The materialist’s vertigo

Via Zach Weiner.


Wednesday Primary Source Happy Fun Hour!

Two questions:

i.) Have you read anything of the Spanish-American heterodox pragmatist George Santayana?

ii.) Did you read the comics today or yesterday?

If you answered “no” to i.) and “yes” to ii.), you were mistaken in your answer to i.). Darbey Connley’s strip “Get Fuzzy” has been playing with a common misquotation of a passing remark of Santayana’s,

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Everyone recognizes the quote, but few are aware of its origins. It comes from a passage of Santayana’s first major work, Reason in Common Sense, vol. I of The Life of Reason, or the Phases of Human Progress. I reproduce the passage without commentary:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird’s chirp.

Not all readaptation, however, is progress, for ideal identity must not be lost. The Latin language did not progress when it passed into Italian. It died. Its amiable heirs may console us for its departure, but do not remove the fact that their parent is extinct. So every individual, nation, and religion has its limit of adaptation; so long as the increment it receives is digestible, so long as the organisation already attained is extended and elaborated without being surrendered, growth goes on; but when the foundation itself shifts, when what is gained at the periphery is lost at the centre, the flux appears again and progress is not real. Thus a succession of generations or languages or religions constitutes no progress unless some ideal present at the beginning is transmitted to the end and reaches a better expression there; without this stability at the core no common standard exists and all comparison of value with value must be external and arbitrary. Retentiveness, we must repeat, is the condition of progress.

Michelle Bachmann no longer funny

In a November 13, 2009 video message to the “Christian rock” band-cum-ministry You Can Run But You Can’t Hide, US Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) told the band,

It a tough job that you do, but someone has to do it. I thank God that he has given you the strength and the resolve to fight for our timeless values

The “timeless values” frontman Bradlee Dean fights for are violent hatred, dogmatism, intellectual laziness, and hysteria.  In one talk radio interview, Dean said the following things about LGBTple:

“Muslims are calling for the executions of homosexuals in America…This just shows you they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God, but they seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do, because these people are livid about enforcing their laws. They know homosexuality is an abomination.”

“If America won’t enforce the laws, God will raise up a foreign enemy to do just that,” Dean said later. “That is what you are seeing in America.”

“The bottom line is this… they [homosexuals] play the victim when they are, in fact, the predator. On average, they molest 117 people before they’re found out. How many kids have been destroyed, how many adults have been destroyed because of crimes against nature?”

Andy Birkman at the Minnesota Independent has been covering the band and its ties to the GOP for some time.  Read his many stories here. The band was given a booth at the 2009 state Republican Convention. Dean has also called for “war” against liberal “criminals,” denies a secular foundation for American law., and described Obama’s appointee to the Dept. of Education Kevn Jennings as a “blatant homosexual.”  

Here’s a petition demanding Bachmann sever all ties with You Can Run But You Can’t Hide. And here is the passage from De Rerum Natura appropriate for the occassion:

 Such are the crimes to which Religion leads.
And there shall come the time when even thou,
Forced by the soothsayer’s terror-tales, shalt seek
To break from us.

Witnessing quantum entanglement

A common nonargument leveled against materialism is the recitation of that overworked Shakespearean maxim,

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene V, lines 919-920

But inquiry into the permutations of matter has revealed more than can be dreamed, or understood, in a lifetime. Chief example: Quantum entanglement, the phenomena by which two particles, by unknown mechanisms, become inextricably linked so that they causally affect one another instantaneously over spatial distances as great as 89 miles.

Now, the phenomena is not merely academic. For the first time, scientists hope to demonstrate the phenomena on a scale that can be registered by the naked eye. Via Scientific America:

 Although Einstein rebelled against the notion of quantum entanglement, scientists have repeatedly proved that measuring one of an entangled pair of objects, such as a photon, immediately affects its counterpart no matter how great their separation—theoretically. The current record distance is 144 kilometers, between the Canary Islands of La Palma and Tenerife.

Photons make up light—and the fact that scientists regularly entangle these tiny packets of energy raised the possibility that humans might actually be able to observe this effect. Now experiments to shoot entangled photons at the human eye are under development, and should take place later this year. “It’s fascinating that entanglement is something we could see with the naked eye—it brings us closer to this strange quantum phenomenon,” notes researcher Nicolas Gisin, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva in Switzerland

Entanglement is measured by creating entangled particles, sending them to different detectors, and seeing how quickly a measurement on one influences the other. The idea for this experiment is simply to replace the photon detectors with human vision. Human retinas are surprisingly sensitive, capable of being triggered by roughly seven photons. And although they only have an efficiency of about 7 percent (of every 100 photons that enter the pupil, only about seven go on to reach the retina) they have a dark count of virtually zero, meaning they generate few if any false positives.

“The eye can actually detect single photons, but the signals that light sends to the brain are suppressed unless there are about seven—otherwise you would see flashes of light all the time—even in complete darkness,” explains quantum physicist Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

First, Gisin and his colleagues will entangle a pair of photons, and then amplify these signals by entangling each of these photons with another ensemble of, say, 100 photons. In the arrangement they are currently developing, one pulse of photons would then be sent at a person, whereas the other would be sent at a conventional photon detector to test what the volunteer saw, Gisin says. “Although there’s no reason to have human eyes on both sides, the final experiments can involve that,” he added.

The appropriate Shakespeare quote for the occassion is not now a cliché, but deserves to be one, and reads,

…This is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

The Winter’s Tale, IV.V. c.1610-11

Our only accomplishment in this is crafting the tools to witness something nature has been doing for 13.7 billion years before us, and will do for an eternity after us.

Monday Morning Surrealism

Bataille, I think, was a bad materialist. In a 1931 text, he aimed to describe the modes of nature’s operation—tides, the rising and setting of the sun, the growth and wilting of plants—by way of analogy to human and animal activities. Or rather, one humane-animal activity, viz., copulation. Nature, he insinuates, is best understood in human terms.

For the right-thinking materialist, this is backwards. Nature is not anthropomorphic, but humanity is natural. To insinuate otherwise is to turn the order of things upside down and sew confusion. The universe is not to be understood in relation to human desires, anxieties, and self-conceptions, but humanity is to be understood by its operation within the universal laws of nature. 

But there is a tricky genius which perpetuates the contrary to this prescription, thus causing errors: speech. Language contaminates all things it touches with humanity. Consider that commonest jargon of naturalism, mechanistic materialism or mechanistic materialist. Both phrases are anthropomorphisms once removed, for nature is described by the analogy of the machines humans make. But the right-thinking materialist understands that humane machines are imitations of nature’s arrangements. For what is a lever but another (constructed, cruder) extension of the forepaw? What is a pivot but a simplified, manufactured joint?

The machine can only be understood by analogy to bodies in nature; but to explain nature as a machine, or an organism, or a human being writ large, is imply that it possesses ends, purposes, and desires it cannot possibly have. This implication may be unintended, unconscious, even entirely against our intentions–but the implication is there nonetheless.

Bataille’s premise is sillier than the pelvic imagery he uses to convey it. Even if he does not mean this essay, which I do not care to name, to be interpreted literally (how could he?), it leads the reader into commonest errors. And it leads him or her by the hand.

Diderot vindicated

Illustration of a Sephonophore from plate 37 of "Kunstformen der Natur" (1904) by that other Spinozist, Ernst Haeckel (1837-1919)

In d’Alembert’s Dream, the eponymous mathematician-dreamer expounds on the paradoxes of corporeity and identity in his sleep, much to the distress of his companion Mademoiselle de L’Espinasse. The lady takes for ravings his claim that the individual is best described as a hive of bees. Diderot’s dialogical character Dr. Bordeau explains the claim with another similie, describing each organ as an individuated animal working in concert with all the rest.

This analogy finds no more perfect aptness than in the siphonophore, a alien variety of jellyfish. They live in colonies, with hundreds of separate, distinct, and semi-autonomous units growing out of a single fertilized embryo. Casey Dunn explains in this Vimeo (watch first!) and in this blog:

A bird, a rose bush, and a fly are all individuals as functional entities, according to their ancestry, and as units of selection. This makes it easy to get lulled into thinking of individuality as a monolithic property.A siphonophore colony is a functional individual. But a siphonophore colony is made up of many parts that are each equivalent to free living organisms such as sea anemones and “true” jellyfish. So by the evolutionary descent definition it is a collection of individuals. The colony as a whole is acted upon by natural selection, making it an individual in the sense of the process of evolution. But it is entirely unclear whether natural selection can act on the parts within the colony, as it does on our own cells when we get cancer, since we don’t know about the heritability between the parts of the colony.

Siphonophores, by forcing us to disentangle what we mean when we call something an individual, help us understand the evolutionary origins of individuality. These different aspects of individuality don’t necessarily evolve at the same time, and one or more of them can even be lost. Organisms like siphonophores provide glimpses of these different combinations of individuality.

Our ally in the war on terrorism

Moreau's illustration to the Société des publications illustrées 1846 edition of Voltaire's play "Mohammed the Prophet, or The Fanaticism"

Saudi Arabia has convicted a televison “psychic” of sorcery and condemned him to death by beheading.

I am brought to mind to Voltaire’s play, which saw an attempt of revival in France shut down by religious protesters four years ago; and of a passage of Lucretius that the the philosophe predicted would last as long as the world does:

But ’tis that same religion oftener far
Hath bred the foul impieties of men:
As once at Aulis, the elected chiefs,
Foremost of heroes, Danaan counsellors,
Defiled Diana’s altar, virgin queen,
With Agamemnon’s daughter, foully slain.
She felt the chaplet round her maiden locks
And fillets, fluttering down on either cheek,
And at the altar marked her grieving sire,
The priests beside him who concealed the knife,
And all the folk in tears at sight of her.
With a dumb terror and a sinking knee
She dropped; nor might avail her now that first
‘Twas she who gave the king a father’s name.
They raised her up, they bore the trembling girl
On to the altar- hither led not now
With solemn rites and hymeneal choir,
But sinless woman, sinfully foredone,
A parent felled her on her bridal day,
Making his child a sacrificial beast
To give the ships auspicious winds for Troy:
Such are the crimes to which Religion leads.
And there shall come the time when even thou,
Forced by the soothsayer’s terror-tales, shalt seek
To break from us.