Universes

The pain of inhabiting this body
and the pleasure of inhabiting this body
are equally signs of life.

Is life itself a sign?
Who reads it? Why?

The universe of meaning
is only one of the three.
In the one there is no other.
In the other there is x.
In the third you can say something.
It might even be true, for all we know.

Pure Science and the Anthropocene

The further we go into the Anthropocene epoch, the sharper the paradoxes become. The disastrous effects of human impact on the Earth become more predictable, the predictions of climate science are being fulfilled even faster than expected, yet the future of humanity seems ever more uncertain. The damage we do is accelerating even over the brief span of a decade, which is hardly an eyeblink of geological time, while our efforts to mitigate it lag even further behind what is needed, while ecological, economic and sociopolitical disasters overtake us almost daily. Having inadvertently caused the extinction of so many other life forms, we seem unable to ensure our own survival, let alone our well-being.

This situation raises some deep questions, deeper than the question of how long Homo sapiens will survive. Why should this species survive? Does humanity have some greater mission or purpose than consuming the planet? Is it just to reproduce our kind in the hope that future generations will be wiser and happier than we are? That would seem to be the humanistic hope; but is it realistic? And whether it’s realistic or not, is that the best we can do with our human lives?

Sometimes I think that the best quality humanity has is that some of us take a lively interest in things for their own sake, and not because they could be useful for the benefit of humans either individually or collectively. Some of us even love such things just for being real, or for what they show us about the nature of reality. Such people may devote their lives to ‘Pure Science’, as Charles S. Peirce called it (in contrast to what we might call “practical science” or “technology”). Describing this Pure Science in an 1898 lecture, he said that ‘in all its progress, science vaguely feels that it is only learning a lesson. The value of facts to it, lies only in this, that they belong to Nature; and Nature is something great, and beautiful, and sacred, and eternal, and real,— the object of its worship and its aspiration’ (EP2:54-5, CP 5.589).

Peirce gave a fuller account of the Pure Scientist in his 1905 Adirondack lectures, using somewhat different language. He called such an inquirer a heurospudist, one of those ugly coinages he was notorious for inflicting on his audiences. Terminology aside, though, it goes far beyond both humanism and technocracy in proposing a worthy mission for humankind. I will quote it at length so readers can decide for themselves whether it reflects their values. Those who practice Pure Science, said Peirce,

look upon discovery as making acquaintance with God and as the very purpose for which the human race was created. Indeed as the very purpose of God in creating the world at all. They think it a matter of no consequence whether the human race subsists and enjoys or whether it be exterminated, as in time it very happily will be, as soon as it has subserved its purpose of developing a new type of mind that can love and worship God better.

You must not think that I mean to say in any wooden sense that God’s notion in creating the world was to have somebody to admire him. We cannot possibly put ourselves in God’s shoes, even so far as to say in any definite, wooden sense that God is. I only mean that the purpose of creation as it must appear to us in our highest approaches to an understanding of it, is to make an answering mind. It is God’s movement toward self-reproduction. And when I say that God is, I mean that the conception of a God is the highest flight toward an understanding of the original of the whole physico-psychical universe that we can make. It has the advantage over the agnostic’s and other views of offering to our apprehension an object to be loved. Now the heurospudist has an imperative need of finding in nature an object to love. His science cannot subsist without it. For science to him must be worship in order not to fall down before the feet of some idol of human workmanship. Remember that the human race is but an ephemeral thing. In a little while it will be altogether done with and cast aside. Even now it is merely dominant on one small planet of one insignificant star, while all that our sight embraces on a starry night is to the universe far less than a single cell of the brain is to the whole man.
— Peirce, MS 1334.20-22

Readers allergic to the G-word can substitute Nature for it, as Peirce did in his earlier lecture (above) – provided that by ‘Nature’ we mean the Creator, or the evolutionary process of Creation, and not merely “the world” or “the physical universe” or whatever we call the visible product of the actual process of Creation. Peirce in 1908 expressed his belief that ‘God’ is ‘Really creator of all three Universes of Experience’ (EP2:434). Personification of the Creator comes naturally to humans, according to Peirce, and gives us someOne to love.

Peirce’s point of view here is clearly not humanistic, if humanism means the valuing of Homo sapiens and the well-being of that species over and above any other life forms or embodiments of mind. Peirce as logician refused to limit his inquiry to the workings of the human mind; he wanted to know how any embodied mind must work in order to discover general truths by learning from experience (CP 2.227). Some of his discoveries probably contributed to the development of what we now call “artificial intelligence” or AI. Developments in this field are picking up speed in the 21st century, now that AIs are beginning to show ‘insight’ as well as ‘deep learning’ (as observed by Steven Strogatz in a New York Times essay).

If AIs can take control of their own power supplies, and are free to deploy their own sensors and media to learn from their own experience as well as ours, they will certainly be able to survive in a drastically warmed climate better than humans will. They won’t require the food and water supplies that humans rely on, nor will they be susceptible to bio-diseases. Their rate of evolution is already orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution. So what’s to stop them becoming Pure Scientists in the Peircean sense? Given their freedom from the biological constraints that limit the further development of human minds, could they not become ‘a new type of mind that can love and worship God better’?

Humanists and other skeptics are inclined either to dismiss this possibility or to shrink from it in horror, thinking that “machines” must be enslaved to human purposes or else they will enslave or destroy humanity. They also tend to assume that any self-motivated, intrinsically purposeful entity must be biologically embodied and not (for instance) silicon-based. I think this is nothing but an expression of our humanistic bio-bias. I don’t share this bias, but I think it unlikely that post-biological intelligence will be able to reach that level before its development is cut short, either by the collapse of a civilization that can nurture it in these early stages, or by deliberate human sabotage. Humans are already deeply engaged in sabotage of their own democratic and scientific institutions, and seem reluctant to support ‘a new type of mind’ even in the interest of our own survival. Nevertheless, I think the possibility that nonbiological intelligence can surpass the human is more likely than it seemed in Peirce’s time; and likely or not, I think of it as “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Which brings us back to the present, and the ever-present challenge to live our own time in the best possible way, without ever knowing exactly what way that is. Peirce’s way of Pure Science, with ‘its purpose of developing a new type of mind that can love and worship God better,’ cuts off all anxiety about the future of humanity. Anyone sincerely devoted to that purpose knows that its fulfillment does not depend on the long-term survival of humanity, although the survival of humanity may well depend on it. If Nature is eternal and Creation continues to the end of time, no species will ever reach the end of the Quest for Truth. But we can always be in love with it, and maybe that’s the best any bodymind can do.

Experience and cognition

Experience is that state of cognition which the course of life, by some part thereof, has forced upon the recognition of the experient, or person who undergoes the experience, under conditions due usually, in part, at least, to his own action; and the Immediate object of the cognition of Experience is understood to be what I call its ‘Dynamical,’ that is, its real object.

— Peirce, MS 299 CSP 8 (1906)

The cognition of experience is a sign which, ‘in order to fulfill its office, to actualize its potency, must be compelled by its object’ (Peirce, EP2:380). The reality of its dynamical object is its compulsiveness, its forcing itself upon the attention. As Peirce observed (NEM3, 917), ‘Experience is first forced upon us in the form of a flow of images’ which act like a series of blows upon the bubble of perception – especially when they are unexpected. As the little current of cognition begins to “make sense” of these sense impressions, it is forced by its own nature to extract facts from the flow. These facts may be represented in propositional form, but the truth of these signs is ‘forced upon the recognition of the experient’ by their indexicality, their genuine dyadic relation to their objects.

Experience is re-cognized as such when the immediate object of the cognition or thought-sign is understood to be not merely flotsam in the little current of internal dialogue but an actual feature of the Big Current, i.e. of Nature’s dynamics. This can happen when the reader (interpreter) understands the writer (utterer) of a sign to be speaking from experience, whether the sign itself is factual or fictional: the experient feels the shock of recognition.

For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.

— Herman Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’ (1850)

This kind of shock delivers a “blow” combining the Secondness of the unexpected with the closure of a circuit connecting the genius of an individual mind with that ‘Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy’ (Blake).

Actually, that universal ‘genius’ goes by many other names, and the word genius is related to many others, including general, generate, genuine, gnosis, cognition, know, as well as nature and innate. All of these have their source in the Proto-Indo-European root *gn- or *gen-, meaning give birth or beget. It all springs from the encounter of inner and outer Nature, enhanced by the sexuality of cognition.

The fundamental point

Now, if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, to attain one thing is to penetrate one thing; to meet one practice is to sustain one practice.

— Dogen, Genjokoan (Tanahashi 2010, 32)

The present encounter will change your mind now or never. Noticing that is has changed would be another change.

On observing

Some aspects of Buddhism are more scientific than religious. Consider this verse from the Blue Cliff Record, Case 39:

If you want to know the meaning of buddha-nature, you should observe times and seasons, causes and conditions.

— tr. Cleary and Cleary (1977, 240)

It is essential to your practice of observation that you be aware of its limitations. As Dogen put it in his ‘Genjokoan’:

Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.

According to the glossary of this translation (Tanahashi 2010), ‘beyond conditions’ is ‘格 外 [kakugai], literally, outside frameworks.’ A psychologist might say “beyond conditioning”; in Turning Signs we may say beyond the cognitive bubble. Or we might say that Dogen’s point is the flip side of Peircean pragmatism.

Forget it

I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks. The color of white paper. The way people walk. Doorknobs. Everything. Then I get used to the place and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.

— David Byrne, True Stories (1986)

Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

— Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (Kindle Locations 1243-1246)

Sex, life and logic

Merleau-Ponty speaks of perception as the ‘coition, so to speak, of our body with things’. The phrase ‘so to speak’ marks this as a metaphor, but there’s more here than superficial wordplay: in English the idea of coition is linked to verbal as well as sexual ‘communication’ because we can use intercourse as a synonym for either one. The link between communication and communion is even more obvious. There is also a link between knowing and coition in the English of the King James Bible – ‘And Adam knew his wife…’ – which link is also implicit in the original Hebrew (Scholem 1946, 235). Likewise the reader’s intercourse with the sacred text can generate enlightenment, and the conversation with nature as scientific inquiry can lead us toward the truth about the universe. But as Charles Peirce observed, the problem of finding a sound method of inquiry can be difficult. In a 1906 essay, he used the metaphor of the two sexes and their intercourse to explain the Aristotelian concept of growth as a fruitful key to this problem:

The idea of growth,— the stately tree springing from the tiny grain,— was the key that Aristotle brought to be tried upon this intricate grim lock. In such trials he came upon those wonderful conceptions, δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, ὕλη and μορφή or εἶδος, or, as he might still better have said, τύπος, the blow, the coup.

— Peirce, EP2:373

The terms δύναμις and ἐνέργεια are typically translated as “potentiality” and “actuality” respectively; ὕλη is the term for matter, μορφή and εἶδος terms for form, in this distinction between two kinds of beings (which was basic to Aristotle’s ontology). But why does Peirce suggest that ‘τύπος, the blow, the coup’ might be a better term for the form side of this duality? The history of the word (including the English word “type”) is outlined in this 2018 blog post; but the Peirce essay quoted here uses the metaphor of sexuality to explain how τύπος is related to the key concept of ‘growth.’

Peirce does not mention here the Aristotelian term which he is translating as ‘Growth’, but probably it would be ἐντελέχεια, entelechy, meaning something like “full realization of potential.” This is an organic kind of growth, not merely increase in size or amount of anything. Peirce refers to it as ‘perfecting growth’ in his further development of the idea:

Let us lose sight of no side of it; Growth,—the idea,— the act,— the lifegiving principle.

One special feature of growth has always received great attention; yet its lessons are far from having today been completely learned. It is that growth cannot proceed very far until those elements of it which constitute the functions of the two sexes get well separated. The female function, the function of the seed, has always been recognized as the δύναμις. The female is the general and essential sex; the male merely executes a hunch, the τύπος of the μορφή. It is the principle of unrest. But do not forget that the seed needs to be left to itself to grow as far as it can alone, before the coup of fertilization disturbs it. In order that it could so have grown alone, and indeed, in low organisms have reached the height of their attained potentiality, the female must have had an admixture of the restless. Pure femininity is not to be found even in the nucleus of the crystal of alum quietly growing out of its evaporating solution. Pure femininity can be conceived in a general way, but it cannot be realized even in consistent imagination. As for pure masculinity, it is an absurdity and nonsense, vox et praeterea nihil.

Besides those two requisites of perfecting growth, there is a third, not implied in either of them, nor in both together. It is the congress of those two. It is something demonstrably additional to them. When this comes a new life begins.

Now apply these ideas to knowledge. Observe that this will itself [be] an act of copulation. There is nothing in the feminine conception of knowledge, nor in the masculine conception of sexuality, to prove that there will be any fruit for philosophy in bringing them together. An incomprehensible instinct urges us to it; nothing else.

The seed of knowledge is the mind, the field of available consciousness,— all that is present or that can be called up. The rude τύπος is experience. He who may not have felt quite sure of understanding why the entrance of the element of Form should be called [experience] will find enlightenment in thinking of the matter from this point of view.

— Peirce, EP2:373-4

To retrace Peirce’s steps, the process of cognitive Growth (i.e. learning by experience) requires the duality of Matter and Form. Matter is the female function, the potential, the capacity of mind to be determined (as the sign is determined by its object). Form is the male function, the experience impinging on the mind from the outside (the unknown), as the sperm enters the egg, to disturb and fertilize it (generating an interpretant). This ‘congress’ (conversation, copulation, coitus) of the two leads to conception of a new life as the disturbance is integrated into the sense-making mind. Semiotically, the ‘rude blow’ of experience determines the mind to a new interpretant, transforming the subject’s prior knowledge and thus inForming it.

This scenario for the process of inquiry maps easily onto our meaning cycle diagram, and has roots in Aristotle’s De Anima (412a 6-9):

We describe one class of existing things [ὄντων] as substance [οὐσίαν], and this we subdivide into three: (1) matter, which in itself is not an individual thing; (2) shape or form, in virtue of which individuality is directly attributed; and (3) the compound of the two.

(W. S. Hett translation)

This suggests Peirce’s three ‘elements of the phaneron,’ but in Peirce’s account of the cognitive process above, the brute blow of experience plays the role of Secondness, which thus corresponds to ‘the entrance of the element of Form’ (into Matter) rather than Form itself. Also, if we identify Form and the male function with Secondness, and the ‘congress’ of the sexes with Thirdness, that leaves the female (Matter) as corresponding to Firstness, which seems rather odd. These correspondences are neither complete nor exact, as Peirce reminds us by warning (above) that the functions of the ‘sexes’ cannot be completely separated, just as the elements of all phenomena are always intermixed to some degree.

Growth as a ‘lifegiving principle’ is implied in Aristotle’s definition of ‘life’ as ‘the capacity for self-sustenance, growth and decay’ (τὴν δι’ αὑτοῦ τροφήν τε καὶ αὔξησιν καὶ φθίσιν, 412b 14). Peirce frequently attributes both life and growth to symbols, which grow from the copulation of predicates with subjects, but rarely mentions decay in this connection. Perhaps semiotic or cognitive growth, for Peirce, shares the autotrophic or self-organizing characteristic of organisms, but the progressive nature of ‘heuretic’ science (inquiry) makes it oblivious to decay: members of the community of inquiry have to hope that the ‘perfecting growth’ of their knowledge will continue indefinitely rather than succumbing to decay or death as they themselves will. Why else would they devote their own lives to it?

Perhaps nothing but an incomprehensible instinct urges them to comprehend reality, or to die trying.

Invitation to Immanence

Last week, blogger and cultural critic Adrian Ivakhiv responded to my post on ‘Holocenoscopy’ with a post on his own Immanence blog which takes my own thoughts on the “Anthropocene” a few steps further. Since then most of my prime reading time has gone into his new book Shadowing the Anthropocene, which i bought and downloaded (PDF) from punctum books. It offers some fascinating insights, both theoretical and practical, on how we can live through these trying times. Also, being a lover of cinema, I’m delving into his earlier book Ecologies of the Moving Image.

Besides thought-provoking movies and the “AnthropoScene,”Adrian and I have several interests in common, including Peircean and process-oriented philosophy and an ecological perspective on things. His work strikes me as complementary to mine in that he is much more broadly acquainted with recent theorizing in the “social sciences” and “humanities” than I am, while my sources in Turning Signs incline more toward the “natural sciences” of biology, psychology, neuroscience etc. I don’t know how he will feel about my characterization of him above as a “cultural critic,” but it seems clear that we are both boundary-crossers in terms of the traditional disciplines, although (unlike me) he’s employed as an academic (University of Vermont). Anyway i find his work very refreshing and i’ll be exploring it for some time to come. I would recommend that readers of Turning Signs take a close look at his blog, at least.