Saturday, June 16, 2018

375. Does ethics need dogma?

In the preceding item in this blog I discussed the unsaid: what cannot or should not be said. Another angle is that one should take something as dogma, leave it unargued. Zizek argued this for ethics. The example he took was rape. As soon as you submit this to argument, one can always find some conditions where the accusation can be relativised: the women secretly did elicit it, evoked it with dress and demeanour, etc.

Similarly, one can relativise honour killings, or cliterectomy as justifiable in cultural relativism.

Another case Zizek brought forward was the holocaust and anti-Semitism. As soon as you enter into discussion of wrongdoings of Jews, you have to admit that indeed some of them engaged in usury. Of course some of them did, as did non-jews, and if jews did more it was because they were excluded, discriminated against, in other than financial activities.  

This is an intellectual challenge to me. I have pleaded, throughout this blog, for an Aristotelian virtue ethic, being reasonable, willing to listen to any argument, taking into account contexts and contingencies, in the exercise of phronesis, practical wisdom. That issues in relativism.

In his view, Zizek goes back to Kant: the categorical imperative. Ethics, Zizek agrees, is a matter of absolute metaphysical commitment, without accounts of reason, interests, or custom.

This is a problem for me. If Zizek is right, what is there left to reject discrimination with, and intolerance? Zizek is cynical and dismissive of tolerance, but I cannot see where that leaves us.

Does Zizek here fall back into Platonism? Or is he being merely realistic about reason and its ability, its cunning to hide its hypocrisy, in hiding the bias, the illusion of righteousness, not seeing its ethical bias, often determined by material self-interest and social self-interest, and psychological urge to be seen as righteous?

He has that view also with respect to psychoanalysis. It is an illusion to think that it will bring the analysand to understand itself, clearing out the ghosts. The best one can achieve is to live with imperfect self-knowledge and self-control. The analyst lets the myth rest because the false belief in it brings the analysand to open up, which is needed to achieve a much more modest result.

Elsewhere, Zizek gave an admiring view, to my surprise, of Christ as an anti-universal, anti-platonic solidarity with the particular, the unique, the different, excentric human being. But then, how can one imitate Christ while harbouring an ethical dogma?

In one of his many presentations on YouTube Zizek said that we should not ‘have our hearts go out’ to the refugees, which is cheap and subject to hypocrisy, but should give them rights. The problem is that of exclusion, and we should ‘involve the refugees themselves in the debates’. How does that work, on the basis of cultural, ethical dogma?

There is a more pragmatic stance. One does not have the ethical right to condemn cultural attitudes of others, but one has a democratic right to not tolerate practices that are at odds with the basic rules one has adopted together in one’s society. There lies a difference between pragmatic doxa and philosophical dogma.

But that still leaves the problem of the rebel: what room does he get? And here we are back at the problem of Foucault, and Bourdieu, of how to escape the collective symbolic order, to develop an authentic self. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

374. The unsaid

Žižek and Harman both discussed the unsaid: what cannot be said (Harman) and what should not be said (Žižek).

From Heidegger, Harman adopted the idea that things, even objects of use, are not completely transparent, cannot be completely paraphrased, enumerated in all their qualities. In German: they are ‘ unhintergehbar’, you cannot get behind them. I adopted this idea, for several reasons. First, one cannot look in all directions at the same time. Even in a given direction one cannot see everything. Looking at the inside of a thing, how far ‘down’ does one go? Down to the level of elementary particles and quanta, and according to what rival view of what goes on down there? And concerning the outside, looking at the use of the thing and one’s experiences with it, its phenomenology, one cannot enumerate all its actual and possible affordances and what would be experienced by whom. As a result, Harman claims, reference is inevitably ‘oblique’: partial and incomplete. Some expressions are ruined when explained, such as jokes, metaphors and poems.

Žižek claimed that whether or not things could be said, they should not always be said. Ideologies, in particular, exert their power precisely by not being explicit, but remaining partly hidden, indirect, implicit, so that they remain invulnerable to argumentative opposition: whatever you object against, they did not explicitly say that. And vice versa, when you are the underdog, the outcast, it may be best to remain silent, because your speaking will be twisted or co-opted by the ruling symbolic order. What does not fit cannot be said.  

Don’t rationalize religious faith: you will lose all rational argument. As Kierkegaard taught: just dive into it, and admit ‘Creo quia absurdum’: I believe because it is absurd.

Žižek mentions the ‘Occupy movement’. The only language game in play is that of the established order, and that is precisely what they wanted to get away from.   

Accusations and threat are most effective when giving no more than innuendo and insinuation. When a Mafia boss tells one of his soldiers ‘I trust you, my son’, what does he mean? Multinational companies in their lobbying, to get their way from government, do not threaten directly to move their business and employment abroad unless they get their way.

Recently the nearest Shell Oil Company got to that with respect to the Dutch government, in pleading for the abolition of dividend tax was ‘We do not make demands, but we do want to be seen as friends …’, and the government gave in, while being able to claim that they were not coerced.

And yet, bad as all this sounds, there is something to be said for such modes of implicit direction. I discussed this, in this blog, as the ‘exemplary cause’, adopted from Aristotle. There, one does not give a direct order, but sets an example to be followed. This move recognizes the condition that professional practices often cannot be fully specified, unable to cover the richness, the context specificity and variability of the practice, so that room must be given to find the locally apt specificities, to adapt, innovate, improvise according to conditions.

This is practical wisdom, in contrast with the hypocrisy of manipulative obliqueness. But can one always tell the difference? Managers presenting exemplars shift the responsibility for execution to the worker. Such ‘participative management’ is in fact shifting the blame of failure.

This is one of the ways in which capitalism gets its way no matter what, as Žižek has repeatedly argued.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

373. Ontology and discovery

Here I discuss the link between the ontology that I presented in preceding items in this blog and the theory of discovery that I proposed earlier.

The central feature that I adopted from ‘Object oriented ontology’ (‘3O’, presented, in particular, by Harman and Garcia) is that any object, not only material objects, has two dimensions of existence: an inside (‘What is in it’) and an outside (‘What it is in’). The criterion for an object is that it has a more or less durable structure of its elements. I also adopt Garcia’s idea that the object is the ‘difference between what comes in and what goes out’.

I find this attractive because it is dynamic from the start. Objects develop from interaction with other objects, which affect what comes in and goes out and the development of what happens in between, in the object. 

Another thing that I find particularly important is that here there is room for scientific analysis as the analysis of the composition of an object, the inside, in the natural sciences, and a non- or less scientific, at best a ‘scholarly’ consideration of the outside, of how objects are used and experienced, in their ‘phenomenology’. This includes philosophy and most of the humanities. Neither analysis not phenomenology suffices for an adequate understanding of the object. This necessitates modesty on both sides of the divide.   

Another thing that I find intriguing is that this view of existence as functioning in interaction with other objects is also the view of present quantum theory of physics, according to which elementary particles, and states of systems, appear only in interaction with others. In human affairs, people are not autonomous, as economics claims, but develop in interaction with others

In the theory of invention, in a ‘cycle of discovery’, that I proposed in 2000 and summarized in item 356 of this bog, that change of an object in the form of some practice or knowledge arises from a interaction between ‘what is in’ it and ’what it is in’.

To make this more concrete, I modelled the object as a ‘script’, i.e. network of nodes that represent component activities or ideas, which have ‘subscripts’, while the script as a whole fits in a wider ‘superscript’. The canonical example is a restaurant, with component activities as nodes.

The logic of discovery now is as follows. When an object moves, or is moved, into a novel environment (‘what it is in’), it meets with new challenges to survival, which necessitate adaptation of ‘what is in it’, in order to cope what comes in and goes out in that new environment.

At first this is sought in ‘differentiation’, minor changes (in subscripts of nodes), while maintaining its basic logic (script structure of nodes). In differentiation, not yet jeopardizing fundamental logic or structure (of the nodes), adjustments are derived from earlier development, reconsidering things that failed or were inappropriate then.

Next, when that does not suffice, there are more radical shifts in importing subscripts or entire nodes from other scripts that are locally successful where the focal script fails, thus changing more radically what is in the script. This entails experiments with hybrids of elements from old local scripts, in what I call ‘reciprocation’. This is important in yielding opportunities to experiment, to tinker, trying out alternative combinations, basic logics or structures, finding out where the limitations lie and where conflicts or complications between old and new parts arise.

This is groping, still tentative, with incoherence between old and new, and the need for a more radical change, of basic logic or design, in a recombination of nodes from old and new scripts, and their contents (possible subscripts), in ‘accommodation’.

This, next, is followed by subsequent optimisation, with adjustments in the components (consolidation). That, finally, converges on a ‘dominant design’ and stabilization sets in.

The circle is, in other words, an alternation between contraction and expansion, of content (what is in it) and context (what it is in), and between stability (consolidation), minor change (differentiation) and fundamental change (reciprocation, accommodation). Along the cycle, one needs some stability, if only to find out where the ‘real limits’ of a practice lie, and to build up both the motivation and hints for renewal.

One can see all this as an elaboration of Kuhn’s notions of paradigm shift (here: accommodation), and normal science (here: consolidation). Then what the circle adds is how you get from the one to the other.

Where does the urge behind the cycle of discovery come from? The urge to manifest oneself, to try and fail, to fall and stand up, to go out and explore, Plato’s thymos, Spinoza’s conatus, Bergson’s elan vital, Hegel’s absolute Spirit, Nietzsche’s will to power, where do they come from? Could it be from evolution, because its process of creative destruction, as described, yields an evolutionary advantage in discovery?

Note the connection with the ontology that I discussed in Chapter 2. The crux of that was that an object has an inside and an outside, in the environment it is in, and with which it interacts, and that its inside has a more or less durable coherence of elements. According to the cycle of invention discussed here, when the environment stabilizes, the object consolidates, in the absence of novel impulse. It needs to change its environment to meet new sources, needs and opportunities for novelty. Then, it meets stresses, challenges to change its structure, but does not do so instantly, but experiments, more to the extent that it lives, has intentions, with adaptations, and with hybrids from its own structure and elements from the new environment. And then it may cease to be the object it was, developing a new structure from old and new elements.

Finally, coincidence or not, the ‘loop quantum theory’ that is one of the recent contenders of fundamental physics, models space and time as networks of nodes, as I do with scripts to model objects.   

Friday, May 25, 2018

372. A world of entropy?

Could we see the world as one big buzz, on may levels, of loops going around between high and low entropy? Let me try this out, in a list of phenomena of humanity and society. Here I distinguish between the two dimensions of entropy: the number of possible states or alternatives, and diversity, the distinctions between them.


alternatives     diversity          entropy

life                              many               high                 low      many forms, each unique

death                           many               low                  high     undifferentiated mass

monopoly                    few                  low                  low      few but homogeneous products

competition                 many               low                  high     many of similar products

innovation                   few                 high                 low      unique product

nationalism                 many               high                 low      many different unique nations          

authoritarian               few                 low                  low      no or a single party

democracy                  many               high                 low      different political parties

capitalism                    many/low        high/low          low      uniqueness in entrepreneurial and

monopoly in concentrated capitalism

communism                few                 low                  high     one size fits all

integration                  few                 low                  low      many similar things brought into one

disintegration              many               low                  high     falling apart in autonomous units

dense network            many                                      high     many connections between many nodes

high centrality net.     few                                         high     a few nodes have many connections

war/revolutionn          many               high                 high     breakdown of order into factions

peace                           few                 low                  high     preservation of order

the face (Levinas)       few                 high                 low      the unique other

justice                         few                 low                  high     equality under the law for many

destruction                  many               low                  high     loss of order

excitement                  few                 high                 low      peak

boredom                     many               low                  high     no clear preference, nothing salient

poetry                         few                 high                 low      irregular meaning

bureaucracy                few                 low                  high     equalization

art                               few                 high                 low      unique, diversity of interpretation

spectacle                     many               low                  high     shared entertainment

The assignment depends on the relative weight one puts on the two dimensions of number of alternatives and the distinction between them. In some cases the assignment of values is uncertain. Is boredom due to having too may alternatives or too few of them?

I was inclined to look positively on low entropy, since that is a sign of life, but if my assignment in the table is right, some less attractive things also are assigned low entropy: monopoly, authoritarionism and nationalism.

But instead of assigning approbation to high or to low entropy, the point probably is that most phenomena are combinations of them, alternating in time, cycling between one and the other as in life and death, and between stability and change, in interaction between objects and their environments, as shown in the previous item in this blog.

Perhaps war is needed to appreciate peace, autoritarianism to appreciate democracy, monopoly to appreciate competition, order to appreciate disorder, and vice versa.        

Saturday, May 19, 2018

371. Entropy of markets

Concerning entropy in markets, economics is ambivalent. For the economist the essence of the market is competition, and in what the economist calls ‘perfect competition’ there are many alternative products with the same function, that can ‘substitute’, replace each other, and thus compete. That restricts profits and presses for efficiency, as a public good. Here, entropy is high, because there are many similar products.

On the other hand, there is innovation: novel products that sharply distinguish themselves from established ones. If the innovation is successful, it will push out established products, so that the total number decreases. For that reason, and because of its distinction, its ‘sticking out’, innovation decreases entropy. It is, so to speak, the life of the economy, as poetry is the life of language. And then, in due course, competitors appear who imitate the novelty, and entropy rises again.

When the market is ‘imperfect’, as in monopoly, competition stalls and entropy is low, here, not from yielding a unique new product, but from restricting the number of alternatives. It is the task of public ‘competition authorities’ to prevent that.

Now, will one still say that low entropy is the ‘life’ of the system? Or should one distinguish between the number of alternatives, in competition, as ‘good entropy’, and the unicity of one of them, in innovation, as ‘good negentropy’, and call only the latter the life of the system?

In my work, and in this blog, I presented a ‘cycle of discovery’. At one point of the cycle we have the situation of ‘consolidation’: a previous innovation has settled down, in its diffusion and imitation in the economy, yielding high entropy. To decrease entropy again, towards a new innovation, practice has to move to a new ‘selection environment’, in evolutionay terms, with different practices that the existing product is faced with. The crux of that is that it yields novel challenges of survival, pressure to change (necessity being ‘the mother of invention’). Also, the new environment, precisely where the old product fails, yields indications in what directions to change. This illustrates the need for variety for innovation to occur: novel information to expose inadequacies and new opportunities.
This initiates a set of further steps towards new negative entropy, in a new innovation, which then, after a while, moves on to a erosion of negative entropy, in diffusion, where entropy creeps in again. I discussed this in more detail in item 138 in this blog.  

In this way, the cycle becomes a cycle of high to low entropy, feeding on novelty from a new environment, and back again to high entropy, in the diffusion of novelty. It becomes a cycle of life, found also in natural life and death.

This cyclical process is an alternation of stability and change. Only stability would stifle life, but only flux would break it up. 

In a famous debate, in the 1950s, between Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend, Popper, the champion of falsification as a criterion of science, had to admit that under empirical contradictions of a theory one should not instantly consider it falsified, because a certain conservatism, in ‘milking the theory for all it is worth’, even under an accumulation of anomalies, shows up ‘where the real limits of its validity lie’, and, I would add, gives indications of possible new contents and directions to develop a new theory.

So perhaps this is how the economy should also be seen: as an alternation of increase and decrease of entropy.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

370. Entropy

Carlo Rovelli[i] proposed that much of the wondrous complexity of quantum physics can be captured with information theory (which isn’t really a theory, but a method). Here I consider whether that ‘theory’ might also help to understand humanity and society, and add to the dynamic ontology that I developed in preceding items in this blog. I begin with a brief explanation of information theory and the corresponding notion of ‘entropy’.

Information theory derived from thermodynamics, with its second law stating that when left alone, a system can only dissipate its energy: a hot thing dissipates its heat to its environment, and cannot by itself become hotter. The relevance to ‘my’ ontology is that this might contribute to understanding the central issue of how objects interact with their environment. States of nature decay from ‘order’, in the form of some specific, distinct configuration of elements, to decay in a ‘chaos’ of an undifferentiated mass. From information theory, that chaos is called ‘entropy’. In those terms, isolated systems increase in entropy.

In biology ‘life’ is characterized, defined even, as a system that resists the increase of entropy to maintain its negative, ‘negentropy’, to maintain itself, by ingesting new energy in the form of foods. Organs need to be maintained within a narrow range of states and boundaries of variation, in homeostasis. In death everything decays, dissipating into an undifferentiated mass.

Entropy is measured according to the formula:
E = - Σ pi.logpi, where E = entropy, n is the number of possible states, pi is the probability of state i,
         1                  2
and log  is log at the base 2.

From this follows that entropy can increase in two ways: an increase of the number of possible states (n) and the equalization of their probabilities (pi). See below for some examples:

n=2: p1= 1/2, p2= 1/2 à E= 1;                                 p1= 3/4, p2 = 1/4 à E= 0.8
n=3: p1= 1/3, p2= 1/3, p3= 1/3 à E= 1.6                 p1= 1/2, p2= 1/4, p3= 1/4 à E= 1.5            
n=4: p1= 1/4, p2= 1/4, p3= 1/4, p4= 1/4 à E= 2     p1= 1/4, p2=1/6, p3= 1/6, p4= 1/6 à E=1.8

Here, entropy (E) increases from top to bottom, with more states (n), and decreases from left to right, with more unequalities probabilities.

In quantum physics, discussed in the preceding item in this blog, in the Copenhagen interpretation a cloud of probabilties for the location of an elementary particle collapses into a specific location, in interaction with something in its environment. Then entropy is reduced to 0: one state with probability 1.

In the preceding item in this blog, I proposed something similar in language: a cloud of possible denotations of a universal (such as ‘chair’) collapses into a specific particular chair, in interaction with others words in a sentence. Uncertain denotation collapses into a certain one.

In this blog I proposed that understanding of language, and of corresponding thought, suffers from a ‘object bias’: the strong inclination to see universals in analogy to objects in Newtonian time and pace, similarly to the problem in understanding quantum theory. What does not fit in that perspective ‘is not real’.

In philosophy, this bias drove Plato to claim that a univesal has an unambiguous denotation in the form of an ‘ideal’ object, as the ‘real reality’: some unobservable that lies behind the shadows or imperfect manifestations that we can observe (in his famous metaphor of the cave).

So language use, according to the rules of grammar and syntax, reduces entropy and therefore is a sign of life.

But how about poetry, then?  That adds meanings to clouds, and connects clouds, in metaphor, seeing something in terms of something else, and thus appears to increase rather than decrease entropy, disturbing the order rather than creating it. Is poetry not to be seen as a ‘form of life’, then (as Wittgenstein called language)?

Remember that there are two ways to increase negentropy: reduce the number of possible states, here meanings, or increase their distinction, to make some meaning salient, ‘sticking out’, precisely because it does not satisfy the existing order. And that is what poetry does. Bureaucratic, ‘normal’ language reduces meanings to some norm and thereby increases entropy.  

[i] Carlo Rovelli, 2016, Reality is not what it seems, Penguin.  

Saturday, May 5, 2018

369. In interaction ambiguity shrinks

I think that in present times one should try to have an ontology that also covers the wondrous world of quantum physics. What am I up against there? I am not sure. There are several interpretations of quantum theory that have long been at at odds with each other, and still are, with fundamentally different implications, each difficult to accept. This is not the place to discuss all that. Can I connect my ontology to any of those interpretations?
The central feature of that ontology is that objects of all kinds, including both material and abstract objects, have an inside (what is in it) and an outside (what it is in), and that they arise, change or vanish in interaction with objects in their environment. They cannot exist without that interaction. 

I do find something like that in the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation for a long time. This concerns the duality of an elementary particle (electron, photon), as being both particle an wave, or “cloud” of probabilities of locations where the particle might be.

In the “Broglie-Bohm interpretation” particle and wave exist at the same time, but in the Copenhagen interpretation there is only a cloud, until it “collapses” into a single location, where the particle appears, upon interaction with an observer-measurer.
In the “Everett interpretation”, interaction does not yield collapse but, on the contrary, an combination of the waves of the interactors into a larger wave, which expands on and on in series of interactions, growing into a wave encompassing the whole world, resulting in an infinity of possible worlds, each with its own superwave.  

Now, in terms of my ontology, would the cloud-particle duality constitute the inside of that object?
The interesting point here is that it is interaction with something outside (the measurer) that changes the state of the object. That is particularly interesting to me since I have spent half my life in srudying interaction between people.
I can only see a possible connection with the Copenhagen interpretation with its cloud collapse, in language, concerning universals. Consider the notion of “chair”. It can denote (refer to) a specific chair, without ambiguity. But that is only one of many specific chairs that constitute the “particulars” of the universal. Thus, the meaning of the universal is indeterminate until it collapses into a specific denotation in a specific sentence in a specific action context. It is in interaction with other words, in a sentence, according to grammar and syntax, that universals are disambiguated, that the cloud of meaning collapses.

I would not know how this cloud could be seen as a wave. But then, in a lecture posted on YouTube, Carlo Rovelli claimed that in quantum physics the wave does not really exist either, but is no more than a way of coding past interactions.

Concerning universals, that makes sense. In my treatment of universals, in this blog, I proposed that the particulars are not merely contained in the universal, and do not “derive from it”, as some kind of “reflection” of a Platonic “ideal object”, but on the contrary feed, constitute the cloud of possible denotations, developed from interaction between people in using the word. So here also, instead of the cloud being a wave, it is a deposit of earlier interactions.
I used the example, in a newspaper, with a picture, of a man using a stuffed cow for a chair, and so this became an additional possibility for denotation, in the cloud. Walking past a pasture with cows, one might then point and say: “look what a beautiful chair”.

There still remains ambiguity, now concerning the sentence as a whole, in differences of interpretation and understanding between people. They also take part in the interaction.   
Quantum theory and language seem to share what earlier I called an “object bias”. The objects involved (elementary particles, words) are seen in terms of objects moving in Newtonian time and space, but they are not like that. Earlier, I used the example of “chair”. A particular chair does not change colour or drop it legs when moved from one room to another, but the universal “chair” does change its meaning from one sentence to another.

Is this of any use? The notion of wave collapse from quantum theory did trigger the idea of a cloud of meaning for universals, and disambiguation, shrinking the cloud to a specific denotation, as a result of interaction, between words in a sentence and participants in discourse. I leave it to the reader to find this interesting or not.