Category Archives: Ideas

Moral nonlinearity

My generation was shaped decisively by chaos theory. James Gleick’s bestseller Chaos: Making a New Science was, for many of us, not merely an introduction to, but rather, an initiation into a radically new approach to understanding order.

Chaos theory shows how even the most strictly determinate process can be radically unpredictable, if that process has the form of an iterative feedback loop. Most processes (even processes as simple as an object sliding across ice) can be reframed as nonlinear processes, and when seen this way, much that was once factored out as incidental noise turned out to essential signal.

When I first read the book, back when it was still actually on the NYT bestseller list, I was scientistic to the core. I was a hard determinist, in fact. The notion that I could have both the perfect, rational order of determinism, and also enjoy pristine, virgin unpredictability was exhilarating. I didn’t even know I wanted this radical unpredictability until I was given it, and was shocked by my own joy in receiving it. Radical order and radical unpredictability!

By this principle things will happen the way they happen, proceeding with invariable necessity, and they cannot unfold otherwise, but there is no way at all for us to get ahead of the process and see where it is going. We can only enact or follow the process, and see where it goes.

Since then, I have applied this pattern of radically-rational-yet-radically-unpredictable feedback processes to many phenomena outside of the domain of math — and many of these processes are core to my personal mission.

Design, of course, is famously iterative. And it is also notoriously unpredictable. We must constantly console nervous manager-types who need to know what we are going to learn before we learn it and what we are going to invent before we invent it. We have to tell them: trust the process. The process is a nonlinear one, and part of its rigor is refusing to draw conclusions using straight euclidean rulers. We must participate in the nonlinear process of learning-making-learning-making… and eventually, something will crystallize.

Hermeneutics is also famously nonlinear. The hermeneutic circle describes the interplay of whole and part, with the whole being your own understanding — an understanding that gives significance to parts, yet the parts constitute this whole. Learning is the development of a whole from parts that either support or extend or undermine or even break the whole into which parts are integrated.

Now, today, I am thinking of moral principles as nonlinear.

All too often, without even noticing, we assume that morality will be a linear rule. We wonder what we should do in x-situation. We apply a moral rule to the problem, get a decision, then execute the decision.

I originally applied this line of thought to the Golden Rule.

If you approach the Golden Rule linearly and assume the proper procedure is to feed the question into the Golden Rule Machine and see what answer it spits out, the Golden Rule will appear manifestly dumb. But if, rather than accepting that first answer, we instead iteratively receive it as a question to be fed back into the Golden Rule, things get more interesting. With each cycle, the output become more intuitively right, and not as an asymptotic approach to a predictable point. Outputs bounce around chaotically. For instance, the process almost immediately stops being one that occurs within one’s own mind, but expands beyond the skull to include those who are or might be affected by the decision. If someone is going to do something that affects you, don’t you want them to involve you? According to the Golden Rule you should do likewise.

This means even if we accept a the most rigorously rational morality it does not follow that this gives us the ability to unilaterally calculate what is moral. Morality is not a code of determinate rules, but a process we must follow — and it is a collaborative process we must follow with others.

Linearity — physical, cognitive, moral — is strictly for limited circumstances, one person or a few, within a limited context within a limited span of future time.

Beyond these narrow bound is radical order and radical surprise. So let us say amen.

Borges – “Kafka and His Precursors”

This Borges essay suddenly became even more important to me this morning:

I once premeditated making a study of Kafka’s precursors. At first I had considered him to be singular as the phoenix of rhetorical praise; after frequenting his pages a bit, I came to think I could recognize his voice, or his practices, in texts from diverse literatures and periods. I shall record a few of these here, in chronological order.

The first is Zeno’s paradox against movement. A moving object at A (declares Aristotle) cannot reach point B, because it must first cover half the distance between two points, and before that, half of the half, and before that, half of the half of the half, and so on to infinity; the form of this illustrious problem is, exactly, that of The Castle and the moving object and the arrow and Achilles are the first Kafkian characters in literature. In the second text which chance laid before me, the affinity is not one of form but one of tone. It is an apologue of Han Yu, a prose writer of the ninth century, and is reproduced in Margoulies’ admirable Anthologie raisonnee de la litterature chinoise (1948). This is the paragraph, mysterious and calm, which I marked: “It is universally admitted that the unicorn is a supernatural being of good omen. such is declared in all the odes, annals, biographies of illustrious men and other texts whose authority is unquestionable. Even children and village women know that the unicorn constitutes a favorable presage. But this animal does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification. It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was. We know that such and such an animal with horns is a bull. But we do not know what the unicorn is like. {Nonrecognition of the sacred animal and its opprobrious or accidental death at the hands of the people are traditional themes in Chinese literature. See the last chapter of Jung’s Psychologie and Alchemie(Zürich, 1944) which contains two curious illustrations.}

The third text derives from a more easily predictable source: the writings of Kierkegaard. The spiritual affinity of both writers is something of which no one is ignorant; what has not yet been brought out, as far as I know, is the fact that Kierkegaard, like Kafka, wrote many religious parables on contemporary and bourgeois themes. Lowrie, in his Kierkegaard (Oxford University Press, 1938), transcribes two of these. One is the story of a counterfeiter who, under constant surveillance, counts banknotes in the Bank of England; in the same way, God would distrust Kierkegaard and have given him a task to perform, precisely because He knew that he was familiar with evil. The subject of the other parable is the North Pole expeditions. Danish ministers had declared from their pulpits that participation in these expeditions was beneficial to the soul’s eternal well-being. They admitted, however, that is was difficult, and perhaps impossible, to reach the Pole and that not all men could undertake the adventure. Finally, they would announce that any trip – from Denmark to London, let us say, on the regularly scheduled steamer – was, properly considered, an expedition to the North Pole. The fourth of these prefigurations I have found is Browning’s poem “Fears and Scruples,’ published in 1876. A man has, or believes he has, a famous friend. He has never seen this friend and the fact is that the friend has so far never helped him, although tales are told of his most noble traits and authentic letters of his circulate about. Then someone places these traits in doubt and the handwriting experts declare that the letters are apocryphal. The man asks, in the last line: ‘And if this friend were…God?

My notes also register two stories. One is from Léon Bloy’s Histories désobligeantes and relates the case of some people who possess all manner of globes, atlases, railroad guides and trunks, but who die without ever having managed to leave their home town. The other is entitled ‘Carcass one’ and is the work of Lord Dunsany. An invincible army of warriors leaves an infinite castle, conquers kingdoms and sees monsters and exhausts the deserts and the mountains, but they never reach Carcassonne, though once they glimpse it from afar. (This story is, as one can easily see, the strict reverse of the previous one; in the first, the city is never left; in the second, it is never reached.)

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. {See T.S.Eliot: Points of View (1941), 25-26.} In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Embracing abnormality

A friend of mine sent me an online autism test and asked me what my thoughts on it were. It inspired a pretty decent email:

Here’s where my mind went: I want a test to measure organizational autism. Back in the early 00s I used to say that UX is a cure for corporate autism, until I got worried that might upset someone. But it is true! We impose rules on organizations that require a level of explicitness that cause them to become mind-blind behaviorists. These rules are important, of course, but they come with tradeoffs that we should be aware of and weigh against the benefits.

And I guess that brings me to a second thought: I think we have become too quick to diagnose difference. We live in really strange times, where we’ve forgotten that normal isn’t necessarily good and abnormal isn’t necessarily bad. When I was a kid I was into punk rock, and we thought abnormal was the greatest thing ever. I’m pretty sure a lot of what I was into was aestheticized autism, OCD, and other quirks, all of which were mined and made beautiful or at least intriguing. If you ever want to watch a touching story of redemption, watch End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, and get ready to cry.

Everything on this Earth is tradeoffs — every room in this palace of life is furnished differently — there is no single standard of goodness. I think some of what is plotted on the autism spectrum I’d prefer to call an inflexibly quirky personality, not a disorder. And when inflexible quirks are put to work generating technical or artistic innovations, that becomes a feature of a personality, not a bug.

So, that challenges my first thought. Cure for corporate autism? Maybe some organizations ought to be aspie. Some people ought to be aspie. Therapists and designers can help individuals or organizations make tradeoffs toward empathy, where “get organized” self-help books (like Checklist Manifesto) or OE/Six Sigma consultants can help people make tradeoffs toward more autistic virtues. So that’s another thing.

I guess I want to relativize mental health and most other social norms so people aren’t so freaked out and obsessed with being called normal. I want us to get back to the Gen-X perversity of treasuring precisely our abnormalities.

3D conversations

Nick Gall and I have developed a framework for thinking about modes of conversation: debate, dialogue and dialectic.

  • Debate is conversing with the intention of advancing our own ideas against the other’s. This is an arguing mode of conversation.
  • Dialogue is conversing with the intention of getting inside the other’s ideas and really understanding them so that multiple ideas can be compared from inside-out perspectives. This is a learning and teaching mode of conversation.
  • Dialectic is conversing to instaurate new ideas that transcend and encompass existing old ideas. This is a creative mode of conversation, where ideas are iteratively proposed, developed and gently tested and improved until they are clear and coherent enough to be taught or argued.

By making conversational modes explicit, participants in a conversation can get clear on what everyone wants the conversation to do and to avoid talking at cross purposes.

Nick suggests I mention that this not an exhaustive list. For instance, comforting a mourner or making a promise do not fall under these categories. There are myriad ways to “do things with words” but these three are helpful for creative conversations.


Some of you may not be aware of my pioneering work in qualitative mathematics. However, my obscurity outside my field of specialty will be coming to a dramatic end in the near future. For I am preparing to publicly announce my discovery of a new qualitative number, the Hysterical Number, or h, which is the unique sequence of numbers that overlaps with no sequence of digits occurring in any other existent irrational number.

Autobiographical interview

An interview plan:

Imagine you were writing your autobiography…

  • What would the table of contents look like?
  • What vivid memories you would want to include?
  • Who are some of the personalities who would appear in your story? What do you remember about them? Why did they matter to you?
  • What places would be mentioned? What do you remember about them? Why did they matter to you?
  • What objects would be mentioned? What do you remember about them? Why did they matter to you?
  • What else has been important to you? Activities? Foods? Stories? Songs? Why did they matter to you?
  • When in your life have you had your strongest emotions? When were you happiest? Saddest? Angriest? Most excited? Most hopeful? Most surprised? Most in love? Most betrayed?
  • When have you felt most at home in a group or place?
  • When have you felt most alien?
  • How would you conclude your story?
  • What do you hope the reader would take away with them?


  • Probing questions should be posed as requests for more information: “Tell me about…”, “Describe what happened when…”, or invitations to interpret or explain, “What if…?, or “Why…?”
  • With memories, try to draw out concrete sensory content: What was seen, heard, felt, smelled or tasted?
  • With recollection memories, probe for both 1) the earliest and 2) the most vivid memories.
  • It is likely you will never make it past the first question. Incorporate the other questions into the first.

Shells and pearls

This is a series of rewritten, streamlined posts on the theme of shells and pearls, which I’m considering incorporating into my pamphlet. I’ll link to the originals. If you have time to compare, let me know if you think anything was lost in the chipping, sanding and polishing.


Announcing an exciting new vocabulary acquisition: evert. I have needed this word many times, but I’ve had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning things inside-out.

Evert – verb [ with obj. ] – Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out: (as adj. everted) : the characteristic facial appearance of full, often everted lips. DERIVATIVES:
eversible (adj.),  eversion (n.). ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’

With this wonderful new word I can say things like this:

“An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.”

Irridescent Irritants

Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.


You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?


(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.


Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?


A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.

The earliest mention of pearls from this blog was posted on December 14, 2008.


Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.

The earliest use of this mother-of-pearl metaphor I can find in my stuff was posted on another blog platform in December, 2006. (Again this has been edited. In my opinion, the original was uglier and more opaque. I’ll post it in the comments.)

Transcendence, non-understandings, misunderstandings

An unresolved understanding becomes a live question — an existential irritant. To ease the pain of non-understanding, the question is coated with an answer, like a pearl. Such answers re-explain away ideas which were never offered as explanations. What ought to be known internally and poetically is known about externally and factually.

Any surprise that the mezuzah I placed on the doorpost of my library is encased in mother-of-pearl?

Hanging the mezuzah inspired me to clean up my office! It’s nice to be in here, again.


Reenlightened or Snuffed

Here is our choice: 

a) Update how we as a species think, act and feel so we can finally reach some fundamental agreements that permit us to continue to enjoy the fruits of our blessed artificiality…


b) Refuse to update — making agreement and coordination impossible and a new profound Dark Age inevitable, starting with a violent thinning of the herd by the most brutish, backward and “natural” half of the species, and concluding with the snuffing of the survivors by Earth herself.  


Humankind is not the species it was 50,000 years ago, and if the last 200 years of progress is amputated from our history, it would be better described as decapitation. 


Fundamentalists are slaves of symbols they cannot understand. 

America is philosophically diseased

America is philosophically diseased.

Most Americans perceive, believe and intuit using 19th and 20th century modes of understanding which are 1) are incompatible and irreconcilable with the others, 2) mutually hostile, and 3) inadequate for making theoretical, practical and moral sense of the realities we face.

And every one of these obsolete and broken-down philosophies assures the mind it binds that there is no need for philosophizing. Doing, not thinking, is what is needed now! Thinking is useless enough, but thinking about thinking? — That is the most pointlessly abstract, idle and meaningless thing any person could do.

The only way out of the crisis we face — (a crisis much worse than an unphilosophical mind can know how to know!) — is to learn to conceive truth very differently than we do today. We are desperate for a new popular philosophical platform, not to make us all come to the same conclusions, but to support our differences and to help us navigate them peacefully and productively.

We need, at minimum, an upgrade in a) our epistemology (and ontology), b) our ethics (and metaphysics) and c) our political practices. My own prescription is a) Bruno Latour, b) Emmanuel Levinas, c) Chantal Mouffe. But before we can build we need demolition (Friedrich Nietzsche) and ground clearing (Richard J. Bernstein).

I look at this list of thinkers, and I love seeing them together like vertebrae in a backbone.

Here is a suggested core curriculum for regeneration of philosophy for our times:


We are diplomats

Whether we like it or not, when we act as the individual Who we know we are, we represent a What others believe we are. 
Each of us is a diplomat of the categories we are to others. 

Hannah Arendt said “No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.”

Alternative wisdoms

The wisdom of the romantics: “Close your ears to distracting and deceptive voices and obey your heart’s commands.”

The wisdom of the liberals: “Listen to the voices of the others around you and educate your heart before you trust its commands.”

The wisdom of fundamentalists:  “Listen only to us who know and love the Truth, train your heart for obedience, then with ears closed to distracting and deceptive voices, execute righteousness.”

Contained and comprehended

If Levinas is right — and I believe he is — it is no accident that the person I know whose formula for intellectual victory was to “contain and comprehend” the other was also among the most amoral people I’ve known. Whether he behaved admirably or despicably, the only judgment that weighed on him was how his soul experienced his own soul as he acted before it.

Neither argument nor morality are about self-satisfaction of reason, and when this basic fact is misunderstood all other highfalutin “spiritual” concepts and practices become solipsistic puppet play. 

You cannot vault over the ordinary transcendence of other people’s minds and arrive at some communion with superhuman Transcendence. The failure to make the leap, and the fall into the abyss of immanent dreaming of transcendence is “experienced” by oneself as spiritual success.

The desire to reduce all phenomena to the terms of self and to protect these terms from whatever attempts to impinge by effecting repentence (metanoia) is, if not the origin of all evil, at least one key tributary. 

Two kinds of othering

According to Wikipedia “when the term the Other is used as the verb Othering, it labels (distinguishes and identifies) someone as belonging to a category defined as the Other. The practice of Othering is the exclusion of persons who do not fit the norm of the social group, which is a version of the Self.”

It is interesting that of all words, we use this word to designate reduction of other individuals to mere instances of categories, which are mental extensions of one’s own self. It is precisely otherness — that of their being that transcends our minds — that we deny others. Seen this way, it would make more sense to call it Selfing.

It is also interesting that many so-called “religious people” are the quickest to reduce everything to the terms of their doctrine, which, contrary to their doctrines, is precisely denial of transcendence, not its affirmation. The greatest reduction of all is the ultimate Other, God, who becomes a personal possession — a mental idol worshiped as God in place of God.


I see two categories of othering. The usual negative othering (or anti-othering), such as racism, sexism or xenophobia is contemptuous disregard of those categorized as instances of despised groups. The disregard will be underpinned by different styles of justification, usually essentialist on the illiberal right and sociological on the illiberal left.

Positive othering (or philo-othering) is the same reduction of individuals to instances of categories (and in the process, depriving the other of otherness), but the value assigned to the other is affirmative. This process still denies the transcendent reality of the affirmed other, but awards the dehumanized other favorable status. By this way of thinking, reverse-racism should not be used to designate hatred of white people by black people (that’s simply racism), but rather that strong inclination of white leftists to view all people classifiable as “people of color” in a favorable light, instead of approaching individuals as the individuals they are.


Liberalism seeks conditions to allow each individual to self-classify — to choose they groups they represent — and to adopt whatever intersectional identity they wish to have, not those imposed by others. As long as these classifications are imposed, liberalism still has work to do. It is unclear to me that philo-othering or affirming equal-but-opposite anti-othering is helpful to this cause.


Fundamentalist philo-othering of God denies God’s reality at least as much as atheist anti-othering of God. When I hear debates between fundamentalists and atheists see anti-otherers and philo-otherers collaborating on a worldview where religion has no place.