Constructing a Geometry of Thinking, Research Time, 30/11/2017

Let's actually get a little bit into this idea of a geometry for philosophy. I talked yesterday about what a plane of immanence is – now let’s get into how particular planes work.

So Gilles Deleuze’s term, plane of immanence, is a map of concepts, a map of their mutual possibility. If you can develop a coherent philosophy out of a set of concepts, then that set all exists on the same plane of immanence.

That they can cohere means that their components and structures can all fit together without internal contradictions that make nonsense of the conceptual machinery. But that’s just one philosophical system that fits on the plane.

Imagine that you’re Bernhard Riemann. Sitting in your office, doing mathematics, like a mathematician would. You’re setting up some guidelines for how a particular type of space would work. You can extrapolate from those mathematical rules what types of shapes can exist in your space.

Deleuze: "The components of the schema are as follows:
1) the "I think" as an ox head wired for sound, which
constantly repeats Self=Self; 2) the categories as universal
concepts (four great headings): shafts that are extensive
and retractile according to the movement of; 3) the
moving wheel of the schemata; 4) the shallow stream of
Time as form of interiority, in and out of which the wheel
of the schemata plunges; 5) space as form of exteriority;
the stream's banks and bed; 6) the passive self at the bottom
of the stream and as junction of the two forms; 7) the
principles of synthetic judgments that run across spacetime;
8) the transcendental field of possible experience,
immanent to the "I"; 9) the three Ideas or illusion of
transcendence (circles turning on the absolute horizon;
Soul, World, and God).
A shape that fits a spherical-section space – space curved like a planet – will flay apart, unable to hold itself together, on a negatively-curved space – curved like a saddle. Same goes for shapes that work on saddle spaces splitting apart on spheres.

Now imagine that instead of setting up the boundary conditions for this geometric space, you had to figure out its parameters by trial and error. Try constructing different kinds of shapes and see whether they can exist together. If they can’t, then they each project from themselves a different type of space.

Well, that’s Gilles Deleuze sitting in his office, doing philosophy. But instead of shapes and spaces, he’s working with concepts – frameworks of organizing perceptual and cultural thought to understand our experiences and lives in different ways.

In philosophy, there’s no function to set the boundary conditions for the concepts you develop first. Philosophical concepts have many components organized in complicated ways. Check out this example of Kant’s philosophy. It’s a ridiculous-looking diagram, but it’s a genuinely pithy description (and depiction) of his concept of subjectivity.

Analyze this concept. Think about all of its components and their dynamic relationships with each other. How does this concept help us understand our own subject-hood, mind, personality, and experience? Once you understand all the concept’s components, internal dynamics, and practical effects, then you can start the next step in the process.

Yeah, I know. You’re not even done after all that work. At least this is only one possible process for philosophical thinking – it might be the most admirable, if you consider only the dedication to such a strange and difficult task. So here’s the next step.

Figure out its plane of immanence. Extrapolate from those components, dynamics, and practical affects what other concepts are compatible with this particular way of thinking. If you’re lucky, the thinker you’re studying has done a lot of the work for you. Like Kant, who developed concepts in morality, aesthetics, theology, and philosophy of science alongside his central concept of subjectivity.

Maybe you’re a bit less lucky, and the map expands across the work of many thinkers. You might study a particular tradition of thinkers, like the Abbasid-era Aristotelians.

Or maybe you do comparative philosophy, looking for conceptual compatibilities across cultures and civilizations – analyzing structures of thought developed in Chinese Legalism of the Warring States period and contemporary authoritarian philosophies like those of Carl Schmitt, Giovanni Gentile, or Vladimir Lenin.

Most terrifying task of all in mapping planes of immanence – straight-up creating concepts from near-scratch and testing them for mutual compatibility. If they fit, you have another few points on the map. If not, rinse and repeat.

Mathematical Images As Alive As You Are, Research Time, 29/11/2017

So I'm getting back to talking about Gilles Deleuze again – running back over the ideas in What Is Philosophy?. I first read this book about ten years ago. It was the first long book of his or Guattari’s that I’d ever read.

I didn't understand all of it at first. I mean, you’re never supposed to understand a genuinely good book completely – otherwise, there’s no value in returning to it, which means it isn’t genuinely good. One thing that I had trouble wrapping my head around the first time I read it was Deleuze’s concept of the plane of immanence.

From chaos the plane of immanence takes the determinations with
which it makes its infinite movements or its diagrammatic features.
Consequently, we can and must presuppose a multiplicity of planes,
since no one plane could encompass all of chaos without collapsing
back into it; and each retains only movements which can be folded
together. – Gilles Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, Ch 2, Pg 50.
Reading it again now, my superior knowledge has totally enlightened me – No, that’s a fucking lie. It’s still a super-difficult chapter. I have a better handle on it now that I have an extra decade of experience and practice. But holy hell.

Let’s get one stupid objection to this concept out of the way – Deleuze doesn’t think the plane of immanence is some supernatural field of thought. You call this guy a textbook Platonist, I’ll fight you.

The plane of immanence is an image of thought.

Remember Difference and Repetition, Deleuze’s first big solo book? Remember how the only chapter you didn’t need a pure mathematics degree to follow closely was called “The Image of Thought.” It was a critique of a way of thinking that unifies all worthy thought along a single vector.*

* The chapter did a lot of other things as well – Difference and Repetition was probably the most dense book of Deleuze’s entire career of writing stupendously dense books. But I want to concentrate on this one thing here.

Call it truth, the real, correspondence, the mind of God. The ideal of thinking was to converge on a unified universal. It wasn’t that Deleuze wanted this gone, or thought it was wrong, or had no value. He just didn’t want this image of thought to be the only legitimate one.

Which I guess means he did end up wanting it gone. Someone says they’re the only boss, then if you (and you, and you, and you) want to be the boss too, you’ll have to fight them for it.

Can we say that one plane is 'better' than another? Or at least that it
does or doesn't answer to the requirements of the age? What does
answering to the requirements of the age mean? What relationship
is there between the movements or diagrammatic features of an
image of thought and the movements or socio-historical features
of an age? – Gilles Deleuze, What Is Philosophy?, Ch 2, Pg 58.
Start instead from a plural perspective about thought. You can organize thought in many different legitimate ways, each of which opens some avenues and closes others.

It’s analogous to perception. Bats can experience the world with echolocation, for example, and we can experience the world with words. That doesn’t make either the bat’s perception or the human’s perception better or worse than the other in an absolute sense. Bats are able to do some things and not others. Same goes for humans. We each have our niches in the world.

It works the same way in thought. Let’s explain this starting with concepts. A philosophical concept is created when you snatch an idea from the chaos of life, abstract it enough from your own for pretty much anyone to apply, refine it to mathematical accuracy through careful writing and tough self-interrogation.

Then you have a philosophical concept – a thought that can serve as an interpretive framework for thinking and living – a schemata for your understanding.

Like I said a few days ago, concepts can work together, they can conflict, or they can blatantly contradict each other. The plane of immanence is a map of those concepts – their component ideas, how they’d interact when used in a single subjectivity or a single society, or a whole planet.

A map of compossibility space – of the limits and conditions of how concepts can work together in a single, very complicated, system. You could almost call it a philosophy’s geometry.

Making New Differences, Composing, 28/11/2017

I’m working on a few different creative projects right now. One of them is a little indie publishing project of essays about the Capaldi years of Doctor Who – Essays Critical and Temporal.

The Lights of David, by Rebecca Bergson,
a depiction of divine illumination, as much as
should be allowed for human safety.
That's a literal description of the book too. They adapt the philosophical reviews I’ve written of each episode of Doctor Who since the 50th anniversary show. But I'm revising them pretty radically to match the retrospective nature of the book.

When I was first writing them, they were off-the-cuff – almost stream-of-consciousness, dredging up ideas from my years of (over-)education and reading, throwing them all at the keyboard. Same way that a lot of Doctor Who stories are absolutely mad ideas thrown at the screen to see if they stuck.

The opening credits, for one. And the Méliès-inspired The Web Planet. The tradition continued up to the present day.

I’m working on the revised essay for Into the Dalek now. It was Capaldi’s second story as the Doctor, and a very strange story. You can check out my old review, which is getting a radical, radical rewrite. Probably more so than a lot of the rest of them.

Into the Dalek was a weird story with a very straightforward idea at its heart. The visuals were absolutely trippy, from the cybernetic antibodies of a Dalek’s body, the reality-bending image of the Doctor’s hand melting, bending, and extending into the watery eye of the Dalek as he was shrunk and went inside.

There’s a moment where Peter Capaldi’s face appears in high resolution, video effects making his image appear deeper, more intense – the lines and crags of his face were so dark that he looks singular and cosmic at once. Like a full-colour hyper-realist sketch of a living god.

As I work on the new Into the Dalek essay, I’m revising some ideas of Henri Bergson about the nature of creativity. See, the episode’s plot is – convoluted fantastic voyage aside – ultimately about shepherding a rebellious Dalek to the realization that his species’ life mission of destroying all trace of difference in the universe is wrong.

In the event that this fantastic voyage should turn to erosion, and we'll
never get old – Remember it's true that dignity is valuable, but our
lives are valuable too.
The Doctor performs a kind of cosmic ethical psychotherapy, demonstrating the value of creation to a creature whose ideology – whose own creation’s original purpose – was the destruction of everything. Reducing all of being to a single, unchanging template.

So the essay will be a sketch of what an ethics where the creation of difference – variety, the new, proliferation, and the conditions that enable and sustain these processes – is good in itself. It’s a notion common to Bergson’s approaches to ethics, as well as much of pragmatist thought, and continues in post-colonial thinking and the traditions influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

I’m still synthesizing all these together in my thinking, though. So it’s going to be a while until my Patreon sponsors see the finished product. Probably only a couple of weeks, really. But I try to be as productive as I can.

As I’m working on this revision and rewrite, I’m imagining a plan to crowdsource illustrations – combing through DeviantArt and other fan art web platforms for sketch donations to include in the ebook. Maybe I’ll even do a small Kickstarter to fund artist commission fees for some key pitches.

We’ll see. Do please keep paying attention.

Getting Old and Feeling Surly, Research Time, 25/11/2017

Right now, I’m working on a short article for the Reply Collective. If I’m going to solicit contributors as Digital Editor, I may as well contribute some content myself. Especially since I’ve been a regular contributor since the place started up.

Recently, we published two articles that pick up a conversation which began last summer. I mean, there was a pretty big gap between instalments, but the conversation was pretty linear. It’s a discussion of John Searle’s theories of human rights.

John Searle's aggressive, unsubtle style of writing
turned out to be very influential throughout
analytic philosophy during the 1980s, and continues
to shape the approach of many philosophers in North
America. I consider that a damn shame, because
Searle first became prominent as one of the thinkers
bringing metaphysical and ontological issues back
into the analytic tradition.
I’m not going to link every single one individually, but you can start from the most recent two, by Gregory Lobo and J Angelo Corlett. You can also look through Raimo Tuomela’s recent piece, because the whole chain started from a review of his book Social Ontology, that SERRC published last year.

That’s what I love about this platform.

Anyway, there are some ideas in this debate that are good food for thought in my own research on utopian drives and concepts in contemporary ideologies. Now that I had the chance to engage with the exchange a little more closely, I could see some interesting convergences with my own work.

So this week, I’m drafting a more formally-written contribution to the discussion. And I’m going to sort out some of the ideas in it here.

Here’s what I latched onto in the discussion. The ideas and concepts floating around make for good elements in a non-reductive materialist conception of how human society works. Let me lay that out for you.

Materialist – Generally,* you don't think any supernatural substance or being is needed to explain things like life, consciousness, human intelligence, or the conditions of the universe’s existence (questions like, ‘What caused the beginning of the universe?’).

* And I’m talking extremely generally.

Non-reductive – You don’t think being a materialist about reality means you have to explain away some aspect of human experience, ability, spirituality, or identity.

As I looked into Searle's late-period social-political thinking, I saw what was in many ways kind of an inadequate system. A few years after Searle’s first book on this project, The Construction of Social Reality, Neil Gross wrote a pretty solid essay showing how wrong-headed the project was because of what it ignored.

I think Gross’ conclusion can apply to the later Searle material that focusses more directly on questions of human rights as well. It’s because Searle’s major creative philosophical works all fit together as a continuous development of a single grand theory.

The return of metaphysics to analytic philosophy had the potential
to create beautifully weird and creative ways of thinking and
writing in that tradition. Instead, such  fantastically strange thinkers
as Saul Kripke and David Lewis became outliers in an increasingly
stagnant stylistic field.
The concepts he developed during his first creative works carrying forward John Austin’s analyses of speech acts were a foundation for his arguments about the nature of mind and intentionality, how people direct their action in the world.

The decades he spent developing those theories laid a groundwork for his account of the social world as shaped by collective and shared intentions. The conception of shared intentions as the atoms of society became the basis for his theory of human rights.

Here are the problems I have with this, which Gross helped me put a finger on.

Problem one – Searle’s insularity. Remember, Searle developed all this theoretical machinery largely as building blocks from his own older work. He’d established his theoretical system, and like the old system-builders, he expanded those concepts and theories to apply to new areas, eventually to give an account of all human phenomena.

So he didn’t think he had an incentive to read the works of other authors as equals. In response to critics – well-versed in social and sociological theory – who said Searle’s ideas didn’t go much beyond what Emile Durkheim developed a century ago, Searle said that he didn’t really read much of Durkheim.

Why? Because what little he’d read of Durkheim convinced him that one of the founders of the entire discipline of sociology didn’t make much sense. No attempt to understand Durkheim’s very different intellectual world or priorities. No attempt to understand why he wrote the way he did. Because Durkheim didn’t write like a doctrinaire analytic philosopher, he didn’t make sense. That’s it.

Which brings me to problem two – Searle’s arrogance and hypocrisy. Searle is infamous for having convinced pretty much everyone in analytic philosophy that everything influenced by Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, or any other philosopher from continental Europe’s traditions is empty charlatanism.

Because those ideas, even though they were sometimes
written in very strange ways, turned out to be very
useful to the social sciences. It was almost as if the
hermeneutic and post/structuralist theories were
philosophies of the social sciences, waiting for the
social scientists to catch up a bit. Just a thought.
The obvious arrogance is in the conclusion that, because I don’t understand something, it’s nonsense. In his exchange with Jacques Derrida, they both talked past each other to epic intensities.

Searle was convinced that Derrida spoke nothing but nonsense. Derrida was convinced that Searle was an arrogant hypocrite who made no effort to understand the vulnerabilities and blindnesses of his own position and thought.

When I read Gross’ critique of Searle’s social theory, I understood how these two threads – his insularity in his own corpus, and his arrogant, dismissive attitude to ideas and styles he didn’t immediately understand – connected.

The ideas that were at the forefront of social theory for sociologists come from hermeneutics, structuralism, post-structuralism, and philosophy of the intensive sciences. The schools of philosophy that Searle has aggressively dismissed as nonsense and fraud for literally decades.

By this late state in his career – when he had also become more untouchable than Harvey Weinstein for his sexual exploitation of young, female students – Searle had become incapable of the humility required to catch up on social theory. He would have likely seen what trends had influenced contemporary sociology and dismissed it all as nonsense without bothering to read any of it.

So he’s a fellow traveller in giving a materialist theory of human thought, society, and institutions. But his arrogance and self-certainty keeps Searle from having anything useful to say to anyone else.

I doubt he’d care. If they think differently from him, he’d likely say they were all simply wrong.

An Engineer Has No Use for Relativism, Research Time, 23/11/2017

Back in my academy days, I’d sometimes get into insufferable conversations about the truth. “What is true?” “What does it mean to be true?” “Truth is all important.” “The purpose of philosophy is to find out the truth.”

By the time I started my doctorate, I had about settled into my approach to philosophy – as conceptual engineering, the creation and exploration of frameworks to understand the world. When I’d talk about this approach with people, I’d often – not that often, but often enough – get questions from other scholars about what that had to do with the search for truth.

Well, it has nothing to do with the search for truth. Truth doesn’t really play an essential role in this activity. If you were learning about a philosophical concept – René Descartes’ cogito, for example – accuracy is important.

Accuracy is a kind of truth – you have to make sure that you weren’t making errors, that your interpretation of the relevant words doesn't run roughshod over the page. But if you were to ask me if I thought the cogito was true? Back in 2009, I’d tell you that I didn’t think it mattered.

I’ve met some philosophy scholars who believe that the ideas of their focal primary material are true. I’ve known people who think Descartes was right. Straight-up philosophically correct about the nature of the mind, world, and existence. Same goes for Spinoza, Kant, Hegel – I’ve met people who genuinely believe that these writers were right. Full stop.

I find that attitude tends to get in the way of understanding other thinkers. You always judge them inferior to the object of your faith. And it is faith. Ultimately, we’re not investigating the real world when we study great works of philosophy. We’re reading books.

So that was 2009. These days, I’m even more radical about this. Ask me now about whether the cogito or any other particular philosophical concept is true – in 2017, I’ll tell you that the question isn’t even proper to ask. Like asking a geologist about the diet and exercise habits of sedimentary rock formations.

I've been in some cramped seminar rooms before, but this is ridiculous.
Does this make my way of thinking philosophy relativist? No, because I’m indifferent to truth in philosophical thinking. You don’t ask if a concept is true in the same sense that you don’t ask if a computer program, or a lamp, or an engine, or a shoe is true. You ask what it does and how it works.

Logic – should I say logics? – still applies to concepts. But that’s because logic isn’t about the truth of any of its propositions, only about how to infer among propositions.

Concepts can contradict each other – you can’t include some concepts together in the same big apparatus of understanding. Deleuze gives a beautiful example, the kind of simple yet comprehensive statement about the field that a long-practicing expert can make.

He says that you can’t build a philosophical system that combines a Descartes-style cogito with a Plato-style ontology of Ideas. For the Platonic Form or Idea to exist, being must be primary – but the cogito’s purpose is to provide a foundation for being and exists in each subject.

Ideas – thought comes to be because Ideas exist. Cogito – thought provides the guarantee of existence. They contradict, so they can’t both be part of the same philosophical framework, the same thought machine.

The logic of conceptual engineering is that of conditions and creations. Such logic maps compossibility.

What to Do With a Real Problem, Research Time, 22/11/2017

So yesterday, I was riffing on the nature of the concept. Concept – an expression in thought of a transformative collision of forces and processes. If you think a concept is just another word for a general idea, Gilles Deleuze is very particular to describe the concept in mathematical terms – vectors and relations.

A mathematical formula expresses a relation in thought – we’ve developed a very good notation for writing mathematical formulas, so we can put a very complicated relation in a single line of writing that way.

Concepts have the same precision, but they don’t function mathematically – Concepts are frameworks for everyday human thought, the schema of our how we understand our nature, everyday life, values, and place in the universe. Philosophy is the practice of developing new concepts – new frameworks for understanding experience.

That’s about where we are now. You know, this is why you could plausibly call me a Deleuzian. Because when he explains the nature of concepts and the purpose of philosophy like this, to me, this is incredibly obvious and makes perfect sense.

Storytime. A few years ago, I was at a philosophy conference in Oregon
and many of the attendees were pragmatist thinkers and scholars. In an
off-handed, but very sincere, comment to the conference organizer, I
said that many of the philosophical problems that the pragmatists were
stuck on found their solutions – or at least their next steps – in the
work of Deleuze and Guattari. It's those solutions – about the nature
and purpose of philosophical thinking – that I'm talking about in my
posts about What Is Philosophy?
It’s the only mission statement for “What philosophy is” that doesn’t sound empty, dissatisfying, and ultimately leave you shrugging your shoulders.* It’s the only one that actually can be a mission statement for the discipline going forward.

* The question that I find most insufferably annoying in all the philosophical traditions I've studied has to be, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" My response – Fuck! Who cares?! If there wasn't anything, it wouldn't matter, so neither does the question. There clearly is, so start there.

Given the absurd pressure that exists on humanities and social science departments today, the disciplines should at least fight back instead of retreating inward. Take on an active role in public life – bring your knowledge skills to the problems of our time.

That itself – what research disciplines that have been stuck in ivory towers so long that the disciplines themselves are under attack – is a philosophical problem.

Problem – a situation, whether in thought or practice or more often both, that constitutes obstacles, dangers, puzzles, mysteries to us. A concept is a framework for our understanding that lets us act such that the obstacles aren’t really in our way. Like someone who moves to a cold, wintery region and has to learn to walk well on snowshoes.

Eric Weber is a philosopher I know in the United States, who co-hosts a podcast called Philosophy Bakes Bread. One of the questions he always asks guests is whether philosophy can bake bread – whether and how it has a practical dimension.

As for me, I think it’s only worth calling philosophy if it has a practical dimension. Philosophy creates conceptual tools for solving problems in action with thought. Components of those concepts can include versions of all the traditional topics of philosophy – God, cosmos, being, the good, truth. But those tools are always there.

Conceptual engineers – designers and testers of guides for thinking.

Thought: An Uncanny Precision, Research Time, 21/11/2017

Gilles Deleuze has an awful reputation as an impenetrable writer. And I mean fucking impenetrable. Not like it isn’t his fault. Some of Deleuze’s sentences – especially in his super-dense late 1960s works – are the kind of language you grind your teeth on.

Working with Félix Guattari made his words more poetic, more like a teacher than a researcher. But the flow of this jazz was sometimes a little too out-there. Deleuze’s language was looser in his solo works during his last decade alive, though he never met the fever pitches of those collaborative works again.

I do sometimes think of their collaborative style like jazz musicians
riffing on each other's improvisations, or rappers freestyling in tandem.
Deleuze and Guattari's collaborations do have a very musical feeling
to their language.
But he doesn’t have a reputation for precision. Mostly stereotypes about being either immensely difficult or bizarrely weird. Which is too bad, because he’s actually a very precise writer.

When you read What Is Philosophy?, it isn’t just a book of philosophy – it’s also a look at Deleuze’s own method of philosophical thought.* Start by describing what it is he makes. Concepts.

* Why not Guattari too, even though his name is on the cover? A reference to the history. Their collaboration was pretty light on this one, nowhere near the intensity of their work in the 1970s. They were old by then, Guattari deep in a years-long depression. He’d die of a heart attack at 62 the year after it was published. Félix didn’t do too much.

A philosophical concept is an account – in thought and as best you can in words – of the full range of possible variations when several different processes collide and interact. It’s like a mathematical description, but without variables or constants, using only the ranges of all the relevant vectors.

A concept has no X, Y, and Z; no e or π. A concept has maximum and minimum ranges of development from a decisive, transformative point. There’s a collision of forces, a moment of change constitutes from its complex dynamics and turbulence a new system of those forces. The range of possibilities that event sets in motion is its concept.

Let's be honest with ourselves, however. They'd never be as cool as
actual jazz musicians.
A concept is an expression of this knowledge of the ranges of potentials, but in thought. When you ask what these thoughts make possible, you’re doing practical philosophy. Exploring what a particular way of thinking – a framework for understanding the world – enables you to do.

What does such a framework – the ability to understand the world using these ranges – open our minds toward? Practical philosophy – philosophical thinking and analysis going to work in the world.

But in this book, Deleuze is thinking only of the nature of concepts. He’d written enough about their development and use. What Is Philosophy? is Deleuze doing meta-philosophy. Trying to describe what philosophical thinking actually is, and what philosophers do when they’re actually doing philosophy and not just writing about it.**

** The occupation of way too many people who call themselves philosophers.

Studying a concept means examining how that concept is expressed, how it’s written, other explorations of it in different philosophical (or philosophically-inclined) literature.

Once you understand the writing, you can mull over its mechanics – its processes, the activities it suits, what it makes visible and invisible, the relationships and dynamics of all its components, how its structure can affect how someone would think through it.

You survey it, like a drone flight over a mountain range. It has to be a very careful survey, because of its complexity. Incredibly precise knowledge, but only after careful, attentive study. A survey to map thoughts themselves.

Case Studies in Open and Closed Minds, Advocate, 20/11/2017

I was originally going to talk some more about Gilles Deleuze’s conceptual engineering today. But a fairly viral article in my social network of Newfoundlanders inspired a few new insights about the culture of my home province and the mess it faces.

The wreck of the Charcot in Conception Harbour, Newfoundland.
Certainly not a metaphor for the island's current economic position.
I swear.
James McLeod – who for the last eight years has been a stalwart reporter for The Telegram, the major newspaper for St John’s – probably doesn’t remember meeting me. We shared a few beers in Toronto when I first moved to Ontario, and I was visiting an old friend.

McLeod was just about to move to Newfoundland, a Torontonian going to work in St John’s. He did fantastic work at The Telegram and loved living in St John’s, but he couldn’t stay in the city following its economic downturn.

Newfoundland’s entire economy depended on high oil prices – government revenues depended on stupidly low offshore petroleum well royalty rates, and much of the rural workforce commuted to the Alberta tar sands. As the island has traditionally done, its leaders put all their economic eggs in one volatile, risky basket.

Right now, Newfoundland and Labrador is on the threshold of an even bigger economic crisis than the cod moratorium and the end of much of the inshore fishing industry. And those crises – the oil crash, the massive government debt burden of Muskrat Falls, the massively aging population – will drive a huge migration from NL to the rest of Canada.

What I find most illuminating were the different reactions to McLeod’s article in my social networks. It’s anecdotal evidence of wide social trends, but it displays a depressingly common cross-section of the attitudes about the future of my birthplace.

Solid headshot. The bow tie is pretty cool too.
One friend, when he posted the article, agreed with McLeod that the province was heading for an economic disaster – he was depressed that there seemed to be no way out, but resigned to another outflux of population. He has plenty of experience working around Canada and the rest of the globe, an open, progressive point of view.

Another friend was resigned to the disaster as well, but also expressed an incredible bitterness that any of Newfoundland’s leaders could ever handle it. This friend is a very perceptive man – I remember through the Williams years of the mid-2000s, he was very skeptical of his leadership.

He showed very little of the sad worship of Danny that swept Newfoundland’s culture in those years. There’s a kind of disgust at the province’s leadership – a combination of bitterness, resentfulness, and hopelessness. A loss of faith in any hope or optimism at all. I worry about that.

And another friend – a Facebook connection from having shared some friends and some conferences in the New Democratic Party back in the early 2010s – who expressed what I find to be a very sad and all-too-common attitude.

Go on back to the mainland. No matter all the time you spent here, no matter how much you came to love Newfoundland, no matter how much the island shaped you – if you’re leaving, then good riddance. You were never our friend.

It’s an inward turning. When resentment boils into contempt. When it’s in triumph, it’s the attitude of the Williams partisan – “How does it feel now, mainlander?” When it’s under a weight, it’s the spite of disgust – “Fuck off back to the mainland!”

The rocks will outlast the people.
Turning away, no matter what’s on offer. Whether it’s multiculturalism, true economic diversity, business and trade links, or even just inter-community friendship. Turn away. They’re not one of us. They don’t count – and they never did.

No matter how much McLeod contributed to my home province over the last decade, it’s the feeling that the province owes him nothing. No mainlander is worth respect.

I’m not a mainlander. I live in Toronto, and my spouse is Torontonian. I grew up in Newfoundland. But being Italian, I never really fit in – my name and the fact that I had a large extended family in Quebec made me a foreigner. Even though I was born at the old Grace Hospital in St John’s and lived there until I was 25.

The irony is that I’ve actually written for Cleary’s paper about the political and cultural insularity of Newfoundland’s culture. It wasn't the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador that drove me to build a life elsewhere. It was the insularity of so many popular attitudes that made my more open perspective feel unwelcome.

There was also the feeling that, despite having been born and grown up in St John's, that I never truly belonged, that my Italian heritage and my connections to Quebec kept me from being a real Newfoundlander. Well, if you don't want me, I won't come . . . .

Where We Can Stare the Madness in the Face, Jamming, 17/11/2017

So the horror film project is coming together way faster than I thought. The Ghost actually wants to get this all done before the end of the year. He’d shot about half the footage already, but I’m now part of the project writing the scenes that deliver the context.

It’s a five minutes into the future scenario, but I still think of its themes primarily as a horror film. As I assemble the ideas, I’m thinking philosophically too. Not in a pretentious way – just about the broad themes that are holding the piece together.

Orson Welles directs Anthony Perkins in his adaptation of The Trial.
In the philosophical discussions I've had about absurdity, few ever
touch on how useful absurdity is to depict truth in societies where
no one is allowed to speak.
I was talking about existentialism the other day. That’s definitely a big part of my ideas here. But I always found one important limitation in the traditional existentialist writing. The best ones are deep, satirical attacks on the real danger of a hostile world and hostile institutions.

Ever since I first came across the storyline and read it, I found it clear that a book like Kafka’s The Trial is a depiction of how ridiculous the law, police, and justice institutions truly are – the arbitrariness of the application of the law, and of the law itself. This was all clear to me as soon as I read it.

But I’ve long been a bit of an anarchist at heart. So the idea that the law’s content is pretty damn arbitrary and the police have a horrifying tendency to let the power go to their heads, growing abusive and corrupt?

I've known this to some degree since I first watched Serpico as a kid. So Kafka’s point was clear to me from the start.

But the popular reception of Kafka’s stories is that they’re pure absurdities. Their depiction of our world is so strange that we disconnect them from reality. The Trial’s K goes through an obviously absurd justice system. Yet it was just an intensified, comically cartoonish version of real institutions.

At the end of the day, K’s story is of a man who’s arbitrarily detained on charges whose content he never knows, his arguments to defend himself are utterly disregarded on the flimsiest of contexts, authorities order him around arbitrarily. Then he’s just taken out to an alley and summarily shot.

Who stole the soul from black folk?
Same man that stole the land from Chief Black Smoke
And made the whip crackle on our back slow
And made us go through the back door
And raffle black bodies on the slave blocks
The new plantation, mass incarceration
It unfolds like a cartoon, but that’s daily life for anyone who grew up under the authoritarian states of Europe – like Kafka’s Austria, or Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Assad’s Syria. But in those countries themselves, you couldn’t say so directly.

That’s why Kafka’s books were received so weirdly in the West – with our democratic institutions, we didn’t know to recognize the reality they depicted. Westerners saw the cartoons only as absurdities. Not the absurdity as the only way to depict the truth.

We’re in the middle of something very different now. You can make a pretty strong case – and many do – that the police, military, and justice systems of the United States and many other democratic countries are not focussed on true justice.

Mass incarceration is the absurd system of modern criminal justice in the democratic West. The United States is at the leading edge of developing this system, and it’s most intense there, but most Western democracies have developed terrible incarceration rates, and even more terrible racial disparities in prison populations.

My country Canada has a mass incarceration problem of its own, mostly focussed on Indigenous people. It’s the latest phase of the Indigenous genocide that the Canadian state was designed to facilitate and complete.

Here’s the difference between what we can say and what Kafka – or whatever Kafka will emerge from the haunted dust of Syria’s revolution – could say. We can call it what it is.

Democratic states of the West currently live out a terrible conflict of conscience – we have free speech and free press rights and laws built into our constitutions. It’s immensely difficult to prevent a journalistic outlet or a social media forum from talking about whatever embarrassing fact of state violence they want to discuss.

More than that, we all generally stand by their right to talk about it. A 1910s Czech living under Austrian dictatorship or a 2010s Syrian living under Assad’s dictatorship could never say in public the horrible things their government did. Everyone knew, but no one could say so where they could be heard – the public square was happy, patriotic, living as if nothing at all was wrong.

We can still defend our rights to call a genocide a genocide, and accuse the icons of our nation of mass murder. No one comes to arrest us for it.

In a way, it’s even more absurd. We can keep calling attention to it, and show how ridiculous the defenders of genocide are whenever they speak. We can mock them in public. Yet the genocides and enslavement continue. It’s like they aren’t afraid of us.

In Syria, at least the government was scared enough of people who spoke the truth to put them in prison. Here, they just laugh at the SJW libtard.

Wondering About Books That Don’t Exist, Jamming, 16/11/2017

So I’ve been reading an old book by a kind of obscure author these days. A totally serendipitous find. I grabbed The Fall of a Titan when McMaster’s Philosophy Department library was clearing out a lot of old books.

I’m not going to get into the storyline or the themes of it today. I want to talk about a curious little feeling that you get as a reader when a book surprises you – a sensible decision for the story that still shocks you.

So, no serious spoilers. I won’t be too specific. But there’s a character who’s been acting as a petty bully all the way through the first half of the book. He’s a teenaged jackass – Biff Tannen, but in 1930s Russia instead of 1950s California.

Whether or not the photo is real, Stalin could laugh.
But he's 19 years old, a student at the local university. He’s coasted by his whole life on just pushing people around. Now, he tries to do the same thing to the protagonist, rough him up and intimidate him into doing what he wants. On top of that, he has stupid, short-sighted, damned idiotic reasons for wanting to push the main character around.

This history professor is a veteran of the Russian civil war – when he was 19, he was sneaking up on Menshevik soldiers in the woods and slicing their throats open. Of course, you know what’s going to happen as soon as the kid starts a fight with this guy.

Yet the narrative has set this character up as a major foil to the novel’s female lead. So we expect him to follow her through the entire narrative, tormenting her. The sudden end to that relationship is a shock, given the expectations we had through watching their story.

Perfectly logical, yet utterly shocking. It’s a beautiful moment.

The Fall of a Titan is definitely not a perfect book. Some of his descriptions are a little too straightforward. Sometimes, Gouzenko strains to find the best image. But the careful logic of how his characters build his narrative is beautifully assembled.

Igor Gouzenko only wrote one book of fiction, this one. Other than that, he lived a quiet life in Mississauga, in a modest apartment. He had the remarkable distinction of being the first Soviet defector to the West. Three days after the final surrender of the Second World War, he marched from the Soviet embassy to RCMP headquarters with a pile of evidence of Russian espionage.

Yet The Fall of a Titan was his only book of fiction. I would have liked to see him pen more stories of the Stalinist era, or develop some dramatic novel about life in an immigrant community in the grey years of mid-20th century Ontario. Those don’t exist.

But what beautiful, fine-tuned books they’d be. Maybe I’ll imagine them.

Visceral Horror Is Good for You, Composing, 15/11/2017

I spent today talking with my collaborator The Ghost about this horror / sci-fi film project we’re starting work on. I don’t really want to talk about specific story or plot ideas today.

We’re still assembling the details of the script, and until we have the order of events and all the relationships among the five characters straight, I’m not going to talk about any  details.*

* Not entirely true – I’m probably going to describe this in more detail to my Patreon sponsors this week.

I want to talk a little about the themes this film is going to explore. Call it materialist existentialist, if you want to sound pretentious. What does that actually mean?

Look at some of the major works of classic existentialist literature. Books by Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and of course Franz Kafka.

When we are reduced to the shriek alone.
For Sartre and Beckett, I’m particularly thinking of Nausea and Molloy. They tell stories of men who grow isolated from their surroundings, turning inward in their alienation until they collapse into pure affect – usually rage and depression.

But Roquintin and Molloy become alienated from society thanks to some very general problems. Sartre’s protagonist becomes depressed, enraged, feeling powerless as his intellect and wit is inadequate to all the problems he experiences. Molloy is a man whose existence as an itinerant grows increasingly incoherent that he eventually disappears from sense itself.

We can very easily take these characters as existentialist stereotypes – existence itself, the burden of life alone, brings them to collapse. Life itself is so absurd! But that’s not quite the case. Hell, even in the stereotypical book of these stereotypes, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the existentialist stereotype is inadequate to what’s really going on.

I’ve come to think lately that the concept of ‘the absurd’ is a method of willful blindness from how existence really does become an empty terror.

Roquintin, for one, is clearly a parody of the empty existence – his existence really is empty, as he doesn’t really have to struggle for anything. He becomes disgusted with his life out of boredom, the emptiness of a life where everything comes easily.

Existentialist readings of Molloy, to me, miss the most important point about Molloy the character – he’s a desperately poor homeless man whose elderly body is breaking down. He sleeps in ditches, scrounges for food, shivers in a downpour with no shelter. Of course his life is absurd – it’s the absurdity of extreme poverty.

Where does the absurdity of my story come from? It’s a five-minutes-into-the-future premise – all the paranoia and state police crackdowns against immigrants and migrants have become universal.

Images of ICE prison camps, Guantanamo and terrorism paranoia, the vile hatred of migrants and refugees, the proud resurgence of ethnic violence and nationalist racism, the bureaucratic slavery of mass incarceration.

Trapped in so many chains. The chains of border police against migrants. The chains of an authoritarian police and court system. The chains of dehumanizing scientific experiment. These are the chains that make his life absurd.

To Be Free and Natural, A History Boy, 14/11/2017

I started this blog when I’d already developed quite a lot as a writer – especially in philosophy. A good chunk of that development came from reading Gilles Deleuze and using a bunch of his concepts and ideas in my own projects, particularly in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity.

That book isn’t a book about Deleuze – the book is about what the title says. But I use Deleuze’s concepts often in how I research and explore problems in environmental ethics and activism. Even – especially – when I’m not quoting or referring directly to any of his work.

If you’re going to give me a label based on any legendary philosopher’s name turned into an adjective, you could plausibly call me only a Deleuzian.

Influence is an agony.
Of course, given how most folks in academia use adjectival names, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Because when you’re in an academic context with philosophers and you call yourself a Deleuzian, they think that all your writing is commentary on Deleuze. And that your professional communication is advocating for a single interpretation of Deleuze that you hold to be the true, right one.

Replace the name Deleuze and its adjectives with the name and adjective of any primary material philosopher and you have a significant chunk of the entire field.

This is the closest thing possible to the opposite of what Deleuze would have wanted his follower philosophers to do. The man wrote it himself. If you want to follow in the footsteps of your heroes, don’t just repeat what they said, but do what they did.

What does a philosopher do? In the broadest possible and most essential sense, a philosopher creates concepts. What is a concept? That can take a while to answer. Answering and exploring that question is the major point of Deleuze’s last big book, What Is Philosophy? So you can go into plenty of detail, and discussion too.

But you can also say it very simply, and let the details do the work that details do – get technical, intricate, profound, meaningful in a professional sense. You can understand how a computer works without being a computer scientist. In the same way, you can understand what a philosophical concept is without being a professional philosopher.

Something else that too many academic philosophers tend to forget.

You can make a strong case that we're quite a lot
dumber than some of our ancestors. They lived at
least long enough to become us, and it's become a
conceivable possibility that humanity will end up
cockroach food.
I can give you a really quick and easy-to-remember account of what a concept is. It’s the one I see when I read What Is Philosophy? A concept is a framework for us to understand the world – how we order our thoughts and perceptions from our daily lives to the cosmos.

Here’s what I think is the most important part of how Deleuze understands this – the most important lesson he has for us. It’s why I realized his ideas were so important to building a genuinely progressive environmentalist ethics.

Frameworks to order our thoughts and perceptions is more than just a human thing. All organisms have to make sense of a chaotic world of perception – moving so that they stay alive. Hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution has produced some pretty complex ways to perceive and act. We’re one of those ways.

We can build a tradition – many traditions, actually – of conceptual craftspeople. We develop new abstract frameworks of making sense out of chaos that are much more complex and have many different powers than those of an australopithecus.

Any tradition centred on developing new concepts is properly called philosophical. Plural all the way down. That’s what I love about thinking in a way you could – if you really must – call Deleuzian.

It’s a wonderful framework for environmentalist thinking – a vision of humanity as an expression of nature. No essence. No immutability. No hierarchies. Contingency, change, and diversity. Environmentalist, ecological, and democrat to the core.

The Power of Reality and Over Reality, Composing, 13/11/2017

Originally, I was going to write a quite little post about philosophy again tonight, probably anticipating my takeover this week at SERRC. Or maybe talking a little about Gilles Deleuze before I dive into a few ideas I dredged out of What Is Philosophy? for my next big book.

Then something happened that gave me one remarkable, inspiring thought about Syria. It has some deeper meaning as well, but I don’t feel much like getting into that right now explicitly. It started when I gave the Ghost a comp ticket to the last night of the Syria Film Festival.

He showed up pretty late and couldn’t stay too long. He left about two-thirds of the way through the longest documentary Lost in Lebanon, but saw all of One Day in Aleppo.

Skyping in Ali Alibrahim, director of One Day
in Aleppo
, at the end of SYFF 2017. My
favourite feedback about this film came from
the Ghost. He said, about that moment where
the camera crew's car was shelled, "Are you
sure that wasn't faked? It looked too real!"
The real looks so real that we can't tell if it's real.
This was the first time the Ghost had experienced real footage directly from the ground of a war zone. There is a moment in One Day in Aleppo where the car the camera crew is driving in gets caught in an explosion. They have to carry their driver out of the car because he’s been badly wounded by shrapnel.

All of these were actual events that happened, and of course the crew never stopped filming any of this, they’re professionals!

Soon after festival weekend, the SYFF crew meets up to discuss ideas for next year. I mean, we’re also patting each other on the back, and usually having a big potluck. But we’re also talking about ideas for next year.

We have plenty, too. An approach for a rebranding as we head in to our fourth year, for one. We’re generating ideas to do that, new vectors of the Syrian experience to explore. For so long, we’ve focussed on the war, which is necessary, but has its limitations.

That’s why I mentioned my friend the Ghost. After watching One Day in Aleppo, he wasn’t able to speak again until three hours later. This was exactly the effect the filmmakers wanted people to have.

Here’s the rub. As the Ghost was driving home in a state of shock, I was talking business with people, congratulating volunteers, and chatting about our final attendance numbers. I’m not about to say we’re a little desensitized, but it does show a detail that we can’t see from being too close to the machine.

We play some damn heavy shit. Now, heavy shit certainly does continue in Syria and the entire Persian, Arab, and Southern Mediterranean world. But as an artistic approach, heavy shit brings diminishing returns.

My favourite film this year included a note of hope, even if it was only symbolic. The oldest daughter of a disappeared Free Syrian Army fighter develops a new identity for herself – no longer as a revolutionary Syrian’s daughter, but as a hopeful Syrian-German. Watani: My Homeland.

A lot of the most hopeless people I saw in these films were the ones who were so pessimistic that they’d ever rebuild their country. We need to find more stories of rebuilding – whether we discover them or tell them ourselves. If only to awaken the possibility.

Cinema From the Edge of the World, A History Boy, 10/11/2017

Giving the blog a break from philosophy for a little while. I was basically wandering through some highlights of how Hannah Arendt has been informing my philosophical thinking and research for nearly a month. It’s time to move on.

Right now, I’m moving on to the Third Syria Film Festival. I’m proud to have worked on this one – I’m proud to have worked on all of them, but especially this. This year is the festival I’ve felt most in control of my tasks in marketing and promotion.

In the first year, I was freshly graduated from my communications program and didn’t have enough confidence in myself. We ended up doing a fantastic job, attracted a lot of media attention, and I did solid work coordinating reporters from several different outlets – Toronto Star, Metro News, a few local publications, and the English-language services of the two big Arab networks Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera.

The crew of volunteers and organizers for SYFF 2016. Some of them
aren't really with us anymore, but I'll never forget them.
Don't worry, they're not dead. They just moved on to other things.
Only one of them was stuck moving to America, poor bastard.
We even did a segment for Al-Jazeera English walking around at the Distillery District talking about the festival with Jay Abdo.

All credit to me when it came to keeping everything straight and making all the media folks happy. But I didn’t really work much magic of my own attracting all those people. The First Syria Film Festival was in November 2015. The world discovered Aylan Kurdi two months before.

The Syrian war(s) and their refugees were at the top of the news cycle for months. It captivated Canada. More than 40,000 Syrians have come to Canada as refugees – many, but not exactly a whole lot in a country of 36-million people. Why haven’t we taken in more? There’s no reason why not.

As for the film festival, we never got the same intensity of media coverage in that first year. It was a perfect storm that let us build a strong fanbase that’s been steadily growing ever since.

At the same time, I feel like I let SYFF down a little bit in its second year. I was working a pretty hectic, low-paying job and it took a lot of my energy and attention away from the public relations work for good causes that I actually enjoy doing.

This year, I could put a little more effort into our outreach and branding strategy. We haven't gotten the most media attention, but I think we’ve built our fandom deeply enough that we can get folks out during the snow tonight.

We have some beautiful stories on the screen this weekend. Get some tickets. Come down to Hot Docs and say hello. You’ll never see another set of nights quite like them.

The Limits of Your Universe, Research Time, 09/11/2017

Philosophical thinking sometimes puts you in a tricky place. For example, I’m doing the research for a big book of political philosophy. That research comes mostly from Western traditions of thinking. But it’s going to discuss ideas and concepts that are universal in scope – applying to people no matter their civilization or culture.

Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Now put a bunch of philosophers in the room and see if any discussion of universality can make it out alive. Cultural relativism is a common foil here, especially for Westerners like me who know the Western tradition best.

Thanks to the conceptual framework of colonialism that polluted Western thinking for a good few centuries, it’s dangerous for any Western person to apply their writing on a universal scale. Let me give you an example.

Hannah Arendt focussed her energy on understand the core concepts
of Western thought. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Actually, I’ll just link back to the example I gave yesterday when I was writing about something different. Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition examines how a set of cultural presumptions about humanity’s relationship with the world and our place in it developed over time.

She talks about it on the terms of those presumptions’ core concepts themselves. Really anal but important thing I want to call attention to – I don’t say ‘in terms of,’ but ‘on terms of.’ In the same sense that, when you ask someone for an eyewitness account, you say they described the incident on their terms.

Her historical references for this analysis are entirely Western – from Polis Greece through Medieval Christian Europe to the Scientific Revolutions and their growing intensity until the Nuclear Age. But the philosophical problems that all these cultural dynamics influence and change refer to existential questions about humanity itself.

Here we have a culture speaking for all of humanity – the West. And it sounds for a second like the argument we’ve all heard before.

European navies and armies spent a few centuries ruthlessly conquering every other civilization on Earth. Our education systems and most of our cultural traditions have trained and raised* most of us Westerners to think as if we deserved to conquer them. Western ideas were universal – everyone else’s were local. Westerners were Man – everybody else were just a bunch of people.

One of the first great thinkers to see the real end
point of decolonization was Frantz Fanon. In The
Wretched of the Earth, the revolution throwing
the colonizers out is only the beginning. A society
can stay on a war footing for much too long. It
has to begin its own cultural renaissance of
creativity and freedom. Only then can they truly
be equals with the bastards who once conquered
them. Rub that freedom to develop your culture
as you want in their face. That's the real victory.
* Respectively.

The typical reaction is to declare this whole pretence to the Western way of thinking being the true universal a general crock of shit. I’m speaking, of course, about the 20th century left. This is the set of progressive attitudes that the paranoid nationalist right believes is the only left.

That old-fashioned progressive attitude is over – in the 21st century generation anyway. The attitude that appears to be shaking out from our culture right now is what I’m about to describe. Basically, it’s the endpoint of cultural decolonization.

At the end of the day, The Human Condition describes one way to think about humanity. It’s a continuous cultural development – a general trend among many different communities.

But those communities grew similar in this broad set of problems – over humanity’s place in the world – that they all developed similar responses at similar times. They shared a lot among each other. Enough to become Europe.

There are other densely integrated communities throughout the world that interacted much more intensely among each other than beyond for long periods of time. They developed their own traditions of thinking about these broad problems – over humanity’s place in the world.

The Western way of thinking is not the one way, standing apart from the many.

The Western way of thinking is one way among many.

In the 21st century, these many civilizational traditions of thought are now interacting more intensely than they ever have before. Let’s all bring our ideas to each other and see what new thinking results.

The Shock of Your Own Emptiness, Jamming, 08/11/2017

Sorry I never updated yesterday. It’s just been busy, hectic, a little stressful at times, and a long Facetime conversation with my colleague on the horror film project got away from me.

I was originally going to make another pass at the idea I was talking about over the weekend. How Medieval Christian Europeans* found themselves adrift and alone in the universe, once they understood how much they needed technologies to pry open the world.

Christian European culture experienced a profound culture shock as
people slowly began to realize that the only friends humanity
could have in the world were the friends we made ourselves.
* Arendt, in The Human Condition, talks about mankind and humanity here. But she’s only ever referring to a Western and European cultural transition – tracing conceptual continuity from Polis-era Greeks to Medieval Christian Europeans to Industrial Capitalist Europeans. That was her area of expertise, but it’s important to keep the concepts’ limits in mind.

Our intuitions and perceptions weren’t adequate to the way the world really was. The guarantee that the world was God’s creation and so was made for us disappeared. Culturally, Westerners came to a terrible realization – God was not looking out for them. They were on their own.

This is what proper atheists mean when we say that God is dead. These aren’t the reductive, arrogant, idiotic r/atheism crowd who thinks Stefan Molyneux is a genius. I'm talking about the atheists who understand that there could be and likely is a divine presence in the world, but admits to herself that God is indifferent to us.

That’s a much more profound atheism than the more popular, “Religion is stupid! And you’re stupid!” style of atheism. An atheism that God herself would respect. Atheism as a challenge to God – Why do we matter nothing to you?

Here’s another idea that Arendt traces from this shock – technophilia. Here’s how she does it. When we could think of the world as creation, our intuitive ways of exploring it – everyday experience and contemplative meditation – were adequate to that world.

An artist's rendition of Isaac Asimov's Trantor – a planet whose entire
surface was covered in a vast urban cityscape. A world made
wholly into a human creation.
Throw that out, and you realize that our only grip on the world is with our technology. It’s a tentative, desperate grip, but it’s better than nothing. When God is dead (to you), you can’t rely on any kind of natural harmony between humanity and the world. When you realize that there never was any harmony at all, your senses and thoughts feel very unreliable.

Here is where you understand that René Descartes’ thought experiment of radical doubt wasn’t arising in a cultural vacuum.

The image of radical doubt – a conception of our world as a fundamentally mysterious place, where we’re at a deep and serious disadvantage even for survival – was the beginning of existentialism. It was an empty world, where we had no friends but the ones we made ourselves.

Worse yet, if we were alone in the world, then we owed no one in the world our loyalty or trust but ourselves. So instead of looking after a creation that was made for us, we came to think of ourselves as masters of Earth. Chew up the world and build a human creation from it all.

If the world as it appeared on its own wasn’t really made for us, we’d make the world for us ourselves. Yeah, that’s working out well.

The Shock of Your Own Inadequacy, Research Time, 06/11/2017

No, this post isn’t about the first time you experienced erectile dysfunction and get your minds out of the gutter.

Really, I’m taking a second pass at the idea I was talking about earlier this weekend. That idea of alienation coming up in The Human Condition. It’s useful and intriguing, and I want to make sure I have a good handle on how to express it. I think I have a better grasp on the how right now.

When I was a young boy, I read Steven Hawking's A Brief History of
. There, I read that the ultimate goal of science was to develop
a theory of everything, a mathematical system that could explain
and predict every phenomenon in the universe in simple formulae.
Hawking should be ashamed of writing such propaganda.
Mathematics are, in some context, important to all sciences. Calculus, geometry, statistics, plain old arithmetic – whatever. If you want to give a quick and dirty one-sentence* definition of science, call it ‘Systematic knowledge emerging from understanding mathematical descriptions of things, systems, and processes.’

* Inevitably inadequate, but making an accurate-enough gesture for us to say that, yeah, it’s true I suppose.

Put that in your introductory-level philosophy of science textbook and smoke it.

Okay, that was the last joke. So Hannah Arendt tries to explain how a profound alienation from nature, the world, and our experience can arise from how central mathematics is to our knowledge.

The mathematical tools of the different sciences give us a better ability to understand natural processes – atomic energy fields, cellular and organic processes, ecological development, cosmological events – than we can get from our ordinary observation of the world.

Go to the typical grade school example – which I don’t think ever gets unpacked the way it really deserves – of geocentric vs heliocentric models of the solar system. We look up in the sky and we see the sun and other heavenly bodies circling us.

But describing their actual motion in our sky takes some convoluted math. So Copernicus, Erasmus, and others developed a heliocentric model with simpler math. It was always an as-if hypothesis just to ease up on the headaches astronomers suffered.

If I could focus on one of the many philosophical and metaphysical
screwups of Christian thought, it's that the common interpretation of
Noah's myth in this tradition is that creation exists for us as we are.
The meaning of the rainbow is that everything is illuminated already.
I much prefer the Jewish tradition, which is much more honest about
how we still have to work for our knowledge.
Mathematics is a technological creation – it’s a human tool, a complex assemblage of symbols and rules. So any knowledge that we produce with mathematical tools isn’t a direct encounter with the world – mathematics mediates our knowledge of the world.

That was fine when we were just coming up with imaginary models to simplify our models of a more complex world – the migraine-inducing calculations of planetary paths in the geocentric model. But then it turned out that the mediated abstract models of visceral experience were true, and our ordinary experience of the world distorted how nature really was.

Arendt talks about Galileo and the astronomical tradition that followed him, but Robert Boyle and the Royal Society’s development of the experimental laboratory was equally important. Mathematics was the symbolism, and the laboratory was the institution and site, of mediated knowledge.

Mediated knowledge was much more effective, more powerful, than knowledge through direct experience of the world. Necessary conditions of humanity’s industrial revolution included that mediated knowledge.

Our own tools, techniques, and technology were the medium of that knowledge. This was a profound cultural shock to the Europeans who developed the modern epoch of mathematics and the institution of the laboratory. My debt here is to my SERRC colleague Steve Fuller’s philosophical history of knowledge.

The power of mediated knowledge over direct experience of the world
was such a shock to Medieval Christian European society that its
success felt like falling back into the Cave. A God whose nature
requires complex mathematics and wrangling results out of a
laboratory to understand isn't nearly as kind and close to us as
Medieval Christian thinking held. All the philosophical attempts
to overcome mediation in knowledge – I think of Hegel's Absolute
and popular evangelical literalist disdain for science – you can
understand as desperate refusals to accept a distant God.
Before this cultural realization of the power of mediated knowledge, Europeans had a view of the world in which every moment of ordinary wandering through the world brought you closer to God.

The medieval Christian conception of worldly knowledge was that our world was creation. Creation was God’s expression, and humanity was the element of creation who God made creation for.

Creation’s purpose was for humans to understand it and live harmoniously in nature. So the popular conception of nature in European Christian culture was as an open book. Creation was something through which we understood God and our relationship to Him. We’re built to understand creation intuitively because creation was made for us.

The success of mediated knowledge demonstrates that creation wasn’t made for us. The most accurate knowledge of the world emerges from using these complicated tools, technology that requires years of training and education to use properly. The world is much more opaque than an entire sub-continent’s culture of our ancestors understood.

People in Medieval Christian European culture thought of themselves as Fallen, that they had to work to understand God and creation again. The success of technology – mathematical symbols and the laboratory – in understanding the world demonstrates to a Medieval European Christian that we’re Fallen much farther than we thought.

We may as well have Fallen into hell.