cosmodicy of local systems (a thought experiment)

yggdrasil_by_friedrich_wilhelm_heine

“problem of evil”? no problem. evil doesn’t exist. neither do omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent beings.

to say that “evil doesn’t exist” means that “evil” doesn’t exist as a standalone generic category (or “universal”) or as a mysterious cosmic force. propagandist tabloid-thinking that takes up “evil” as this sort of “false universal” does irreparable harm. a “war on evil” is just as foolhardy as a “war on terror” (fish, 2001).

if we stipulate that “evils” refer to specific, concrete acts of “evil”, then we might allow that a generic, historically-open concept of “evil” exists as the sum of all evils. this would be like a register of all individual grievances, outcries in the face of suffering, feelings of being wronged, etc. an open, descriptive amalgam, not a closed, prescriptive code.

suppose, for now, that we do not wish to distinguish between sources of moral reasoning (in the strictly logical sense of “moral”, i.e. that from which a “should” is derived, in the sense in which a logician speaks of a “moral” premise) as these bear upon specific existential judgments about an action’s moral status (e.g. judging a human action to be “bad”, unsavory, intolerable, detrimental to ourselves and our own, strategically misaligned with the greater good, etc). we can still note that specific existential judgments about an action’s moral status are *relative*, and require a local context.

after einstein, physicists no longer acknowledge newtonian absolute space. in a newtonian cosmos, an object can be in motion (full stop). in an einsteinian cosmos, an object is always in motion “with respect to” a frame of reference. just so, there is no absolute evil, only relative evils. in fact, just as the einsteinian worldview swallowed the newtonian, wherever notions of “absolute evil(s)” have arisen historically, their existence can be explained by the “relative evils” theory–where “evils” are defined as relative to some culture’s holy book (and since most holy books are hallowed because they are “old” and “closed”, definitions of “evils” are perpetually “under-coded” in the wake of advances in any culture that follows such a book).

just as “evil” is a false universal in the moral realm, so “motion” is a false universal in the physical realm–specifically with respect to the centuries-old discussion of “free energy” or “perpetual motion”. in classic formulations, “perpetual motion” can never and will never be achieved because “a system that has more energy output than input” contradicts both logic and physics. so too, in classic formulations, one will never reconcile “god” and “evil” because doing so would contradict both logic and physics. both classic formulations lack a frame of reference, or what might be called an “ecology”.

what *can* be done is to frame the ecology as a closed system, both physically and temporally, as systems that do useful work for a useful amount of time. neither we nor anyone else will ever build a perpetual motion device. we can, however, build a 10,000 year clock. we can build communities that run solely on renewable energy for many generations. much effort in construction and maintenance may be required, but we will do it if we deem the output to be worth the input. similarly, neither we nor anyone else will ever win a “war on evil”. we can, however, enact local laws, establish local norms, and instill local values that curb the expression of injustice, inequality, oppression, and other specific, concrete evils.

in our local system, it may be that we could win one battle against one evil. organizing into larger groups, we may be able to expand our community’s sphere of influence to battle larger systematic injustices. ultimately, the planet itself is our ecosystem. if we can build a 10,000 year clock, perhaps we can build a planet whose societies, with constant maintenance, approach the limit of fairness toward living beings, one law, norm, or value at a time. from this perspective, doing so would be a question of engineering within our ecosystem.

a grand thought experiment, perhaps. but surely, one worth thinking.
______________

references:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodicy#Cosmodicy_and_anthropodicy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-monotheism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perpetual_motion
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_universals
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Said#Orientalism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essentialism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/15/opinion/condemnation-without-absolutes.html (fish, 2001)

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The Philosopher’s Tooth

Digital StillCamera

“For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.”
~ Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, V.i.36

“It’s been like this for years.” The old Armenian doctor with a thick accent and a kind face heavily scarred from acne is yanking back and forth on my numbed tooth.
“What?” I mutter absent-mindedly.
“The infection. It’s been like this for years, no? This affects everything: heart, brain, everything.”
I think back to when I had the filling put in.
The Saban Free Clinic off Beverly Boulevard. Jennifer, a dental student at USC, worked on my teeth. She told me she’d X-Ray the area and if there was no infection, she’d give me a filling. Otherwise, I’d need a root canal. I knew it was at least mildly infected, as I sometimes used to have to pop little pustules on my gum above the tooth. I didn’t say anything, because I was a student too, and couldn’t afford a root canal. Jennifer read the X-Rays negative. I got a filling. That was four years ago.
“Four years? I’ve been running my arteries & nerves through a cesspool of infection for four years? How has this affected my writing?” I wonder. I get another burst of body-wide perspiration. I’m trying to control the shaking. I’m light-headed. I’ve barely slept or eaten for three days. I’m using the deep breathing and mental focus techniques I’ve learned in the last few years to control my panic attacks. I’m having one now, but it’s not like the others.
“Breathe normal,” the old man tells me, as if that were easy.
He’s using a drill to cut my molar into three parts. I smell burning enamel and taste sand grain-sized tooth particles on the non-numbed side of my tongue. He puts the drill down, picks up dental pliers, and starts yanking again.
All I feel is pressure. There’s no pain. So why am I reacting this way? What’s up with my bodily reaction? It’s beyond my control.
Maw. Something is happening to my mouth. My mouth is a cave surveyed by an alien intelligence with hostile intent and precise metal tools. My mouth is a stage filled with tiny white actors. A flash of recognition and the prolonged gaze of the specialist makes my mouth visible as an object for my consciousness as a vulnerable opening-for-another, in addition to the usual invisible apparatus for subjective chewing. So this is what it feels like to have one’s subjective mouth objectified. Uncanny, unsettling, surreal. Mouth-subject becomes mouth-object, but the latter is missing a habituated concept, so the alienated concept of “cave” temporarily substitutes. A cave at once mine and not mine. Mouth now exists in some uncomfortable place between subject and object. With the mouthwork as the site of transformation, the “I” with which I usually identify has become liminal: I am the subject, and the subject is this open mouth. Or, as the Narrator in Fight Club might say, “I am Jack’s infected molar.”
“Unngh! Unnnggghh!!!” There’s the pain. The alien pulls his pliers out of my mouth. “I’m super light-headed.”
“Let’s stop a bit,” the Armenian obliges. “Sit up.” He pushes a lumbar button and the robotic dental recliner shape-shifts into its upright configuration. “Turn toward me.”
“Now head down.” He pushes my head between my legs and puts his hand on the back of my neck. “Push up!” he commands.
I push against his hand for a few seconds. Then he lets me sit up. He takes my wrist and pulse.
As soon as he reassures, “Pulse is normal,” “I know” comes out of my mouth. I do know. I’ve become an inside-out expert in the various kinds of panic attacks and can distinguish among their subtle experiential differences. So I know my pulse is normal. Still, it’s comforting to know that he knows, and that he’s willing to say it out loud to me. We make small talk for a few minutes.
“We go again?” he smiles. I consent. I lie back. More yanking, twisting, pulling.
The old quip, “The only thing to fear is fear itself” is eerily poignant to people who get panic attacks. Thinking about the fact you’re panicking makes you panic more. It’s a feedback loop.
Feedback loops have a structure and function all their own. Since physics often provides cognitive metaphors for metaphysics, the idea of a feedback loop may prove a rich source for philosophy. Poetry is one of my favorite genres in which to write philosophy and I’ve written a poem or two using the meme of feedback loops. Very different from linear causality.
Another tremor. I usually don’t shake during panic attacks. This is different. This is body trauma. Something doesn’t want to let go.
Yank.
“Owwwwwwwwnnggghh!!!”
Excruciating pain.
He removes the pliers. “That hurt?”
Thank you, Dr. Obvious. Yes. It hurt.
Scarface puts down the pliers and picks up a syringe. He pokes the needle into the roof of my mouth, just as he’d done at the beginning of the surgery. I feel the prick, the hot flow of chemicals into my system. It burns for a second, then feels good. As we wait for the numbing agent to kick in, I resolve that if I ever do this again, I’ll wait the extra day and go in for general anesthesia.
In circumstances like these, a day is no small matter. A couple days ago, I ingested enough painkillers to kill a medium-sized zebra. And that was just to get the pain manageable. In the last week, I’ve only had two truly “pain-free” instances, each lasting only a few moments. First instance: 10mg hydrocodone, 1000mg acetaminophen, 400mg ibuprofen, 20% benzocaine (topical). Single dose. One hour later, pain free for about two hours. Second instance: oddly enough, after no other topical or oral combination worked, 6 drops of cannabis glycerin. Immediate relief, pain-free mentally and physically for a few moments. Then enough pain reduction to get a highly rare and extremely coveted hour of sleep. Then six more drops. A second hour of sleep.
The doctor pushes against the huge, swollen, infected mass that covers the entire right side of my hard palate. “Is numb?”
“I can still feel it.”
Another injection.
I used to live near here, back in the day. Less than a mile from this office. Golden years. Post-religion, pre-anxiety. Sacred Dice glory days. My first drug phase, which remade me as a philosopher. “Consciousness rides chemicals” has been my formula, ever since the days my mental village turned cosmopolitan. Pre-divorce too. Talk about emotional trauma. Worse than my mentor’s suicide or the wholesale social exile and character assassination that often accompanies leaving a conservative ideological group. At the end of those days, I was an utterly desperate man as the finality of the separation descended, shamelessly crying my eyes out in public places like the Wilshire & San Vicente Coffee Bean or at La Cienega Park, where just this morning I strolled with my wickedly intelligent and ravishing girlfriend of two years. Destruction and creation.
“Is numb yet?” He pushes again.
“I still feel it.”
The doctor explains to me that the infection is blocking the medicine. He’s injecting local anaesthesic straight into pus. From here out, it’s pliers vs tooth, no filter. Raw pain.
“Ready?”
I lie back. “I can deal with pain,” I think. I played high school football. Invaluable training for mental toughness.
Yank.
“Oooowwwwnnnnnghhh!!!”
This is not high school football. The Armenian grows bold, pulling harder, working faster than before. He takes our chat as license to inflict any pain necessary to get the job done.
Yank.
Burn your thesaurus. The pain is beyond words. I clench my fists as tears stream down my face.
My friend John introduced me to mind-altering drugs. At the time, he fancied himself something of a shaman, even loaned me his copy of Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan. Following his lead, part of my induction into the world of shamanic drug use was learning the art of willed psychosomatic mindfulness. My eyes opened wide onto a new world rife with magic. Back then, I had enough of a mind-body connection to look my friends straight in the eyes and extinguish a burning cigarette on my hand without feeling any pain. I achieved this feat two or three times before the blister on my hand pulled me back into my body and checked my misguided shamanistic egoism.
This isn’t that. There’s no escape.
Doc clamps onto my tooth and TWISTS his pliers from the right side of my mouth all the way to the left.
Medieval torture. Nerve rape. Back in the Middle Ages when the theory of “humors” ruled medicine, they’d drain fluids to restore the body’s balance. They believed vile spirits inhabited certain fluids. I’m shaking and sweating and hoping for a quick drain. Extraction as exorcism.
I hear my tooth crack. I clench my fists harder, looking for somewhere to go in my head.
During my darkest hour, when my version of Winston Churchill’s “Big Black Dog” was at its biggest and blackest, I used to identify and catalogue suicidal ideations by noting which internal sensory modalities they affected (e.g. images, voices, feelings), before summoning the courage to stave off most varieties by taking mental vacations to El Matador Beach. It’s a tiny State Beach nestled just north of Zuma on the PCH. Sea caves. Tide pools. No tourists. Feels like a private beach. I’ve had beach sex there several times. Think about the good things. Easy trick, really. Dissociation.
Yank! T-W-W-I-I-I-S-S-S-T-T!
Then I remember the scene in Fight Club where the Narrator has been visiting self-help groups for people with all sorts of fatal ailments he doesn’t have. He’s just there for the camaraderie. The guided meditation guru at one such group recommends a similar pop-psychology magic trick: find a safe place and a power animal. Whenever pain or fear intrude, go to your safe place and find your power animal. The Narrator chooses an ice cave with a penguin. Fuck that. Tyler Durden holds the Narrator down and pours lye on his hand. The Narrator tries to dissociate. Tyler won’t let him: “This is the greatest moment of your life man, and you’re off somewhere missing it.”
Narrator grovels, begs.
“First you have to give up. First you have to know… not fear… know… that someday you’re gonna die.”
“You don’t know how this feels!”
Tyler shows Narrator burn mark on his own hand.
Narrator becomes placid, subdued.
Tyler’s closing remark: “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
I decide to try it on the next yank. Clenched fists, tears gushing spontaneously. Blood, I’m sure, too. I can’t see the blood, but I know it’s part of the process. What is pain?
Yank!
Oh, that’s pain. Suddenly, I’m in my body. I’m integrated. Whole. There’s a sort of twisted peace in this. It’s not perfect. I’ve still got thoughts and ideations. I imagine my tooth as the cork to a champagne bottle. I know I don’t get better unless it comes out. I focus on the tooth itself, the pain, the meaning of it all as part of the healing process.
POP!
It’s out. Immediate relief. The doctor informs me that pus is oozing out. The pain is gone. What’s utterly amazing is that the panic is gone too. Years of anxiety ooze out, their enamel headstone uprooted.
The doctor waves the bloody crown and root in front of me. “See?”
I do see. I’m hallucinating crystal clarity. Like sunrise over downtown Los Angeles after a night of hard rain from the top of Runyon Canyon. Like years of high-decibel television static, switched off in an instant. Like mushrooms.
Doctor Incredible sews me back up as I marvel at my new superpowers. All that pus. All that anxiety. How will this affect my writing? I’ll probably need to go home and rest. My friend Lauren brought over the Star Wars trilogy. A New Hope sounds good.

performing conscious process

Photo credit: Android Jones

in consciousness and life,
we identify with our practice.

being “in practice” as a philosopher
is more about daily reading & thinking
than having a degree on the wall,
just as being a practicing martial artist
requires daily discipline.

if you wish to become anything of value,
you must train daily to become who you are.

hypotheses:
consciousness is procedural.
identity is procedural.

the salience filters of consciousness
are in constant flux.
they are more like a standing wave
than a sieve.

many (if not most) of the lived categories
that suffuse our lives with meaning
are ad hoc,
since our lives are ad hoc
(we don’t merely experience generic concepts like “hat” or “friend”,
but “this particular favorite black ball cap of mine” &
“that individual friend with whom I discussed X yesterday.”)

the “this” of the “hoc”
in “ad hoc”
is temporal, spatial, & idiosyncratic:
“my” “here” “now”.

cognition & perception
(including those of the “proprio-” flavors)
are procedural & largely ad hoc.

hence the effects in
self-talk,
well-performed magic tricks,
hypnogogic hallucinations,
hypnotic states,
and psychedelic states.

for a while now
i’ve been fond of saying that
“consciousness rides chemicals”:
in other words,
consciousness is procedural
(at least in a chemical sense
if not other senses as well).

conceptual distinctions (e.g. “categories”)
& cognitive context
may be sedimented into core cognitive operations.

such sedimentation is common in early development.

later in life,
it becomes clear that
for many forms of
conceptual & cognitive infrastructure,
the “use it or lose it” rule applies:
neurons that no longer fire together
relax their wires.
machinery not well used & maintained
decays into
the neuro-chemistry of forgotten skills.

as it is in detroit or in ancient rome:
so it is with the mind.

many mansions of the mind
lie in ruins.

____

“framing”
is a local & logical
piling up of memes
such that a thesis makes sense.

“framing” is how some academics today manage to cling to partial intelligibility.

framing is local.
for framing to perform any useful logical work,
the local frame
must resonate with a sedimented conceptual framework,
leading to resonance with the thesis.

in rare cases,
local framing
may alter a conceptual framework
on a specific topic.

(nested contexts,
re-contextualization,
re-metaphorizing.)

hypotheses:
consciousness is performed.
consciousness is performative.
identity is performed.
identity is performative.

what i
“identify with”
or
who i
“identify as”
change,
often dramatically,
with life circumstance.

_____

graziano hypothesis:
consciousness is signal processing.
only signals & processors exist.

like the genome,
the neural substrate for signal processing
will appear largely similar
across individuals
in most test cases.

however,
like small individual differences in the genome,
sedimented or locally framed infrastructure
that provides a salience context
for signals
may differ wildly,
especially with respect to high-level, abstract sub-signals
like those we find in religion, politics, morality, or worldview.

who tunes the channels
for the internal radars
that sniff out
significance
in our lives as animals
or
in academics?

when i say
“consciousness is procedural,”
on one level,
i mean to echo
something very similar to
graziano’s “attention schema theory”:
viz., “awareness is a model of attention.”

saying “consciousness is procedural”,
means i wish to treat
consciousness as a physical process,
highly attuned to initial conditions.

change those initial conditions,
(e.g. by changing your conceptual frame,
changing your set & setting,
changing your life situation,
reading an article full of useful & persuasive philosophical distinctions,
drinking a glass of wine,
or smoking cannabis),
and you’ll change consciousness-as-process
as well as consciousness-as-(signal)-processor.

existential upshot:
consciousness & identity are in flux.
they’re procedural & performative.
they’re part of a great becoming.
daily practice helps determine them.
choice is involved.

even one’s sedimented conceptual framework
& salience filters
are in flux
and may be altered.

no “soul” exists.
no “mind” exists.
no “i” exists.
(or, if that’s too strong for you:)
“i” change (even “the i” we mean by “i” changes.)
“existence precedes essence” (sartre).
you only ever “are” who you “are” here & now.

consciousness & identity are procedural & performative.

that’s why it’s important
in your ongoing quest for awareness & self-awareness
to pay attention to set & setting
and
to develop a practice.
__________

bibliography:

https://aeon.co/essays/how-consciousness-works-and-why-we-believe-in-ghosts

The Essence of Peopling

http://www.sciencealert.com/consciousness-occurs-in-time-slices-lasting-only-milliseconds-study-suggests

Intuition of the Instant: French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Our Paradoxical Experience of Time

http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/gentner/papers/GentnerKurtz05.pdf
http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/gentner/papers/KurtzGentner01.pdf
http://csjarchive.cogsci.rpi.edu/proceedings/2009/papers/101/paper101.pdf
http://psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/psy430s2001/Barsalou%20LW%20Ad%20Hoc%20Categories%20Mem%20&%20Cog%201983.pdf

https://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Social-Brain-Michael-Graziano/dp/0190263199/
https://www.amazon.com/Surfaces-Essences-Analogy-Fuel-Thinking/dp/0465018475/
https://www.amazon.com/Stuff-Thought-Language-Window-Nature/dp/0143114247/
https://www.amazon.com/Metaphors-We-Live-George-Lakoff/dp/0226468011/

Infinite Material Gratitude

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Infinite Material Gratitude
is “infinite” in the sense
that it is practically limitless.

Isaac Newton, in his “Calculus,”
developed the mathematical notion of a “limit“:
the value a function or sequence “approaches”
as the index (or input) approaches some value.
In practice, in appropriate circumstances,
limits “round up” the impractically large to infinity
and “round down” the impractically tiny to zero.
Contemporary physicists borrow this
Newtonian conceptual slang
when discussing the mass of blackholes:
“Infinite mass, zero size.”

The Infinite Material Gratitude of Being Human, then,
begins by recognizing that each of us
is born onto a fully-developed,
inter-connected social, cultural, and communal stage.
We didn’t “work” for Michaelangelo’s “David,”
or Einstein’s relativity,
or Rumi’s verse.
We simply inherit it.
For free.

Without this free, common, cultural heritage,
we’re the biological equivalent of great apes.
Our human cultural heritage makes us who we are.
And we are freely given this birthright in bright,
diverse, continually-evolving overabundance.

In their book “Multitude,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
talk about how even the “non-working poor”
contribute to our humanity
through their existence and actions,
their thrift, their aspirations,
their ingenuity, their family and community lives,
their resistance to oppression.

In any population,
there will be a group of people
who break social norms,
whether by necessity or choice.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim called this group “deviants,”
and argued that while deviance in society is,
by definition, a deviation from “normal,”
it is utterly normal for populations to evolve
outliers, fringes, and deviant groups.

The poor in the USA today
are treated by the system
as deviants,
often criminals.

Especially the poor who,
for whatever reason,
are currently “non-working.”

But anyone who has ever done any “work”
(on the “forces” model of Newtonian physics,
not just a post-industrial, capitalist “jobs” model)
feels our visceral interconnection:
that culturally speaking,
we not only “stand on the shoulders of giants,”
but that we also are knit
into local and global communities.

Chefs, plumbers, electricians, artists,
grocery store clerks, city workers,
preschool teachers…
Challengers of fathers, helpers of siblings, comforters of loved ones…
Smilers at strangers…
Speakers of English, Mandarin, Farsi, Ancient Greek…
Archaeologists, botanists…
Lovers…

None of us does exactly what any Other does.

And yet, we all depend on each Other.

Materially.

Aristotle said that we
owe our parents a debt of
“infinite gratitude” –
they gave us LIFE itself,
and no market can put a price
on that precious gift.

We owe each Other this infinite gratitude.

We owe it to
our families,
our lovers,
our cultural forbears,
our fellow-laborers,
our employers,
even our (sometimes broken) governments.

That doesn’t mean we sink into
reactionary politics or
reformism or
apathy.

It means we don’t undermine
our own projects
by kicking the giant footstool
from beneath our own feet.

Let’s bury ingratitude
in the Imperial,
colonial past.

Better:  let the dead bury their dead.

Politics require tactics.
The best revolutions do too.

If there’s something within
post-industrial capitalism
that IS the problem,
it’s this:

blinding ourselves to the Other
(and to the infinite gratitude toward them
it is our birthright to foster)
behind the isolationist curtains
of privacy and individualism,
summed up in the
institutional history of the practice
of private property
(Specifically, the history of private property on the Imperial, colonial, “rape-murder-privatize” model. Yes.  That was us.  Both on the giving and the receiving end. No one gets a free pass here.)

The gratitude we each owe each other is infinite (practically limitless).
The gratitude we each owe each other is material (as in actual money, raw materials, material preconditions of the good life).
And the “Others” to whom we owe this gratitude are standing right next to us in real life.

Let’s get busy.

The Singularity is Social

AttentiveEye002

 

What is experience?  What is first person subjectivity?  Well, in a way, it’s that evanescent flux of sensation and perception that is, in a way, all we have and all we are.  It’s the multi-dimensional matrix of first person experience unfolding moment by moment.  It’s the voice in our head that lets us know that we exist.
       – Jason Silva

Where’s the social?
Where’s the sociopolitical in our thinking today?

Most of us have a modicum
of success
in our jobs, in our schools, in our families.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a goat farmer in Mozambique
or a corporate executive in Silicon Valley,
what makes our lives meaningful
is the people around us.

It’s their stories
that help us tell our own,
their values that we shape and serve.

It’s in this dialogue
with the people we love
about the values we cherish
that we create a shared world.

To experience a rich social life
is to experience the meaning of life,
what philosophers since Plato and Aristotle
have called “The Good Life,”
what French philosopher Michel Foucault called
“The Art of Existence.”

These philosophers were talking about
so much more
than what contemporary self-help gurus
& technicians of individuality
have to offer.

Life without other people
isn’t life.
You can see this in the way
dogs socialize at a dog park,
in the tragic stories of feral children
who end up being unable to receive & transmit
the rich social & cultural heritage
our species has accumulated over millennia,
and whose lives then amount
to little more than the life
of any other great ape.

And I think people are understanding this
more and more
as we move past a Cartesian solipsism,
a self-obsessed consumer culture
that has led to cults of personality
and an ever-widening income disparity
and an ever-shrinking fraction of 1% holding
the golden ticket to Elysium.

What’s so exciting to me
is that we’re all coming together.

This is the age of Occupy,
Wikileaks,
and Arab Spring.

This is an age where a single
contract employee of the NSA
can call to accountability an entire
global apparatus.

This is the age of a digital democracy
spawned by the invention of the internet
and a smartphone in the pocket
of every global citizen —
which means that,
increasingly, every human being
has the power to
create audiovisual and text content,
charged with their social, political, and communal values,
and instantly communicate those messages,
that voice,
over the technology-mediated,
mass-telepathy experiment
we call the “internet.”

As the Singularity draws near,
we’re democratizing its abundance,
its longevity,
its health,
its power,
and spreading it to
all the people.

And that’s exciting.

Pragmatics in Praxis

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This morning, I read a New Yorker article on A.I. entitled “Why Can’t My Computer Understand Me?”  It’s worth a read.  The article’s protagonist, Hector Levesque, denounces the Turing Test as too easy to scam.

I agree…with the proviso that, in the development of useful expert systems, we’ve reached a historic plateau in which, for business purposes, a useful metric is:  “Time to Turing-Complete” (TTTC).

My thinking on general AI still orbits a praxis-to-pragmatics approach, as opposed to development of highly specific algorithms that remain in the realm of mere semiotics or semantics:  (e.g. Explicit / Latent Semantic Analysis, Cluster analysis, Inverse Word-Frequency Analysis, HMM, etc.; e.g. Google search, Google Knowledge Graph, Evi, Siri, Wolfram Alpha(?), etc.)

However, lately I’ve been pondering a radical pragmatic expansion of Dedre Gentner’s “ad hoc categories.”  A popular stock example of an ad hoc category would be “Things you’d grab from your house in a fire.”  (Of course, life is always even more ad hoc:  “Things you’d grab from your house if there was a fire in the kitchen and you knew you had at least two minutes, but probably not five.”)

The radical pragmatic expansion is prompted by meditation on the social.

In every social system we engage, we generate an entire Gestalt, ad hoc, fabric of meaning (e.g. shared meanings, shared allusions, private codes, inside jokes, et al).  It’s as if there’s a pragmatic “terroir” to our everyday actions (e.g. My girlfriend appreciates the subtle inflections of what it means for me to do dishes these days, given my current projects.  On another level of granularity, every time I do dishes, I use an ad hoc cognitive map of which regularly-used bowls in our apartment fit inside other bowls).  In a social context, ad hoc categories are the rule, not the exception.  We live a social tapestry of ad hoc categories, an ad hoc cognitive tapestry.

To get what I mean by “pragmatics”, a concept as simple as J.L. Austin’s “performative utterance” suffices as an initial springboard: “By saying X, I hereby do Y.”  E.g. “By saying ‘I do,’ I hereby commit myself.” But Austin cared about “how to do things with words.”  Praxis approaches pragmatics from the action side rather than  the semantics side.  Thus, I envision a sort of socially-aware “performative activity” / “performative agency”:  when J does X in context Y, it means Z to M.  How to signify things with actions.

For General AI, then, one requires:

– Machine Learning
– Basic self-awareness (can represent and manipulate its own code) **not strictly necessary, but super cool…and perhaps easier to code.
– Social awareness & social self-awareness (awareness of oneself as a social agent among other social agents)
– Event ontology – Event matrix, Causality matrix, Pragmatic matrix (notion that every event derives meaning from social fabric)
– Rules for principled norm-keeping & norm-breaking
– Multi-modal & cross-modal representation paradigms (requires at least two sensors…e.g. audio, visual, text)
– Socially engaged experience
– Abstraction to rules from particular experiences, integrated with a
– Categorical ecology (continually updated “ontology”) derived from the social realm (others in this situation, do X, mean Y, etc.).

For the AI envisioned by the New Yorker article (let’s call it “Alligator-AI”) you need much less (for an initial prototype):

– Machine Learning
– A general pragmatic ontology (including all relevant facts about, say, an alligator…like its body plan)
– Precise grammatical parsing (proliferate potential grammatical models, then use a semantics parser / neural net to narrow down to a frame)
– The ability to invoke an answer-frame appropriate to the question-frame (Alligators can’t run 100M hurdles. Gazelles, on the other hand….)

…or we could just rest on our laurels with the accomplishment of AI in Twitterbots with the same satisfaction as if we’d just built the Great Pyramid.

Rhapsody On Metaphor & Intellectual Pleasure

Further, metaphors must not be far-fetched, but we must give names to things that have none by deriving the metaphor from what is akin and of the same kind, so that, as soon as it is uttered, it is clearly seen to be akin….

– Aristotle, Rhetoric 1405a

What are we doing when we aim for a semantic performance to be apt, profound, suggestive, provocative, poignant, obscure, entertaining, funny, or shocking?

In some sense, we’re looking to “do things with words:”   we’re aiming at perlocutionary uptake.  Examined from a somewhat absurd, but nonetheless traditional, (Cartesian-solipsistic) standpoint of isolated (but somehow linguistic) consciousnesses:  we intuit certain entailments of our metaphors we hope our audience also intuits.  Suppose, however, that we acknowledge that we’re out on parole from brutish apedom specifically because we’re on this langue journey together.  Then, it’s hard to say which is more remarkable:  (1) that we use the metaphor function of speech (Gr. metapherein) as a vehicle for the telepathic transfer of intelligence or (2) that we use the same function to invite the kind of social bonding that spawns political community and democratic co-navigation of our sociopolitical, economic, and physical cosmos.   Metaphor isn’t just simile sans feature-mapping.  Part of the intellectual pleasure we derive is “figuring out” the entailments of the metaphor–just as we intuit the logic of a joke, or trace the curve of a sexualized body past the regime of obscuring couture.  Following Locke’s theory of property, because we performed the intellectual labor, its fruits belong to us:  entailments, punchlines, fantastic jouissance.

In another sense, we’re exploring the “adjacent possible.”  Since a metaphor is a narrative in miniature, these remarks apply equally to metaphors and narratives, allegories and stories.  The adjacent possible is always qualified by topic (however technical) and by the mindsets & mindsettings of the interlocutors involved.  Physicists expect aptitude from their peers.  So too chemists, biologists, botanists, sci fi aficionados, philosophers, moralists, and even ordinary purveyors of pop culture.  Blockbuster movies sell tickets.  Jokes succeed or fall flat in social settings.  So too peer-reviewed journal articles, books, songs, paintings, fashion statements, scientific theories, proverbs, and parables.  All of these meme-laden semantic performances function as mental suggestions, whispering, “Join me in these realms of possibility.”

Similarly, by means of hortatory metapherein, every semantic performance is an invocation, a future-naming.  Each is an open-canon meme-set, rhizomatically extending into sparkling projections of dasein.  All culture (indeed all nature, so transformed) is a holistic and myriad-voiced, open invitation to “get in where you fit in”–aesthetically, logically, and morally–in all of your existential, social, creative, and intellectual capacities.  We mold the world’s potential to our own.  Archimedes had a very specific adjacent possible that transformed his altered bathwater levels into a eureka experience.  The same thinker, enjoying a cordial, sativa-elevated conversation on a cool summer’s evening, may perceive entire worlds in the same grain of sand she nonchalantly trampled after her last department meeting.

At our most salient, as we “name the nameless” together, we craft magic words that cast powerful social spells on our common future, and the long tails of our shared imagination summon a world that our psychosomatically-primed neurochemistry finds worthy of dopamine release.

______________________

Select References:

Aristotle, Rhetoric.
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words.
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence.
Ted Cohen, “Metaphor, Feeling, and Narrative.”
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, “Rhizome” in A Thousand Plateaus.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
Stuart Kauffman, Investigations.
George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor.
Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics.