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16 March 2007
New Blog Format &
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3 February 2007
Emergence & Pragmatism
Pihlstrom, Sami; El-Hani, Charbel Niño. "Emergence
Theories and Pragmatic Realism," Essays in Philosophy,
vol. 3, no. 2, 2002.
The tradition of pragmatism has,
especially since Dewey, been characterized by a commitment to
non-reductive naturalism. The notion of emergence, popular in
the early decades of the twentieth century and currently re-emerging
as a central concept in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind,
may be useful in explicating that commitment. The present paper
discusses the issue of the reality of emergent properties, drawing
particular attention to a pragmatic way of approaching this issue.
The reality of emergents can be defended as a pragmatically-useful
ontological commitment; hence, pragmatism can be employed as a
tool in the debate over the structure and reality of emergence.
This strategy of justifying ontological commitments is examined
through historical and systematic discussions of the pragmatist
tradition. It turns out, among other things, that while classical
pragmatists did not specify any technical notion of emergence
in the contemporary sense, their non-reductively naturalist views
are relevant to the more recent emergence discussionsespecially
because they rejected the metaphysical realism typical of todays
ontologically-oriented emergence theories.
Essays in Philosophy
is an interesting online journal freely available.
1 February 2007
The Explanatory Gap
Horgan, John. Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border
Between Science and Spirituality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
My review of this book can be found in another blog entry, John
Horgan's 'Rational Mysticism'. This passage suggests an emergence
issue related to the mind-brain problem.
The attempts of scientists such
as Austin, Blackmore, Persinger, and Newberg to understand mysticism
in neurological terms evoke a philosophical concept called the
explanatory gap. This term, coined by the philosopher Joseph Levine
in 1983, refers to the disconnect between physiological theories
of the mind and the subjective sensations those theories purport
to explain. On the one hand, you have a model consisting of physical
objects: neurotransmitters, receptors, synapses, dendrites, ganglia,
amygdalas, posterior superior parietal lobes. On the other hand,
you have what philosophers sometimes call qualia, the purely subjective
perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and memories that make up a mind.
The fact is, neuroscientists
cannot explain how the brain carries out the most elementary acts
of cognitionfor example, how I know the person lying beside
me when I wake each morning is my wife. Some prominent scientists
and philosophers have reluctantly predicted that the explanatory
gap will never be closed. Even if neuroscientists crack the neural
code, so that they can determine precisely which neural events
are correlated with a given set of mental events, there may always
be a strange incongruity between physiological and mental phenomena;
something about the mind makes it peculiarly resistant to scientific
reductionism. This philosophical position is called mysterianism.
You don't have to be a mysterian to wonder whether the explanatory
gap between neurological theories and mysticism will ever be closed.
Neurotheologians face not an explanatory gap but a chasm.
Sometimes, however, science can
yield practical benefits in the absence of intellectual understanding,
Quantum mechanics provides a case in point. Quantum theory raises
more questions than it resolves about reality. Electrons and protons
can act like waves or particles, depending on how we observe them,
and their behavior appears to be both random and deterministic.
But most physicists are oblivious of these conundrums. To them,
all that matters is that quantum mechanics works. It predicts
the outcome of experiments with astonishing accuracy. Directly
or indirectly, quantum physics has yielded such powerful technologies
as transistors, lasers, and nuclear reactors.
In the same way, perhaps the
research that Austin calls perennial psychophysiology can yield
practical applications in lieu of intellectual insights. This,
in fact, is Austin's goal. He hopes that his book win inspire
more research on the neurophysiology of spirituality, which in
turn will lead to improved mystical technologies. (137)
29 August 2006
Kincaid on Unity of Science
Kincaid, Harold. Individualism
and the Unity of Science: Essays on Reduction, Explanation, and
the Special Sciences. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, Inc., 1997.
In this original and important book, Harold Kincaid
defends a view of the special sciencesall sciences outside
physicsas autonomous and nonreducible. He argues that the
biological and social sciences provide explanations that cannot
be captured by explanations at the level of their constituent
parts, and yet that this does not commit us to mysterious, nonphysical
entitites like vital forces or group minds. A look at real scientific
practice shows that the many different sciences can be unified
in a way that leaves them each an autonomous explanatory role.
This book will be of great interest to philosophers of science
and social scientists.
20 August 2006
The New Materialism (1950)
In his essay "The New
Materialism" (in A History of Philosophical Systems),
Roy Wood Sellars fleshes out the perspective introduced thusly:
For quite understandable historical and cultural reasons, it
so happened that materialism became a "suppressed alternative"
in academic philosophy.
This is one direction American philosophy could have taken were
it not for McCarthyism and the prevailing trend of pragmatism and
later analytical philosophy. Following Philosophy
for the Future: The Quest of Modern Materialism, this essay
presents an outline of homegrown American materialism. It's a shame
also that Sellars sometimes gets shortshrifted in the history of
Note Sellars' counsel and his use of a phrase I use recurrently'mystical
It must, of course, be an empirically-minded and plastic materialism.
It must avoid both traditional reductionism and mystical holism
and work out its categories carefully.
4 July 2006
Rev. Hewlett Johnson's Soviet Apologetics
Love Is the Fulfilling of
the Law by Hewlett Johnson, Dean of Canterbury
Why on earth would I include this? I quote from my editorial comment
appended to this chapter of the Red Dean of Canterbury's 1940 apologetic
for the USSR, The Soviet Power: The Socialist Sixth of the World:
I offer this piece of odious Stalinist propaganda as a duplicitous
version of holism and emergent evolution. Note the reference to
Joseph Needham. The famous Red Dean of Canterbury, a Christian
fellow-traveller and pro-Soviet propagandist, writing under the
menace of World War, effects a curious alchemical fusion of Christian
moralism, communitarianism, dialectical materialism, and mystical
holism. His interpretations of the meanings of 'materialism' and
'atheism' are sly distortions and misrepresentations. Under all
of the feelgood moralism is an ideology of collectivism and self-sacrifice
completely foreign to the thought of Marx. Even if the examples
of religious freedom are factually correct and not fabricated,
Stalin's real motives and calculations for not pushing religious
workers and peasants too far are left out of account. This is
not only an exemplary piece of Popular Front sophistry, it reveals
the ideological logic by which middle class moralism becomes the
unwitting accomplice of totalitarian barbarism.
In short, this piece reveals the ideological and political dimension
of mystical holism and emergentism. It is different from the usual
in the way it finesses a metaphysical perspective more akin to Bradley,
Whitehead, or Teilhard de Chardin into accord with Soviet dialectical
materialism. This ambiguous conflation is very instructive.
4 July 2006
Hegel's Philosophy of Nature
Conception of Nature" by S. Alexander.
I haven't checked to see whether this is the Samuel Alexander of
Space, Time, and Deity fame, but it's a safe bet. Alexander
belongs to the mystical/metaphysical tendency in the philosophical
history of emergent evolution. Reading this article makes me physically
ill. Alexander both criticizes and praises Hegel's philosophy of
nature. From this description it seems archaic and retrograde. Alexander
does not trouble to compare Hegel's naturphilosophie to Schelling's,
but Goethe is brought in as a precedent. In my view these archaicisms
are symptoms of German backwardness and belated development, in
contradistinction to Britain and France.
On the other hand, William Maker's "aim is to defend the Philosophy
of Nature by denying that it is metaphysically idealistic."
Idea of the Idea of Nature, Or Why Hegel is not an Idealist"
by William Maker
This is a remarkable piece of sophistry. There are several components
to this argument. Item: "Hegel originates the Philosophy
of Nature with the notion of the radical nonidentity
of thought and nature." (Note though, that Adorno fingers Hegel
as positing the identity of identity and nonidentity.) Item: "The
elimination of consciousness as a foundation for philosophy is also
a rejection of metaphysical idealism because we can only make sense
of any version of idealism in so far as we hold fast to the fixed
and irreducible distinction between thought and object definitive
of consciousness . . ." (How a professional philosopher would
have the nerve to make such an assertion in public is truly astounding:
it's so idiotic, it's thrilling!) Later on Maker claims: "What
I shall now do is explain why this is a false dilemma, why acknowledging
genuine otherness in the form of the radical givenness of nature
is not incompatible with Hegel's methodological but non-metaphysical
idealism." There is a lengthy and rather opaque discussion
of otherness and externality. But what has any of this to do with
actual scientific content, or the nature of scientific theorizing?
It is all smoke and mirrors.
The empirical sciences cannot escape, but they can ignore) the
problem of idealizing in so far as they do not attempt to substitute
for philosophy, and in so far as their account of nature is supplemented
by the proper philosophical one. Since they rest on unjustified
assumptions-since they account neither for the necessity of their
methods nor their objects, but take both as given-the empirical
sciences can rest content with turning to the given and affording
knowledge of nature as it appears, that is, as it is conditioned
by the particular conceptual assumptions, the paradigms, they
happen to operate with.
This is a fundamentally dishonest presumption, not to mention vaguely
stated and unsubstantiated. And here is some more cheeky drivel:
Empirical thought, thought which attends to the given as given,
must impose its ideal, conceptual form on the given, and thus,
while it may recognize, it cannot attend adequately to, what it
must ignore in imposing that ideal form: the general character-is
tics of nature as not like thought at all. Empirical science cannot
explain these general features of nature because they are incompatible
with its idealistic method which involves the incorporation of
the given into thought. But systematic philosophy of nature can
and does conceptualize just these features, accounting for why
nature appears as it does.
Hegel's systematic philosophy acknowledges its dependence on empirical
knowledge, and thus is anti-aprioristic in character while serving
as empirical science's necessary complement.
But what about the accusation of reading thought into nature?
For one thing, the determinations which emerge in the Philosophy
of Nature emerge immanently, not by using the logic as some kind
of form or model imposed on a given content.
But what about spirit's appearance in the system? Is that not
indicative of an emergent metaphysical idealism? No. As the overriding
activity of systematic thought is the activity of determining
self-determination in all its manifold guises, the system moves
as a whole in the direction of fully determinate self-determination,
in the direction of spirit and freedom. But this is not because
we know already that this is what given reality truly is, but
because philosophically cognizable truth is self-determination,
and must be completely conceived as such. So we move as a whole
in systematic Realphilosophie from nature to spirit not
because there is some organic, spiritually evolutionary development
in given nature-Hegel explicitly and properly rejects this form
of metaphysical idealism - but just because nature is so unlike
self-determining thought but is nonetheless being conceptualized
in the system of self-determining thought. As called upon methodologically
to completeness, the system must think the full range and nature
of self-determination. It cannot stop at nature.
The rank dishonesty of this argument reminds me of other work of
Maker I found objectionable. Such apologists for Hegel cannot be
trusted. (Don't forget to add Errol E. Harris to the list.) Apologists
for Hegel's naturphilosophie seem to be the most obscurantist
GWFHegel.Org - Hegel's
Science of Philosophy, Philosophy of Nature
The most intelligent of these essays is "Hegels
Philosophy of Nature: Overcoming the Division Between Matter and
Thought" by Alison Stone, but the explication of Hegel's
underlying project only convinces me that it is untenable metaphysics
predicated on the misbegotten notion of objective spirit. A whole
different approach is required both to reveal the essential flawed
presuppositions of this type of reasoning and well as to recapture
whatever rational content it possesses in a demystified form.
19 June 2006
Laughlin Reinventing Physics
A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down
by Robert B. Laughlin (Basic Books, February, 2006, 254 pages) addresses
the problems of emergence and reductionism with some skepticism
about the concentration on micro-phenomena. Note also the complaints
of some of the amazon.com
19 June 2006
More on Cornforth: Bibliographical References
Expanding on the references and allusions in my previous entry:
Norman, Richard; Sayers, Sean. Hegel, Marx, and Dialectic: A
Debate. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press; Atlantic Highlands,
N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980.
See my review: Dialectics
Bout: Richard Norman vs. Sean Sayers.
Scanlan, James P. Marxism in the USSR: A Critical Survey of
Current Soviet Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Inter alia, Scanlan enumerates flaws in diamat.
web site by 'Rosa Lichtenstein'.
'Rosa' is obsessed, strident, sectarian, and a little crazy,
but does demonstrate the logical flaws and the harm caused by
the transmission of a frozen version of fuzzy thinking down through
Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, by H. Levy, John Macmurray,
Ralph Fox, R. Page Arnot, J. D. Bernal, E.F. Carrit. London: Watts
& Co., 1934.
Bernal was not as obnoxious as I had thought I remembered. I
must have been thinking of his contribution "Notes in Reply
to Mr. Carriot's Paper." The gist of this group of contributorsincluding
partisans of diamat, fellow travellers and doubting thomasesis
that most agree on certain general principles formulated in the
diamat view but differ over the logic and precise claims involved.
The level of discussion, however, is too primitive. One can see
diamat's general appeal, but also the failure to refine it. Notions
of non-reductive materialism and concrete interconnections are
commonly acceptable, but dialectical laws and contradictions are
harder to swallow.
Popper, Karl R. "What is Dialectic?", Mind, 49
(N.S.) (196), 1940, 403-426.
I think this is reprinted in one of Popper's books. But I may
be thinking of another work in which Popper complains about the
self-insulation of Marxism from empirical disconfirmation.
See also Vienna Circle, Karl Popper,
Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy:
By trilogy, I'm referring to Cornforth's exposition of Marxist
philosophy in the 1950s: Vol 1: Materialism & the Dialectical
Method, Vol 2: Historical Materialism, Vol 3: The
Theory of Knowledge.
Returning to Cornforth's Science versus Idealism, a key
moment in my deliberations emerged from his criticism of speculative
idealist metaphysical conceptions of emergence, change, and development,
in the philosophies of Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, George Bernard
Shaw, C. Lloyd Morgan, Samuel Alexander, Alfred North Whitehead.
Essentially, they are convicted of violating naturalistic norms
of explanation. Diamat is then contrasted with this. At this juncture
I noted an interesting discrepancy in the nebulously stated claim
that diamat merely generalizes the results of scientific inquiry.
17 June 2006
Cornforth: Diamat vs. Emergent Evolution
Science versus Idealism: In Defence of Philosophy against Positivism
and Pragmatism by Maurice Cornforth.
Chapter 13: Dialectical
See the section: Materialism
versus Idealism in the Conception of Change and Development.
Normally I wouldn't waste my time on an exposition of diamat. However,
this chapter is significant, for primarily two reasons:
(1) the application of historical materialism to the history of
(2) a critique of the objective idealist strand of 'emergent evolution'Spencer,
Bergson, Shaw, Morgan, Alexander, Whitehead. Cornforth gives a different
slant on this history from what you will find in the biased entries
of reference sources like the Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and outlines what is wrong with
metaphysical system-building of this sort.
From this point, it is instructive what he has to say in contrast
about . . .
(3) dialectical materialism, its alleged abjuration of metaphysical
system-building and relation to science.
To read this, you will have to be able to stomach Stalin, Zhdanov,
and Mao. Good luck. But to the point, if you read this chapter,
you perhaps need not plow through at least two books of Cornforth's
trilogy. (His take on historical materialismthe third bookis
likely to be objectionable for other reasonsthe laws and stages-of-history
conception.) It becomes clearer from reading this both the source
of diamat's appeal and its slippery finessing of the lapses in its
own logical structure.
The larger picture here is the underlying dynamic of the self-deception
of the advocates of Soviet diamat outside the USSR. I'm working
on a larger project analyzing the history of philosophical schools
including diamat as a combination of logical and ideological (in
the last instance social) causation.
I will defer an extensive analysis for another occasion. I just
want to note that Cornforth's claim that diamat abjures metaphysical
system-building, whereas diamat builds on the latest results of
science and can even guide the development of science, is a red
flag (no pun intended). Elsewhere Cornforth insists, correctly,
that no empirical consequences can be deduced from any ontology.
Yet he finesses the logical relationship between the categorial
structure of diamat and the empirical realities upon which it is
alleged to generalize. Here the logical ambiguity in the conception
of dialectical laws (the conflation of logical law with empirical
law) is the entry point for all the ideological flimflam of Stalinism.
Furthermore, while Cornforth's class analysis of the history of
philosophy may be broadly correct (though it is micro-incorrect
in failing to account for the subjective self-understanding of positivists
and pragmatists), his reduction of the contrast between Marxism
and bourgeois philosophy to "two camps" is Stalinist through
and through. Not only is he wrong about the nature of the Stalinist
camp, but he is wrong about the relationship of Marxist to non-Marxist
philosophies. In practice, he treats Marxist philosophy as a system
opposed to other systems, though he denies doing so. Like most philosophers
influenced by diamatin this period, especiallyhe was
very good at exposing both the social roots and the idealist blinders
of bourgeois philosophyi.e., at exercising the negative, critical
function of Marxist philosophybut diamat as a constructive
philosophy remained primitive, underdeveloped, stagnant, locked
into formulas and authorities. This is the tragedy of the whole
Others have endlessly criticized the logical structure of diamat
over the past century. One could toss off hundreds of names. The
first that pop into my mind are Scanlan, Norman, and 'Rosa
Lichtenstein'. There are some who have argued that bad logic
works to the advantage of bad ideologyPopper, for example,
and now 'Rosa'. However, there remains more to be said about this,
even at this late date. It is especially relevant for recalibrating
the relations among intellectual traditions, my larger project.
The plausibility of a world view ambiguously formulated, in combination
with dogmatic authoritarianism, suckered the best minds. I learned
this from some rather obscure sources, for example J.D. Bernal's
shameful apologetics for diamat in the 1930s.