Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Evolutionary quality

Some more thoughts about "values" as providing a descriptive basis of a workable paradigm. In retrospective terms, we could say that evolution is the creation of valuable information through selective replication and innovation. That is, information - and its phenotypic extension - that survives environmental pressures becomes valuable by virtue of its being successfully propagated.

On this subject I found this short article at which pursues this same naturalisation of values:

While primary values cannot be derived from nature, they must be consistent with evolution and natural selection, the primary mechanism that has generated all of nature. This mechanism has an implicit value, as selection entails a preference for certain states of affairs over others. Natural selection can be seen to strive to maximize survival or fitness. Thus we take survival, in the most general sense, as the primary value. If we also take into account reproduction, the more general evolutionary value is fitness: maximizing the probability that our genes (or memes) will still be around in future generations. Because of the "Red Queen Principle" the seemingly conservative value of survival necessarily entails continuing progress, development, or growth: if you do not innovate by constantly trying out new variations, you will sooner or later lose the competition with those that do innovate. Thus we can from there derive the ultimate good as the continuation of the process of evolution itself, in the negative sense of avoiding evolutionary "dead ends" and general extinction, in the positive sense of constantly increasing our fitness, and thus our intelligence, degree of organization and general mastery over the universe.

Pirsig's MOQ takes the same two basic aspects of value, or quality, described here - survival and progression - and builds everything else from them. They are described as static quality and dynamic quality respectively. "Dynamic" is usually capitalised to signify its priority, both epistemological and ontological, but I don't want to get into that here other than to say that if natural selection is the mechanism that creates everything through replication and innovation, then some kind of innovation has to have come first. Anyway, Pirsig puts the "priority" of innovation like this:

The decisions that directed the progress of evolution are, in fact, Dynamic Quality itself.....Naturally there is no mechanism toward which life is heading. Mechanisms are the enemy of life. The more static and unyielding the mechanisms are, the more life works to evade them or overcome them.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch11)

(Note: So Dynamic Quality has to cover all aspects of variation such as replication errors and mutations and the "spur of the moment" selection of parental genes that are spliced to create the DNA of their offspring as well.)

As is an ever more popular thesis, Pirsig then applies evolutionary principles to everything, using his own static-Dynamic vocabulary to give us a rich description of the process:

The division of all biological evolutionary patterns into a Dynamic function and a static function continues on up through higher levels of evolution. The formation of semipermeable cell walls to let food in and keep poisons out is a static latch. So are bones, shells, hide, fur, burrows, clothes, houses, villages, castles, rituals, symbols, laws and libraries. All of these prevent evolutionary degeneration. On the other hand, the shift in cell reproduction from mitosis to meiosis to permit sexual choice and allow huge DNA diversification is a Dynamic advance. So is the collective organization of cells into metazoan societies called plants and animals. So are sexual choice, symbiosis, death and regeneration, communality, communication, speculative thought, curiosity and art. Most of these, when viewed in a substance-centered evolutionary way, are thought of as mere incidental properties of the molecular machine. But in a value-centered explanation of evolution they are close to the Dynamic process itself, pulling the pattern of life forward to greater levels of versatility and freedom.

Sometimes a Dynamic increment goes forward but can find no latching mechanism and so fails and slips back to a previous latched position. Whole species and cultures get lost this way. Sometimes a static pattern becomes so powerful it prohibits any Dynamic moves forward. In both cases the evolutionary process is halted for a while. But when it's not halted the result has been an increase in power to control hostile forces or an increase in versatility or both. The increase in versatility is directed toward Dynamic Quality. The increase in power to control hostile forces is directed toward static quality. Without Dynamic Quality the organism cannot grow. Without static quality the organism cannot last. Both are needed.

(ibid. Ch11)

The questions I have at the moment are:

Is anything added to the theory of evolution by all this talk of values?
Does our understanding of values benefit from their linking to evolution?
Are values implicit in evolutionary theory?

With respect to the last question, if value are implicit in evolutionary theory and evolutionary theory can be applied to everything then values can be applied to everything.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I've been thinking lately about the metaphor that all things are systems completely embedded in an environment which also comprises a system and so on. I read this article which proposes a universal principle which amounts to the opposite of entropy - enformy -:$wsr02.html

..and found some interesting ideas which I'll come back to. Here is a snippet:

TES [Theory of Enformed Systems] explains the origin, fundamental properties, and behaviors of holistic systems at all ontological levels. TES does not displace the current scientific paradigms; instead, it forms their foundation. Four statements place TES in the context of the current disciplines: (a) A general theory of systems is necessarily a theory of organization; (b) because TES is a general theory of organization, it belongs to systemics—the science of holistic systems; (c) because organization per se is fundamental to all observable phenomena, systemics is the most basic branch of science; and (d) because TES is foundational to the prevailing paradigms of science, it is outside the prevailing Weltanschauung; i.e., it cannot be understood or interpreted in terms of the prevailing paradigms.

The prevailing paradigms address systems that are already organized, whereas TES addresses organization per se—its origin, elaboration, and maintenance. Organization per se is traditionally assumed to be a necessary precondition for scientific study, and not itself a subject of study. For instance, the standard model of the cosmos holds that the universe consists of (a) matter, comprising fundamental particles such as quarks, electrons, photons, etc.; (b) the properties of these particles, including charge, polarization, spin, etc.; and (c) mass and energy—two fundamental, conserved principles that determine the behaviors of matter. The work of science has been to discover and describe patterns of these behaviors. In physics, this work entails applying the organization inherent in mathematics to map the organization inherent in matter. As a result, the worldview of mathematical physics is blind to organization per se because organization is intrinsic to mathematics.

Systemics radicalizes this. It allows scientists to turn their attention to the question, "What is the origin of organization per se?"

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Quantum Darwinism

If one major thesis running through this blog is panrelationalism then another is the applicability of the basic premises of the Darwinian theory of evolution to almost any area of inquiry. Below is an article published in in 2004 describing how Wojciech Zurek and colleagues have attempted to show how a Darwin-like process of selective propagation of information can be used to describe the transition from quantum to "preferred" classical states:

If, as quantum mechanics says, observing the world tends to change it, how is it that we can agree on anything at all? Why doesn't each person leave a slightly different version of the world for the next person to find? Because, say the researchers, certain special states of a system are promoted above others by a quantum form of natural selection, which they call quantum darwinism. Information about these states proliferates and gets imprinted on the environment. So observers coming along and looking at the environment in order to get a picture of the world tend to see the same 'preferred' states.

If it wasn't for quantum darwinism, the researchers suggest in Physical Review Letters, the world would be very unpredictable: different people might see very different versions of it. Life itself would then be hard to conduct, because we would not be able to obtain reliable information about our surroundings... it would typically conflict with what others were experiencing.

The difficulty arises because directly finding out something about a quantum system by making ameasurement inevitably disturbs it. "After a measurement," say Wojciech Zurek at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and his colleagues, "the state will be what the observer finds out it is, but not, in general, what it was before."

Because, as Zurek says, "the Universe is quantum to the core," this property seems to undermine the notion of an objective reality. In this type of situation, every tourist who gazed at Buckingham Palace would change the arrangement of the building's windows, say, merely by the act of looking, so that subsequent tourists would see something slightly different. Yet that clearly isn't what happens. This sensitivity to observation at the quantum level (which Albert Einstein famously compared to God constructing the quantum world by throwing dice to decide its state) seems to go away at the everyday, macroscopic level. "God plays dice on a quantum level quite willingly," says Zurek, "but, somehow, when the bets become macroscopic he is more reluctant to gamble." How does that happen?

The Los Alamos team define a property of a system as 'objective', if that property is simultaneously evident to many observers who can find out about it without knowing exactly what they are looking for and without agreeing in advance how they'll look for it. Physicists agree that the macroscopic or classical world (which seems to have a single, 'objective' state) emerges from the quantum world of many possible states through a phenomenon called decoherence, according to which interactions between the quantum states of the system of interest and its environment serve to 'collapse' those states into a single outcome. But this process of decoherence still isn't fully understood.

"Decoherence selects out of the quantum 'mush' states that are stable, that can withstand the scrutiny of the environment without getting perturbed," says Zurek. These special states are called 'pointer states', and although they are still quantum states, they turn out to look like classical ones. For example, objects in pointer states seem to occupy a well-defined position, rather than being smeared out in space.

The traditional approach to decoherence, says Zurek, was based on the idea that the perturbation of a quantum system by the environment eliminates all but the stable pointer states, which an observer can then probe directly. But he and his colleagues point out that we typically find out about a system indirectly, that is, we look at the system's effect on some small part of its environment. For example, when we look at a tree, in effect we measure the effect of the leaves and branches on the visible sunlight that is bouncing off them. But it was not obvious that this kind of indirect measurement would reveal the robust, decoherence-resistant pointer states. If it does not, the robustness of these states won't help you to construct an objective reality.

Now, Zurek and colleagues have proved a mathematical theorem that shows the pointer states do actually coincide with the states probed by indirect measurements of a system's environment. "The environment is modified so that it contains an imprint of the pointer state," he says.

Yet this process alone, which the researchers call 'environment-induced superselection' or einselection, isn't enough to guarantee an objective reality. It is not sufficient for a pointer state merely to make its imprint on the environment: there must be many such imprints, so that many different observers can see the same thing.

Happily, this tends to happen automatically, because each individual's observation is based on only a tiny part of the environmental imprint. For example, we're never in danger of 'using up' all the photons bouncing off a tree, no matter how many people we assemble to look at it.

This multiplicity of imprints of the pointer states happens precisely because those states are robust: making one imprint does not preclude making another. This is a Darwin-like selection process. "One might say that pointer states are most 'fit'," says Zurek. "They survive monitoring by the environment to leave 'descendants' that inherit their properties." "Our work shows that the environment is not just finding out the state of the system and keeping it to itself", he adds. "Rather, it is advertising it throughout the environment, so that many observers can find it out simultaneously and independently."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Preferata! Good or bad poetic science?

While reading Dawkins' Unweaving The Rainbow I've been thinking about the distinction between literal and metaphorical description with respect to philosophy and science. The dictionary definitions of the words basically state that literal description gets at the "essential or genuine character of something" whereas metaphorical description is where "a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another." It seems to me that the way science sometimes claims to be providing literal descriptions is by inventing new words - by spinning out something from a more familiar term for similar observed or hypothetical phenomena (e.g. gluon* for the force that sticks quarks together), often by taking or amending a (sometimes quasi-) latin synonym (e.g. gravitas, latin for heavy) for what they are describing - thus avoiding the charge of metaphor.

So perhaps I could do the same and invent a word for describing how subatomic particles, chemicals, cells, animals, people, institutions, and everything else we can think of appear to express preferences in their observable behaviour and are in fact definable by the range of preferences they can express and the probability of them expressing them. I could call the smallest unit of anything a preferatum (plural: preferata) and explain their existence and behaviour as being a particular mode of preferation. So, for example, with a sufficiently serious look on my face I could say that it is not that there are electrons which can be said to express preferences but that electrons are in fact a species of inorganic preferata and that experimental data are in fact a record of the preferation from which the existence of electrons is inferred.


A hypothetical massless, neutral elementary particle believed to mediate the strong interaction that binds quarks together.

[glu(e) + -on1.]

: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 21, 2006

12 Threats to Global Security...

...according to Robert Harvey in his Global Disorder. Just wanted to spread the good news and also remind myself to learn a bit more and maybe write a bit more about each of them here.

1. Terrorism
2. Islamic Fundamentalism
3. Oil
4. Nationalism
5. Nuclear proliferation
6. The Rogue State
7. The Disintegrationist State
8. Poverty
9. Overpopulation
10. The environment
11. Crime
12. The Globalisation of Human Rights

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Latest stats on the Evolution vs Creation debate in the U.S.

From New Scientist today - "Why doesn't America believe in evolution?" by Jeff Hecht. (Not sure how Intelligent Design figures in these stats):

Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals: true or false? This simple question is splitting America apart, with a growing proportion thinking that we did not descend from an ancestral ape. A survey of 32 European countries, the US and Japan has revealed that only Turkey is less willing than the US to accept evolution as fact.

Religious fundamentalism, bitter partisan politics and poor science education have all contributed to this denial of evolution in the US, says Jon Miller of Michigan State University in East Lansing, who conducted the survey with his colleagues. "The US is the only country in which [the teaching of evolution] has been politicised," he says. "Republicans have clearly adopted this as one of their wedge issues. In most of the world, this is a non-issue."

Miller's report makes for grim reading for adherents of evolutionary theory. Even though the average American has more years of education than when Miller began his surveys 20 years ago, the percentage of people in the country who accept the idea of evolution has declined from 45 in 1985 to 40 in 2005 (Science, vol 313, p 765). That's despite a series of widely publicised advances in genetics, including genetic sequencing, which shows strong overlap of the human genome with those of chimpanzees and mice. "We don't seem to be going in the right direction," Miller says.

There is some cause for hope. Team member Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, finds solace in the finding that the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution has dropped from 48 to 39 in the same time. Meanwhile the fraction of Americans unsure about evolution has soared, from 7 per cent in 1985 to 21 per cent last year. "That is a group of people that can be reached," says Scott.

The main opposition to evolution comes from fundamentalist Christians, who are much more abundant in the US than in Europe. While Catholics, European Protestants and so-called mainstream US Protestants consider the biblical account of creation as a metaphor, fundamentalists take the Bible literally, leading them to believe that the Earth and humans were created only 6000 years ago.

Ironically, the separation of church and state laid down in the US constitution contributes to the tension. In Catholic schools, both evolution and the strict biblical version of human beginnings can be taught. A court ban on teaching creationism in public schools, however, means pupils can only be taught evolution, which angers fundamentalists, and triggers local battles over evolution.

These battles can take place because the US lacks a national curriculum of the sort common in European countries. However, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind act is instituting standards for science teaching, and the battles of what they should be has now spread to the state level.

Miller thinks more genetics should be on the syllabus to reinforce the idea of evolution. American adults may be harder to reach: nearly two-thirds don't agree that more than half of human genes are common to chimpanzees. How would these people respond when told that humans and chimps share 99 per cent of their genes?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Suffering succotash

Further thoughts on karma, suffering and evolution. I have linked the constraining aspect of karma with suffering by virtue of the replication element of evolution (biological and cultural). The flip-side of this condition of suffering is the clinging to patterns in the face of the variation and selection needed by evolution.

Thus we have the twin barbs of suffering:

Wanting things to change when they are constrained to stay the same.

Wanting things to stay the same when they are driven to change.

Inorganic patterns of value (#2)

I would think it is largely uncontroversial to use values to describe and understand cultural phenomena but Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality attempts to argue that all phenomena can and should be described and understood in terms of values, including physical phenomena. In the last post I summarised what I consider to be Pirsig's arguments for using the term "inorganic patterns of value" over the more traditional "substance" as:

- the existence of substance is not empirically supported
- a scientific choice between the two theoretical terms is underdetermined by the data
- a philosophic choice favours the use of "value"
- in wider terms the use of "value" provides a more parsimonious and inclusive paradigm of systematic inquiry

Here are some objections which spring to mind:

- One could object to the use of empiricism by pointing out that, since the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, the primacy of experience on which empiricism is based is untenable.

- One could extend the argument of underdetermination from science to philosophy and ask how "value" could be philosophically preferrable.

- One could object to talking of particles expressing preferences as gratuitously bestowing intentionality upon such phenomena.

- One could argue that paradigmatic parsimony is but the positive face of reductionism.

- One could simply say - why bother?

I have some initial thoughts on these objections.

Although I'm not wholly convinced by the "linguistic turn," I wouldn't argue against it, preferring, instead, to claim that the validity of the replacement of the term "substance" with "value" is not really dependent on the empiricist principle invoked by Pirsig. Particularly as the same principle would apply to the term "inorganic patterns of value." So I consider this objection as superfluous as the argument to which it objects.

As to the philosophical underdetermination of theory, for Kuhnian reasons I would be tempted to agree that data alone cannot be depended upon to choose between two philosophies and to instead draw on an evolutionary epistemology which "favours" theories and contexts through a cultural version of natural selection. I could argue that the essentialist and deterministic context in which "substance" has survived has largely "died out" with respect to subatomic physics and "value" is a variation which may or may not prosper as a new context.

The objection about misplaced intentionality could be treated in a couple of ways. First, one could follow the likes of Nietzsche and Davidson and argue that the hard distinction between literal and metaphorical is untenable such that whether electrons literally or only metaphorically express preferences is moot. Second, one could point out that science is littered with similarly anthropomorphic terms and phrases such as in chemical "attraction" whereby atoms have an "affinity" with other atoms or perhaps the increasingly popular references to "self-organisation" in atomical and molecular systems. In fact I recently read something by string theorist Brian Greene saying that cosmic strings "prefer" to resonate at certain frequencies.

The objection that an attempt to explain everything in terms of value is an attempt to reduce everything to value stands up with reference only to the theory as presented so far. However, Pirsig goes on to categorise value such that everything is not reduced to one type of value, thereby, I think, avoiding the negative aspects of ontological and explanatory reductionism.

The objection that this redescription is simply unnecessary is one that may be addressed as this blog progresses. It is also partially addressed by the claim that, insofar as it is desirable, a more inclusive paradigm is created by the redescription. Finally, it is perhaps addressed by thinking of all of the things that, at first glance, evoked the response of, "Why bother?" which turned out to be worth a lot of bother. In fact, this doing-of-new-things-anyway* is built right into the principle of evolution.

So, a rather brief treatment of a topic which could certainly expand, probably until it branched out into all of the usual arguments of epistemology and metaphysics. My basic answer to all of the other arguments would probably be the evolutionary argument used above - consider the redescription of the physical world in terms of values to be a variation in a pattern of knowledge which is subject to the same opportunities and pressures of selection as any other. Obviously objections, arguments and counter-arguments are among those pressures but I don't intend to be wholly absorbed into each one of them here.

*The MOQ attributes this to Dynamic Quality

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Inorganic patterns of value

In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Pirsig claims that:

[The] problem of trying to describe value in terms of substance has been the problem of a smaller container trying to contain a larger one. Value is not a subspecies of substance. Substance is a subspecies of value. When you reverse the containment process and define substance in terms of value the mystery disappears: substance is a "stable pattern of inorganic values." The problem then disappears. The world of objects and the world of values is unified.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.8)
Pirsig goes about this "reversal" by attacking the concept of substance using a principle of empiricism - that all knowledge must come from experience - and also a kind of underdetermination argument.

“Substance” is a derived concept, not anything that is directly experienced. No one has ever seen substance and no one ever will. All people ever see is data. It is assumed that what makes the data hang together in consistent patterns is that they inhere in this “substance.”


But if there is no substance, it must be asked, then why isn't everything chaotic? Why do our experiences act as if they inhere in something? If you pick up a glass of water why don't the properties of that glass go flying off in different directions? What is it that keeps these properties uniform if it is not something called substance? That is the question that created the concept of substance in the first place.

The answer provided by the Metaphysics of Quality strike out the word “substance” wherever it appears and substitute the expression “stable inorganic patterns of value.” Again the difference is linguistic. It doesn't make a whit of difference in the laboratory which term is used. No dials change their readings. The observed laboratory data are exactly the same.

(ibid, Ch.8)

The empiricist argument points out that we have no knowledge of "substance", nor a basis to say that it even exists, because it is directly unobservable. The underdetermination argument points out that there is no scientific basis to prefer the use of "substance" over "inorganic patterns of value." It is a philosophic question. The question remains then, Is there a philosophic reason to prefer one over the other?

Pirsig thinks so. He claims that the data of quantum physics have undermined the descriptive adequacy of the philosophic concept of substance to the "nature" of the subatomic level:

The data of quantum physics indicate that what are called “subatomic particles” cannot possibly fill the definition of a substance. The properties exist, then disappear, then exist, and then disappear again in little bundles called “quanta.” These bundles are not continuous in time, yet an essential, defined characteristic of “substance” is that it is continuous in time. Since the quantum bundles are not substance and since it is a usual scientific assumption that these sub-atomic particles compose everything there is, then it follows that there is no substance anywhere in the world nor has there ever been.

(ibid, Ch.8)

He states that, in terms of the behaviour of subatomic particles, "patterns of preferences" - patterns of values - is the more philosophically appropriate term:

[I]n modern quantum physics....particles "prefer" to do what they do. An individual particle is not absolutely committed to one predictable behaviour. What appears to be an absolute cause is just a very consistent pattern of preferences.

(ibid, Ch.8)

He thinks that there is a further reason to prefer the term "values" over "substance":

The greatest benefit of this substitution of "value" for..."substance" is that it allows an integration of physical sciences with other areas of experience that have been traditionally considered outside the scope of scientific thought. [...] The "value" which directed subatomic particles is not identical with the "value" a human being gives to a painting. But...the two are cousins, and...the exact relationship between them can be defined with great precision. Once this definition is complete a huge integration of the humanities and sciences appears[.]

(ibid, Ch.8)

The "benefit" of integration seems to be based around the virtue of paradigmatic parsimony and a broadening of the scope of science.

So, in summary, I think Pirsig replaces "substance" with "value" as a term for describing inorganic phenomena on the basis that:

- the existence of substance is not empirically supported (presumably we are to assume that this applies to inorganic values too)
- a scientific choice between the two theoretical terms is underdetermined by the data
- a philosophic choice favours the use of "value"
- in wider terms the use of "value" provides a more parsimonious and inclusive paradigm of systematic inquiry

I want to consider some possible objections to these arguments next.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Values and matter

In Lila: An Inquiry into Morals Pirsig tells us that he was drawn into the metaphysics of values via a failed attempt to contribute something to the field of anthropology in the form of a study of Native American culture and its influence on contemporary North America. He writes:

You can't get anywhere because you are forced to resolve arguments every step of the way about the basic terms you are using. It's hard enough to talk about Indians alone without having to resolve a metaphysical dispute at the end of every sentence. This should have been done before anthropology was set up, not afterward.

That was the problem. The whole field of cultural anthropology is a house built on intellectual quicksand. As soon as you try to build the data into anything of theoretical weight it sinks and collapses. The field that one might have expected to be one of the most useful and productive of the sciences had gone under, not because the people in it were no good, or the subject was unimportant, but because the structure of scientific principles that it tries to rest on is inadequate to support it.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.5)

The problem with trying to use "scientific principles" to build anthropological theory, Pirsig states, is that:

Patterns of culture do not operate in accordance with the laws of physics. How are you going to prove in terms of the laws of physics that an attitude exists within a culture? What is an attitude in terms of the laws of molecular interaction? What is a cultural value? How are you going to show scientifically that a certain culture has certain values?

You can't.

Science has no values. Not officially. The whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked so that nobody could prove anything of a general nature about anybody. No matter what you said, it could be shot down any time by any damn fool on the basis that it wasn't scientific.

(ibid, Ch.4)

So Pirsig identifies the problem as the attempt to reduce values to the physical properties and behaviour of matter. Pirsig's answer to this quandary was to reverse the hierarchical primacy of patterns of matter over values such that matter becomes a particular pattern of values. Then, to the extent that metaphysics determines the purview of science, Pirsig argues that:

If science is a study of substances and their relationships, then the field of anthropology is a scientific absurdity. In terms of substance there is no such thing as a culture. It has no mass, no energy. No scientific instrument has ever been devised that can distinguish a culture from a non-culture.

But if science is a study of stable patterns of value, then cultural anthropology becomes a supremely scientific field. A culture can be defined as a network of social patterns of value. As the Values Project anthropologist Kluckhohn had said, patterns of value are the essence of what an anthropologist studies.

Kluckhohn's enormous mistake was his attempt to define values. He assumed that a subject-object view of the world would allow such a definition. What was destroying his case was not the accuracy of his observations. What was destroying his case were these substance-oriented metaphysical assumptions of anthropology that he had failed to detach from his observations. Once this detachment is made anthropology is out of the metaphysical quicksand and onto hard ground at last.

(ibid, Ch.8)

The reversal of the primacy of matter over values is the key to Pirsig's philosophical solution (the MOQ) to the obstacles faced by an anthropologist and this move, and its validity, will be the focus of the next post. More generally I want to consider how Pirsig's ideas bear up to recent developments in philosophy and science and how well my aontic approach aligns with the MOQ.

Identity and Violence

Just started reading an interesting book called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen. The ideas expressed so far resonate with the non-reductionist, anti-essentialist leanings of this blog and the multilateral, relational upaya which I'm advocating as an alternative mode of understanding. Of particular pertinence to the explicit value topography of recent global politics is this excerpt (taken from pages 10-12):

A remarkable use of imagined singularity can be found in the basic classificatory idea that serves as the intellectual background to the much-discussed thesis of "the clash of civilizations," which has been championed recently, particularly following the publication of Samuel Huntington's influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. The difficulty with this approach begins with unique categorization, well before the issue of a clash - or not - is even raised. Indeed, the thesis of a civilizational clash is conceptually parasitic on the commanding power of a unique categorization along so-called civilizational lines, which as it happens closely follows religious divisions to which singular attention is paid. Huntington contrasts "Western civilization" with "Islamic civilization," "Hindu civilization," "Buddhist civilization," and so on. The alleged confrontations of religious differences are incorporated into a sharply carpentered vision of one dominant and hardened divisiveness.

In fact, of course, the people of the world can be classified according to many other systems of partitioning, each of which has some - often far-reaching - relevance in our lives: such as nationalities, locations, classes, occupations, social status, languages, politics, and many others. While religious categories have received much airing in recent years, they cannot be presumed to obliterate other distinctions, and even less can they be seen as the only relevant system of classifying people across the globe. In partitioning the population of the world into those belonging to the "Islamic world," "the western world," “"the hindu world," "the Buddhist world," the divisive power of classificatory priority is implicitly used to place people firmly inside a unique set of rigid boxes. Other divisions (say, between the rich and the poor, between members of different classes and occupations, between people of different politics, between distinct nationalities and residential locations, between language groups, etc.) are all submerged by this allegedly primal way of seeing the differences between people.

The difficulty with the thesis of the clash of civilizations begins well before we come to the issue of an inevitable clash; it begins with the presumption of the unique relevance of a singular classification. Indeed, the question "do civilizations clash?" is founded on the presumption that humanity can be pre-eminently classified into distinct and discrete civilizations, and that the relations between different human beings can somehow be seen, without serious loss of understanding, in terms of relations between different civilizations. The basic flaw of the thesis much precedes the point where it is asked whether civilizations must clash.

This reductionist view is typically combined, I am afraid, with a rather foggy perception of world history which overlooks, first, the extent of internal diversities within these civilizational categories, and second, the reach and influence of interactions - intellectual as well as material - that go right across the regional borders of so-called civilizations. And its power to befuddle can trap not only those who would like to support the thesis of a clash (varying from Western chauvinists to Islamic fundamentalists), but also those who would like to dispute it and yet try to respond within the straitjacket of its prespecified terms of reference.

The limitations of such civilization-based thinking can prove to be just as treacherous for programs of "dialogue among civilizations" (something that seems to be much sought after these days) as they are for theories of a clash of civilizations. The noble and elevating search for amity among people seen as amity between civilizations speedily reduces many-sided human beings into one dimension each and muzzles the variety of involvements that have provided rich and diverse grounds for cross-border interactions over many centuries, including the arts, literature, science, mathematics, games, trade, politics, and other arenas of shared human interest. Well-meaning attempts at pursuing global peace can have very counterproductive consequences when these attempts are founded on a fundamentally illusory understanding of the world of human beings.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Smolin on relational physics

Lee Smolin is a process physicist who I find very interesting to read. The below is from an article featured in Brockman's The Third Culture: Beyond The Scientific Revolution - which you can link to here - in which he talks about a relational model of physics as having the potential to provide a theoretical basis for the elusive quantum theory of gravity. Bold italics are my emphasis:

[A]t the Planck scale, which is twenty powers of ten smaller than an atomic nucleus, space looks like a network or weave of discrete loops. In fact, these loops are something like the atoms out of which space is built. We're able to predict that — just as the possible energies an atom can have come in discrete units — when one probes the structure of space at this Planck scale, one finds that the possible values the area of a surface or the volume of some region can have also come in discrete units. What seems to be the smooth geometry of space at our scale is just the result of an enormous number of these elementary loops joined and woven together, as an apparently smooth piece of cloth is really made out of many individual threads.

Furthermore, what's wonderful about the loop picture is that it's entirely a picture in terms of relations. There's no preexisting geometry for space, no fixed reference points; everything is dynamic and relational. This is the way Einstein taught us we have to understand the geometry of space and time — as something relational and dynamic, not fixed or given a priori. Using this loop picture, we've been able to translate this idea into the quantum theory.

Indeed, for me the most important idea behind the developments of twentieth-century physics and cosmology is that things don't have intrinsic properties at the fundamental level; all properties are about relations between things. This idea is the basic idea behind Einstein's general theory of relativity, but it has a longer history; it goes back at least to the seventeenth-century philosopher Leibniz, who opposed Newton's ideas of space and time because Newton took space and time to exist absolutely, while Leibniz wanted to understand them as arising only as aspects of the relations among things. For me, this fight between those who want the world to be made out of absolute entities and those who want it to be made only out of relations is a key theme in the story of the development of modern physics. Moreover, I'm partial. I think Leibniz and the relationalists were right, and that what's happening now in science can be understood as their triumph.


The picture that emerges from both relativity and quantum theory is of a world conceived as a network of relations. Newton's hierarchical picture, in which atoms with fixed and absolute properties move against a fixed background of absolute space and time, is quite dead. This doesn't mean that atomism or reductionism are wrong, but it means that they must be understood in a more subtle and beautiful way than before. Quantum gravity, as far as we can tell, goes even further in this direction, as our description of the geometry of spacetime as woven together from loops and knots is a beautiful mathematical expression of the idea that the properties of any one part of the world are determined by its relationships and entanglement with the rest of the world.

Karma and constraint

Following on from the last post, a couple more brief thoughts on how karma can begin to be related to evolution. As I see it, the propensity for patterns of values to recur in experience constrains change in the value topography* of any given state of affairs. This propensity can be seen as karma operating as a negative feedback loop writ large upon a world considered in its entirety as an open system. Without this constraint there is no possibility of the sustained development associated with any concept of evolution.

Yet this constraint also seems to be a salient condition of much suffering. I think this same propensity for recurrence of values is among the conditions that keep conflicts raging, unquenchable and destructive desires burning, prevent societies from flourishing and lead to beliefs stagnating.

* I am conscious that describing all phenomena in terms of values is a lemma in these recent posts about karma and evolution. The next few posts will be my attempt to support this proposition.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Notes on karma, suffering and Pirsig

If dependently arising values provide us with a way to think about all phenomena and if karma provides us with a directional process by which values are dependently arisen then one may be tempted to ask more about the direction in which we think these values may be headed. One answer to this has been provided by the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) proposed by Robert Pirsig in Lila. In it he writes:

Karma is the pain, the suffering that results from clinging to the static patterns of the world.

(Pirsig, Lila, Ch.32)

But he says of this suffering:

If you eliminate suffering from this world you eliminate life. There's no evolution. Those species that don't suffer don't survive. Suffering is the negative face of the Quality that drives the whole process.

(ibid, Ch.29)

So Pirsig is saying that the "direction" of the karmic process of dependently arising values is an aspect of that which is generally recognised as evolution. He elaborates on this in correspondence with Dr. McWatt:

The MOQ sees the wheel of karma as attached to a cart that is going somewhere - from quantum forces through inorganic forces and biological patterns and social patterns to the intellectual patterns that perceive the quantum forces. In the sixth century B.C. in India there was no evidence of this kind of evolutionary progress, and Buddhism, accordingly, does not pay attention to it. Today it’s not possible to be so uninformed. The suffering which the Buddhists regard as only that which is to be escaped, is seen by the MOQ as merely the negative side of the progression toward Quality (or, just as accurately, the expansion of quality). Without the suffering to propel it, the cart would not move forward at all.

(Pirsig to McWatt, 1997)

For any readers who are unaware of Pirsig's ideas, and hence what some of the terms mean in the quotes above, I intend to spend a little time covering the basics with respect to what I've been writing about here. The only point I wish to make here is that of the link of karma to evolution.