art, ascetic ideal, chaos, efficiency, history, humility, illusion, improvement, irony, meaning, Nietzsche, order, problem, religion, resentment, science, socrates, spirit, will to power

The Meaning of Science

What is the Meaning of Science?
Nietzsche and the History of the Human Spirit

What is problematic about science? What does the “progress” of science mean about human beings? I believe this question turns everything which is unsettling, mysterious, and uncanny about the course of human development (and not only human); who can exhaust what is figured within the folds of this strange question — science thought as a symptom, science grasped as a problem?

What obstructs this question from being thought? How do we interpret this ‘secondary’ problem which intervenes at the critical moment to derail thought — this “problem of the problem” of the meaning of science? At any rate it is clear the difficulty we encounter in formulating this problem are manifold, altogether formidable, but taken separately…? For science itself always already understands, justifies, and regulates itself in turn upon the basis of something non-scientific. Science as such is ultimately foundationless, and furthermore, this is one of its necessary conditions. This is a warning for those who would seek to regulate philosophy by means of “scientific” protocol; for these would in turn require their own justification… Which is not to say that such justification exists or should be sought after — but rather to pause right here, so that we can open up our profoundest capabilities of insight in order to ask: what is science as a problem? What is the meaning of science?

We should stop for a moment and reflect upon this question. We are looking for a meaning specific to science, but the meaning of science as it actually operates in history (and not, for instance, an abstract image of “science” considered in isolation of real problems.) We must try to seek the meaning of science in the more general context of human development, and ask what science means for the human species; or even more pointedly, what it means about what the human species has become. This question should be read as signifying science’s concealed meaning-about-us, a partial truth about what we are becoming as a species. The meaning, if we can but attune ourselves to it, indicates something real — albeit darkly, indirectly and only with constant resistance — about the “rate” and “direction” of human development. In this sense the problem of meaning of science reveals a way to diagnose civilization itself.

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algorithm, Cartesian theater, desire, fractal, meaning, meta-linguistics

Artifical Linguistic Competence

What does it take to make a machine linguistically competent? This is perhaps the extreme case of where we do not want solutions that make the problems simply disappear. For instance, consider any algorithm which boils down to a “pattern-matching” script, even one which is self-improving or evolving in some ways. It’s clear it won’t achieve anything near a critical degree of linguistic competency to pass for a human. Oh yes, it may work for specific problem domains. But the explicit movement of abstraction involved in all learning processes is absent.

The easiest way of conceptualizing this kind of problem is as a sort of theoretical void. We find ourselves in the surprising situation of having to identify concretely the appropriate level of abstraction. We are being asked to describe specifically the meta-linguistic mechanisms of communication. Not only by analogy, this void can be seen perhaps most intriguingly as an inverted reflection of the practical void of identifying the position of consciousness. But of course that’s absurd, right? I mean, first off, we’d have to decide at what scale we’re going to look for it! At any rate, assuming we make the error of actually trying to look for some positional self-consciousness, the mistake we’re making is analogous to looking for language-understanding in an algorithm that at the lowest level of abstraction still blindly matches this information-cluster to that information-cluster, and never actually approaching the linguistic code as code–never performing the sense-founding conjunctive mapping between the signs and the things signified. A rather curiously revealing error, which it seems not a few (“structuralists”!) have been fairly quick to do.

Curious because that confusing and strange question still remains, again that question which would seem to reduce this quest to absurdity: at what scale do we search for the psyche? Do we search for “self-awareness” at the microscopic or the quantum level, for instance? But we must move beyond the Cartesian theater of the mind, and we must even at this point separate consciousness from linguistic competence. We don’t need an algorithm which somehow becomes (positionally!) self-aware; on the contrary, we need an algorithm capable of rigorous meta-linguistic abstraction, of linguistic computation. To answer practically the question of what we need to build a linguistically competent artificial intelligence– the project consists of a single step:

(1) We need an account of language-understanding that includes an explicit account of meta-linguistic (semantic) knowledge.

I will offer an alternative statement of this same principle to motivate the question: how can we encode axioms into an abstract theoretical space? In order to offer an alternative foundation, we need to produce a simulation where everything flows–without this, we are merely pattern matching. In order to accomplish this, I think we actually do need to creatively but judiciously introduce some “exotic” mathematical concepts, like fractals, as models and “unusual” philosophical concepts, like desiring-machines, as analogies– In fact, I believe we have to experimentally inject these kinds of theoretical advances into computer science, because the real practico-theoretic problem here cannot be solved by technology alone, we have to teach it enough for it to be able to teach itself. In other words, we have to continue to build a real theory of practical linguistic agency. Which would in fact (if “finally” accomplished in practice) amount to some kind of return of the repressed, wouldn’t it? Artificial intelligence represents something of an always desired reconnection, a final psychic merging of technology and mankind. This sentiment is no accident: the human-machine relation is our first clue. Desire must be made to literally connect to the machine. This will eventually lead us to our second axiom, which we shall go ahead and state:

(2) Machine-learning must be self-organizing.

This means: algorithmicity without structure, or rather, with a fractal superstructure, although with no “foundational” layer, as the first step is recursive and differentiation can never be said to have finally stopped. In other words, self-organization allows us to tackle the problem of desire as a code, and it is precisely this “strange” kind of anti-organizational scheme which will become of increasing interest to us. This is partly because it is only once we abandon structure as the abstract “bottom level” will we be prepared to tackle authentic linguistic competency. Knowing we are still not in a position to support this next assertion, for the purposes of elucidating a future path, let’s state our third principle:

(3) Meaning is a flow of intensities, which can be considered as molecular assemblages and modeled accordingly. Meta-language is about the partial shapes and partial dimensions of actual language use. Atomic semantic units are thus completely described by their shape and (ir-referential) dimensionality.

The critical point here is that dimensionality is not only allowed to be integral; that is, we allow for partial, or fractal dimensions. A shape requires space but no structure; and we can determine operationality by mapping images to shapes of thoughts, shapes of codes, etc. The fractality of meta-linguistic processes accounts for the elusive [that is, as long as you look at it through a static dimensional framework] property of meaning, a connection which we shall attempt gradually develop with the appropriate theoretical and mathematical framework.

autopoesis, communication, desire, machine, maturana, meaning, nano-ontology, self-organization, varela


“An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.” (Maturana, Varela, 1980, p. 78)
“[…] the space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system on the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection.” (Maturana, Varela, 1980, p. 89)

Niklas Luhman works with this autopoesis to produce a quite fascinating model of systematicity. I’ll briefly highlight what’s important from our point of view.

A ‘machine’ is defined by the boundary between itself and its environment; a machine is divided from an infinitely complex exterior. Communication within a machine-system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside (reduction of complexity.) The criterion according to which info is selected and processed is meaning. Machines process meaning, producing desire; each machine’s identity is constantly reproduced in communication (depending, again, on what’s meaningful and what’s not.) If a system fails to main identity, it ceases to exist as a system and dissolves back into the environment. Autopoeisis is this process of reproduction from elements previously filtered from an over-copmlex environment. The operation of autopoesis can be binarily encoded (in a Spencer-Brown logic of distinction) as a program which filters and processes information from the environment.

OK, taking this from a D&G perspective, the question becomes about this connection or boundary-limit… and I think this is where fractality and cognition exhibit a common transitive structure…

Program-agents connect: machines to flows, flows to machines, flows to flows, machines to machines, events to flow-machines, machines to event-flows; they (1) produce mappings (flowcharts) of these connections, (2) dis-join, decode and fracture these mappings, (3) construct new machines->more or less ‘dense’ networks of ‘tubes’, flows->currents of intensity, subagents->communicate the pure imagistic flow of unconscious symbol-automation, a particular agent constructs a tool (or a machine with a hole in the shape of a ‘problem’) by halting this flow, “flattening” it into (n-1) dimensions, where it can be differentially represented by a self-organizing nano-ontology; these subagents compress reality into their ‘micro-worldviews’ but then uncompress them into signification, a stream of images and words whose true ‘symbolic’ value is not in the individual’s ontology, but in the group; so natural evolution works to point individual ontologies towards the assemblage of the group, but also pushes the groups’ ontology towards more effective ways of responding to events; so all agents are partial agents, but these agent/machine networks are not all at the same “level”; machines can be made up of machines and subagents; all agents are subagents, this fundamental fractality is ultimately what allows these flows to be taken as flows, allows agents to be and to perform; “full” agents that skim the surface of language are precisely the question. up til now we have only considered the deeps. and perhaps this is ultimately all we need consider: merely the most fundamental heuristics of cognition. but what about conceptual metaphors? does the machinic framework provide for the possibility of metonymy? does the fractality of cognition really completely account for linguistic competency…?

What is a subagent?

The task of a subagent is to translate an image (scene) into a problem space, an objectivized or idealized space. Geometric regularity is in fact what is here being auto-regulated: the problem of establishing arbitrary limits is taken up as a recursive feedback loop between the systematic and meta-systematic modes of computation. Intensity, attention, or heat is represented by the amount of ‘noise’ (perturbation) allowed by the meta-system in the description of the problem space. This problem space is then populated by sub-subagents who imagine it, and then create sub-sub-subagents who reify it into a problem space; this gradual decomposition amounts to conceptual simplification, that is, until we find an undifferentiable function which decodes the image, i.e., supplies the solution. The image (collapse of solution space) is transcoded into a new problem-space, or returned as feedback to higher levels of the system, which may be in contact with other subagents inhabiting the given problem space.

badiou, levinas, meaning, metaphysics, multiplicity, ontology


Levinas addresses a question (or criticism) very similar to Badiou’s in his essay God and Philosophy (published in 1975, the ideas put forth were already put forth in different forms in lectures given from 1973-4). In these writings we find Levinas considering the tenability of the inclusion of God within philosophical discourse. It would seem that as soon as we conceptualize God’s existence, we must also situate God amidst existence, somehow mysteriously within being’s movement. But yet, “in the most unlikely way,” God signifies “the beyond being, transcendence.” (G&P 1, all future quotes ibid.)

Thus, Levinas question is whether we can meaningfully express transcendence: can we “thematize” this radical excess of God’s being, or does transcendence delimit sensibility as such? He implies that part of the meaning of the ontological “height” of God’s existence is the exclusion of the possibility of an automatically meaningful self-revelation of being:

“Does not the modality which this adverb [“height”], borrowed from the dimension of the sky over our heads, expresses modify the verbal meaning of the verb ‘to be’ to the point of excluding it from the thinkable as something inapprehendable, excluding it from the esse showing itself, that is, showing itself meaningfully in a theme?” -God and Philosophy

In other words, since the very conception of God is that of the entity par excellence, the manner of God’s being exceeds the thinkable: God is ontologically out of bounds. Levinas’ next move here is worth following closely. He recognizes as a “major tradition of philosophical rationalism” the claim that “the God of the Bible does not have meaning, that is, is not properly speaking thinkable.” He cites Mademoiselle Delhomme: ‘The concept of God is not a problematical concept; it is not a concept at all.’ This, of course, is a very Badiouian sentiment, insofar as it radically separates any conception of God from the philosophical discourse, as inherently and unconditionally irrational.

On the contrary, Levinas argues, without the concept of God we would not have thinking, let alone rationality: this radical ontological surplus we find in the transcendence of God is “among the concepts without which there would be no thought.” But the question still remains of the meaning of the word ‘God’ in the debate. After all, the radical belief implied in religious sentiment still seems to place an almost fascist restriction on critical thought. But, according to Levinas, God exceeds infinitely any possible curtailment of meaning. Indeed, meaning originally founds and manifests itself through a transcendent movement which is the very beginning of signification itself.

Thus Levinas’ aims to determine whether the meaning “first broached in presence,” the meaning which is equivalent to the esse of being, is already a restriction of meaning, “already a derivative or a drifting of meaning.” Levinas harbors an intuition that beyond the intelligibility of immanence (the “rationalism of identity, consciousness, the present, and being,”) that the “signifyingness” of transcendence can be and is understood, and (in a sense) is understanding itself. Transcendence is both “rationality” and “rationalism”, for it precedes and structures both. Indeed, this temporal precedence is critical to Levinas’ understanding of transcendence as a meaning which has priority “over and beyond being,” whose translation into ontological language Levinas names as the “antecedent” to being. In other words, we can still meaningfully speak ontologically of a transcendent being, and we are not necessarily lapsing into blind faith or wild opinion the moment we go beyond rational “terms and beings”:

“In fact, in staying or wanting to be outside of reason, faith and opinion speak the language of being. Nothing is less opposed to ontology than opinion and faith. To ask, as we are trying to do here, if God can be expressed in a rational discourse which would be neither ontology nor faith is implicitly to doubt the formal opposition…between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, invoked in faith without philosophy, and the god of the philosophers. It is to doubt that this opposition [between the God of Abraham and the god of philosophy] constitutes an alternative.”

This unnecessary alternative has led to a foundational crisis for modern ontology: what has still “not yet reached the threshold of intelligibility” (transcendence) is identical to what appears in the Bible as that which is above and beyond all possible comprehension. Ontology is not necessarily atheistic; in fact, opinion and faith must belong to ontology, if only because they are things that are. Less tautologically, if faith “speaks the language of being” in wanting to stay outside of reason, it must be because being is manifest in opinion and faith: in authentic belief, being is given a voice, a theme, by that ingenious and overflowing thought (the idea of infinity) which, out of rationality, aims at the outside and limit-point of reason.

Thus the very suggestion can only be justified retroactively through an original archaeo-ontological discovery: we can recover a “meaning equivalent to essence” only through the potential of “going back from this allegedly conditioned meaning to a meaning which could no longer be put in terms of being or in terms of beings.” The meaning which is an equivalent to the essence of being cannot be put in terms of many (beings) or one (being); the truth, as for Plato, is suspended in the void between the universal on the one hand and particulars on the other. Meaning is expressed in the participation between the multiple and the singular, enacted in the relationality of existence and existents.

art, love, meaning

Art, Meaning, Love

“There is a reason for everything.”

How can I trust anyone who says this? No one can tell you the reasons for everything. We learn reasonable justifications for many things. But these explanations rely on what? Further explanations. Every rationalization involves an obfuscation; the double movement of knowledge represents a drawing towards a clearer understanding and pushing further away from the truth. Truth becomes untruth when we tell stories, the essential human act which defines us, since it is how we define ourselves. Storytelling is such a double-movement, since stories are both reflection and representation.

The questions ends up looking like many such questions: since the issue is such a general one, where can we ultimately draw the lines? This situation is unresolvable as it stands, that is, of the disjunction between knowledge and theories, between reflection and representation: the question is not whether stories are more reflective or more representation, or whether our ideas are knowledge or theories– since language, knowledge, even reality itself, are constructions which we must doubt in our search for truth, we have no shelter in either our mental constructions or our experiences. Where, then, is shelter to be sought? We are stranded in the abyss beyond language and beyond reality–like orphans, runaways, in the midst of this radical freedom to decide. From what do we derive the courage to face this challenge to believe? Where do we acquire the strength to act? Any absolute lines we could draw to justify ourselves, to determine right behavior, are our own lines–laws change. Our lines are insufficient, our models are fragmentary, our realities are microscopic. Yet, due to the fundamental connection which underlies both order and choas, both subject and object, knowledge and theory, language and silence, each microscopic experience comprises a microcosm of being. All that exists contains all that exists–not as a reflection, not as a representation– and yet, containment falls short of a description of this phenomena. Being shines with borrowed light: the dualism of light reminds us simultaneously of the failure of our scientific schema to accomplish a synthesis and of the flaws in our perception and observation stemming from the mechanism of sight. Vision presents a world to us isolated, carved into separate colors and depths, entites divided from one another, whole unto themselves. Yet our conscious experience belies this–not to say that from lived experience one infers that objects are not real, merely that by existing the self engulfs the entire universe, since it can reflect and represent it– yet reflection and representation are already dividing our consciousness away from itself, when unification is the primal experience. Infinite being is self-evident from the continuous, interconnected experience of conscious existence. Self-awareness is cosmic-awareness, not a rational, emotional, artistic, scientific or philosophical representation or reflection of reality to oneself. The chain of reflection is endless– art is a particularly telling example. The work of art speaks– on behalf of whom? Is it the viewer who accomplishes the synthesis which the artist necessarily leaves unfinished? Art is not merely a reflection or representation. Art is a transcendence of the subject and in this it is related to language. How is it that the message which lies hidden behind the surface of the paint is placed there? Here the analogy with language will serve us well: in what manner are the meanings of words coded into the sounds and symbol-systems? A pre-linguistic meaning, or rather, reflection of meaning–that is, an understanding established between two consciousnesses–must be accomplished prior to any formalized representation or reflection of meaning. Such a radically a priori understanding presupposes the existence of the Other. This means that our ethical obligations to others necessarily precedes the rationalizations. Responsibility is metaphysically prior to reason. Finding reasons for everything is far less important than kindness and love.