Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Metaphysics and Overspecialization: A Meander

Woody Allen once talked about the time when he was expelled from college because he was caught cheating during the final exam in Metaphysics, when he "looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

The subject of metaphysics is something I will never truly understand, but I'm cool with it. It's a blast to try to understand. There are many, many metaphysical roads to take from Aristotle, who is generally credited with being the first to tackle metaphysics as a "science" or a topic in philosophical thought, even though he didn't use the word, apparently. Along with a lot of hand waving and trying to field answers from students about "ultimate things," he variously called what his translators have labeled as metaphysics: "theology" "first philosophy" "first science" and "wisdom." When I read him, he wants to get at the "first cause" of things. He wants to talk about ontology, or the Being-ness of stuff. (Kant put epistemology as the "first philosophy" but I'm getting ahead of myself.) The part that has most intrigued me lately is the search for that which does not change. Given my understanding of physics, I'm not sure there "is" anything that does not change, but it's an interesting idea to think with, and I guess Aristotle was influenced by Plato here, at least a little.

The semantics of "metaphysics" among non-professional philosophers (like the OG) has always seemed a mess, but as I get older, that bothers me less and less. Just think of what metaphysics implies: thinking about things that are above physics. Or beyond physics. It's supposedly a topic that addresses those things that have no mass, no atomic or subatomic structure and no energy. I usually see the topic as what Max Stirner called a "spook": we humans can make up all kinds of things and ideas that simply don't exist, and then reify those "things." And yet, as some sort of humanist type, this notion of metaphysics goes back so far...it's a part of us. And therefore, it can't be negligible, even if it's just made out of words.

Aristotle's origin of all things was with the Prime Mover. For a good time over the next month, mentally insert "Prime Mover" in place of "God" every time anyone says it or writes it...or you think of It. Report your results! ("For Prime Mover' sake! Put the toilet seat down once every blue moon!")

I remember where I was when it happened. I was sitting in a room a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, near the Los Angeles harbor. I was half-awake and listening to some scientist answer questions on the radio. He said something about language and neuroscience and I started to perk up and listen attentively: it turns out that language, our words, have physical status. It's hard to pin down, but neural imaging, studies of brain damaged people, and our understanding of synapses and learning...the words we use are all tied up with larger neural clusters (made of atomic goo and having some weight and mass)  that have to do with our being human beings with bodies and living in a world with language...but the words themselves have some physical, ontological status, even if it's hazy and difficult to pin down. They're taking up neural space. It made sense: language does not Speak from On High to us. It's not "out there" and emanating from some Superior Being. It's a biological property, and for abstruse evolutionary reasons we developed it to a very high degree, compared with our other-ape cousins. And a lot of it seems localized in the brain - language, that is - and it's so enchanting to other parts of our brain that most of us seem to think that language "really does" reflect "reality." It "actually" maps anything "out there" into words, in a perfect fit. If we're stunned and "can't find the words to express...," it's only due to some temporary imbalance. Possibly of the humors. Or not enough coffee. Too much wine. Not enough sleep. You're freakin' stoned again?

What are our thought-chains that lead us back to privately pondering the origin of matter, what happens after death, whether there's a superior, even transcendent intelligence inhering somewhere, or a perennial favorite: why is there something rather than nothing?...or why we find ourselves getting all worked up over other peoples' answers to these questions? For me, often: mortality thoughts. And, especially in groups of friends and acquaintances of "curious, breathing, laughing flesh"(Whitman), we're already outside our ordinary "reality": drinking some wine or other inebriant accomplices, jousting with witticisms, stoned on weed, euphoric in music, coming down softly from a whirl of flirtation. I know these states get me going on some metaphysical topic, but often I keep it to myself. Although I do like to hear where you stand. And why.


Jurgen Habermas (and Marx)
I see Habermas as the Noam Chomsky of the European Union, committed to rationality and saving Europe from monied interests. (To my German and other European readers: I apologize in advance for the paltry riffs on Habermas I'm about to play.) Habermas, now in his 80s, is still fighting for something saner. He's made splashes in legal theory, political theory, sociology, psychology. (Here's a blogger-champion to read on him.)

I first became interested in Habermas when I heard a lecture about his idea of an "ideal speech situation," and this seemed to come of his historical views on the rise of literacy and media, coffee houses and newspapers. Everyone should be allowed to speak their view, without fear of recrimination. Metaphysical appeals are the wrong way: we should talk about what's demonstrably "real." Only rational thought will save us. With enough of this massively democratic speech, the better ideas will out. I'm making this too simple to an absurd degree.

Anyway, since the early 1980s - when Habermas was advocating no metaphysics in public speech about our life conditions - he's gradually softened up. He now believes that the discourse of religion has its place in public speech in his massively democratic ideology. Even though he confesses he's "unmusical" when it comes to religion (borrowing a phrase from one of his biggest influences, Max Weber), Habermas thinks there's no getting around the impulse to religious thought. Even though he still seems to be an atheist, he's made amends with religion while trying to maintain his Kantian-Enlightmenment rationalistic ideal speech situation idea.

Peter Berger, reviews Habermas's slow move toward allowing religion/metaphysics. I agree that Habermas is like Edward Gibbon's magistrate, who finds the various religious beliefs of the populace, "useful."

Being a carrier of the Critical Theory tradition (even though he had some cogent critiques of Adorno, Horkheimer, et.al and their opposition to "instrumental rationality"), Habermas is thoroughly steeped in Marx's ideas about religion, that it was "the sigh of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions," and that it was the "opiate of the people." Marx: "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up on a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo." - Contribution To The Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1843.

A common reading of this goes something like this, thumbnail: Religion is a conspiracy, mostly by the Ruling Class, to conceal from Workers the actual reasons for our unhappiness. I think anyone pondering Marx (or The New Atheists, for that matter) ought realize the ambiguity here in Marx. For he might also be saying, religion has the correct insights in that our suffering must be overcome and what we really desire ought to have satisfaction, but  in looking toward religion we make a fundamental error in thinking of deriving our happiness through metaphysics, and not the nitty-gritty mundane, materialist world, which will require knowledge and action.

Anyway, one of the most renowned thinkers in the European Union had at the center of his social ideas the rejection of appeals to metaphysics as a basis for rational understanding, and now he's allowing metaphysics into that program. Which now seems primarily aimed at saving the idea of a relatively sane Europe.

I've often wondered, in the years since I read Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action (I read volume 1 and only thumbed through volume 2), that the ideal speakers in his ideal democracy might need to know more than about what they've specialized in, because I've been in rooms with far too many well-educated specialists who can't understand why the other guy ain't seein' it all from his angle. About which more later below...

Very Brief Take on Philosopher Kings
I still get a charge out of the far-more ancient-than-Aristotle Chinese view of metaphysics in the Tao Te Ching: "That which is above matter is the Tao." Hey: it's a decent take. Or at least it makes it for me.

There was a time when the Schoolmen, the Scholastics, doing philosophy as theologians, were The Cheese intellectuals in the West. When they decided to hold the Renaissance, starting on January 1, 1500, some Humanists, artists, engineers, poets and political philosophers began to get a piece of the action. By around 1860, Natural Philosophy (AKA "science") began to rack up win after win. And this held sway through the Roaring 20th century.

Richard Rorty said the Philosophers had always insisted that, no matter what others thought, theirs was The Cheese all along. They had constructed a bunch of elaborate systems that placed something between the individual and the world: Mind. Language. History's Laws. But theirs was the discipline ne plus ultra.

Whatever, it had always been assumed, says Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, that the role of philosophers was as meta-cultural criticism and the assumption that only philosophers had a "God's Eye View" on all the other sub-disciplines and fields of study. It was even up to philosophers to tell the lesser historians or economists or psychologists or anthropologists to do more of this, less of that.  We're never going to arrive at a One True Real Copy of Reality if you keep doing that sort of fieldwork! Do something else. The very picture of Plato's Philosopher Kings. As the renegade Marxist sociologist Alvin Gouldner called it: a Platonic Complex.

Rorty says, enough with the idea of achitectonic disciplines: the true role of the philosopher is to live up to its name: love wisdom. And we do that by being Generalists: we read about popular culture and wonder what it means for sociology. We talk to some historians about medicine and get some ideas there...how can this all "hang together...?" We read the philosophy of science and then about actual conditions in labs and see if we find something there. We look at marginalized discourses and books and authors and then make conversations about what they may have to offer that is being missed by those not being marginalized. We wonder about happiness and political power and economics and language and quantum mechanics and Dark Matter...and how it all hangs together. Or might.

Rorty says: enough with the Philosopher King role. It never worked and was pretentious and it alienated philosophers from a more valuable role: as messengers between disciplines. Generalists.

(Right now witness the Third Culturalists trying to assume the role of Philosopher Kings, and attacks from the traditional Humanities and other places. Maybe start HERE. How much of it has to do with funding and prestige?)

Contra people like Pinker and Dawkins and (what I see as) their sophisticated scientism, I do not abide by the idea that there exists any meta-discourse, anywhere. (As of October, 2013)

                                          rendering of Margaret Fuller

The Fascinating Case of Buckminster Fuller's Metaphysics
Talk about a Generalist! And yet, as I parse Fuller's books, I always got the feeling that, as much as he paid lip-service to economics, sociology, poetry, and the humanities, he thinks (he died in 1983, but his ideas are still alive for me) Science is a meta-discourse. And metaphysics actuates science.

So what is metaphysics, according to Fuller? Scientific laws that express a tremendous amount of generalization from a dizzying welter of individual cases. Or, an example in Bucky-speak:

Humans are unique in respect to all other creatures in that they also have minds that can discover constantly varying interrelationships existing only between a number of special case experiences as individually apprehended by their brains, which covarying interrelationship rates can only be expressed mathematically. For example, human minds discovered the law of relative interattractiveness of celestial bodies, whose initial intensity is the product of masses of any two such celestial bodies, while the force of whose interattractiveness varies inversely as the second power of the arithmetical interdistancing increases.
-Critical Path, p.63

Fuller thinks that humans, constantly looking into Nature, using their Minds (different than the brain), discover generalities expressed in the language of math. As time goes on, these generalities get honed and become evermore exact and interaccomodative. (<----I just used a word that I'm not sure even exists, but every time I study Bucky I get infected with his unique verb-ifying language style, so I say what the hell and let 'er fly.)

But this bit about the Mind not being the same as the brain? Well, first let's get to Fuller's conception of God:

Acknowledging the mathematically elegant intellectual integrity of eternally regenerative Universe is one way of identifying God. 

Ohhh...another Platonist. Hey, whatever floats your Dymaxion House!

God may also be identified as the synergy of the interbehavioral relationships of all the principles unpredicted by the behaviors of characteristics of any of the principles considered only separately. 

Recall: Fuller is the grandnephew of American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. There's something genetic. Nevertheless, Fuller seemed Leonardo enough for the 20th century.

Oh yea: Mind does not equal Brain:

Brains always and only coordinate the special case information progressively apprehended in pure principle by the separate senses operating in pure mathematical-frequency principle. Brain then sorts out the information to describe and identify whole-system characteristics, storing them in the memory bank as system concepts for single or multiple recall for principle-seeking consideration and reconsideration as system integrities by searching and ever reassessing mind. 

Okay, this brain sounds pretty impressive to me. How can anything be better than that? Well, here's how Bucky conceived mind:

Only minds have the capability to discover principles. Once in a very great while scientists' minds discover principles and put them to rigorous physical test before accepting them as principle. More often theologists or others discover principles but do not subject them to the rigorous physical-special-case testing before accepting and employing them as working-assumption principles.
-pp.159-160, Critical Path

The mind, unlike the brain, is weightless, massless, colorless, and not detected by any instrument that I know of. Furthermore, for Fuller, the physical principles that actually work to run our world of technics and know-how, are also weightless, massless, odorless, colorless, and they don't take in or emit energy, etc:

Mind and general physical principles, generalized, are metaphysical entities. And their synergy runs the world.

Fuller, in book after book, is able to think about our lives and educations and be somewhat dispassionate about the way we were trained to think of inquiry and knowledge as being separate entities. At other times he sees this as something like a conspiracy theory against Mind by powerful interests. Why so much at stake? Because, specialization gets you extinct. And we need as many people to think in creative, generalistic ways as possible if we are to avert catastrophe. Think of his God, his idea of Mind, your Mind. Does it make sense? In the introductory chapter to Synergetics he sees specialization as fostering isolation, futility and confused feelings. Humanity is "deprived of comprehensive understanding." Understanding based on the soundest metaphysical principles. Because most of us in the West were educated to specialize, we tend to abandon personal responsibility for thinking of the Big Picture, and taking social action. We let others deal with the big stuff. He doesn't say it, but he seems to equate specialization with marginalization. "Specialization's preoccupation with parts deliberately forfeits the opportunity to apprehend and comprehend what is provided exclusively by synergy."

Fuller sees art, science, economics and "ideology" all as having separate "drives" and "complexedly interacting trends" which could be understood via synergetics, but hardly anyone "in" one of those fields seems to believe this. This is threatening to the survival of the species. Giant pandas only eat bamboo. When the bamboo is gone, the panda is gone. 99% of all species that ever existed are extinct (or a like number; it's not good news), and not all extinctions were due to specialization or overspecialization, but there have have been enough extinctions, presumably, due to this short-sightedness. And we're supposed to have all the tools! We live at the equator and near the Arctic Circle, in rain forests and deserts, savannas and at 10,000 feet above sea level.

Related to this, here may be one of the brainiest conspiracy theories you'll ever read:

We have also noted how the power structures successively dominant over human affairs had for aeons successfully imposed a "specialization" upon the intellectually bright and physically talented members of society as a reliable means of keeping them academically and professionally divided - ergo, "conquered," powerless. The separate individuals' special, expert glimpses of the separate, invisible reality increments became so infinitesimally fractionated and narrow that they gave no hint of the significant part their work played in the omni-integrating evolutionary flow of total knowledge and its power-structure exploitability in contradistinction to its omni-humanity-advancing potentials. Thus the few became uselessly overadvantaged instead of the many becoming regeneratively ever more universally advantaged.
--p.162, Critical Path

In a slim and criminally underrated and under-read book by Fuller, GRUNCH of Giants, he goes into the history of this conspiracy by the very few to use the "wizards" for their own control of wealth and power. And if you can get with the prose style, you might find it very rewarding.

With this I abandon my typing with the idea that we've specialized too much; we've been marginalized, the survival of our species is at stake, and the deepest synergetic nexus of survival and real wealth is metaphysical know-how. I had no idea I'd end up here. Adieu!

P.S: Not long ago I was delving around in the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, and in 1948 he seems to have thought very much like Fuller on these topics. I wonder if Fuller influenced him, or Quine influenced Fuller, or this is another of those convergences that Charles Fort described as "It's steam engines when it comes steam engine time." In 1948, in an essay, "What There Is," Quine said that our best scientific theories "carry an ontological commitment" to objects whose existence is incompatible with nominalism.

                                                 Buckminster Fuller


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughan have a piece with the lyrics "Mama said. (Mama told me.)" Reading your piece I heard the song as "Rorty said. (Rorty told me.)"

The other day a friend of mine asked me if I "was" an Aristotelian or a Platonist. Rereading Rafi Zabor's wonderful The Bear Comes Home, I had forgotten the Bear refers to himself as a Platonist. I misread one line of your blog as "Mind is not Bear."

Decades ago my grandmother gave me a Garfield stuffed animal. My mom gave me a seemingly identical Garfield. I named one Plato and the other Aristotle. (I named the real one Aristotle. The other Garfield seemed an approximation of the ideal Garfield in the world of forms.) It delighted me a few years ago to see the title of the film "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties."

Bucky wanted to close all schools to save gas. He said the kids should watch educational videos at home. Teachers who felt called upon to do so would make the videos for free.

Anonymous said...

A perfect riff on the bind humans
are in. It's obvious that discard
of the spiritual speculations in
favour of a'things you can bang on
with a rock' causes serious brain
damage. On the other hand insisting
that we abandon the pssibility of
any decent material existence for
'pie in the sky by and by' causes
an equally pernicious brain damage.

There have been a few philosopher
kings, their reach has far exceeded
histories understanding of them.
Look at Freddy, his dinner table
seems to have spawned the enlight-
enment, the revolution, the act of
allowing refugee status seems to
have spawned more countervailing
ideas. Fuller is a perfect example
of someone whose effect will be
felt for centuries. Now that he is
safely dead he can be canonized.

Mankind longs for the urgrund of
something solid to hang on to, so
far all there is seems to be a
Lovecraftian vista of revelations
of impermanence. However it has
no effect on the taste of good
beer or how nice a hug feels.

I'm glad nuts are studying protein
folding and the DNA of rock lichen.
Saves me the trouble.

Can we (generalists) save some
remnants from the next (pick one)
disaster/extinction event ?

At least we're thinking about a
few possibilities instead of the
mundane party line.

Erin McKean (lexicographer) tried
to explain about dictionaries and
words, they map what exists but
are not a fence that limits.

I prefer rationality as a method
to determine actions but have no
illusions that humanity does it
that way. The real illusion is
when you assume others are driven
by rational motivations for their
actions. You can twist it enough
to fit, but if you're wrong all it
does is distort your own understanding.

Good one.

michael said...

In Synergetics there's a passage that seems really way out regarding education: hyperspecialization has led scientists to not recognize that it has the duty to "reorient" all our educational curricula.

Why? Because in 1956 a paper in quantum mechanics showed that there was spin parity...and no one seems to recognize the implications of this!

I think Bucky was on to something profound when he said that if you change the environment you change people. Ahhh but: devil/details.

His ideas about automating education now seem pretty whack, but then there's MOOCs!

An underrated - fairly hidden - aspect of his thought: when humans are free from need (not wants), they will act nicer toward each other. However, not every kid is gonna be a scientist; I think the decline of Humanities is really sad. I do think there ought to be more emphasis on knowing our bodies, mindfulness, meditation, how important it is to get away from gizmos and be in the forest or the hills or walking the city streets, knowing new ways to observe.

You hear all this We desperately need more STEM students! We're falling behind!

But that turns out to be false, as of 2013 Unistat: we have more than enough STEM educated people, and they can't find decent jobs doing science, technology, engineering, math.

Fuller's conspiracy theory of history of intelligentsia being co-opted by Gangsters, Banksters, the Rational Technological State and Kings?: One of my favorite, and the conspiracy writers have largely missed out on this one so far. Chomsky has a similar take.

In one Bucky book - maybe it was Synergetics - he has a paragraph about how inadequate the "news" is, and says why....in 1975.

Hugh Kenner had a couple interesting riffs on Bucky's take-aways from working in a cotton mill: that the energy that drove the mill came from the sun, ultimately, but amid all those pulleys and gear-meshes and machinery, the knowledge in the factory, he found was not in the heads of the workers, but in the machinery, which reminded me of Pound's Machine Art. And Kenner traces Bucky's traces of thought as an outside-in-outside process of analysis that was like how readers devoted to Ulysses read the book: it's a deep AESTHETIC experience!

michael said...

ADDENDA: I try not to make assertions that seem to go against popular understanding w/o citing some source, so:

No Crisis In STEM:

michael said...


I'm happy that I can blog on stuff like this and there are people who will not only read it and understand it, but seem to have many valid points to add. It's difficult to find someone in what's now hilariously called "meatspace" that would "get" these meanders on metaphysics and specialization. And I DID meander...

Re:your take on rationality: I feel I understand Fuller better when he complains (all the time) that scientists have known something for along time, but the knowledge hasn't filtered down to the general public yet. And hoooboy: your take on rationality has been borne out by thousands of papers and researches and books in the past 30 yrs.

Speaking for my "self": No: I'm not a "rational" being. I at times use that capacity we call "rationality" to a fairly elevated degree; we now know that we evolved to do more basic things, and the legacy software (sorry about the lame metaphor) that is about getting food and staying warm and avoiding harm takes up a lot of neurobiological space. I do hold rationality up as one of the values to aspire to; however, some who seem Adept at rational thought seem to have convinced the rest of their brain that it's the only game in town: NO! There's also emotional intelligence, and poetry and art.

And this seems to get to part of the deep structure of the rift between the Humanities (no money for Megacorp, Inc, there) and Science (nothing but $$$, very well-funded).

michael said...


Yes, Frederick the Great really was a sort of Philosopher King, in the Platonic sense: he actually had power. And maybe Th. Jefferson was one too, but what I meant - and I think I should re-write that part? - is that the Philosophers, while most not seeming to desire political power, nevertheless saw themselves as the Kings of Mind. (Dudes like Leibniz totally brown-nosed Power, along with a few others...)

Being slow on the uptake on a great many things, I finally realized the way Spinoza influenced guys like Jefferson: via Locke, who had read Spinoza and admired him.