Being Without Existing, Composing, 05/02/2018

It’s a basic rule of thinking decently-well that you shouldn’t apply concepts from scientific fields to moral or political thinking, and vice versa. But . . . .

The most famous example of these cross-domain applications gone horribly wrong is social Darwinism. There are plenty of opportunities to read up on how this popular interpolation of a scientific idea to a political imperative caused horrifying human disasters. Please read the links – they’ll open in separate tabs.

Riffing on a hilarious misinterpretation I've heard from too many
old conservative academic philosophers – Deleuze as simulacra.
Aside from the horrifying political consequences of the most notorious example, it’s just bad form epistemically. You can’t make a straight translation of abstract scientific concepts into a moral imperative. Especially when your example gets all the actual principles of the science totally wrong anyway.

Even Gilles Deleuze, well known philosophical weirdo, would say so. One of the major principles of his last book, What Is Philosophy?, was that scientific knowledge was mathematical and referred to specific situations – philosophy operated very differently.

But . . . . there’s a way to carry scientific concepts into other domains of thinking. It’s a process of abstraction.

Identify the most fundamental aspects of a scientific concept, abstract them into a diagram – so hold onto the complexity, but without the specificity – and experiment to see where else that abstract diagram makes sense.

You aren't so much drawing a conclusion – like the social Darwinists did – as you are an investigation. Where else can this concept apply fruitfully?

Where’s an example of this actually working? Then we can see, in specific terms, how that process of thought works. Well, Deleuze developed one – how the abstract structure of the scientific concept of the infinitesimal and the strange attractor can make sense of the existence of impossible ideals.

That’s a weird and dense thing to say. So what do I mean? In Leibniz’s calculus, an infinitesimal is the smallest possible differential relation. No differential – a dynamic relationship of ∆x/∆y – can ever reach zero. That’s just zero. But their smallest possible relationship is an infinitesimally small difference.

The thing is, infinitesimal quantities can’t exist. They definitely can’t exist in experience, because our perceptual powers give out at sizes of objects and movements way bigger than the infinitesimal. They can’t exist in reality either – the smallest any physical fluctuation can be is about 1.6x10-35 metres. Way longer than infinitesimal.

All you have to do for your dream to become reality is become a
god. That's well beyond the realm of possibility, but sadly, it's an
ideal that all too often guides our actions.
Infinitesimals can’t exist materially, but they exist as asymptotes in reality – you approach it, and can get closer and closer to it, but never actually reach it. It’s infinitely far from you, or infinitely small. An unreachable target that guides the trajectory of your approach.

And that’s what a moral ideal is – an unreachable target that nonetheless guides your real action. An ideal is real without existing – it’s the principle that provides the underlying logic of your action.

Any ethical act or project you work on will always be disappointing and an utter failure if you treat your ideal as achievable – if you think that a practical action plan will actually make an ideal come true.

Best case scenario, you’ll be disappointed when your ambitious plans to make the world a perfect place fall short of what you aimed for. Instead of pride in what you’ve achieved, you’ll feel ashamed that you couldn’t have done more.

Worst case scenario, you’re Mao Zedong leaving tens of millions dead and a nation of a billion horrifically traumatized. Yeah, that’s fine.

The function of the moral or ethical ideal in human thought is to be the asymptotic attractor for our lives – it governs our development without itself ever being a real state of affairs.

Now ask how such an ideal can be used for the betterment of humanity or for brutal destruction. What facilitates its progressive uses? What facilities its destructiveness?

That right there is what Utopias is about. I think I’ll start the introduction this weekend.

No comments:

Post a Comment