26 October 2018

Aristotle on small initial error

In De Caelo Aristotle formulates a thought that has repercussions far beyond the particular context in which it is uttered:

σχεδὸν γὰρ αὓτη πασῶν ἀρχὴ τῶν ἐναντιώσεων τοῖς ἀποφηναμένοις τι περὶ τῆς ὃλης φύσεως καὶ γέγονε καὶ γένοιτ΄ ἄν, εἴπερ καὶ τὸ μικρὸν παραβῆναι τῆς ἀληθείας ἀφισταμένοις γίνεται πόρρω μυριοπλάσιον. (De Caelo I v. 271b7-10)

"This, one could say, is what has been and will [continue to] be the source of all the contradictions among those pronouncing on beings as a whole, since going astray from the truth just a little initially becomes multiplied ten-thousandfold standing far [from the starting-point]." (De Caelo I v. 271b7-10)

The crucial word here is ἀρχὴ, which can be rendered in various ways in English as 'principle', 'starting-point', 'source', 'beginning', especially in the sense that the ἀρχὴ governs what proceeds from it. In the quote, this meaning is apparent because a little error in the principle results in major deviations from the 'truth' further down the line.

In Metaphysics Book Delta, Aristotle provides a definition of the multiple meanings of ἀρχὴ, pointing out that they are all a kind of ὄθεν, i.e. a 'whence'.

Most frequently, this 'whence' is taken in a chronological sense as the source whence something develops in linear time, but this is a restriction that suits the lazy thinking apparent everywhere, for instance, in evolutionary theory.

Or the 'whence' is taken as the starting-point, i.e. the premises, of an argument that proceeds by logical deduction. If your premises are false, so formal logic proclaims, then your conclusions will be fallacious. This is a favourite way of proceeding in mainstream philosophy and elsewhere: arguing for your position.

A deeper signification of ἀρχὴ, however, is the starting-point for thinking through phenomena conceptually. Such a path of thinking has to respect a sequence of thinking in which the concepts of more fundamental and elementary phenomena precede and provide the basis for thinking, i.e. forming adequate concepts for, more complex phenomena with more determinations. This is often called, as in Hegel, moving from the most abstract, simple phenomena step by step to the more concrete phenomena whose concepts require the concepts of simpler phenomena to be properly articulated.

One crucial case in point, which to date philosophical thinking has obstinately ignored, is whether a concept of time must precede the phenomena of movement and change to grasp them adequately, or whether time is a concept that presupposes the phenomenon of movement. The traditional conception of time is the latter: that time is a number lifted off movement by counting it. Hence Aristotle's famous formula for time:
"Time is the number of movement with regard to before and after." 
(ὀ χρόνος ἀριθμὸς κινήσεως κατὰ τὸ πρότερον καὶ ὕστερον ἐστιν. Phys. IV xi 219b2; cf. also De Caelo I ix. 279a15)

Elsewhere, in Aristotle's "before and after" & quantum gravity, I have pointed out that this definition of time is viciously circular. There has to be a deeper, more elementary conception of time on which this definition is based in order to account for the "before and after" in it. I won't repeat here what I have said before.

Here it is important to see that the path on which thinking thinks through phenomena makes a very big difference, and if you choose the wrong starting-point you will end up, down the road, very far from the truth of the phenomena themselves, no matter how clever your theories are. The truth here is not the conclusion of a valid logical argument, but an insight into how the phenomena show, disclose themselves of themselves if you care to look closely enough and do not obscure their self-disclosure with theoretical constructions.

Western thinking's starting with a linear conception of time counted off movement has had enormous repercussions for the trajectory of Western history as a whole, for without it there would be no science, no ἐπιστήμη, and therefore also no global technoscience. We would be on another historical path altogether on which science with its absolute will to efficient power would assume its proper, more modest place.

Further reading A Question of Time.

16 October 2018

Conscious subject plaything of the Zeit-Geist

The conscious subject is supposed to be the bedrock for conceiving human being for all time. Hence, for instance, science speaks unrestrainedly of the evolution over millennia of consciousness in the species of animal called homo sapiens. Humankind is thus conceived as just one among many animal species and given the flattering label of 'wise'. Such putative long-term ontogenetic evolution of consciousness is thought to be somehow a result of, or at least concomitant with, the enlargement of the human brain over long periods of linear time.  Human consciousness is supposed to emerge in linear chronological time through some kind of increase in complexity of the brain's neural interconnections which, in turn, is explained (teleologically) as serving the enhanced survival of the species. Science's conviction is that one day 'we' will scientifically explain the evolutionary emergence of human consciousness on a scientifically materialist basis.

Conceiving human being itself as specifically distinguished from other animal species by intelligent consciousness residing in the conscious subject, however, shows how our self-conception is the plaything of our historical time's own mind, i.e. our shared historical time-mind or Zeit-Geist that here encompasses both the mind and spirit of the times. For, marking the human species with the specific difference of (intelligent, mooded) consciousness, as happened only in the modern age, differs radically from ancient determinations of this hallmark as soul, anima, animus, ψυχή or νοῦς. Talk of the soul, for instance, is out of bounds for today's science. The Christian soul is also conceived in an essentially different way from the Latin anima or the Greek ψυχή.

One consequence of conceiving human being as subjective consciousness is that mind itself becomes individualized, encapsulated in individual, interior consciousness. Such postulated, brain-based, individual consciousnesses 'inside' can then only come together 'outside' through some sort of collectivity of consciousness which modern mainstream philosophy conceives as collective intentionality of will. What this inside/outside dichotomy actually means and how (since, on closer examination, it can be seen that it does not do justice to the phenomena themselves) it can be overcome (as treated in other of my posts and books) remains a hardly noticed ontological problem.

Such a conception of subjective consciousness comes too late, for individual consciousness always already partakes of the mind of our scientifically dominated historical age. The Zeit-Geist is prior to the conception of interior consciousness of individual subjects, for it is the source that has cast human being itself as interiorized consciousness. The casting of human being itself as individual subjectivity endowed with interior consciousness is itself a fairly recent historical event. This hermeneutic casting is not the terminus of history, since, through philosophical thinking, history may have a further twist through recasting. The casting itself can be historically interrogated and revised, thus rescuing human being conceived inappropriately as subjective consciousness from its status as mere plaything of an hegemonic mind-set by paying close attention to certain simple, elementary phenomena that are "hard to see" (Aristotle), i.e. are taken as self-evident and therefore, even after millennia of Western thinking, have yet to come to adequate concepts.

The crucial point in the present context is that the very interiority of consciousness vis-à-vis an objective external world supposedly independent of subjective, individualized consciousness is questionable. Such questioning is anything other than mere scepticism, but forceful interrogation of entrenched clichés in thinking that brings an alternative to light. Despite our age's hegemonic mind-set that is fixated on an absolute will to effective power over all kinds of movements (including even the explanatory power of evolutionary story-telling), the Zeit-Geist retains nevertheless an historical malleability under philosophical interrogation that can transcend such a fixation.

Further reading: A Question of Time: An alternative cast of mind.


08 October 2018

Power over whats and whos

In a famous formulation, Aristotle defines power (δύναμις) to be ἀρχή μεταβολῆς ἐν ἄλλῳ ἠ  ᾗ ἄλλο. (Met. Theta 1, 1046a9f), i.e. "a source governing a change in something else or in the same being insofar as it is regarded as something else". This is the metaphysical formula for productive, efficient power to effect a change from a power source that provides the foundational ontology of movement in all Western thinking, and today globally, in all scientifico-technological thinking. All science, i.e. all ἐπιστήμη, from the Greeks on is will to efficient, effective power over all kinds of movement and change. This will is the theological orientation of modern science's onto-theology, i.e. its metaphysics.

This famous formulation can be given a further twist: ἀρχή μεταβολῆς ἐν τινι ἠ τις ᾗ τι, i.e. "a source governing a change in something or in someone regarded as something" or, to bring out the difference between what and who: "a source governing a change in somewhat or in somewho regarded as somewhat". This variant brings to the fore the essential character of epistemic power as a power over whats, or whos insofar as they are seen as whats. For this reason, modern science, born in the seventeenth century as mathematized physics, retained its essential will to power over whats, or whos as whats, when it developed further into the various social sciences such as political economy, psychology and sociology. To fulfil its essential determination as science, all social science has to emulate physics in striving for knowing power over the movements and changes of people by reducing their genuine whoness to a whatness amenable to the will to effective power. The phenomenological violence of this reduction still goes unnoticed today.

This observation enables a better understanding of Heidegger's statement, "The question concerning who the human being is [...] cannot be adequately asked within the domain of traditional metaphysics, which remains essentially ‘physics’." (Die Frage, wer der Mensch ist [...] läßt sich im Bereich der überlieferten Metaphysik, die wesentlich ‚Physik‘ bleibt, nicht zureichend fragen. Martin Heidegger Einführung in die Metaphysik S. 107)

The singleness of the source of effective power in Aristotle's definition nips in the bud any genuine access to the phenomenality of a plurality of whos in power interplay with one another. Such a power interplay precludes establishing a single source of power over whos, i.e. of social power. Rather, social power can only be adequately conceived as mutually estimative power interplays of various kinds. This hermeneutic as remains in oblivion as long as an alternative ontology of movement and change to the Aristotelean ontology of causally efficient movement, which remains tacitly intact throughout all modern science, is not explicitly dismantled and curbed by philosophical thinking in favour of a phenomenally adequate ontology of specifically social, sociating movement and change that brings with it a radically alternative, historical cast of mind.

All kinds of authoritarian politics currently re-emerging across the globe treat people as things, i.e. as whats, to be manipulated, especially by calculating words, in ruthless power games. Likewise, today increasingly aiding authoritarian governments, the cyberworld is bent on algorithmically controlling all the movements of people through so-called 'artificial intelligence' and so-called 'deep learning' by neural networks fed with huge mountains of data. These data, on which the neural networks train, carry all the prejudices and biases of the empirical world, reducing human beings to statistically significant or insignificant data bit-strings, whereas the artificially intelligent algorithms enable an outsourcing and automation of power over people by dictating what they can and cannot do. 'Misjudgements' on the part of these 'intelligent' algorithms can and do have dire consequences.

However, here it is not so much a matter of pointing to dire consequences of algorithmic control and weighing them against those which are beneficial, convenient, entertaining or whatever. Philosophical thinking's task does not amount to a balancing act between upsides and downsides on some kind of ethical see-saw. Rather, already the terms 'artificial intelligence' and 'deep learning' in connection with the concatenation of countless universal Turing machines constituting the cyberworld indicate that we humans have long since become accustomed to thoughtlessly conceiving ourselves as whats, instead of insistently posing the question as to our whoness.  

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness and The Digital Cast of Being.