Category Archives: Wu Wei

A change to the scientific agenda

Many practitioners of science have uncritically sought to provide the view from nowhere. This, it is widely agreed, is not something that can be delivered.

An alternative and more attractive overarching ambition is to be the voice from no one.

Logos gives us the notion of an impersonal order, but never as far from us as the elements of the Grand Unified Theory sought in physics. Logos is word of law, both conventional and natural. Positivist science has failed to recognise our own involvement in its being.

Rhema is uttering. In the act, the subject arises, and the goal is to move from disjoint, local agents who bicker, towards the facilitation of joint uttering, jointly bringing into being. Rhema is an act of creation, as the appearance from nowhere of a positron and an electron. Being necessarily has a complementary character. It is not the insistence of one being over another.

And in speaking together, all the beauty of music lies before us as models.

And the walls came crumbling down . . .

The subject-object dichotomy needs to be overcome.  Insisting on its trumps-everything-else realness is not sustainable.  But language starts to fail at that point.  The term “experience” arises, and we do not know what to do with it.  But how else do you ground any tale of worlds and minds?

Happily the term “language” itself is crumbling for me.  A rather old-fashioned faculty psychology has insisted that there be language, with syntax at the non-beating heart of it’s computational breast.  In insisting on systematicity, it forgot about voice, and the power of uttering.  Subjects now start to abound.  They are collective, and partial, and overlapping, and meaningful.

How then to speak?

Descartes, James, Latour, the Boys are all here.

If William James were a cartoonist, he would be xkcd.  He uses two bare intersecting lines to talk about the dual aspect of any situation indexed by a “now”.  Here is a famous passage:

The puzzle of how the one identical room can be in two places is at bottom just the puzzle of how one identical point can be on two lines. It can, if it be situated at their intersection; and similarly, if the ‘pure experience’ of the room were a place of intersection of two processes, which connected it with different groups of associates respectively, it could be counted twice over, as belonging to either group, and spoken of loosely as existing in two places, although it would remain all the time a numerically single thing.

Well, the experience is a member of diverse processes that can be followed away from it along entirely different lines. The one self-identical thing has so many relations to the rest of experience that you can take it in disparate systems of association, and treat it as belonging with opposite contexts. In one of these contexts it is your ‘field of consciousness’; in another it is ‘the room in which you sit,’ and it enters both contexts in its wholeness, giving no pretext for being said to attach itself to consciousness by one of its parts or aspects, and to out reality by another (Does Consciousness Exist, 1904)

Bruno Latour employs a much denser brush in his notion of many “modes of existence“.  Latour suggests that anything we wish to speak of, any speaking or agreeing that we do, we do at the intersection of many disparate strands, none of which can claim preeminence over the others.  He rejects the simple dualism of subject and object, and reaches for a richer set, which he calls crossings.  Crossings are just like the simple intersection of the lines in James’ story, though James stuck to the traditional pair of subject and object.  Where James has two sparse unadorned lines, Latour has dense, high-dimensional entangled manifolds.

Of course there are no Cartesian subjects in either view, but when we look at the “now” in each of these, we find only a point, utterly lacking in dimension.  At the single point of confluence the subject, or self, seems to vanish.  It is utterly lacking in extent, and seems too slight to support a self, with a memory, personality, and feelings. As my friend Victor said: “A single point can not be grasped”.

Enter Descartes, revelling in his sceptical asceticism, denying his senses, trying to shut himself off from the world.  But he cannot un-exist.  He hears himself say “Je suis! J’existe!”, and for the short time the voice utters, it brings into being what we can visualize as a sphere around the single point.  The sphere has extent.  Viewed from one angle, it is the specious present.  It permits narratives to be told, and the narratives determine the boundaries of the sphere.  But now we have effected a split in the nature of things.  We pretend the sphere is a point, and it is not.  So the Cartesian self, this transient creation of the inner voice, enforces its signatory dualism.  A transitory dualism that we spend all our efforts trying to make real in the sense of unchangeable.

Shoutout here to our Vedantic cousins, the Dvaita, Advaita and their lesser known cousin Achintya Bheda Abheda.  I believe this stuff is old hat to them. They represent alternatives to Cartesianism, but especially in the latter case, they are rather more flexible, I think.

Learning how to speak

The world, as Alva Noe says, does not just show up.  It is achieved.  We will bear this in mind.  The achieving is happily called “sense making”, a term of art in the enactive tradition that applies to the self-interested goings on of a cell as well as to the mastering of the world and self exhibited by people.  To speak of sense-making is to eschew speaking of perception and action.  It replaces both.

A second important  point to be established is found in considering the epistemological position of the cell that recurs in the enactive literature.  This oft-recounted tale involves a prototype of dynamical identity and autonomy, embedded in its world through a single gradient: a nutrient gradient.  We can contrast our understanding of what is going on with the perspective of the cell itself.  The subjectivity of the cell is laid bare, and it consists in a single discrimination between this way and that, between uphill and down.

Now we need to take a step back and combine these so that we can relativise our own position in the world.  We can know nothing of the petri-dish and the scientist’s lab, if we are hooked into our worlds (Umwelten) in ways similar to the cell.  As we uncover the nature of our reality, so too we will be describing our selves.  For the Umwelt of the cell is written in the language of its own constitution: its spatial and temporal properties, the timescales of its metabolism.  These are our necessary epistemological limits, but that is no bad thing.  It would be silly to ignore such obvious constraints on our understanding.

So we need to look at how the sense-making occurs, without postulating a pre-existing world, or self, as both arise together in a dance well known to Varela and the buddhists.  We can recognize some useful things:

  • The arising of world and self occurs in time.  I hesitate to call it real time.  But it is “real-time” that picks out the sensory basis of experience.
  • We seek the interface, but cannot rely on our spatial and temporal view of the world
  • One such interface lies in the micro-tremor of the eyeballs, by which the visual system stays in constant dynamic touch with a world
  • Another lies in voice: the magic relation between the real and the spoken that arises in real time
  • The voice gives rise to a subject

So the goal here, and the reason this Church does not pretend to the practice of science, is that it is concerned with learning how to speak under these circumstances.  As Latour is at pains to point out, we cannot make the fatal fundamentalist mistake of claiming that there are facts that stand and pronounce upon the real, divorced from the business of how we talk, what our dialogue is, and what its limits are.


Thermodynamics and time

(This post is inspired by dipping into people like Heinz von Foerster, Scott Kelso, Mike Turvey, Francesco Varela, and many others, including the modest, but so insightful, Wei Wu Wei.)

When I first heard cognitive scientists talk about thermodynamics, I was perplexed.  I did not see what this arcane belief in physics had to do with cognition.  It has taken a while to dawn on me.  The second law is the one that says that entropy, or disorder, must increase in a closed system, such as, for example, the whole frigging universe.  And it’s a peculiar law.  There is no experiment you can do to test it, as the only closed system is, many believe, that which we call the whole universe.  It is more of a belief.  And it is a peculiar belief too.  Scientists cling to it dearly, and it underwrites the distinction between far-from-equilibrium systems, like life forms, from the dead stuff, which has a tendency to fall apart.  Believe me, I know.  Most scientists, I fear, have no idea why they subscribe to this belief.  It’s just taken to be the thing we know absolutely.  But, if we hold our knowledge of it as true or false in abeyance for a moment, what exactly hangs on this issue?  What does the question mean?

My own understanding of the relevance of the question came about thus: As I studied movement, and coordination, I came to see that we must understand time if we are to understand that which we are.  Because the arrow of time–which is our favorite story about the eternal present–is the fabric upon which intentional behavior is woven.  Things that are meaningfully coordinated provide scintillating, alternative operationalizations of the notion of time.  Define lawful change, or a dynamic, so, and you see one kind of regularity.  Define it another way, and different things come into focus.  The locus of agency shifts as you redefine time, and questions of the locus of agency and our belief in ourselves as subjective agents, are two sides of the same coin.

The second law of thermodynamics is the belief that there is one way to measure the arrow of time.  It is the only foundation stone of physics where time is necessarily directional, and the direction is given by the concept of order or structure.  Here, too, we see a belief that that which deserves the appellation “real”  is that which is revealed if we get our notion of time right.

Heinz von Foerster seems to have a nice illustration that if we subscribe to the arrow of time, as defined by the Second Law, to be a description of the universe, then there can be no self-organizing system, no entity that is worthy of the name “real”.  Here a link remains to be made to the experiential domain.   The subject.  For von Foerster, like I, does not buy into the notion of Mind, that is distinct from an outside world.  As he says in his introduction to the book Understanding Understanding,

I am unhappy with this discrimination between objective and subjective: How do I know the objects? Where are they? Of course, I can reconfirm or establish a rich connection with an object by touching or by smelling it or talking about it, and so I had the idea to make the object a representation of the activity or behavior of the observer, instead of the passive being looked or just sitting there.

He speaks here of the impossibility of finding the subjective if you insist on one definition of time, or, equivalently, of objectivity.  Of course self-organizing systems can be identified, but each requires a different definition of time.  This relativizes their claims to be the origin of agentive cause.

Wei Wu Wei, as ever, is very clear about this:

As long as anyone tacitly accepts Time either as really existing, or even as the basis of consideration, he is only concerning himself with objectivity.  (source)

A new theory of the person

We are witnessing the birth of a new theory of the person: the Non-Cartesian view. This view eschews solipsistic thought while paying respectful dues to the notion of the phenomenal. It is a fundamental shift in perspective that encourages us to read our own lives and world as collectively constituted out of the multiple patterns of coordination we live in. The notion of agency is reduced to an admission of ignorance and a recognition that the only possible agreement on this topic is one of consensus.

This view must be contrasted with the Cartesian view, to establish which frame of reference is being used. Neither may claim an absolute hold on truth. Only so can we harbour hopes of creating a Human Science.

Wu Wei and Control

If you believe in something called “motor control”, then the non-volitional action underlying the concept of Wu Wei will appear odd.

Imagine a busy road in which many cars manage to drive at high speed, without crashing. If now, one driver makes a very serious error, his car goes places it should not go, maybe turning over, and crashing. In a conventional account, we say he “lost control”. In the account suggested here, you might better say he “regained control”. For all those cars that do not crash, clearly they are not being controlled. Rather, they are integrated as components within a larger system, the trafic flow. The conditions that allow optimal traffic flow include clear road markings, good visibility, road-worthy cars, non-drunken drivers, etc. When one driver crashes, that system has collapsed, and the car is now acting independently. So the car+driver system has, in a slightly odd sense, reasserted its autonomy, made itself independent, and regained control. But with that, there is clumsiness, ineffectiveness, and a crash.

Wu wei is action without the clumsiness of a locus of control.

Postscript: This distinction parallel’s Terrence Deacon’s account of orthograde and contragrade processes. The cars that act as components within a superordinate domain of autonomy illustrate the former. The car that makes itself independent, and then collides with and threatens the domain of ordered driving, illustrates the contragrade.