06 November 2019

Self as Process

Evan Thompson’s response to “neuro-nihilism”.

I recently re-watched season one of True Detective, interested in taking another look at the philosophy of Rust Cohle. It’s been pointed out that the worldview articulated by Cohle shares obvious points of inspiration from Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, which in turn was heavily inspired by an essay from Peter Wessel Zapffe.

One particular scene makes Cohle’s debt to Ligotti and Zapffe clear, articulating in a few sentences what Cohle means when he calls himself a pessimist:

I believe human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself; we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Alongside the belief that consciousness is a burden too heavy to bear, another major element in Cohle’s philosophy is the belief that the self is an illusion. As Cohle puts it, people “labor under the illusion of having a self”, living “with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

While the belief that humankind should intentionally work toward its own extinction has few adherents, the claim that the self is an illusion is now in fashion amongst some philosophers and neuroscientists working on the study of consciousness.

Thomas Metzinger is one such philosopher. In a recent essay he writes: “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’.” Or consider this passage from historian Peter Watson’s massive book on the history of ideas:

There is no inner self. Looking “in,” we have found nothing—nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive—because there is nothing to find.

An obvious question hovers in the air after reading these passages: what could possibly count as a real self? What would it mean to be (in the words of Metzinger) “a whole and persisting entity”?

Just like Rust Cohle, Metzinger and Watson seem to be clinging to a Platonic/Christian framing of what constitutes a self. What they are asking for could only be satisfied by some thing that survives the death of the physical body; in other words a soul. Since this soul is nowhere to be found, then the self must not exist either.

I was lucky enough to stumble across an essay by Evan Thompson, written in response to True Detective, that offers a way out from this line of thinking. No, there is no entity called the self, but the self still exists. Countering the perspective he calls “neuro-nihilism”, Thompson writes:

The self isn’t a thing; it’s a process—one that enacts an “I” and in which the “I” is no different from the process itself, rather like the way dancing is a process that enacts a dance and in which the dance is no different from the dancing. From this “enactive” perspective, although meaning and the self have no absolute foundation, neither are they complete illusions or nonexistent; they’re brought forth in how we act and live our lives.

Thompson’s essay is a gem of philosophical thinking and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. After reading it over several times, I found myself pondering what seems an obvious larger question: what could possibly exist outside of process, time or change?

02 November 2019

Getting started with complexity science

A handful of online courses, books and other resources to start learning about the field of complexity science.

Over the past month I’ve been spending a big chunk of my time learning about complexity science. That term is broad and covers a number of areas, from chaos theory to artificial intelligence. The unifying perspective within the field, roughly speaking, is a focus on the emergence of unexpected system-level behavior due to the operation of simpler agents operating within the system. In essence, systems where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

Map of the complexity sciences

Members of the complexity science community often place their work in opposition to reductionism. For example, a blog post by the neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell makes the case for the insufficiency of reductionism within biology:

The reductionist perspective on biology is that it all boils down to physics eventually. That anything that is happening in a living organism can be fully accounted for by an explanation at the level of matter in motion – atoms and molecules moving, exerting forces on each other, bumping into each other, exchanging energy with each other. And, from one vantage point, that is absolutely true – there’s no magic in there, no mystical vital essence – it’s clearly all physical stuff controlled by physical laws.

But that perspective does not provide a sufficient explanation of life. While living things obey the laws of physics, one cannot deduce either their existence or their behaviour from those laws alone. There are some other factors at work – higher-order principles of design and architecture of complex systems, especially ones that are either designed or evolved to produce purposeful behaviour.

As I’ve written about previously, it’s most certainly false to believe that “higher-level explanations cannot be fundamental”.

The field of complexity science is incredibly rich, with more than a hint of subversive energy running through it. Here is a sampling of online courses, books, and other resources to get started learning about this field.

Online Lectures & Courses

  • Introduction to Complexity: This free online course is offered by the Santa Fe Institute, the unofficial home for complexity science research. This course is taught by Melanie Mitchell, who also wrote the very good book Complexity: A Guided Tour, which covers a lot of the same territory. I finished this course a few weeks ago and highly recommend it as a first place to start learning about the field. It has a good mix of history, theory and hands-on practice using math and code.
  • Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos: This free online course, also from the Santa Fe Institute, covers some of the same territory as the Introduction to Complexity course, but is more math focused. There are a number of mathematical ideas and formulas that come up again and again in the field, and this course gives a good introduction to a handful of them.
  • Journey into information theory: Information theory is another field that is heavily referenced within complexity science. This video series from Khan Academy is the most interesting, accessible intro to information theory I’ve found.

Books

  • Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Published in 1987, this book is often cited as the best place for a high-level overview of chaos theory and other ideas from complexity science.
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. As mentioned above, this book covers much of the same territory as the Introduction to Complexity course, but the longer book format allows her to go into more detail on many of the subjects. It’s less journalistic than Gleick’s book and more focused on the actual science.

For more book recommendations, check out the list at the bottom of the blog post from Kevin Mitchell quoted above.

Code

  • The Nature of Code: This free book “focuses on the programming strategies and techniques behind computer simulations of natural systems”, with many ideas pulled from complexity science. The code examples from the book are available in either Processing or p5.js, the JavaScript port of processing.
  • Think Complexity 2: This free book explores some ideas from complexity science through Python code. I haven’t had the chance to go through it yet, but I’ve read other books from Green Tea Press and was impressed with their quality, so I have high hopes.

Interactive tools

  • Complexity Explorables: a collection of interactive explorable explanations of complex systems in biology, physics, mathematics, social sciences, epidemiology, ecology and other fields.
  • Emergent Mind: a project-based blog about emergence, evolution, and artificial life.

Community

Finally, here are some members of the complexity science community with interesting online presences.

  • Kevin Mitchell: neurogeneticist interested in the genetics of brain wiring and its contribution to variation in human faculties.
  • Jessica Flack: Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.
  • Melanie Mitchell: AI researcher, professor and author.
  • Evan Thompson: I am in the midst of reading Evan’s book Mind in Life, where he uses ideas from complexity science to address the “so-called explanatory gap between biological life and consciousness”.

This is just a small sampling from this broad and growing field. As usual, I’m collecting more resources in a dedicated Are.na channel as well.

23 September 2019

Technologies of the Self: A Short Introduction

One of Michel Foucault’s late interests provides a rich framework for understanding self-transformation and meaning-making.

Speaking at a public lecture two years before his death, Michel Foucault introduced a new area of research which he called “technologies of the self”. Noting that he has “perhaps” focused “too much on the technology of domination and power”, Foucault says that he would now rather look at “how an individual acts upon himself.”

[T]echnologies of the self… permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.

Following this definition, technologies of the self can be anything from reading, writing, exercise, and meditation, to plastic surgery, Instagram filters, and neural links. What makes Foucault’s framework so useful is that is allows one to look not only at individuals’ behaviors and aspirations, but the tools and practices they use to enact them, as well as the cultural contexts surrounding them.

I was brought back to Foucault’s work on this idea by Erik Davis’ amazing book, High Weirdness. Davis’ book recounts the psychedelic adventures of Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick, weaving through and around their personal stories a larger narrative about media, psychology, and the limits of knowledge. Davis’ protagonists make use of their favored technologies of the self in order to do much of what Foucault sketched out in his initial formulation: attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection and immortality.

I had a passing thought several years ago about how if the zeitgeist of 1968 could be expressed as “LSD and the Grateful Dead”, then 2018 was “modafinil and podcasts at 1.5x speed.” Revisiting this tongue-in-cheek observation while researching technologies of the self, I realized that it might serve as a useful entry point into examining several larger ideas within this territory.

I.

The particular operations a person can perform on themselves, the transformations they can entail, and the states of consciousness they can enable are countless. If we contrast the stereotyped “1968” experience — a cosmic consciousness free associating between disparate ideas, the boundaries of the self slipping away — and contrast it with “2018” — a hyper-focus on instrumental knowledge and achieving social and economic mastery through personal productivity — the yawning chasm between various modes of inner experience becomes apparent.

In both of these examples, we can see the confluence of technology (synthesized drugs, recorded and transmitted media) and the beliefs their users bring to bear on them. In turn, these individual practices are embedded within a set of cultural beliefs and traditions that create an initial framing for the experience.

None of that matters, though, for the person caught in the here-and-now of a technology they hope can transform their body or soul. They want to proclaim the truth of their experience and hasten the transformation. Davis’ description of Terence and Dennis McKenna’s struggles to square their belief in scientific naturalism with the received truth of their psychedelic experiences highlights precisely this dynamic.

Is it possible to suspend belief about whether a particular technology reveals something “true” and instead focus on what it has to tell us about the nature of human experience and the possibilities for personal change? I think so.

II.

Three interconnected claims: (a) Every technology brings with it a different range of possibilities for its use (b) Every person’s consciousness is shaped by the technologies they make use of (c) Every society is distinguished by how it values the technologies deployed within it.

As Foucault notes, the Stoic tradition emphasized mastery over oneself as the primarily goal of a philosophical education. The tools at the Roman’s disposal — reading and writing — were particularly good for this practice of careful concern over one’s thoughts and actions.

In contrast, the demands of productivity and the constant background noise of stress that shapes the lives of modern office workers led Alain de Botton to claim that “[o]ffice civilisation could not be feasible without the hard take-offs and landings effected by coffee and alcohol. ”

Different technologies for different needs for different times. Which came first, the written word or careful consideration of one’s self? Coffee as an essential daily routine or the valuing of sustained attention? For any example we could give, it becomes nearly impossible to neatly separate causes from effects when looking at why certain technologies become popular in a particular time or place.

III.

Technologies of the self provides a particularly useful framework for looking at how people construct meaning in their lives and imagine an ideal self. I hope to continue spending time on the idea, with more posts to come. In the meantime, you can browse my research.