Philosophical Skeleton Keys: Only the Actual Is Apprehensible

This one is so simple, I’m shocked it took me so long to get it. But it eliminates ab initio a whole raft of perplexing conundra; not least, the puzzle of self-reference: of how it is that we can apprehend ourselves.

The basic idea is that we can only apprehend what is, and is therefore definite: definitely itself, and not some other thing. To the extent that a thing has not yet finished becoming, and thus become forever fixed in its character, it is not yet in fact out there for us to apprehend. It is invisible to us, and to all others, because, being as yet indefinite, it has as yet no definite character that we might grasp and evaluate. It just isn’t yet finished becoming. And until it is finished becoming, it isn’t yet anything in particular. It isn’t itself. It isn’t.

Until it is, and is therefore definitely itself and not something different, it cannot act qua itself. It cannot have any effect. We cannot be affected by it. We cannot feel it.

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Happiness is the Pockety-Pock-Pock of a Merlin Engine

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Frontal View of the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle”

It might well be that I have mentioned my fondness for aviation and for air shows previously at The Orthosphere.  If so, I apologize for the redundancy.  Mid-July is the occasion of the American Warplane Museum’s annual three-day vintage-aircraft gathering and display in Geneseo, New York, to which I have been a regular visitor for the past decade.  The organizers of the event emphasize the machines of the Second World War.  The event has waned a bit in recent years in terms of the number of flying and static displays, but the gathering on the grass airfield underneath the hilltop campus of SUNY Geneseo remains impressive.  The Museum itself maintains in its holdings a flight-capable Boeing B-17 G – the one used in the film Memphis Belle (1990) – and the Belle did indeed take to the air this weekend.  Also flying were two North American P-51 D Mustangs, with their American-built versions of the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the one that famously powered the Supermarine Spitfire.  The Mustang bears a lasting reputation as the supreme single-engine fighter of the war, but the Mustang did not begin as a fighter.  Originally, the Mustang was called the Apache, and her designers intended her for the ground attack role.  She was underpowered, but when the British acquired the airplane, they installed the Merlin – and likely changed the course of the conflict.

A restored Curtiss P-40 Warhawk accompanied the two Mustangs in the massed display that brought the program to its climax on Saturday afternoon.  The Belle went aloft accompanied by two B-25 Mitchells (like the Mustang, a product of North American), and the three fighters flew escort.

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Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part II

Finlay 03 Demonic Universe

Virgil Finlay (1914 – 1971): Illustrator of the Demonic Universe

[NOTE: This post is the continuation of the article — or sequence of linked essays — that begins in the post immediately preceding it. I published “Monstrous Theologies” in the mid-1990s in the journal Anthropoetics, but for this re-posting I have extensively edited and re-written it.]

III. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Sacrificial Aesthetics. “Vintage Season” (1946) – attributed to Moore’s husband and collaborator Henry Kuttner but written in fact solely by Moore – deals with the creation of a work of art by an artist of the future who visits the earth in the immediate post-World War Two years, when the story was written.  But this act of creation is also an act of sacrifice, and the work of art that stems from the event has the character of an immolatory token. In fact, because “The Vintage Season” is a time-travel story involving the usual paradox, it resists any straightforward rehearsal. The basic elements of the narrative are, nevertheless, these: Oliver Wilson owns a house that three eccentric “vacationers” who call themselves the Sanciscos want to rent; to one of them, a woman named Kleph, Wilson feels considerable attraction, and he therefore lets the house despite the fact that he might garner a windfall from it if he sold it outright to a buyer. Wilson’s fiancée Sue pesters him to renege on the deal and to sell, but Oliver refuses.  The interest in this detail lies in Moore’s opposition of the market to the Bohemian group. The group represents culture and seems to promise something superior to the bourgeois world of exchange.  Moore’s Smith regrets leaving the comforts of marriage and participation in the nomos.  Moore’s Wilson, vulnerable to the temptations of art, cult, and difference, regrets his prior immersion in what strikes him now as the tediously normative.  He is an alienated bourgeois taking the usual route of opposition to the market for the mere sake of opposition.  If resentment is the sacred, as Girard so often intimates, then Wilson’s alienation renders him particularly vulnerable to the Bohemianism of the foreigners.

The Sanciscos behave like Wildean aesthetes: “There was an elegance about the way [their] garments fitted them which even to Oliver looked strikingly unusual”; and “the feeling of luxury which his first glance at them has evoked was confirmed by the richness of the hangings they had apparently brought with them”; Kleph’s coiffure strikes Wilson as perfectly sculpted, “as if it had been painted on, though the breeze from the window stirred now and then among the softly shining strands.”  From such behavior, Wilson infers that their depth of culture radically exceeds his own, an inference sustainable, as it turns out, in aesthetic terms only and not in any ethical sense. As in the case of the magic shawl in the Northwest Smith story, phenomenal beauty guarantees nothing about ethical acceptability. A certain type of intense beauty indeed radiates from a certain type of archaic violence, which the beauty tactically conceals. Kleph shows some reciprocal although, ultimately, only a condescending interest in Wilson, who visits her in her room one afternoon while the others are away. The foreign accouterments of Kleph’s room include a peculiar “picture of blue water” hung above her bed the marvels of which entrance Wilson. Describing Wilson’s response to this, Moore employs the language of of fascination: “The waves there were moving. More than that, the point of vision moved. Slowly the seascape drifted past, moving with the waves, following them toward the shore.”  The images compel Wilson’s attention; he cannot peel his eyes from them, and they in their turn temporarily absorb and obliterate his sense of self. Smith has the same problem when he gazes too intently at the weird shawl.

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Monstrous Theologies: The Theme of Anti-Sacrifice in the Sci-Fi Pulps – Part I

Bramer Leonaert (1596 - 1670) - Sacrifice of Iphigenia c. 1623

Leonaert Bramer (1596 – 1670): Iphigenia at Aulis (1630)

[NOTE: This article — or sequence of linked essays — appeared in the journal Anthropoetics nearly twenty-five years ago. Its prose leaned too heavily by far on the first person and in re-reading it, it came across to me, on that account, as a bit narcissistic. It was also burdened by too many sidebars. Nevertheless, the main argument and the literary analyses seemed to me to retain their validity. I have extensively edited and re-written the original in order to present it here, in a more seemly form, at The Orthosphere. This is Part I — Part II will follow immediately.]

Science fiction is by widespread consensus the prose genre devoted to representing the precepts of the physical sciences – the precepts of materialism – in narrative: Standard definitions of science fiction typically explicate the genre under the related rubrics of extrapolation and plausibility.  Those seeking to understand science fiction in its generic particulars will therefore find its paradigm, according to this received definition, in the texts of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In confronting the recalcitrant physicality of the ocean’s depths, Verne for his part carefully imagines a device, Nemo’s submarine, which can subdue watery resistance and lay clear abyssal mysteries; the Nautilus does this, importantly according to the consensus, without violating any known limitations of physics or mechanics. In speculating on the future of warfare, H. G. Wells for his part posits slight increases in the dependability of traction-engines and in the versatility of dirigible airships and he then puts in prospect, in “The Land Ironclads” (1897) and The War in the Air (1906), eminently credible scenarios of technologically enhanced combat in the European near future of the time.  This branch of “hard” science fiction finds extended life, and indeed appears to become the core of the genre, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, especially in John W. Campbell’s Astounding, where Campbell himself, E. E. Smith, and Eric Frank Russell enthralled readers by describing the instrumentality of space travel, planetary conquest, and interstellar warfare. Campbell’s planetary machinery might be less “plausible” than Verne’s submarine or Wells’s battle-tanks, but the principle of story-construction remains the same: The saga finds its purpose in the careful delineation of mechanical details and in the equally minute depiction of spectacular havoc.

I. The Discovery of Superstition. It is important, in fact, to assert what criticism commonly denies: Namely that science fiction originates not in industrial modernity, although that is when the genre, latent for many centuries, at last fully revived, but in Late Antiquity and that it is cognate with the advanced forms of speculation of those days.But Late-Antique fantastic narrative also partakes in the spiritual developments of the time, especially in the consolidation of the mystery-cults and the proliferation of Gnostic systems. Whereas the speculation of a materialist like Epicurus creates a picture of the universe as a plurality of worlds, the speculation of religious thinkers, like Plutarch and Valentinus, creates a world-feeling somewhat paranoid in its basic attitude, distrustful of a cosmic dispensation that it finds inhospitable, and vigilant against demonic forces. In the words of Hans Jonas from his study of Gnostic religion: “Cosmos thus becomes… an emphatically negative concept, perhaps more strongly because more emotionally charged than it had been a positive concept in the [older] Greek conception.”  The Epicurean and Plutarchian worlds are the same world, differentiated through divergent evaluations.  Plutarch is neither so unscientific nor Epicurus so de-divinized as casual acquaintance might imply.  There are religious elements in atomism and scientific elements in neo-Platonism.  Plutarch, for example, contributes to astronomical speculation in his dialogue On the Face in the Moon and to itinerary fantasy, a voyage to remote islands, in the dialogue On the Decline of Oracles.

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The Sigil of the Orthosphere

Thanks to InfoGalactic, I learned the other day a bit about Chaos Magic. I had searched on “egregor” – the Greek for “watcher,” a topic of some interest to me – and found out that it is a term of art in that discussion. In Chaos Magic, an egregor is an artificial spirit, created by a magician as at first a heuristic hypostatization, a “thought form,” devised for his own convenient internal usages, of some nexus of impulses within himself – sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice (as, say, a besetting temptation) – so as to identify and, above all, simply *notice it,* and thus address it more aptly; and then at some point publicly promulgated, so that it then engages the interest and attention of other practitioners, who find it useful and adopt it for their own internal operations, so that it then informs their activities. A meme, in other words, but a meme that has some intrinsic characteristics that lend it suasive and informative powers, so that it can seem to take on a life of its own, and become the apparent animating spirit of a whole group of people. Widely disparate people, not communicating with each other at all (so far as we can know), can evoke the response to current events of an egregor that has possessed them without any outward coordination, and in a unison of spirit and even of diction that is truly wonderful, even spooky.

There is much truth in this notion. Consider, e.g., anthropogenic global warming. Or transsexuality. Or Trump Derangement Syndrome. Or Communism. Or for that matter any fad or trend or notion, any ideology, that has little objective correlate or reason outside the merely social world.

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The Sophomoric Appeal of Improper Reduction

When I was a sophomore in college, lo these many decades ago, I was totally stoked to be learning about psychobiology, cybernetics, and philosophy of mind. It was intoxicating to feel my understanding growing so rapidly. I could begin to see how experience might be translated into neural circuitry, in principle at least. I kept thinking, “Oh! So this is just that! Nifty!” Once that happened in respect to any particular perplexity, I could stop worrying about it, and move on. The process felt as though it gave me terrific intellectual leverage. It was exhilarating, to find that such complex things – such mysterious things – could be explained so simply.

This is I think why improper reduction is so popular. It vastly simplifies the problem of understanding reality. It makes everything easier.

It is alas a philosophical cheap shot. For, unfortunately, it does this by making everything altogether too easy, altogether too simple. It makes reality too simple, too easy. That makes modeling reality much easier, no?

It is by building an intellectual model of how a thing works that we come to feel that we understand it. The easier it is to build an adequate model of something, the easier it is to understand; and the simpler the thing you are trying to model, the simpler the task of modeling, and the cheaper the understanding you gain from the procedure.

As Einstein said in his famous emendation of Ockham’s Razor:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

The simplest theories are so parsimonious that Ockham’s Razor has sliced away the very sort of entities they were in the first place intended and devised to explain.

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Ockham’s Razor, the Gordian Knot & the Thomist Marlinspike

Reality is a knotty problem. It is terrifically difficult to unsnarl it, so that we understand it. It won’t do to cut through it, as (according to the most famous version of the legend) Alexander did with the Gordian Knot. To do that is in the final analysis to surrender to befuddlement, even as one defies it and forges onward, damning all torpedoes. So while Ockham’s Razor is amazingly useful as a way of clarifying and simplifying our understanding, it is not itself a way to arrive at understanding. You want to shave with it, rather than slash.

When Ockham’s Razor cuts away entities that are inherent to the experience of understanding, it forestalls understanding, rather than facilitating it. For example, if you find that your explanation of consciousness is so wonderfully parsimonious that it eliminates consciousness from the universe altogether, you’ve cut too deep.

I used to deal with gnarly knots all the time when I was working as a whitewater boatman. [I’m not working on the River these days, but I’m still a boatman; it sticks with you.] When you put enormous tension on a knot, as happens when it is doing what you wanted it to do under stressful conditions, it can tighten so much that it becomes impossible to untie with fingers alone. It is tempting at such times to just say the hell with it, and cut through the knot. But that’s a bad idea when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest supply of line, in the deep wilderness. You never know when you might need that piece of line uncut. So an outdoorsman will never cut line unless he must.

Instead, sailors and boatmen use a fid or marlinspike:

The marlinspike is not a sharp cutting blade, but a smooth dully pointed stout poker. Poked into the interstices of a knot, a marlinspike can be used to pry apart the recalcitrant strands without cutting them, and allow for a good grip on the one that must be pulled through in order to loosen the doggone thing (sometimes pliers are needed for that).

To unsnarl the world knot, you want the right tool for the job. A razor is the wrong tool for undoing knots. What you want is what might be called a Thomist Marlinspike: neither affirm nor deny, but rather first distinguish. Once you’ve pulled the strands apart, untangled the knot, and laid it out nice and straight, then you can get to work on the line with Ockham’s Razor, shaving off the frayed bits to make things all nice and tidy, shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Form Follows Function?

Louis Sullivan is credited with coming up with the phrase “form follows function.” It is useful to know that someone in the recent past invented this notion in order to raise the possibility of uninventing it.

Some quote “form follows function” as though it were an axiom of geometry that all remotely mature thinkers acknowledge as a foundational truth; even as a God-given dictum.

The phrase could even be rendered innocuous if “function” were suitably defined. What, for instance, is the function of houses and work places? They are there to serve human beings with all their intricacies. They are not there to shelter robots and automatons.

What do people want from houses? They want a house to be a home. They want it to be structurally sound, reasonably affordable, easy to maintain and they want it to be beautiful. Human beings feel at home with beauty. They are instinctively drawn to beautiful things and feel alienated by the ugly. This is why we carefully choose furniture, paintings, decorations, paint colors for walls, curtains and carpets. We attempt, with various levels of success, bearing in mind limitations of budget, to turn the house into a home. Many of us like to include house plants and pets as other living things to share our homes with. Continue reading

AI and the Dehumanization of Man

AI and the Dehumanization of Man

Strong Artificial Intelligence is the idea that computers can one day be constructed that have the abilities of the human mind. The contrast is with narrow AI which is already with us – that is the notion that computers can be made that can do one thing very well, such as the Watson computer that won in Jeopardy, or Deep Blue that bet Kasparov in chess.

Strong AI, artificial general intelligence, would mean that a robot fitted with a computer brain could move around in the world as competently as a human.  As F. H. George commented to the editor of Philosophy, 32 (1957), 168-169: “finite automata are capable of exhibiting, at least in principle, all the behaviour that human beings are capable of exhibiting, including the ability to act as poets or creative artists and even to wink at a girl and mean it.”[1] This reference to a wink itself has a poetic touch to it that captures a sense of genuine humanity.

Strong and narrow AI is the difference between an idiot savant who can do one thing incredibly well, such as recognizing prime numbers of incredible length,[2] reading two pages of a book simultaneously with over 90% recall like Kim Peek, and someone with enough nous to handle the wide range of tasks that any normal human being has to face; engaging in a lengthy conversation one minute and enjoying a work of fiction the next. Continue reading