Starting again

Since my last post, i’ve decided that a virtual reboot of the whole Turning Signs enterprise was in order. The result, so far, is a radical revision of Chapter One. It begins:

January 2021, Little Current, Ontario, Planet Earth. January, month of Janus, is a traditional time for looking back and looking ahead. For over a year now i’ve been blogging about the transition. Some have called this time ‘the Great Unravelling,’ which is less forward-looking, and indeed the future seems less predictable than ever. I had vaguely foreseen this in the first chapter of Turning Signs as published in 2015 …

The rest is here, and i’d appreciate any comments, especially about its relevance to what we’re all living through at this time. It’s a bit shorter than it was before, so it shouldn’t take too much of your time – which, as we all know, is not a renewable resource. It might even be a welcome break from news about Covid and Trump. Thanks for even considering it, and thanks to you all for subscribing to this humble blog!

Common sensing

In Peircean terminology, Turning Signs could be described as a hybrid of cenoscopy and synthetic philosophy. Cenoscopy, as opposed to the idioscopic or specialized sciences such as physics and psychology, investigates

phenomena that are perfectly familiar to all mankind. Because these are founded on common observation, Bentham gave them the collective designation Cenoscopy, which I adopt as expressive of my own opinion of the basis on which these sciences, which are otherwise called Philosophy, rest.
— Peirce, MS 601 (c. 1906)

Cenoscopy then ‘embraces all that positive science which rests upon familiar experience and does not search out occult or rare phenomena’; for Peirce this, rather than metaphysics, is the real “first philosophy,” or at least ‘is better entitled (except by usage) to being distinguished as philosophia prima than ontology’ (EP2:372). Synthetic philosophy, on the other hand, ‘has been called philosophia ultima’ because it ‘embraces all that truth which is derivable by collating the results of different special sciences, but which is too broad to be established by any one of them’ (EP2:372).

In other words, the philosophical inquiry reflected in Turning Signs aims at both the primary (or primal?) and the ultimate – the alpha and the omega. This makes it doubly useful in these apocalyptic or transitional times. Actually only the cenoscopic part should be called “inquiry,” or heuretic science as Peirce called it. He placed synthetic philosophy ‘at the head of the Retrospective Sciences’ (EP2:373), i.e. those which find new connections among observations previously made rather than making new observations of their own. But the reliance of cenoscopic inquiry on ‘familiar experience’ does not make it easier to practice, because it requires critical common sense.

The method of cenoscopic research presents a certain difficulty. In commencing it we are confronted with the fact that we already believe a great many things. These beliefs, or at least the more general of them, ought to be reconsidered with deliberation. This implies that it should be conducted according to a deliberate plan adopted only after the severest criticism. Indeed, nothing in cenoscopy should be embraced without criticism. Each criticism should wait to be planned, and each plan should wait for criticism. Clearly, if we are to get on at all, we must put up with imperfect procedure.
— Peirce, EP2:373

This is roughly equivalent to Merleau-Ponty’s observation about phenomenology: ‘The most important lesson of the reduction is the impossibility of a complete reduction.’

Perennial Turning

It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)

The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:

Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.

The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.

A simple way to understand what’s happening … and what to do

We are living in transformative times. The title of this blog post is the title of an essay by Richard Heinberg which is exactly what the title says. I can’t think of anything else i’ve read that says so much that is so important right now in so few words. This is truly essential reading.

Inkling of the day, and Richard Heinberg’s

final point: life is about more than survival.


Transition link for the day: George Monbiot gathers examples of how people all over the world are stepping up to help their local communities cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

I’ve been revisiting my own book lately, and realizing how much there is in it that could be useful to people coping with the current situation and the broader transition. For instance, most of the transition sources i’ve been reading and citing here emphasize the importance of “systems thinking.” That kind of thinking pervades Turning Signs, with a particular emphasis on what i call guidance systems. It also has an apocalyptic side, though maybe not in the way you think: For instance look at the latter part of the first chapter, Beginning: Apocalypse.

If you’d like to comment on any of this, you can type it in below, or join the conversation live.

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.

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)