Saturday, January 14, 2012

Functional Hiding: How Does Nature Hide from Itself?

A anonymous poster said that "functionality would fully temporalize it" ["hiding out" in reference to whether nature "hides" itself].  The assertion, as I understood it, was that functionalizing the concept would solve a lot of problems.  Let's run with this.

Let us distinguish between “substantial” and “functional” definitions.  I will subsequently apply this to the word “object.”  A substantial definitions defines or distinctly characterizes something in terms of what it is by itself, e.g., its substance, essence, quiddity, Platonic form, Aristotelian ousia, etc.  A functional definition defines or distinctly characterizes something in terms of how it functions, e.g., its activity, dynamic structure, pattern of effects, etc.  The thing literally is its function and ceases to be when it stops functioning or functioning in that way.   Hume famously claimed in Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals that justice was such a thing.  As I told my Ethics class last semester, there is no justice in Mad Max’s dystopian world, since the social patterns that would give justice its utility and therefore existence would not be operative.  This is only one understanding of a functional definition that is either a formal distinction or at best a real distinction, but has no real referent or extension.

Consider the difference between a functional description and a functional definition with real referent or extension.  In the former, the description is an analytic tool vs. a definition.  “Just think of it this way” is the former, while “it really is this way” is the latter. 

Is an “object” a substantial or functional term in OOO, and its it descriptive or definitional?   I believe the answer varies depending upon which OOO.  It's something to think about if one wants to functionalize OOO.  In my own pragmatism, it's all functional, which goes along with processive, but is sometimes descriptive and sometimes definitional depending upon what we're talking about.


  1. My concerns with OOO is that prima facie it seems to want to have various points both ways.

    If both ways are Graham’s semiotic of tool-being (mostly about substance per Aristotle and Leibniz) and Levi’s functional-systems-in-process (mostly about occasions and affective relations per Whitehead minus God) then this seems to be the best characterization of both that I’ve seen yet.

    "Btw, the pitfalls of absolute withdrawal are that if objects never directly interact, then one must explain how they could interact ever. Once absolute discontinuity is posited, continuity becomes something that one cannot easily get back. The other problem of functionalizing is giving into nominalism, which I have explained at length on this blog."

    Wow, this is it. What you’ve done in your above comment, Jason, and not to overstate it but I really feel that it’s true, is that you’ve illuminated both paths so far as they can go without hitting a major roadblock. I’ve been attempting to articulate this for awhile now, but you’ve managed to do it.

    First, “The pitfalls of absolute withdrawal are that if objects never directly interact, then one must explain how they could interact ever.”
    I have been saying *since day one* that without either a coherent theory of internal and external relations or an adequate theory of singular identity for a substance then it’s a sinking ship. A theory of vicarious causation used to explain interaction (and hence defer explaining the singular nature of a substance) attempts to slink past the sort of metaphysical argument required to take the theory as true rather than mere assertion. What you get is a “hand over hand” effect instead of substance (at least the sort of substance that awaits at the center which Graham tells us about).

    Second, “The other problem of functionalizing is giving into nominalism, which I have explained at length on this blog.”

    This is a newer problem because Levi was abit behind of Graham in developing his own theory, but this is where it ended up (nominalism).

    In my opinion, it was because of the insistence on such a radical materialist viewpoint that there was no other way to go - and because that is now Levi's cottage I don't see him giving it up (mostly because of the antipathy toward religion). But I see one last option for Levi and that is to go with Whitehead down the yellow brick road (which he seems to be doing), but he’ll have to give up his militant materialism and opt for something else. And remember, the wizard awaits ...

    Finally, you just typed what I did here (but switched the terms):

    “Just think of it this way” is the former (Levi), while “it really is this way” is the latter (Graham).

    It seems that “hiding out” is the saving grace in one but you lose what you want (substance, at least in terms of how we are told to think about it vis-a-vis Aristotle and Leibniz). “Hiding out” is problematic in the other but you end up with nominalism. This new "systems/functional" approach seems to be trying to address that question, and happily that takes us into some familiar territory: pragmatism. Now, will this approach be realist or nominalist? Let's watch and see.

    Pass the popcorn, Jason.

  2. I want to add a quick thought. It's not about "reverting" to other philosophers in the history of philosophy in this discussion. I think that there are new ways of doing things perfectly attributable to your own devices, and an "-ism" or approach (semiotics) can still be given a hat tip. Thus my mention of pragmatism.

    For example, Meillassoux is (from what he's said in interviews) veering toward a semiotics of non-meaning, or a way of doing semiotics which reveals that nature is at its core meaningless. That is from what I understand, so we'll see what that looks like in the future, but the point is that he is using a familiar method to do something new.

    Likewise, it would be nice to see Levi use pragmatism and do something new if systems theory and a functional approach won't give him what he wants. Or add a pragmatic element to solve the nominalism/realism issue that appears to haunt his materialist approach. All in all, a conceptual map is always nice.

    I do not shy from calling my own approach "pragmatic speculative realism" (or pragmaticist speculative realism, if Bogost won't allow another stake in the ground next to his) or "object-oriented theology" (or speculative naturalism, if OOO folks won't allow me to be a fellow traveler, which it seems that they won't mostly because of clashing personalities.

    This is a shame because you'd think that cooperation in efforts to expand a theory in new directions *including* the relationship between theology and ecology would be tolerated, but alas it is not. In strictly philosophical terms, however, this may be fair because I can only follow about half of the OOO theses which comprise its general theory before some major problems crop up. But I digress.)

  3. I think that characterization is too hasty. I do not idly right "seems," "appears," "prima facie," and I do not mean those words as a polite cover. I'm still working through the tool-being analysis--I have the book--but am mostly thinking in terms of his "vicarious causation." Despite a lack of reference, or maybe I missed it, I think he's borrowing a lot from prior work that he doesn't mention there. It is a specialty journal, after all.

    Why is that characterization hasty? It will take a scholarly exigesis to prove that a given OOP fulfills the antecedent of the conditional, "if objects never directly interact." Btw, the distinction between direct and indirect isn't significant in this case since the third object required in indirect action would also have this problem. Levi has recently repudiated absolute withdrawal, so I do not think it applies. In his variant, I'm mostly curious about how temporality works, but that'sextra study on my end.

    I have not elucidated road blocks. I have pointed out rocks in the river. This is the point of constructive criticism. Speaking of that, given that Harman has repudiated Leibnizian readings of his OOP, I think that its time to either prove that point or cite me a reference.

    Vicarious causation appears to explain indirect contact, but at the moment I don't see how it doesn't fall to the Third Man Argument (cf Plato's Parmenides). However, I take that to be a lack of knowledge on my part for the moment, as the generativity of Harman's objects is still not clear to me. If objects are nested in objects (the sensual?), and nesting is a temporal thing, then maybe we can get around this. But then this is really not substance metaphysics at all unless one is abusing the term; substance without essence or its analogue doesn't make sense historically.

    Levi's ending up in nominalism, by his own ascription, isn't a "problem" for him or myself. It's just a professional disagreement and not very interesting once identified. It's where one goes from there that matters.

    There's another option to materialism (though I'm still trying to figure out what that is in this case). There's probably plenty.

    Finally, I will leave alone the comments about "hiding out" as I will withhold judgment.

  4. My own view is that nature at its core is "meaningless." The trick is what is "meaningful" and how does it become meaningful. Nature qua nature has no meaning; it gains meaning as nature qua inquiry. But this does not mean that it doesn't have qualities and many other attributes that some might roll into "meaning." One could, given my position, recover the "meaning" of nature by having a less strict definition. I discuss this in my dissertation and articles.

    Again, I do not think the "nominalism/realism issue" is something to be "solved." It's a professional disagreement, and I'm a pluralist about this. That said, I would then point out that many philosophies are viable, and at that point we are left with abductive criteria to chose amongst them. De facto, I think most use temperament, which for me is a gray area.

    Both in person and even more so on the internet, it's hard to tell if criticism is sincere and constructive or destructive. When it is sincere, it's usually so limp as not to be helpful.

  5. Finally, can we talk about something other than OOO? Despite all the conversation, this is actually not an OOO blog. It's a pragmatism/cross-tradition/continental blog.

    I do love the metaphysics as it is the next step of my long-term research, but I'm actually working in emergentist naturalism, where "naturalism" has nothing to do with analytic's naturalism often understood as scientific naturalism. We had the term first by decades.

  6. Jason,
    Discussing something other than OOO sonds good to me. Right now my research is centering on naturalism and an aesthetic theory of value whereby nature can be said to be "electric with meaning" qua intrinsic experience (there is nothing that does not experience) thus nature is intrinsically of a form of value.

    Let me finish up my book review of the new Hartshorne book and it would be good to get into this value question.

    By the by, check oit the amazing review on amazon of that Hartshorne book (Creative Experiencing).


  7. What is "meaning?" For my view, phenomenological temporality is irreducible in meaningful experience. That is, the meaning of an object is the horizon of possible interactions implicated in and with it. Prior to that, the object is qualitative, and prior to that it is energetic and resistance, and prior to that it is brutely existent. But meaning occurs only in the last phase, as meaning is primarily a human affair. If I ask, I feel I should also give an answer.

    I think we've talked about value before, but I cannot recall if you answered the question of what it is.

  8. For me, the terms "creativity," "value," and "meaning" are interwoven.

    First, "We did not invent meaning. This world has always meant something. It just did not know it." (Hoffmeyer, 'Signs of Meaning in the Universe, pg. 146).

    I am reading about "meaning physics" right now, how the material world provides the "machinery" for generating meaning. In a sense, meaning is what is manifested from particle phenomena in "bottom-up" semiosic generation. Floyd Merrell: "Matter is congealed mind, and mind is sublimated matter." When we talk about meaning we go right into semiotics.

    I am not sure I see things in phases of generation, but maybe something like a circuit board with many pieces in play at once. Meaning-generation *is* the creative process, which begs the term "creative" and "process":


    "In ordinary use 'creative' has a laudatory meaning. In metaphysical use, the value aspect is attenuated though not simply eliminated. Theory (in process philosophy) is that neither creative novelty nor value can be totally lacking, or at zero, in any concrete actuality. But how far above zero the novelt or the value may be left open....[Any singular actuality] has some value, and also some novelty, in every case. The value is that of felt harmony. (Even in intense suffering there is something of this value. Mere discord does not produce an experience, a synthesis, at all.)


    "The felt harmonies of [greater creative power and greater value] are more complex and rich. The value of harmonious feelings is proportional to their intensity, and this seems to depend upon the depth and variety of contrasts in the data. Novelty is contrast in time, compared to variety in space. Both contribute, via memory (perception) to intensity and hence to value."

    (Charles Hartshorne, 'Creative Experiencing' pg. 129)

    Leon / after nature

  9. A point of clarification on the above, before I forget. Because of firstness-potential I think the "circuit board" theory of meaning shortcuts where a beginning phase and end phase of meaning should be. If we have value and creativity involved there may be some basic meaning as novelty is added to the universe (the very fact of concrete actualities has a certain meaning for me, and I do realize that is an unpopular view). Now, because I am currently writing in pain this evening and barely able to stand it, I am currently torn on whether that concrete fact of meaning is wholly good, but that's another story.

    Leon/after nature

  10. Leon, I do not disagree that the "material world provides the 'machinery' for generating meaning. I just chose to define meaning in such a way that it is human dependent. One could define it otherwise and remain compatible with my view.

    I do not think that meaning-generation is the creative process, because creation is primal but human being is not.

    Moreover, the quotation from Hartshorne is not elucidative on this point. I can understand creativity as valuable, but I'd still ask what value is. If it is "felt harmony," then I see no reason to define value as that as opposed to something else. In short, Hartshorne would only be helpful if I agreed with the content or structure of his views. But then, I'm not a theist....

    If facts about actuality have meaning, then what is "meaning?" Is it a meaning for anyone? I am extremely reluctant to divorce meaning from perspective and an organism.

  11. Right, for me nothing is lost for the divine perspective. (Your last comment.) I don't have a full theory worked out, but Id like to think that if panexperientialism is true, then meaning is never "lost.". If the addition of concrete actualities to the universe always constitutes a fact and also a meaning of some kind (as experienced) then meaning relates to both perspective of experiencer and past experience. I am supposing future experience too, as value, meaning, novelty is always added. Just thinking out loud here.


  12. What is "panexperientialism?" When I ascribe to "panpsychism," I merely mean that mind is an emergent potentiality of matter occurring through natural conditions rather than 1) mind as emergent ex nihilo through super-natural conditions or 2) any dualism view of mind and matter, or 3) mind is not real or is an epiphenomenon of matter. Panpsychism in this form includes a number of background theses such as creativity, i.e., that new forms and materials of the cosmos may emerge without any prior "seeding" or the ability to know their prior possibility.

    All that said, nowhere does that leave room for "meaning" in non-human nature especially since I define the paradigm event of meaning-giving as the imaginative projection of experienced possibilities. In that case, my work parallels Mark Johnson's The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. However, a small bone is thrown to you, because since I understand nature to be an "open monism," then meaning is natural, but only comes into being under certain conditions. Recall my prior posts on "causal closure" that explain what I mean by "open monism." "Monism" when no longer thought in the confines of a substance metaphysics is quite something else.

    Do you not give in to my point when you write "If the addition of concrete actualities to the universe always constitutes a fact and also a meaning of some kind (as experienced)?" Experiencing is an event. The only way you can maintain that meaning persists as part of non-human nature is to have it persist in God as natural deity.

  13. Jason,
    The last sentence of your comment, an unpopular view, but one that I am taking for now due to practical reasons (for me it seems to "work," but Im not an epiphenominalist) but also theistic reasons.

    At this point I am just not comfortable tieing meaning to specifically human projection. If panexperientialism means (or can mean) that there is no-thing in nature which does not experience then there may be something like a non-human sort of meaning.

    One current definition of meaning that I like is "information," as in "content.". But again, this is all tentative.

  14. Jason,
    This'll be my last comment here, there will NOT be an unlucky number of 13 comments! But I have enjoyed this discussion, so thanks.

    Semiotics is a rabbit hole. Once you go in, you don't come out. I've had some interest in biosemiotics, but by no means do I know it well. Even Peirce's standard semiotics is a weak point of my own Peirce studies. Anyhow, with respect to meaning: I tend to remember vaguely that information is breadth x depth(?) where (the) meaning (of a sign) is where a sign is located among sign relations. The meaning of signs involves triadic coding and decoding of information. Fine. But my general point in all of this is that I don't believe that the interpreter of a sign must be human, that non-human experiencers may be interpreters - and even "experience" itself, if panexperiential ("alive" with perspective down to the molecular level, however faintly) is never without its perspective and communication of meaning.

    A.) This is *can* be defended against the charge of correlationism, and in fact Peirce (as I've always said) was one of the first speculative realists - the "subject" in the s-o correlate is not the same thing that Meillassoux is attacking, but Peirce and Meillassoux do land on completely different pages; Peirce with meaning and Meillassoux with no meaning (cf. "Outside Thought: Meillassoux, Uexküll, Peirce," Interdisciplinary Journal for Germanic Linguistics and Semiotic Analysis vol 16, 1, 2011.)

    B.) I am wholly in the minority with my theism. I acknowledge this. But even without the divine perspective I would like to think of objects, object-relations, and the meaning of those two (where the sign is positioned in a relation?) as interdependent with terms such as contrast, value, and creativity. (New meaning created and added to the objective immortality of the past, for example.) Following Hartshorne I think metaphysics concerns only positive values, and that it is impossible for the universe to be without meaning, even if humans cease to exist. There is, always was, and always will be meaning in the universe, even if no one is around to know it. It would be anthropocentric to think anything less, I would argue. Just as it is impossible for there to be a zero degree of value, there can be no zero degree of meaning. Not necessarily because of "giveness" etc. for humans but because of how (semiotic) objects and (semiotic) object-relations exist relative to each other.

    C.) I don't want to say that meaning is somehow ready made and static, however. I prefer the "circuit board" approach, but because I am not a master in semiotics I can only speculate and take layperson's approach to the subject from this point forward in the conversation. With that said, I am a big fan of Hoffmeyer's 'Signs of Meaning in the Universe' and on my shelf right now I am peering over my laptop at Buchanan's 'Onto-ethologies', Uexkill's 'Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans' and my ragged copy of (bought used, it's expensive) Favareau's 'Essential Readings in Biosemiotics' all sitting on my shelf next to Thacker's 'After Life' and some books by Bergson.

    D.) Ah, pain is now starting again...this is the reason why I can't blog anymore. (*sigh*...)