TfE: Mysterianism and Quietism in the Philosophy of Mind

Yesterday, I had an excellent conversation with Peli Grietzer on the subject of qualia and the hard problem of consciousness, and the reasons why some attempts to defuse these problems (e.g., Dennett’s ‘Quining Qualia‘ or his response to Chalmers) leave people who are drawn to the seriousness of these problems cold. I recommend Peli’s work to everyone I know, and even some people I don’t. It’s simultaneously incredibly unique and incredibly timely, trying to unpick issues at the intersection of aesthetics, epistemology, literary theory, and philosophy of mind using the theoretical insights implicit in deep learning systems, particularly auto-encoders.

Peli has come the closest of anyone I know to giving real, mathematical substance to the most ephemeral aspects of human experience: moods, vibes, styles; the implicit gestalts through which we filter the rest of our more explicit and compositional cognitions. Why does being in Berlin have a distinct cognitive texture that’s different from being in London? It’s not any one thing you can put your finger on, but a seamless tapestry of tiny differences that you drink in without needing to reflect on it. So when Peli says that he’s not sure that these most immediate, holistic, and yet nonetheless cognitive features of our experience are being taken seriously, I have no choice but to listen, and to see if there’s another way to articulate my own worries.

This result was probably the best thought experiment I’ve ever managed to articulate, and probably the most concise explanation of my problems with certain styles of thinking in the philosophy of mind. Given that my thoughts here are also in some sense an engagement with Wittgenstein and his legacy, I thought it might be nice to try articulating them in an aphoristic style. Here is the result.

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TfE: Zero-Sum Politics and Moral Logic

Here’s another Facebook interaction that grew into something interesting, initiated in response to an observation by the incomparable Mark Lance:

Screenshot 2019-09-09 00.21.07

I think that this is an interesting observation that I’m sure will feel familiar to anyone who pays attention to politics on FB, either because they use the medium for political communication, because they take a more anthropological approach to the ways this medium is changing the public sphere, or some combination of the two. It’s also something that will be of no surprise to anyone who has encountered the concept of intersectionality, no matter what they think about the evolution of the concept and the debates surrounding it and the cursed concept of ‘identity politics’. I was also not aware of Liam‘s post on the fallacy he calls ‘political omega-inconsistency‘, and I was absolutely delighted to learn about it. However, I was interested in articulating a slightly different sort of fallacious reasoning, and how it is involved in this phenomena of ‘one dimensionalism’ that Mark was putting his finger on:

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OftA: Science, Metaphysics, and the A Priori / A Posteriori Distinction

If there’s one topic that I’ve probably done more work on than anything else, it’s what you might call the methodology of metaphysics. My PhD thesis attempted to extract insights regarding what metaphysics is and how to go about doing it from Heidegger’s work on the question of Being, my Essay on Transcendental Realism attempted to extend these ideas in a Kantian direction using Sellarsian/Brandomian tools, and my book attempted to show how not to do metaphysics by critiquing one strand of the return to metaphysics in the Continental tradition. The latter probably contains the most sustained analysis of the provenance of metaphysics in my extant work, and probably the best available account of its evolution into Continental and Analytic strands in the 20th century.

However, the best stripped down overview of my opinions on the nature of metaphysics is an essay I wrote for Speculative Heresy nearly 8 years ago. I’ve worked out a lot more of the technical details in the years since, but they fill in rather than revise my position. With that in mind, I’m transferring it here.

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Transcendental Blues

Content Notes: Suicide (§0-1), Mental Health (§*), Neuroscience (§2, §4), Logic (§3.2), Computer Science (§4), Rhetoric (§*). PDF.


0. That Fucking Dog

When I found out Mark Fisher had finally been cornered by the black dog, I was standing at a bus stop on a chill morning in Ryhope. I could see the sea from where I was, and I could hear the pain in my friend’s voice, but I couldn’t connect with either of them. I couldn’t connect with anything. My life had unravelled around me. I’d recently admitted to myself and others that I couldn’t return to my postdoctoral position in South Africa. I couldn’t write or read. I couldn’t even understand my own work. I couldn’t enjoy anything. Not music. Not food. Not the morning sea. I could barely stand to be in the same room as people who cared about me. All because I was being chased by the same black fucking beast.

I was dragging myself out of bed every morning and walking a tooth grinding forty-five minutes to the nearest swimming pool in order to get the thirty minutes of exercise that was supposed to keep the beast at bay. The path follows the route of an old colliery railway line, over a bridge my great-grandfather helped build more than a century ago. Every day, once on the way there, and once on the way back, I’d think about throwing myself off of that bridge. It would never quite rise to the level of volition. I could consider the burdens I’d lift from others, the anxieties I’d finally be free of, even the bleak poetry of it. What I couldn’t do was ignore it. This was the first time this had ever happened to me.

I couldn’t process the significance of Mark’s death. I was too numb. Deep depression washes all the colour out of the world, turning the contrast down until you can’t tell the difference between real loss and mundane misery. It’s leaked in slowly, bit by bit over the last year, as I regained enough sensitivity to properly feel it, and enough understanding to properly mourn it. It’s the sort of thing you get periodically reminded of, discovering new layers of response each time, be it wistful sadness or blistering anger. I don’t think this process is finished, it won’t be for a while, but I hope that writing this post will help it along. Back then, there was one meaningful signal that cut through the depressive noise: this fucking thing shouldn’t have been allowed to take him from us, and I shouldn’t let it take me too.

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Towards Computational Kantianism

The video of my talk on Computational Kantianism from the #Accelerate General Intellect event organised by Tony Yanick and the New Centre for Research and Practice at the Pratt Institute in NYC is finally available. Unfortunately, chunks of video are missing, the sound quality is not great, and the first 10 minutes or so are absent entirely. Luckily, those first 10 minutes cover much the same ground as my talk at the Future of Mind Conference. Technical issues aside, I’m mostly happy with the content of this talk, though it covers work that is still in progress. The only qualifications I would make concern the more speculative remarks on mathematics towards the end, which I can see probably don’t have enough context for most people, especially without video of the diagrams I was using to illustrate the connections between my reading of Kant and computational trinitarianism. Moreover, I can now see that what I was saying about co-inductive types is not quite right, because it doesn’t adequately capture the speculative duality with homotopy type theory I’m circling around, even though I’m still convinced that there is a significant duality hereabouts. These are ideas I’m obviously going to have to elaborate in more detail elsewhere. Till then, this will have to do:

Prometheanism and Rationalism

Here is the video for my talk ‘Prometheanism and Rationalism’, which was given at Goldsmiths courtesy of Simon O’Sullivan and the Visual Cultures department in May. The same talk was given the previous week at the Dutch Art Institute’s Prometheanism 2.0 event, organised by Bassam El Baroni, alongside Patricia Reed, Yuk Hui, and Inigo Wilkins. The video for the DAI version is available here. However, as is often the case, I think the second version is better.

Here is the abstract:

The aim of this talk is to articulate and defend the connection between contemporary forms of prometheanism and rationalism. It will begin by defining prometheanism through its opposition to political liberalism and normative naturalism, as developed by the projects of left-accelerationism and xenofeminism. It will then show how the success of these oppositions is premised upon philosophical rationalism, insofar as it supplies the needed accounts of positive freedom and normative autonomy, and articulate the problems faced by alternatives to liberalism and naturalism that reject these conceptual resources. The remainder of the talk will be devoted to elaborating the account of rational agency through which these concepts should be understood. Positively, it will aim to explain what reason is, giving a minimalistic picture of the capacities its exercise involves. Negatively, it will aim to explain what reason is not, addressing some common objections to rationalism based on misunderstanding its relation to affect, embodiment, collectivity, and other issues.

I’m quite pleased with the talk overall. For those who would like to read the first half, it is available in written form here. If you’re having difficult reading the slides, they’re available here. It’s also worth pointing out that this makes a good companion to my paper ‘The Reformatting of Homo Sapiens’ (video), whose analysis of myth it borrows. Furthermore, the explanation of contemporary rationalism at the end has been developed substantially in my work on Computational Kantianism, which I’ll be sharing here eventually.

Finally, it’s worth noting that my positive thoughts on what is now more properly called Left-Accelerationism (L#A) haven’t been widely available till now. This is despite the fact that I organised the second Accelerationism Workshop at Goldsmiths, was involved in putting together #ACCELERATE: The Accelerationism Reader, and, weirdly, that my tumblr response to Malcom Harris’s confused review of the reader – ‘So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?’ – which does it’s best to diagnose the usual errors in usage and explain the left/right distinction, is the first reference on the accelerationism wikipedia page. This talk doesn’t cover everything I have to say about the matter, and there’s still some controversy about whether the term is salvageable, given the aforementioned confusions, but it’s nice to have something people can refer to.

The Systemic Problems of Contemporary Academia

Since the beginning of the Emancipation as Navigation Summer school, I have had numerous discussions with people about the state of contemporary philosophy, and the state of contemporary academia more generally. Some of my thoughts on the matter are expressed in the posts on the Transmodern Philosophy blog accompanying the Summer school, and others were expressed during the first public panel. I’ve had numerous questions put to me about the perspective out of which these thoughts were developed, as people have rightly surmised that there’s a certain systematic account of academia underlying them, but this is an account that I’ve never actually published in any public forum. I did begin writing something on this topic just over two years ago, an essay somewhat ambitiously titled ‘The Systemic Problems of Contemporary Academia and their Solution’, but, although I was quite happy with my analysis of the problems, it turned out to be much harder to articulate their solutions (somewhat unsurprisingly). This isn’t to say that I didn’t (or don’t) have some ideas about this, but rather that the amount of effort required to seriously think them through within the framework I’d laid out was too great to justify spending the time on it (ironically, for reasons well explained in the problems section). Despite some abortive attempts to rework the material with the brilliant Fabio Gironi, I haven’t done anything with the portion of the essay that was completed. It seems to me that now is as good a time as any to put it out here, to give some background to the things I’ve said elsewhere, and to encourage some more discussion about the predicament we philosophers and academics find ourselves in.

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Incredible Machines Talk: Technocracy and Class

It’s been a while since I’ve managed to put anything up here. However, I recently gave a short presentation at the Incredible Machines conference in Vancouver – via google hangouts – on the intersection of the ideas of technocracy and classless society. The conference was very interesting, and a really impressive experiment in teleconferencing, though it was hit by a few technical problems. The audio cut out during my presentation, but I was very graciously given the chance to re-record it. The result was somewhat longer, but also somewhat clearer than the original. It is now available online here. Enjoy!

Freedom, Beauty, and Justice (via the Accelerationism Workshop)

As many of you will already know, there was a small workshop on the theme of accelerationism at Goldsmith’s earlier this month, at which myself and a few others spoke. Despite two out of five speakers having to pull out on short notice due to illness, the workshop went very well, and I was rather pleased with the talks and the discussion that ensued after them. However, given the absence of those speakers, we didn’t really come close to defining ‘accelerationism’, which is still a nebulous term, even if it connects many things that we were all interested in. For this and other reasons, not everyone was happy having the talks and discussion recorded and put online.

However, I’m quite happy to make my own talk available, as it does a good job of connecting various things I’ve discussed on this blog over the last couple years, most importantly my concerns with the concepts of Freedom, Beauty, and Justice, and the connections between them. The talk also contains some quick remarks on the critique of liberalism, but I didn’t have the time to develop these in the depth I’d like. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to work all this up into a more coherent and detailed piece at some point. For now, you’ll just have to listen to this.