by Ralph Dumain

Dedicated in memoriam to Lisa Rogers
25 August 1961 - 15 September 1996

Emergence may be the key ontological topic of our time. The notion of emergent properties is not a new one, but there seems to be more technical work on the concept than ever before. This blog tracks my ongoing information-gathering and commentary on the philosophical, ideological, and social issues surrounding emergence, and constitutes one segment of a larger project. I make no pretense of contributing to the technical development of emergentist formulations. My focus is on the historical reconstruction and the philosophical and ideological role of emergentism in the social ecology of ideas.

Curiously, much of the literature on the subject—including encyclopedia articles—is spotty and heavily biased in citing its history.  In standard reference sources there is a focus on the British emergentists, and no mention at all of Hegel, Engels, or any Soviet work.  Part of this I think is due to the provincialism of Anglo-American philosophy.  Another failure of the literature is to make a clear distinction between the mystical idealist versions of emergentism and emergent materialism. 

While I believe in the fruitfulness of emergent materialism, I remain wary of speculative/idealist/mystical constructions of the concept. I will also make reference to the increasing focus on "cosmic evolution" (especially in the more sensationalist popularizations of cosmology) at the one end and cognitive science / artificial intelligence at the other end of the scientific spectrum , which relate directly or indirectly to emergentism. Emergentism in its materialist role may provide resolutions to certain dilemmas while in its mystifying role create new problems. Tracking emergentism and its constellation of issues is another way of tracking the philosophical dualisms that pervade our intellectual culture and the legitimate and mystifying ways in which scientists and philosophers attempt to transcend them.

In line with the issue of mystification is the notion of alienated consciousness and social existence of technical specialists, which may be manifested in their intellectual work, and/or in the face they present to the general public. The widest social perspective pertains to the role of scientists, philosophers, and other intellectuals in the social division of labor as well the role of the intellectual disciplines themselves. Emergence thus fits as a component into my larger work in progress on the place of science and scientific ideologies in the cultural system as a whole since the Scientific Revolution. One tie-in is a novel interpretation and application of Marx's early remarks on science. If there is any originality in this project, it is in the specific way I am attempting to relate all these elements.

This began as an edited compilation of a series of e-mails written for various discussion lists.  This will serve as raw material for a more coherent presentation at some point.  Identifying information of discussants other than myself has been almost entirely removed. Anyone wishing his/her name to be associated with quoted comments please inform me. This collective compilation begins with a big chunk of e-mails up to 25 February 2005.  Subsequent entries will be added individually, many also edited from various e-mails. (RD—27 Feb 2005)


17 June 2006 - 3 Feb 2007

2 June 2005 -
14 August 2005
(this page)

23 Feb 2005 -
3 June 2005

5 Nov 2004 -
25 Feb 2005


14 August 2005

I have not had the opportunity to do updates for some time. Most of the discussions I've been privy to concern human evolution and sociobiology, including their ideological and political ramifications. I still don't have new information organized for you. So in the interim, here are a few thoughts. While most prominent representatives of these trends tend to be liberals, there is the right-wing ideological climate to consider, a trend that solidified during the 1980s, with an attack on the prospects of social amelioration, most recently codified in the pseudo-scientific The Bell Curve. But this article addressed a trend already perceptible in the early '80s. It also contains a criticism of Karl Popper and addresses the history and application of the notion of falsifiability.

Welty, Gordon. "The Attack on Mead and the Dialectics of Anthropology," Science and Nature, No. 9 (1990), pp. 14-27.

4 July 2005

Whitehead or Marx?  Or, How to Process Philosophy

"Matter without motion is just as inconceivable as motion without matter." — Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring

"The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggled phrases, but by a long and wearisome development of philosophy and natural science." — Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring

While there are variant ways of labelling the dynamic, I have written many times about the historical vacillation of modern philosophy in capitalist societies between ever-disintegrating positivist tendencies and a reactive reversion to organicism and spirituality, effecting a reconstitution of wholeness on a mystical  ideological basis.  Organic ideologies take many forms—Neo-Thomism, Eastern mysticism, New Age spirituality, speculative metaphysics . . .  Without a grasp of the overall contours of competing philosophical ideologies, one easily becomes disoriented in a morass of philosophical nit-picking; hence the combination of sophistication and gullibility that abounds among our philosophers.

Analytical philosophy’s British origins coincided with a rebellion against British Neo-Hegelian idealism—from Bradley, to Russell.

The bourgeois propagation of dualisms couldn’t be more poetic when one considers the erstwhile team of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (co-authors of Principia Mathematica).  While Russell shifts from one incoherent position to another, Whitehead takes a page out of Bradley and refurbishes the project of speculative metaphysics—now process philosophy—suitably upgraded for our time.  Instead of the old static substantialism, now we have occasions and events—not substance, not matter, as a basis, but motion.  (Cf. L. Bazhenov, "Matter and Motion.")

It is significant for Whitehead’s project that he knew nothing of Hegel, let alone Marx.  (Cf.. Harry K. Wells, Preface to Process and Unreality: A Criticism of Method in Whitehead's Philosophy.)

One should distinguish, as I insistently do, between mystical emergentism and emergent materialism.  For the latter, matter is the basis upon which all entities are built—no vitalism, no teleology, no theology—only levels of organization of the material world, the crucial dividing line being where consciousness and society begin.  The world is seen as a differentiated, stratified unity.  The very aim of emergentism should be to target the specificity of the levels of organization of the material world mandating explanation; i.e. emergentism should be the very opposite of obscurantism, metaphysical vagary, mystical holism, and vague bio-physical explanation of social phenomena.

What could be more obsolete, more antiquated, than a metaphysical approach to history?  “Philosophy of History” is itself very nearly a waste of time, except for the philosophical problems of historiography.  (Cf. Siegfried Kracauer, History: The Last Things Before the Last.)  Early modern attempts to fix a science of history made use of the concept of volksgeist (Herder, for instance), taken over and rationalized by Hegel, who nonetheless put substantial concrete content into his philosophy of history, while framing it in dubious metaphysical categories.  Marx rebelled against the metaphysical basis of both Hegel himself and of the Left Hegelians, rejecting the volksgeist, the weltgeist, teleology, hypostatization (cf. The Holy Family), the logic of categorical explanation (cf. The Poverty of Philosophy, Notes on Wagner).  Marx was uninterested in traditional problems of ontology beyond praxis, value theory, and the need to explain the nature of commodities. (See George Lichtheim, Historical and Dialectical Materialism, on Marx’s materialism. See also E. V. Ilyenkov, "The Concept of the Ideal.")

Marxist ontology as usually understood is the product of Engels, later christened as “dialectical materialism” by Plekhanov.  It became dogmatized in the USSR and itself reached the nadir of metaphysical mystification with Lysenkoism, and another low during the Maoist Cultural Revolution.  But later, both ‘orthodox’ (including Eastern European) and ‘western’ Marxists opposed mystical organicism. (See my Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide.)  There are some Marxists who shade off into mystical holism, e.g. Joseph Needham. (See my review of J. J. Clarke's The Tao of the West.) Engels' lapses notwithstanding, his purpose was to combat the obscurantism of his day, i.e. vulgar metaphysical evolutionism and pseudo-(social-)scientific constructs.

As opposed to emergent materialism, mystical emergentism lacks a social theory that even approximates a serious analysis of social organization.  Generally, it capitalizes on speculative constructs and vague reasoning by analogy.  It’s mind, teleology, or God all the way down.

Whitehead is a major inspiration for such obfuscation.  Developments in 20th century physical theories have induced many scholars to reckon with the concept of novelty. (See, e.g., Milic Capek, The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics, Princeton, N.J., Van Nostrand, 1961.) While emergentists generally acknowledge the emergence of novelty, Whitehead’s unrestricted metaphysical attributions—e.g. the ‘creativity’ of the cosmos—should be regarded with suspicion. 

Biosemiotics appears to be a benefactor of the Whiteheadian fudge factor.  While the roots of higher brain functions can be found in simpler biological organisms, and while there is indeed a genetic code, and while indeed the exchange of “information” exists on a pre-human-consciousness level, the ascription of semiosis to the simplest biological processes seems to be a form of reasoning by analogy, eliding the specificity of what ‘meaning’ means to intelligent organisms. Undifferentiated generalizations construct an ideological, not concrete, picture of the unity of the world. Needless to say, such thinking makes its practitioners sociologically as well as philosophically naive.

What is the link between Whitehead’s social/political philosophy and his metaphysics?  First, there is the lack of a substantive social theory. Does Whitehead even have a developed social ontology, let alone a political economy, theory of the state, conception of mode of production and class differentiation?  Instead he struggles with the abstract dualities of individualism and collectivity, change and stability.  At best he is the speculative metaphysician of the welfare state. 

According to Johnson (see July 3 blog entry), Whitehead decried the Malthusianism, laissez faire economic individualism, and social Darwinism of the 19th century.  He was sensitive to economic forces and decried the fragmentation and specialization of the modern mind.  He stressed the idea of ‘civilization’—tolerance, inquiry, communication, fraternity, democracy, and both self-realization and cooperation.  Johnson relates Whitehead’s social philosophy to his panpsychism and his notions of actual entities, ‘societies’ (of entities), and eternal objects. 

Morris (see July 3 blog entry) pulls together Whitehead’s social philosophy from his scattered, unsystematic remarks, addressing the failures of process thinkers (philosophers and theologians) to develop process social theory.  Morris reviews Whitehead’s development beginning in the 19th century.  Whitehead was for ‘change’ while skeptical about ‘progress’. As he expressed it later: “Advance or Decadence are the only choices offered to mankind.  The pure conservative is fighting against the essence of the Universe.”  Process cosmology is teleological and its aim is the maximization of Beauty.  Whitehead saw uniformity and force as the main threats to social progress.  Ideas are the key to history, and “Abstract speculation has been the salvation of the world . . .”  Whitehead favored individual freedom and diversity as well as social solidarity, rejecting classical individualistic liberalism as well as collectivist regimentation.  Whitehead is seen to be in agreement with Mill and Hobhouse. Whitehead was very much influenced by Victorian, 19th century evolutionism, but he was opposed to social Darwinism, as were the “new liberals.” 

So this is what Whitehead had to offer in the 20th century.  This metaphysical banality is not even remotely up to par to where Hegel was over a century earlier.  And of course Marx is not even in the same mental universe.  The only thing sadder about Whitehead than this are the retrograde metaphysicians inspired by him.

3 July 2005
Does anyone give good Whitehead?

I'm going to comment on Whitehead via these two articles:

Johnson, A. H. "The Social Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead," Journal of Philosophy, vol. 40, no. 10, (May 13, 1943), pp. 261-271.

Morris, Randall C. "Whitehead and the New Liberals on Social Progress," Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 51, no. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1990), pp. 75-92

Abstract: This article aims to contribute to the task of reconstructing Whitehead's political beliefs through a detailed comparison of his theory of social progress with those advanced by L T Hobhouse and J S Mill. It begins by outlining certain key ideas concerning progress contained in Whitehead's metaphysics. It then examines the concepts of uniformity and force which Whitehead identifies as the main threats to social progress. These dangers are shown to be related not only to the principles of order and novelty in his metaphysics, but also correspond closely to the concerns of the new liberals with individuality and sociability.

The malignant influence of Whitehead can be found in the "work" of Christian de Quincey. He summarizes his perspective in an article, "Radical Nature and the Paradox of Consciousness," ReVision, March 22, 1999. See the Wikipedia article on de Quincey. He has written a trilogy on "Radical Consciousness," covering nature, science, and knowing. See also his web site: Deep Spirit. Not for the philosophically squeamish.

3 July 2005
The God Gene (1)

I reported on the string theory lecture. The subsequent event in the lecture series was "The God Gene":

Thursday, May 26. Reception 5:15 p.m. Lecture and Discussion 6:00-8:00 p.m.
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Auditorium, 1200 New York Avenue, NW, Washington DC.
AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion Seminar Series
"The God Gene?" featuring Dean H. Hamer & Lindon J. Eaves

Dean Hamer received his B.A. from Trinity College, Connecticut and his Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School . He has worked at the National Institutes of Health for 24 years, where he is currently the Chief of the Section on Gene Structure and Regulation in the Laboratory of Biochemistry of the National Cancer Institute. His research has led to contributions in a variety of areas including recombinant DNA, drug and vaccine production, and gene regulation. He was a co-inventor of animal cell gene transfer, and recently has begun a program on molecular therapeutics for HIV/AIDS. For the past nine years, Dr. Hamer has studied the role of inheritance in human behavior, personality traits, and cancer risk-related behaviors such as cigarette smoking. His discovery of genetic links to sexual orientation and the temperamental traits of sensation seeking and anxiety have changed the way we think about human behavior and raise a host of important scientific, social and ethical issues. In his most recent popular book, The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes, he proposes that human spirituality is an adaptive trait, but also that he has located one of the genes responsible.

Lindon J. Eaves is a Distinguished Professor in the Departments of Human Genetics and Psychiatry and Director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University. He received a B.S. in Genetics and a Ph.D. in Behavioral Genetics from the University of Birmingham, England. Dr. Eaves also serves as priest-in-residence at St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. He has served as president of both the Behavior Genetics Association and the International Society for Twin Studies.

On May 6, some time before the event, I wrote:

On lumping things together [e.g. dialectical biologists and postmodernists] . . . this has to do with the aggregative polarities and tendencies of bourgeois thought. Consider the science vs mumbo-jumbo camp in the Anglo-American world (of which the fraudulent dichotomy of analytical and continental philosophy is a manifestation). The defenders of science who oppose religion, postmodernism, etc. nonetheless have no problems with all kinds of pseudo-science that suits them. The otherwise salutary web site butterfliesandwheels.com lumps dialectical biology in with all other kinds of claptrap. Opponents of religion proffer piffle like memes and God genes. The Dawkinses of the world—quite eloquent in opposing religious nonsense—have no conception of social science. While the defense of Darwinism against creationism is absolutely necessary, most Darwinian apologists are dolts when it comes to explaining human affairs, and their brand of reductionism is useless. Already Engels had to oppose the nonsense circulating in the late 19th century, and today's apologists are little better.

This issue is logically distinct from the genuine scientific contributions of the darwinian synthesis and even of sociobiology, but the problem is, most scientists seem to be philosophically naive and utterly helpless once they attempt to extend their narrow specialized expertise into a world view. Dialectical thought—which should be the art of taking things apart and putting them back together (Engels, following standard practice, called it analysis and synthesis; and Lenin called it the breaking up of a whole and cognition of its contradictory parts)—is central to the task of correcting the chronic category mistakes of bourgeois thought.

On May 7, also before the event, I wrote:

If the God gene is the scientific answer to creationism, woe to the future of American science.


Some geneticist claims to have found the gene for spirituality. I sense a general pattern in the dynamics of the science vs mumbo-jumbo camp in the Anglo-American world (of which the fraudulent dichotomy of analytical and continental philosophy is a manifestation). Many defenders of science who oppose religion, postmodernism, etc., nonetheless have no problems with pseudo-science that suits them. The otherwise salutary web site butterfliesandwheels.com lumps all critics of sociobiology, reductionism, etc., in with all other kinds of claptrap. Opponents of religion proffer piffle like memes and God genes. The Dawkinses of the world—quite eloquent in opposing religious nonsense—have no conception of social science. While the defense of Darwinism against creationism is absolutely necessary, most Darwinian apologists are dolts when it comes to explaining human affairs, and their brand of reductionism is useless. One must remember that evolution (though genetics was still a mystery) as well as physics served as master metaphors for pseudo-explanations of society in the late 19th century (the situation in which Friedrich Engels intervened as proponent of the newly founded perspective of historical materialism), and today's apologists do not seem to be terribly more sophisticated in matters of social science. This issue is logically distinct from the genuine scientific contributions of the darwinian synthesis and even of sociobiology, but the problem is, so many scientists seem to be philosophically naive and utterly helpless once they attempt to expand their narrow specialized expertise into a world view.

On May 26, just before the event, I wrote:

Judging from the event description, this looks like pseudoscientific rubbish, but that might make it even more philosophically interesting. I have doubts about this entire seminar series, and about the spineless way the American scientific establishment caves to American religiously and intellectual illiteracy. But also reprehensible is conceptually childish pseudoscience masquerading as social scientific explanation, for which real scientists, not theologians, are responsible. I see both forms of mystification as inevitable ideological effects of the type of society we live in, and the situation worsens with social decay.

I don't know what Eaves has to say, but you can get a taste of Hamer's drivel for yourself, as he has written a book called The God Gene.

There is an unfortunate history of sociologically and philosophically illiterate pseudo-biology, which surfaced in recent times with the sociobiology controversy of the 1970s. That otherwise respectable scientists, especially those known for their defense of science and rejection of religion, would indulge such naive nonsense is very depressing though hardly novel.

Here is a critique from Scientific American: Faith-Boosting Genes: A Search for the Genetic Basis of Spirituality by Carl Zimmer (September 27, 2004).

A couple of blog critiques:

No god, and no "god gene", either

The God Gene.... (October 21, 2004) (Gene Expression blog).

I made one brief public comment after the event. Now all I have to do is to write up a report of the talks themselves.

3 July 2005

In a previous entry, I quoted someone else containing a cite of this work, but I should reference it myself as a resource for historical research:

Margaret Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 1st edition (1985).

Sheehan also wrote a short essay on the need for a unified world view:

Philosophers, Scientists and the Unity of Science

This essay by Popper includes remarks on reduction and emergence:

Popper, Karl. "A Realist View of Logic, Physics, and History" (1966), in: Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972).

Note this book review:

Blackmore, Susan. "Destroying the Zombic Hunch" [Review of Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness by Daniel C. Dennett], Nature, vol. 435, 5 May 2005, p. 21.

You can find the original version of this text on Blackmore's web site.

2 July 2005
Blog recap

I am currently working on improving the format of this web page, including the addition of a link section. I also have to compile additional entries from June 2005.

The last few entries in the archive may seem rather disconnected. This is because they are extracts from a much larger conversation, which includes these topics:

Evald Ilyenkov and the concept of ideality,
Marx's value theory, emergence, & abstract materialism
science, practice, objectivity, epistemology, & materialism
Lenin vs. Mach
labor, language, linguistics (Chomsky, Vygotsky), human evolution

I don't think it is realistic for me to try to preserve all these conversations here, not even my scattered contributions. Conversational threads can get quite tangled. The three-way discussion on Ilyenkov's notion of ideality got rather involved. Ilyenkov's conception of human artifacts as the unity of materiality and ideality has radical implications for the concept of emergent properties. One of my interlocutors is working on some publication. I should urge both of them to compose position papers.

Ilyenkov works under debate include:

"The Concept of the Ideal"

"The Materialist Conception of Thought as the Subject Matter of Logic," Chapter 8 of Dialectical Logic.

One interesting paper on Vygotsky:

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. L. (forthcoming, 2005). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Draft version. 1 Introduction.

Date: Fri, 17 Jun 2005 00:58:31 -0400
Subject: Re: O, Dialectics! : Bakhurst

Thanks. Popper has an idea of how the 3 worlds interact (which has direct causal impact on which), but I don't remember exactly how. I'm not happy with the terminology, which seems to me misleading, and I'm not certain how in his scheme something belongs to more than one world at one time. But a comparison is in order.

I should also remember Sohn-Rethel better. His key idea is real abstraction, which presumably roughly corresponds to ideality (though covering a restricted range of phenomena I believe—scientific & philosophical abstraction, value form). Some extracts: http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/sohn-rethel-x.html

I also vaguely recall Dubrovsky restricted ideality to subjectivity. I put some extracts online some time ago: http://www.autodidactproject.org/other/dubrov1.html

At 09:19 PM 6/16/2005 -0700, Steve Gabosch wrote:
I am not at all up to speed on the German Marxist Sohn-Rethel (please help), but a thought immediately comes to mind on Popper's "Three Worlds" cosmology.

If one ignores the positivist framework of these three worlds invented by Popper and attempts to make them as dynamic and "dialectical" as possible, one might have some success drawing some rough correspondence between a) Popper's world 1, the world of physical objects and organisms, and Ilyenkov's material world; b) Popper's world 2, of mental activity, and Ilyenkov's will and consciousness; and c) Popper's world 3, the products of the human mind, and Ilyenkov's realm of ideality.

But there is still a fundamental difference that makes the two world views completely different. If we are to make Popper's three worlds dynamic and historical, and assign any meaning to his numbering system, then world 1, objects and organisms, must generate an emerging world 2, mental activities, which in turn (in conjunction with each other) generate world 3, the world of products of the human mind.

Ilyenkov, however, makes it crystal clear that he sees just the opposite genetic-historic relationship between world "2" and world "3". He argues that it is ideality that generates will and consciousness, not the other way around. See paragraph 76. Also note Ilyenkov's brief mention of Popper in paragraph 77.

To expand on Ilyenkov's discussion of the "secret twist of idealism," (discussed earlier in the essay "the Concept of the Ideal), it is this "inversion" of ideality, on one hand, and will and consciousness, on the other, that creates a major stumbling block in philosophy and science. When plain materialists and empiricists do this, they are committing an essential idealist error. It is one of the most common errors in bourgeois social science.

At 01:02 PM 6/16/2005 -0400, Ralph wrote:
This is the key. How would you compare Ilyenkov's view to that of Sohn-Rethel, or to Popper's 3-worlds theory?

At 07:16 PM 6/15/2005 -0700, Steve Gabosch wrote:
As I see it, the key concept in this regard that Ilyenkov offers is that just as Marx discovered how social relations can be "embodied" into things in the form of commodities—through the incorporation of abstract labor into the value-form—so too, Marxists can explain that social relations are embodied in all cultural objects - through the incorporation of meaningful cultural activity into the ideal form.

Ilyenkov explains that plain materialists and idealists alike make the error of viewing the boundary between the material and the ideal as being the world of the inside versus that of the outside of each individual human head. In contrast, he argues that according to dialectical materialism, ideality and materiality must be distinguished in terms of the composition of each object - both the composition of the physical attributes, which of course are the sources of its materiality, and the composition of its social origins and social context, which are the sources of its ideality - just as Marx analyzed the composition of the commodity. According to Ilyenkov's theory, objects within the human cultural realm objectively possess both materiality and ideality, just as commodities in a market economy possess both concrete and abstract labor, possess both use-value and exchange-value.

Date: Wed, 8 Jun 2005 14:44:02 +0200
Subject: Re: O, Dialectics!

[A response to R. Dumain from Victor:]

From R. Dumain: Tuesday, June 07, 2005 16:35
Very interesting post. Just a few isolated comments to begin . . .

At 03:10 PM 6/7/2005 +0200, Victor wrote:
The fact that life forms activities are directed to concrete future states, they are, no matter how simple or mechanical, exercises in reason. This why, if you will permit a reference to an earlier thread, I regard the investigation into biosemiology to be a vitally important exploration of the roots of reason. The most primitive forms of self reproduction are a totally mechanical process yet they are at the very root of the rational process.

We are not here proposing that nature has a rational aspect, a la Spinoza. As I wrote earlier I really have no idea what nature or Nature is. What I am proposing is that the roots of rationality are in the mechanical purposive activity of life forms and that whatever life forms "know" [including ourselves of course] is a function of our practical activities in nature FROM THE VERY ORIGINS OF THE ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE in whatever form it may be acquired, stored, recovered etc.


But biosemiology itself seems to be rather obscurantist, more akin to Whitehead's philosophy of organism than to Marx.

I'm more interested in Sharov's work (despite indications that his general methodological approach is Dubrovskian*) than in Hoffmeyer and the Western Biosemiologists.

2. Objectivity: In its essence objectivity refers to conscious reflection on something rather than the reflection of something in consciousness. That is to say that objectivity is the function of a activity and not something we passively assimilate as we confront the daily world. Some of the things or, better, activities we objectify (very few in my opinion) are those of our own subjective consciousness. Most are not. Most of our objectifying involves activities that are the preconditions for our own subjectivities, either the activities that emerge out of the collective subjective activities of men learned or developed in the course of collaborative activities while others involve activities that are preconditions for consciousness in all its aspects. Hegel, for example, divides his system of logic into two parts, objective logic and subjective logic or notional logic where the former is that logic which we enact without subjective reflection. Objective logic is objective because the only way we can deal with it intellectually in any other fashion than just doing it is as an object of reflection [I expect AB to come down on me like a ton of bricks on this one].

In its many concrete manifestations in human activity, intellectual and material, the principle of self-perpetuation, at least for men, is as subjective an issue as is the concept of self; the idea of property, of individual interests and even of "family values" are directly related to the activity of primitive self-perpetuation, though highly charged with many concrete connections to the complexities of human social existence. These slogans of superficial individualism of Social Darwinism and its inheritors, the bio-sociologists and others like them, only scratch the surface of things. Regarded objectively, the self-perpetuating activity of life forms is sublated in virtually all forms of human activity from eating and intercourse to social labour, wage slavery, and social revolution.

Sounds like some version of Lenin's (or the Soviets' in general) theory of reflection. Life activity is a form of reflection. However, the 'roots of reason' strike me as no more than roots, not reason.

No, not at all. As you must of read further on in this message I reject Lenin's passivist, "reflection in consciousness", for the activist, "conscious reflection on...".
See point 2 in the original message:
"2. Objectivity: In its essence objectivity refers to conscious reflection on something rather than the reflection of something in consciousness. That is to say that objectivity is the function of a activity and not something we passively assimilate as we confront the daily world. "

The natural sciences reflect exactly this relation between intellect and practice. There are no real ontological truths in science. Nothing is holy or beyond question and the only real proof is a sort of abstracted form of practice, experimentation. Whatever ontologising scientists do, and some do, is tolerated by the scientific community only insofar as it remains speculation and does not interfere with the scientific process. Great scientists have had "ideas"; Newton philosophized that the world was a clock wound up by the creator and then left to its own devices, Einstein was sure that "God does not play dice", and Hawkins was until a few years ago sure that unified field theory would answer all the questions of physics. Most of these and many more are, fortunately, either forgotten or on the way to being forgotten, though the scientific contributions of their makers remain important, even vital, components of the giant artefactual system men have built to enable their persistence in the world.

The Royal Society started this practice, to keep metaphysics and theology out of empirical science.

Finally, the natural science of human activity and history, and this is what Historical Materialism, should be and sometimes is, can least afford the ontologising forays that occasionally crop up in fields such as physics, chemistry and organic sciences. The very abstractness of the subjects of these sciences renders the prononciamentos of important scientists fairly harmless in the long run. The natural science of human activity is as concrete as a science can be. It deals directly with human activity and with its consequences, and philosophic dogmatism of the left and of the right can only cause disaster, to real people and real communities (as we have witnessed in the past and as we do witness today). The only way to avoid these disasters, to the extent they can be avoided at all, is through adopting a critical and practical approach to theorizing and to subject every idea to serious debate and testing much as we are doing here.

Sounds very much like Popper, who himself ended up ontologizing in the end.

Yeah, I see I've been too careless in formulating my views with regards to ontologising. This is particularly important considering that the methodological grounds for the Royal Society's decision was based on Neo-Kantian/Logical Positivist metatheory.

The problem of doctrinaire or absolutist realism which is the actual target of my comments is not aimed at the realism of theoretical statements, but rather at the disassociation of theoretical statements from the human activity involved in their formulation. That is to say that theoretical formulations are real descriptions of real things and real actions, but this reality is situational both in time, space and in the selection of essence by the human agency or agencies that make them. So long as being and theories of being are regarded as functions of the dynamic relations between subject and object, between practice and thought and then practice once again, and therefore descriptive of historical states and teleological logical thought they are "good science".

Date: Fri, 03 Jun 2005 15:29:26 -0400
Subject: O, Dialectics! nearing the end game

See comments interleaved below.

At 06:27 PM 6/3/2005 +0000, redtwister666 wrote:
. . . The summary is this: Why try to hold to such a notion of materialism? It is still too attached to what we want to get beyond. Materialism fidgeting over "mind and matter" is abstract and irrelevant to communists. Like "atheism", it is beside the point (see good link at the bottom on Marx, religion and atheism.)

Pannekoek does wish to argue that `objective reality' encompasses far more than physical matter. In effect, this is an argument that in conceiving what exists objectively, as a totality, our concept should not contain any conception of primacy. In Pannekoek's hands materialism becomes a word for a kind of neutral monism.

What do you mean by "physical matter"? The concept is not necessarily scientifically sustainable, since energy is not "physical matter", unless you are choosing to use a loose terminology.

Energy is also not ideal or spiritual. The counterpoint to matter-energy (the physical) is the realm of the ideal or non-physical. Materialism as irrelevant to communists—is this your view? I personally am not arguing about communism. However, obscurantism like all other social phenomena is relevant to communists. World view issues are social issues, even when they are remote from manifestly political concerns.

More so, is the only objective existence of a building, for example, its physical materiality? But its form is the product of our activity upon the material world. So then all that is objective are the material components of the building, and only sans their form (as bars, as concrete, etc.), which means that their chemical composition even is not entirely objective, since concrete is already crushed stone without water, and then you add water. So compositions that we make out of other things are not, as those compositions are `man made.'

There is some confusion here. You are confusing the material reality of man-made objects (which are no less material for being man-made) with the system of social and economic relations in which buildings function (not to mention the functionality of buildings themselves). This is a basic argument of Marx, which, transposed beyond his time, would count as an argument against Neurath's physicalism. We can't understand social organization in terms of strictly physical objects.

Since concrete does not exist independent of human activity, any more than alloys are likely to, like chromium-molybdenum steel or aluminum, then what is really real is not that form of materiality or even their chemical composition which would only exist as an after effect of human activity, but maybe their molecular composition or their atoms. However, I bet I could show that their molecular composition is a product of human activity, so then we have their atoms.

Bad argument. Human activity in this instance, involves the manipulation of matter, hence it is physical activity.

Ah ha, safe landing! Except that atoms are in part made up of electrons, which are not physical matter at all, and so we come to problems, especially at the level of quarks, that "physical matter" is in part built up out of energy, which indeed is independently existing but not easily called "physical matter".

Semantic masturbation.

So I do not need to show that every instance of the concept of "physical matter" is wrong, but merely that it is a generalization that does not hold up.

Completely confused reasoning.

So this (matter-ist) notion of independently existing objective reality then comes down to: well, it's a useful political tool against idealism.

This is Gil's argument, presumably. Not a good one.

You then say correctly that in the absence of idealist philosophy, the affirmation of materialism is not needed.

It does seem that concepts are only meaningful by way of contrast. So?

But you mistakenly move forward to the claim that materialism involves the idea that the world exists prior to us. There is no need to be a materialist to claim this. Only to refuse sensationalism and subjective idealism. Humean empiricism merely argues that the claim that the world exists prior to us is meaningless and/or unprovable.

As a realist, you could be a materialist or an objective idealist. Obviously so.

On this correspondence theory of assent, I am trying to grapple with
your point. If I grasp it correctly, then do you claim that my entire
paragraph above is irrelevant because I am trying to draw out the
implications of the concept?

I mean all I can see is that it is a proposition which cannot be sustained upon close inspection but which serves a political purpose, which of course would explain the ethical claims made by you originally which left Ralph and I somewhat nonplussed.

I see no way in which this relates to materialism in the sense used by Marx then in the Theses on Feuerbach, where his specific critique of the old materialism was exactly its failure to grapple with human practical-critical activity. But of course, this takes us in a circle to once again saying that Marx did not primarily address himself to the problem we are considering.

Exactly, so what's your problem?

More to the point, an adequate critique of Mach et al would seem to involve reference to Marx's idea that the issue at hand is not to disprove Mach's ideas, but to show what Mach's phenomenalism represents, how it is that it arises in that time and under those conditions and in what way those ideas appeal to the conditions in Russia in 1908.

This is a good question, to which I don't know the answer. But of course whether Mach is right or wrong is independent of his appeal to Russians.

Stray concept: "Neither Hegel nor Marx can have a 'theory of knowledge'. They both know that knowledge is a socio-historical movement. A 'theory' of this movement would have to include a 'theory' of itself, and that is impossible for any 'theory'." This will likely annoy Ralph, but it seems to me that you have in effect made this claim, when you talk about the problems of assent, et al.

I don't know what this is about. But don't Hegel and Marx have a theory of their own theories?

There is a difficult question here: what do `mind' and `matter' mean? The answer can only be that those terms mean what the philosophies define them to mean that Marxism is criticising. They are concepts defined by idealism, and in Marx's case defined by absolute idealism. If we continue to engage in the critique of idealism today—in its phenomenological form—then they would mean something different today.

I think this is very good. The concepts of mind and matter are inherently historical, and our job is not to counterpose "our theory" to theirs, per the above.

A better point would be that Marxists may monitor the progress of knowledge and criticize it, but don't have either exclusive rights or competence to advance every piece of human knowledge. So of course the need for philosophical criticism changes according to changes in the intellectual environment.

In this regard it is worth referring to the solipsim point that Lenin makes and Pannekoek finds so absurd. It may be worth recalling (if I am correct) that Carnap describes his own post- Mach position as methodolological solipsism, which he combined with a metaphysical anti-solipsism. In this distinction may lie the significant element of truth in Lenin's characterisation and the potential for dispute about it. I won't go into it in any détail, just say that modern idealism tends to affirm that thinking can be understood in terms which a materialist would deny.

The problem is that Lenin does not know Carnap and Carnap has his own agenda with Mach. Nor is anything you are saying here that is interesting to be found in Lenin's book. At most, you and I could defend the formulation that Lenin and Pannekoek share: the independently existing objective reality. At most. The rest of Lenin, where he deals with Marx's ideas, is a complete train wreck.

Note that Lenin's engagement with Marx's ideas in MAEC has not even been discussed as yet.

The proper critique of Mach would seem to flow from the following: "Every history of religion, even, that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion, than, conversely, it is, to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic, and therefore the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality."

To put it another way, it is much easier to dispute the sensationalist metaphysics of Mach than it is to "develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding" metaphysical forms of those relations.

Marx's criticism is clear, but your addendum is not.

"The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality." Vol 1 Capital, footnote 4, Ch. 15. This is quite the bit with sociobiology, a nice summation. The problem with the "materialism" you are propounding as found in and defended by Lenin is simply that no materialism that excludes "history and its process" is of interest.

Here you are mistaken, for reasons I've been arguing for months.

Maybe I am bull-headed, but what is the point of such a materialism? You cannot have one set of standards for "natural sciences" and another for "social sciences", one in which "abstract materialism" is ok and the other in which it is bad.

You are not quite right here. Presumably, the goal of a philosophy of science, or of philosophy in general, is an integrated view. The ideal of scientific explanation is abstractly the same, but takes on different forms according to the object of investigation. Can you really have prediction in social theory, per Popper's infantile arguments against Marxism? How could "laws" possibly be of the same character when forms of social organization cannot exist independently of human activity, as opposed to the formation of galaxies? As for the adequacy of "abstract materialism"
in its own domain, we'd have to be specific about what that means. Here the other debate about dialectics of nature pops in.

Ultimately Gil, I think we are closer rather than farther, but you feel attached to this `base materialism' detached from humanity, I do not. I am quite at home however with your general comments on correspondence, assent, etc.

Here is one possible issue: natural science seeks to understand "what is", to show how this or that aspect of nature is, and must be, so. In natural science that may indeed be acceptable. In social science, it is quite the apologetics. Marx has no interest in explaining because he has no interest in justifying.

In justifying what? Presumably you mean that Marx is disregarding the ontological and epistemological issues pertaining to the domains of chemistry and physics. And indeed this is the case. It wasn't his fight at the time.

There almost seems to be a tendency to either lean towards sociobiology because it sees a unity of human social investigation into nature and humanity, while Gould ends up reifying the separation of "magisteria" to combat sociobiology.

I'm not conversant with Gould to understand the remark, but you are correct. Having attended an AAAS dialogue on the "God gene" a week ago, I can testify as to how stupid these people are. The sociobiologists are liberals, BTW, not reactionaries, but philosophically, they are clueless. There is no inherent reason people interested in this area have to be as dumb as they are. Clearly they are indoctrinated with certain conceptions of scientific explanation, statistical research methods, etc., and they are completely bewildered about the issues involved. I debated them last week, and they live in a completely different mental universe from mine. [—> God gene commentary]

As tangents, I found these very interesting, though it will again annoy Ralph. What specifically interests me is the argument you have put forward seems to go in two directions at once. You want an objectively existing material reality, but you do not want it to include humanity. Really, this is the problem. Either it is completely metaphysical or it is somewhat trivial. I would think that you tend towards the trivial rather than the metaphysical.

Gil will have to answer for what he wants. For me, it's a question of differentiation. There is one reality, but it is differentiated, and when one constantly confuses the objects of one's discourse, dialogue cannot progress. . . .

Thu, 02 Jun 2005 04:51:14 -0400

On June 1, I participated in a philosophical discussion of a talk given by Douglas Adams (author of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), "Is There an Artificial God?" (speech at Digital Biota 2, Cambridge U.K., September 1998).

My initial reaction (31 May) was:

Interesting essay, more for its suggestiveness than the thoroughness of its logic. There are many many philosophical principles touched on that could be pursued.

While the example of the relation between rice production and religion in Bali suggests a functional connection—not exactly a shocking proposition—the nature of the alleged functionality is left a mystery: if religion enables coordinated action, that is its functionality.

And then comes Adams' conclusion:

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn't an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind.

Perhaps Adams has an evolutionary functionality in mind. The problem is, as with Dawkins' nonsense about memes, is the lack of recognition that the socially organized cognitive activity of the human species mediates its relationship with the physical environment as well as with its historically created institutions. Natural selection is used as a vague metaphor to model social institutions and even science itself (Popper). The price of this nebulous and naive metaphor, of course, is to write Hegel and Marx out of intellectual history as crackpots, and to install pseudoscientific biological argument as real scientific explanation of social and cultural institutions. One would think that a systems approach, which is essentially synthetic, would be superior to the simpler method of analyzing a complex phenomena into its constituent elements and assuming that the complexity of the world is resolved via mathematical calculation from elementary laws of nature. Evolutionary biology, when applied within its proper domain, is the farthest thing from such simple-mindedness, yet when correlating the same body of knowledge with an understanding of social and cultural constructs, is innocent as a newborn. Hence the nonsense of memes on the reductionist end of the spectrum, and the mystical nonsense of biosemiotics on the holistic end. Such is the duality of bourgeois ideology.

This is my original list of talking points for the discussion:

1) tautology (as explanatory principle)
2) evolution (& tautology)
3) God/Creator: historical origin
4) 4 stages of history (sand)
5) the universe is misleading, i.e. our immediate environment gives us the
wrong impression of the whole enchilada
6) Newton understood mechanics, but not how his cat was put together
7) life as complexity
8) computer metaphor
9) emergence & complexity
10) fiction: money, God; from bottom to mysterious top of pyramid
11) evolution & religion
12) sacred & its immunity from criticism: fixed order
13) Bali: religion's relation to rice cultivation (cf. Jane Ellen Harrison, Themis)
14) meta-system
15) intuitive orientation without analysis, e.g. feng shui
16) scientific world -> artificial God
17) Internet world
18) one-many relations & democracy

We covered most of these points, but didn't get to 10, 14, 15, 16.

Here is my outline of what we actually discussed:

(1) evolution & tautology (life's self-replication, vs creationism, Popper)

(a) failure to distinguish (1) mechanisms of evolution (science, non-tautological), (2) philosophical interpretation (what happens, happens)

( b) Adams' lack of clarity, should have said: explaining the mechanism = explaining the why

(2) who is competent to address complex social scientific questions? natural scientists? Philosophers? Is social science scientific?

(3) God/creation: historical origins. Missing steps in Adams' argument: from seeing agency in natural phenomena to abstract concept of Creator

(4) the sacred: beyond criticism (is it enough to identify it as principle of order, social coordination?)

(5) problems with genetic explanations of cognitive constructs and social organization: the God Gene, memes, etc.

(6) reductionism, complexity, & emergence: mind-body problem, neurophysiology & thought contents. Is emergence an issue of complexity alone?

(7) science & ethics/politics: limitations of science in solving our problems. Example: depression: medical problem or social problem?

Just as this discussion heated up, two participants had to leave. See (9) etc.

(7b) missing link: explanatory concepts (social theory) to make sense of our social situation

(8) many-many, one-one, one-many, many-one interactions

(9) popularizations not properly grounded in sciences; limitations of expertise

(10) Marx & social theory, critical theory, limitations of Popper (critical rationalism)

(11) overcoming fragmentation in the history of philosophy; why there is no publicly functioning standard by which to rise above the banalities of Adams et al.

(11) is the climax of the whole discussion. A basic question was raised before the meeting started to break up. I only addressed it later on, when not everyone got to hear my perspective. Basically, I was very hard on Adams, who, I think, gave us the discrete ingredients for discussion of a range of exciting and fundamental questions, but whose own synthesis of these elements is unacceptably substandard. Other discussants were unhappy about the severity of my criticism, and wanted to know where the high standard I'm demanding is to be found, and who exemplifies it. My answer is that the standard can be constructed, but there is no place in the institutionalized intellectual world it can be found. I then proceeded to sketch what I think happened to philosophy as it began to fragment into positivist and irrationalist wings in the mid-19th century. I also addressed the fictional concept of 'continental philosophy', which I contend does not exist as such except as an artifact of the Anglo-American analytical establishment's historical amnesia. I then broached the question of intellectual synthesis, which I claim is inhibited by the existing institutionalization of knowledge. At this point, the remaining discussants had to disperse, so I ended with an explosive assertion: the Achilles heel of critical theory was its inability to deal with natural science, which it naively relegated to positivism. All of this is prolegomena to my overarching view of the philosophical synthesis necessary. While none of my specific ideas are original, the problem is that it takes detective work to seek them out and gather them into one place, as our institutions are not set up to make this happen. My efforts can be glimpsed on my web site: Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide.


Emergent Properties
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(Dict. of Phil. of Mind)

Physicalism, non-reductive
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Emergent property

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R. Keith Sawyer Emergence page

On emergence, levels, complexity and causation
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