So I was on a patio with some colleagues the other day, sipping a pint of something hoppy and enjoying the last shreds of light that would make it over the low-rises that line Young St. that day. We had met earlier in the day to discuss a paper that I’d recently written, and were now toasting the upcoming Easter long-weekend at a location suitably removed from the stress and troubles of our workplace.

By the beginning of the second pint, the conversation had turned to facing one’s limits as an academic (a topic fresh in my mind, having just faced a healthy round of critique from these very gentlemen). It was proposed there aren’t any more Aristotles, or Leibnizes about, not because a of a dearth of talent, but because all of the nice fresh philosophical territory had already been staked out and despoiled. It’s like, it was suggested, being an inventor – there can be no more Edisons, because Edison already took care of all of the easy stuff.

I’m sure there’s something to this, and therefore something to that old post-modern notion that ‘it’s all been said already’. The situation in the art world seems perfectly analogous – once you’ve had a performance piece where nothing happens, or a show that involves nothing but an empty gallery, what conventions are there left to challenge?

Think this way is something of a comfort – it soothes my anxiety about being a mediocre thinker, and assures me that it isn’t my fault that the world hasn’t lined up at my door. But I also can’t help but feel that it’s missing the point, some fundamental point about what it is to be a human being in the 21st century.

What if individuals just don’t matter that much anymore? We needed for there to be Picassos and Liebnizes, but their time is over. Now, we need to learn to collaborate on projects that are larger than ourselves. Go back to the invention analogy for a moment – we’re currently cranking out gadgets that would make Edison go googly eyed. But who invented the iPhone? Or the Large Hadron Collider? Those questions are practically meaningless.

It seems plausible to me that philosophy needs to regard itself as in a similar situation. Actually, let me make that a bit more personal; I need to regard myself as in that situation. My fame, as a philosopher, just doesn’t matter. Oh, it matters as far as getting a job is concerned and all that, but not in any ultimate sense. I’ll have to learn to live with the strange duality of promoting myself as a brand, while knowing that I’m a leaf in the wind.

That’s a tough one for someone who was raised at the height of the Self-Esteem Movement to swallow. I was told by everyone I looked up to that I was Special, that if I put my mind to it, I could achieve anything. I guess it never occurred to the people saying those things that if anything is possible for me, then anything less than absolute success was entirely my fault, and a failure to achieve my potential. If I’m not a Picasso, an Aristotle, a Liebniz, it’s because I didn’t ‘put my mind to it’, and somehow I’ve let down the fondest hopes of my grade 3 teacher.

The conclusion that I’ve come to is that I don’t particularly matter. I’m unique, but not special. If it wasn’t me doing the work I’m doing, it would be the 100s of other people doing similar things. What matters is the great stream of life that we’re all participating in. If I can contribute one normal human-sized quantity of effort to improving its flow, and do it in a way that maximizes my talents, there is nothing more to hope for. In the blink of an eye it will all be gone, and history will have forgotten me – and that’s as it should be.

I left the pub feeling sick – I have been sick for days, and shouldn’t have been drinking. But that nausea was clarifying somehow, grounding in the present moment. The body has a way of doing that sometimes, of grabbing hold of you and saying “you’re here now, there’s no escaping the present”. And here in the terrifying grip of the present I hope to remain, for a while.

three completely unhelpful things to say about self-organization

It seems like everyone knows self-organization when they see it, but no one can quite say what makes it a thing. What follows is just three seemingly sensible and intuitive sounding things that people tend to say about self-organization and/or complexity that don’t to alleviate that situation. They’ll get progressively less unhelpful as we go along.

Self-organization is a process whereby pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from interactions among the lower-level components of the system. The rules specifying the interactions among the system’s components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern.

Camazine, “Self-Organization“, from The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science

To start off, let’s look at Scott Camazine’s short definition of self-organizing systems. It’s a pretty good definition, especially if you already have an intuitive idea of the kind of systems we’re talking about. They have some interesting global behaviour, which isn’t imposed on the system from outside, it just emerges from the interactions of the parts. As far as it goes, I think what Camazine writes is true. It’s just not very helpful.

To see why, look again at the definition and ask yourself whether it excludes anything. Are there systems which aren’t simply the product of local interactions of their parts? The reductionist, physicalist picture which self-organization is supposed to be a challenge to asserts that everything is just the product of the interaction of its parts. If there is something philosophically interesting about self-organizing systems, it’s supposed to be that they challenge this view! Read in a strict and literal way (ie. without the benefit of implicit, intuitive ideas about what self-organization means), Camazine’s definition tells us precisely nothing about the phenomena of interest.

Every biological system can be viewed either as an organized whole or in terms of its individual parts. Holistic studies focus on the organized whole. Reductionist studies focus on the individual parts.

Grinnell,  The Everyday Practice of Science. p. 49

Ok, so Camazine didn’t help much to get a grip on what we really mean by self-organized systems. There was something unspoken in his definition, something about there being interesting global structures that emerge from the interaction of the parts. Surely then the above quote from Frederick Grinnell helps? What we’re talking about is organized wholes versus individual parts, right?

That would be fine, except that ‘part’ and ‘whole’ are entirely relative concepts. Everything is a part relative to some larger whole, and (almost) everything is a whole composed of several parts. Telling us that the sciences of self-organization or complexity or whatever focus on ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’ is to say precisely nothing about the style of reasoning being employed. Newtonian mechanics, that blessed paradigm of reductive, analytic sciences, applies perfectly well to extremely complex wholes. If you scooped out my brain (a very complex object if I do say so myself) and tossed it around the yard, it would trace out parabolas as nicely as any other, simpler object. So just saying flatly that self-organization is about ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’ is really no help at all.

The distinction between nonlinear and linear interactions provides one way of distinguishing between systems that have emergent processes and systems that do not (Campbell and Bickhard 2002). […] Nonlinear interactions are nonadditive and nonproportional. They give rise (by definition) to systems whose activities cannot be derived aggregatively from the properties of their components.

– Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 419

(Sorry Evan, and thanks for agreeing to be on my comittee!)

So we didn’t get any traction by saying self-organization is about wholes rather than parts. Maybe the trick is to characterize the relationship between the parts and the whole? That seems promising. One popular way of doing this is to say that self-organization happens when the parts interact in non-linear ways, such that the whole cannot be understood in terms of the simple addition of its parts. But what exactly is non-linearity?

Below you’ll find an example of a non-linear function. Are you ready?

Not exactly mind-blowing, is it? But it is, in the strictest and most literal sense, a non-linear graph. Changes in x result in non-proportional changes in y, because going from x=1 to x=2 results in a much smaller change in y than going from x=10 to x=11. And that’s really all there is to non-linearity – that the points on the graph don’t form a line.

The reason why y = x² is so underwhelming as a non-linear graph is that it’s really easy to see how it would be linearized. We just take the 1st derivative to get y = 2x and pow, perfect linearity. Of course, there are lots of graphs where it won’t be so easy to find a nice linear reconstruction – especially if lots of variables are coming together, each interacting with the others in a non-linear way. But now we’re on to a richer notion that linearity vs. non-linearity. We need something like non-linearizability, or non-decomposability.

To be fair to Thompson (hi Evan, thanks again) just paragraphs after the above quote he goes on to discuss exactly those kinds of richer ideas. My aim is just to point out that it is the more subtle and consequently more difficult to formally characterize idea of non-decomposability that does the actual work.

So those are three completely unhelpful things to say about self-organization. I don’t know if pointing those out is itself helpful in any way, which is why this gets to be a blog post rather than a conference paper or what have you. To sum up, we could say that a helpful notion of self-organization has to say something that:

1) Includes the fact that there is interesting organization at the level of the whole that calls out for explanation somehow

2) Says something about the nature of the relationship between parts and wholes, rather than just specifies that we’re talking about ‘wholes’ rather than ‘parts’


3) Doesn’t merely say that the relationship between parts and wholes is ‘non-linear’, but instead includes some richer notion like non-linearizability, or non-decomposability.

the general and the universal

I’m hoping to draw on the collective wisdom of the internets here. There is a distinction that could be very useful to my thesis, and I feel sure that someone must have made it already, but I can’t for the life of me think of who or where. Any help identifying a prior source for this would be most appreciated.

The distinction is between what I’ll call the general and the universal. Roughly, things that are universally true are true in all cases, whereas things that are generally true are true across contexts. Put like that there doesn’t seem to be much difference, so let me try to make it clearer.

Consider two putative biological laws. From Hempel and Oppenheim (1948), we have the proposed law “All robin’s eggs are greenish-blue”. Now that may seem odd to modern philosophers of science, because it’s unlikely that there has never ever been a case where, due to random mutation or dietary oddness or whatever, a robin has laid an egg that wasn’t exactly greenish-blue. But at the same time, we can say that, in general, robins do indeed lay greenish-blue eggs.

Now consider a different proposed biological law, from Sober(1997) : he suggests that if we’re worried about the presence or absence of laws in evolution, we can easily build them by including in the antecedent of our law all of the ecological conditions which lead to a certain phenotype coming into being. So Sober’s laws look something like,

If X ecological conditions obtain, then for all Y’s, Y’s will evolve to have Z trait.

Instead of just saying “All tigers are stripey”, we say, for all tigers that evolved in such and such a context, those tigers will have stripes.

So the distinction I want to make is between the generality of Hempel and Oppenheim’s law about robin’s eggs, and the unviersality of Sober’s laws of biology. Sober’s laws will always be true, because (by hypothesis) we built into their antecedent enough detail to ensure that the consequent will always follow. They are true in all cases. However, because we specified it so particularly, the antecedent will very likely obtain in only a few extremely specific circumstances. His laws therefore have very little cross-contextual applicability.

On the other hand, Hempel and Oppenheim’s law about robin’s eggs has pretty good cross-contextual applicability. We can vary quite a lot about the background conditions in which robins live, and they’ll still (mostly) lay greenish-blue eggs. The average temperature can change, the kind of trees they live in, the sort of predators they face, and probably their food sources can be varied fairly widely, and still they’ll (mostly) lay greenish-blue eggs. Of course, their law has limited generality – there will be background conditions under which robins cease to lay greenish-blue eggs, or even where robins will fail to exist at all. But I think it’s obvious that Hempel and Oppenheim’s purported law is much more general than Sober’s.

So that’s it. Generality versus universality. Universality is just about whether we can stick a universal quantifier on our conditional – in all cases, if X then Y. Generality is a modal concept, about invariance under variation. It’s about the antecedent of a conditional – across how many contexts can we reasonably say that X obtains, such that our law is even relevant at all?

Someone must have made this distinction, I’m sure. Any suggestions?

the philosopher and the comedian

It occurred to me the other day that stand-up comedy is a lot like philosophy. Let me try to show you why.

Stand-up starts from things that everybody knows about: gender roles, racial stereotypes, airplanes, work, advertising, traffic, brushing your teeth, farts. And it shows you something new about those things – or better, the comic strikes a new attitude with respect to them. If it’s funny, that means the insight struck some emotional knot that is suddenly unwound, and you laugh a little. The best comedy can shock you out of your normal way of seeing things.

Everyone knows that people used to use rotary phones, and that cell phones beam signals into space. What is being taught isn’t a set of facts, everybody knows the facts that stand-up comedy works with. It’s more like a frame-shift – they cause you to reframe a familiar situation with shockingly different values.

Jerry Seinfeld is the modern master of observational comedy, of course. His virtuosity is finding novel insights into the most mundane elements of mainstream american culture.

Here’s Dave Chapelle teaching about the black perspective on america. I suggest you particularly listen for his white-guy voice – it’s dead on. It’s a perfect example of what I mean when I say that stand-up teaches about what is obvious to everyone. To me, it’s like hearing my own accent for the first time. I can’t even hear the whiteness in my voice, until Dave reflects it back at me.

George Carlin remains the master of close-reading of ordinary language.

I like to think philosophy is something very similar. Wittgenstein consistently held that philosophy is a kind of homeless discipline. Nothing is the proper and exclusive domain of philosophy, it is just the proper ordering of all of the other domains of thought. He wrote

God grant the philosopher insight into what lies in front of everyone’s eyes.

Moral philosophy starts from intuitions about what is good – logic from painfully obvious facts about what is consistent or true. These are things that stand before everyone’s eyes, and the philosopher is asked to say something interesting and insightful about them.

The philosophy of science starts from the sciences. My job in philosophy of biology is to say clever things about what everyone (ie. everyone who studies biology) knows.

“Say, did you ever notice how we measure the fitness of a trait by taking the average reproductive success of organisms with that trait in a population? But that doesn’t reliably separate correlation from causation! I mean, what’s the deal?”

Not very funny, I admit. Philosophers have our own criterion for judging insights into the obvious. Instead of funniness, we prize the elegance of the argument, it’s ability to clarify and its generality. But the analogy is there, I think.

The Wise Scientist

So I’m organizing the annual graduate conference for HAPSAT, the student group at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science where I study. I figured I’d throw the call for papers up here. I’m hoping to put together a day of talks that investigate the scientist as a wise (or unwise) person. The call for papers is still open, so if you’re reading this, you’re invited to contribute.

I’m excited to see that the irrepressible UofT Jungians, along with the Buddhist Psychology Student Union are also organizing a conference on wisdom (check it!), though their slice through the subject matter is slightly different. We’re looking at science through the lens of wisdom, whereas they’re looking at wisdom through the lens of science.


The Wise Scientist: Historical and Philosophical Reflections on the Place of Wisdom in Science

Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Toronto, Graduate Conference

HAPSAT, the graduate course union of the IHPST invites scholars to submit paper proposals for our upcoming conference, which will be held on June 2nd, 2012 at the University of Toronto.

In the History and Philosophy of Science, it has become the consensus view that values play a constitutive role in scientific practice. However, relatively little attention has been paid to the consequences of this conclusion: that the values that scientists, as individuals, bring to bear on their work is of paramount importance. In short, the wisdom of scientists matters. This conference seeks to put this fact in its historical and philosophical context, exploring past and present attitudes towards the relationship between scientific practice and what could broadly be called wisdom. Wisdom is a multifaceted concept, including the ability to know what is important, the skillful appreciation of how things in general hang together, and the deep insight which can result from a lifetime of exploring nature’s depths. Examples of how wisdom, or a lack thereof, have played a role in science abound, including the illuminating critiques of feminisms, the constitutive role religious values have played in the history of natural science, and reflections on scientists as public advocates for environmental responsibility. We welcome topics including but not limited to:

  •  Case studies which highlight particularly wise (or spectacularly unwise) scientists
  •  The changing role of individuals in the scientific process, and how that affects the interplay of values and epistemic goals
  •  The role of scientists in society at large in shaping discourse and providing guidance
  •  Hypothesis formulation, that unformalized creative moment in the scientific method
  •  The need for an ongoing feminist critique of science in order to clear the cobwebs of ideology
  •  The effect eastern and western religions can have on the epistemic goals of science.

The Keynote speaker will be Dr. John Vervaeke, a professor of cognitive science at UofT. He will discuss the function of wisdom as enhanced relevance realization in scientific practice. Abstracts should be no longer than 300 words, and must be received by February 29, 2012. Submissions or questions about the conference should be send to, along with your name, e-mail and institutional affiliation.

of survivalism and intersubjectivity

In the comments on the last post, Luke Roelofs raised some interesting questions about my stab at thinking about virtue ethics. I was suggesting that when we’re thinking about ethics, we should really be thinking about what kind of people we want to be. And since being a person depends on (or maybe just is) a certain kind of self-unity, we can treat self-integration as a moral imperative that kind of comes for free with the virtue ethics standpoint.

Luke raised the very reasonable worry that this sounds less like a moral imperative, and more like an imperative to be kick-ass or powerful. The concern, as I understood it, was that moral monsters can be highly self-integrated, and so degree of inner harmony doesn’t have much to do with morality.

The line I’d like to push here is that sociability is too deep in us to deny. As a matter of empirical fact, we are constructed to be sociable, and tend to need others around to flourish. And further, being able to understand and interact with others is part of what it means to be conscious in the first place. If those two things are true, then I think we can safely say that intrapersonal integration is impossible without interpersonal integration. The idea is that as a sentient being, you simply can’t be complete and whole without considering others. And more than just noticing their presence, but being disposed towards treating them kindly, and with due consideration.

As usual, I’ll proceed more by assertion than argument1. But hopefully I’ll be able to throw out some ideas which make this way of seeing a bit clearer, and maybe even plausible. To start off, consider survivalism.

Actually, first consider the ‘state of nature’, as imagined by people like Locke and Rousseau. These political philosophers have us imagine that before we got together into societies, we all just roamed around free, living off the bounty of the earth. They admit, of course, we probably had families or whatever, but still want us to take seriously the idea that we were individuals before we were part of a society.

Now with that in the back of your mind, consider the story of Ed Wardle, the handsome man in the picture above. As part of a television series, he was dropped off in the wilds of Canada with little more than everything modern technology can provide a person to ensure their survival in the wilderness. He intended to stay for three months. But after 50 days he was too hungry and lonely to go on, and used his satellite phone to ask for extraction.  Now how does that look against the image of the state of nature, where perfectly free individuals bound across verdant fields, picking fruit as it pleases?

What he lacked was probably training. If he had some good disciplined survival training, and a tough mind, he probably could have survived the three months out there. But that’s just to say that he needs more culture, more society in his process. The individual, if such a thing is even possible, is actually a cultural product. It takes years of parenting, moral education, social training and external regimens of discipline to make a person ready to make choices about their own values. That makes society prior to the individual.

One truly alone human being - the pinnacle of cultural achievement

Psychologically, there’s no doubt that we need other people. What is the worst punishment meted out to prisoners in countries like Canada? What is worse than being surrounded by angry, desperate, trapped criminals? Not being allowed to be around angry, desperate, trapped criminals. Solitary confinement, when extended enough, will reliably break a person’s mind.

I suspect this is a result of the way we’re wired. I hate to trot out the piece of pop-neuroscience du jour, but have you heard of mirror neurons? Of course you have. And here’s a video about them anyway.

It’s not completely clear that there are a certain set of neurons that we could call ‘mirror neurons’. But the evidence is reasonably good that we’re constantly running simulations of each other, and doing it with the same hardware that we use to run ourselves. And as Ramachandran suggests in the video above, it’s entirely plausible to suppose that it isn’t just a matter of modelling others based on ourselves. We’re almost certainly modelling ourselves based on others. We are, quite literally, in each other’s heads.

Ok, I hear you saying, let’s suppose all that is true. We’re interdependent or whatever. Does that really mean we have to be nice to each other?

I think it does. Because a totally self-integrated person is not at war with themselves. That is the asymmetry between treating others kindly, and treating them badly. One is integrative, and the other is not. And if you’re largely a collection of simulations of other people, being whole and complete means living in harmony with your outside world as well.


1. I love the internet.

more on virtue

Last time I made a haphazard semi-argument for the claim that virtue ethics should be the starting point for thinking about morality. To summarize, I argued that in order to have any practical purchase, ethical thinking really needs to be in terms of the cultivation of stable character traits. My suggestion was that we really don’t have all that much conscious control over our actions. We generally don’t act from reasons, but rather act, and then come up with reasons. That is, we confabulate a story about how we decided to do whatever it was that we did. If this is true, then changing our habits and character are the only thing we can do, morally speaking. If we’re not in moment to moment control of ourselves, we may still be able to intervene on the process which does cause our moment to moment behaviour.

So while that’s not terrifically convincing as it is (plausible, I think, but not a slam dunk) I propose to move on anyway. I’d like to  assume the virtue ethics perspective for a while, and see what can be done with it. The basic question is, what kind of virtues do we think are important? If you could change your disposition to act in any way, how would you change it?

A Garden of Selves - 2009 Installation by gelitin

Part of me, when I wrote that last question, started spinning philosopher-style thought experiments; if you had a machine that could zap character traits into your brain, blah blah blah. But it’s actually a much more immediate and practical question than that. Your everyday choices and activities create your character, to a significant degree. Aristotle had this quite right, as do the Buddhists. One can come to regard themselves as a gardener, tending to the small plot of land that is one’s selfhood. You don’t control when the sun will shine, or when the rain comes. Neither can you force a seed to germinate when the conditions aren’t right, or convince beans to grow up as tomatoes. In that sense, the gardener has very little control. But at the same time, you can create conditions, watch the balance of things and pull out weeds occasionally. You can gently guide the development of your little you.

But of course, even supposing that some small measure of guidance is possible, the question is what kind of you should you be cultivating? Having accepted the virtue ethics framework, this is the next most fundamental ethical question. Aristotle has a list of virtues, which is convenient if you’re willing to take the word of a bronze age slave owner on morality as definitive. I tend to think owning people disqualifies you as a moral authority (but that may be a bit of deontological ethics infecting my nice neat system).

What I suggested at the very end of my last post was that some kind of basic conditions on what virtues are the right ones could be had by looking at some features of what it is to be alive. If a virtue is a necessary precondition for being alive at all, it needs to be on the list of virtues to cultivate. Similarly, if a trait is necessary for making moral choices, then it gets to be on the list by default as well. That may not seem like much to start from, but I’ll try to show in the rest of this post that we can actually squeeze quite a lot out of those two criteria.

First, being alive. The only convincing definition of life I’ve ever heard comes from the enactivist tradition. Humberto Maturana and Fransico Varela proposed that what it is to be alive is to be autopoietic, which means to be a system which consists of a bunch of parts that are designed to make the other parts of the system. An autopoietic system is therefore a self-making system, which is put together in such a way that it tends to maintain itself as a system. The cell is the paradigm case of autopoiesis – all of the organelles are built such that they help to build all of the other organelles, and the whole package is wrapped up in a cell wall which keeps the whole thing together. Kant people may recognize this as similar to his definition of self-organization, and it is, particularly when stated in such a short sketch. The details are different, but they aren’t especially important here. The key point is that if this way of seeing life is right, then the defining characteristic of all living things is a certain kind of self-unity.

(Below is a superfluous but awesome short video of what goes on inside every cell in your body. It’s not that relevant here, except insofar as it shows how amazingly well put together living things are.)

Of course, self-unity isn’t guaranteed – it’s something that life is constantly working towards, half achieving and then inevitably failing at when it dies. So while it isn’t something we can always count on, it is part of what defines us as organisms. The trouble with virtue ethics is that it tends to rely on notions like ‘innate nature’, which are damned problematic. Who is to say what is basic to our nature and what isn’t? Well, if the enactivists are right, the struggle for self-unity is as fundamental as anything gets.

So when we’re making decisions about how we should intervene on our habits and character, things which tend to promote wholeness, integration, and the working together of all our various bits and pieces are a good bet. For instance, we have base, biological aspirations like eating and sexing, and more refined ones like our aesthetic sensibilities and our desire for emotional communion. Cooking a carefully considered meal for someone you love (and maybe getting laid for your effort) would be a pretty nice way to get all those things working together. It’s easy to multiply examples.

Now consider the second basic criterion, that we should cultivate characteristics that make moral choices possible. If we don’t, then moral choices won’t arise at all, and the whole discussion is moot. So we can say for sure that on our list of virtues, there need to be some characteristics which make free decisions an option for us. This criterion pulls in the opposite direction as the last – instead of self-unity, we have the requirement for differentiation. You have to be courageous enough to disagree with your culture sometimes, and disciplined enough to reject some of your urges. Without this minimal level of autonomy, the possibility of cultivating virtue can’t even arise. You’ll just have whatever habits have been foisted on you by your circumstances.

Combining those two criteria together, I think I kind of proto-Nietzschean will-to-power results. The imperative is to use everything you have (self-unity) in an autonomous and conscious way (moral differentiation). Because we’re deeply social animals, we ought to engage with those around us. But because we ought to avoid loosing ourselves in a crowd, we have to do so in a critical and courageous way.

So that’s not bad, I think, considering the very minimal materials that we started from. We have a rough framework for taking moral stances, and at least a few ideas on where to start looking for the right stances to take. What I’ve said here by no means closes off the questions that have been raised, of course. Even if this is all exactly right, there is still the question of how to strike the right balance between the basic virtues. But no one said this stuff was going to be easy.