Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gimme Fiction

Let's have some simulated worlds, where human possibilities play more-or-less freely, constrained only by our stick-it-iveness. Gimme hallelujahs. Gimme postcard landscapes. Give me instant travel: jungle vistas, the void of space without airports or spaceports. Gimme the three-second highlight of the two hours' lead-up. Gimme a five-second movie. Spike my dopamine. Wake me up. Time-lapse over the boring parts so you can see the whole process manifest, so you can see the breathing of the day, and so I can see it too. Gimme skills in the process of being learned, none of this sad cardboard-in-mouth taste of incompetence/mastery. Gimme the ability to enter your story in medias res--when else? Make me the delta of this broad insight watershed, where man-eating tigers still patrol the impossible-to-navigate swamps. Give me some leverage over the swelling of fatigue. Give me the ability to see logic dance: (1) if P then Q, (2) P. therefore, (C) Q. Also, if not Q, then not P. NB: the first is the form of comedy in dramaturgy, the second the form of tragedy. (Not really.) Give me playfulness until at least my thirtieth year. After that I'll live for others. Gimme the form of the argument: humans are the only fictional animal, owing to out hypertrophied narrative functions--that's the really wild thing. Gimme gimme gimme. Make me a good American: cognizant of my rights, and nobody else's.

Now for some questions. Is Allah just the most subtle way the protoplasm has continued its meaningless march into geological time? If society needs a mixture of mating strategies, does that mean we lose sight of society when we play to our strengths? Does sexually antagonistic selection make sense? Is anthropocentrism trivial? Could it be that woman is the measure of all things? Can one make Buddhist sense of Allah? (The converse is trivial.) Is grace really a gift for the fallen? Or do the fallen notice grace more because it is more contrastively salient? Is synchronicity a Big Lie or a Little Lie?

Now for some answers: That's not a good question. You can compartmentalize your approach and your anthropology. On the surface. No, because our society downplays it. Maybe: she does command the ultimate mystery. Maybe if you take the Paul Tillich route and make God the ground of being. Gift from whom? Sounds about right. Depends on whether you take it metaphysically or phenomenologically.

My apologies. That was too navel-gazing. But nobody reads this anyway.

Consider: "everything will probably not be okay."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Half-baked Philosophy (Part 4)

[I've been sick all day, so this is my almost unreadable attempt to make the day not a total write-off.]

So I have one essay almost completely constructed. The impetus of the essay is born of a not-so-humble project: to say what Eliot Sober should have said, or what he should have meant, whichever is more arrogant.

You see, in his 1997 symposium paper, "Two Outbreaks of Lawlessness in Recent Philosophy of Biology", he tries to make the case that although he mostly agrees with the view that there are no empirical laws in biology (what I will call the Beatty/Rosenberg line), he thinks that biological laws take a curiously nonempirical form: when examined, they turn out to be simple mathematical truths. And so, biology is filled with all sorts of laws.

There is something to this approach, but sober has been rightly criticized for not saying about how we come to recognize that such laws apply to some part of biology. The thought here is that, prima facie at least, it is the empirical generalizations that allow us to discern the application of a law to a domain that are doing explanatory work. And we want laws to do explanatory work, right?

This is, as far as I can tell, where the debate has been ever since. The "laws of biology" debate is one of those thickets of views where there seem to be complex, multi-party dynamics of misunderstanding preventing progress. And I intend to add to this a modified conception of law.

My essay, as I said earlier, will say what Sober should have said. There is something right about laws in biology being nonempirical, but I think it has to do with Sober holding a different conception of law. He wants us to adopt a looser requirement for what counts as a law. Now, my addition to all this will be to mix in some metaphysics that were introduced about 20 years ago to the debate about natural laws. There is, I foresee, a dialectic which will have to take place, and the upshot of it will have to be that this different, more metaphysically committed view will have to acknowledge, yet importantly sidestep the main objection to laws in biology, namely, the simple observation that evolution is contingent, or put another way, that contingency plays a richer role in biology as a historical science than it does in physics (though, of course, it's there as well: compare the debates around fine-tuning and the anthropic principle).

This is the state of my thoughts right now. Somewhat confused, but I have an almost-outline in my notebook. The main question now is: how does the DTA view of laws (also known as the "necessitarian" view of laws) sidestep the evolutioanry contingency thesis?


Consider: "Hope is a waking dream."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

3-Day Novel 2010 (Part 2)

2. The Cold Open

It is the night of January 22, 2009...

...and the faint sound of ice pellets hitting the large windows of the office is growing louder. Within can be heard the whirring of the HVAC system--a steady drone at the edge of only one awareness, the awareness of the person left here seven minutes before closing. He is preparing his exit. The scarf is laid out on his desk, taken out of the coat sleeve on the rack only seconds ago, and he is searching the other sleeve for his gloves, unaware, until just this moment that the gloves had fallen into the grey-brown goop at the roots of the coat tree.

He is cold. The pilled-up wool sweater, in conjunction with the HVAC system is not enough to fight the creeping chill. He knows why. The agency cannot afford to pay for an inspection this month. Not for a couple of weeks, until the emergency grant money comes through. He knows this because he is privy to the workplace email exchanges on this topic. Privy, somehow, even though he bears no managerial decision-making responsibility. Maybe because he is an affected party, having to sit here during the dead hours in the full blast of January. Or maybe it was a typical organizational oversight.

He is folding his newspaper into his backpack and decides to maximize the Microsoft Outlook window before shutting down the computer. Something at the edge of his awareness twitches: something is different. A few hundred milliseconds later he has identified the problem: three new emails. Three resumes, in just before the submission deadline

Balls! And I’m back to being personally involved in this goddamn joke of a nothing-doing pseudo-job. My third-person detachment is snapped in two, or three, or whatever. This means I have to print this shit out, collate it, staple it, date-stamp it and enter it in the log. “So the managers can have an easier time.” Yeah. So they can save themselves the 600 milliseconds it takes to write one word on the front of the resume. But no! I provide them with a nice checklist, where they can check off “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”. Processing these will take me between 6 and 10 minutes, depending on the precise formatting of the attachments. (For unfathomable reasons, PDFs are the bane of my existence.)

You may have noticed, gentle reader, that I do not want to be in this place any longer than absolutely necessary. Getting out right on the dot is a stupid little game I play with myself, a game of timing my preparatory actions just so everything converges on that ring of my cell phone alarm. And this has ruined everything. Though stupid, I feel as though I’ve lost the day, as though I’ve been crowded out by the wailing, hungry ghost-mouths of the unemployed. But whatever.

I am heartened to find that only two of the resumes have attachments, and those two have one attachment each. This is a great boon. I get greatly annoyed at those who split cover letters and resumes into different files. No thought to the ergonomics of lowly administrative support workers. I may be able to get out on time if I perform my actions in my scarf and coat and keep the gloves in my outer pocket. Hope is rekindled.

I print the first and third resumes--the ones with the attachments mercifully in .doc format, and I print out the body of the email for the third. I am actually struck by the ineptness of that third resume. Some acquired sense of exactness, of punctiliousness, of white-collar propriety is struck dumb by the audacity of this woman at flaunting the rules. But whatever.

Bullshit actions performed, I manage to leave only one minute late. As I lock up the building, and the deathly cold creeps under my layers, and as my body shivers violently, spasmodically (for I have been sitting for the last four hours), I reflect on how none of those three have a chance of actually getting the job, because even if the online posting wasn’t just there as an exercise in appearing fair (which is unlikely), and if they managed to stand out from the 300 other resumes I have received, none of those three had the necessary conjunction of qualifications: being beefy, white and a man. Because this job, the “doorperson” (another futile attempt at political correctness) for the homeless drop-in, requires just that. Oh, not because I work at a sexist organization, but because the prevalence of racist, sexist, angry assholes in the swelling ranks of homeless make women or visible minority doorpeople’s jobs impossible, even here.

I should probably say something about my workplace. It is not a typical office. It’s a reception area for the Reverend Denison Community Space, a basement that extends two stories down and three lots out, with entry from this nondescript bay-and-gable house on Augusta Avenue stuck between two now-shuttered tapas restaurants, harbingers of the inevitable gentrification of the Kensington Market neighbourhood. (Unless we never recover from our current credit clusterfuck.)

This place’s eponymous founder--Reverend Denison: priest, social justice activist, psychiatrist, atheist--had sunk his inheritance into digging out the vast basement that now serves more than 400 people per day. He has been credited with keeping the area affordable for all the usual generators of diversity because of the milling crowds of the destitute scared off the more dillettantish bohemians, the vanguard of gentrification.

Forgive me, but these reflections/descriptions are leaving me profoundly unmoved. This would be a good time to return to third-person narration, the only thing that makes me feel important anymore.

Consider: "The human mind does not boggle at multiple realizability. It does not balk at the open, indefinite vistas of the future. And it does not consider the otherwise crushing weight of the past."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

3-Day Novel 2010 (Part 1)

So, I've decided to serialize the novella/long story I wrote over Labour Day weekend back in September. The problem with it was that I needed about 6000 words to end the story, so I'm hoping I can write an ending worthy of the setup before we reach the point where I have to post the shitty band-aid ending. Anyway, installment one:

1. The Greek Chorus Speaks

It is the winter after the fall...

...when the bottom fell out. The charts they showed us on TV that September were hurriedly put together, squished vertically to make the downward line look less preposterous, less like the serene, intense face of Kali, the destroyer. All the same, sometimes the blue line dipped below the lower margin of the chart--the DOW dipping below 6000, then 5000, before we changed the channel.

The bottom had fallen out of the stock market--the metaphor doesn’t matter, for whatever we heard was ultimately the product of self-interested voodoo of whoever benefits--but for once, nobody seemed to benefit. The bottom had fallen out, which had gummed up the banks, and now their bottoms were falling out, and those who survived had clamped up and were treading water, hoarding jam for the winter, with one hand pushing away the needy while intoning standardized pieties. The TV told us it was always darkest before the dawn. It told us of market self-adjustments. It told us of grand opportunities for investment, for those in the know. It trotted out economist after economist, and after the outcry became too intense, they tried self-help gurus, inspirational speakers, even calm professorial types who amended the standard pieties with neologisms like “catagenesis”--the creation made possible only through destruction--but it did not stick. For even the stations’ bottoms were falling out. Our demigods--Wolf, Billo--were themselves sick, starved of the ambrosial effects of ratings, advertising dollars. Advertising for what? To whom? Ten news cycles later, the grimness of October showed, and the economy was in full tilt. So much so that our southern neighbours elected a (kind of ) black man to be president--catagenesis indeed!

That was the lay of the land globally. And as for locally, as for home: Hogtown, Toronto, Muddy York, Toronto the Good, the Centre of the World, We Who Classify Canada as either Toronto or not-Toronto (with apologies), that little blue line that went off the graph ramified out of abstraction into ten thousand things. Marble had begun to crumble from the tallest of our offices. The potholes multiplied. Traffic was lighter, then heavier, than lighter, like water swishing in a pan, tectonically rocked, blindly striving. We walked much more that fall, except when we drove like mad, drove anywhere out of the Big Smoke to grasp what serenity there was left in the fallow landscapes. For here among the towers, that insular human ecology that we stupidly called “the economy” was generating all manner of endangered species. And those were not about to lay down and die. No, they competed. We competed. We pushed each other off overcrowded buses. We found men with flashy shirts stabbed in alleys for their clubbing money. We roamed the inner suburbs in ever-growing bands, like some intellectual version of a zombie apocalypse. And we brooded; oh, we despaired. We drank coffee and tea and booze and we pounded tables as we pounded pavements. We spoke with the passion of Argentinean leftists before they were “disappeared”. We got together in basements for clothes swaps, for peasant stews, for games of chance and bull sessions. We produced several kinds of catastrophe chic.

But ultimately, we grew tired, and alone. We sank into our isolation even though those of us who still had rooms usually housed one or two hidden homeless, our unofficial roommates, our friends who were always there. But we Torontonians did not take to this newfound forced intimacy. So we walked around more. Walked the teeming streets. Walked the well-trafficked vibrant, diverse neighbourhoods Jane Jacobs was proud of, neighbourhood strips shuttered despite the teeming. Neighbourhood merchants eyeing the listless crowds anxiously instead of welcomingly.

That was the fall. When winter hit, the crowds cleared the streets and a whole new kind of crowding began.

Consider: "Economics just is voodoo."

Simple Sad Serious Things (Part 7)

Unlock and unfold
my friend. Unlock and unfold
the indie rock album cover landscape
with its etiolated grass,
lean-to sheds
and the ashes of the fire.
Let our hair and clothes
assume the essence of earthsmoke
and we'll pretend
we're grown-ups
recalling the summers by the river
in northern Ontario towns.
And we'll cry at the thought
of maple keys twirling downwards,
of stipples light in the grotto
(whatever that is),
of the fragrances of the fens and spinneys.
Or we'll laugh and laugh
at former garage-band antics,
the trombones, the strummed chords:
majors for the sunrise,
minors for night,
sevenths for the afternoon,
diminished sevenths for twilight,
arpeggios for precipitation,
steady-as-she goes bass lines
being, of course, the pulse of our lust.
And so, know, friend
that winter is coming
and vigor
for those who live opposite,
the secular Merlins.
And know that the brown gloom
of winter smog
beats grey gloom
of ice fog.
And grow that beard
for face warmth.
Learn to expect nothing from nature,
not insight from the circling of the birds,
nor resources, nor mates,
expect nothing--turn inward
to the ever-whistling tea kettle
behind your eyes.

Consider: "The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot."

Half-baked Philosophy (Part 3)

I'm growing increasingly powerful in my ignorance. It has become my universal acid. For example, about two weeks ago I reached a point in my immersion in philosophy where I honestly had no idea what "explanation" was. The week after, it was "levels of analysis" which were utterly opaque. (What is this metaphor doing here, at the heart of things?)

Anyway, if you recall the last post about Steiner's book, I've reached that point of ignorance with him. Having read his book (well, I skimmed the last third since I don't speak math, so I trust him to have uttered only truths in regard to the eigenvalues and Hamiltonians and complex lie algebras and SU(3) symmetries and what have you), I have no idea what motivated him to write it. This is the fulcrum. His main argument seems to be that mathematics is anthropocentric since its development relies on human considerations such as beauty and convenience. OK. That's fine. And then he says this is trouble for "naturalism" which he defines as merely anti-anthropocentrism. He then uses these troubles of naturalism to take aim at science, somehow. The problem here, it seems to me, is that the anthropocentrism he defends, and on which the traction of his argument rests, is trivial. Math is anthropocentric, at least covertly, because humans do it. So of course it will advert to human characteristics at some point. Everything does. That's the weakest possible form of anthropocentrism, and there's no way to get around it.

So either Steiner is tilting at straw windmills (I know it's a mixed metaphor--bite me), or scientists are so naive that it's not even childish. Knowing a few scientists, I'm gonna go with Steiner having taken a wrong turn. I suspect he thinks that the naturalism he's opposing bleeds into the Quinean type of naturalism, which views philosophy as an extension, and based in, science. How that's related to anti-anthropocentrism is a complex story. To be sure, anti-anthropocentrism is a guiding principle in many fields of scientific endeavor, but that does not generalize to everything.

For my part, I do think that math is anthropocentric in Steiner's sense. I think I gestured in the last post about how it's a field of endeavor that progressively abstracts and sharpens the Kantian-type "categories" our minds come furnished with. So it's a great way of thinking straight, or kind of straight, when physicists/chemists/biologists/etc. co-opt it.

So. What the hell is abstraction? And what are these categories?

I'm incredibly powerful in my ignorance.

Consider: "Only laughter can blow a colossal humbug to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Half-baked Philosophy (Part 2)

So for the past couple of days I've been holed up with Mark Steiner's "The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem". Those of you who know me may well wonder what the hell I'm doing in this part of the philosophical terrain, since my history with mathematics is a long story of unrequited love. But, alas, here I am at the tail end of a philosophy of physics course, and I think I'll be writing on this.

One observation: I'd love Steiner to be my grandfather. He throws in jokes into the footnotes that actually made me laugh out loud a couple of times.

Anyway, my half-baked idea for the day approaches. So at one point in the book, Steiner argues that math is anthropocentric because it relies on standards of beauty and convenience, which are contingently dependent on us being the kinds of creatures we are. And that's fine, as far as it goes, because, really, who's going to argue for Platonism these days? (I know of one very awesome and well-respected person here at U of T who does, but that just goes to show you that we may all be crazy, but at least in a socially acceptable ways.) Anyway, so that got the apostate biologist in me thinking, because Steiner mentions evolutionary stories about the origins of our preferences and aesthetic tastes and all that. But I don't think he spun the just-so stories enough. My intuition is that if I keep spinning the stories, I may just end up with something (a) true and (b) interesting for this paper.

A first approximation of a sketch of the ballpark of the topic: mathematical practice is a cognitive exaptation of the aesthetic impulse, on which a lot more needs to be said. For example: aesthetic pleasure can be related to seeking. What are we seeking? How about intelligibility? That's related to sense-making which, on a cool and wacky reading of life (enactivism) is actually pretty foundational to all living things. So maybe math is a second-order sense-making where the first order is the concepts we bring to the world. In that way math is pretty much philosophy except cooler and involving different syntax, a kind of artificial language which evolves its terminology unlike the ossified structures of natural languages, which constantly breed confusion because they have to apply to the world in addition to being exapted by philosophers to serve different ends. So both philosophers and mathematicians are beneficial cognitive mutants. (I mean the truly great mathematicians/philosophers, not the merely professional.) But also, to go back to sense-making for a second, there may be a wacky kind of universality to math, at least maybe biologically, or counterfactually that may run as follows: creatures with certain kinds of first-order cognitive structures could, if circumstances are right, develop certain kinds of second-order abstractions, and even higher-order abstractions from that.

Whew. So where does wading in that thicket leave me? Is there anything to pull out of that? Maybe the idea that Steiner's just-so story about math doesn't go deeply enough. It's not just an aesthetic impulse that governs math. IT could be a seeking impulse. For what it's worth.

Oh, have I mentioned this is my essay-formulating week, so any kind of structured thinking (or semi-structured thinking) is helpful.

(I beg forgiveness on the jargon. But this is how I think most efficiently. One day I may in fact define these terms. It would help me as well.)

More on Steiner soon.

Consider: "Words move, music moves / only in time; but that which is only living / can only die."

Monday, December 06, 2010

Half-baked Philosophy (Part 1)

Background: I am pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy.

Right, so I'm struggling to formulate essay ideas. I have two to write in the next three weeks, and my idea-generating faculty is going slowly. So this is an exercise to at least have something put down which could serve as the basis for further refinement. I don't know why I needed to spell out, but it helps.

Today, after class, there was an interesting exchange regarding instantaneous velocity. Our prof thought it was too simple to think instantaneous velocity is just out there in the world, since to properly define the idea you need the concept of limit, and thereby calculus. Before calculus, you had to impale yourself on one of the horns of Zeno's paradox: either at each time there is some finite velocity, which, given that there are infinite positions between position x and y means that you've gone infinite distance, or there is no velocity at a particular time, in which case motion is impossible. There was some back-and-forth about neo-Kantianism and whether this is really any different from realism, and what the sense of world was, and what Kant can help himself to. Is there an essay in this? Doesn't look like it. But so it goes.

Consider: "I have no knowledge of myself as I am, but merely as I appear to myself."