“A Brief Essay…” published at The Blasted Tree

Today I’m thrilled to announce that an essay I previewed a few months ago on this blog, “A Brief Essay Against All Murder, and the Death Penalty”, has been published by my friends over at The Blasted Tree. You can read the essay on their website here.

The essay itself was originally written in my journal, then posted to my blog, dating February 11th. By ‘the essay itself’, I mean the essay not including the postscript, which is now included in full in the publication by The Blasted Tree.

As the postscript itself indicates, I continue to hold that the essay itself is self-sufficient as an argument against the question set forth by its context, namely that expressed by its title.

Another excerpt.

The title of the essay provides the reader with an approximate thematic summation of the essay’s content. In doing so, the title also offers a sufficient, and possibly necessary condition, for the rendering of a context in which to situate the exact sense of the essay itself. Along with the creation of this context, naturally I take it that the body of the essay itself is a simple sufficient condition for the comprehension of the content of the essay. That is simply to say that the essay is what it is, simply. Taken together, the title and body enjoin a further sufficient condition stating their conjunction as a simple condition of their own comprehension. All of this is to say that the postscript is entirely an afterthought, and a clarification. Strictly speaking, I take it that there is nothing said in this postscript that is not said as such in the essay itself, taken together with its title, which situates one’s reflections about the essay’s content. This postscript is only an extended reflection. Its eventual conclusion is none other than the unresolved question already set forth by the essay itself. It is exactly for the reason that this question is, necessarily, simply unresolved, that justice at the limits of its means of implementation – where it finds itself – finds itself without ground.

One would possibly be expected to give an argument as to what makes a title a sufficient condition for the rendering of a context for an essay, as well as what makes the body of an essay a sufficient condition for the resolution of its content. For the condition of the claim that each of these taken together enjoins an understanding of their conjunction, self-sufficiently entailing a comprehension of the work as a whole, seems to rest on these. Minimally, for either of the independent conditions stated of the title and body of the essay, one could say that each constitutes for itself a necessary condition for its own comprehension, which is for each their particular rendering of a context or content, respectively. This much could be said of any essay, as any piece of writing takes both its own body and title as at least a necessary part of a complete understanding of what it is said to be, or to be about. A title is an accessory, a maquillage, disclosing behind it a face and an inner working. We are not without such accoutrements, and neither are our writings, which are only our bodies of words.

 

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Infection and the Death of Reason

It’s been some time since I’ve updated my Academia.edu profile with any of my more recent work. Along with some notes for a recent conference presentation, I’ve uploaded a draft paper on self-sacrifice, authenticity, death and the infection structure in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. 

Infection [Ansteckung], for Hegel, has to do with the communicability or speaking-out of the subject, its interpenetration with the other, and its subsequent self-realization as Spirit.

A select excerpt from the paper follows – the full paper is available online here.

Reason in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit binds the ‘I’ to its body. Reason is bound to the individuality of the ‘I’; through each movement of self-consciousness as Reason, the ‘I’ attempts to escape itself, willing, as it were, that the maxim of its action would become universal law (to paraphrase Kant). As such, the individual embarks out onto the world first carrying the law of the heart (the law of his own heart, presupposed as the law of all hearts insofar as they are beating) whose claim to the world is then thwarted by competing claims made by the many other hearts. Beginning with this movement, self-consciousness as Reason learns the self-defeatingness of its individualism. Every movement of Reason is a movement of self-negation; every movement is a death for self-consciousness. This need to transcend itself through its own individual death is a necessary step towards the self-certainty through which Spirit first appears in its actuality. Otherwise than Reason’s deference and anxiety over its own death, Georges Bataille rightly says that Spirit “assumes death and lives with it.”[1] Death shapes Spirit’s universal actuality, imparted in part by Reason. Hegel’s phenomenological self-consciousness needs to watch itself die, in order to self-actualize as Spirit.

[1] Georges Bataille, “Hegel, Death and Sacrifice” in Yale French Studies, No. 78, On Bataille, 14.

When radical therapies are not at all rad.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by a Toronto law firm over allegations that psychiatric treatments administered at a former Ontario treatment facility, involving radical therapeutic theories and practices, constituted a rare form of psychological torture for many patients. Patients exhibiting psychopathological tendencies actually showed higher rates of violent recidivism as a result of receiving treatment than psychopaths incarcerated in federal prisons.

Interestingly, the Toronto law firm that’s filed the class action suit has claimed that the methods used at the Ontario psychiatric facility had “no basis in science”, while a former research director and her colleagues hold that “[t]here is no doubt that the therapeutic community … was based on sound clinical experience and a solid theoretical understanding of the contemporary literature on the treatment of criminal offenders” (Harris et al., 1994). We can be critical of science in more fruitful ways, without maintaining such stringent demarcation criteria.

The methods used at Oak Ridge were based in part on radical psychiatric theories, not unscientific ones. However, after reading some of the former institution’s publications, I can say that the higher rates of comorbidity of certain types of mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) with psychopathological behaviour does not seem to have factored into the rates of violent recidivism considered in their outcomes data. Moreover, the thought that massive doses of LSD and other psychotropics, extended periods in isolation and sleep deprivation could easily induce schizophrenic breaks in patients, deemed “glib” (op. cit), and resistant to coercion. Furthermore, Harris et al., fail to realize that the comorbidity of schizophrenia and psychopathy is also higher among violent patients, compared to nonviolent ones (Nolan et al., 1999).

Now, let’s just remember that the matter of ‘having a scientific basis’ is importantly different from the matter of consent, and the violent and coercive implementation of measures established in accordance with scientific beliefs on subjects who, by and large, are not in a position to give consent…

  1. Harris, Grant; Rice, Marnie; Cormier, Catherine, “Psychopaths: Is a Therapeutic Community Therapeutic?” in Therapeutic Communities (1994) 15(4), 283-299.
  2. Nolan, Karen; Volavka, Jan; Mohr, Pavel; Czobor, Pál, “Psychopathy and Violent Behavior Among Patients With Schizophrenia or Schizoaffective Disorder” in Psychiatric Services (1999) 50(6), 787-792.

Excerpt from upcoming, “Postscript to ‘A Brief Essay Against All Murder, and the Death Penalty'”

Just in case anyone doubts that the essay is precisely that. An excerpt from its upcoming postscript. The postscript is intended both as a defense of the main arguments of the essay, as well as a defense of the essay itself as an essay, au complet.

To the question belongs the time that it interrupts. To the question belongs both the question of its own time, and the timeliness of a someone. This latter, most directly, is what one can say is called into question. The former, the question of the time of the question, would rather be called into the question. How so? Does it emanate from a history, an echo from a paused moment, like slamming on the brakes, or the stinging skull of forcefully coughing with a severely congested cold? We cannot say. The history belongs to the question, and not to the essay itself. Neither does its meta-analysis belong to this postscript. There is always that which escapes the question. Forgotten histories, moments unrecalled or hardly lived in the first place, and tales of violence lost. A cross-examination of these, forced into place by the question as an injunction – that is to say a command – is only prismatic, imperfect as the pure light shone through it, disjointing and refracting, refracted and disjointed outwardly at angles every bit as violent as the violence suffered by the witness. Violence always exposes itself as a history. It is forced to. It is chased into a corner until there is a history given to satisfy the command of the question. A court issues its verdict always as the trial of violences untold.

The one I condemn is always a witness. They are the witness of time, of an entire life and a history. They are its only witness. Without them, time stops. For them, yes, it is true, but this most assuredly does not negate the truth-value of any of the foregoing statements. For they are a light, a unique perspective of truth, of an unfolding delimited by what is opposed to it and therefore shared by me. But the question interrupts this relation, this sharing, lest we forget. And in this interruption one finds, in suspension, a tendency towards (dis)possession. They are a light called into question. A light held in view and perused for shadows, deprivation and lack. We should note that deprivation also bears the connotation of moral depravity, of condemnation under widely accepted norms of justice, whether they be imposed socially, civically or legally. For Aristotle, deprivation (στἑρησιϛ) was deformity: in a human being, fallenness from a rational natural essence and a failure to cultivate a properly virtuous ethical character. Aristotle’s Organon, in this way, is a body of work of Platonic bioluminescence. But I digress. The guilty is a being found wanting of life, which is to their nature. The witness is a light, is all of history. And if she will not speak, cannot speak, or will not or cannot speak correctly (before the court of the question), then the former joins with the latter into a singularity. Without being suspected of the infraction called forth by the question of justice, the witness is the guilty, the guilty is the witness. All lights suffering violence and violently shining out, a reaction to blind us, we who dare to ask the questions, those issued by the justification of the question of justice, and to do violence there either by speaking them aloud or in our heads to ourselves (for we are all the jury, who silently await that we may one day render our verdict). All lights flashing in shadows cast, casting blindness. The only use of the court is that the bodies have left the room. A violence every bit as furious, gross and entangled as if it had been sexual. A hall for negotiating truths from lies, lies from truths, all subsumed by the narrative structure of the question.

The Myth of the Method

Let me begin with a brief anecdote. One thing that I’ve learned in my experience teaching philosophy (specifically, as a Teaching Assistant for a Critical Thinking class) is the alarming prevalence of dogmatic thinking about science. What I mean is that the attitudes of the young and well-educated towards the presentation of scientific knowledge and data, on average, doesn’t fare much better than those who uncritically reject good scientific evidence. Bad critical thinking about science is a nonpartisan issue. Indeed, while not strictly in decline, science literacy has been shown in some research to fall consistently short of what would be considered socially optimal. Improving metrics like the “Public Understanding of Science” (PUS) or “Civic Scientific Literacy” (CSL) is a very real concern for some policymakers, and philosophers are increasingly grappling with very similar issues.

I had some of these thoughts in mind while reading Emily Atkin’s excellent dissection of Ted Cruz’s wildly irresponsible and incorrect claims about the meaning of scientific evidence regarding anthropogenic climate change. Some of his errors stem from such incredible mistakes as systematically confusing the Arctic and the Antarctic. Clearly, there are lots of very good reasons to disagree with the claims that Cruz makes denying the reality of climate change. And this is not one of them:

cruzclaim

Photo Credit: Emily Aitkin, “Ted Cruz Challenged Science At His Climate Change Hearing. Science Won.” Think Progress, accessed 2015-12-12.

Talking about “the modern scientific method” as if it is a tidy operational procedure that makes modern science objective is bad critical thinking about science. It reflects the broader social deficit in our ability to think critically about science. Such claims about the scientific method don’t just come from frustrated philosophers who have penned over these problems for centuries. Modern sciences can’t be neatly grouped by their methodological standards. Botanists, evolutionary ecologists, particle physicists and planetary astronomers employ such widely different methodologies that an effort to call each one of them a ‘science’ based on shared methodological standards would be ad hoc. The ‘scientific method’ is a myth of modern science, quite popular up to about the mid-20th-century, but which has now been thoroughly debunked.

Not all myths are bad. The Ancient Greeks devised entire ethical and cosmological systems based on the epic myths of Homer. Myths are a kind of cultural glue that hold people together, through shared morality and reasoning practices. We are inclined to believe that the “scientific method” defines a good set of standards for reasoning for many reasons, not the least of which are the many great things that science does for us; and also, because ‘science’ itself is first and foremost supposed to be a kind of sound social reasoning. And in lots of cases, it is. However, when the power of the myth of sound social reasoning in a social institution so central to western democracies is allowed to become a substitute for our ability to think critically about knowledge that is so central to our daily lives as citizens (and scientific knowledge is, whether Ted Cruz likes it or not), we’re only helping to continue to polarize equally uncritical pro- and anti-science attitudes. No doubt it is still very useful and rewarding to analyze the many different scientific methods that are used, to explore their hidden biases and all the implications of the knowledge they provide. But the ‘scientific method’ as a cultural myth reveals a process by which uncritical pro-science attitudes come to be seen as a de facto epistemic virtue, while similarly uncritical anti-science attitudes are seen as an epistemic vice.

Improving civic scientific literacy is no easy task. In recent years, the most visible of efforts to do so has come in the surge of science popularizers – the Neil deGrasse Tysons, Bill Nyes and Lawrence Krausses of the world – who, for my part, seem mainly to disseminate scientific information in a heavily mediated, sensationalized way, which doesn’t exactly facilitate critical thinking so much as it perpetuates both pro- and (indirectly) anti-science dogmatic attitudes. I’m a bit disappointed in Aitkins’ Think Progress article, which links to the Wikipedia page on Scientific Method, and offers the brashest possible summary of the entire history, philosophy and sociology of scientific knowledge from the 17th-century to the modern day found therein, especially since the article does an otherwise great job of dismantling Cruz’s arguments.

This kind of argument makes it easier for climate change deniers to dig their heels in and cry dogmatism when presented along with scientific evidence. It makes it easier, because they’re right (though not necessarily less dogmatic). As such, I would conclude that it really should not feature alongside otherwise sound arguments refuting the claims of climate change deniers like Cruz, where it does more harm than help. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, most recently published in 2014, present a very high standard of evidence and scientific justification. Their claims are a great deal more modest than most deniers make them out to be, and they are still alarming. But defending these claims dogmatically will only serve to increase resistance to them. We should work hard to debunk myths that block our critical thinking about important subjects like scientific knowledge. And ultimately, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of all those who wish to use science as a way to bolster their arguments with empirical evidence, either for or against (rejecting empirical evidence is still a rhetorical device using empirical evidence, as the Cruz clique shows us). If we want to take political action on behalf of scientific evidence, we should have both the capacity and the patience to proceed undogmatically.

Though not directly sourced, readers interested in a critical perspective on the ‘scientific method’ would be interested to read, as a start, Paul Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’ (1975).

Parasitic Wasps, Biopolitics and the Tree of Life

Last week, we learned of a species of parasitic wasp, which through the transmission of a symbiotic virus produced in its ovaries to a caterpillar host, has actually been able to transfer parts of its genome into the host’s lineage.  The evolutionary history of this horizontal gene transfer, scientists estimate, dates back as many as 100 million years.  Apparently, certain species of moth and butterfly have appropriated the virally transmitted wasp genome, adapting it in order to provide some resistance against the common pathogen baculovirus, similar in structure to the symbiotic bracovirus produced by the wasp[1].

Genetically modified organisms occur in nature; the image of the atomic individual adapting solutions to problems presented to it by its environment, in competition for its survival, is problematized.  The genetic expressions of some species histories are characterized by reciprocity, if not outright mutual aid (most caterpillars die while performing the role of host.)  Thus, the orthodox conception of evolutionary adaptation, which problematizes the environment for individuals and reduces organisms to struggling organs of behaviour and which views populations as breeding pools, stands in need of some revision.

This orthodox adaptationist view is perhaps most recognizable in the image of the “Tree of Life”: the phylogenetic portraiture of evolutionary histories and ancestral relations, which so transfixed the early Darwinists, such as Haeckel…

Haeckel's Early Darwinian

Though Haeckel’s particular depiction is heavily dated, the figurative phylogenetic tree hangs over evolutionary biology even today – perhaps a consequence of modern Neo-Darwinism’s post-Enlightenment hangover.  Just this summer, a tremendous research project mutually supported variously by institutes of computational biology and natural or evolutionary history across the United States has resulted in the publication of the Open Tree of Life, a collaborative platform for the synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree-model[2] (whose “tips” number several orders of magnitude higher than those seen in Haeckel’s earlier depiction.)

But we have seen how parasitic wasps and archaeal viruses complicate this model, which establishes hard species barriers outside of ancestry and thereby obscures the possibility of genome fusion and horizontal gene transfer in evolutionary histories.  New phenotypic models that attempt to account for these phenomena have illustrated trees with deep and circular primordial root systems[3].  Further conceptual options include bushes, forests, and nets[4].  It makes sense to ask what kind of shape our tree is in: whether it is indeed standing strong despite countervailing evidence, or whether it is withering.

The tree-model depicts species histories as stratified and progressing (towards optimal adaptation vis-à-vis natural selection at the levels of genes, organisms, and/or cultures) as a result of competition within a shared environment.  Just as the Copernican Revolution brought about a shift in cultural consciousness, from a view of human existence under God as residing in His universal center to being just another speck in a godless sky, so has the Darwinian Revolution ushered in the era of biopolitics: the social and political being of humankind is seen as capable of reduction to biological explanations, and of subject to biological controls.  The competitive struggle for life results in genetic winners and losers emerging from the game of nature; the ethos of struggle and savagery is supremely vindicated.

The participation of the sciences in the early development of capitalism across Europe allowed science to serve “as an externality of the capitalist expansion, like roads and lighthouses, and as a way to solve particular problems”[5].  For the rising European bourgeoisie, the question of its own freedom was a problem for it, just as the question of the expression of freedom through ownership and exploitation is for it in the modern day of neoliberal capitalist globalization.  The early biopolitics thus opened as a theatre for the ideological ascendancy of a class rising to rule; this class was the bourgeoisie, who across Europe could wield scientific knowledge as an ideological weapon by which to unshackle itself from old feudal oppressions and religiosity.

Darwin’s theory of evolution was not widely supported at the time of its publication in 1859.  Historians of evolutionary history have long emphasized that that the reception of a theory is as much a result of the particular sociopolitical context into which it is introduced (or by which it is given birth), as it is of the theory’s actual content[6].  Major conflicts arose between the early evolutionary theory and church dogma, but these mostly gave way by the end of the century, having only recently resurfaced after points of disagreement fell out of favour even among theologians and other church scholars (as in the case of Christian fundamentalism in the United States, which has embraced anew Ussher’s infamous date for the creation of the Earth in 4004 B.C.)  Interestingly, this resurgence resembles an ideological counterrevolution from the fundamentalist Christian Right, against the ideologically bourgeois revolutions whose avatars are Copernicus and Darwin.  Who knows the essence of life, controls it.

In the modern theatre of biopolitics, life continues to be imagined on the basis of oppressive ideology: of “freedom” expressed only through individualism.  The “Modern Synthesis” of the Neo-Darwinists between evolutionary laws operating at the level of populations and the laws of classical genetics has gone so far as to reduce evolutionary histories to the competitive instincts of autonomous selfish genes.  But,

What of the autonomous individual organism, often the conceptual target of attempts to define life, and the thing that is assumed by models of evolution through competition and selection? To the extent that such individual autonomy requires just an individual life or life history, then it surely applies much more broadly than is generally intended by biological theorists. Countless non-cellular entities have individual life-histories, which they achieve through contributing to the lives and life-histories of the larger entities in which they collaborate, and this collaboration constitutes their claim to life. But – and this is our central point – no more and no less could be said of the claims of individual life histories of paradigmatic organisms such as animals or plants; unless, that is, we think of these as the collaborative focus of communities of entities from many different reproductive lineages. In much the same way, whatever sense we might try to make of the Dawkinsian idea of selfish genes, molecular replication is always, and has always been from the pre-cellular molecular community to the present, the achievement of ensembles of molecules, not of individual molecules…[7]

Prions, archaeal viruses, organelles and symbionts, parasitic wasps and mutant moths: these all challenge our notion of the evolutionary tree, of the reduction of life and lineage to individual life histories, and of the characterization of evolutionary progress as through competition instead (and to the exclusion) of collaboration.  What if the Tree of Life, instead of revealing the ultimate elucidation of the ascendancy of (some) humans towards freedom and progress, resembled another outmoded Enlightenment model?

Petrus Camper's Racist Model of Human Intelligence

Petrus Camper, in the late 18th century, studied the various human races and placed them in a hierarchy, with whites at the top, in his model of a correlation between the angles created by certain facial features with intelligence (whites were held to be closest to the ideal, represented by classical Greek statues, while blacks were seen as barely distinct from apes.)  Racist science, although in decline, has existed and will continue to exist in real contexts of racial oppression.  Classist science has also existed and will continue to exist in the context of class struggle, but it is reinforced by the neoliberal management of research institutions in advanced capitalist countries, where scientific knowledge is itself transformed into a commodity.

The fetishism of biotechnology, genetic determinism, no doubt, is one of the most important ideologies of biocapitalism. It declares the omnipotence of the gene, which not only prescribes the fundamental vital movement, but also internally determines the evolution of culture, so any physical and mental purpose can be achieved through the intervention on the “blueprint of life” and the subjugations of bodies. Ultimately, “life” is equated to “gene,” then reduced to the carrier and slave of gene.[8]

Biology is not merely the stage of the discovery of life.  Biopolitics invites us to consider biology as a space of Becoming, as a space where the human being is free to define her living as a social organism.  We can also treat this space as a space of Becoming into the Being of living ecologies that transcend the immediate experience of our spatiotemporal bondage.  Furthermore, this space can be seen as freely imagining the functioning of organisms within a body politic: be their vital force competitive, collaborative, or perhaps a sublation of the two.

The current age of biocapitalism has sought to restructure political rationality through the hegemony of western reductive science over the imagination of life and livelihood.  Perhaps the sublation of the dialectic between competition and collaboration is one which invites us to understand more complex forms of life, such as diverse ecologies or even sociopolitical organisms, in terms of the complex reciprocal relations between parts and wholes; where each is understood as the negation of the other and neither is monopolized through the exertion of biotechnological extensions of the power of capital over all social and political forms of life.

[1] See “Recurrent Domestication by Lepidoptera of Genes from Their Parasites Mediated by Bracoviruses” (Multiple Authors) in PLoS Genet 11(9): e1005470. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1005470.

[2] See “Synthesis of phylogeny and taxonomy into a comprehensive tree of life” (Multiple Authors) in PNAS 2015 : 1423041112v1-201423041 (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/09/16/1423041112.full.pdf?sid=1f2f2386-7283-4284-a12c-f8bca971a14c)

[3] Rivera & Lake, “The ring of life provides evidence for a genome fusion origin of eukaryotes” in Nature, 431, 2004.

[4] Lucio Florio, “The Tree of Life: Philosophical and Theological Considerations” in Studia Aloisiana, 4(1), 2013.

[5] Levins & Lewontin, “The Commoditization of Science” in The Dialectical Biologist (1985).

[6] See, for example, Peter J. Bowler’s Evolution: The History of an Idea (3rd ed. 2003).

[7] Dupré & O’Malley, “Varieties of Living Things: Life at the Intersection of Lineage and Metabolism” in Philosophy and Theory in Biology 1:e003, 2009.

[8] Yu & Liu, “The New Biopolitics” in Journal of Academic Ethics 7, 2009.

Madness Under Modern Capitalism

Let’s talk about madness. Schizophrenia: from the ancient Greek schizo, meaning ‘split,’ and phrene, meaning ‘mind.’ But of course, in recent history, since around the 19th century, our ways of thinking about ‘schizophrenia’ have become much more complicated: a growing function of social and psychiatric progress. The history of our understanding of this complex manner of madness boomed in around the 1980s, with a neurophysiological descriptive explosion spurred on by new research, resulting in new pharmacological treatments and an eventual explosion in subtypes. This expanding bubble of complications popped somewhat in 2013, when the DSM-5 recommended dropping all subtype classifications, leaving us with alone again with just ‘schizophrenia,’ itself.

Hanging before our psychiatric institutions, our own schizoid selves.
Hanging before its religion, policing morals and condemning to Hell.

Hanging before us, quite intimately, as a reflection on the nature of the self and the possibility of our familiarity with it. Staring at us as a phenomenology of the Other – but, is it also an othering ontology? The majority consensus on schizophrenia since as early as the 19th century has been to regard it primarily as a physical disorder: today, a mental disorder symptomatically contingent upon neurophysiology and specific patterns of neurological decay. However, as Ronny Turner and Charles Edgley argue, “only after behavior is labeled as deviant can it be identified as such & diagnosed as chemically caused.”[1] The specific causal mechanisms of schizophrenia remain elusive. The neurochemicalists put social disorder at only a brain scan away from mental disorder and pharmacological normalization. Their strict materialist conception of the disease downplays or outright denies the significance of sociocultural causes. And this conception is reflected in treatment.

Never mind that recovery outcomes for people suffering from schizophrenia have been shown across a multitude of international studies commissioned by the World Health Organization to be significantly greater for patients in developing countries, where pharmacological intervention is not the standard of care, over developed countries. “Far from being mere incidental cultural music … therapeutic benefits [appear to be] forgone under circumstances of enforced supported dependency.”[2] Never mind that male African Caribbean immigrants to the United Kingdom are as much as ten times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than young Brits, in spite of the orthodox epidemiologist’s taxonomy of environmental and genetic factors predicting deviations of rates of incidence of schizophrenia within only about a single percent across cultures[3] (similar figures exist in studies of immigrants to the Netherlands.) Even differentiation between rates of early onset in males and females, for a time thought to be one robust and well-replicated result in the tome of our largely uncertain knowledge of schizophrenia, has recently been found to be a confounded finding.[4] The data is simply not as secure as we are led to believe by psychiatry and its affiliated institutions. (Perhaps the nice old owners of the pharmaceutical firms responsible for producing antipsychotic drugs have no vested interests in these matters.)

There are many questions: why the better outcomes for sufferers of schizophrenia in developing countries? Why the increased risk for culturally dislocated immigrants? Social causes and socially structured care. Perhaps these questions jointly suggest an answer, pointing to a radical reconceptualization of schizophrenia as a socially constructed disorder. Of course, this does not detract in any way from its reality, simply put. It is just that we should consider both treatments for and causes of the disease to have a fundamentally sociological character. The mental trauma endured by child sufferers of abuse can be tracked in distinct physiological characteristics of the developmental brain later on in life. Why think that the daily traumas experienced in life within the totalizing technosphere of modern capitalism could not equally mark their tracks in the brain?

We will not lapse into full-blown dealings with Deleuze, here. However, our conception of schizophrenia is determined by several of the various institutions within Western medical science, and so it is suitable to seek answers to these questions somewhere in the framework of sociopolitical assumptions that creates the context in which said institutions lay their foundations. From Levins,

The bourgeois atomistic view of society, as applied to science, asserts that progress is made by a few individuals (who just happen to be “us”) … Individualism in science helps create the common belief that the properties of populations are simply derivable from those of the uncharged atoms (genes) of populations or societies…

The specialization of scientific labor and of command functions from research creates a model of scientific organization that is easily seen as the model for the organization of the world. Nature is perceived as following the organization chart of our company or university, with similar phenomena united under a single chairman, distinct but related phenomena united under a common dean. Thus specialization in practice joins with atomistic individualism to reinforce the reductionism that still predominates in the implicit philosophy of scientists.[5]

Individualism and reductionism: sever the individual from society, reduce the cause of the patient’s condition to something entirely material, or physical. Correct neurological imbalances with powerful dopamine reuptake inhibitors, enforcing treatment within the confines of special types of prisons called mental health hospitals. In India, greater health outcomes for schizophrenics have been attributed to a highly attentive family based care model, based on the specific needs of the suffering individual and typically carried out in the home. Pharmacological interventions are significantly less common.  A recent sixteen month ethnographic study on the standards of psychiatric treatment for schizophrenics in ‘developing’ India finds that “a model of medical care that deemphasizes patient autonomy [i.e., individualization] and the rational understanding of pathology [i.e., reductionism] benefits those diagnosed with schizophrenia.”[6]

It is not that all scientists in the West are themselves bourgeois, but they are largely the ideologues of the ruling class. An inter-institutional struggle between the old Enlightenment ideals for science and its unending search for Truth, and the post-positivistic research cartels racing to some finish line just to finally get it right and to get the last word (and more often than not, to patent it as intellectual property) has created a rift between the laborers of science based on their support or repudiation of commoditization. The poor outcomes of Western medical science with respect to schizophrenia points to a point of contradiction, where the values imposed from the top-down through enforced institutional arrangements that benefit the ruling class might be exposed as oppressive. To root out these oppressive values, we must take aim at the commoditization of science. And this, in turn, will lead us squarely to a critique of the great modern romance between science, technology, and capitalism.

[1] See “From Witchcraft to Drugcraft: Biochemistry as Mythology,” in The Social Science Journal 20.4 (1983).

[2] Hopper and Wanderling, “Revisiting the Developed Versus Developing Country Distinction in Course and Outcome in Schizophrenia,” in Schizophrenia Bulletin 26.4 (2000).

[3] Jones and Fung, “Ethnicity and Mental Health: The Example of Schizophrenia in the African Caribbean Population in Europe,” in Ethnicity and Causal Mechanisms (2005), 227-61.

[4] Jablensky and Cole, “Is the earlier age at onset of schizophrenia in males a confounded finding?” in British Journal of Psychiatry 170 (1997).

[5] Levins & Lewontin, “The Commoditization of Science,” in The Dialectical Biologist (1985).

[6] Sousa, “Pragmatic ethics, sensible care: Psychiatry and schizophrenia in north India,” available in Sociological Abstracts.

May the Force Die Through Us

Hot off the press, a fresh new piece of pure gonzo journalism, brought to you louder than ever in the style of the immortal Hunter S.   Watch out! – here comes Dionysus, derailing the chariot of Apollo. Five friends stoned on death find justice at the end of a violent – but colourful! – and noisy intergalactic civil war. A ship’s captain confronts his ownmost end and avows to surrender himself to the Goddess. Five friends smoking cigarettes like AK47s (chronically palatable) plunged into a world of real science fiction, inviting the interruption in as time’s uninvited guest, serving earth magic in their mugs. The day was May the 4th; we are met with our cultural inheritance, ‘artifactuality’ as brought to you by the one and only George Lucas, incorporated.

May the force be with us. The time forces the occasion, the event of celebration. May the 4th – Star Wars Day: an invitation. None among us, none among our generation, remembers the first time that they saw a Star Wars film. We were too young to witness the rising tide, the crest of A New Hope carrying waves of a cosmos at war – good versus evil, light versus dark, sagacity versus sin – through the desolation and despair of Empire, and on at last to the figure of the fallen son: Luke the redeemer, resurrected for but ever after the fall, corruption consuming the ghost of the hand that dares strike the father. Two times the sacrificial son, the resurrected and the damned, the Northern and the Morning Star, Christ and Lucifer tortured and entangled in the cold light of the day.

There is a calmness, a stillness in the balance of the opposition, the counterposition of the light and the dark sides of the force. Frozen in time, the freedom fighters are few and far between, rebel X-Wings lonely as a painted ships upon a painted ocean. But even a painted ship makes waves. We are connected by the force, waving through time and space as a tide anchored between two moons. The stillness of the tide is an illusion, speaking the presence – the speed – of celestial bodies. We are beings in time, defined by the speed at which we burn towards our own end. The son engulfs the moon in its last eventual breath: pneuma and aither, the logos and the order, ordered through the force of the great conflagration. We are beings of light, driven from darkness, drawn to wherever we can see.

Icarus, the truest of angels, falling from the sky. Escape the maze of the body, else the idea will die. The Skywalker melts his wings playing with fire.

This is our inheritance. This is a backdrop to our being. This is our time, this time – our historicity! But it wasn’t quite our gift. New movies for the new generation. We are drowned in the grandiose, speed and noise, action and impact, always in greater-than-living colour. Dangerous lightsaber acrobatics, clanking battledroid antics: a galaxy suffused with comedy over the cathartic, echoing through an empty hall – the hollowness of its tragedy. New wave Star Wars Ambush: a ‘young’ Yoda destroys a Toydarian coral reef and forces the other aliens into submission. The Othering aliens, and the alien Other. The galaxy far far away no longer captivates us, enchants us thereby drawing us towards it – no! The galaxy is younger, less sagely but all the more spritely: a cosmos in its adolescence, perhaps. We submit ourselves – are brought to submission – under duress, by force and coercion, by the attacking constancy of sheer everywhereness. By force!

The time arrives for us to acknowledge the presence of this different force; media meets us in the marketplace with a bombardment of midi-chlorians, cultural saturation and consumer goods so that we can sense its presence. Propagandisms: the constancy and necessity of war, the necessity of special powers to be invested in an intellectual and political elite, the self-justifying and always receding secrecy of the actual (the elusive Jedi Council struggles to strike the Supreme Chancellor’s strings, a hidden and puppeteering realpolitik.)

Before we can arrive, we must depart – even if our arrival is a return. Five friends stoned on death make earth magic noise like mushaboom bombs (with one lucid lad to our company.) We take off towards our end, driven but by telos through time: our only purpose. We are painted on the beach. The tides move in us in our stillness. Infinite azure expanse, an image greater than outer space before our eyes. The perfection of the image breaks all geometries. Lose the sunglasses, folks, and keep your hands inside the vehicle at all times. Forget the vehicle. We drink it all in and are still left starving after the aesthetic (salt water dehydrates.) A structure interrupts; driftwood deckhouses punctuating soft silt in several places. One castle (no taller than a man) holds the lot of us, pulls us in once or twice at a time. I am frozen, entranced, burning up upon the infinite at the edge of a front-row seat. A rainbow lives in thunderclouds. I am Being beyond language (the most insidious structure of all): the structure is a trap! How to escape it? Confound it? Confuse it? Stretch its boundaries? Make its letters bleed off all its pages!

We take to the structure. It is to our liking, for a time. A pocket knife among paraphernalia, but none of us could carve. Escape is soon on order. Anthony, you’re blocking the exit – ‘but everything is an exit! – isn’t that the point?’ We bleed out of the walls, humors rejecting the body, like lonely ghosts without a trace left in the soft white sand. Slowly we race for familiar land: grass is always greener where it is. Who can remember what time it is – what day it is? We found a new school in the yard by the beach, under the tree which puzzles monkeys like us (they will call us the Araucarians.) First teaching: time is the fire in which we all burn. We are like moths towards brilliant lights, illuminated by our ends, driven towards our ends of time like booby traps: false lights, everywhere.

The light is turned on inside. Pure Appollonian glow. We are overwhelmed by the darkness of the outside. We built Apollo. He is our God. Dionysus is there, too (never in mere parentheses.) I am frozen again, ponderous and heavy, anchored like a grounded mind and growing roots, writing furiously my furious thoughts. Indoors, they build shrines to young Yodas (not quite wise.) The force is seen for what it is: violent and oppressive, always in the everywhere, insinuated into our being as an element of cultural consciousness. The lightsaber sound is always an exclamation, a noisy shout attracting attention. We pay hardly any mind to the television shrine until the familiar sharp flash-crash-and-hum makes maps for the blind. Two leave, including our lucid lad. Four friends remain, dead and held in the Gorgon gaze to varying degrees. Earth magic bulwarks our home at the coastline. We make friends with philosophy. A discourse is distilled from the static of the stars, like stories of eternity read off of background radiation. The uninvited guest is dismissed. We are beings in time, but hospitality is our own. The day is dismissed. Time is dismissed. George Lucas, incorporated, exits through stage left.

Four friends remain to find justice at the end of intergalactic civil war. We trade Wars for the Trek. Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Justice,” season one, episode eight. Boldly we venture into the realm of the human, where no man wants to go anymore. Gonzo inner galaxies for intrepid psychonauts.

Captain’s log, Stardate 41255.6. The crew of the Enterprise faces the arbitrariness of the divine, of law and order and ordering principles. Conflict of the absolutes: the prime directive versus the unquestioning execution of guilty (but quite innocent) alien others. A young Wesley Crusher breaks Edo law, an alien custom unjust by the idealized human standard (unbridled post-techno-Capitalist socialism: or, Roddenberryism.) Crusher crushes nascent flowers – an affront to the aesthetic. The timing was all wrong. Crusher crushed flowers in the punishment zone, under the mediators’ purview; the punishment zone is randomly selected each day to the knowledge of no one (in God’s great wisdom.) The structure of an old game tries to play outside of the rules, which is always to submit to the rules of some other. The Edo play at free love, seemingly at all ages (of course Edo is etymologically rooted in hedone, the Ancient Greek for ‘hedonism.’) Young Wesley introduces the foreign game of violence to the alien culture. I know a game we can play, but we’ll need a bat… you know, a bat? – the introduction of the phallic, patriarchal oppressive violence, disruption and domination. All beauty crushed underfoot by the reckless playing of games. The perpetrator freely admits his crime. The punishment – the only punishment for all crimes – is death.

Hedonism, a starving after the aesthetic: xeno-ethics, altogether unfamiliar. The face of the other occasions the question of justice. Derrida would tell us, Marcel Mauss would tell us that it is the face which says, do not kill me. Humanity has excommunicated its every last Thrasymachus. The Edo seem unapologetically post-Platonic; the aesthetic is an idea, the ethics a living-towards truth or beauty. A trial ensues. A discourse of values and the apologia (a defense.) Meanwhile, a God is learning to speak. A ship’s captain opens communications with the divine. The captain unable to state his purpose, God interfaces with Data: the Holy Ghost becomes robotic body. Data the cyborg, the pinnacle of craft and all of our techno-romanticism. The telos of the human uncovered by the divine in pure techne. All of our purpose, the laws we have created and imposed to build it, exchanged for cheap upon visiting a new world.

Where does humanity fall on the question of justice in this utopian science fiction future? – in our very real present, the presence of visual distortions and navigation of the depths of inner space, of chattering teeth and living breathing shadows and hands trailing behind our hands (gonzo: gone into the future.) Wesley Crusher, the young son, is not to be sacrificed. Captain Picard makes a promise to the mother Doctor Beverly, to save his life at all costs. Two trinities: humanity’s defense is weighed up by the man, the mother, and the machine (Jean-Luc, the Doctor and Data discuss); the God of the Edo is introduced by the captain to His makeshift Mary Magdalene, and His people are competing for their right to the sacrificial son. But God is dead, and Nietzsche is dead. Justice for the human is justice for the mother. At all costs, save the son, for the love of the mother. We profess love of beauty beyond the aesthetic – it is the love of an idea, the ideal of justice. And we are vindicated by it.

Submission to the Goddess: the words to an old math metal song of protest booms through the chambers of my ears (our Goddess gave birth to your God.) Vindicated by submission to the mother, the Goddess, the very form of truth and beauty. Submission without sacrifice: a mother never gives death to her children, as the father has often done. Living for, from, and towards the idea (another trinity.)

12:50am May 5th – CATHARSIS

Here I am, pen trembling in my hand, preparing to confront an idea… I do not know how I know this… and I do not know why. But I will die before the rest. I feel every part of my being unwinding into its ideas. An idea which I am always at the edge of, forever drinking it in at top speed frantically trying to hand out sips to weary passengers along the way. An idea I am as yet building, as yet constructing… but still always shouting, raw and uncut the message is still strong enough. Let the others fill in the gaps I leave behind, while I burn out of existence.

Pneuma and aither: fire, breath and life. I put myself out at the end of a cigarette, always smoldering like hot ideas, sometimes meandering but always directed, if only by time: the fire in which we all burn. How to burn? How to die? Is there any choice in the matter, any longer?

Every sinew of my soul is torn between being a humble, loving, dedicated man, and a man who burns out into the idea. I am forever drawn to light (and a faithful pen or pencil) torn from my love, my life and every comfort, my every council, the lips I’ve ever searched for, the woman who shapes me in my entirety into an honest man. Here I am tortured and bereaved for the sense of looming loss…

It is my own. She will lose me. She will lose me. Who knows how. And I will lose everything thereby. The man, and the idea. Apollo was a god, that man will never be. Nietzsche is dead. My goddess is my woman. And my eternal pain is the sense that I will be her sacrificed son. She is stronger than I will ever be. And if and when I go I must know that I will live forever in her.

Open into the shamanistic. Death is a deeply introspective drug. It frightens us to our core, and I am no exception.  This is how I awaken in the morning, having confronted my death at night. I awaken into the idea. I awaken in order to write.

Five friends interrupt the all-encompassing everywhereness of the force, withholding their hospitality from the uninvited but always eventual guest. We seize the time to disengage with what arrives when upon it. Our inheritance is not our necessity. May the force free us from its shitty chatterbox comedy droids and the entire swelling opera of oppressive ideas, of mind-numbing cacophonious choruses, of crashes and clashes and enough action to blow your lungs out when you’re screaming down a highway in the desert in a top-down bright cherry red lipstick steel shark at a hundred miles an hour alternating between mescaline and ether cloths, chasing the ever elusive ‘American Dream’ (brought to you today by the one and only George Lucas, incorporated: “slap a sticker on that shit!”) – gonzo pop culture journalism mixed with philosophy and an anxiety over the existential. Sure the book was great, but you really should have been there, to unwind through an episode in time.

Let us cease to be a people at war. We are on a collective voyage: a journey; a trek. A discourse on justice stokes the embers of a new society – a society of the ideal. This idea is as old as the Socrates of Plato’s Republic, and has echoed through our history ever since. But it has become untraceable static, a silent hiss amidst the noise, its influence flattened as all is taken as its average by the background. Distill the static; better yet, change the channel. It is time for the next generation.

Dialectical Biology // Cognitive Maoism

Modified from my forthcoming, ‘Epistemic Dynamics of a Revolutionary Science.’

Of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism, and the apple that was said to have fallen on the Master of the Mint in 1664 would have struck his Labor Party successor three-hundred years later with equal force. But whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacilus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories – these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions (Levins & Lewontin 1985, 4-5).

By ‘science,’ we speak of variously many things.  There are scientific theories – explanatory hypotheses about the natural world – and even technological commodities, which are the products of science.  Then, there is a network of social actors, orthodoxically thought to consist primarily or even exclusively of ‘scientists,’ the fruits of whose collective efforts constitute the social production of these products.  Finally, there is a third respect in which we speak of science; in this sense, there is a worldview, approximately but not exclusively defined by the socially productive modes and products of science, which presents the manifest image of reality as the scientific image (see Bas Van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (1980) on the distinction between the manifest vs. the scientific image of reality.)  I do not mean to suggest that there is a single ‘worldview’ that is consistent across the endless spectrum of scientific disciplines and subdisciplines; worldviews differ significantly between Mendelian and molecular genetics, between Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory; indeed, historical cases abound in which some such cases of collisions between worlds had significant sociopolitical consequences.  Here, I mean only to articulate the relation between the historically contingent social worldview and the productive modes of science.  The mode of this scientific worldview is primarily ideological; by understanding this ideological mode in an Althusserian vain, we see that social relations of knowledge production in science are both materially and ideologically productive; in this sense, both the theoretical products of the first, and the scientific worldview of the third senses in which we speak of science are essentially ideological.  The dominant Western scientific ideology operating in and between each of these layers has been variously critiqued by philosophers of the Left: for its deeply methodologically entrenched oppressive patriarchal values, exposed by feminist philosophers of science; for its bourgeois Capitalist values and culturally imperialistic violence, decried by epistemological anarchists and Marxist scientists alike.  Arguments for the value-ladenness at each of these levels abound.  The Mertonian myth of value-free objectivity of the early twentieth-century has only served to engender a certain disinclination among interested parties of scientists and stakeholders to challenge (or even to see) the framework of sociopolitical assumptions in which these social and material relations of knowledge production are arranged.

The scientific worldview sets epistemological boundary conditions that narrow and define our conception of ‘truth.’  When this feedback loop is allowed to continue, the result is a paradigmatic period of Kuhnian ‘normal science’; for many, this is not a vicious circle, but rather a precondition of scientific progress.  I hardly need to state that the story of stable progress along the lines projected by the status quo characteristically fails to convince those who detect oppression in the orthodoxy.  Epistemic features of theories are designed to aim at ‘truth’; however, minimally insofar as our conception of ‘truth’ is refined by ideological production and for the sake of ideological reproduction (a further Althusserian notion), we should expect that the idea has a material existence that exerts its force on the social means of knowledge production.  The ‘framework of sociopolitical assumptions’ raised by Levins and Lewontin is an idea which directly challenges the question of ‘truth,’ by challenging the proper construal of standard epistemic features in biological theories.  They reject Cartesian reductionism as a manifestation of oppressive ruling class values being insinuated into scientific methodology as a guiding epistemic principle, presenting work from across the fields of evolutionary and population sciences, molecular biology and zoology, to demonstrate the value in adopting a dialectical ‘truth-concept’ as an epistemic aim in the sciences.  The selection of truth-concept is established with express political motivation.

An epigraph is set in the beginning of The Dialectical Biologist (1985); it reads,

To Frederick Engels,

who got it wrong a lot of the time

but who got it right where it counted

So too did Levins and Lewontin get ‘it right where it counted.’  The form of ideological revolution presupposed by dialectical biology amounts to scientific or cognitive Maoism; it is thereby ill-equipped to fulfil its mandate, to be an ideologically emancipatory science, counterposed to the dominantly Cartesian orthodoxy.  We can conceive of an alternative view – with a Trotskyist spirit – in Longino’s contextual empiricist approach to the study of the social relations of knowledge production.  Longino’s view pushes for greater diversification among practitioners of science, to maximally widen the array of background beliefs employed in the production of knowledge; however, diversification within the constraints of Western science is effective only up to a point.  Barring the revolutionary abolition of class antagonisms, the material reality of Western science is such that oppressed beliefs remain alienated from the centralized, sanctioned body of permissible bourgeois-ified background beliefs.  Thus, the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on a material basis must serve as a precondition for ideological emancipation; furthermore, this erosion must proceed from the bottom-up, under the unity of an educational program, rather than from the top-down, under the forcible instilment of dialectics.  As is so often seen in the realpolitik of emancipation, spontaneous solidarity builds between sectarian pockets of the revolutionary Left.  Likewise, my predominantly Marxist analysis benefits here from the groundwork laid by Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism.

The question may arise as to what sorts of concrete results we might be entitled to expect as a result of the program of ideological erosion, and of the transitional program of a subsequent dialectic reconstitution of science in society.  Feyerabend argues that separate and distinct traditions of knowledge are likely to be mutually enriched as a result of open theoretical discourse.  If correct, then epistemic enrichment is a beneficial consequence of the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on the material basis of the elevation of the intellectual and cultural authority of non-scientific worldviews.  But however serendipitous, the matter quite misses the point.  My argument proceeds on the basis of the view of sociopolitical emancipation as historical necessity, in a Hegelian sense.  What would it mean, say, to have one’s body of theories epistemically enriched in the sense that they now more reliably produce justified true beliefs, when epistemological reliabilism is fed back into science methodologically as an epistemic aim inspired by evolutionary biology and psychology? – only that we have successfully reinforced the status quo, ‘progressing’ in a dull Lakatosian vain.  While I do consider enrichment of this sort to be likely, it is merely a coincident to the final emancipatory cause.

Reflecting On Reflection

Reflection has ever been the philosopher’s most prized capacity, thought capable of rendering clear our beliefs as a mode of second-order cognitive scrutiny.  I intuitively believe that there is a keyboard here at my fingertips, a monitor before my eyes; I may call these beliefs into question, distancing myself from the immediate cognitive impressions they form on me.  If I reflect on these beliefs aptly, I ought to find that I have good reasons to hold these beliefs.  Indeed, some have claimed that it is just this capacity which cuts between human and animal cognition.  My (sadly hypothetical) dog cannot distance himself from the belief that we will go out for a walk when I show him his leash – he cannot question whether he has good reason to hold this belief, any more than he can question whether having arrived at this belief in just the way that he did constitutes a good method for arriving at beliefs.  However, qua human beings, our beliefs are called into question constantly, from the flights of fancy of minds in vats to the complex assignment of statistical probabilities to the possible truth-values of a possible set of facts which are thought to occur in (possibly) the real world.  Just as the line between human and animal has been drawn along these lines, so too has the line of freedom and moral responsibility.  The ability to scrutinize our beliefs with some higher-order reflective capacity seems, to some, essential to explain the phenomenology or reality of human freedom and agency.  Agency is thought to imply responsibility.  Hence, we are thought able to be judged praise or blameworthy, in virtue of our freedom to chart the paths of our own actions from among a sea of possible alternatives.

However, the value of our capacity for reflection may not hold up to close scrutiny.  In On Reflection (2012), Hilary Kornblith argues that this faculty, as we have hitherto conceived of it, is not the kind of thing which could possibly enlighten our inquiries about knowledge, reason, freedom, and normativity.  Our treatment of reflection seems to be essentially phenomenological; Kornblith notes an important dissimilarity between this, and our rather more empirical orientation towards other phenomena in the natural world.  The reader should note the operative ‘other’ in the previous sentence.  Kornblith considers knowledge and related epistemological phenomena to be natural kinds – see his arguments for a naturalized epistemology in Knowledge and its Place in Nature (2002).  This phenomenological bias manifests particularly in the common tendency of philosophers in the reflectionist orthodoxy (a poor ad hoc moniker to be sure – the category is meant to include Sosa, Korsgaard, Goodman, BonJour, and many others) to use first-person language to describe features of reflection.  Naturalized epistemology can be characterized as the view that explanations of the objects of epistemological inquiry are ultimately natural explanations, rooted in the natural world.  If correct, this view provides a strong reason for scrapping our phenomenological bias, in favor of a more empirical orientation towards epistemological inquiry – including our reflections on ‘reflection’.

Kornblith’s main arguments against the received view of reflection show that, on that view, scrutinizing our beliefs always falls into infinite regress.  When I reflect on my first-order belief B that there is a keyboard at my fingertips, I form a second-order belief B’ that I do indeed have strong reasons in support of the first-order belief.  But I do not know whether I have strong reasons in support of B’ unless I reflect on those reasons, thus forming belief B’’ that I do indeed have strong reasons in support of B’; et cetera ad infinitum.  Therefore, our beliefs are never ultimately justified, and we never know what ultimately counts as having sufficient reasons for accepting a belief.  It follows that we must remain mute on normative claims about belief formation.

To infinity, not beyond.  I suspect that the severity of an infinite regress is a pain much more immediately felt by those with a naturalist suasion.  If explanations about objects of epistemological inquiry are ultimately natural explanations, and the received view of reflection leads in every case to an infinite regress, then one is at pains to devise a naturalistic explanation of infinity.  The human brain must thereby be supposed to be capable of performing supertasks, provided we are not meant to reflect on even our most banal beliefs on into eternity.  A supertask is a task consisting of a countably infinite set of calculations or operations, which occurs sequentially within a finite amount of time.  Kornblith offers no argument as to why infinite regress is to be avoided in epistemological explanations.  Presumably, it is his naturalistic aversion to something like a cognitive supertask that underwrites his argument.  Another likely assumption is that cognitive tasks in humans are not such that they can perform operations on infinities.  This is not necessarily true – the phenomenology of reflection provides good reasons to believe that at least one epistemological explanandum (reflection itself) performs operations on infinities.  Mathematicians reflect on set-theoretic proofs involving greater and smaller infinities, as Cantor did with his diagonalization argument.  On a similar vein, Roger Penrose has argued that Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems – and their subsequent comprehension and acceptance by fellow mathematicians and human reasoners – provide a strong reason to consider that human cognition must contain exponentially more processing power than any possible mechanical system could (though these arguments fall quite far short of wide acceptance themselves).  Again, this assumption falls on prima facie naturalistic inclinations.  Naturalized explanations just cannot, or cannot easily, contain infinities, greater or smaller.

I am differently inclined.  Some kind of infinitesimal calculus sounds to me like a potentially plausible way to model our capacity for reflection.  I form a first-order belief B, which defines the limit to a probability function that models my certainty in that belief (to a max- or minimum infinity).  Reflective scrutiny is hence a process somewhat like calculating a limit with reasons for belief in B, with a max-limit providing an idealized objective certainty in B, and a min-limit its absolute refutation.  We can no more conceive of each of the elements in an infinite set than we can the requirements of absolute certainty in or refutation of B; we can, however, form a transcendent ideal of the concept at hand in order to understand some part of it.  Here, I am somewhat indebted to a colleague from during my undergraduate work in Victoria, who once described Anselm’s ontological proof to me as calculating a limit towards God’s existence.  Of course, the procedure that I propose would involve some sort of conceptual analysis, or analysis of our epistemic intuitions.  Experimental philosophers have recently raised many issues with this practice, which I haven’t the space to consider in this post – see especially Stitch’s The Fragmentation Of Reason (1990), and Alexander and Weinberg’s “Analytic Epistemology and Epistemic Intuitions” (Philosophy Compass 2/1, 2007).

Infinite regress only seems menacing if we share Kornblith’s epistemological naturalism; otherwise, his main arguments against the received view of reflection simply are not knockdown arguments.  Kornblith often takes Ernest Sosa’s epistemological views as his target in On Reflection.  Sosa is a main proponent of the use of a virtue vocabulary to describe and reflect on our standards of excellence in all matters epistemic.  I believe that the cultivation of epistemic virtue might have some import to a view modeling reflection as an infinitesimal probability calculus operating on our beliefs.  Consider the phenomenon, familiar to many and well-studied by psychologists, linguists and other researchers in the field of child development, of the explosion of explanation-seeking questions in preschool aged children.  The attitudes of many parents towards this phenomenon are neatly summed up by comedian Louis C.K. in the following routine.

Children between roughly the ages of 2.5 and 5 never seem to know when to stop asking why.  The increasingly metaphysical nature of Louis’ daughter’s questions demonstrates a certain tendency to exceed what adults typically consider to be sufficient reason for holding some belief.  The phenomenon is particularly well documented in Frazier et al, “Preschoolers’ Search for Explanatory Information Within Adult-Child Conversation” (Child Development 80/6, 2009).  They will often seek to over-explicate their beliefs, because a reasonably reliable calculus for belief acceptance has not yet been developed.  Refinement of this calculus would constitute the cultivation of an epistemic virtue, essentially inscribing on one’s cognition a sort of cut elimination theorem.  As is the case with the cultivation of virtue in general, experience is required, to establish a mean relative to the individual child between excess and deficiency with respect to explanations.  Children must become proficient in the use of explanatory language, with causal connectives and representational concepts, to add to their own epistemic intuitions.  A pre-theoretic epistemic intuition such as ‘justification’ is refined by honing in on a reasonably reliable mental probability calculus to operate on our beliefs.

If it is plausible to model reflection on our beliefs as a probability calculus – and certainly more argument is required than what little I have entertained here – then a strong counterargument to Kornblith’s naturalized epistemology exists.  I agree with Kornblith’s assumption, that natural explans cannot, or cannot easily contain infinities.  All the more reason not to consider epistemological kinds as natural kinds.  In Metamind (1990), Keith Lehrer develops a different account of the human mind: the human mind is a metamind.  It is a representation of mind.  This is to say that the human mind in some sense essentially transgresses the natural, at least as Kornblith conceives of it.  Again, for lack of space, I cannot here entertain the idea that something like a metamind might better ground the argument that reflection is a sort of (meta-)mental probability calculus.  I shall continue to reflect on these thoughts henceforth, for a time.  For now, suffice it to say that Kornblith’s main arguments against the reflectionist orthodoxy are grounded in assumptions informed by his epistemological naturalism; unmoved by this proclivity, I lean towards a view like Lehrer’s.  The burden of argument falls on Kornblith to tell us why infinite regress is a bad thing, even if we do not wish to accept epistemological naturalism.  However, I find myself more inclined towards cautiously abandoning naturalism, to test the limits of infinity as an explanatory concept in the reflective scrutiny of our beliefs.  And I suspect that this endeavour shall keep me asking, “Why?” ad nauseam; in this, the philosopher resembles the preschooler.  Perhaps, a preschooler who has grown up having poorly refined the virtue of knowing how much reflection is sufficient for the reasonable acceptance of our beliefs!