Reply to Adrian, Levi

Just finished reading Adrian and Levi’s most recent posts, and last nite I had a chance to read Steve’s ruminations on the limitations of this format. As Steve and Adrian have both mentioned, they are of two minds about the usefulness of the often circular discussions. I agree – until last week, I had given myself a personal mandate not to mention OOO in my posts. The results often seem circular when I do, but there’s this strange lure of hope, or something, that keeps pulling me back in.

But I too think I can only do this once or twice every so often. I think also that once my own work is out there, some of the reasons why I take the positions I do will become clearer.

However, I think one thing that has gotten really left out of recent discussions is not simply the fact that privacy exists in Whitehead (something I think the OOO tend to want to ignore for some reason), but how it functions. What follows is in my next post is admittedly a mix of Whitehead, contemporary quantum theory, and my own thoughts on this issue, but I think it really does relate to the debate at hand.

One point first, however. Levi has said in recent posts that he thinks I overemphasize the epistemological over the ontological, and he is right, I think that OOO doesn’t deal enough with certain epistemological issues. He is also right when he says I emphasize the human in my critique of OOO. But it shouldn’t be thought that I privilege human epistemology – on the contrary! The only reason why this may seem to be the case is that I think OOO talks in ways that import human ‘semiotic’ categories into the domain of things. Which is why I often say things like, ‘if an electron zips into and out of a mouse, there is no mouse there for the electron, only other quantum factors.’ I do believe that to humans there is a mouse. When OOO folks talk about a mouse as if it were there for the electron as well, that’s when I start saying things like ‘yes, to ME there’s a mouse’. But I say this because I want to emphasize that the mouse isn’t there for the electron. Which is not to reassert the prison-house of language. I believe we can talk very productively about how electrons prehend/experience the world, so long as we don’t delude ourselves into thinking we can talk about the electron as if our terms applied to it’s world. We can’t import our semiotics into its being. I think Whitehead, however, does give us an excellent set of methods to get around this impasse, ones which have been inspiring for many of us.

That is, the reason I emphasize the human perspective as much as I do is because I feel, as I’ve said many times, that OOO speaks as if its semiotic divisions of the world were how the world is. That you can speak about an electron as if it were an electron. But what of phlogiston, caloric, other vanished proto-scientific terms? What if we found out electron wasn’t quite right? Etc. The point is, I think it is an electron ‘for us.’ But I think the electron, as Adrian deftly points out, has its own ‘for it’ as well. Prehension, affection, perspective, goes all the way down. The difficulty is coming up with the language in which to speak this. I think Whitehead gives us tools to do so, and I think the processural SR folks are working on ways to follow this lead. I think the OOO I dream of, which I saw a glimpse of last week, which is quite different, I think, than the OOO currently in existence, is a bit more Whiteheadian in its way of dealing with these issues.

More on how I think Whitehead works around these issues in my next post.

PS – Adrian, beyond the very strong points you make (I really couldn’t agree more), your prose is beautiful and inspiring poetry. Can’t wait for the book. And the reason why I came up with 5 blog posts in 90 minutes is that I find it easier to jot them in wordprocessing files first, then divide them up and publish in succession as I edit the parts.

PPS – some inspiration on privacy from Steve’s Panpsychism, Whitehead, and OOO:

Whitehead asserts that the interiority of any entity is a matter of its “privacy,” in which it pursues its “subjective aim.” This is always more than, and other than, its existence for others, its publicity, as a datum once it has perished and thereby achieved what Whitehead calls “objective immortality.” On account of this privacy, an “actual entity” always exists in complete independence of all the other entities with which it is contemporaneous; indeed, this independence is for Whitehead the very definition of contemporaneity. (Relations, to the contrary, are always spread across time; they derive from the past and push into the future, on both sides exceeding the boundaries of the “specious present” of experiential duration). To my mind, Whitehead’s understanding of privacy and subjective aim is sufficient to meet the requirements of OOO’s critique of relationalism — without the need to posit objects as somehow mysteriously and totally “withdrawn.” And this interiority or privacy is precisely what panpsychism identifies as the “mentality” exerted to a greater or lesser degree by all entities. A thing is perfectly publically accessible to other things; but at the same time it retains a certain privacy. It is very possible for other people to get a sense of what I am thinking by observing my interactions with them and with the rest of the world; at the same time, of course, my inner feelings are not experientially available to other people, and they might not even be experientially available to myself. (I think that both the indubitabilty or “incorrigeability” of a feeling of pain, and the hypothesis of an unconscious, are comprehended within the notion of privacy). I find this sort of understanding (things have both an inside and an outside, they couldn’t have one without the other) more plausible than the thesis that objects are entirely “withdrawn,” or that the “intentional object” is radically sundered from the “real object.” A membrane separates inside from outside, while selectively allowing things to cross between inside and outside; but this doesn’t mean that inside and outside are somehow definitively sundered. And a membrane is a better metaphor for this situation, I think, than Graham’s “firewall.”

And if all this is true for me, and for other human beings, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be true for other entities, all the way down, that is to say — as panpsychism argues — for trees and rocks and neutrinos.

~ by chris on December 12, 2010.

5 Responses to “Reply to Adrian, Levi”

  1. Huge, frustrated, I want to pull my hair out sigh in response to this post. Chris, you really need to keep up with your reading. You keep kaking these outrageous claims that have already been addressed. I have written repeatedly, endlessly, about neutrinos to make the point you make about the electron and the mouse. This is literally one of my favorite examples for demonstrating that the world does not exist. The neutrino, as you may or may not know, has given scientists all sorts of headaches because, due to its negative charge it slips directly through most matter without being detectable. This is identical to your example of the mouse and electron above. The neutrino has no “awareness” of the existence of most other things. Apologies for me yelling, but WE AGREE ON THIS POINT. It’s an argument I’ve made endlessly and is, in fact, the foundation of my arguments against holism. My ONLY caveat is that this doesn’t entail that this other matter doesn’t exist., all it entails is that the neutrino can’t prehend this other matter.

    You might feel picked on by me, but try looking at it from my end. Our arguments tend to go something like this.

    CHRIS: you don’t have enough vegetables and fruits in your diet and those are important.

    ME: I agree that they’re important, that’s why I eat vegetables and fruits with every meal.

    CHRIS: why don’t you think vegetables and fruits with every meal and think they’re important?

    ME: (hangs head)

    Imagine the frustration of arguing with a person who perpetually says that you disagree with something and are not talking about something, you pointing out that you’re not disagreeing with something and have, in fact, addressed that particular point, only to have the argument repeated yet again. It’s maddening! Maybe, just maybe, you could lay off these charges that OOO is not doing this or that for the sake of peace and a more productive dialog.

    One further point. Above you argue that while it’s true focus on the human, you’re not anthropocentric. I’m willing to concede this point IF you are willing to concede that I have a rich place for the semiotic in my ontology even though I don’t always emphasize the semiotic. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and these two arguments are formally identical.

  2. Here’s an example of a recent post where I discuss neutrinos:

    A little charity, Chris. The concept of translation is at the heart of all I’m doing and responds to the sort of mouse objection you’re making above. Translation is always selective and partial, leaving wide aspects of the world invisible to the entity doing the translating. This is exactly what you’re arguing! I went into detail about this in the post you’re responding to here but you seem to entirely ignore what I say about prehensions and translation, failing to recognize that I’m actually agreeing with much of what you’re saying. It’s really poisoning the well.

  3. Hi Levi-

    I’ve also mentioned this electron example a gazillion times, just about every previous post in which I’ve brought up a cane toad! Should I tell you to read my posts more carefully?

    And I agree with your characterization of our discussions. Only the roles are reversed.

    I also know, of course, that you think translation is essential. I never thought otherwise.

    One, or both of us, only hears what we want to hear.

    I’m off to do non-argument related work. My offer to skype still stands, I have a feeling it really could resolve some issues.


  4. Yes, I know that you’ve often brought up electrons. What I’ve disagreed with is the inference you seem to make from the example: that because the electron knows nothing of the mouse, the mouse doesn’t exist in its own right. Am I mistaken in this characterization of your argument? I’ve never disagreed with your point that the electron knows nothing of the mouse. That’s what translation is all about. I’ve simply held that whether the electron knows anything about the mouse is irrelevant to whether the mouse exists. Would you agree with that point?

  5. I think one thing that has gotten really left out of recent discussions is not simply the fact that privacy exists in Whitehead (something I think the OOO tend to want to ignore for some reason), but how it functions.

    At the end of my Claremont paper I suggest that a new investigation of privacy might be a step toward a Whiteheadian OOO. However, I also argued there (and reiterate) that I don’t think such an OOO is derivable just from “church Whitehead.” I’m not very interested in thinking about what’s “in Whitehead,” but rather what we can do with it.

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