June 02, 2015

From cultural biases and ideologies to metaphor and aesthetic practices

New blog posting: the Introduction (current draft) of my book-in-progress DISCOGNITION.
Steven Shaviro at The Pinocchio Theory 
Here is the current draft of the Introduction to the book I am trying to write this summer, Discognition: Fictions and Fabulations of Sentience. Of course it is subject to revision. What is consciousness? How does subjective experience occur? Which entities are conscious? Or, to put things as particularly as possible: what is it like […

The modern empirical scientific method is sometimes described as a process of “torturing nature to reveal her secrets” — a phrase often wrongly attributed to Francis Bacon. Philosophers of science also like to quote Isaac Newton’s Hypotheses non fingo (“I feign no hypotheses”). But a much better account of actual scientifc practice is the one proposed by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, who say that scientists work by negotiating with nonhuman entities, and by entering into alliances with them. Scientists do not get very far by treating the things they are interested in as mute and inert objects to be dissected. They do much better when they are somehow able to collaboratewith the very entities that they seek to observe and explain.
Alfred North Whitehead, a major inspiration for both Latour and Stengers, notes that if the “rigid… Baconian method of induction” had been “consistently pursued,” it “would have left science where it found it.” Nothing new would ever have been discovered. The same can be said for Newton’s claim of making no hypotheses. Whitehead insists that science needs, not just empirical observation and induction, but also “the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic.” That is to say, a certain degree of speculation is always necessary in scientific research. This speculation has to be “controlled” in some manner; it cannot be altogether arbitrary and unbounded. But without speculation, science is caught in a rut. It cannot stretch beyond the given, immediate facts, in order to provide a plausible explanation for these facts.
The speculative process described by Whitehead is roughly similar to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction. For Peirce, abduction stands in contrast to — and supplements — both deduction and induction. Deduction starts with conditions that are already given, and traces out a chain of logical consequences for those conditions. Induction, for its part, generalizes on the basis of an already given set of particular observations. According to Peirce, neither deduction nor induction can actually suggest anything new. Abduction, in contrast, makes a sort of leap into novelty. It shifts register: suggesting a higher-order explanation for the circumstances with which it is concerned, or positing a possible cause for the effects in view. Science is often praised for having — as other human disciplines do not — an intrinsic self-correcting mechanism. But without first engaging in abduction or speculation, science would never come up with any material to confirm or deny, or to self-correct.
Because it requires flights of speculation, as well as because it requires collaboration among many separate entities, science can never be purely human, nor purely rational. This is why efforts to place science on a pedestal, radically separating it from other forms of thought and endeavor, are so deeply mistaken. Empricial science and rational discourse are largely continuous with other ways of feeling, understanding, and engaging with the world. These include art, myth, religion, and narrative, together with the nonhuman modes of inference exhibited by other sorts of organisms.
We should therefore always be alert to the deep bioligical roots of scientific experimentation and discovery. As Bj√∂rn Brembs points out, there has recently been a major change of paradigm in neuroscience: a “dramatic shift in perspectives from input/output to output/input.”

My very brief account of speculative realism is now finally online, both in English and in Spanish translation:
Modern Western philosophy – at least since Immanuel Kant published his “Critique of Pure Reason” in 1781 – has tended to privilege epistemology over ontology. Ontology is concerned with the nature of being, with defining, on the most basic level, what is. Epistemology, in contrast, is concerned with how we know whatever it is that we know. It scrutinizes the grounds and limits of our ability to know the world. To say that epistemology must come before ontology is simply to point out that, in order to make assertions about what the world is like, we must be able to give grounds for these assertions, to explain how we can know that they are true. Kant observed that the philosophy of his time was unable to provide such grounds. Either it was dogmatic, claiming to discover metaphysical necessity by pure logical deduction, untethered to observation or empirical evidence; or else it wassceptical, grounded in empirical facts and in subjective experience, but unable to generalize beyond these particular facts and that immediate experience. Against both of these tendencies, Kant insisted that philosophy must start by scrutinizing, and thereby accounting for, its own foundations. If it failed to do this, and instead launched directly into metaphysical speculation, then only nonsense would result. For Kant, and for most philosophers ever since, we can only claim to know something (rather than just believing something blindly) when we can explain how we have come to know it, and what justifies our claims that it is true.
In principle, this priority of epistemology over ontology seems unexceptionable. But in practice, it has become quite problematic. For it means that we end up talking not about things in the world that we encounter, but rather about our own process of encountering them. Kant insists that “things in themselves” are unknowable; all we can really be sure of isphenomena – how things appear to us. In the centuries since Kant, this has become a sort of common sense. Today we take it for granted that we can never see things as they really are, because we can never escape the distorting lenses of our own impositions on the world. Today, these impositions have gone beyond Kant’s categories to include such things as language, our particular cognitive mechanisms, and our cultural biases and ideologies.
Epistemological reflection is important, because it makes us aware of our own prejudices and otherwise unquestioned assumptions. But at the same time, ironically, such reflection makes it nearly impossible for us to escape from these biases and assumptions. We are trapped inside our own perspectives, unable to take a view from any where else. ...

Harman revises Kant, and reintroduces the need for speculation, by both extending and exploding one of Kant’s most basic claims. Where Kant says that we can not know things in themselves because we can only experience them in terms of the frameworks that we ourselves impose upon them, Harman generalizes this situation to all entities in the cosmos. It is not just human beings, or rational beings, who apprehend the world in particular, limited ways. The world contains a multitude of objects, and none of these objects has access to any other object (or even to itself) in more than a superficial manner. For Harman, Kant is right when he insists upon finitude, or the unsurpassable limits of our knowledge. But Kant is wrong when he claims to establish human-centered structures that are complete and certain, at least within those limits. We don’t impose conditions upon the world, so much as we are trapped within our own limited ability to make sense of the world. Kant says that we must not speculate about things that we cannot know. Harman replies that, precisely because we cannot know things in themselves, the only thing that is left to us is to speculate. We cannot grasp objects cognitively; but we can allude to objects through metaphor and other aesthetic practices. In this way we can cherish things, even though we do not fully understand them. And such is the route of speculation: “the real is something that cannot be known, only loved.” ...

In sum, the speculative realists all find ways to circumvent Kant’s prohibition of metaphysical speculation. They work to resist the anthropocentrism that results from Kant’s privileging of epistemology over ontology. For Meillassoux and for Brassier, the way to overcome the constraints of Kantian epistemology is to realize that the limitations upon possible knowledge discovered by Kant are not inscribed within our own cognitive faculties, so much as they are already features of things in themselves, which are irreducibly contingent (Meillassoux) or non-conceptual (Brassier). For Harman and for Grant, meanwhile, the privilege accorded to human cognition must itself be put into question. Human perception and understanding are less special than we generally believe; for they belong to a much broader spectrum of processes of relation and causal influence. What I do when I contemplate a ball of cotton is not far different from what dye does when it colors a ball of cotton, or for that matter from what fire does when it burns a ball of cotton. For Harman, these are all instances of “vicarious contact” between distinctly separate entities. And for Grant, they are all transformations that are driven by, but that also halt and reify, the incessant productivity of Nature. Epistemology cannot be given priority, because understanding and knowing are themselves caught up within larger movements for which they cannot themselves account. All these thinkers take up speculation, not as a way to discover higher “dogmatic” truths, but rather as a way to explore what Meillassoux calls the “Great Outdoors” of existence, a realm far too vast and weird, and radically uncertain, to be subsumed by our own values and norms.
Steven Shaviro is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He writes about process philosophy, film and music video, and science fiction. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory.

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