Usefulness, Usability and Desirability of philosophies

Tim Morton explains Speculative realism:

Speculative realism is the umbrella term for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillassoux, Patricia Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier, and an emerging host of others such as Ben Woodard and Paul Ennis. All are determined to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell is known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects,” flimsy and tenuous as they are. The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door?

So far, 65 pages in, I am seeing absolutely no progress toward transcending the human-world correlate. I am seeing attempts at using measurements and mathematical models as a substitute for intuition, but what could possibly be more human than that, even when, or especially when, such substituting of ratiocination for instinct make our minds feel abstracted from our animal bodies. I am also seeing speculations about real objects and what they might be like substituted with access to first-person being of objects (first-object being?). When you insist the light is on in the fridge when you close the door because it is the nature of light to withdraw when doors are shut, you’ve posed a possibility for humans to consider or for human scientists to investigate, and that should not be confused with seeing the inner-light of the fridge with superhuman refrigerated eyes. And even if you place sensors inside the fridge, or discover ways to detect or deduce light inside a closed fridge, or account for your inability to sense, detect or deduce with ontological maxims of withdrawal, you may be “seeing” through long networks of instruments (both physical and mental) but it all converges and terminates in an all-too-human “eye”. And this is true whether that eye is manifested from some archetypal realm, or the eye is imagined in a man’s or god’s mind (along with what is seen), or if the eye is an organ emergenging from interplay of matter and energy situated in a space-time container or if the eye is an object within hyperobjects.

For us, once we know a thing it all becomes something for-us, including our conviction that it is not only what is known, and that it is for-itself. As Nietzsche said “We cannot look around our own corner: it is a hopeless curiosity that wants to know what other kinds of intellects and perspectives there might be; for example, whether some beings might be able to experience time backward, or alternately forward and backward (which would involve another direction of life and another concept of cause and effect). But I should think that today we are at least far from the ridiculous immodesty that would be involved in decreeing from our corner that perspectives are permitted only from this corner. Rather has the world become “infinite” for us all over again: inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations. Once more we are seized by a great shudder — but who would feel inclined immediately to deify again after the old manner this monster of an unknown world? And to worship the unknown henceforth as “the Unknown One”? Alas, too many ungodly possibilities of interpretation are included in the unknown, too much devilry, stupidity, and foolishness of interpretation — even our own human, all too human folly itself, which we know…”

So, good for the speculative realists that they have uncovered another human perspective for thinking in a less human-intuitive way. If learning to think that way delivers on the promise to make an ecological ethic more accessible, I’m all for it.

However, I am beginning to worry that this access is most likely occur through the thin conduit of argument, which rarely fully engages human intuition or or taps into moral impulses which “know” by caring or neglecting.

And as a designer-philosopher, I know hitting all three is paramount. For in design these are the holy trinity of experience, the necessary conditions of adoption: Useful, Usable, and Desirable.

The vice of utilitarian, functionalist folks who fancy themselves objective is they find far too much desirability in mere usefulness, and that desirability motivates them to surmount difficulties in comprehension — and then they find yet more desirability in the accomplishment of having surmounted the difficulties. This is why engineers, left on their own, engineer systems that only other engineers can use, much less love. Design is changing all that (at least for things made for non-engineers) and Human-Centered Design is accelerating that change.

Philosophy has been and is in the same stage as pre-design engineering. Because it requires motivated philosophical investigation to even grasp what philosophy does and is, most people can’t even see what it can be used for, or to even detect the symptoms of an obsolete or corrupted philosophy (or, as today, clashing of multiple corrupted obsolete philosophies). Philosophers engineer philosophies for other philosophers.

When philosophies are popularized, all that changes is the Usability. Now an ordinary above-average-smart person can get a sense of what philosophers are making for each other. They probably can’t get the same jolt of pleasure out of it, since most philosophy exists for academic philosophers’ purposes and tastes, but they can get a bit of that surmounting-difficulties pleasure and they can plume their social personas with the book-learning.

What most needs changing is Usefulness and Desirability.

By usefulness, I mean recognizing that every philosophy enables us to think certain kinds of thoughts. The live problems that orient and motivate philosophical effort tend to produce philosophies well-suited to think similar problem-types. The philosophy will instantly become difficult to distinguish from the reality it understands, so there’s a bit of a trap-like character to it. Philosophies are not tools we hold, look at and manipulate. They are tools we climb inside, see from and act from.

By desirability, I mean that you are moved by it. You don’t force yourself to care, or work yourself up and amp-up what little caring you feel. You don’t get argued out of apathy. The philosophy simply makes the importance of whatever it does self-evident. You just do care, and you will not even be able to account for why. Philosophies produce their own motivation, and are actually the only thing capable of producing motivation out of thin air, apart from simple health.

Actually, in writing this, I changed my mind. Philosophy needs to give far more attention to Usability. Popularization of philosophy might help people absorb the content of a philosophy, but that’s the most superficial aspect. Philosophies are not for knowing, they are for doing, for application to real-world situations. Way too many people, even philosophers, think a philosophy is a thing that is known, an object of knowledge. This is not true. Philosophies are that by which everything else is understood and known. And Usability in philosophy is the degree of ease things outside the philosophy itself can be understood. To do that, we must tap into the power of the tacit layer of understanding, intuition. Philosophies ought to be designed for intuitiveness — not a preexisting natural intuition, but an acquired second-natural intuition that operates without conscious effort.

Here, the Usefulness of the philosophy becomes important: useful for what purpose? Because the purpose of the philosophy determines its Usability trade-offs. Scissors make cutting easy and propping open a door or chilling perishable food not-very-easy. A philosophy engineered to make it easier to integrate the latest findings of physics and to overcome the human tendency to think in such a human-centric human-scale way might be super-useful for writing provocative books and heavily-cited scholarly papers and building a reputation in an emerging school of philosophy, but it might not help that many non-academics make sense of the things they encounter all day, to be able to reach understandings with various people of divergent perspectives, to respond effectively to events in their lives, and to feel the importance of all this understanding, responding, communicating, doing and being.

This brings me to that passage from Morton’s book that inspired this post, and which brought to mind another passage, which I will quote after this one:

The undulating fronds of space and time float in front of objects. Some speculative realism maintains there is an abyss, an Ungrund (un-ground) deeper than thought, deeper than matter, a surging vortex of dynamism. To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. When I reach out to mop my sweating brow on a hot day, the California sun beating down through the magnifying lens of global warming, I plunge my hand into a fathomless abyss. When I pick a blackberry from a bush, I fall into an abyss of phenotypes, my very act of reaching being an expression of the genome that is not exclusively mine, or exclusively human, or even exclusively alive.

This passage summoned to mind, a quote by A. S. Eddington:

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun — a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence. Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.

Well-designed philosophies open doors, and let our human, all-too-human, irreducibly-human eyes see what is in there so we can understand it and respond as humans and follow our human purposes.

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