Category Archives: Metaphysics

Liberal space, liberal annihilation

Liberalism opens cultural space for pluralism to fill.

Liberalism must never be allowed to become annihilation of all that might fill that open space.

If this latter happens — if all particular beliefs are corroded and eaten away by fanatical skepticism or battered with dogmatic anti-dogmatism — not only does liberalism become nihilistic — it becomes a nihilistic monism, antipluralism, illiberalism — a negation of itself into a something worse than anything it negates.

(So says an exnihilist, who wishes to tap the nothingness, and allow epiphanic somethingness to pour in.)

I, Thou, We

We is an immanent-transcendent hybrid.

In any We there is immanent I and transcendent Thou. Each participates in the We and collaboratively brings it to life.

Both individualism and collectivism misses part of the picture and in practice alienates self from other, or the self from self.

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Most marriages are either two legally-joined selves who remain alienated from each other, or one self-alienated self wholly dedicated to another self. And most people believe these are the only two options. Love can’t happen where there is only fairness or altruism.

Consequently, many are wedded, but few are married.

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It is a theological mistake to treat God as as a Thou. God is All, and therefore Thou — but not only Thou.

Beliefs versus arguments

Commonsense obliviousness, which can include philosophical commonsensical obliviousness, forgets how pervasive and ubiquitous metaphysical beliefs are.

Whenever we are not thinking phenomenologically — carefully bracketing the sources of our experiences (a very strenuous and unnatural effort!) — and instead take our experiences at face value as experiences of reality, we live metaphysically.

Humans are naturally (and second-naturally) metaphysical.

One of our most primordial, ordinary and important metaphysical beliefs the faith in the reality of past and future. To interpret our memories as records of a reality that has passed, or to understand our imagined anticipations as attempts to foresee a reality to come — both of these take the given present as a part of a larger transcendent reality.

The same goes for the reality of what we experience as phenomena — Kant’s noumena, and the reality of the space within which they extend, which stretches on into the distance beyond our vision, and according to modern commonsense, endlessly into space — these are also metaphysical beliefs. We naturally (and in the case of “infinite” space, second-naturally) go beyond the present givens and take these experiences as parts of a larger transcendent reality.

But our most important metaphysical beliefs concern the reality of other people — not as space-extensive noumena, but as fellow selves. If we take fellow selfhoods as a transcendent reality we begin to see our own selfhood as part of a larger transcendent reality of multiple selves.

And less obviously, our own selfhood is also a matter of metaphysical belief. The nature of this selfhood, and the possibilities of change in one’s selfhood (or even how we conceive selfhood) go far beyond the given present — far further, in fact, than the other metaphysical beliefs.

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Of course, philosophers love playing the epoché game, bracketing this dimension or that, or all of them together in radical skepticism, or even total Humean solipsism.

But playing around with concepts and seeing what one can construct and argue is not at all the same as changing beliefs. We can affirm or deny assertions all day, and we can claim that we believe or doubt these assertions, but, fact is, whether anyone can prove it or not, these claims are truthful or untruthful reports on our real beliefs.

This line of thought always brings me to C. S. Peirce’s call to intellectual conscience: “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt… Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”

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In the last couple of decades, and especially in the last year I’ve given a lot of thought to the distinction between those thoughts we think with, and the thoughts we merely think about.

The distinction I am making here might parallel that between beliefs and assertions.

How do we know the difference? One test is whether the truths asserted are consistent with truths performed. If one asserts a moral principle, does one act in accordance with the principle, and its full pragmatic consequences — or least hears and responds to appeals? Or does one find reasons to disregard the principle when it makes claims on oneself instead of others. Hypocrisy is a sign that one uses assertions that one does not really believe.

But belief goes beyond simple avoidance of hypocrisy.

I’ve been reading about Habermas, and he talks a lot about the performative truths inherent in discourse. The very act of engaging in discourse implies beliefs, and to deny them is a performative contradiction.

Habermas is a holdout for absolute morality, as something distinct from relative ethics. And his arguments seem to point to precisely my own beliefs on morality, as evidenced by what actually offends me and inspires my contempt — not only of others who offend against me, but also myself when I offend against others. My formulation would almost certainly bother Habermas, but here it is: Thou shalt be fully metaphysical. For me, I feel this belief most intensely with respect to other people, which is a Jewish attitude.

I cannot doubt in my heart that there is something contemptible about treating others as less real than oneself.

I believe that denying the full metaphysical reality of other selves is a betrayal of what we cannot doubt in our hearts is evil — and that any theories that support that effort is also evil. Conversely, any theory that intensifies our awareness that other beings are both real and other is, at least in that respect, good.

Another insight from Habermas has captured my attention is this: morality is not to be determined monologically, but rather dialogically.

And this might reveal another angle for unlocking the full value of the Electrum Rule: “Do to others only what you would have them do to you.” Wouldn’t we always have others involve us in decisions that impact our lives? The Electrum Rule is essentially dialogical, and it is this dialogical reciprocity that drives its non-linear development through degrees of prime.

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If philosophy aims at changing our beliefs, and we authorize our intellectual consciences to serve as referee, this certainly does raise the stakes of philosophy — but it does it make philosophy less playful? — Only if by playful we really mean frivolous.

Serious players of any game despise frivolity.

Soap bubble

Some kinds of knowledge are simply there for the grasping. You point your head at an object and a fact tumbles into your mind.

Other kinds of knowledge are constructed. Grasped facts are logically or causally linked to produce systems of knowledge. Facts are glued together with “therefores”, “thusses”, “ands” and other operations to make complex assertions. Then the whole assertion is black-boxed, sealed shut and labeled “idea”.

Other kinds of knowledge are analogical. We recognize some abstract characteristic and say “this is like that in x respect”. Then we give x some name, and then that x becomes one more graspable object. Sometimes that named abstraction becomes more real to us than the original this and that. Identity occludes uniqueness.

Some kinds of knowledge — to me, the most fascinating and consequential knowledge — requires us to change ourselves before we acquire the capacity to understand them. Or perhaps it would be better to say: we must change who we are before we have an ability to participate in this knowing. Until we make this change we are inadequate to the knowledge, and we cannot even recognize, conceive or comprehend that there is anything knowable. We are “blind”, or lack “ears to hear” what is meant. We lack the living question to which this knowing is an articulate response.

Until we acquire such a conceptive capacity, though, we will go right along knowing exactly what all this miraculous seeing, hearing and conceiving means. We will overflow with explanations for why people believe it and what kind of validity it has or lacks. We cannot conceive that we don’t really conceive its meaning, because we have no point of comparison.

We are trapped in our unpunctured soap bubble of omniscience, and even if that pops, there is another beyond it, containing it.

It’s soap bubbles all the way out, sahib.

*

Nobody knows more than someone who knows nothing.

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IN THE NORTHERN DARKNESS there is a fish and his name is K’un. The K’un is so huge I don’t know how many thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird whose name is P’eng. The back of the P’eng measures I don’t know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea begins to move, this bird sets off for the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven.

The Universal Harmony records various wonders, and it says: “When the P’eng journeys to the southern darkness, the waters are roiled for three thousand li. He beats the whirlwind and rises ninety thousand li, setting off on the sixth month gale.” Wavering heat, bits of dust, living things blowing each other about — the sky looks very blue. Is that its real color, or is it because it is so far away and has no end? When the bird looks down, all he sees is blue too.

If water is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up a big boat. Pour a cup of water into a hollow in the floor and bits of trash will sail on it like boats. But set the cup there and it will stick fast, for the water is too shallow and the boat too large. If wind is not piled up deep enough, it won’t have the strength to bear up great wings. Therefore when the P’eng rises ninety thousand li, he must have the wind under him like that. Only then can he mount on the back of the wind, shoulder the blue sky, and nothing can hinder or block him. Only then can he set his eyes to the south.

The cicada and the little dove laugh at this, saying, “When we make an effort and fly up, we can get as far as the elm or the sapanwood tree, but sometimes we don’t make it and just fall down on the ground. Now how is anyone going to go ninety thousand li to the south!” — Chuang Tzu

Ecologic

Ecology is situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem.

Supersystems that contain and involve the comprehender are not objectively comprehensible. An understanding of the incomprehensibility of containing systems is, however — as is the fact that the proper response to the condition of containment is participation in the system. Rather than participate in what contains and involves us, however, we tend to truncate, encapsulate or even evert it to objective form conducive to our usual thing-manipulating mode of thought. This objective deformation is, in my opinion, the kernel of “taming wicked problems” — situating ourselves outside a problem whose problematic nature is our situatedness within it.

This is why we find all eco- realities — including ecology and economics — so difficult. We know the containing whole largely through our participation (or non-participation) in it, and many of us lack any mode of understanding beyond objectivity. If a reality refuses objectification, it is excluded from consideration.

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Ecologic is understanding situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem that seeks to relate both to each other and to the system one is oneself.

*

My theology is an ecologic. Before I saw theology this way, theologies were nonsense to me. After, everything and more-than-everything was inextricably bound up in practical metaphysics.

K’an enworldment

Yang Earth is inclined to understand truth Earth-upward.

Yang Heaven is inclined to understand truth Heaven-downward.

Yang Man is inclined to understand truth Man-outward.

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My pragmatic phenomenological re-interpretation of Guenon is a yang Man interpretation of a yang Heaven truth.

Before you listen to me, though, be sure to consult the I Ching, and see what it has to say about the trigram, K’an, the Abysmal, the world viewed from yang Man.

Defining eversals

Two common words I use in a very precise, but unusual sense, are apprehension and surprise. What I mean by them is clearer when they are defined against their opposites.

I define apprehension against comprehension. Where comprehension provides a convex form around which one can cognitively grasp (com- “together” + -prehend “hold”) a concept (con- “together” + -cept “together”), apprehension defies grasp (ap- “toward” + -prehend “hold” despite the fact that cognition can feel the reality of what remains ungraspable. It is analogous to touching the inner surface of a concave surface with one’s fingertips, feeling for nonexistent edges around which one can secure a grip. Apprehending but not comprehending makes us aware of a boundary between comprehensibility and (as yet) incomprehensible reality, and this awareness induces apprehension, anxiety in the face of an inconceivable beyond. The relationship is that of eversion, of flipping inside out. Apprehension is everted comprehension.

I define surprise against comprise. When we comprehend something objectively the contents of the comprehension is all the beliefs the understanding comprises (and if you are a pragmatist, all the implications of these beliefs). (“-prise” and “-prehend” are both forms of the same Latin root, “-prehendere, “to hold”.) Surprise is that which is not comprehended which surrounds the comprehension with what was not grasped, due to its being beyond or over what is held, (sur- “beyond”/”over” + -prise “hold”), and which therefore is in a position to irrupt into what was comprehended and potentially to disrupt it. Here, also, is a relationship of eversion. It resembles the old “Russian reversal” joke: in Soviet Russia surprise comprises you.

Both of these words reflect a basic topological structure of my conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity. That is, they are eversions of one another. Every subjectivity comprises an objectivity derived from its interactions with its environing reality. But on the other side of these interactions, transcendent to its subjectivity and objectivity is a fellow subjectivity with an objectivity of its own which will both harmonize with and clash against the objectivity of other subjectivities. To make matters more complex, to the degree subjectivities manage to harmonize and share objectivity they form new, more expansive subjectivities. I participates within a transcendent We, without experiencing the kind of apprehension or surprise that signals transcendent otherness, radical alterity.

Without this subjective-objective topology, my ideas can only be partially comprehended — and largely only apprehended.

I think my next book will need to be another chapbook, I’ve been calling “the pearl book”. It might also be called Everso, every possible pun intended.

Lesser mysteries

From my phenomenological, hermeneutical and pragmatic inclinations and self-education, I cannot help but read Renee Guenon (and to a degree, Frithjof Schuon) critically, as conveying extremely sharp, clear and, above all, grounding insights into the human condition — that is the condition of finitude within and toward infinitude — but proceeding from these to unwarrantedly objective speculations about the structure of what extends beyond what can be objectively known.

Having ridden this planet around the sun more than fifty times — which, believe it, or not, continues to surprise even after twenty or even thirty rides, and not in ways you might derive from the first thirty — and having been spiritually humiliated out of (I hope) most of my youthful hubris, I’m saying this not only tentatively, not only cautiously, but with acute, apprehensive modestly.

When I say “I cannot help but” I say it with anxious awareness that this might very well situate my stage of understanding to someone who has transcended it — but also, to those who most definitely have not.

Such is the nature of transcendent insight: those who know can’t tell and those who can tell don’t know nearly as much as they believe. When evaluating claims to transcendent knowledge, one crucial thing I look for is signs of awareness of this “horizonal” condition. If you have been given a divine gift of unshakable certainty, I will suspect, perhaps wrongly, you are still in the early and paved stages of your journey. The first appearance of new-to-me always is always new-to-the-world, most of all with the most commonplace wisdom.

So, here it is, laid out flat for convenient scrutinty: The same human tendency that compels us to ground our subjectivity in an objective world, to attribute mind to the functioning of a brain, makes metaphysicians ground our subjectivity in a positive metaphysics. Or, to put it in Guenon’s language, from where I stand I see the Lesser Mysteries (of “true man”) as greater than the Greater Mysteries (of “transcendent man”).

There.

Hineini.

I must really be where I really am if I wish to really go to other real places.

*

If you know better, please speak up.

Apprehension toward transcendence

To have a positive relationship with transcendence means approaching reality as something that essentially exceeds understanding. Whatever understanding we do have is unavoidably partial, and closer to zero than infinity.

Around the inside edge of our understanding, in the liminal region between comprehension and total mystery, we can touch, but not grasp truth. Toward whatever we encounter in this liminal region we feel apprehension.

For those with a positive relationship with transcendence, apprehension is conceived as part of one’s relationship with transcendence, unavoidable, meaningful and good, despite being painful.

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People out of relationship with transcendence — that is, those who are alienated from what is beyond their understanding — approach reality as essentially understandable. Whatever defies understanding as not real. While gaps in knowledge are acknowledged, gaps in understanding are not understood.

The liminal region on the inside edge of understanding has no positive value, and is experienced as mere anxiety with no positive value, something to be avoided or eliminated. This anxiety can be attributed to many things, but often it is interpreted as threat or malevolence detected in objects of apprehension.

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A person is a strange being, a third-person object among objects, a first-person subject to oneself, and a second-person fellow-subject to other persons.

Our subjectivity is, to an extent rarely appreciated, our relationship to all of reality, first-, second-, and third-person, and to that of reality which transcends us.

This relationship-to-everything constitutes who we are to ourselves and who we are to other subjects.

If our relationship to transcendence differs greatly from others who try (successfully or unsuccessfully) to relate to us, we ourselves can become, vis a vis the other person, part of transcendent reality, and we can become partially incomprehensible and a source of apprehension.

If the other has a positive relationship with transcendence, they are more likely to recognize this transcendence for what it is and respond accordingly, with the hope of reaching understanding, or with uncomprehending respect.

But if the other is averse to transcendence, and cannot conceive of the existence of anything beyond understanding, the response may be contemptuous or hostile.

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It can be incredibly hard to discern apprehension from malevolence, and often it is a practical impossibility. This is part of the human condition. It is also difficult to communicate when one is only misunderstood, not malevolent.

Fictive Midas

I want to define and describe a human type. It is a personality frequently found in the creative classes, especially among writers, but it is also common in religious communities and ideological movements. I am calling this type the Fictive Midas.

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Everything a Fictive Midas touches turns to fiction.

The Fictive Midas inhabits a memoir, an unfolding story toward which they are both intimate and dissociated — intimate because it is their own creation about themselves; dissociated because they a character in this story they are telling, while also existing in the background as the one telling it.

This dissociative intimacy pervades their lives, inner and outer.

The inner life of imagination, ideas and emotions, of course, predominates.

For them, there is nothing peculiar about it, because this is the only existence they know. But for those around them, especially people attuned to the self-transcendent reality of other people, a Fictive Midas is unnerving, and the closer they believe themselves to be with them, the more disturbing they become.

This is because, to the Fictive Midas, the outer life is important mainly as source material for their inner lives, and other people are part of the outer world. This causes them to relate to people and things with disturbing disregard, the kind of disregard authors have toward the suffering of the characters they invent.

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A friend of a Fictive Midas might from time to time get the feeling that they are not actually fully real to them. Nor is the Fictive Midas really present in the relationship.

There is an alienating barrier — a membrane that separates self from self, and keeps each respective Me in strict parallel, precluding any participation in mutuality, in shared being, in any We. In relations involving a perceptive Fictive Midas, this membrane might develop increasing precision, nuance, even insight — but this is only advanced character development, not interpersonal intimacy. Whatever closeness there seems to be is only a closeness of resemblance between the Fictive Midas’s rendered character and the real person sealed outside. The membrane is impermeable.

This truth hard to conceptualize, and can cause pain and anxiety in those who mistake a Fictive Midas for a friend.

And it only gets worse once the alienating membrane is noticed. Anyone who presses against it too hard or tries to puncture it, by appealing to the Fictive Midas’s humanity will find themselves repelled and expelled as a nobody. The character and the person peel apart, and the Fictive Midas keeps the fiction and discards the person, letting the reality drop over the horizon into the outer void. The Fictive Midas is uncannily unconcerned, incurious, almost hostilely indifferent to the divergences between the person and the character. The person finally knows — feels in their soul — the fact that they do not and never did exist to this stranger.

*

Ruthless people are said to leave a trail of blood. Heartbreakers leave trails of tears. Fictive Midases leave trails of emptiness.

Susan says we call it “ghosting” when a person exits a relationship without resolving it and providing any closure, because we are haunted by the absence. The absence is peculiarly present, much in the way the recently deceased are with us after they die.

Those of us who experience the world pluralistically — that is, those of us who feel that their sense of truth is only part of the bigger story and who want to complete our understandings of important things with the perspectives of others — experience the void created by Fictive Midases intensely painful, an aching phantom limb that cannot be treated, because it is a nonexistence, despite being a real part of us.

Pluralists tend to seek reconciliation with others as a means to reestablishment of shared friendship, or failing that, closure, so the relationship can lie peacefully in its grave.

The Fictive Midas, however has no such need, not because they feel none of the pain we feel, but because this pain is all they know. They dwell among their fictional characters, experience their fictional satisfactions and gratification, nurse their fictional grudges, all the while starving of loneliness, isolation and unreality.

Like Midas, they hoard their treasures, and deprive themselves of all nourishment and love.

Only their pain is something that intrudes from outside themselves, oppresses them from without, despite their attempts to defend themselves against it. But no matter how much they keep the cause of their pain — other people — outside, and the source of their happiness — their truth — inside, somehow the loneliness, alienation and envy gets inside and torments them, anyway.

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It is tempting, when one is written off by a Fictive Midas or written out of their story when the story undergoes a heavy edit or rewrite, to retaliate and return the treatment — to write them out or write them off — and to make up a story where we have done this successfully and no longer care about them or what they did to us.

But this is only to become infected with fiction, and to succumb to the Fictive Midas’s condition ourselves.

And if we are honest, isn’t it true that we would never have fallen into a Fictive Midas’s snare, or worse, stayed there, if we weren’t already doing some significant fictionalizing ourselves? If not, why didn’t we notice the relationship we imagined ourselves to be in was largely imaginary?

It is better to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the voids, while maintaining hope that reconciliation or closure might actually happen someday, if they find their way out of their isolating enworldment.

Meanwhile we can be more alert, and more aware of the reality of others, and more dedicated to reality, however elusive, so we can cultivate real mutual relationships with people capable of mutuality.

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I have invented the abstract type of the Fictive Midas as a therapeutic effigy — a theoretic fiction of my own — as a general phenomenon onto which I can shift the weight of loss. I’m not going to reduce any person to this type, but I will regret the fact that this type can overtake a person and obscure and their personhood. It is a regrettable syndrome, not an archetype that manifests through regrettable people.

Fictive Midas is the superset containing not only my estranged friends, but the pandemic of ideologies sweeping the world, of epic stories where fictional identities oppress other fictional identities but then rise up and stage a revolution.

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I believe John Milton knew this type:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields

Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Nonlinear Golden Rule

If we imagine the Golden Rule not as a flat, linear formula, but a generative iterative process which produces multiple depths or meta-layers of itself — GR1, GR2, GR3, etc. — I find that it trends toward an asymptotic point, GRx, but a point of generality and universality, so general it is practically void, so universal it is boundless. It is nothing more than “Treat real beings as real”. Real, as opposed to what? As opposed to mere extensions of one’s own being.

The formula of the Golden Rule is do to others as you would have done to you. (I think everything that follows also applies to the Silver Rule variant, “do not do to others what you do not want done to you,” but I can’t/won’t math, and that extends to formal logic.)

The first iteration, GR1, has us concretely treat others as we concretely wish to be treated, in accordance with our own personal preferences. But it is immediately obvious that this amounts to an imposition of one person’s taste upon another, and we would not want that done to us, so we must iterate again, this time more responsively to the other, as we would wish if the other were us, as GR requires.

The second iteration, GR2, has us do to the other according to their own preference.

But, now, perhaps the context is not fitting for the action at all, however much it would be preferred were the context right. Or perhaps another action is needed at this time, in this context.

So, GR3 indicates asking what this person prefers at this time in this context.

But does the person even want our involvement in this situation…? How should we even find out? Some might appreciate being noticed and want to be asked, others might want to be noticed but resent needing to be asked, others might hate even being noticed. We must respond the best we can.

Notice, in this GR series, the trajectory moves away from us treating the other as a duplicate of our own self, and involves more and more understanding and responding to them as real and different from ourselves. But what precisely, does this entail? What is the output of the application?

I would argue that here we apply one of my favorite insights from Richard Rorty, that sometimes progress is best viewed as movement away from something undesirable, rather than movement toward some known, desirable, pre-defined destination. The Golden Rule cannot give us any pat readout of an answer regarding what to do, but it can direct us away from what not to do (GR0 or GR1) and set us on a trajectory that to me seems unattainably, but absolutely good, non-relativistically in principle, but thoroughly relativistically in practice.

Good means trying with all our heart, soul and strength to approach GRx in our dealings with all beings in our complex, entangled lives — a universal, boundless, empty — but all-consuming, endless task.

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I’ll also point out that if the Golden Rule is a nonlinear process, it should be expected to share characteristics of other nonlinear processes, most importantly, sensitivity to initial conditions (aka “the butterfly effect”), which entail radical unpredictability of outcome by means of linear formulae. The peculiar thing about the Mandelbrot Set is that each infinitely divisible point in the complex plane produces unique but similar and orderly behaviors, even points separated by an infinitely infinitesimal degree.

Methodic wisdom

Susan and I have been debating what wisdom is. We each felt the other’s view was incomplete. I thought her conception was overlapping too much with prudence; she thought mine reduced wisdom with mere open-mindedness. (Actually, she was right.) As we turned the question and viewed it from multiple angles, it became clear, as is so often the case, that it was a matter of emphasis. She was emphasizing exercise of foresight and consideration — awareness of implications beyond the immediate desires and compulsions. I was emphasizing readiness for thought-defying shock — awareness that our awareness is always partial and situated within a much vaster and weirder context, only the minutest speck of which we are conceptually prepared to understand or even perceive. We’re slowly converging on an agreement. Here’s my latest attempt, written primarily for Susan’s review:

Wisdom is an attitude of mind that considers ramifying implications that transcend the immediate concern, in time, in space and in subjectivity — especially those nonobvious implications that unfold only in careful consideration and those that unfold in ways inconceivable until they unfold in reality and which will be understood as inevitable only in retrospect. Wisdom expects to be surprised, because wisdom knows the limitations of thought, and leaves room for irruptions of reality and the epiphanies they bring.


If we accept this definition of wisdom, that would make design practice a methodical form of wisdom — an alternative to speculative-thought-and-talk decision-making.

Design method directs us to go to the reality we plan to change, and encourages us to interact with it directly, in order to encounter some of the implications and ramifications of our proposed changes — many of which we otherwise would never consider.

Design is methodic wisdom.


Chief among design’s considerations are the subjective ones — the interpretive and experiential consequences of deep, hidden differences in subjectivity that must be learned before they can even be conceived. (* see note below.)

Subjective learning of new conceptions is a rigorous exercise of hermeneutic, intellectual and emotional empathy (which I prefer calling synesis). It can sometimes radically redefine the designer’s understanding of the design problem, by revealing it in a new subjective light with new practical consequences — metanoia.

This metanoia — this new, consequential reconception — simultaneously reframes the problem and opens space for novel solutions. Problems and solutions, questions and answers, possibilities and actualities burst forth together with new conceptions. And because the new conception has been learned from real people and refer to real contexts, the newly conceived solutions are far more relevant and on-the-mark. I like to call design metanoia “precision inspiration”.


(* Note: The whole field of thought around conception is grossly misunderstood. Until a conception is learned, all ideas that require it are either inconceivable — submerged in intellectual blindness, neither perceivable nor imaginable — or misunderstood by another conception that comprehends it in a wrong sense, and commits category mistakes. If the originating conception of a set of ideas is finally acquired, the new conception spontaneously reorders the understandings, both on the whole and in part, and there is an epiphany. If the reconception is a very deep one, upon which many other conceptions are rooted, and these have wide-ranging pragmatic consequences, it can seem that everything has changed all at once. The scales seem to have fallen from one’s eyes, one feels reborn as a new person, and it feels and if the entire world has transfigured itself. Until one has experienced something like this, all language associated with this kind of event sounds like magical hocus-pocus — but this is only a misconception of what remains inconceivable. The consequences of this hocus-pocus are just the copious category mistakes of the believing fundamentalist and the unbelieving antifundamentalist.)

Infining metaphysics

I was just looking for a good name for my metaphysics, and I was entertaining the idea of an “infinite metaphysics” (infinity, of course, defined in its metaphysical qualitative sense of absolute undefinability, as opposed to the more common quantitative mathematical sense of interminability). I became curious if anyone has already used this term, which led me to Google, and then to Wikipedia, where I, once again encountered Levinas, whose metaphysics profoundly influenced my own.* (see note below.)

In this article on infinity, Levinas is quoted:

…infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other, and how the particular and the personal, which are unsurpassable, as it were magnetize the very field in which the production of infinity is enacted…

The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity to reflect the case of an entity encountering on the outside nothing that limits it, overflowing every limit, and thereby infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely in the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the idea that this exceeding of limits is produced. The idea of infinity is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity… All knowing qua intentionality already presupposes the idea of infinity, which is preeminently non-adequation.

I realized I’d accidentally stolen Levinas’s term infinition, forgetting where I got it, and went on a search for where I’ve used it without attribution. That led me to this article from 2010, where I laid out my metaphysics — perhaps better than I have since.

I will likely lift this (sans the brand crap) for the book I am absolutely going to start writing — formally, as a book — by years end.

*

Since 2010, much of my effort has been diverted away from uncompromising development of my own personal philosophy, and toward getting along with and making clearer sense to the people around me. I’ve dedicated my professional life to applying my philosophy in design research, with the goal of understanding other people’s implicit philosophies, both in their convergence (alignment), divergence (misalignment), and conflict (incommensurability) and learning to synthesize incommensurable conceptions into new philosophies, designed for groups to adopt so they become able to communicate and collaborate.

I’ve gotten better at explaining what I do, and why I do it (guided by the example of that master of philosophical accessibility, Marty Neumeier), but sometimes I worry that I blunted my best personal thinking in the effort to gain influence among my design peers. I must confess, I read my 2010 article with a substantial amount of envy of my past self, and with dread that I have passed my peak.


  • Note on Levinas’s ethics: Unfortunately, along with his metaphysics, I contracted an infection of Levinas’s ethics, which Levinas saw as the very essence of his philosophy — but which I see as a key component of the current resentment revolution that threatens the future of Western civilization. I hypothesize that Levinas’s is an unbalanced ethic that ignores the finite nature and responsibility of persons. It is perhaps best described in Kabbalistic terms, as Chesed (love) untempered by Gevurah (judgment, aggression, limits). Without such tempering, Chesed leads a person into moral hubris where mortals — not just I but all — are pridefully expected to exhaust themselves like gods with infinite responsibility for myriad beings. This responsibility is discharged in outbursts of unrestrained, impatient, irritable Netzah-infused revolutionary sentiment, with no awareness, much less respect for the good is craves to guillotine. I know this feeling from the inside, and I reject it, not as as an unrealistic, idealistic excess, but as a titanic impulse, an isolated drive taken out of its divine society and set loose — in other words, an evil. Our culture has a strong prejudice that views Gevurah as evil, and deserving of eradication, even in micro-doses, and Chesed as essentially good, so unrestrained, limitless Chesed is the ideal good. The more love we can heap up, and the more we remove limits and let it flood the world, the better that love is. Kabbalists are wiser, and know that good is in the balance among divine virtues, and that vice is virtue out of balance.

Apprehend, comprehend, suprehend

To apprehend is to know-that.

To comprehend is to know-what.

When know-that stubbornly resists know-what, when we touch with the tips of our fingers something that cannot be grasped by the hand of our thought, we feel ourselves situated within something incomprehensible. We comprehend the fact that we are comprehended by something incomprehensible. The relation we take to that which comprehends us cannot be comprehension, but the eversion of comprehension, something which might be called suprehension.

When suprehending, we must situate ourselves and everything we comprehend and apprehend within a more-than-everything we will know primarily by radical surprise — by the irruptions into the little cognitive bubbles inside which we float within infinity, that can flood us with dread, love or both at any moment.

To suprehend is to know-why.

*

Wisdom is suprehension.

*

Each everything is a universe-size, lifetime-long oyster.

Outside the oyster’s outer shell is an infinite sea of water, salt and particles. The ocean knows the oyster as one of its myriad objects, one of its innumerable everythings — a convexity in an unbounded concavity.

The convex object in the ocean is, seen from the inside by the oyster, a concave habitat. Everything it knows, it knows from the inside of its shell.

The world the oyster knows is pearly lucre, a substance the oyster excretes so naturally it often is not aware of its origin. Anything from the ocean that enters the shell is either digested, or expelled or coated with lucre, so it cannot irritate the oyster’s delicate flesh.

The oyster’s inner-shell is also lucre.

It is essentially a mother-of-pearl bubble which the oyster has painted around its own space. It has coated the ocean itself with lucre, and this lucre bubble is now its universe — or at least that part of the universe it can apprehend.

Anything from the outside, anything indigestible that gets inside, is also painted with lucre, and is transformed into pearls.

The oyster is enworlded in pearl.

Above and around the oyster is a pearly dome, and inside the dome are scattered pearls of various size and luster. The oyster senses these pearls are of the same substance as its heaven.

The oyster continuously anoints its pearls and its dome with fresh lucre, to make the surfaces iridesce and glow, and to protect and honor something it loves and fears, its source and home, the very surrounding ground of existence.

*

I’ve written and rewritten this same idea for years, compulsively.

I need to sit down with everything I’ve secreted on this topic and change perspectives. I need to stop looking from the oyster’s perspective and start seeing it like a jeweler.

I want this idea to irridesce and glow.

This could be a pretty book, if I can get the language under control. It would be a chapbook, with a coarse, dark gray board outer cover, and a light pearlescent flyleaf, and  pulpy cream paper for the content.

Interactive turn and its metaphysics

Have I mentioned my belief that our worlds are constructed primarily of interactions? It was Bruno Latour who made this real to me about ten years ago, and this was my last really big philosophical breakthrough. I suppose I could call it my “interactive turn”.

Latour’s descriptions of the conduct of science, and of everything, in terms of networks of interacting human and nonhuman actors changed how I understood both subjectivity and objectivity, and finally broke down my ability to keep those two categories discrete.

We are constantly interacting with our environments in myriad ways — physically, socially, linguistically, reflectively — reactively, deliberately, creatively, imaginatively, prospectively, habitually, absently, selectively. What we make of what is going on, that is, how we conceive it, has everything to do with how we respond to it, and how it responds back challenges us to make sense of it.

We respond to “the same” reality as related to us by other trusted sources, as passed off to us rumors from sketchy sources, as experienced as a participant in a real-life situation, as conveyed to us by a member of our own community following methods of the community, as taught to us during decades of education, as reported to us by journalists on varying integrity and ideological agendas, and as recalled by our own memories formed from different stages of our lives — and our response assumes some common phenomenological intentional object, some metaphysical reality, some commonsensical state of affairs on the other side of our interactions. But this is constructed out of interactions with innumerable mediators — people, things, thoughts, words, intuitions — who are included within or ignored out of the situation as we conceive it.

We lose track of the specific interactions that have amounted to our most habitual conceptions — our syneses (our takings-together taken-together) — which shape our categories of things, our expected cause and effect sequences in time, of our social behaviors and how they will be embraced, tolerated or punished.

Science is one variety of these interactions, but one we tend to privilege and to habitually project behind the world as our most common metaphysics. But once I learned to see scientific activities, scientific reporting, scientific explaining and scientific believing as a social behavior useful for helping us interact with nonhuman actors with greater effectiveness, somehow the relieved by need to rely on the metaphysical image science projects. I can believe in the effectiveness of the interactions and remain loyal to the social order established by science to do its work without feeling obligated to use a scientifically explicable reality as the binding agent for all my other beliefs to keep them hanging together. I see many good reasons not to!

Deictic stack

I hate to borrow techie terminology for philosophical purposes, and I hate it even more when the term has already been heavily appropriated and bastardized by non-techie types, but here it works so well I’m overriding taste.

I’ve been playing with the concept of deixis as a way of accounting for differences in metaphysical conception so deeply sedimented beneath our explicit beliefs and thoughts that we don’t even know how to discuss them, think them or even to frame questions about them.

The hypothesis is a simple one: infants are implicitly inducted into a metaphysics from their earliest moments of postnatal existence. The way the parents respond to the infant, speaking and interacting, orients the new person to the world in ways that prepare the mind for conceptualization and speech by establishing a pre-verbal ontology that I propose takes the form of categories of person — I, we, you, thou, y’all, it, those, them, and so on. The sequence in which these persons (the deictic structures) occur in relation to one another — which one precedes and becomes the “experience near” reference point for the next layer in the “stack” — has profound implications for the overall character of existence as full consciousness emerges and develops.

When someone else’s basic conception of reality seems absolutely bonkers to us, I suggest this might trace back to their deictic stack. Someone whose original sense of reality is a Thou is bound to have profoundly different intuitions from one whose first sense of reality is It. or I or We — or Them.

Years ago I heard it claimed that Asian parents interact with their babies differently from European parents. Where European parents hand a ball to their child, they say “ball”, which orients the interaction to 3rd person singular, Asian parents tend to say “thank you”, which orients the interaction within 1st person plural. These parenting practices might account for the deeper differences in sensibility across cultures.

I want to keep in keep in mind, too, that the differentiation of self from not-self might come down to resistance. That is, we experience objective reality most tangibly in what is objectionable — what stands out as unexpected or unwanted . This might mean that someone with a perfect mother might experience the reality of It long before the reality of Thou, precisely because Thou is so anticipative, accommodating, comforting that Thou does not stand out as other but remains submerged in subject. In such a case, the world of It might be the first resisting reality the infant encounters. Or a sibling intruding as Them or unskillfully or obtrusively interacting as a semi-accommodating Thou or We might come first.

I’m less interested here in establishing a a factual hypothesis than a way to frame the question of why we have such different basic conceptions of reality, and why are these intuitions so painfully difficult to think about and navigate? If we recognize that just as every explicit statement has its origin in indexicality (we know what a ball is because someone handed us a red ball and said “ball” or “red” or “thank you”), I think all our actions, utterances and thoughts refer back to an enworldment, and that one way to understand the character of the enworldment is to study its genesis as a sequence of original differentiations.

Now I’m sounding like Hegel. Maybe I’m just crossing Hegel with Piaget and multiplying them with James to produce a more pluralistic dialectic rooted in early childhood development. Dunno. But my mind keeps dragging me back to this idea. Also my own philosophical conversions have all taken the form of metaphysical replatforming (ugh) on different persons. With Nietzsche I refounded my 3rd person plural universe (scientistic, objective metaphysics, in which minds were an emergent property of brains) on a 1st person singular base (phenomenological, subject-first metaphysics, where whatever its ultimate nature, our mind conceives a brain and then conceives the brain as emergently generating mind, but, importantly, without in the least changing the fact that the mind came first). I called the first view “ecliptic” and described it as I-in-world, and the second “soliptic” / “world-in-me”. It is important to recognize that with this shift in perspective the thoughts themselves everted, and stopped being objective facts I thought about, and became the subjective process from which my thoughts came. Get where I’m coming from? It was a conversion experience that mapped to everything converts say, but it all happened without any supernatural processes an atheist would rule out. And I should know, because I would have ruled it out, too. Yet it was a religious conversion, and it left me religious (albeit in a way that really, really bothers theists who look too closely). Since then Jewish thinkers, culminating in Buber with his I-Thou dialogical thinking, have shifted me to 1st person plural via 2nd person singular, then again, via Latour into a thorough blurring of I-Thou-It that has led me to root metaphysics in a predifferentiated adeictic point beyond persons of any kind, but which must, to a finite person, must manifest, or (shit!!) incarnate in person form (whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd person). And now with all this three-person incarnating God talk I sound totally Christian. I do love Christianity, too. But I love it in a Jewish way, as a Jew.

Religious worldview

What makes a worldview religious? Here is a list of what I believe to be essential characteristics:

  • It is holistic. It effects near-total shifts in perspective, holistically changing the What, How and Why of existence.
  • It is transfigural. it spontaneously changes and seems to re-create both one’s self and the world — the visceral sense of who one is, who others are, what life is, what reality is and the relationship between self, other and everything.
  • It intensifies value. The shift in Why expands and/or deepens the value of life and reality itself.
  • It is transcendent. The worldview is oriented by realities that are understood to transcend comprehension.
  • It defies preconception.. The worldview is literally inconceivable until it happens.
  • It is second-natural. The worldview is not consciously used or applied; it spontaneously changes one’s experience of being prior to thinking. Insofar that one’s beliefs change, this is a byproduct of one’s faith, that tacit layer of understanding that shapes and moves thinking, speaking, feeling and doing.
  • It links us to a community. The worldview is capable of relating to others in a community who share our faith, even when our beliefs, thoughts and tastes differ. Something is shared, and this commonality is known to be real, even when it defies explication.

So far, so good. Now I will infuriate religious people by insisting that many allegedly essential characteristics of religion are dispensable.

  • It does not have to be theistic. A religious worldview can center around God, but God is only one way of conceiving transcendence.
  • It is not about believing. Beliefs about beings, deities, forces, events, theories might be a side-effect of a religious faith, but these are not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious faith.
  • It does not have to include magic. Adoption of magical or mystical beliefs or practices (rituals, sacrifices, prayers, observances) might be adopted as an expression or reinforcement of a religious faith, but these are also not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious life.
  • It is not a means to an end. Adopting religion in order to get something or accomplish something for oneself or the world — again, a goal of this kind can be a side-effect of religious faith, but more often, they are counterfeits.

I believe that many people who think they are religious are not, many people who think they are atheists are far more religious than they know, that many people who think they’ve overcome fundamentalism (which is counterfeit religion) still believe new secular content with the same fundamentalist faith, and that people need religion and are tormented by the wrongness of the world until they find it.