THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE, #38–Thought-Shapers, Mechanism, and Neo-Organicism.
By Robert Hanna
This book, THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE: Uniscience and the Modern World, by Robert Hanna, presents and defends a critical philosophy of science and digital technology, and a new and prescient philosophy of nature and human thinking.
It is being made available here in serial format, but you can also download and read or share a .pdf of the complete text–including the BIBLIOGRAPHY–of THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE FUTURE HERE.
This thirty-eighth installment contains section 3.5.
We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them. (Pascal, 1995: #110, p. 28)
If there is any science humankind really needs, it is the one I teach, of how to occupy properly that place in [the world] that is assigned to humankind, and how to learn from it what one must be in order to be human. (Rem 20: 45)
Natural science will one day incorporate the science of humankind, just as the science of humankind will incorporate natural science; there will be a single science. (Marx, 1964: p. 70, translation modified slightly)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A NOTE ON REFERENCES TO KANT’S WORKS
3.5 Thought-Shapers, Mechanism, and Neo-Organicism
Chapter 4. How To Complete Physics
Chapter 5. Digital Technology Only Within The Limits of Human Dignity
00. Conclusion: The Point Is To Shape The World
Appendix 1. A Neo-Organicist Turn in Formal Science: The Case of Mathematical Logic
Appendix 2. A Neo-Organicist Note on The Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem and “Skolem’s Paradox”
Appendix 3. A Neo-Organicist Approach to The Nature of Motion
Appendix 4. Sensible Set Theory
Appendix 5. Neo-Organicism and The Rubber Sheet Cosmos
3.5 Thought-Shapers, Mechanism, and Neo-Organicism
Using the paradigmatic classical examples of constrictive thought-shapers presented in section 3.4 as initial data, and also looking for an inference-to-the-best-explanation of constrictive and generative thought-shapers alike, then how can we explain the difference between constrictive and generative thought-shapers? My view is that (i) constrictive thought-shapers are inherently mechanical and non-organic in structure, and also inherently computational, hence inherently captured by Turing-style recursive functions and by the Standard Models of particle physics and cosmology, whereas (ii) generative thought-shapers are inherently non-mechanical and organic in structure, and also inherently non-computational, hence inherently not captured by Turing-computable algorithms/recursive functions, but instead and on the contrary, inherently captured only by complex systems dynamics and organismic evolutionary biology, but also (iii) mechanicity/constriction and organicity/generativity in thought-shapers, alike, allow for a range of degrees in each of their occurrences, in the sense that although mechanicity/constriction and organicity/ generativity are strict contraries and mutually exclusive, each of those properties is instantiated or realized to a greater or lesser degree in any given thought-shaper, hence any given thought-shaper can be either more-or-less mechanical/ constrictive or more-or-less organic/generative, although never simultaneously both mechanical/constrictive and also organic/generative.
Here are some fairly precise definitions I’ll need as I go forward in this chapter, and that should, by now, already be familiar from chapters 1 and 2 above.
First, anything X is a formal mechanism if and only if (i) X is communicative content, semantic content, logical content, mathematical content, pictorial content, some other kind of representational content, or information more generally, and (ii) X is strictly determined by Turing-computable algorithms and/or recursive functions.
Second, anything Xis a natural mechanism, if and only if (i) X is constituted by an ordered set of causally-efficacious behaviors, functions, and operations (aka “causal powers”), (ii) the causal powers of X are necessarily determined by all the settled quantity-of-matter-and/or-energy facts about the past, especially including The Big Bang, together with all the general deterministic or indeterministic causal laws of nature, especially including The Conservation Laws and The 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, and (iii) X’s causal powers and their quantitative properties are all inherently effectively decidable, recursive, or Turing-computable, given two further plausible assumptions to the effect that (iiia) the causal powers of any real-world Turing machine are held fixed under our general causal laws of nature, and (iiib) the “digits” over which the real-world Turing machine computes constitute a complete set of mathematically denumerable (that is, non-real-number, non-complex-number, non-transfinite) quantities, that is, spatiotemporally discrete, physical objects. More briefly put, anything is a natural mechanism if and only if it is necessarily determined by The Conservation Laws and The 1st and 2nd Laws of Thermodynamics, together with all the settled quantity-of-energy facts about the past, and its quantitative properties are all entropic and Turing-computable from those laws and facts. So anything, especially including human thinking, that’s at least partially caused and guided by constrictive thought-shapers, is a natural mechanism if and only if it is inherently governed by The Conservation Laws about mass and/or energy, entropy, and Turing-computable algorithms/recursive functions.
Third, by a diametric oppositional contrast, anything X is organic if and only if X is neither a formal mechanism nor a natural mechanism, and has an inherently processual, purposive, and self-organizing dynamics that dissipates entropy (i.e., creates negentropy by spontaneously restructuring matter and actualized energy, thereby releasing potential energy), running from The Big Bang Singularity forward, via temporally asymmetric or unidirectional nonequilibrium negentropic thermodynamic matter/energy flows, to organismic life, and then on to conscious animal minds in general, to rational human conscious animal minds in particular, human free agency, and human dignity. Correspondingly, my neo-organicist thesis, as per chapters 1 and 2 above, is that there’s a single, unbroken metaphysical continuity between The Big Bang Singularity, temporally asymmetric/unidirectional nonequilibrium negentropic thermodynamic matter/energy flows, organismic life, conscious human minds in general, and rational human conscious animal minds in particular, human free agency, and human dignity, and that anything inherently belonging to this continuity is organic in structure, especially including human thinking that’s at least partially caused, normatively guided, and contextually enabled by generative thought-shapers.
Constrictive thought-shapers generally presuppose what in chapters 1 and 2 above I’ve called the mechanistic worldview, according to which everything whatsoever in the world, including all human activity, is fully and ultimately explicable by mechanical principles alone, including principles of Turing-computability and/or mathematical physics. As we’ve seen, the mechanistic worldview consists in the conjunction of two theses: (i)universal formal mechanism, which says that all communicative content, semantic content, logical content, mathematical content, pictorial content, some other kind of representational content, and information more generally, is strictly determined by Turing-computable algorithms and/or recursive functions, and (ii) universal natural mechanism, which applies the notion of a natural mechanism, as per the description immediately above, to everything in the cosmos. More specifically, universal natural mechanism tells us what’s fundamentally physical, according to the mechanistic worldview. Then, in turn, we can define the doctrine of scientific naturalism, which presupposes the mechanistic worldview, and is the conjunction of (iii) scientism, i.e., the valorization of the formal and/or natural sciences, understood as organized bodies of knowledge, and their methods (Sellars, 1963a), (iv) empiricism, which says that all human cognition and knowledge are strictly derived from and strictly determined by sensible, contingent facts, and (v) materialist/physicalist metaphysics, which says that everything in the world is either identical to or necessarily dependent on (via either natural/nomological or logical strong supervenience[i]) fundamentally physical facts (Kim, 1993a, 2005).
Obviously, the root metaphor for the mechanistic worldview and scientific naturalism, alike, is the Turing machine and its operations, aka the digital computer and its computations.And as I mentioned in the Introduction, this nowadays-ubiquitous root metaphor updates and replaces earlier mechanistic root metaphors: the clock and its clockwork, from the 17th and 18th centuries (see, e.g., Riskin, 2018), and the steam engine and its piston-drive (see, e.g., Huxley, 200) from the 19th century. Moreover, just as earlier scientifically-driven mechanistic root metaphors were intimately bound up with questionable contemporary moral, social, and political ideology, and power-relations (Shapin and Shaffer, 1985), so too the Turing machine/digital computer root metaphor is equally morally, socially, and politically compromised by the first three Horsemen of The New Apocalypse, the military-industrial-university-digital complex, and The Hyper-State (see, e.g., Dammbeck, 2003).
By another diametric oppositional contrast, generative thought-shapers generally presuppose what I’ve been calling the neo-organicist worldview. As I pointed out in the Introduction, The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary defines “organism” as follows:
1 a living individual consisting of a single cell or of a group of interdependent parts sharing the life processes. 2a an individual live plant or animal. 2b the material structure of this. 3 a whole with interdependent parts compared to a living being. (Hawkins and Allen, 1991: p. 1024)
Correspondingly, and consistently with that, again, by an organism I mean an inherently processual, purposive, and self-organizing entity with any of the basic features listed in the three-part OEED definition. Then, according to the organicist worldview, everything whatsoever in the manifestly real world, including ourselves, is either (i) a simple or complex organism, or (ii) a society of organisms, or (iii) a proper part of an organism or a society of organisms, or (iv) an immanent or intrinsic structural property of an organism or society of organisms, or (v) a causal product or byproduct of an organism or society of organisms, or (vi) necessarily dependent on (i.e., either naturally/nomologically or logically strongly supervenient on[ii]) an organism or a society of organisms, or (vii) ecosystemic or proto-organismic in that it belongs to the set of actual conditions under which an organism or society of organisms emerges or operates, or (viii) inherently analogous or homologous to an organism or society of organisms. Obviously, the root metaphor for the neo-organicist worldview is the organism and its life.
In this connection, there are some important similarities between, on the one hand, the theory of thought-shapers, including the categorical difference between mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers and organic, generative thought-shapers, against the backdrop of the categorical difference between the mechanistic worldview and the organicist worldview, and on the other hand, Henri Bergson’s first-wave organicist applications of the distinction between (i) the spatial/mechanical/static/dead or moribund/bad, versus (ii) the temporal/organismic/dynamic/living or vital/good (see, e.g., Sinclair, 2020). Indeed, Bergson’s critique of what he calls “the cinematographical mechanism of thought and the mechanistic illusion” in Creative Evolution (Bergson, 1944: ch. IV) runs parallel in some important ways to my claim about the inherently mechanical character of constrictive thought-shapers. Moreover, Bergson’s analogy or metaphor, “the cinematographical mechanism of thought,” has also proved to be a philosophically generative thought-shaper, for example in the work of Gilles Deleuze, and in particular in his notions of “smooth space” and “molar space”(Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). Nevertheless, I also think that Bergson’s metaphysics is in certain respects over-simplified, especially in that he over-emphasizes temporal, processual dynamics and doesn’t pay sufficient attention to spatial, topological dynamics. Hence, he tends to identify all spatial representation and spatial structure with the mechanical/static/dead or moribund/bad, which is a significant mistake. On the contrary, all organic systems and organic, generative thought-shapers have not only temporal, processual dynamics but also spatial, topological dynamics. In a closely related way, Bergson also mistakenly tended to identify the mechanistic with the static, whereas in fact mechanism is all about deterministic or indeterministic Turing-computable dynamics that are fully within the heat-death-grip of The Conservation Laws, The 1st and 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and entropy more specifically. So, the static, in fact, is just a limiting case of mechanism, achieved when a mechanical dynamic system has reached equilibrium, heat-death, and temporal reversibility. Diametrically contrariwise, the organism is the paradigm of a thermodynamic system that dissipates entropy (i.e., creates negentropy) in asymmetric/unidirectional, irreversible time and advances creatively in a spontaneously self-determining, self-organizing way.
Here’s an extremely important further point about the diametric oppositional contrast I’ve been developing between mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers and organic, generative thought-shapers. In principle, there’s absolutely nothing bad, false, or wrong with applying mechanical thought-shapers to inherently mechanical facts: for example, when we use stroke diagrams to achieve rationally intuitive a priori knowledge in basic arithmetic, as per this —
3+4=7, i.e., | | | + | | | | = | | | | | | |
or when we represent complicated inherently mechanical facts via simplifying elucidatory diagrams, as per Otto Neurath’s highly influential ISOTYPE (an acronym for “International System Of TYpographic Picture Education”) project, which began in the late 1920s and continued throughout the 1930s, paralleling the rise and fall of The Vienna Circle (Edmonds, 2020).
Neurath had a long-standing interest in the depiction of information, yet in a way that was alien to the artistic climate of the Wiener Sezession. In contrast to the ornate and elaborate style of the Viennese establishment, Neurath’s style was more closely affiliated with the reductive, modernist Bauhaus approach. The resulting visual language combined pictorial elements of German expressionism pioneered at the Bauhaus with the order, abstraction and geometrization commonly found in Russian constructivism. Moreover, its relation to the emerging mechanistic philosophy of The Vienna Circle is clear (Cat, 2021; see also Gerd Arntz Web Archive):
Neurath’s displays at the GESOLEI exhibition (Große Ausstellung für Gesundheit, soziale Fürsorge und Leibesübungen) in Düsseldorf in 1926 provided the occasion for Neurath’s acquaintance with the Cologne artist Gerd Arntz. Arntz had held similar revolutionary socialist views in Germany after 1918. He published his expressive modernist clear-cut figures combining the dramatic contrast and simplicity of the woodcut and linocut techniques of German expressionism and the geometrical clarity, order and simplicity of Russian Constructivism. Neurath hired him in 1928 to begin the professional design of a visual language for the public communication of historical and statistical information (see Figures 1 and 2 below):
The emphasis on a unified “visual language” here isn’t altogether coincidental. In keeping with modernist’s universalist ambitions, it wasn’t surprising that the artistic explorations of its champions leaned towards symbols and artistic expression that would be understandable apart from cultural or historical contexts. So, while the Bauhaus was focused on finding a universal language for product design, theatre, and architecture, and De Stijl looked for “objectivity” in artistic expression, Neurath championed a visual universalism:
[Neurath’s international picture language] had an abstracted, simplified, elemental and Gestalt-like conventional quality intended to convey a concept through the constructed representation of a typical individual — also similar to Bauhaus “essential types,” a graphic product of the same German intellectual culture of typology which included taxonomy, morphology, physiognomics (discussed by Neurath in 1921), eugenics and Hempel and Oppenheim’s logical analysis of types…. The resulting symbol was both an index and an icon, in Peirce’s semiotics, adopted by Neurath’s American intellectual ally and encyclopedia co-editor, Charles Morris. (Cat, 2021)
A 21st century example, falling within the broadly Neurathian, ISOTYPE tradition is this —
Neurath’s mechanistic approach is fully successful when it comes to depicting certain types of facts. Again, it’s no coincidence that the ISOTYPE visuals were readily adopted by the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS). Nor is it surprising to see that broadly Neurathian concepts have been adopted in designing signage and icons everywhere, from traffic signs and airport signs to iPhone interfaces and social media. Indeed, thinking mathematically by using stroke-diagrams for representing basic arithmetic as per the above, many uses of Neurath’s “international picture language” by the ISOTYPE project (Neurath, 1936), and also the use of the contemporary ISOTYPE-style visualization diagram displayed directly above, are all lower-bound, limiting cases of generative thought-shapers, in that they do indeed self-consciously unlock, liberate, and sustain creative and productive mechanistic human thinking in logic, mathematics, other formal sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, other natural sciences, and in technological applications of the formal and natural sciences to purely mechanical facts and domains of content — for example, manufacturing clocks, steam engines, and laptop computers. And, as I mentioned above, Bergson’s “cinematographic” analogy or metaphor for mechanical thinking is itself a philosophically generative thought-shaper. Therefore, not all mechanical thought-shapers are constrictive, even though all constrictive thought-shapers are mechanical thought-shapers.
Here’s another slightly different way of making essentially the same point. Recursion is a logico-mathematical operation whereby, starting with a “ground level” or “zero-th” case as input, according to some algorithm, routine, or rule-governed sequence, precisely the same operation is successively applied to the result of each prior application, until a certain desired output is constructed as the result of input delivered by the nth case. So, for example, the arithmetic algorithm/routine/rule-governed sequence that determines counting to ten in the natural number series is recursive; and so is the algorithm/routine/rule-governed sequence that governs the operations of film- or video-technology in either analogue or digital cinema. Now, the Church-Turing Thesis (Turing, 1936/1937; Church, 1937) tells us that Turing-computability and recursion are necessarily equivalent: necessarily, every Turing-computable algorithm is a recursive function, and conversely. And all mechanical operations and mechanical thinking are Turing-computable, hence recursive. So there’s absolutely nothing bad, false, or wrong about recursive operations and recursive thinking as applied to their proper domains of content. But, because all generative operations and generative thinking inherently include flexibility and repurposing, but recursion is not inherently flexible and repurposive, then except at the lower-bound limit of generative thought-shaping where mechanical/ recursive thinking is properly applied to inherently mechanical/recursive facts, mechanical recursion just ain’t organic generativity. (That’s a new game-changing global slogan for bumper-stickers, lawn signs, and T-shirts: see section 3.8 below.)
Moreover, and now moving on to the crucial point, what is inherently problematic, and what is the quintessence of bad, false, and wrong human thinking via mechanical, constrictive thought-shapers, is when inherently mechanical, recursive thought-shapers are applied to inherently non-mechanical, non-recursive organic facts. To return to my examples from the formal and natural sciences, if we tried to apply Turing-computable algorithms/routines/rule-governed sequences to Cantor’s non-denumerable, higher dimensional infinities, to truth in Principia-style systems of mathematical logic, or to causally efficacious processes in complex, non-equilibrium, negentropic, processual, purposive, self-organizing thermodynamic systems, then not only would we be essentially falsifying the manifestly real mathematical, logico-semantic, or natural-world facts, but also we’d be inevitably led into contradictions, dilemmas, paradoxes, and vicious circles in the corresponding shaped thoughts, in the form of bad, false, and wrong beliefs. Indeed, that’s precisely what Cantor’s and Russell’s paradoxes about impredicative infinite totalities, especially including the Set-Theoretic Paradox and the Liar Paradox, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and the paradoxes of relativity and quantum mechanics, are all about.
Those dialetheic explosions are bad, false, and wrong enough. Nevertheless, the badness, falsity, and wrongness of applying inherently mechanical, recursive thought-shapers to inherently non-mechanical, non-recursive organic facts are supercharged in artistic, moral, and sociopolitical contexts — and especially in moral and sociopolitical contexts. Thus, Neurath’s famous slogan about ISOTYPE, “Words divide, pictures unite” (Worte trennen, Bilder verbinden) (Edmonds, 2020: pp. 60–63), intended as a strictly universal moral and/or sociopolitical truth about thought-shapers, is obviously falsified by many real-world counterexamples. Sometimes, indeed, words do divide people, whereas pictures do unite people. But when pictures are inherently mechanical, recursive thought-shapers, with a highly-restricted validity of application and highly simplified internal structures, then they can be just as easily used to close and mechanize people’s minds (i.e., mechanical, constrictive thought-shaping), as to open and organicize them (i.e., generative thought-shaping as a lower-bound, limiting case), depending on the specific domains of content to which the pictures are applied. Indeed, in this specifically thought-shaping respect, the influence of The Vienna Circle in general and of Neurath’s ISOTYPE project in particular, has been a mixed blessing, to say the least. The Circle’s overall direct or indirect impact is indisputable:
Some of the work of individual members and associates [of The Vienna Circle] has had important indirect impact. Gödel was never involved with designing computers, but his work in symbolic logic helped in the development of computers. The influence of Neurath’s Isotype is disputed, but he has a parental claim to the everyday iconography that we now take for granted — the male/female symbols on toilet doors, the standardization of road signs internationally. Menger’s mathematical treament of ethics was a seed from which the former member of his mathematical colloquium, Oskar Morgenstern [together with John Von Neumann, in their co-authored 1944 book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior] developed game theory, now so central to a host of disciplines, especially economics. (Edmonds, 2020: p. 259)
But when inherently mechanical, recursive thought-shapers, in economics, social theory, or political theory — for example, Prisoner’s Dilemma matrices, as a core thought-shaper in game theory — are systematically misapplied to inherently complex, organic real-world moral and sociopolitical facts and decision-making, then real-world conflicts, crashes, crises, and cul de sacs — real-world disasters — result in and through the corresponding shaped thoughts: namely, bad, false, and wrong beliefs. For a real-world application of this point to von Neumann and his role in The Manhattan Project, see section 5.5 below. And in a closely related way, a paradigmatic recent example of this is Garrett Hardin’s spectacularly influential essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin, 1968). As Rutger Bregman cogently and crisply remarks:
“Picture a pasture open to all,” Hardin wrote. “It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” But what makes sense at the individual level [i.e., inherently egoistic/self-interested, decision-theoretic thinking] results in collective disaster, with overgrazing leaving nothing but barren wasteland. Hardin used the term “tragedy” in the Greek sense, to mean a regrettable but inevitable event: “Freedom in a commons,” he said, “brings ruin to all.”… It’s hard to overstate the impact of Hardin’s paper, which went on to become the most widely reprinted ever published in a scientific journal, read by millions across the world…. “It should be required reading for all students,” declared an American biologist in the 1980s, “and, if I had my way, for all human beings.”…Ultimately, “The Tragedy of the Commons” would prove to be among the most powerful endorsements for the growth of the market and the state. Since common property was tragically doomed to fail, we needed either the visible hand of the state to do its salutary work, or the invisible hand of the market to save us. It seemed that these two flavours — the Kremlin or Wall Street — were the only options available. Then, after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, only one remained. Capitalism had won, and we became homo economicus. (Bregman, 2020: p. 311)
In other words, the real tragedy of the commons is how Hardin’s spectacularly wrongheaded argument in “The Tragedy of the Commons” has operated in morality and sociopolitics since the late 1960s, worldwide, as a spectacularly disastrous mechanical, constrictive thought-shaper. Again, the problem lies not in the mechanical, recursive structure of the thought-shaper per se and its corresponding mechanical, recursive shaped thoughts itself — no doubt, Prisoner’s Dilemma matrices and game theory fairly accurately capture the behavior of people playing Monopoly, Risk, video games, or online poker, cruising the casinos at Las Vegas, or engaged in gambling more generally — but instead in its altogether bad, false, and wrong misapplication to the nonideal organic complexities of “human, all-too-human” moral and sociopolitical free agency “in the wild,” in the larger manifestly real world. Using mechanical, recursive thinking in the design and manufacture of clocks, steam engines, and laptop computers is one thing. But using mechanical, recursive thinking in the design and and manufacture of guns, killer drones, heat-seeking missiles, biochemical weapons, and nuclear weapons is something not only essentially different but also categorically bad, false, and wrong.
[i] For explicit definitions of logical and natural/nomological strong supervience, see either sub-sub-section 220.127.116.11 above or section 3.6 below.
[ii] For explicit definitions of logical and natural/nomological strong supervience, see either sub-sub-section 18.104.22.168 above or section 3.6 below.
[iii] Of course, I’m joking about the slogan and bumper-stickers, lawn signs, and T-shirts — or at least, half-joking….
[iv] For a direct, sharply critical, and philosophically creative response to Hardin’s view and to Hardin-constricted thinking more generally, see (Ostrom, 1990).
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