El Camino Real 

Stairway to Heaven? 


(I know my Spanish is from the Alameda de las Pulgas, or was it Eastwood(?), but grant me this indulgence.  Besides, I was running out of parchment for that last page and had to come up with something.) 

Let's see how reality is faring these days: Mental realism (122 hits), mental causation (2,600 hits), downward causation (1,200).  No too bad.  Now, on with the mental realism list: 

'CONSCIOUSNESS AS EXISTENCE' -- Ted Honderich (from a book in progress, post 9/11): 

This paper is owed to a common conviction among philosophers, that the Philosophy of Mind, as distinct from the science of the mind, is on the rocks and going nowhere, and that something different  is needed. It is certainly different.

A little honesty and innovation might get us off to a good start on the royal road. 


The account is in part similar to direct realism -- in the account, perceptual consciousness is intrinsically made a matter of something not in the head. It will thus be apparent that it is open to something very like the long-running objection to direct realism, this objection also being an argument for a representative theory of perception. The long-running objection and argument is essentially that in perception we cannot be aware of physical objects, since hallucination, where there are no such objects, is indistinguishable from perception. What we must therefore be aware of in both cases is objects internal to ourselves.   

These direct realists are quite convinced they are not on Plato's royal stairway.  We'll have to see how they come to this conclusion.  

In my opinion, the best defence against all such objections, which certainly are troublesome, is an attack on the views being argued for, representative theories of perception.

Well, it looks like Ted is not quite up to the task of illumination.  He is clutching desperately to the solid(?) rock of an external space-time container.  He would much rather be lost in space than lost in the mind of God.  Who will volunteer to break the bad news to him?  This is rock-solid Existentialism: majorly Agnostic: the naturalist version of direct realism. 

Then check this out: 

International Conference:
FOUNDATIONS AND THE ONTOLOGICAL QUEST. PROSPECTS FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM” JANUARY 7-10, 2002, Rome, Pontifical Lateran University, Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, 4. 00120 Vatican City. 

The Church is sure to keep an iron in this fire.  I just hope it doesn't get too hot in the Pontifical kitchen. 


My, my!  Will it be a hot time in the Ol' City tonight?  Better check those 'connections'.  Is it who you know, or what you know?  Now, if this were a Mormon Church there would be a concealed trapdoor in the ceiling to facilitate the Second Coming.  Just a thought. 



Well, they say you should not look a gift horse in the mouth.  But coming as this is from the horse's mouth, itself, I could hardly resist. You'll be my witnesses that if there are teeth to find, I will, but, so far, I've found nary a one.  Are we surprised?  

The poor Vatican is stuck between a rock and a hard place with ontology.  They know they must rein in the postmodern nihilists, but without providing ammunition for us ontology freaks in the hinterland.  Let us be content with the gesture.  I'm beginning to wonder if the Protestants even know what ontology means.  It is not a word that springs to the lips of any fundamentalists. 

With respect to ontology we have had the extravagant Platonic thesis, and then the exceedingly Spartan, Steven Weinberg, antithesis.  What is going to be the synthesis, if not actually Hegelian?  That is the question which the Vatican is naturally hesitant to address.  When that trapdoor finally opens, the Keeper of the Faith knows that he will have to take his iron out of the fire and pack his bags.  Will there even be a golden parachute? 


I was about to quote from BERNARD D'ESPAGNAT -- Quantum physics and the ontological problem, on the question of 'radical idealism' which begins on page eight, but the Keeper of the Faith has other ideas.  You'll just have to suffer my paraphrasis.  Suffice it that Bernie's not big on idealism.  He recommends an 'open realism', which reminds me of a baseball story: the count stands at 1-1 as a fastball sizzles across the corner of the plate.  'TWO!' screams the ump.  'Two what?' enquires the batter, 'yeah, two what?' growls the equally intimidating catcher.  'Too close to call,' mumbles the umpire.  

Yes, it's tough being in the ontological trenches. Bernie begs for an MIR, 'Man-Independent-Reality'.  [N.B. Bernie is not saying it's Mind independent!]  If this is not meant as a pleonasm, then we are falling back on dualism, because surely there is also a dependent reality, i.e. 'Existence'.  

But wait, here is from another, auto-translated source: Abbaye Saint Paul de Wisques:

Bernard of ESPAGNAT defends, as for him, the idea of the existence of another level of reality beyond space and of time. He decides for a kind of Platonism where the prevalence of the ideas would not make pour the thought in the idealism, but would lead to the design of a veiled Reality, "a reality independent, remote, probably not located in the space time" (B of Espagnat, an atom of wisdom, 1982). This reality, we perceive a kind of projection in fact imperceptible. It is this buckled Reality which gives its direction to our level of reality. The vision of Bernard d' Espagnat is very a indeterminist, it leaves a broad place to the mystery of the world that certain theologists, impressed by science materialist, had wanted to evacuate.

And Bernie is sticking to his quasi-Platonic guns back here at the Vatican.  So, sharpening my pencil: "But I wonder if, then, it [this conception of reality] would not be of such a nature as to give rise to a revival of interest for the deep and basic debates on the relationship of God and Mankind that, in the XVIIth [how Romantic!] century, involved Spinoza, Malebranche, Fenelon[??] and others.  And it would be remarkable indeed if such a revival were inspired by contemporary physics!" 

Yes, I wonder about that, too.  I ain't no Spinoza, but, heck, I've got TWO masters degrees, BOTH in physics, no less!  Is it OK, Bernie, if I give it the old college try?  Then the only thing I'll need is someone to hack into Google, hint, hint.  Better watch out, Joe!  But I just had a horrible thought.  Doesn't the Vatican treasury hold stock in Google?  They'd better grab up a few more shares, quick.  Remind me to ask Ron about them apples. 


All we have to do is synthesize pragmatism and Platonism.  And functionalism points the way.  We ran smack into functionalism on the last page with our Granny detector.  Yes, we need a transcendental Functionalism.  Creation is a Function, is it not?  Along with our Functionalism, comes a divine Conceptualism, almost gratis, not too mention major Teleology, as we follow Bernie far beyond the 'sensibility' of space and time.  

Doesn't that just about wrap it up?  With regard to Functionalism, all we have to do is ask ourselves 'WWGD', what would God do?.  The only sensible answer is the BPW, best possible world.  Then, as regard to the Eschaton, it's not a matter of whether, but when.  And, once again, there is a perfectly sensible answer.  This is not Rocket Science, Bernie, it's not even Quantum Science!  It's just what any reasonable person would come up with, when Steve and Joe are looking the other way.  We're all just chips off the Ol' Block.  You don't believe that?  Do you believe atoms in the void?  (I'm not talking to Bernie now, I'm talking to YOU!!)  Well, forget it, that nonsense just isn't flying anymore, and, come to think of it, it never did fly in the first place.  Atoms were ever and only a lousy excuse for us not to have to think about what makes the world go 'round.  Once that excuse is ripped from our death-grip, we have to wake up and smell the ontology.  QED. 

I rest my case.  Strike me dead, Steve & Joe!


Speaking of Ron, I can't help but notice the breaking news this morning: 

Newsweek [Isikoff] said, however, the FBI uncovered financial records showing payments to the family of al-Bayoumi from a Washington bank account held in the name of Princess Haifa Al-Faisal, wife of the Saudi ambassador to the United States and daughter of the late King Faisal.

I had a series of rather interesting communications with Ron between Sept.1st and 16th of 2001, including extended meetings on each of the specified days.  The general nature of these interactions led me, in accordance with my long established 'Chicken Little' protocol, to, subsequently and publicly, raise the issue of prior knowledge.  No one, even including myself, took this terribly seriously.............until now???

What would be the point of such a possibility?  There are larger reasons, mainly taking into account the various Eschatological logistics and scenarios, whereby it would be both necessary and mutually advantageous for there to be intercourse[!] between the Cosmic and Central intelligences.  You may recall my previous apologetics in this general regard, which may now be coming home to roost.  Better keep an eye on that Ron.  No comma[,] and no further comment.  

But why this awesomely unsubtle paper trail?  A royal snafu?  Just bread crumbs in the forest, my dears, on the way to Granny's house! 

And what about Ron's golden parachute?  I think he'd better talk to Joe about them apples. 

[By Michael Isikoff And Evan Thomas
NEWSWEEK Dec. 2 issue

Interestingly, Osama Basnan showed up in Houston last April when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah came to town with a vast entourage en route to President George W. Bush’s ranch. According to informed sources, Basnan met with a high Saudi prince who has responsibilities for intelligence matters and is known to bring suitcases full of cash into the United States.....]


Do functions exist?, we'd like to know. 

E.g., does reproduction exist in any ontic or Platonic sense?  Is this even a coherent question?  

Reproduction, like all functions, is normative just by definition.  Where are these norms?  They are somehow immanent in the reproducing entities, whose existence depends upon the existence of those norms.  How many such norms could there be?  This may not be coherent.  Normality is a quality, something not to be quantified over.  There is an input and an output, and there is success or failure, with occasional ambiguity.  

Consider mutation, in its most inclusive, even spiritual sense.  How do we classify a mutated reproduction?  To a considerable extent that will depend on the progeny.  Is it a dead-end, or the cornerstone of a whole new world?  As with all functions, the teleology suspends judgment until, well, Judgment Day.  There can be no real functions then, or, for that matter, a real anything, without an eschaton.  But we're not talking about any old eschaton.  Logically there can only be one such, given history.  Anything more or less would render the Telos unintelligible, taking all meaning down with it.  There is just one norm, the Norm of the Telos.  All else is relative.  That is why it is called Judgment Day.  

You see why philosophers have such a struggle with meaning.  It is surely not amenable to analysis.  There can be only one Meaning, like the one Norm, that does not dissolve into relativity. 


It had not come to me quite so clearly until today that ontology, logically and coherently, has got to be an all or nothing affair.  There is no middle ground with ontology.  It is everything, or nothing.  Ontology is necessarily relational with grades of total relatedness.  A creator would be of the highest grade.  With ontology there can exist nothing beyond the pale.  The convergent teleology of functionalism helped to bring home this message.  

The analysis of functions is a method of very limited use, especially outside of engineering.  Engineering is no small consideration, but overemphasis on it has had an unbalancing effect on the rest of culture.  Control without wisdom is ultimately fatal. 

These ideas are pervasively implicit, but they do need to be made explicit at this time in history. 

The gestalt-like quality of ontology is impossible to demonstrate in a piecemeal fashion.  It cannot be ladled out.  There is a leap.  Very few, indeed, will not make this leap.  The personal drama of it is not incidental to the meaning of our existence.  Life is always an all-or-nothing affair.  The holism of the wisdom of life simply underscores this truism.  Future generations will find it nearly impossible to conceive of the present degree of the fragmentation of human knowledge which has reached its nadir at this turning point.  The resulting pain and confusion would almost instantly kill anyone who was acclimated to any other existence.  The individual human psyche has been forged in this hellfire for reasons that, of course, we cannot presently imagine. 

Let me say that the more mystical traditions have attempted to strike a balance between the all and the nothing, thereby reducing, to an extent, the tension of modern existence.  Those on this path may still anticipate a leap.  No one will be immune, regardless.  No one can avoid history.  It is certainly not an intellectual exercise, nor can it be a strictly individual process.  It will be historical.  I can talk about it, many can, but what do any of us truly know now?  We all breathe the same air. 

I am, let's be clear, talking about the spiritual transitions that will lead us up to the Eschaton, still generations hence. There is no need to storm heaven.  We still have all the time in the world to get our house in order.  That is what we are here for.  



The only ontology that can count is functional.  Functions are essentially relational and normative.  Normativity is determined through agency.  Agents, at minimum, are self-organizing entities.  But agency, too, is essentially relational and open-ended.  Agency is essentially microcosmic, as in the case of the nuclear family.  The agency of any 'primitive' cannot be assessed other than in a tribal context.  Tribes always and everywhere maintain an essential, self-organizational microcosmic mythology, by way of defining and conferring agenthood.  There is literally no existence for such 'primitives' beyond that pale. 

Then there are organisms.  Organismal identity is essentially ecological.  Existentialism is unknown in the world of ecology, as in the tribal domain.  Would it be unfair to say that existentialism, indeed Existence, is essentially a literary conceit? 

Then there are atoms.  Yes, atoms are self-organizing, but atomic identity can only be chemically instantiated.  Plus, the metaphysical exigencies of the Quantum loom large in this microcosm.  Without a Bohrian-type Quantum mythos, identifiable atoms would only inhabit the dreams of Democritus.  Individuated atoms exist only at the behest of observational protocols, which are essentially normative, and so are semi-permanently subject to revision, with an emphasis on the vision.  

This is ontology in a nutshell.  This is El Camino Real.  Ontology is essentially an open book.  It is an unfinished story: an unfinished vision.  The existence of the merest atom is relative to the protocol of the Eschaton.  The cosmic Ecos is contained in that Telos.  It is only in the Telos of the Eschaton that the wave function of the probable potency of the Cosmos finally collapses.  If that is not Judgment Day, then what could it be, pray tell?  


And what is the only extant, non-nihilist alternative to El Camino Real (~4,000 hits)?  It is the camino of self-organization (243,000 hits). 

It appears that El Camino Real is the Hinayana, while the camino of self-organization is the Mahayana of postmodernism. 

I used to have a brother-in-law who was wont to say he was a 'self-made man'. I wondered about that then, and I wonder about 'self-organization' now.  Are they not perhaps symptoms of a similar mindset? 

Clearly, self-organization is rampant today.  To what do we owe this phenomenon?  What is its provenance, etc.?  Has anyone bothered to look this Gift Horse in the mouth, I wonder?   

Off the top, self-organization presents a mixed bag.  Most generally it is presented as the essence of evolution.  It might even be more accurate to say that self-organization is thought to be the quintessence of evolution.  I use that word advisedly: 

The Quintessence

From the Golden Casket of Benedictus Figulus comes the following wisdom: "For the elements and their compounds in addition to crass matter, are composed of a subtle substance, or intrinsic radical humidity, diffused through the elemental parts, simple and wholly incorruptible, long preserving the things themselves in vigor and called the Spirit of the World, proceeding as it does from the Soul of the World. This is the one certain Life filling and fathoming all things, so that from the three emanations of sentient beings (Intellectual, Celestial, and Corruptible), there is formed the One Machine of the Whole World. This spirit by its virtue fecundates all subjects natural and artificial, pouring into them those hidden properties that we have been want to call the Fifth Essence, or Quintessence.

If you can find a more historically apt precedence for the 'self-organizational' ethos than the 'quintessence' of alchemical romance, please bring it forth.  There is even the same naively robust, often explicitly Luciferian, animistic hubris.  This is the same breathtaking hubris that we previously encountered in Transhumanism (here, here, etc).  

We must also recall vitalism.  If you can see daylight between the vital principle and the principle of self-organization, your powers of discernment are greater than mine.  

The scientific and intellectual core for the ethos of self-organization is usually alleged to be at the Santa Fe Institute.  The, hot off the press, centerpiece of the Institute's effort appears to be:  

Evolutionary Dynamics Exploring the Interplay of Selection, Accident, Neutrality, and Function -- Edited by JAMES P. CRUTCHFIELD and PETER SCHUSTER (OUP, 9/20/02): 

This book is an assessment and review of the recent progress in integrating evolutionary modeling and computation, molecular and developmental evolution, and nonlinear population dynamics into evolutionary theory. It brings together a wide range of eminent researchers in evolutionary dynamics in order to formulate a comprehensive theory that builds on nonlinear mathematics and physics. The text is divided into four sections: macroevolution; epochal evolution; population genetics, dynamics, and optimization; and evolution of cooperation, each containing several in-depth chapters and discussions.

As is evident on his home page, Jim has irons in several fires of interest.  But I'm having difficulty locating an intellectual core or vision, amidst the many detailed and descriptive excursions.  There are many ducks, but no particular alignment.  I see no overarching thesis or integrating principle.  I felt somewhat less adrift in the domain of biosemiotics: at least they have the SIGN.  With self-organization must there not be a principle of the SELF?  How can there be a discipline based on 'self-organization' with no coherent concept of the self?  Is this an unfair question? 

If I recall, it is Stuart Kauffman (mentioned previously) who is generally considered to be the elder statesman of Self-organization & Complexity.  His most recent and only online publication: INVESTIGATIONS: THE NATURE OF AUTONOMOUS AGENTS AND THE WORLDS THEY MUTUALLY CREATE (1996).  Here is his most recent book: At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (OUP 1995).  In what is often alleged to be a burgeoning field, might we not expect an update from the master?  The following is the unusually brief preface:

We live in a world of stunning biological complexity. Molecules of all varieties join in a metabolic dance to make cells. Cells interact with cells to form organisms; organisms interact with organisms to form ecosystems, economies, societies. Where did this grand architecture come from? For more than a century, the only theory that science has offered to explain how this order arose is natural selection. As Darwin taught us, the order of the biological world evolves as natural selection sifts among random mutations for the rare, useful forms. In this view of the history of life, organisms are cobbled-together contraptions wrought by selection, the silent and opportunistic tinkerer. Science has left us unaccountably improbable accidents against the cold, immense backdrop of space and time.

Thirty years of research have convinced me that this dominant view of biology is incomplete. As I will argue in this book, natural selection is important, but it has not labored alone to craft the fine architecutres of the biosphere, from cell to organism to ecosystem. Another source---self-organization---is the root source of order. The order of the biological world, I have come to believe, is not merely tinkered, but arises naturally and spontaneously because of these principles of self-organization---laws of complexity that we are just beginning to uncover and understand.

The past three centuries of science have been predominantly reductionist, attempting to break complex systems into simple parts, and those parts, in turn, into simpler parts. The reductionist program has been spectacularly successful, and will continue to be so. But it has often left a vacuum: How do we use the information gleaned about the parts to build up a theory of the whole? The deep difficulty here lies in the fact that the complex whole may exhibit properties that are not readily explained by understanding the parts. The complex whole, in a completely non-mystical sense, can often exhibit collective properties, "emergent" features that are lawful in their own right.

This book describes my own search for laws of complexity that govern how life arose naturally from a soup of molecules, evolving into the biosphere we see today. Whether we are talking about molecules cooperating [sic] to form cells or organisms cooperating to form ecosystems or buyers and sellers cooperating to form markets and economies, we will find grounds to believe that Darwinism is not enough, that natural selection cannot be the sole source of the order we see in the world. In crafting the living world, selection has always acted on systems that exhibit spontaneous order. If I am right, this underlying order, further honed by selection, augurs a new place for us---expected, rather than vastly improbable, at home in the universe is a newly understood way.

A word from the wise: as I was told in graduate school, whenever 'search' appears in the title of a scientific paper, you may automatically insert 'unsuccessful' in front of it.  Is this then an example of hubris, just plain chutzpah, or the dream of an ageing scientist?  

It is far from me to hold a brief against dreaming, but when a scientist does it, does that make it Science? 

At this point I was about to compare Kauffman with his non-reductionist colleagues the Intelligent Designers.  But let's listen in on Dembski himself: Alchemy, NK Boolean Style

Appropriately modified, the joke about Rudolf Carnap can be retold about Stuart Kauffman and the scientific method he employs in At Home in the Universe. According to the modified joke, Kauffman's method is to begin any scientific investigation with the statement "Consider an NK Boolean network." Indeed, throughout At Home in the Universe just about every real-world problem gets translated into a toy-world problem involving NK Boolean networks. As with Carnap's formal languages, NK Boolean networks have the advantage of complete logical precision. But they also suffer the disadvantage of losing touch with reality. And it is this disadvantage which ultimately proves the undoing of Kauffman's project.

[.......] Indeed, Kauffman admits that he is searching for laws he has yet to find. An obvious question therefore arises: Whence Kauffman's confidence that such laws even exist?

Kauffman's confidence rests in an analogy. In the non-linear dynamics of physics and the simulations of computer science, Kauffman finds self-organizational scenarios that are suggestive of what might have happened in biology. Kauffman's project therefore is to use non-linear dynamics and computer simulations to massage our intuitions, make the search for laws of self-organization seem plausible, and ultimately facilitate the discovery of such laws. And of course, the main analytic tool for carrying out this project is his NK Boolean networks.

Before considering the details and merits of Kauffman's project, it will help to understand the motivation behind it. Throughout his book Kauffman makes very clear that he is after a non-mysterious account of the origin and development of life. For Kauffman such a non-mysterious account is one that appeals only to natural laws and is devoid of any reference to a "master choreographer" (p.208). Appeals to intelligent design are therefore ruled out from the start.

All the same, Kauffman is not wholly without a sense of mystery and the sacred. At the end of his book Kauffman encourages us to "reinvent" the sacred. Indeed, a religious impulse underlies Kauffman's rejection of strict Darwinism, with its exclusive dependence on mutation and selection. As Kauffman sees it, strict Darwinism makes the universe a giant test tube within a stochastic chemistry lab. To reinvent the sacred, Kauffman needs the universe to be more than a test tube--it needs to be our home. And for the universe to be our home, our place in the universe must be assured. Laws of self-organization hold such a promise. Thus Kauffman will write, "I would rather life be expected in this unfolding since the Big Bang than that life be incredibly improbable in the time span available" (p. 304).

Let us now turn to the details and merits of Kauffman's project. To strict Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Kauffman's project will seem thoroughly misguided. Indeed, what is the point of positing unknown laws of self-organization to explain biological phenomena when these same phenomena have already been adequately explained in terms of mutation and selection? Kauffman's project casts doubt where there ought to be certainty. Kauffman's project problematizes what ought not to be a problem. For the strict Darwinist, laws of self-organization are leeches whose only effect is to sap a perfectly good theory (i.e., the neo-Darwinian synthesis) of its vitality.


Or consider Kauffman's ubiquitous NK Boolean networks. An NK Boolean network is a set of N nodes, each of which is assigned a value of 0 or 1, and which in being reassigned values depends functionally only on the values already assigned to K fixed nodes (K < N). No doubt, Kauffman's NK Boolean networks are capable of exhibiting many interesting behaviors. But to call the nodes "genes," as he is wont to do, and then take what he interprets as self-organizational behavior by the Boolean network as evidence for self-organization in the formation and development of life is utterly gratuitous.

Nowhere does Kauffman even attempt to establish a correspondence between the mathematical models he runs on his computer and the actual processes matter must undergo to form a biological system. I find this omission unconscionable, for it represents a descent into mysticism worse than any Kauffman claims to avoid. Kauffman will write, "it is not implausible that life emerged as a phase transition to collective autocatalysis once a chemical minestrone, held in a localized region able to sustain adequately high concentrations, became thick enough with molecular diversity" (p. 274).  This is not science, but alchemy (cf. p. 277 where Kauffman actually uses the word "alchemy" to describe what he is doing). 

I could not have said it better myself.  Are there any articulate defenders of Kauffman, we might wonder?  However, this purloined description of NK networks reminds me of something more recent: 

A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram (2002).  What I have previously gathered from the reviews is a mathematics considerably advanced over Kauffman's, but equally lacking in connection to the real world. 

We might wonder if Complexity Theory, for lack of a generally applicable theory, is running out of steam?  What might supplant it in the minds of our neo-alchemists?  

Would it be fair to say that the Complexionists are running into problems similar to those of the Connectionists?  I suspect as much.  They both get very bogged down in the notorious intractability of networks.  Attempts to render them natural, seem only to contribute to that intractability.  

The complexity site listed second on Google features this essay: Neo-Transcendentalist Philosophy[!]:  

It is characterised by taking the best aspects from spiritual thinking, adding the down to earth approach of science, merging with the creative flexibility of mind and then stirring the whole with the lure of a better future via evolutionary choice. This is not Utopian, it is not Other Worldly, nor is it Materialistic. It transcends those static categories and offers a dynamic, complexity related, way of thinking that treats the whole not the part, one eminently suitable for the 21st Century.

As you can see, the New Age has gotten its teeth into Complexity and is not about to let go.  It is not clear that Kauffman & Co. would find this even slightly embarrassing.  

Whether we take the philosophical idealist stance that the world doesn't exist outside such thought or take the realist version that the world itself gave rise to the thought matters less that the recognition that such abstractions are instrumental in determining how we behave. They themselves do have reality and are causally effective, but at a higher level than material objects, and are what we call in complexity thinking 'emergent properties'.

Eclecticism is the order of the day.  I know of no postmodernists who would have problem with this. What I see is simply a non-reductive naturalism with a pinch of Transhumanist utopianism.  Another name for this might be Scientific or Natural Pantheism.  Another term of choice among the Complexity people is 'autopoiesis': 


Philosophizing on the basis of an avowed ignorance of even the rudiments of Western philosophy is common. Another factor is the prevalence of nihilistic and extreme schools of thought within philosophy itself, such as Analytic Philosophy, Deconstructionism and other related Post-modernist movements. Most of these lines of thought are repugnant to scientists and reinforces their distrust of philosophy. However, without philosophy the meaning of scientific theories and facts remain obscured. And many of the implicit philosophical positions within science are just as nihilistic as the philosophical schools that cause folks that think of themselves as scientists to blanch. In fact the Krisis that Husserl pointed out in Western Science is still in full swing. Science has become detached from the lifeworld and teeters on the abyss of meaninglessness and nihilism through this disconnection from the consideration of meaning and the rise of instrumentalism. What we need to do is bring the best insights of recent Continental philosophy to bear on our scientific practice and use that as a context for understanding the phenomena that are addressed by autopoietic theory and its extension into the social realm.

This brings us nearly full-circle to Biosemiotics. 


There is a widespread desire and need for some sort of macro-realism.  Mathematics has been critical in establishing a micro-realism (modulo the quantum, of course).  But the attempts to use math to extend realism to larger scales, notably the attempts of Thom, Kauffman, Wolfram, etc., have had very limited success.  The inadequacy of mathematics opens the door to semiotics, and other more speculative initiatives, this being one of those.  

The simple fact is that meaning is holistic.  There is no way to compartment it.  When Quine discovered the holism of meaning he failed to follow up on it, certainly not in the grand manner suggested herein.  Existentialism attempts to compartment meaning to individual human existences, e.g. to you and me, separately.  



The Self-organizing, Autopoietic Complexionists wish, in effect, to extend Existentialism to cover any individual system.   The idea is that ontology, meaning, emergence, functionality, rationality, etc. can be individually compartmented within each given system.  The news of the Millennium may be that this compartmentalization is not possible. 

Each special science and discipline would like to have its own autonomous ontology and epistemology.  This is what pluralism is about.  This is the American Way, is it not?  Perhaps, but it may not be the way of reason.  

There is the issue of holism.  Consider the holism of mathematics.  The integers, for example, are a logical whole and cannot be ontologically partitioned.  The even numbers cannot be understood apart from the odd numbers.  This seems trivial, but neither may the integers be understood outside the context of the rationals, nor the rationals apart from the real continuum.  But did not the early mathematicians manage quite well in ignorance of the irrational numbers?  True, but they also missed a great deal in their understanding of the integers because of that ignorance, as modern number theory testifies.  

Similarly the subjects of algebra and geometry were once treated as quite separate disciplines, but now we have trigonometry, algebraic topology, etc.  In modern mathematics there are still specialists, of course, but the greatest strides have come in discovering deep homologies between the disciplines.  Thus the structural knowledge of one mathematical discipline can be imported wholesale into another, leading to remarkable cross-fertilization and an explosion of knowledge.  And don't get me started on mathematical physics.  We may be under the impression that we are managing quite well in our pluralism, but what are we missing? 

Imagine attempting to do mathematics without the concept of infinity.  This is just what the mathematical constructivists attempt to do, and by all accounts it is a very ineffective method by comparison.  The inductive approach of science may be equally ineffective, and it would be impossible in many areas without recourse to the deductive power of a robust mathematics.  

It is likely to turn out that the notion of the transcendental is to our general knowledge of the world, as the notion of infinity is to our mathematical understanding.  The reductionists, like the mathematical constructivists, argue that we have no proof of the infinite or the transcendental, and so any reference to it is illegitimate.  The difference is that no one pays attention to the constructivists.  


There is much indirect evidence that the transcendental is the foundation of our intelligence.  Not many years ago it was being said that metaphysics was a 'disease' of language.   The point is that language is irredeemably holistic and metaphysical: intentionality be a hallmark of the latter.  Like their constructivist colleagues in mathematics, the analytical reductionists hoped to put language on a crash metaphysics-free diet.  A century these ambitions have vanished without a trace.  

The reductionists next took on the seemingly less onerous task of being the ontology police of Science, using Occam's razor as their disciplinary whip, if you will.  But with the proliferation of ontology laden special sciences, the outcome for them is appearing no less dismal.  The reductionistic physicalist is becoming an endangered species, if not already extinct.  I keep a careful watch for this rare bird, and I cannot report a single sighting in, say, the last five years.  If you know of one, I will gladly put out a 'rare bird alert'. 

The very last bastion of those folk of a reductionist persuasion is now, as we have seen, under the banner of 'naturalism'.  The naturalist shtick is simple: only establishment scientists are allowed to play the ontology game.  The rest of us are encouraged to go and, well, play with ourselves, not to give it too fine a point.  

One might suppose that the theologians would feel left out, if not downright offended.  Well, think again.  The message from the naturalist to the theologian is: 'Après moi, le deluge.'  The theologians are most receptive to this dire warning.  They know, as well as any, that we natives, we ontology freaks, are restless.  The scent of 'gunpowder' is in the air.  There is a line being drawn in the sand.  There is a siege mentality on the part of the secular Intellectual Establishment.  Their professional sectarian colleagues, seeing the storm clouds, are keeping a low profile.  The Intelligent Design contingent may think they are storming these barricades, but, in truth, they are seen as little more than a nuisance.  What then is the focus of their trepidation?  Surely, it's not yours truly.  No, but these folk are sufficiently wary of the metaphysical instability to know that the bullet that hits them is the one they wont see coming.  Here's my prediction: the bullet in question is the demystification of the Eschaton.  Nothing less focused nor less forceful will pierce the veil, and nothing less can account for the irrational anguish of the besieged.  Suffice it to say that this observation was not made from an armchair. 


Enough of social psychology, it's back to naturalism.  

It is still a big leap from non-reductive naturalism to eschatology, and that's putting it mildly.  As the naturalists would have it, the only ontological furniture in the world is that which emerges spontaneously: the mind being everyone's Exhibit A.  Is the mind natural?  This might be more palatable if we had only the possibility of animal minds to consider.  The significant problem comes rather closer to home.  

There were those, of course, who would deny us our minds, but their odd gambit has lost its traction.  Radical connectionism appears to have been their last hurrah.  The real battle has shifted now to the ontological definition of the mind.  At this point I can't resist the urge to mangle another metaphor by suggesting that the mind is the soft underbelly of naturalism.  Persuading psychologists to toe any ontological line presents as inviting a prospect as herding cats.  Here the naturalists are going to have to maintain the barricade themselves.  This is become a fulltime job: the neuroscientists and AI people presumably have to struggle to keep their day jobs.  

Now it may be that the very success of science is turned against its self-styled defenders.  In delving into the realm of the mind, epistemology is transformed into ontology.  With the blurring of that distinction, the scientific knowledge explosion becomes a major ontological headache.   



To the holistic nature of language, we may add the apparently irreducible nature of our innate grammatical sensibility.  Our universal mathematical proficiency is another, quite probably undeconstructible talent, among many others.  

Then there is the developmental psychology that is our epistemic foundation.  There is an extraordinary, innate proclivity for the acquisition of new talents that is the source of all our remarkably diverse and constantly expanding repertoire of abilities. 

All of this actual and latent ability comes under the rubric of natural intelligence.  Is it not fair to say that the more we learn about natural intelligence, the more stark becomes its contrast with artificial intelligence?  There has not even been an attempt to define the limits of natural intelligence.  Even its qualitative outline remains obscure. 

Nonetheless, even just a perceived threat from the ranks of strong AI has, in the past, kept a lid on the metaphysics of the mind.  However, the split in the AI community between the connectionists and the computationalists, may have radically diminished that perception.  There is no longer even the perception of a coherent program emanating from that direction.  Their respective strategies are strongly incommensurate, and each one postures itself on the all too obvious weaknesses of the other.  Are we not in the terminal phase of a mutually assured destruction?  At this point the AI people are literally on their knees praying for a divinely inspired breakthrough.  Can I stand here and swear to you that God will not answer their earnest entreaties?  No.  Would God have given us the Quantum if she did not want us to build a Quantum Computer?  No.  I would be among the last to deplore such a development.  Why will it not exacerbate the rampant metaphysical speculation already engendered?  The Quantum is already a metaphysical nightmare for the materialists.  Nay, it has turned into a metaphysical tar baby.  The actual process of attempting to tame the Quantum is showing no prospect of diminishing its metaphysical stickiness.  It continues to maintain the upper hand.  

In metaphysics there are no guarantees.  God is not going to write us a contract.  There will always be an extra mile.  And, most significantly, there will be an irreducible, indestructible element of faith.  Faith is an essential core, if not the actual essence, of human nature.  I doubt that the Creator would, or even could, ever deny that to her creatures.  What proof there is, is ever only in the pudding. 



I was out of town for a few days, so let's recapitulate.  There is a continuing struggle with realism.  My insight from last night was in the form of an increased emphasis on the holistic and relational nature of realism [i.e. its gestalt quality, as noted above].  There are different possible starting points for realism, and then one proceeds to construct a coherent web of reality. 

One idea from last night was that our mathematical ability would be a logical starting point.  It is very difficult to account for mathematics from a biological point of view.  There is a minimal required intersubjective conceptualism.  The precisely rational manipulation of mathematical structures provides a robust basis for conceptual realism.  This realism includes a downward or final causality for these concepts.  

I then would like to extend this realism back down the evolutionary ladder, and see how far we can reasonably go in that direction.  This is toward the general notion of biological functionalism.  For the previous several days I had been trying to make the case for biological pattern recognition for something as basic as enzymes.  Following Pattee, I believe, one could argue that enzyme activity involves the Quantum measurement  problem, bringing in metaphysics and ontology through that back door.  But this is too big a leap from conceptualism.  Thus I reverted to the general problem of nutrient acquisition, or just hunting, from a higher perspective.  

A more general rubric would be mental modeling.  Survival entails the predator and prey in a mutually escalating competition of anticipatory modeling.  (One should be reminded of the basic ability of 3-D mental rotation studied by Shepard.  Conceptual realism was surprisingly vindicated thereby.)  One would expect some such modeling ability to extend rather far down the food chain. At the highest end of that chain we would have the the imaginative power of writers to create realistic characters with quasi-autonomy, which in turn, carried to a pathological extreme, would constitute a multiple personality disorder.  This is just self-organization or autopoiesis carried to the next higher power.  The web of realism is already well extended. 

Linguistic capacity is a form of mental modeling.  Words must be endowed with an irreducible causal efficacy if we are to take seriously our communication skills.  

Given this tentative foothold for realism, the next extension of it might be organismic ontogeny.  This is the realm where biological reductionism most severely strains our already overtaxed credulity.  Ontogeny provides a possible bridge between mental and biological ontology, or between conceptualism and vitalism: a material based autopoiesis at its most impressive.  Once the balance starts tipping away from reductionism and toward holism, that reversal of fortune is soon to become dramatically irreversible.  No longer will mere atoms tyrannize our spirits.  That day has been a long time coming.  No need to be other than cautious and deliberate. 



Yesterday I neglected to mention biological traits as prime candidates for realism.  How else could they be selected?  Notice, however, that they are not completely objective nor precisely defined, but evidently they are sufficiently real for all natural purposes.  

On the issue of realism, the life sciences are caught between the vitalists, broadly construed, and the skeptics.  Most scientists evidently feel that they can go about their business while ignoring the ontological issue.  We point out to them that there can be no science without ontology.  (A nominalistic science is tantamount to idealism.)  The scientific status of an organismic biology is then the same as that of psychology or sociology.  This is hardly shocking.  Mathematicians are seldom exercised about the ontology of their subject matter.  

The only folk who care about ontology are those of a religious persuasion.  Theirs has always been an uphill battle.  They should take heart from the ontological ambiguity of the sciences, but, so far, that comparison has not had much practical benefit.  

And what about the ontology of meteorology?  History?  Persons? 

Are persons real?  Why are we not exercised about this?  This may be the crux of the reality issue. 

Consider the ontological vs. the legal status of persons.  The abortion debate is just one facet of this issue.  There is a liberal conservative divide as to whether the locus of reality is with the person or the society.  Nature vs. Nurture, etc.  Do persons make history or are we its products?  What are the various causes of history?  Biological and economic determinism are closely related issues.  Of course, the ontological status of persons and souls are closely correlated. 

The status of persons is also at issue between the prophetic and mystical or pantheist traditions.  In general, the mystics are the great skeptics about many things, including especially gods and persons.  On the other hand, even the atheist existentialists take persons, and their angst, seriously.  Personal angst may be the only thing they take seriously. 

A peculiar and remarkable facet of modern existence is the degree to which Physics has co-opted ontology.  This is not particularly the doing of the physicists, is was mainly a role that was thrust upon them by outsiders with ulterior motives.  I don't doubt that some aspects of this role have been manipulated in a a political or even conspiratorial fashion, but the great bulk of it has been simply the modern ethos, the zeitgeist (real?), if you will.  The historians will not have an easy time explaining the ascendancy of the idea (sic) of materialism.  It may well be the most difficult fact they will ever have to explain. 

But how about meteorology?  Are storms real?  Is this a coherent question?  How might the ontological status of meteorological taxonomy differ from that of its biological counterpart, for instance?  Is it a matter of degree or of kind?  Are storms a natural kind the way species are?  Most planets and stars have (recognizable) storms, but only one is known to harbor species, setting aside the BPWH (hypothesis).  

The physicalist would argue that storms are reducible to physics, like everything else.  But are they not, more accurately, (strongly?) emergent bulk phenomena?  Is there not a bona fide phenomenology of storms. (By the by, did you know that Physics is replete with phenomenology?  I had almost forgotten this little skeleton in Physics' ontology closet.)  The status of nuclear physics wrt to Physics is virtually the same as that of meteorology.  It is difficult to deny the reality of nuclear weapons or of hurricanes, but that is not quite the issue.  We're talking final causes.  Nothing is real without a final cause, including, especially the world, ergo, eschatology.  Formal and final causes may be identified for this larger, historical purpose.  Does an electron have a formal cause?  That may depend on the 'transworld' validity of Steve's Standard Theory of Physics.  The formality of the electron is guaranteed only by the BPWH.  

I should note that the reality of storms is not just an academic question for us idealists.  Idealism does not rule out the possibility of upward causation, and the logical conflict between upward and downward causes in idealism could be a sticky issue.  How much control might God have over the weather, and how might that control be exercised?  Physics is a legitimate aspect of creation.  Physicalism has a role, but just how limited is that role?  That is something we'll need to deal with, at our early convenience:   

The concept of the Alpha and Omega, and creation as a suspension between these pillars may be relevant.  Take Alpha as the efficient cause and Omega as the final cause, and one has a model for balancing the upward and downward causes in a given time slice.  These two, quasi-orthogonal, dimensions of causation could be the warp and woof of Creation.  I'm struggling here folks, help me out! 

The TV Weather lady doesn't need the BPWH, presumably. 



Let's face, there wouldn't be so much physicalism if God did not love the physicalists.  I was one once, myself, and but by the grace of we know whom, there still goeth yours truly.  

But when it comes to obstructing El Camino Real, the postmodern skeptics are more effective than the remnant physicalists.  It is political correctness, more than physical correctness that is the obstacle.  Rationality has always been at a disadvantage relative to politics.  And this politics has been severely polarized by the political excesses of the right-wing 'christian' crowd.  A polarized polity bodes ill for rationality.  Will the Muslim excesses just exacerbate the irrationality?  There are limits to irrationality.  Modern Cartesian irrationality has about played itself out.  There is a latent demand for coherence.  The radical nature of immaterialism is the remaining barrier to a postmodern coherence.  El Camino Real beckons. 

We are seeing the last hurrah of fundamentalism.  Its superficial literalness was always the servant of the demagogue.  It does not serve the spirit.  The spirit hungers.  The spirit will be served in the end.  

Fundamentalism was merely a creature of modernity.  It will not stand to the corrosion of postmodern scrutiny.  As fundamentalism self-destructs, there will be a demand for coherent alternatives.  People, though, are not yet spiritually prepared for the singular shock that awaits us on this front.  To some it will seem that we are jumping from the frying pan into the fire, and they will not be entirely mistaken! 



<-- Prev      Next -->

Topical Index