Saturday, November 3, 2012

Substance Abuse & Intimate Relations: The Danger of Aristotelian Alienation

The outdated metaphysics of Aristotle posited that the world is composed of "substances" that are self-contained objects definable in isolation. In other words, these objects constitute themselves without any necessary relations to anything else, containing their own essence within themselves. Context and embeddedness are illusions or "accidents," mere appearances and not reality. Reality does not consist of real relations.

This allowed for human beings to view themselves set apart from the world as transcendent subjects standing outside the realm of objects as detached observers. The scientific community initially adopted this view and incorporated it into their protocol, viewing their role as disinterested detectives of an objective world. Both science and philosophy no longer support this paradigm constituted by a subject-object binary.

Both existential/hermeneutic phenomenology and quantum physics support the view that the world/reality is fundamentally constituted by relations. Relationality is now seen everywhere in science from ecosystems to quantum entanglement. The paradox of quantum entanglement involves situations where seemingly separate entities (quantum systems) have direct correlative causality on each other. For example, one particle may be spinning upward in New York while its twin particle is spinning upward in California (or Mars, doesn't matter), and when the scientist reverses the spin on one, the other will automatically reverse its spin to match. Spatial distance renders this situation inexplicable and reveals a hidden connection. Even the measurement and observation of one photon will cause its related partner elsewhere to alter in response. If this seems like science fiction, just know that entanglement is now being used to develop newer ways to transmit information.

In philosophy and the social sciences we can now see that being is always being-in-the-world (Heidegger), being-toward-death (Heidegger), being-interpreted (Ricoeur), and being-created (Sartre). In other words, our singular identity and personhood (ontology) is not inherited from above or given from above. We exist before we are defined. We create and interpret ourselves dialectically, and we are always already constituted by our embeddedness within a social network, our cultural and historical situatedness, and our contextualization in the world. Our relations to the world define us, and we can only work out of that. We are malleable and evolve. But we cannot completely transcend our world or isolate ourselves from it. To attempt this is inauthentic and abusive to our being. By refusing to engage our situation and place in culture and history, we deny something fundamental about ourselves and wander off into a myopic pathology of alienation. The only possible transcendence is one in which we refuse to be totally defined by our situation and act toward self-definition.

We can only authentically, reasonably, and holistically engage our world and ourselves with this awareness. Millennia have been spent engaging in competition and violence, division and strife. We have failed to see our integration and relationality with the world, believing we are "set apart" and holy, justified in slaying the enemy of our independence and freedom. But true emancipation comes not through competition and domination driven by a will-to-power but deliberate relation to the Other, also called love. Love embraces a reverent relation toward the Other that honors her diversity without forcing conformity or reduction to the ego's own will. The same reality constituted by relationality is also constituted by differences. If two things are not differentiated, there can be no relation because dissolution will erase that possibility. Only in difference can there be relationality. This phenomenon lies in between reductive conformity and sharp alienation, both common enemies of love. True love does not focus on the holiness of the "I" but of the "Thou," the Other who intrinsically demands my attention and love.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Plasticity of Knowledge: Temporality, Narrativity, Irreducibility, and Alternating Modalities

Descartes' foundationalist model of human knowing assumes that human rationality directly correlates with reality, and that through the utility of reason a foundation can be laid upon by which ideas can be secured. The initial proposition will have to be self-evident, and then upon that foundation truth claims are layered upward. Consequently, Descartes assumed that if any philosophical system could be found errant at any point, the entire thing would fall apart and collapse. Therefore, a system is not trustworthy unless it is infallible. If even one incoherency is discovered, the entire thing should be thrown out. Why? Because nothing is trustworthy unless it exists on a "firm foundation."

This model of human knowing is fallible in itself and no longer holds up in light of the postmodern hermeneutic turn in philosophy. Interdisciplinarity has shown us that philosophers cannot simply figure things out on their own through rational reflection, which is a requirement for Cartesian foundationalism. One significant discipline that has contributed greatly to the dissolution of foundationalism is neurobiology. In this field scientists have discovered that the structure of human knowing looks more like a nexus--that is, a relational field of mutual contingency. Postmodern philosophers have contributed epistemic qualifiers like "difference" and "otherness," further radicalizing the concept of a Cartesian foundation. It is among the differences of related things that knowledge emerges. Add to this the implications of the Darwinian revolution and the concept of reality as evolutionary and dynamic. Here we see that not only is knowledge dynamic, but reality also.

Furthermore, time radicalizes the idea of absolute or stable knowledge. Jacques Derrida demonstrated that one "signifier" or unit of language is an axiom off of which many different meanings hinge. Only one meaning can be present at a time, at which point the other meanings are suppressed. For this reason, all meanings cannot be present in one moment. One meaning or interpretation is always already suppressing another within the epistemic nexus. Consequently, there is inherent distance within the structure of human knowledge which is both temporal and spatial. This is illustrated below in Wittgenstein's duck/rabbit drawing.

As you can see, there are two possible interpretations of this image: a duck looking to your left or a rabbit looking to your right. You cannot see both in the exact same moment. That is temporal distance. Also, the two directions (left and right) permit a spacial distance. And of course the two interpretations are completely different but related to the same image. When we are impressed upon by reality (what Lacan calls "the Real"), we are traumatized (that is, our minds cannot contain it and are "shocked"). We respond according to what biologists call "noetic desire" (the desire to know, comprehend, explore, discover), and accordingly interpret. But the interpretation is always necessarily a reduction of the Real to something representational. Human knowing is thus always in flux and changing. Another example of the dynamic of difference playing itself out would be the simple facts that we cannot know up and unless we know down (and vice versa), and we cannot know the meaning of red in a symbol system without the existence of other colors (e.g. a traffic-light system).

Human knowledge is both impressed upon and stimulated by narrativity. We all desire to ground ourselves in a story that gives meaning to our lives, and story & time allow change, difference, and otherness to constitute our experience, keep us interested, and feed our desire. Therefore otherness and change are the very engine of noetic desire and keep our relation to the world on its feet. This would correlate with the very structure of difference built into human knowing. Thus modern philosophy's telos of absolute knowledge is also a desire for static knowledge, which in the end is a false consciousness stemming not from true noetic desire but from a blinded will to power.

The dynamic structure of human knowing is something to be welcomed not rejected, to keep us from reducing the Real to mere idols, to keep us open toward the Other and toward the perpetual trauma of the Real which keeps us on our feet, to honor the Holy Mystery and the uncontainability of Truth.

Human knowing is also heavily influenced by what I call "alternating modalities," by which I mean the particular ways/mediums through which information is presented to humans that are incommensurable with each other. For example, a humanly constructed symbol system will mediate "truth" in a way much different from an empirical encounter with an actual phenomenon. Of course we would immediately assume that the latter is always more reliable than the former. If this is so, why are we always already dependent upon symbol systems? And then there's the plurality of symbols and symbol systems, whether linguistic or otherwise, and then within language there are different "language games." For example, a scientist cannot use her own normative protocol to dissect and analyze a poem or a myth. A literary critic cannot use Freudian psychoanalytic criticism to make a contribution to neuroscience.

The incommensurability of language games and symbol systems radicalizes and undermines the plausibility of any full coherency between different ways of knowing and speaking. Absolute knowledge is once again undermined here, because it would require the complete union of all truth from every field into one system. Thinkers who have attempted this have only done violence to the Real, propping up reductive idols that reflect more of their will to power and self-interest than anything else. Take for example the scientist who wants to place every life experience and phenomenon under the tyrannical scrutiny and rule of scientific language and empirical protocol, thus reducing reality to a flatland of atomistic idols. Or the esoteric teacher who teaches his disciples that the material world is an illusion and not worth bothering with. There are myriad forms of reductionism which result from the pursuit of a totalizing, absolute knowledge that is not only inconsistent with what we know today, but ultimately violent and unethical. Philosophers call this "metaphysical violence."