Why no Brave New World?

If you’re anything like me, you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic A Brave New World since you were awaiting a slightly overdue deployment in a piss-yellow barracks during the rainy spring of 1995. Twenty years and change hence, most of what I recall from the novel are impressions of its themes. One thing I remember clearly is a certain irritation at being betrayed. I was promised a dystopia, and received instead a glorious paean to a frankly enticing possible future.  Continue reading “Why no Brave New World?”

Reductionist Poetics

Featured image is a Hebrew manuscript

We explain the world we see with concepts that remain unseen. We explain the act of choosing with models unavailable to the choosers. We bridge these gulfs without knowing how it is possible. Our first guess is always epistemology, but the better bet is poetry.

Poetry and prose are not separated by any such gulf. Terseness and parallelism characterize poetry, but both can be found in prose. They form the heart of the poetic function, which beats a steady rhythm in language of all sorts. The particularly poetic enters into prose and the characteristics of prose enters into poetry. It should not then surprise us to find a vibrant poetic heart beating in the breast of scientific language.

Terseness is simple enough, and not so important for our purposes. Parallelism is deceptively simple, and the key to bridging the gulf between life and model.

When language at any level is brought close together, equivalences can create meaning. Similar looking but dissimilar sounding words can be highly significant. Related genre tropes invoked soon after one another can produce a greater effect. Each potential type of equivalence can be combined or operate independently from any other type.

Equivalence highlights difference; to equivocate is not to tautologize. Rhyming couplets produce a similar sound, but different meanings. A connection is drawn by that similarity, but meaning is made in partnership with contrast.

A man has “cried wolf,” and a parallel is drawn with a story. A man is not a story. Or this man is not that story. An equivalence has been drawn, and its value is only possible because of the differences. The man’s life does not have a clear lesson, but the story does. Parallelism can form a bridge to that lesson from the man by drawing equivalences.

The economic man is more equation than story, and men are neither equations nor stories. But even equations and stories are not completely transparent to us, any more than we as equation and story makers are to ourselves.

Economic man is largely unlike us, so putting his decisions in parallel with ours suggests something new. This “something” itself remains more concealed than unconcealed, but its arrival adds to our visible horizon. Unconcealing by drawing together several untransparent elements together: this is the mysterious effect of parallelism. Like the liar who cried wolf, the tension between clear difference and equivocation generates fresh insights. For this reason truth can flower even among false models.

Our horizons may yet be narrowed by an idolatry of the newly unconcealed. Reductionism is the name given to this class of idols. It is the project of not A because B. A table is not a table, but atoms and the void. Love is not lovely, but a brute Darwinian impulse. The world we see is an illusion, the concepts unseen are the true reality. Human experience counts for nothing, the products of human intellect are sovereign.

To eliminate A with B is to cut the threads of parallelism. These threads stitch together human intellect itself. Sovereign intellect without parallelism is little more than a chimpanzee with a crown. Without the table we see, we would not seek the atoms. The “true” reality can only come into view in parallel with the “nominal” one of appearances. The great unconcealments of the era put formal models in parallel with appearances, as the liar is put in parallel with “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” With the unconcealing power of parallelism, even higher primates such as we have achieved kingly deeds.

Science must proceed poetically to proceed at all, and poetry makes meaning by drawing parallels.

Word Games

Featured image is Lower-Austrian Peasant Wedding, by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller

J. L. Austin made a tremendous breakthrough in linguistics and the philosophy of language when he demonstrated the performative character of language—that is, by saying something we are always doing something. Extreme cases include “I now pronounce you man and wife,” which, when uttered in the right circumstances, changes the status of two people from being single to being married.

The problem with operationalizing this comes in with the notion of “in the right circumstances.” Can these be specified in advance? At what level of detail? How small do deviations need to be before the speech act is nullified (or “infelicitous” as Austin put it)? Are some infelicities more important or decisive than others, and does this vary for each sort of speech act?

Austin ultimately gave up on a completed system, though many speech act theorists since him have taken up the torch. Among these, his former student John Searle is the most notable.

But I stand with critics like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish in thinking that a high degree of uncertainty is required by the subject matter. Derrida has pointed out that if the successful performance of a speech act is determined by context, and context is boundless, then we can never know with the certainty of mathematical or logical necessity that we have avoided infelicity. There may be aspects of the speech situation that we did not notice at the time which invalidate it retroactively, and the uncertainty around this is ineradicable.

It is akin to digital security—we may use top of the line cryptography, we may use stricter than best practice implementations, but we cannot know about security holes that haven’t been discovered yet. If we could, then we would have discovered them already. There is no reducing, much less eradicating, uncertainty of this sort—in security or in speech acts.

The point is not that no speech act ever succeeds, but that it isn’t something we can really measure externally from the situation and the people involved. Moreover, even to participants it is not known with the certainty of the solution to mathematical problems.

Without pretending to such certainty, I’d like to build off of our previous discussion of Aristotle’s notions of actuality and potentiality, as well as efficient and finals causes, in order to continue the discussion of when speech acts go right or wrong. Continue reading “Word Games”

Where Do Beliefs Come From?

Featured image is Sunset, by Caspar David Friedrich.

This post is dedicated to Drew Summitt, who has relentlessly pushed Aristotelian metaphysics upon me. It is also a technical followup to this piece.

To have beliefs, one must have a lot of other beliefs. This is John Searle’s summary of the point that, in analytic philosophy anyway, goes back at least as far as W. V. Quine. No lone belief is coherent in isolation, but only as part of a web of beliefs that provide it with context.

Rather than a web, Searle spoke of a Network. At first he believed the Network was a set of unconscious beliefs that provide context for conscious beliefs. But in time he came to see that the notion of an “unconscious belief” is dubious. Instead, we ought to speak of having the capacity to generate some specific belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.


Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

The Network is the specific set of capacities for generating the relevant beliefs. It is a subset of the Background, which are all of the non-mental capabilities that generate mental states.

I find this taxonomy compelling. I would summarize the basic insight as follows: consciousness, knowledge, beliefs, and all mental states are performed, not stored. As Richard Moodey put it, “I imagine ‘knowledge’ as inseparable from acts of knowing, as something performed, rather than possessed.”

So we have performed mental states, and we have capacities for generating them. What is the ontology of these capacities? Continue reading “Where Do Beliefs Come From?”

Malum in Volente

Indecisive wind moped through the savage trees of Anacortes. Dave and I begged the pitiable sloop to pass unmolested through Deception Pass. Land, as they say, was quite nearly ho. Audra’s icy blue eyes peered out of the cabin at the crags drifting past overhead.

“You ever wonder about the nature of evil, Sam?”

Dave had startled me. I was lost in reverie, pondering the inky boundaries between fantasy, dream, prophesy, and madness. Even when the ocean wasn’t whispering terror into my ears, I often found the lure of introspection difficult to resist when the wind moaned and the waves lapped. “I don’t know. Maybe. I always just sort of reckoned it was a term of approbation.” I shook my head. “No, wait. That means approval, right? The opposite of that. Opprobation.” Continue reading “Malum in Volente”

Frayed Edges of a Web of Belief

Featured image is a painted backdrop of a palace, by Edgar S. Paxson

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk.

– Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

A farm boy enters a barn with an empty pail. He has been in this barn, and barns like it, so many times before, that he does not even register most of his surroundings. He milks the cows almost without thought; the motions come to him as effortlessly as walking or scratching an itch.

The next day he returns, but something is not right. He is sure that he came the same way that he always does, but he doesn’t recall ever seeing this barn before. Thinking as hard as he can, he supposes that the barn he usually goes to looks something like this one. Trying to move beyond the strange sensation of unfamiliarity, he goes in. But it is no good—even inside, something feels very off. He looks around for some sign that this is the correct barn. He stares at a cow for several minutes before realizing he ought to get started. Once he is in position, he finds that he cannot make his hands work correctly. He does not tug hard enough to produce any milk, or he misses the pail. He simply cannot perform the task the way he knows he should be able to.

How many times must we send a farm boy in with an empty pail to get milk before we are satisfied that he knows how to milk a cow? Can we call no one a farm boy until he is dead?

W. V. Quine argued that any of our beliefs are only coherent within a larger web of belief, most of which we are not conscious of in a given moment. Hans-Georg Gadamer speaks, in like fashion, of a horizon of meaning which form the conditions of intelligibility for every one of us. But where are these horizons? Where do the visible threads in this web lead?

John Searle once thought that the beliefs we are not conscious of right at this moment are kept in a sort of inventory of unconscious mental states. In attempting to flesh this out, however, he found unresolvable problems. The only workable model of the unconscious he could come up with was one of the potentially conscious—so to say that someone believes the world is round even when he is asleep is really to say that if he woke up he would be capable of consciously holding that very belief.

We think of memory as a storehouse of propositions and images, as a kind of big library or filing cabinet of representations. But we should think of memory rather as a mechanism for generating current performance, including conscious thoughts and actions, based on past experience.


Instead of saying “To have a belief, one has to have a lot of other beliefs,” one should say “To have a conscious thought, one has to have the capacity to generate a lot of other conscious thoughts. And these conscious thoughts all require further capacities for their application.”

This is more in line with (to my knowledge) the neuroscience of memory. Memories are not stored and retrieved, but constructed in the moment of remembering.

I am also reminded of Gadamer’s discussion of moral knowledge:

But we do not learn moral knowledge, nor can we forget it. We do not stand over against it, as if it were something that we can acquire or not(…). Rather, we are always already in a situation of having to act (disregarding the special position of children, for whom obedience to the person educating them replaces their own decision), and hence we must already possess and be able to apply moral knowledge. That is why the concept of application is highly problematical. For we can only apply something that we already have; but we do not possess moral knowledge in such a way that we already have it and then apply it to specific situations.

A stage actor or a stand-up comedian, or a baseball player for that matter, has good days and bad days. Do they ever know why? Can they do anything about it even if they do?

When we walk up to the plate, what else can we do but hope? Hope that the scant threads we can see before us still connect back to the larger web. That, just out of view, they haven’t become frayed ends, unconnected and blowing in the wind.

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The Organizational Economics of Time Travel

Why haven’t time travelers prevented the 100% likely depredations of [pending event]? Why hasn’t anyone come back in time to kill Hitler or save the dodo or smother the members of Nickelback in the cradle? Why in a universe of fermion asymmetry and higher-than-three-dimensional branes have we not seen the real-life equivalent of Booster Gold, Ripley Hunter, Max Mercury, Nate Summers, or the crew of the retrofitted RMS Bounty (after replacing the Klingon meal packs)? Continue reading “The Organizational Economics of Time Travel”