Monday, January 24, 2011

One of the best 50 ideas of the century

Thus far. Only 10 years worth of competition, but it's a start!

Raymond Tallis, reviewing Meillassoux's "After Finitude" in tpm:

At the heart of Kant’s various critiques is a response to David Hume’s observation that there is nothing in experience to explain why the world is ordered – why it is intelligible or even habitable. The causal glue that seems to hold things together is not a property of things in themselves: it is merely a product of our experience of patterns of events. The sense of necessity is just the result of the habits of expectation. Consequently, there is no reason why there should be such patterns and why they should be maintained: I have no grounds for expecting that the sun will rise tomorrow. The laws of nature seem shockingly contingent.

Kant was electrified by Hume’s argument that causation was not an intrinsic property of the world in itself. He went further and said that space and time were also properties of experience, of the phenomenal world, not the realm of things in themselves. Space, time and causation were the necessary conditions or “forms” of sense experience. Any world that was experienced would be experienced as set out in space and time and causally glued together. We do not therefore experience what there is as it is in itself. Hence metaphysics – an account of being qua being, the nature of the in-itself – was impossible.

[Meillassoux] recasts Hume’s problem as being about the contingency of the laws of nature. If the laws are contingent, does that not mean that it is highly unlikely that the world will be ordered? Won’t the laws, being contingent, change at such a frequency that the world will be chaotic, uninhabitable, unable to support life? No, Meillassoux says: this follows only if we assume that the rate of change of the laws, their instability, would be such that they would have an impact on ordinary life. Such an assumption relies on a judgement of probabilities but this, since the “detotalisation” of number through the discovery of transfinite quantities, is groundless. Hence the title of his book. Having established this, he goes on to argue not only that the laws of nature are contingent but that they are necessarily so. Hence the subtitle of his book.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Thing of This World

Review Article: Chronicling the Post-Kantian Erosion of Noumena -
In the conclusion, Braver returns to Kant, presenting once again the guiding hypothesis of the book: Kant as the common ground between the analytic and continental tradition. His most interestingly speculative claim is that the two traditions emerge from an internal dichotomy within Kant’s system:

My claim is that continental thought follows the spirit of his epistemology, while analytic thought follows the practical (which is rather ironic, given analytic philosophy’s emphasis on epistemology and continental’s insistence on the ubiquity of the ethical). Continental thought embodies the spirit of Kant’s theoretical work: we are essentially finite beings conditioned by forces beyond our control, and the job of philosophy is to help us understand these, not overcome them; there is nothing beyond them. Analytic philosophy takes up the ethical ethos: although we may be conditioned by accidental features, philosophy uses reason to pierce these conditions so that we can find truth which escapes their influence. (501-502)

Ultimately, Braver presents continental philosophy as a constant struggle with human finitude and the way contingent factors therefore influence subjectivity and the practice of philosophy itself. On the other hand, the analytic tradition was begotten by the ambition of pure rational thought to escape existential finitude and grasp truth- and things- ‘in themselves’.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Probability, Necessity, and Infinity

Quentin Meillassoux, "Potentiality and Virtuality":

"We have at our disposal the means to reformulate Hume's problem without abandoning the ontological perspective in favour of the epistemic perspective largely dominant today. Beginning to resolve the problem of induction comes down to delegitimating the probabilistic reasoning at the origin of the refusal of the contingency of laws. More precisely, it is a matter of showing what is fallacious in the inference from the contingency of laws to the frequency (and thus the observability) of their changing. This amounts to refusing the application of probability to the contingency of laws, thereby producing a valuable conceptual distinction between contingency understood in this radical sense and the usual concept of contingency conceived as chance subject to the laws of probability. Given such a distinction, it is no longer legitimate to maintain that the phenomenal stability of laws compels us to suppose their necessity."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Contingency of Nature’s Laws

Jeremy Dunham on Humean Lawlessness:
For Meillassoux, time has the ability to bring forth events which have absolutely no connection to the preceding situation. Freed from the principle of sufficient reason, we can be sure that metaphysical questions such as 'why these laws?' and 'where did we come from?' can be answered: 'From nothing. For nothing'. By denying causal power in nature, Meillassoux denies that the future need have any relation to the past and in doing so privileges logic above nature. However, Meillassoux’s explanation of our laws becomes rather like recourse to a Deus ex Machina, albeit a godless one. This becomes clearer in his argument concerning the emergence of conscious perception. One of the most common vitalist arguments against the Humean idea that the universe is nothing more than a contingent multiplicity of unconnected events, is that life could not possibly come from not-life: how could consciousness come from purely lifeless matter? Meillassoux agrees that one cannot 'short of sheer fantasy' find the seeds of the birth of consciousness in matter. Conscious perception, like the laws of nature, must have come ex nihilo—from nothing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nomologicalism vs. Accidentalism

Reality is either governed by rules, or it isn’t.

If all events transpire according to some rule or law, this is nomologicalism.

If there is no reason behind why events unfold as they do, this is accidentalism.

There are two variants of nomologicalism: deterministic and probabilistic. The laws that govern the unfolding of events are either deterministic or probabilistic in nature.

Note, however, that deterministic nomologicalism could be seen as just a special case of probabilistic nomologicalism - the case where all conceivable outcomes of any particular event are assigned a probability of either 0% or 100%. This is analogous to a Turing Machine just being a special kind of Probabilistic Automaton, one with transition probabilities of 0% or 100%.

But if nomologicalism is true then the question is: why is it true? Why do these governing laws exist and how are they enforced?

If there is no reason that we have the laws that we do, or there is no reason that they continue to hold, then this itself amounts to a kind of accidentalism. If there is no reason that the laws are as they are, then they could have been and may yet be otherwise. And if there is no reason that they continue to hold, then they may very well cease to hold at any instant.

In this case, the current state of things is accidental...there’s no reason it couldn’t have been otherwise, there’s no reason it won’t become otherwise.

But, if there is a reason that nomologicalism is true, and thus a reason for why our particular governing laws exist and a reason for why they are consistently enforced, then what is the reason for that reason?

If there is no reason for the reason, then this again amounts to a kind of accidentalism.

The only way to avoid accidentalism is to posit an infinite hierarchy of reasons for reasons for reasons for reasons...and so on. An infinity of reasons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

More on Intelligence

A definition of intelligence from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

"The ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests)."

But what is an ability in a deterministic universe?

For any given input, a deterministic system can only react in one way.

If you expose a deterministic system to a set of inputs that represent a particular environment, the system will react in the one and only way it can to that set of inputs.

Knowledge is just the internal state of the deterministic system.

This is true of a human. This is true of a bacterium. This is true of a Roomba vacuum cleaner. This is true of a hurricane. This is true of a rock.

And, as I pointed out in the latter half of my earlier post, probabilistic systems are no better.

Intelligence is an arbitrary criterion based only on how things "seem" to you, and which has no other basis in how things are.

So, that is what I mean by:

"The word 'intelligence' doesn't refer to anything except the experiential requirements that the universe places on you as a consequence of its causal structure."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Intelligence and Nomologicalism

What is the significance of intelligence in a universe with deterministic laws?

Your performance on any IQ test is not due to your possessing some property called "intelligence", but rather is an inevitable outcome of the universe's initial conditions and governing causal laws.

The questions you are asked, the answers you give, the problems you are presented with, the solutions you develop - these were all implicit in the universe's first instant.

You, and the rest of the universe, are essentially "on rails". The unfolding of events and your experience of them is dictated by the deterministic causal laws.

Even if time flows (e.g. presentism), the causal structure of the universe is static...events can only transpire one way.

So, what can be said of intelligence in such a universe? Well...only what the deterministic laws require you to say about it. What can be believed about intelligence in such a universe? Obviously only what the deterministic laws require you to believe.

Solving a problem correctly is no more impressive or significant than rain falling "correctly". You answer the question in the only way the deterministic laws allow. The rain falls in the only way that the deterministic laws allow.

The word "intelligence" doesn't refer to anything except the experiential requirements that the universe places on you as a consequence of its causal structure.

=*=

What about the significance of intelligence in a universe with probabilistic laws?

The only change from the deterministic case is that the course of events isn't precisely predictable, even in principle.

However, the flow of events is still governed by the probabilistic causal laws. Which just means that to the extent that the flow of events isn't determined, it's random.

Again, the analogy with poker comes to mind: the rules of poker are stable and unchanging, while the randomness of the shuffle adds an element of unpredictability as to which cards you are actually dealt. So, to the extent that poker isn't determined, it's random.

The questions you're going to be asked and the problems you're going to be presented with in a probabilistic universe aren't predictable...but neither are your answers or your solutions, which result from the exact same underlying rule set. Again, to the extent that any of these things aren't determined, they're random.

Adding a random component to an otherwise deterministic framework does increase the number of possible states that are reachable from a given initial condition, but it doesn't add anything qualitatively new to the content of those states or to the process as a whole. Nothing new is added to the deterministic case that would give the word "intelligence" anything extra to refer to.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Necessity of Contingency

"The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others."

-- Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Time and Possibility

Let's divide your entire life, from your first conscious experience to your last, into 1 hour slices.

And let's instantiate each slice as it's own mini-universe. Each mini-universe complete with it's own initial conditions and causal laws - but containing only what is necessary to generate a given slice of your experience.

These mini-universes are made of the same stuff (whatever it actually is) as our universe, and each mini-universe exists as a independent isolated entity within the timeless Meillassouxian space of possibilities.

So if (as an example) quarks and electrons cause consciousness, this means that a mini-universe would spring into existence for each 1 hour slice, with each mini-universe containing only the minimum complement of quarks and electrons with the necessary initial states required to cause one particular hour of your experience. And, after one hour, the mini-universe ends.

This is conceivable, right?

So now we have these 525,600 mini-universes (assuming you have ~60 years of conscious experience over the course of your life), each holding 1 hour's worth of reality, each causally disconnected from all of the the other slices and everything else. And each existing eternally in the space of possibilities.

Would this kind of existence be worse than your current existence? Would it "feel" different?

What test could you perform that would assure you that the above scenario isn't actually your present situation?

Okay, now let's say that instead of 525,600 slices that are each 1 hour long, we have 1,892,160,000 slices that are each 1 second long. How would your total experience differ?

Now let's say we go to .001 second long slices. And then .00000000001 second slices. And so on. At some point does your conscious experience become noticeably distorted, or disappear? If so at what point, and why?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

After Finitude

An interesting review:
The notion of 'absolute time' that accompanies Meillassoux's acausal ontology is a time that seems endowed with only one dimension – the instant. It may well be that 'only the time that harbours the capacity to destroy every determinate reality, while obeying no determinate law – the time capable of destroying, without reason or law, both worlds and things – can be thought as an absolute.' The sense in which such an absolute can be thought as distinctively temporal is less obvious. Rather than any sort of articulation of past, present and future, Meillassoux's time is a matter of spontaneous and immediate irruption ex nihilo. Time is reduced, here, to a succession of 'gratuitous sequences'.

What does it mean to say that something did exist, but no longer does? This concept seems to require the further existence of an actual dimension of "Time".

But applying Meillassoux's principle of facticity: why should there be an actual time dimension? Why should things necessarily exist "in time"?

It seems more likely to me that time is just an aspect of subjective experience. In reality, all events exist simultaneously, eternally, and without order. Time only *seems* to flow in an ordered succession of moments, from past to future.

The actual ordering of events is irrelevant, because our experience imposes it's own ordering "from within".