A tidbit…


How do we know on the internet when someone is being ironic rather than literal in their statements? In real life one can take a cue from the bodily behaviors of facial expression and intonation, as well as vocal cues of pitch or density as the other is speaking; but, in writing one looks for context rather than the actual descriptive phrase. But what if the phrase is a common off-hand expression… oh, say: “Oh, that sounds like fun!” Would one know when this sentence is floating there without any supporting context that the author implied it as ironic rather than a statement of fact, or does one take the context from the previous statements of the other to which this statement is a reply? On the internet typically we add to these statements such things as “lol” (lots of luck). In that we might say: “Oh, that sounds like fun! lol” then one might realize… oh, he was just being sarcastic or ironic, less than serious or literal. He didn’t mean what he said. But if one didn’t add this epithet of “lol” would that always imply that the statement should be taken literally?

Obviously if someone knows the person in question, and has listened or heard or read such off-hand statements before in other contexts one would realize it. Yet, for those who have never known the author or speaker such things would need some added indicator to allow the other to understand: ah, this is an ironic statement, not to be taken literally. I’m being pedantic, of course, because I fall into that trap myself all the time: saying something off-hand that I meant as ironic or satiric, but discover after the fact that people have taken as a literal statement rather than a figure of speech in the ironic sense. Does this happen to you very often? Let me know of your stories… 🙂

How Technology Shapes Us


How many times has a new technological invention changed the course of history, created new forms of social, political, and philosophical – and, yes, even religious views about ourselves and the universe. One could recite a litany of inventions that have had both a material and immaterial impact upon our world and the way we perceive it.

Think of it this way. Before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in the 1990’s we thought we had a fairly accurate picture of the formation and eventual heat-death of the universe, etc. But with the launch of this new technological wonder scientists were able for the first time to study aspects of the universe that had up to that moment been closed off in speculation and theory.

Before the launch of this telescope one thing was fairly certain about the expansion of the Universe. It might have enough energy density to stop its expansion and recollapse, it might have so little energy density that it would never stop expanding, but gravity was certain to slow the expansion as time went on. Granted, the slowing had not been observed, but, theoretically, the Universe had to slow. The key here is that it was all theory. No one had actually been able to observe what was going on. Instead we developed elaborate mathematical theorems to describe what we did know rather than what we didn’t know.

But with the launch of this telescope scientist instead of being bound to an armchair philosophy of math and theory were able to get a front row seat and open a window onto the great outdoors of being. What they discovered in their observations of very distant supernovae is that, a long time ago, the Universe was actually expanding more slowly than it is today. So the expansion of the Universe has not been slowing due to gravity, as everyone thought, it has been accelerating. No one expected this, no one knew how to explain it. But something was causing it.

But what was this mysterious X that was causing this? No one had an idea. Yet, as they began readjusting their theories to meet the truth of what they were observing they discovered even more paradoxical truths: the major part of our universe is made up of something other than matter. Yes, you heard me. What these scientists realized is that matter, our phenomenal world of rocks and dust, stars, and galaxies, etc. made up only 5% of the known universe. But if their mathematical calculations were correct then what is the unknown stuff that makes up the other 95% of the universe?

What these scientists discovered as it turns out is that roughly 68% of the Universe is dark energy, and another 27% is made of Dark matter. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the Universe. One can find all kinds of information on this on the web. I particularly liked the National Geographic breakdown: here. Of course these names were given because what they masked is not really something we know anything about at all. Nothing. All we know is the math is correct. That there is this quantified certainty that something exists behind these unknown knowns. But exactly what this something that is less than nothing is not known. Oh sure they have several theories, but have no proof for these theories… again, everything is speculation based on theoretical mathematics rather than empirical verification. Many countries are spending millions of dollars on detecting this mysterious unknown. China is entering the race to detect mysterious dark matter in a big way, with a huge facility in Sichuan province set to begin collecting data in the coming weeks. (see Space)

The point I wanted to originally make is not the astounding truth of these two new aspects of the universe, but how technology impacts the way we view the universe itself. Up to this time neither scientists nor philosophers could give a detailed explanation about our universe. All we had were educated speculations based on a limited set of known facts. It was from these that we built up our pictures and representations of the universe.

This same thing is happening now with the advent of neuroimaging technologies in the 1970’s. After centuries of brain inquiry and research these new technologies gave neuropsychologists and neuroscientists images of living, functioning brains. In other words we didn’t need to speculate about what was happening internally in our minds, perceptions, etc. We had indirect access to the living processes themselves through these neuroimaging systems.

The two main types of neuroimaging technologies are the Structural and Functional Imaging systems. Structural imaging provides images of the brain’s anatomical structure. This type of imaging helps in the diagnosis of brain injury, and the diagnosis of certain diseases. Functional imaging provides images of the brain as patients complete tasks, such as solving math problems, reading, or responding to stimuli such as auditory sounds or flashing lights. The area or areas of the brain that are involved with completing or responding to these tasks “light up,” giving researchers a visual 3-D view of the parts of the brain involved with each type of task.

So many of the speculations concerning the mind that had been the bread and butter of philosophers of Mind for centuries is now part of the technological mind-toolset of scientists and doctors. Yet, the social, political, religious, ethical impact of these technologies and how they are changing our view of the human are barely scratching the surface. Both scientists and philosophers are scrambling to revise their empirical and systematic understanding of the human under the impact of these technologies.

One of the issues is description itself. How to frame the relevant data that is being exposed in the neuroimaging technologies? As Bickle and Mandik tell us:

Given that philosophy of neuroscience, as other branches of philosophy of science, has both descriptive and normative aims, it is critical to develop methods for accurate estimation of current norms and practices in neuroscience. Appeals to intuition will not suffice, nor will single paradigm case studies do the job because those case studies may fail to be representative.1

On Amazon alone I found a few hundred books on various aspects of this new technological world of the neurosciences and the impact of neuroimaging systems. Yet, in process of uncovering the best of these works I discovered the usual mix of pop cultural reference mixed in with expertise, along with shoddy conceptuality. It always seems that people love to cushion the effects of technologies impact rather than giving us the straight up and up.

I know my friend R. Scott Bakker loves to keep reminding me that the neurosciences will give us what philosophers only dreamed of: the truth about the Mind/Brain, etc. But with every new book I read by a reputable scientist I become more and more disillusioned not by the scientific findings, but rather that scientists with the best intentions (ah! that word, intention) try to convey the conceptual truth of what they are discovering, but invariably fall back into descriptions that use old worn out metaphysical jargon, tropes, metaphors, etc. that confuse and abuse the issue rather than clarifying the actual facts of their findings. Then one turns to other commentators to get the clarification that was not forthcoming in the original rendition of the finding.

So who do we go too to give us the narrative facts of the issue? The scientists, the philosopher; or, some middle-party science journalist who can fuse the two? Is there an answer? Since not all of us have the scientific credentials or background to study the actual first hand data ourselves shall we be bound to some second-hand appraisal of this data; either through the lens of some scientist’s or philosopher’s framework? Or can we develop a shared framework that the educated public can use to know what is of value? Isn’t this an age-old problem?

I know in ages past – at least for literature and culture, we had this educated creature called the literary critic who was able to filter in and out the public validity of a work and present us with the best and brightest of the lot. So that instead of reading 500 books that repeat each other’s findings in various modes of expertise, we could instead discover the best “authority” and most equitable purveyor of this knowledge. Of course now days people frown on such thinking as anti-democratic and elitist. So that instead we have anyone and everyone as their own DIY expert. What to do?

Maybe I should wait for some technological cyber-mind, some AI of the neo-knowledge set to rise up out of the dead world of the Smithsonian library who will be able to sift through the remains of human knowledge at the blink of an eye: who will then speak to me in some alien register of the stupidity of all our learning. Then give me the monstrous truth.

Bickle, John, Mandik, Peter and Landreth, Anthony, “The Philosophy of Neuroscience“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Revisioning Materialism: Naturalizing Mind / Denaturalizing Nature


During my absence from the blogging and hibernating in the deep woods of Montana I began a process of re-thinking and re-visioning my stance toward the various traditions of realism and materialism. In the process of that I began working toward a new book that would set down my own philosophical path. For a long while I’ve tried to be neutral on this blog and just uncover what I see in various philosophers without interjecting my own critiques, etc. I think this has been good for users that may be new to philosophy, or be less than versant in the nuances of this vast territory. Translating concepts into simpler units of knowledge for those who have neither the time nor the proclivity to do their homework (i.e., the vast learning and education entailed in reading through the history of philosophy, reading both primary and secondary literature, etc.) is difficult in itself. I’ve felt that blogging is difficult enough to continuously combat or critique others work without first presenting just exactly what these philosophers are actually saying. So I’ve kept back from critique and stuck with commentary, embellishing and translating the best I could difficult concepts and notions into everyday parlance.

Yet, in the background I’ve been working on my own revisionism of materialism. In the process of that I’ve begun a work in progress over the past few years that treats of both the history of materialism, as well as its transformation within the contemporary scene. We’ve seen within the sciences the accumulation of a scientific naturalism in various guises and nuances that has culminated in the sciences of the brain: neurosciences, et. al. The process of naturalizing the mind has been in process for quite a while, yet it has steered clear of philosophy and concerned itself with the factual aspects of the brain itself. Obviously philosophers of Mind have since Hume been concerned with the Mind/Brain problem which to this day has been unresolved. Various revisions of materialism over the century have dealt with this debate.

Scientists in their everyday practice see most of the debates as beside the point, since they are concerned not with concepts per se but with the actual physical processes of the brain itself rather than the conceptual tools that describe these processes. Philosophers are more concerned with the problem of consciousness and the Mind rather than the practical physical process that shape it. Obviously there are shades of gray here as in all things, where scientists will bridge the gap and use conceptual tools drawn from both the sciences and philosophy; while philosophers will base their own approach on a reading of the sciences. None of this is news.

In our time we’ve seen the debates about Mind and Matter undergo various revisions due to the impact of the new neurosciences and the pragmatic imaging tools that underpin the work of scientists. If as Badiou suggests that science is one of the conditions of philosophy, then any materialist philosophy worth its salt will have to take under consideration the new sciences.

In the course of preparing this work I’ve had to revise my own views concerning the Mind and Matter debates. Let’s face it our notions of Mind and Matter have been undergoing revisionings over the past couple of centuries. If the process of modernity has been concerned with a distancing (desacralization) from the religious world views held by our ancestors, then both the sciences and philosophy in their naturalist and materialist perspectives are concerned with a continuous revising our views upon Mind and Matter. Nothing new here.

What has also changed since the time of Kant is our age old views of Self (Subject) and World (Substance) and their place within modern sciences and philosophy. Is the Mind reducible to the processes of the brain (epiphenomenalism) or is it separate/transcendent? Is matter as in the old materialisms dead inorganic stuff or is it something else altogether? Is Nature a total system of material things of which humans are but concrete accretions of thinking substance; or, is the natural world and universe neither whole nor complete, but rather a realm of fragility, filled with cracks and gaps, holes and unknowns, a place of conflict and contradictions rather than as many cosmologists in centuries past believed a harmonious system of totalized substance? Modern physics especially in quantum mechanics and the macro-sciences of theoretical physics show us a universe of disharmony and conflict, a place of black holes, exploding stars and galaxies colliding, of dark matter and dark energy that is neither material as we know it in the phenomenal realm nor knowable directly through scientific instruments. Rather an invisible and immaterial energy and structure that leaves its traces indirectly through its interactions with the phenomenal world. What is a layman to make of it all?

In the sciences we are seeing a process of naturalizing the mind taking place, while in various philosophical approaches under the heading of new materialism, dialectical materialism, etc. we are seeing the denaturalization of matter. Where do the sciences and philosophy connect / disconnect? How do they inform each other, or should they? The question of Mind and Matter and the dialogue between the sciences and philosophy have long concerned me. There are those in the sciences that think philosophy is an archaic and outmoded for of thought and should be made obsolete, while philosophers argue that it is the sciences that need the conceptual tools of philosophy to clarify the facticity of their work. Is there a truth from both sides? Is this an if/else debate? What concerns me are not the debates themselves but the underlying concepts that feed into the debates themselves. For me what is central is the changing views of Mind and Nature that have in the past two centuries undergone drastic revisioning. This is what my new work will trace within both the  sciences and philosophy.

One needs to clarify the issues, understand what is shaping them, and how our views on Mind and Nature have operated in both the sciences and philosophy before we can begin debating the truth or validity of either the sciences or philosophy, and the where and how they relate to each other – if at all, in building a new view of the universe – human and inhuman alike. All of our debates in politics, economics, and the concerns over climate change, etc. stem directly from our views on Mind and Nature. Any book that purports to discuss such issues will know its partiality and inadequacy from the beginning. The sheer magnitude of data alone forces one to make decisions, delimit the set of data required to present the case: so any book on such a vast subject will realize its status as an ongoing movement in a project, not a completed task. I’m no different from any other thinker, the limits of my reading and life experiences will sustain my work. As my friend R. Scott Bakker continually hones in on we neglect more than we know, and what we know is minimalist compared to the vast riches of the world.