synthetic zero


September 9th, 2009

Some further comments on “object-oriented philosophy”, based on a personal communication with Nick Srnicek:

Gabriel Catren has come up with a clever argument which Nick Srnicek kindly pointed out to me; it’s summarized pretty well in his article “Can Classical Description of Reality Be Considered Complete?” in which he essentially argues that quantum mechanics is not an incomplete description of reality; for mathematical, aesthetic, and symmetry reasons, one can argue that it is classical mechanics, which specifies both the precise position and momentum (i.e., velocity) of a particle, which is overly specific. While I have objections to the idea of objects, I think Catren’s argument is a clever way to capture what is probably the intuition of most physicists today, and has certainly always been my intuition: that there are no “hidden variables” which allow a particle to take up a definitive position and momentum at any given moment; that the Uncertainty Principle represents a fundamental quality of nature, not a limit to our ability to know underlying reality. In essence, he’s arguing against Einstein more than anything else. If I have any dispute with his argument it’s perhaps his desire to use the word “objective” over and over — I suspect he has a sort of attachment to the idea that physics is discovering “objective” properties of the universe which are driven by mathematical necessity or elegance. I certainly think it’s reasonable to posit that the universe has stable objective properties, but no matter how elegant the math we can’t know for certain that the patterns we have uncovered are that way out of necessity, or that future discoveries won’t replace our current models with radically different ones with completely different terms; though, naturally, those new models wouldn’t completely invalidate the old ones, as typically all paradigms capture some patterns in the world which are beyond the purely subjective with some degree of accuracy, or we wouldn’t adopt them at all.

My objection to “object-oriented philosophy”, however, isn’t an attempt to suggest that reality has no objective structure (even if we can’t know what that structure is for certain). The patterns we’ve uncovered so far do seem not only moderately stable but we may even be able to speculate as to their logical necessity, though not without positing postulates of some kind which themselves can’t be known to be correct for certain. In other words, I don’t doubt there is some non-subjective aspect to the structure of the universe which is reflected to some degree in our models of the world, but this mostly has to do with structures at a very basic, underlying level; a totally different level of organization from the objects that people ordinarily talk about, yet these objects are being considered for ontological status by object-oriented philosophy. What Catren is talking about, and what fundamental physics is about, is at a very different level of organization. Furthermore I believe the measurement problem in QM, which hasn’t been resolved, is another very important factor here (Catren’s argument doesn’t resolve that problem; he’s talking about the uncertainty principle, which is related to the measurement problem but by no means the entirety of it.)

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September 5th, 2009

One of the beautiful things about despair, as well as ecstasy, is that it can shine a brilliant light on how deeply you feel, how deep is your passion, your love; words don’t even begin to suffice. Analytically we want to break everything down into reasons, reasons why we should or shouldn’t love, what is sensible, measured, etc. But feeling can slam us down, up, blast all that reasonableness away, and you’re faced with something intensely present, a physical force, something you can’t rationalize, and something that confronts us with love in its most radical and uncontrollable form.

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September 5th, 2009

I want to go over a fundamental conundrum in quantum mechanics which, while simple, suffices to illustrate an extremely thorny problem which has stumped physicists for the last century: the quantum measurement problem. There has been significant progress in resolving this problem (which I won’t detail below, although I will sketch out some of the earlier approaches physicists took to this), but there hasn’t been a definitive solution, yet.

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September 3rd, 2009

One of the most puzzling things I come across when I read philosophers is the tendency for some of them to want to use objects as a fundamental building block of thought. The idea of resurrecting objects seems to be flowing from a recent, quite flawed, set of arguments put forward by Quentin Meillassoux; while this language works well for certain ways of thinking about the world, it’s not a natural way of talking about quantum mechanics, for example, and while they explicitly include the fact that objects could be said to translate signals they receive (which allows for variation in ways of viewing the world) the approach doesn’t sufficiently account for the fact that the definition of the object itself may be dependent crucially on observation. It’s an attempt to reintroduce a stable view of a world filled with objects that can be spoken about as separate from the subject. But why think in terms of objects, per se, at all? Why not just think of the world as a flux of some kind, where differences are flowing through this world, and decomposing this flux into objects is merely a convenient way of talking about the world, rather than a fundamental ontological basis of discourse? (This notion of a flux is the basis of Brian Cantwell Smith’s excellent book, On the Origin of Objects, which I highly recommend.)

There is, however, a reason to think about aspects of the world which go beyond the subjective — thinking primarily in terms of the subjective, one can focus overly on narratives about the world which center on the ways we take the world, rather than forces that are outside, in some sense, the control of the subject or of subjectivity in general. However, that’s already implicit the moment one allows oneself to talk about a ground of Being that precedes subjectivity. One cannot know for certain the structure or properties of this ground of Being; only that there is something that is not entirely random (at least it seems reasonable to think this) about the operation of the world, and the world seems to have properties which are outside of merely the way in which we take the world in a subjective sense. All this is obvious, however, and doesn’t at all require the introduction of objects as fundamental elements of discourse. One can see that our models or paradigms may have some relationship to to the flux, or the ground of Being, but only in terms of our models as a whole being related to the flux as a whole, in a way in which the objects of our discourse are seen merely as approximate conventions for the purpose of conceptualization and discussion. Any given decomposition of the world into objects could well be fundamentally (not only conventionally) dependent upon subjects (again, a la quantum mechanics), so it seems more straightforward to simply acknowledge this fact explicitly, rather than trying to insist upon thinking of an “object” as entirely independent of subjectivity.

A lot of this reminds me of the famous studies which show that Asians tend to view the world in holistic, context-sensitive terms, and Westerners tend to like to think of the world as decomposed into independent objects:

Psychological research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects. Behavioral studies have shown that these cultural differences can influence memory and even perception.

This desire to formulate a philosophical picture of the world in which one can think in terms of objects which are separated from their contexts is, I think, rooted in some deep cultural predilections. Interestingly, Western philosophy, particularly in Europe, in the last couple hundred years, has moved away from this, but it appears the desire to reformulate things in terms of independent “objects” remains a strong cultural force.

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September 3rd, 2009

Come here, to me.

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September 2nd, 2009

A beautiful article on the idea of time and quantum erasure.

Love, it seems to me, is the love of someone not only for who they are, but for who you become when you’re with them.

If I lose you I grieve, then, not only for the loss of you, but also the loss of myself.

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August 31st, 2009

Spent a lot of time cleaning this weekend… in the end it came down to a decision: move some storage cubes from one corner of the loft to another. Though this sounds simple, it took quite a bit of time with all the moving, reorganizing, putting stuff in the basement storage, buying some more storage cubes to pick up the excess, etc., but the result was a much bigger sense of openness, the loft really looks far more beautiful now, and this translates into a tremendously improved feeling, state of mind. Clean house, clean mind.

Making spaces for living is tremendously fulfilling to me; there’s something incredibly wonderful about living in a space you’ve designed. Reminds me of Heather Anne’s recent post about our physical living spaces:

Really, I’m making a mash of metaphor and reality here, but I do mean actual physical spaces. If you grew up in suburbia, think about the living room of your childhood. The layout of the kitchen. Your parents bedroom. The place where the washing machine lived… And I can’t help thinking of the place I live now and wondering whether we’ve succeeded in making something that reflects and reinforces the what’s good about each of us and what’s good about us together as a family.

But these accreted patterns of life, concretized into physical space, can disappear, suddenly, too, no matter how comfortable they may have become.

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August 29th, 2009

Silence as a message:














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August 27th, 2009

I am someone who rarely feels depressed; I tend to take up a position of preparing for the “worst case scenario” in my mind, no matter what, and because of this relatively pessimistic view of things, as life goes on, I find myself almost always pleasantly surprised at how things rarely end up as bad as in my imagination. But there are some things that are very difficult for me to handle; in particular, being cut off from someone I love or am close to. In my family, growing up, any conflict was always resolved through intensive interaction, conversation, discussion, which could get heated, but in the end was always based on mutual respect and willingness at all times to try to find a way to resolve issues in a way where everyone was satisfied. Paramount above all was the sense that, no matter what our disagreements, we were intensely connected, and so disagreements or disputes never became matters that could result in a real schism. This is a generally Japanese cultural trait — within the family there is great closeness, connectedness, communication, and a willingness and almost duty to be very direct and open with each other about anything, and a commitment to working things through, no matter what.

So I can handle almost anything when it comes to people I love or are close to me; if they want to reframe the relationship, that’s fine, if they want me to relate to them in a different way, I can deal with that. I am always preparing myself for the death of my loved ones, thinking I must appreciate them as much as possible in the here and now, so even death I am generally prepared for. But the thing that, emotionally, I can’t handle well is simply being totally cut off from people I was close with, be it an individual or a group, when they are still alive. That notion is terrifying to me on an emotional level, and gives me a feeling of utter despair, even a feeling of death. I can handle the falling apart of a particular form of a relationship, but being cut off entirely is extremely difficult for me, and that is a tremendous understatement.

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August 26th, 2009

A relatively new French philosopher, Quentin Meillassoux, has come on the scene and is making a bit of a splash by trying to salvage a heavily modified variant of realism from what he calls the “correlationist” philosophical schools. One of Meillassoux’s central arguments is that scientists talk about a past which predates the existence of subjects, and therefore one must infer that there is some “ancestral” being-reality which is prior to the arising of mind. I don’t believe this argument holds water, however. Meillassoux is assuming, it seems to me, in a naive way, the existence of a temporal structure to reality; and is therefore attributing a “prior” (in a philosophical sense) quality to events which occurred in the distant past, before minds arose. However, the assumption that the past ought to be viewed as somehow philosophically prior is assuming far too much, it’s bringing in naive physical theories of the world and giving them philosophical significance they do not deserve. Rather, it seems to me, one can just as easily view the so-called past as a retrogressive projection from present observation; a view of the past which is compatible with many interpretations of quantum mechanics, for example. There’s a conflation, in other words, between temporally prior and in some sense metaphysically or philosophically prior; but what is more properly, I think, prior to mind is only Being, but about this we cannot say anything specific. In quantum mechanics it’s possible to think of the past as only inferred from observation, i.e., in many interpretations, in some sense the past doesn’t objectively exist prior to or independent of an observer and of observation; colloquially one can say that the act of observation brings a particular past into existence for that observer, one which can be retrogressively projected back from inferences one can make from the observation. (I am here, merely sketching an argument, not attempting a full refutation of Meillassoux’s arguments with respect to time). The mere fact that one can talk about events “prior” to the arising of minds, in a temporal sense, in other words, doesn’t mean those events do not in a very real and physical sense depend upon their observation now, by minds today. Larval Subjects discusses some rejoinders by Meillassoux to some of the attacks from “correlationists” but I don’t believe these rejoinders work for the reasons I state above. You can see some more of my reasoning about time and physics appended here and I discuss further issues of interpretations of physics in my comments to this interesting post.

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