Miscellany: involution, evolution, and “the experience machine”

On the twice two-fold of evolution; “casting off,” “enfolding,” ontogeny, and phylogeny:

Evolution seems to be a two-fold movement: at once (1) “casting off” and also (2) “enfolding.” 

  1. The first is demonstrated in the human phylogeny in the human being having successfully “shed” all other forms of life—icthyoid, saurian, mammalian, hominoid—before finally incarnating into human form. An image of this phylogenetic process appears in the successive transformations of the embryo. A similar “casting off” is also demonstrated in (b) the phenomenon of technology, in which innate capacities are outsourced, externalized, augmented, and materialized. 
  2. The second is demonstrated in human phylogeny in the so-called “descent of man” out of less complex species. To only take into account the outward elements of this evolution is to risk coming away with a representation of this process that has been simplified to the point of caricature. The ontogeny of the individual indicates further dimensions to the phylogeny of the species. Specifically, evolution is also an involution. What I mean is that such evolution consists in an inwardization of elements and powers, which coherently form several “bodies.” “Body” refers to a spatial object insofar as the body is physical. More fundamentally, however, “body” refers to a coherent organization of elements and powers. Beginning with the physical body, with which we are largely familiar, these further bodies have been given the names “etheric,” (life, physiology, reproduction, Aristotle’s to threptikon, etc.) “astral,” (sensation and locomotion, desire, emotion, Aristotle’s to kinetikon and to aisthetikon, Plato’s thymoeides and epithymetikon) and “rational” (discursive thought, reason, memory, logic, Aristotle’s to dianoetikon, Plato’s logistikon, etc.). The last establishes the conditions for the individuation of the self as a subjective referent for experience. We say “it happened to me” and not just “it happened.” The condensation of this subjective locus of experience is depicted in the story of the archetypal pair’s eviction from Eden and as long as it remains, we will find ourselves barred from reëntry at the Gates of Paradise by “Cherubims, and a flaming sword.” At the same time, the birth of the self establishes a center of volition independent of instinct and conditioned reaction to stimuli. In other words, it is both our eviction from Eden and the birth of our possibility for deliverance from exile through realizing our freedom. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in the sense that the individual progresses through a development that mirrors the evolution of the race.

On the involutionary “descent of man”:

I think there is no fossil record of humans with dinosaurs or any other primæval species because human beings had embryonic forms—fluid-like, bordering on vaporous in an atmosphere that itself possessed a much greater relative density than our own—until the last. An evolutionary “sclerosis” began with a condensation of plants into material form, then bugs, then reptiles and saurians, then mammals, then hominoids, and finally, Man. Only comparatively sclerotic forms lend themselves to the process of fossilization. Hence the apparent indications of the fossil record. The human being was preceded by all of the other species just as Christ is preceded by a forerunner despite also being the first: “He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me.” It is interesting to note the sort of “pulse” or “throb” that the fossil record suggests in which one kind of creature achieves a massive incarnation subsequently to abide just like the sound of a bell only gradually diminishes. Consider, for instance, the colossal proportions of the reptiles during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. The mammalian species enjoyed a similar regency as evinced by the record of diverse megafauna during the last great Ice Age. Humanity seems to be enjoying its regency today. Hence, geologists have begun to refer to our time as the Anthropocene.

On “the experience machine” and J. S. Mill’s qualitative triage of pleasure:

One commonly-voiced reservation with hedonistic or utilitarian ethics is that it seems to divorce experience from reality. This criticism was most famously put forth in direct connection to hedonism and utilitarian ethics by Robert Nozick in the “experience machine” thought-experiment, which appears in his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but the same image has entered the popular imagination following the Wachowski Brothers’ epoch film, The Matrix, with was released around the turn of the millennium. In brief, a person is confronted with the choice of living inside of a simulation that has been designed to increase experience of a positive valence. In The Matrix, choosing to exit the simulation is represented by taking “the red pill,” which derives from a scene in which the protagonist is given a choice between these two options. “Taking the red pill” has since become synonymous with disillusionment both in the sense of ceasing to be under the sway of an illusion and of general pessimism. Taking “the blue pill,” by contrast, refers to the decision made according to the principle “ignorance is bliss” and which also must follow from a consistently hedonistic or utilitarian approach to ethics.

One way of countering the criticism that a utilitarian will choose illusion over real life so long as the former option provides for “greater happiness for a greater number” is by appealing to J. S. Mill’s classification of pleasure into so-called “higher” and “lower” ones. As the foremost exponent of utilitarianism in history writes:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

Perhaps the distinction between higher and lower pleasures allows the utilitarian to resist the allure of the experience machine under the hypothesis that one who knew both sides of the question would opt for real life. As with all questions posed under the utilitarian framework, the answer can only be decided empirically and is thus subject to all the typical problems of induction together with the fact that it may have inadvertently changed the subject from ethics to sociology, as utilitarianism is wont to do. 

Some people may object, however, to the classification of pleasure into “higher” and “lower” in the first place. It is not uncommon to discover an instinctive aversion to the statement something is better than something else in general. Of course, the view is strange and self-contradictory, like all statements of moral relativism. Nevertheless, it seems to be a common reaction. Perhaps an exploration of the basis for such an evaluation in the frame of ethics can shed more light on the issue and ultimately provide us with a more accurate view of it. It we postulate, to begin with, that it is possible to divide the sources from which we derive pleasure into two categories, we can delineate them in this way: 

(1) one is common to human beings and other animals. These are things like food, warmth, comfort, sex, etc.

(2) the other is only common to human beings. These are things like friendship, accomplishment, prestige, honour, love, etc.

Someone enjoying his favourite food is an example of the first class here (1). One could easily conclude that “it’s all subjective” because different people will likely have different foods in mind. One person likes burritos, another likes kebabs, and still another likes toast, for instance. It is significant to note that the kind of pleasure that is common to humans and other animals is cloying and easily turns into its opposite. You can only eat so many burritos before what was first appetizing becomes revulsion. “I love my favorite jacket,” one might say, “because it keeps me warm.” And then the next day it is 90⁰ and they say something else.

We could imagine an example of the second class (2), such as learning to be a chef so you can make burritos or kebabs or toast, and the recognition and respect etc. that is associated with bringing people pleasure, even if the pleasure that people receive is mostly of the first kind (1). It seems that the kind of pleasure that would come from learning a skill like this, while it would still be subject to changing conditions, would not be quite so fickle as the first kind in that it would not so easily invert into its opposite. This is part of the reason we might be justified in identifying it as a comparatively higher pleasure. 

In any case, having established the distinction above and offered at least one criterion to evaluate a given source of pleasure, what I would really like to emphasize is that, as a rule, we would prefer the first class to be simulated by an experience machine while the pleasure we get from the second class seems largely to depend on our belief that it is real. This relates, of course, to Nozick’s criticism of hedonism and utilitarian ethics.

As I indicated above, I believe that the only way for the utilitarian to accommodate philosophy is to define “pleasure” so as to include a third class that is still higher than those already mentioned. First is (a) preferring what you like. Next is (b) preferring that what you like is real. Last and perhaps highest from a philosophical standpoint is (c) preferring what is real. In this schema, the more refined the pleasure, the less it will lend itself to inversion and the more it will tend to increase the subject’s own capacity to appreciate that same pleasure. Whether redefining “pleasure” to mean “love of truth” has demanded that one compromise the basic principles of utilitarianism altogether is an important question to consider. 

As a final note, it can be observed that the categories above fit neatly with Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, which he outlines in Briefly, in Book IV of the Republic dialogue and then more fully elaborates in Book IX. In the first instance, Plato presents the figurative image of the tripartite soul, consisting of:

(3) the rational element or λογιστικόν (logistykon), symbolized by the form of a human

(2) the emotive element or θυμοειδές (thymoeides), symbolized by the form of a lion

(1) and the desiring element or ἐπιθυμητικόν (epithymetikon), symbolized by a many-headed monster or hydra

The purpose of Plato’s metaphor is to indicate that a proper order or relationship amongst these three elements of the soul is the key to a good life. In brief, the rational soul fulfills its function by identifying ends that are good and ordering the emotional soul towards these ends and thereby enlisting it to keep the desiring soul in check. In other words, the lion serves the human and guards the many-headed beast. In the context of the dialogue, internal conflict is the result of disorder amongst these elements. The Republic dialogue largely consists in an extended conceit in which the state or republic is made to represent the soul. Thus, the state of internal coherence is represented by a harmonious republic while internal disorder is represented, in turn, by tyranny and civil war.

On matter and theory:

Scientific theories are always underdetermined relative to what is directly given to experience and “matter” is not an experience but a placeholder for the theoretical cause of that experience, which only includes matter insofar as we subsume an immense variety of sensory experiences under the generic rubric “matter.”

On the self and the self-concept:

I have observed that the thought of myself cannot be its own cause. Nor can it be the cause of what it purports to do and suffer for the same reason that my reflection in the mirror cannot account for itself or any of its actions. The thought of the I implies an agency to have thought it to begin with and that agency can never by subsumed by its reflections. The I can never be “understood” but only enacted.

On relative change and transcendence:

On an analog clock, the second-hand is a function relative to the structure of the minute-hand, and the same relation holds between the minute and hour hands, and then again between the hour-hand and the clock face. This is where it gets interesting because obviously the clock itself is also not a permanent structure because it has a beginning and an end. So the clock itself is a function of change relative to a state of permanence that it participates but does not occupy. It reminds me of Heraclitus’ famous dictum “everything flows.” But it also hints at a point of access we must have to a consciousness that is totally transcendent of time because if our consciousness were just as mutable as everything it perceives, we would not be able to notice because it would be “along for the ride,” as it were.

On cosmogeneses Hebraic and Hellenic:

I have, in the past, oscillated between Ethics textbooks without finding one that adequately differentiated “happiness” as hedonia (as per Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill) and “happiness” as eudaimonia (as per “il maestro di color che sanno” and the Stoic philosophers). Finally, I got fed up and decided to write my own. Below is from an introduction to one of the selections:

Next is a selection from the work of Thomas Aquinas, including an excerpt from his Summa Theologica, which many consider to be among the greatest intellectual achievements of the Middle Ages, if not in all of human history, and is perhaps the Scholastic equivalent of the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral. Aquinas’ Summa is often regarded as the locus classicus of natural law theory and represents the fruition of Aristotle’s virtue ethics with the powerful deontological impulse of the Hebraic culture. An early Christian thinker named Tertullian (155-220), taking as given the supreme importance of the Hebraic tradition but meaning to challenge the importance of Hellenic philosophy to Christian doctrine, once asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Even if the New Testament had not been composed entirely in Greek, Aquinas’ work, exemplified in his magnum opus, should suffice to silence Tertullian’s doubts. 

In thinking about this a little more, it occurred to me that a comparison of the ancient Hellenic and Hebraic accounts of cosmogenesis exemplify a certain spirit of these cultures, respectively. If we consider the Genesis accounts of Creation from the Torah, we will be struck by the volitional and moral essence of the sequence. The world doesn’t just happen to come into being. It’s not an accident that the universe exists. Quite on the contrary, the world exists as a deliberate act of God, as effect to cause. Moreover, it is not merely a brute fact that the world exists, but it is good. 

Hesiod’s account in Theogony presents a striking contrast. Instead of volition proceeding from intelligence, we find spontaneous generation out of Chaos. Instead of the world being good, it is apparently neutral; not immoral, certainly, but nothing moral either. It is amoral. This “theory,” “paradigm,” or “way of seeing” is evidently an ancestor of the modern scientific outlook. To speak in a generalization, it is all fact and no value.

On a personal note, I think the contemporary scientific view is incomplete; I think the two outlooks belong together like the sun and the sky. In any case, I hope it is clear that I don’t feel, when I am speaking of the ancient Jews that I am speaking of “them.” Likewise with the ancient Greeks. Rather, I experience it as “that was us, back then.” I think it’s a possibility for us to share in history in this way; hence the resonance of the Exodus story with the African slaves in the early part of American history, for instance (hear this amazing version of “Go Down, Moses” by Louis Armstrong, for instance). The power of science as history (per Robin Collingwood) is that it invites us to participate in archetypal narratives and thence to reunite the moral and the scientific.

Photo by Rachel Xiao on Pexels.com

5 Comments Add yours

  1. How did we manage to forget about the “involution” part, do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Max Leyf says:

      The oblivion of modern science filled our eyes with shadows. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds reasonable to me. “Out of sight; out of mind,” so to speak.


  2. The issue is not simply one of needing to save the world, but also of needing to solve the problem of the loss of soul throughout the modern world. Part of what has been lost in the reckless rushing of modernity is the the sense that each life has an authentic interior that shelters important emotions as well as inherent purpose, and that the dignity of existence includes a necessary instinct to unfold the unique story woven inside each living soul. ~ Michael Meade

    The synchronicities just keep piling up. Few seem to be paying any attention to them, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Max Leyf says:

      Yes, again the problem of quality and quantity. It seems to me that what one generation of modern scientists assumed as a methodological postulate (“we will study only what we can precisely quantify”), the subsequent generations increasingly assumed as a metaphysical one (“only what is quantifiable is real”).

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s