The Defining Idea of Modernity Is That Someone Runs the World, Research Time, 14/03/2014

I wasn’t kidding about Donna Haraway being a fellow traveller in my own philosophical work that I regret I never delved into before now (better late than never, but still should have been earlier). But there’s still one little element of what I consider the obstructively postmodern in her thinking. It has to do with the way we’ve transformed how we conceive of nature in science and philosophy more generally.

She describes that shift as beginning after the Second World War, locating its first element in E. O. Wilson’s theory of sociobiology. But the same trend has developed throughout the biological sciences, into all the major physical sciences, and is now slowly creeping into the social sciences as computer modelling of complex systems have become increasingly prevalent there. I think the only reason this hasn’t caught on fully is because the core concepts are so strange to the way we normally think about the world. Before this era, the era in which the mathematics of chaos and probability have developed and were found to be ubiquitous in natural systems, we thought of the world as directed by minds, intentional, purposive. The prime movers. The gods, goddesses, and directors of activity.

Haraway defines this kind of thinking as the essence of modernity, but I see it as actually much older, really the last harbinger of old-fashioned religious points of view: that the development of reality is directed by a figure with a mind something like ours. That figure may be a god, a God, or gods. The scientifically modern folk at the vanguard of modernity may have stopped believing in Churches, but there remained this stamp of a belief in a personal, anthropomorphic god in their behaviour and thought. Instead of a God, there was now a principle of unity, simple enough that the human mind could understand it analogously with itself. What Haraway calls the postmodern era, and what I call something entirely different, is when the vanguard of new thought understood that reality was far more complex, and that its movements were largely beyond the powers of human thought and mathematics to model without technological assistance.

The closest I’ve ever had to a philosophical epiphany was about this subject, the inadequacy of human standards of thought and beauty to the complexity of the world. I was visiting Edinburgh for a conference, and because I was staying with an old friend, I took a few extra days to explore the city. One of my walks through Edinburgh took me to a public park. It was a pretty large urban park, but its layout unnerved and disgusted me. The whole park was a fenced-in meadow. Gravel paths ran along its north and south edges, and three paths extended from the centre of the south path to the east corner, west corner, and centre of the north path. All the paths were lines by trees on each side, spaced equidistantly. 
I find few things uglier than straight lines where they do not belong.
This felt criminal to me. A park is supposed be a place of relatively tamed nature for people of all ages to play in, so they can develop a positive feeling for the non-urban world through brief, pleasurable exposures on weekend afternoons. A park laid out on a grid? An insult to the chaotic orders of the world. Grids are the natural structures of human cityscapes, human homes. Plants and fungi have their own orders, which an open-minded human should explore. I felt like it was a travesty to line trees up with such an offensively modern, Euclidean (the word feels gross on my hands as I write it) geometry.

The era of scientific thought that kicked off with the development of the chaotic mathematics and the vision of the world as the continual collision of dynamic fields of energy is as alien to this Euclidean subject-centric mind-set as you can get. Haraway calls it technological because the analogues she uses to describe it are all drawn from communication systems, information theory, and the science of immunology. This is a vision of a nature that is neither subjective nor objective. A universe of intensive differences renders all talk of subject and object obsolete. Same with the notion of truth as accuracy in representation.* But I don’t consider this knowledge so inherently technological as she does. There is a technological aspect to this knowledge, because we wouldn’t have been able to carry out the mathematical calculations which describe the actual assembly of the universe without computers. But chaotic geometry and the dynamics of intensive differences is the first time our scientific knowledge has approached adequacy to nature itself. 

* Reading Haraway also reminded me why I left work in philosophy of mind. Far too much of this sub-discipline of philosophy remains caught in models of thought as representation which reify the positions of subject/mind and object/world. I would try to discuss how thinking and perception works by structural coupling and dynamic embodiment, and was usually dismissed. Now, the professor in charge of philosophy of mind at my doctoral university at the time was particularly conservative, but new papers and books throughout philosophy of mind still harp on problems of representation and bridging the subject-object divide. It’s as if they’ve become so obsessed with solving their problems that they can no longer comprehend that they’re working on false problems.

Instead, truth is a matter of adequacy in understanding and adapting to a situation. Representation has nothing to do with it. Our world can’t be divided into subjects and objects; reality is all fields that constitute bodies as they smash, collide, dissipate, engender, and very occasionally even love each other. Such a world is nature, and our thinking is finally starting to understand it.

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