The Infinite

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I don’t anticipate any explicitly Whiteheadian considerations this time around, but all my thoughts are informed by my Whitehead scholarship, so you never know. What I want to talk about here is the idea of infinity. I say “idea,” rather than “concept,” because even within the relatively constrained bounds of formal mathematics infinity is not one thing. Outside of the bounds of mathematics matters are significantly worse, little or since no effort is made to constrain such talks, or even render it potentially intelligible, with formally legitimate techniques.

Speaking of “outside the bounds,” the ancient Greek word for the infinite is “apeiron” (ἄπειρον), which translates as “unlimited” – the “a” being the negation (“un”) and “peiron” meaning limited or bounded. Clever as they were, the Greeks lacked our additional 2,300 years of mathematical study, so the idea that one can have something that is infinite (unbounded) – for example, the length of the perimeter of a geometrical figure – i.e. a perimeter that exceeds any possible length, measurable either in practice or the ideal, that is nevertheless bounded by an easily measured finite figure (a circle, for example) would never have occurred to them.i But the figure above, the Koch snowflake, is precisely such a figure. (Details can be found HERE. As is my wont, I skip the technical details which will take up more text than this blog post.)

Computation, Complexity, and Why is The Rum Always Gone? (2)

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Some tasks, processes, “computations,” are too difficult to do in any practical context. Some are so intrinsically hard that, even while they don’t seem especially difficult, God herself could not do them. The first is the problem of computational complexity, the other of computability/solvability. The former, complexity, emerged from the latter, computability, because the problem of computability was more obvious to mathematicians who’d never seen, much less actually used, a computer. But after Alan Turing presented his own abstract model of a computing “machine” (the “Turing Machine,” or TM) to prove the existence of unsolvable mathematical problems, the difference between what could be solved in theory (computability) and what could be solved in practice (complexity) came into view, and methods were developed to investigate the latter as well as the former. This is all by way of summary of, and pointing forward from, the previous post.

Mechanical Turing Machine

There are theoretical &/or partial work arounds, ways of tricking out the game, for both complexity and computability. For complexity, it is unclear whether the trick can be realized in practice. For computability, it is unclear whether the trick (which is only a partial trick, really) is even physically possible. Still, I’m going to talk a little about both – in the preceding order – and finish with some comments on how these theoretical considerations can be manifested in our considerations of what does and what does not constitute legitimate scientific inquiry, and a few comments closing the circle on analysis versus ontology.

Computation, Complexity, and Why is The Rum Always Gone? (1)

Were it ever the case that there was another person as peculiar as myself, who would study topics like Whitehead’s philosophy of process and theory of computation at the same time (over a period of decades), such a singular individual might speculate about the connection between the theory of computation and Whitehead’s process of emergent actual occasions. The latter bears some real analogies to a real, completed computation: the data (Whitehead actually uses that term) that combine via a process of integration into the holistic completion of an occasion/computation has a variety of structural similarities. This is made more interesting by the fact that Whitehead was writing long before theoretical concepts of computation emerged in anything like a developed form in Alan Turing’s work in the mid-to-late 1930’s.

An example of the Nazi “Enigma” machine.

The analogy fails catastrophically, of course, after even a little examination. The theory of computation offers nothing in the way of insight into the continuum of possibility; it is hopelessly finite in every character; it does not even imagine a difference between analysis and ontology. Whitehead’s process philosophy transcends all of these distinctions. But – and this is key – that is because Whitehead looks at both analysis and ontology, and notes the distinction. The theory of computation only looks at analysis. Still, while it goes no further, as far as it does go is broadly applicable to any activity where analysis is involved. So that is what I want to talk about here. As always, I’ll avoid technical details; working through even a trivially simple computation in pure, “Turing Machine” (TM) form, is an exercise in tedious details that would stress even the most detail oriented individual to the breaking point. Books on theoretical computation, and computational complexity, are so readily available for the curious that I’ll not even trouble to make a list (which could, by itself, consume the 1500 words I otherwise try to limit myself to.) But neither will I say anything that I can’t cite multiple sources to justify.

A Place In The Sun

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I have this absurd fantasy that sneaks up on me sometimes in my mellower moments (so, rarely). It is the thought of moving to some place like Key West, or one of the smaller Hawaiian islands. I’d spend my days hanging out at beachfront cabanas sipping rum drinks, noodling away at whatever writing project engaged me at the time. I’d be so familiar to staff that they wouldn’t even trouble to ask me what I was having before bringing my first drink over. I’d never wear socks, or underwear, or shirts with collars ever again. (Actually, I’m already basically there with that latter.) My head will be filled with creative imaginings and ear-worms of Beach Boys songs.

Now, as I’ve already noted, this is an absurd fantasy. Quite aside from the fact that, short of winning one of the larger lottery prizes I’d never be able to afford such locales, there are the facts that I can barely suffer the heat and humidity of Midwest summers, and AGWi driven sea rise means the storm surge from the next big blow to hit these places will sweep away every last trace of human habitation. But fantasies seldom allow logic or facts to interfere with them; just consider those pitiful rubes who voted for Trump (twice!) and even imagine he won the 2020 election. Yet I still buy a lottery ticket every now and then, even though I understand I’ve a better chance of being struck by lightning in any given year. (About 1 chance in 1,220,000.)

But there is something about those places, something that really catches and hold your imagination. For the record, I’ve been to Key Largo and Key West. And while I’ve never been to Hawaii, I have been to Tahiti, which has a very similar climate. There’s just something in the air and the light that is not like other places; something romantic even in the loneliness. And that’s what I want to talk about here, the sense of place.

Strains, Planes, and Flat Loci

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A running joke that Dr. Auxier and I incorporated into our booki was the phrase, “skip to page 337.” The pagination reference is to the Free Press edition of the corrected version of Whitehead’s monumental work of metaphysics, Process and Reality (“PR” hereafter.) Page 337 of PR is the start of the fifth part of the work, his rather poetic discussion on “God,” beyond the more concrete arguments of the preceding 337 pages. By “concrete” it should be understood that Whitehead’s “God” is not some religion inspiring big daddy in the sky that you go to church to beg candy from. Uneducated rumors to the contrary not withstanding, Whitehead never invented words. But at many points in his tome on “speculative philosophy” (his preferred term for what others call “metaphysics”) he needed to identify an “omega point” which served as the entirely impersonal foundation for the rational structure of the world as well as the “font of creativity.” He called this “God.” Were he inclined to use non-English words, a better choice might have been the Greek “arché” (αρχη). But Whitehead was Whitehead, and that was never going to happen, and so it did not.

Setting aside for the moment the question of “God,” there are some important issues in the material that the people skipping over to pg. 337 are, in fact, skipping over, in their stampeding rush to gin up a “Whiteheadian” theology. There are two things I want to talk about that are left all but untouched in the secondary literature on Whitehead, one of which is interesting and the other is downright revolutionary. These things appear in the pages that many scholars ignore when the skip to pg. 337. They are what Whitehead called “strains” and “flat loci.” I’ll address these in order. But first I’ll devote a paragraph to the work on natural philosophy that Whitehead developed in the years preceding PR.

Part II: Re-enchantment Is Resistance

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Upwards of fifty years ago, the hard-nosed empiricist philosopher Bas van Fraassen wrote some words that have stuck with me ever since. I beg a measure of patience, because I am quoting from memory (my copy of the book is buried among 55 boxes in a pole barn). Basically, van Fraassen said this: “I can believe in witches and fairies; indeed, I may have met a few. But I cannot for all the world believe in a ‘set’.”i A “set” in this instance is a mathematical entity as in “set theory.” What van Fraassen the very hard-nosed empiricist is saying is that witches and fairies are objects of direct (and possibly personal) experience, whereas mathematical sets – which, mathematicians assure us, are surely among the most rational things in the world – have no such connection to experience. As such, “sets” have far less basis (in van Fraassen’s hard-nosed estimation) for anything like rational justification. And while van Fraassen’s empiricism would have been much improved had he gone radicalá la William James and Alfred North Whitehead – rather than following David Hume, his point is still well worth taking. If witchesii and members of the fae are supposedly “uncanny,” what in the hell does that make a “set,” even an “ordinary” one? (The weird ones get downright wyrd.)

Following up on the previous essay, I want to talk about our relatedness to the uncanny (which I’ll now treat as uncontroversially real) from a Whiteheadian perspective. The uncanny manifests itself in us. But if Whitehead is correct, then that manifestation takes two special forms: first there is the internalization of relatedness, in which we draw the uncanny into ourselves as part of ourselves, as how we realize our selves to ourselves. But secondly, there is the externalization of relatedness in which we pro-ject ourselves onto the world. These forms of relatedness will require spending a few words on the badly framed traditional question of “internal” and “external” relations; badly framed because it takes those relations as given rather than as processes in realization. At the very end, I’ll come back to the significance of this essay’s title.

Part I: The Concrescence of The Uncanny

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This year of the plague has been a miserably difficult time for all of us. For my part, it has all but obliterated my writing and research which, given how others have suffered, is a rather small price to pay. I’ve not gone cold or hungry, and but for the one time when pipes burst, I’ve had running water. So I’m trying to push myself back into writing, and that push has got me toying with thoughts of something that is fun yet Whitehead related. So I’m going to deviate from the “standard” Whiteheadian brief here, and perform a two part divagation into an arena that is often left aside as an example of the “irrational”. Specifically, I want to dip a toe into the uncanny. I will explain in a moment my reasons for the previous two scare quoted terms. But first I want to say something about my own curiosity on the subject. Also, I would draw everyone’s attention to the irony that I begin this writing on “pi-day”, March 14 or 3/14. For the “irrational” number π, as we will observe, is disturbingly uncanny.

Night time, when shadows and substance blur into one another

My own little journey began – one hesitates to say “innocently enough” given the nature of the subject matter – on social media. With social distancing (which, in my case, includes an unpleasant measure of social isolation) I was shifting around for various available forms of online connections, and stumbled into a small group of writers, creators, and artists who focus their attention on folk stories, and folk horror in particular. We engaged in various asynchronous forms of sharing, but also in synchronous activities such as watch parties of old-school ghost stories freely available at various streaming services. Given the workings of my mind, I naturally began wondering about fitting such stories and ideas within Whitehead’s speculative philosophy.

Year of The Plague 7: Cats

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I’ve struggled these last months to say anything of any interest – to myself, much less to anyone else – and as one can see by tracking the entries to this blog, I’ve not enjoyed much sense. I’ve started this YotP7 entry at least three times now, gone almost all the way to the end, only to throw it all away as empty twaddle. So I’ve finally decided fuck it (it’s my blog and I get to say that), I’m just going to talk about my cats. I don’t expect there to be any redeeming philosophical content here, though I don’t preclude the possibility. (Writing is, after all, a creative activity, and creation takes on a life of its own.)

Bluesy and Jazzy as Kittens.

Before proceeding, one caveat that any cat person will readily understand: talking about “my” cats can be a little problematic, since the suggestion of possession or ownership also suggests a sharply drawn line. A person I’m connected to on Twitter periodically shares photos of “Not My Cat”, a young brown tabby that continues to walk into his home and help itself to food, shelter, napping places, and companionship. My situation is not quite so extreme, but it still merits making, or at least being alert to, a distinction.

The Year of The Plague 6: Only The Lonely

Writing has been brutally difficult these last few weeks. I started on this blog some while back, and after 1,200+ words just threw the whole thing away as irreparable twaddle. What I have here is still something of a hot mess. I am so little qualified to speak on the events of the last few weeks that I came to acknowledge that words were simply failing me. I am tired, I am angry, I am frustrated by my own impotence and cowardice, and trying speak of such matters only seems to make them worse. It is as if we’ve learned nothing since Ferguson, and the casual, ‘business as usual’ dehumanization of Michael Brown and so many other, unarmed persons of color. Privileged protofascists cry out with self-righteous savagery for more violence from the police against those who would dare object to the indefensible violence of the police. Militarized thugs – literally wearing blackshirts! – abandon any pretense of professionalism or commitment to the people and communities they are nominally sworn to serve and protect, instead viciously attacking peaceful protesters exercising their legitimate Constitutional rights, and doing so with absolute abandon. Utterly secure in their surety that their brutality will be given a free pass by the other fascists whom they gleefully serve, these paid bullies prove they care nothing for law, only for enforcement. (And when that surety is challenged by facts, responding with a temper tantrum. No wonder they voted for Trump – they have so much in common.)

Meanwhile, the Butthurt Baby in Chief wants to distract people from the real issues by spewing infantile nonsense about declaring “Antifa” to be a “domestic terrorist organization.” Quite aside from the fact that President Tinyhands cannot make such a designation, there is no such thing as an “organization” called “Antifa.” “Antifa” is a label that people can adopt or reject, individually or collectively, in any manner that they choose. As someone on Twitter (I’ve forgotten who) recently commented, “Antifa is an ‘organization’ in the same way that ‘people who hate the Dave Matthews band’ is an organization.” (Besides, does anyone really hate the Dave Matthews Band?)

Relational Ethics

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Time to take a break from my meditations on the year of the plague; life still goes on.

Ethics, especially as caricatured by philosophers who have written on the subject, has (the story goes) often been taught as a collection of rules “informing” the student about what the youth (invariably male, as was the instructor, up until the late 19th, early 20th centuries) should or should not do. In this picture of things, ethics (theory, if you will) was simply the ironclad apologia for the morality (practical, cultural practices) of the day. As noted, this is at least somewhat of a caricature, and if one turns instead to the pages of the great philosophers – specifically Aristotle, Kant, and John Stewart Milli, representing virtue, deontological, and utilitarian ethics, respectively – one can recognize that even as these thinkers morality remained rooted in the assumptions of their day, their ethics as written placed the emphasis not on lists of rules but forms of practical inquiry. This point was given explicit pride of place by John Dewey in the excellent part 2 of the Dewey & Tufts Ethics (the part where Dewey was the sole author), “Theory of the Moral Life.”

But while emphasizing the inquiriential aspect of ethical theory, another aspect of the subject matter – implicit in treating ethical theory as a mode of inquiry – deserves discussion. A simple prescription of static rules would actually suffice were it not for two things: ethics itself is not static, and the nature of that dynamism means that ethics is fundamentally relational in character. I’ll focus exclusively on the latter point here.