Everything Happens at Once

Everything happens all at once.  Inching forward, at a steady rate of one second per second. When we tell a causal story, such as describing the action of a machine, we pick out one strand in that whole, prioritising it over all others, and generating an artificial cleft between foreground and background. But everything is part of everything, all flowing together.  Heraclitus’ vision, I think.  Among that we pick out agents and the inanimate, and bring into being shitty gods, minds, subjects.  

This is not a moving slice through a 4-dimensional manifold, as Parmenides and Newton would have it.  This has very many more dimensions, for it must accommodate your unfolding locus of experience and mine.  The number of dimensions is not at issue, really.  Professor Bohm seems to assure us of that.  What matters more is how one treats the divide between subject and object.  How we apply the carving knife, for the image we are carving is our self portrait.  Like a mewling infant, we do not know what we look like, but we react anyway, sticking out our tongue at the world as it sticks its tongue out at us. 

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.


Blind spots and black holes

Time is not what we take it to be.  We are suckled with a story of time as a scale stretching from the big bang, extending to the big crunch (or some other unknowable) and somewhere in between is the present moment, the singular now of the subject, slowly advancing towards an uncertain future.

That cosmological picture is a folk creation that serves some purposes, but as a framework for understanding who and what we are, it is entirely unworthy of us.

Scientifically, it is simply inaccurate.  The black hole is not a beginning.  It is a singularity; a point at which the theory that led to its articulation is mute.  There is no point asking what it is, because it is what that story can not express.  A blind spot is not a beginning.  The physical picture is complicated by the assumed presence of other singularities, within black holes, where the theory likewise reaches its limits and must stop pretending to provide a full account.  The space-time picture is not exhaustive, and it is essentially incomplete.

We have another significant gap in our knowledge with the origin of life.  Now maybe this is not a fundamental gap.  That would be an orthodox position.  However if we choose to adopt the view that having a now, a subjective present, is a condition of the living, then it is at least worth considering that this too may represent a finite bound on our ability to see and to understand.

If we stubbornly insist that the true story of our origin is to be told within a space-time framework in which the big bang is a beginning, then somewhere in that framework life happened, and furthermore brains evolved, and lo-and-behold here we are today.  Magnificent, mysterious, and incomplete.  For brains do not secrete consciousness, and life is not non-life with something extra.  Consciousness is not some detail to be added to our almost complete picture of what is.  In taking sentience/experience/living seriously, we must somehow learn to spin more varied stories, to live with alternative, complementary, non-unifiable narrative structures.  We need many stories, not just one.  As beings in time, for whom the past and the future are both entirely conceptual, this really ought to be dear to our hearts.

Of historical time

We subscribe to a belief that the past is more certain than the future.  The evidence for this is rather scant . . .

Nobody owns history. Those entities that seem to persist over historical time must be limited to that which we tell communally.  The fact that France invaded Russia is not a fact on par with the fact that two chemicals, treated thus and so-ly, will change thus and thusly.

To help us differentiate here, we need to interrogate the way measurement functions within a narrative domain. How is consensus arrived at?

The future structure of knowledge

I look at the relations among the current mainstream disciplines, and their mutual relations and differences, and I then project slightly forward into the future, say 50 years or so, and imagine how they might look then.

On many views, physics holds the foundation place in the structure of knowledge. It is closely related to the absolutism and rationality of mathematics, and it also grounds our consensus view of reality. Chemistry is mostly applied physics, with a few structural constraints thrown in, that are visible in the periodic table. But organic chemistry is different, by virtue of two things: on the one hand, the chemicals play a role in the alchemy of life – a process for which we have no fundamental understanding. Life arises, but that is a novelty of an unparalleled sort. Identity irrespective of materiality. Exchange all the atoms, but keep the processes, and you retain identity. On the other hand, the exchanges and processes in which the molecules partake are geometrically extended in three dimensions. The 3-D shape of the molecule determines its fit to another element, say as neurotransmitter to receptor, or body to antibody. Continue reading


We fret about first and third person perspectives. Some work on second person perspectives. Let’s stop this constricting tyranny of linguistic number and allow the perspectives to multiply freely. Let us encourage multiplicity of perspectives.

I prick my finger. The pain is tiny and intense and brief. It is small and focussed. It is all that is there, for just an instant. Then it abates, and the finger itself comes into focus. Tiny, trivial, and briefly, all that exists.

Billions of years from now, the Earth is a dead ball, to be consumed by a solar cataclysm. Nobody cares, because somewhere along the line, everyone died and nobody replaced them.

Between these two, there exists an infinity of perspectives, each with its own causal structure, its own rationality, its own story.

We wrestle, and fail to topple, hard questions of the other and the view of the other. We fight military battles, insurgent battles, domestic battles, political battles, all with right on our side, and not on the side of the other. The other does the same. Right, it seems, is everywhere.
Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my cousin. My cousins and brothers against our neighbours. Our family and neighbours against those from the next town. All the local townspeople against our more distant countryfolk. All the people of the country against the foreigners (near). Us and near foreigners against the distant foreigner. Where do we stop? Do we wait until the alien attack to talk some sense? Or do we recognize that this was ever so, and that the gradient goes further, beyond the species boundary. Limited human rights for Apes. Primates over mammals. Mammals over reptiles. Vertebrates over invertebrates. Animals over fungi and plants. Life over . . .
And there it ends.

For whatever life is, we are.

Agency and the rational actor

I have thought for a while that the rational actor that is central to many economic theories might be an outgrowth of the psychological model of the individual mind. Adam Curtis of the BBC has a wonderful documentary post about the role of the rational actor model in the development of theories of counterinsurgency, from the Algerian civil war, through Vietnam, to Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, the attribution of domains of significance to the individual only, and an impoverished individual at that, led to a complete failure to comprehend the webs of social meaning which were the fabric of people’s lives.

The documentary blog entry is here. How to Kill a Rational Peasant.