24 October 2020

Pursuit of Happiness?

 "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness is a well-known phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence.[1] The phrase gives three examples of the unalienable rights which the Declaration says have been given to all humans by their creator, and which governments are created to protect." (Wikipedia)

The origin of this famous triad is usually given as "Life, Liberty and Estate" in John Locke's Two Treatises of Government from 1689, although this is disputed among scholars, as the Wikipedia article notes. This dispute among the scholars need not concern us here since usually the line of descent for the triad is assumed to be Locke's Two Treatises and this line has left its firm mark in political-philosophical thinking.

The phrase "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" occurs in a founding document from 1776 for government of the nascent United States, proclaiming "inalienable rights" for all those "men" entering into a compact for government from a state of nature. In Locke's Two Treatises, it is clearly said that “Government has no other end but the preservation of Property”, a man’s property being considered to comprise “his Life, Liberty and Estate”. The preservation of estate thus translates to the pursuit of happiness, i.e. from a more conservative, static connotation (preservation) to a more dynamic connotation of pursuit. Whereas estate is already actually possessed, happiness has to be striven for as potential, without guarantees of success. Taking the cue from Locke's famous triad, the phrase in the U.S. Declaration translates to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property for which the acquisition of property stands proxy for the fulfilment of happiness.

But what is property? It seems to be obvious: it consists in all the goods and chattels an individual person owns on the land this person also owns. 'Estate' is 'Anwesen' in German and οὐσία (ousia) in Greek. 'Anwesen' also means 'presence' in German and can be heard both as a noun (i.e. substantive) and a verbal noun, 'presencing'. Does happiness therefore consist in the presencing of private property to its owner? The Greek οὐσία, on the other hand, is the substantive formed from the feminine present participle for 'to be', thus literally 'beingness'. It is also the concept at the very core of Greek ontology as the first category, signifying the substance and essence of what something is, i.e. its substantive whatness. Read this way, the pursuit of property becomes the striving for substance in thingly possession. A 'man of substance' is therefore understood as a man who has pursued and managed to acquire substantial propertied estate. Is a man's stand and status as somewho, however, to be conceived adequately as his standing as a substantial property owner?

Understood in a more dynamic way, however, the striving for property can become the endless striving for possessions that may or may not be successful, although it keeps the striver on his or her toes. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property translates easily into the twentieth formulation of the so-called American Dream, i.e. the acquisition of private property, that has served as an advertisement of the desirability of the American way of life, especially for those poor immigrants reaching the shores of the United States from impoverished countries as long as, and to the extent that, the government had a welcoming, open-door policy. The American Dream has at least served as one of the justifications for American exceptionalism and its purported 'greatness' as the 'land of the free'. The privacy of private property consists in depriving others, including even the State, access to it. It thus dissociates society.

But what is private property apart from being a collection of things owned by a person? What is its essence? The essence only becomes visible by delving below the everyday appearances and turns out to be, as I have unfolded elsewhere (see links below) in extenso, thingified value. What is usually called capitalism is the movement of thingified value through its Protean guises in its cycle of augmentation, accumulation, its bloating. The augmentative movement of total global thingified value as capital, i.e. its valorization, requires its bearers, its players, who are enticed and necessitated to participate in the gainful game by striving for one of the guises of thingified value as income. The most basic income in this gainful game is wages and salaries. The other elementary forms of income are ground-rent, interest and profit of enterprise. A sole trader, for instance, earns both a profit of enterprise and a self-paid wage. These four basic forms of thingified value as income together constitute the total amount of thingified value generated by the gainful game in a given periodic cycle.

When seen this way, the pursuit of happiness can be deciphered socio-ontologically as the pursuit of income in the gainful game. Each U.S. citizen has the "inalienable right" and is individually free to become a player in the gainful game, striving for income, albeit without any guarantee of success and often failing to gain sufficient income to live well. All the individualized players in the gainful game, whether successful or not, are kept breathlessly in motion, motivated by the promise of gain. Beneath the surface of the economy, their pursuit realizes the accumulation of valorizing thingified value (aka capital), a movement that knows no limit.

For the players themselves, success in the gainful game is measured by the income gained, that is complemented by the happiness gained in freely spending the income gained as consumers. Consumers enjoy the personal, individualized freedom of choosing how to spend their income, including on acquiring durable goods, valuables, art works or real estate situated on a parcel of the Earth's surface. In fulfilling their role as consumers on the surface of society they enable, on the hidden, deeper level, i) the transformation of advanced capital into sales revenues, ii) the turnover of the valorizing thingified value, and thereby iii) its limitless accumulation. In their various roles in the gainful game the players are, namely, the character masks of thingified value-forms. Viewed thus, the individualized freedom to pursue, acquire and consume income is inverted into blind servility to the underlying movement of valorizing thingified value, bloating itself endlessly and senselessly by continual circular Protean transformation through its various value forms.

This American vision of human happiness and individual freedom that is supposed to serve as an ideal to be emulated by the rest of the 'free world' turns out to be the guise for an invisible, inverted world of endlessly accumulating thingified value unmoored from any human aim. We are all ineluctably entangled in this inverted world. The U.S., that often pronounces itself to be 'the greatest Nation that ever was on Earth' is thus captive to its own delusion of freedom as individualized, and entangled in the contradictions of this idea, many of whose forms of appearance on the surface of society are cruel and grotesque, and anything but the realization of happiness. We would do well to interrogate the idea of (individualized) freedom to reveal its seamy underbelly. Such interrogation calls for a renewal of thinking.

Further reading: Capital and Technology,  

Social Ontology of Whoness.

On Human Temporality.

Tale of the Qua.

22 October 2020

Turing's test of thinking

The Turing test is perhaps the best-known detail of Alan Turing's work, if only because it is easy to understand. But it also approaches one of the deepest questions by asking whether a digital machine can think like a human being without attempting to prescribe in what human thinking itself consists. It poses only the comparative question concerning whether a digital machine's responses to questions are comparable to, or indistinguishable from, the responses a presumably intelligent human being would give to the same questions.

Wikipedia summarizes as follows: "The test was introduced by Turing in his 1950 paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" while working at the University of Manchester.[4] It opens with the words: "I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?'" Because "thinking" is difficult to define, Turing chooses to "replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words."[5] Turing describes the new form of the problem in terms of a three-person game called the "imitation game", in which an interrogator asks questions of a man and a woman in another room in order to determine the correct sex of the two players. Turing's new question is: "Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?"[2] This question, Turing believed, is one that can actually be answered. In the remainder of the paper, he argued against all the major objections to the proposition that "machines can think".[6]" [Note that Turing is concerned with what is "imaginable", i.e. conceivable.]

Significantly, Turing's paper was published in the influential, establishment Mind journal, and the entire discussion in the Wikipedia entry is in terms of the human being conceived as a subject endowed with interior consciousness, as if this question were settled, cut and dried for all time, in fact, as if this question were a non-question that thinking does not have worry about.

One of the best-known objections to the Turing test was formulated by John Searle under the name of the Chinese room. Wikipedia summarizes this objection thus: "John Searle has argued that external behaviour cannot be used to determine if a machine is "actually" thinking or merely "simulating thinking."[36] His Chinese room argument is intended to show that, even if the Turing test is a good operational definition of intelligence, it may not indicate that the machine has a mind, consciousness, or intentionality." [Intentionality is the directedness of the mind toward something.]

Note that Searle's objection rests on the distinction between internal consciousness and external behaviour, a more than obvious objection for any philosopher, like Searle, steeped in and captive to the ontology of subject-object. Without the supposedly self-evident distinction between inside and outside consciousness the objection makes no sense and has no force at all. Searle's Chinese room objection begs the question whether human being itself can be adequately conceived as subjectivity endowed with intelligent internal consciousness at all.

Let us ponder the presupposition that the human being is a subject a little further. Turing's test is set up to test whether a human subject in conversational interplay with a digitized computer operating in line with the algorithmic steps of Universal Turing Machines or, alternatively, with a living human being, conceived as a subject, is able to distinguish reliably between his of her interlocutors. In his paper, Turing is confident that a computer will one day pass the Turing test, becoming indistinguishable from a human interlocutor, thus vindicating Turing's own conception that human thinking is 'nothing other than' the computation of computable numbers somehow by neuronal brain activity.

It is a human subject that [not who] is required to make a judgement about the status of his or her interlocutors: real human being or artificial computer? As subject, the human underlies and is the source of the judgement made. Note that 'sub-ject' means literally 'that which is thrown under'; it is the Latin translation of the ancient Greek ὑποκείμενον (hypokeimenon) which, in turn, means literally 'that which underlies'. [For the Greeks the 'subjects' were what today are called 'objects'. We live in a topsy-turvy world in many respects, that doesn't seem to faze anyone.] It is thus presupposed for the Turing test that the human being underlies the judgement, but is the human being really the underlying, judging, discerning subject in this test situation in which thinking itself is at stake?

The judging, discerning human being already conceives him- or herself reflectively in some way as a human being, and this reflective self-conception in our age will be inevitably as a living being (i.e. a kind of animal) endowed with interior consciousness and a mind embedded in that consciousness vis-à-vis the external world of objects. This self-conception inevitably also includes the preconception that thinking consciousness is somehow located in the brain, perhaps also connected with the rest of the body via the central nervous system. This latter preconception is highly convenient and axiomatic for today's neuroscience with all its ongoing and fast progressing research into the brain in order to 'solve' the problem concerning what constitutes thinking as such. Without the inside/outside distinction there could be no neuroscience. The resolution of this problem goes hand in hand with ceaseless efforts to make Artificial Intelligence. The very endeavour under the name of AI makes no sense at all if there is not already the preconceived conviction that human thinking is basically 'nothing other than' computation, of which Turing himself was convinced.

This leaves open the possibility that, with the advancement of the self-serving conviction that thinking is to be conceived as computation carried out somewhere inside, the behaviour as well as the self-conception of the human him- or herself adapts to that of digital computers running on algorithms, with the consequence that it becomes all the more likely that a machine can pass the Turing test. This eventuality is not a consequence of more and more superb supercomputers with petaFLOPS of computational power being built, but of human beings themselves conceiving themselves more and more as computers. In this scenario, the human subject is thus not only adapting to, but is being absorbed by the cyberworld and thus becoming indistinguishable from a cyborg by thinking their selves as cyborgs. The underlying subject thus becomes in the human mind an algorithmically operated what. The cyberworld here is not only an artificially built electronic network run by algorithms, nor only an electronic medium in which we immerse ourselves, but also, and even prior to its being built as an electronic medium, a conception in the mind, i.e. a state of mind.

Those who promote, who are fired up and excited by the approximation of human being to computational being composed of Universal Turing Machines will presumably be among the first to judge that a computer has passed the Turing test. In so doing, they will be unwittingly begging the question concerning human being itself without even noticing it. In any case, the hermeneutic-ontological conception of human being as animal endowed with intelligent consciousness is no ontological bulwark against this possibility lying on the horizon of our historical future today.

The question, Who is the human being? is not even on today's philosophical agenda. It is dismissed without a second thought if it obliquely crops up somewhere. The reason is that academic philosophy has today become the handmaiden and whore of effective modern science, either stridently defending the unquestioned ontological presuppositions of modern science or timidly and vainly seeking some kind of rapprochement with the more strident and aggressive analytic and post-analytic philosophy that so far maintains its hegemony in the academy.

Related: Interview with Katina Michael.

21 October 2020

Values, rights, power

Ethics are concerned with values and rights with regard to human beings living with one another on the Earth. Values are what we humans value, cherish, treasure, respect, estimate, esteem, starting perhaps with life itself and living well. Rights, on the other hand, are protected values, either by law or aspirationally so, as with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under the value of life itself, for instance, is the value that children should be spared labour in favour of being educated so as to be better prepared for adult life. This value is then proclaimed aspirationally as a regulative ideal in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one that ought to be protected for every child on the planet. Or it is also protected and enforced in the laws of certain countries, thus passing from what ought to be to what is the state of affairs. Infringements of rights, their negation, are legion. There are never-ending power struggles of every imaginable kind worldwide to establish values as actually protected and enforced values. 

With regard to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights there is also dispute among the various cultures over whether they truly deserve universal status. These disputes are fueled not only by non-Western cultures, but especially by political regimes for which the non-acknowledgement and suppression of human rights are convenient in order to exert and maintain power over and control their respective populations. It is plausible to point out that individual human rights are an 'invention' of the West that emerged through thinking on human freedom as individual freedom. In intercultural ethics it is often disputed that such individual freedom as proclaimed and cemented in individual human rights is inapplicable in non-Western cultures. The most visible and contentious example of this is the patriarchal nature of non-Western cultures in which androcratic customs serve to keep women and girls under the thumb of male power. Such androcracy is still very much alive in the West, but it also has long been put into question, at the latest since the 18th century, and the struggle to assert the value of female lives as women's rights has also had some success.

The human being as a human individual living in society is an historical event accompanied by philosophical thinking on human freedom itself within a given age. The individuality of the individual itself emerges through the loosening of feudal bonds of dependence and the ascendancy of capitalist market economists in struggles that threatened and ultimately deposed the political and social power of the feudal nobility. In the place of sociation through social relations of direct hierarchical subordination, sociation came to be mediated increasingly by thingified value in its various forms. The modern individual as an individual is enabled (not caused) by virtue of sociation via thingified value. 

When, in the 17th century, John Locke famously proclaims individual human rights, he does so in an historical context in which thingified value has already assumed a major role in sociating society. But Locke does not see thingified value as thingified value. He sees and thinks it as private property which is one of the phenomenal forms, guises or 'looks' of thingified value. It is therefore not merely incidentally that the idea (εἶδος or 'look') of human rights, as formulated in Locke's famous threesome of rights, includes the right to individually own property. If you own property or, more to the point, if you have at your disposal thingfied value in one of its several  garbs, usually money, you also have the freedom of social movement that reified value affords you as an individual. Money as universal equivalent gives you power over all that is for sale; the more money, the more power. 

Since capitalist market economy has long since become globalized as the gainful game in which almost all of us inhabitants on Earth are players, one can plausibly assert that the historical socio-ontological basis for individuality has today permeated and been established worldwide. Such individuality of human rights may well and does collide with other historical forms of sociation via other cultures' customs of hierarchical personal dependence, notably patriarchal androcracy, under which women and girls live and suffer. Their suffering as such is only visible to the mind against the backdrop of the historically cast individual rights intimately interwoven with sociation through thingified value.

Sociation in any society is accomplished through the interplay among the members of that society according to certain rules of play, namely, the customs of a culture and the power relations structuring the society through political power. Political power wielded by the state today ubiquitously includes the power to raise taxes from the subject-population and also the power to do physical violence to it by means of the police and, if need be, the military. The free interplay among individuals as such may be and is often fettered. Nevertheless, individual human freedom is the freedom of the individual to be the source of its own life-movements in the interplay with other individuals, where here life-movements are conceived very broadly (e.g. whether to have a child or not).

In the interplay with others, you exert your powers of life-movement as does your opposite player. The interplay is therefore necessarily a power interplay. As players in power interplay, you mutually estimate and esteem, i.e. value, each others powers, whether it be appreciatively or depreciatingly. The power interplay is either fair or ugly, fair or foul (cf. Macbeth's witches). It is social power interplay in which values are constituted in the first place. What we value as individual values in living with each other always has a grounding in how values are valued in sociating power interplay. Values are hence grounded in power interplay, just as rights are grounded in values in the sense of protections and guarantees for such rights.

Social freedom itself cannot be thought as such without a conception of sociation in power interplays, that is, through a kind of movement that is social, sociating movement emanating ultimately from individual players (no matter whether they regard themselves as individuals or not). Such power interplay can be seen more clearly when the overlay of customary forms of social power hierarchy is stripped away. Established customary forms of hierarchy, in effect, rig the outcomes of power interplay according to pre-given rules of play. In patriarchal societies, for example, a wife must always subjugate herself to and obey the man of the house. There is no room for a free power interplay, albeit that the woman may well resort to subterfuge and intrigue to get her way in the power interplay behind her lord and master's back.

Individual human rights as proclaimed and enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights therefore do not fall from the sky. Nor are they simply a set of regulative or normative ideals set up and envisaged by individual moral conscience, as Kant would have it. Rather, they have their socio-ontological origins i) in the values valued in a given historical way of living in which thingified value plays a prominent sociating role and ii), moreover, in the sociating power interplays played out. In this sense, one could say that values and rights, and hence ethics and morality themselves, are rooted in social power — and, more particularly, in those movements called power struggles — rather than in ideals.


20 October 2020

The way Americans talk

 A: "Thank you so much..."

B: "That's a great question... So, this is going to impact us... "

A: "What are we going to do, moving forward? ..."

B: "The data is, kind of like, disturbing..."

A: "Thank you so much..."

B: "That's a great question... So, this is going to impact us..."

A: "What are we going to do, moving forward? ..."

B: "The data is, like, unsettling..."

A: "Thank you so much..."

B: "That's a great question... So, this is going to impact us..."

A: "What are we going to do, moving forward? ..."

B: "The data is, like, discouraging..."

A: "Thank you so much..."


17 October 2020

What is conservative?

 A commonly accepted definition of conservative in both the political and social sense is that those who hold conservative views on the world want to conserve the social status quo. The opposite of conservative is progressive, meaning that those who hold progressive views on the world see and diagnose all sorts of failings in the present social set-up and want to change the status quo for the better. Whereas conservatives are pretty much satisfied with how the world is and will fight actively or passively resist to preserve the current state of affairs, progressives struggle to overcome the inequities of social living. This seems to me to be a tenable basic definition of conservative and its opposite, progressive.

Here, however, I want to take a different, unfamiliar tack by focusing on values, for conservatism is often cast as a desire and striving to conserve certain values characterized as moral and ethical. Such is, for instance, the ethical value of the right to life that is widely comprehensive and open to many different interpretations ranging from the anti-abortionist right of the unborn to live, to the right not be killed by the state under laws of capital punishment. The debates over ethical and moral values rage on. They all relate to how we estimate and esteem each other and/or the Earth, and they are never finally settled as perpetual rights, but subject to ever-renewed social and political struggle.

But what about that other sort of value intimately familiar from everyday life, namely, the value of things, in particular, commodity things sold on the market? Such economic values are normally cordoned off from the 'higher' ethical values as if they were, indeed, values, but of a somewhat lower, grubby status. A cover for this grubbiness is often provided by masking it with the 'high' value of economic freedom, such as the entrepreneurial freedom to set up a profit-making enterprise or the freedom of the consumer to choose among the endless array of goods and services for sale on the market. 

To start with the most elementary: goods and services. They are valued because they are useful for leading your life, such as a hairdresser who styles your hair or an electric shaver for shaving unwanted hair from your body. Usually you buy these services or goods with money for a price. The price paid is a practical, quantitative valuation and estimation of the value of the good or service; it values directly the work providing the service or indirectly the work that went into making the good or and also the contribution that the Earth made either by way of providing raw materials or simply a location for the work to be done.

The good or service is valuable in itself as being useful, but it is also valuable because it can be sold for money which, in turn, can be exchanged in buying something else. This exchange-value, as distinct from use-value, is quantitative in nature and it is also thingly, reified. With this value-thing you can buy anything that can be had for a price, not just goods and services, but also, say, a politician's honesty or a bureaucrat's official permission, both of which are said to be an abuse or illegitimate use of the exchange-power inherent in money. Money-value can also be legitimately exchanged to hire labour power, whose hiring and setting-to-work is at the heart of capitalism. The exchange may be fair or unfair depending on the wages paid and the working conditions.

Value, whose form or 'look' (εἶδος) we clearly understand, can assume many other thingly guises, including landed property, real estate, factories, mines, exquisite works of art, debt claims, shares in publicly traded companies, the option to purchase a commodity in the future. The list goes on and on, but all the derivative guises, forms or 'looks' of thingly value can be traced back to more elementary guises and especially to the monetary form of thingly value as the universal equivalent for anything else of thingly value. Money as the epitome of thingly value obscures and covers up that it is a social power to harness the powers and abilities of people to produce useful goods and services as well as the natural powers of the Earth for the same end.

Conservatives will usually claim that they value and stand for high ethical values they want to conserve and preserve, including traditional rituals and practices. They value the right to life in a certain traditional religious interpretation and also the traditional androcratic form of social living in the family. But underlying all this valuing of the traditional status quo conserving a given way of social living deemed "the best of all possible worlds" there is, almost without exception, the high estimation and valuing of the thingly property they own, along with the prospect of earning future income that, in turn, is thingified in some form of valuable property of whatever kind, even if it be a portfolio of stocks. Those who have property and also good prospects of enhancing and augmenting their property ownership, thus accumulating and 'having' thingified value in one of its myriad guises, have a strong leaning toward wanting to conserve their thingly value above all else. Their ethical and moral values are relegated to a secondary status behind the value of owning property for their own well-being, and this even to the extent of being morally hypocritical, bigoted and corrupt.

This valuing of thingly value over all else makes of conservatives worshippers of a god I call Pleon Exia. His name derives from the ancient Greek word πλεονεξἰα (pleonexia) meaning 'the wish and striving to have more, gain, greed, advantage'. The 'having' part of πλεονεξἰα, namely, -εξἰα, derives from the Greek verb 'to have'. Those who worship this god strive to have more and more and more, and also to savagely fight, with any deceptive rhetorical argument to hand, anything that stands in the way of this striving. Conservatives, in the first place, are those who have more and want to conserve this status above all else, including their 'higher' moral values with which their unbounded desire to have stands in conflict. 

In the second place conservatives are those who aspire and strive to have more, as in the seductive American Dream. Both classes of conservatives want, above all, to conserve their thingly value and all that supports and enhances its acquisition, its appropriation, either by fair means or foul. The foul means consist primarily in unfairly exploiting, and thus misesteeming, the labour power capitalist enterprises hire and also in rabidly exploiting the Earth, thus misesteeming its powers, solely with the aim a generating thingly profits. The thingified nature of value serves to cover up their bigotry in slavishly worshipping Pleon Exia at the cost of treating others (their powers) and the Earth (its natural powers) fairly in a fair and equitable estimation of what they offer. Fairness here is to be thought in the twofold sense of both beauty and fairness in social interplay.

Related: Philorock song Pleon Exia.

09 October 2020

A priori, a posteriori

Kant's main work, The Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft 1781A, 1787B), is famous for its investigation into whether there are "synthetic judgements a priori". These are propositions that are not merely analytic, but have a content and are prior to any experience of the world. A posteriori propositions, in sharp contrast, are only possible on the basis of experience of the world; they are empirical. Apart from mathematical propositions, which are analytic because they can be deduced from axioms defining a mathematical entity of some kind, all the science we are fed with today through the media has to be 'evidence-based', that is, based on empirical facts, empirical data gathered from the world on the basis of scientists' experience of the world, whether it be in an experiment or an empirical survey (e.g. mining mountains of data). 

That is to say that today's science is based overwhelmingly on a posteriori, factual experience of the world, and (purportedly) not on any a priori knowledge of the world prior to any experience of it. Any theory of any aspect of the world is assumed to be a kind of mental model of the world that first has to be tested empirically through experiment. As such, scientific theories of any kind (purportedly) are not and cannot be a priori. Even those mathematized theories thought up a priori to capture movement and change in the world, such as the weird and wonderful theories of quantum physics or Einstein's theory of general relativity, have to be tested a posteriori by suitable experiments. Or so it is claimed. (Hence, for instance, there is the simplistic verificationist epistemology of a Karl Popper.) Any reputable scientist has to believe in this dogma of experimental verifiability and deny that scientists can only proceed on the basis of a priori presuppositions prior to any conceivable experiment.

In truth, when today's science — as well as all the rest of us following obediently — denies the a priori and fixates on the a posteriori experiential givenness of the world for its evidence, it is coming too late, after the event.

Nonetheless, Kant claims against all empiricism that there are synthetic propositions about the world that can and must be made prior to any experience, even through they are not articulated. This ineluctable synthetic a priori that does not have to be given by experience is formulated in his famous assertion at the climax of the KdrV that the preconditions of possibility of experience of the world are identical with the preconditions of possibility of objective experience of the world. In German: "die Bedingungen der Möglichkeit der Erfahrung überhaupt sind zugleich Bedingungen der Möglichkeit der Gegenstände der Erfahrung, und haben darum objektive Gültigkeit in einem synthetischen Urteile a priori."(KdrV A158, B197) Against all empiricist theories of knowledge of the world, Kant is here claiming, after a long and involved discourse, that the world can only be experienced objectively and that the objectivity of the objects inhabiting the experiential world is constituted within the subject prior to any experience of the world.

The objectivity of objects is an historically specific ontology — first articulated philosophically by Descartes — of how beings present themselves to our understanding, our reason, in their beingness as beings, namely, in their objectivity as objects. On the other, 'inner' side there is the transcendental (i.e. a priori) subject in its subjectivity, whose "Gemüt" (psyche, consciousness) is filled with Vorstellungen (representations) and Anschauungen (intuitions). Among the intuitions there are the pure, i.e. a priori, intuitions of space and time themselves, within which the representations given by the senses are ordered according to the rules of pure (a priori) understanding (Verstand) in such a way that these representations are rendered as objects to our understanding. 

Oddly enough, these objects constituted by pure understanding basically conform to Newton's laws of motion and, in particular, to the law of efficient causality! Hence, according to Kant, we live in a world governed by efficient causality among objects that move only in succession along the one-dimensional time of linear time. It should be noted that Kant's concept of the pure intuition of time is that merely of succession in movement. Hence time itself is conceived as derivative of movement rather than conversely.

The subject-object ontology presented by Kant that lays down that the world can only be experienced in its objectivity by a subject endowed with inner consciousness, however, is not the ultimate ontology with which we are stuck forever. Kant's KdrV, in fact, can be — and has been — deconstructed to open the way for an alternative ontology of the being of beings in which there is no longer any subject-object split.

But that is a story for another day. It goes without saying that today's degenerate mainstream philosophy has sold out its raison d'être of questioning deeply and denies that there is any ontological issue at all in Kant's KdrV. Rather, it reads KdrV merely as epistemology, thus deforming Kant's philosophy, and skirting and suppressing the ontological issue entirely through which there could be a radical change in our thinking.

08 October 2020

Is digital technology hurting our intelligence?

For this post I have adopted the title, slightly modified, from a debate between Katina Michael and Alex Halavais, both from Arizona State University. I approach the question in a different way by asking two questions whose answer is already presupposed when posing the question as to whether digital technology hurts our intelligence, namely, i) What is digital technology? and ii) What is our intelligence? In this post I will have to be brief and will take the first question first.

i) What is digital technology? 

The blue-print for today's digital technology is to be found in Alan Turing's famous 1936 paper ''On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem'' in which he invents the Universal Turing Machine as the appropriate, elementary digital machine that is able to compute any computable number. The Entscheidungsproblem part of Turing's paper concerns the fact that he is able to prove that not all numbers are computable, and this is equivalent to saying that not every statement formulable within the language of given axiomatic mathematical entity is provable using the given axioms. This Universal Turing Machine still serves today at the core of the theory of digital computation simply because any conceivable computation on a digital device can be broken down theoretically into myriads, or even billions, of UTMs. In principle, a UTM can compute anything a supercomputer can compute.

What is a Universal Turing Machine? It is a machine that works through one digital, i.e. binary, number, the algorithm, step by step, that instructs the machine how to alter, i.e. compute, another binary number, the data, into a third binary number, the output. The output decides how a given practical situation is to be controlled, such as whether access to a certain site (in the physical world or the cyberworld) is to be granted or not, or which direction a missile in flight should take.

The algorithm — even it is a so-called 'deep-learning' algorithm as employed in Artificial Intelligence — has to be first written by a human programmer who has an understanding of some practical situation or other. The algorithm determines how the data fed in are to be computed to obtain a useful output. Everything depends upon how well or how badly the programmer conceives the practical situation, especially whether every eventuality in a 'live' practical situation has been taken into account and whether this understanding has been correctly coded into a computer program that is ultimately nothing other than a long binary number. 

A corollary of the Entscheidungsproblem when transferred to practical situations whose control is entrusted to algorithms is that not every practical situation computes, that is, there are practical situations with which algorithms loaded into digital devices cannot cope. In other words, not all situations well understood by a human being are codable in a digital algorithm. This is not a practical, empirical limitation due to the complicatedness of practical situations, but a limitation in principle.

Digital technology is to be conceived as our intelligence in the guise of our understanding of practical situations concerning the control of movement and change that has been digitally encoded into algorithms and outsourced to digital devices designed to deal automatically with practical situations when fed with data. This is very convenient for us human beings, but it comes at the price of our i) no longer being able to understand how practical situations are algorithmically dealt with, ii) being exposed to the limitations of how a programmer understands and then encodes a practical situation, and iii) being subject to the inherent limitations in principle (i.e. not merely empirically) of how situations can be digitally encoded.

ii) What is our intelligence? 

The framing of the question already presupposes that we can speak sensibly of "our" intelligence. How is this to be reconciled with today's scientific dogma, supported by modern subject-object ontology of individual consciousness encapsulated inside vis-à-vis an external world taken in by the senses? If, as today's neuroscience proclaims, human thinking is the correlate of neuronal activity in an individual's brain, how is it possible that we humans can share thoughts at all? Does neuroscience, along with the media and the rest of us, tacitly assume that the neuronal-thought activities in individual brains are in a kind of prestabilized harmony brought about by evolution of the human species? Such an assumption would be a variation of Leibniz's metaphysical principle of a prestabilized harmony between the individual monads (that have no window on the world) and the external world itself.

Although neuroscience would vigorously deny this dilemma, even if it were aware of it, it is the same metaphysical dilemma pertaining to all subject-object ontology unquestionably taken for granted by all modern science, whether natural or social.

If we can genuinely speak of "our intelligence", then we always already share it. Moreover, this sharing is one of the preconditions for our being able to speak sensibly of a 'we' at all. We all share a certain elementary understanding of the world, even though we may disagree intensely with one another over almost all issues. It is not hard to see, for instance, that we share an understanding of the elementary categories such as 'something' or 'other'. For you or I to see anything at all we must have already understood the universal category of 'something' itself as distinct from an individual something. Similarly, you and I can see and easily understand the category of 'other', for without it we would be unable to distinguish anything from anything else, i.e. to differentiate one something from another something. We take all this for granted without a second thought, but it is worth thinking on. Such categorial understanding is prior to any experience of the world; it is a priori.

Beyond these most elementary categories, we share in a given age such as our own further basal concepts for understanding the world at all, such as subject and object. In our own time, it is taken as self-evident that the subject is endowed with an interior consciousness vis-à-vis an external world full of objects. Without taking a reflective step back, we take this understanding of the world as populated by conscious subjects over against thingly objects as obvious, unquestionable, incontestable.

In the particular context of digital technology, we tend to pose the problems associated with the digital cyberworld in terms of how we subjects, who supposedly 'underlie' (from sub-ject, 'thrown under') all movements and changes in the world, can maintain control over such movements once we outsource our understanding of changeable situations to algorithms. Cast as such subjects of consciousness, we have an inherent hubris to assert and maintain control and therefore are fatefully inclined to regard the myriads of outsourced algorithms as servants. At most we try to set up ethical roadblocks against certain algorithms deemed to be dangerous. By virtue of their outsourced independence, however, the algorithms take on a life of their own and entangle us in the intricacy of their own uncontrollable and complicated interwoven interplay with each other.

We human beings, however, have historically not always been cast and understood ourselves as conscious subjects. In fact, in an earlier time, the age of the ancient Greeks with the inception of philosophy, the world was experienced and cast in an inverted way. What we today call objects were for the Greeks the subjects, i.e. the hypokeimena (literally: the underlying) that were addressed as such-and-such by human beings employing the λὀγος (logos). Logos can mean 'language', but it also means 'reason, understanding' and, as a distinguishing aspect of the human psyche (ψυχἠ), it is called νοῦς (nous). 

The psyche, in turn, is the openness of human being for the world as a whole in its three-dimensional temporality of past, present and future which the nous within the psyche not only understands in some way, but also with which it resonates in moods of all kinds. It is only because we share this mooded resonance with three-dimensional time that we humans can share music.

By (falsely) promising us unlimited control of movement and change in the world, digital technology is befuddling our intelligence. The dream of total control through clever algorithms is the consummation of the Pythagorean belief that the world is ultimately number, a belief taken up by Plato and then later, in a more rabid form, by Galileo, Newton and Descartes who proceeded with the mathematization of the world with a vengeance. This historical cast of the world continues today in all branches of modern science.

It is not contemplated that there are kinds of movement in the world, those which I call interplay, that confound any attempt to control and master them, simply because they are our interplay of freedom with one another. Interplay demands mutual estimation and esteem. In this sense, with its overblown pretensions, digital technology is an insult to our intelligence.

There is much more to be said on this.

Further reading: Movement and Time in the Cyberworld, Social Ontology of Whoness