kauffman's project, it will help to understand the motivation behind it. Throughout his book Kauffman makes very clear that he is after a non-mysterious account of the origin and development of life. For Kauffman such a non-mysterious account is one that appeals only to natural laws and is devoid of any reference to a "master choreographer" (p.208). Appeals to intelligent design are therefore ruled out from the start.
All the same, Kauffman is not wholly without a sense of mystery and the sacred. At the end of his book Kauffman encourages us to "reinvent" the sacred. Indeed, a religious impulse underlies Kauffman's rejection of strict Darwinism, with its exclusive dependence on mutation and selection. As Kauffman sees it, strict Darwinism makes the universe a giant test tube within a stochastic chemistry lab. To reinvent the sacred, Kauffman needs the universe to be more than a test tube--it needs to be our home. And for the universe to be our home, our place in the universe must be assured. Laws of self-organization hold such a promise. Thus Kauffman will write, "I would rather life be expected in this unfolding since the Big Bang than that life be incredibly improbable in the time span available" (p. 304).
Let us now turn to the details and merits of Kauffman's project. To strict Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Kauffman's project will seem thoroughly misguided. Indeed, what is the point of positing unknown laws of self-organization to explain biological phenomena when these same phenomena have already been adequately explained in terms of mutation and selection? Kauffman's project casts doubt where there ought to be certainty. Kauffman's project problematizes what ought not to be a problem. For the strict Darwinist, laws of self-organization are leeches whose only effect is to sap a perfectly good theory (i.e., the neo-Darwinian synthesis) of its vitality.
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Or consider Kauffman's ubiquitous NK Boolean networks. An NK Boolean network is a set of N nodes, each of which is assigned a value of 0 or 1, and which in being reassigned values depends functionally only on the values already assigned to K fixed nodes (K < N). No doubt, Kauffman's NK Boolean networks are capable of exhibiting many interesting behaviors. But to call the nodes "genes," as he is wont to do, and then take what he interprets as self-organizational behavior by the Boolean network as evidence for self-organization in the formation and development of life is utterly gratuitous.
Nowhere does Kauffman even attempt to establish a correspondence between the mathematical models he runs on his computer and the actual processes matter must undergo to form a biological system. I find this omission unconscionable, for it represents a descent into mysticism worse than any Kauffman claims to avoid. Kauffman will write, "it is not implausible that life emerged as a phase transition to collective autocatalysis once a chemical minestrone, held in a localized region able to sustain adequately high concentrations, became thick enough with molecular diversity" (p. 274). This is not science, but alchemy (cf. p. 277 where Kauffman actually uses the word "alchemy" to describe what he is doing).
I could not have said it better myself. Are there any articulate defenders of Kauffman, we might wonder? However, this purloined description of NK networks reminds me of something more recent:
A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram (2002). What I have previously gathered from the reviews is a mathematics considerably advanced over Kauffman's, but equally lacking in connection to the real world.
We might wonder if Complexity Theory, for lack of a generally applicable theory, is running out of steam? What might supplant it in the minds of our neo-alchemists?
Would it be fair to say that the Complexionists are running into problems similar to those of the Connectionists? I suspect as much. They both get very bogged down in the notorious intractability of networks. Attempts to render them natural, seem only to contribute to that intractability.
The complexity site listed second on Google features this essay: Neo-Transcendentalist Philosophy[!]:
It is characterised by taking the best aspects from spiritual thinking, adding the down to earth approach of science, merging with the creative flexibility of mind and then stirring the whole with the lure of a better future via evolutionary choice. This is not Utopian, it is not Other Worldly, nor is it Materialistic. It transcends those static categories and offers a dynamic, complexity related, way of thinking that treats the whole not the part, one eminently suitable for the 21st Century.
As you can see, the New Age has gotten its teeth into Complexity and is not about to let go. It is not clear that Kauffman & Co. would find this even slightly embarrassing.
Whether we take the philosophical idealist stance that the world doesn't exist outside such thought or take the realist version that the world itself gave rise to the thought matters less that the recognition that such abstractions are instrumental in determining how we behave. They themselves do have reality and are causally effective, but at a higher level than material objects, and are what we call in complexity thinking 'emergent properties'.
Eclecticism is the order of the day. I know of no postmodernists who would have problem with this. What I see is simply a non-reductive naturalism with a pinch of Transhumanist utopianism. Another name for this might be Scientific or Natural Pantheism. Another term of choice among the Complexity people is 'autopoiesis':
THE ONTOLOGICAL FOUNDATION OF AUTOPOIETIC THEORY -- Kent Palmer, Ph.D:
Philosophizing on the basis of an avowed ignorance of even the rudiments of Western philosophy is common. Another factor is the prevalence of nihilistic and extreme schools of thought within philosophy itself, such as Analytic Philosophy, Deconstructionism and other related Post-modernist movements. Most of these lines of thought are repugnant to scientists and reinforces their distrust of philosophy. However, without philosophy the meaning of scientific theories and facts remain obscured. And many of the implicit philosophical positions within science are just as nihilistic as the philosophical schools that cause folks that think of themselves as scientists to blanch. In fact the Krisis that Husserl pointed out in Western Science is still in full swing. Science has become detached from the lifeworld and teeters on the abyss of meaninglessness and nihilism through this disconnection from the consideration of meaning and the rise of instrumentalism. What we need to do is bring the best insights of recent Continental philosophy to bear on our scientific practice and use that as a context for understanding the phenomena that are addressed by autopoietic theory and its extension into the social realm.
This brings us nearly full-circle to Biosemiotics.
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There is a widespread desire and need for some sort of macro-realism. Mathematics has been critical in establishing a micro-realism (modulo the quantum, of course). But the attempts to use math to extend realism to larger scales, notably the attempts of Thom, Kauffman, Wolfram, etc., have had very limited success. The inadequacy of mathematics opens the door to semiotics, and other more speculative initiatives, this being one of those.
The simple fact is that meaning is holistic. There is no way to compartment it. When Quine discovered the holism of meaning he failed to follow up on it, certainly not in the grand manner suggested herein. Existentialism attempts to compartment meaning to individual human existences, e.g. to you and me, separately.

[11/25]


The Self-organizing, Autopoietic Complexionists wish, in effect, to extend Existentialism to cover any individual system. The idea is that ontology, meaning, emergence, functionality, rationality, etc. can be individually compartmented within each given system. The news of the Millennium may be that this compartmentalization is not possible.
Each special science and discipline would like to have its own autonomous ontology and epistemology. This is what pluralism is about. This is the American Way, is it not? Perhaps, but it may not be the way of reason.
There is the issue of holism. Consider the holism of mathematics. The integers, for example, are a logical whole and cannot be ontologically partitioned. The even numbers cannot be understood apart from the odd numbers. This seems trivial, but neither may the integers be understood outside the context of the rationals, nor the rationals apart from the real continuum. But did not the early mathematicians manage quite well in ignorance of the irrational numbers? True, but they also missed a great deal in their understanding of the integers because of that ignorance, as modern number theory testifies.
Similarly the subjects of algebra and geometry were once treated as quite separate disciplines, but now we have trigonometry, algebraic topology, etc. In modern mathematics there are still specialists, of course, but the greatest strides have come in discovering deep homologies between the disciplines. Thus the structural knowledge of one mathematical discipline can be imported wholesale into another, leading to remarkable cross-fertilization and an explosion of knowledge. And don't get me started on mathematical physics. We may be under the impression that we are managing quite well in our pluralism, but what are we missing?
Imagine attempting to do mathematics without the concept of infinity. This is just what the mathematical constructivists attempt to do, and by all accounts it is a very ineffective method by comparison. The inductive approach of science may be equally ineffective, and it would be impossible in many areas without recourse to the deductive power of a robust mathematics.
It is likely to turn out that the notion of the transcendental is to our general knowledge of the world, as the notion of infinity is to our mathematical understanding. The reductionists, like the mathematical constructivists, argue that we have no proof of the infinite or the transcendental, and so any reference to it is illegitimate. The difference is that no one pays attention to the constructivists.
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There is much indirect evidence that the transcendental is the foundation of our intelligence. Not many years ago it was being said that metaphysics was a 'disease' of language. The point is that language is irredeemably holistic and metaphysical: intentionality be a hallmark of the latter. Like their constructivist colleagues in mathematics, the analytical reductionists hoped to put language on a crash metaphysics-free diet. A century these ambitions have vanished without a trace.
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