What has the mind-body distinction done for us lately?

If you want to be uncontroversial in Philosophy today one thing you can do is oppose is the mind-body distinction. Being a dualist is even less respectable than an idealist. So, if idealism is out, the mind is prima fascia out and we are stuck with the body. Since science has emerged as the Cadillac method for telling us about matter, and to science the body just appears as another assemblage of matter, a scientific story about the body looks like the most promising way continue to talk about thinking and cognition without invoking dualism or idealism.

However, we then are faced with a difficulty: if what really exists is the body as science describes it, it is very difficult to find certain things Philosophy would like to take for granted. For instance – concepts must now mean not abstract entities of mental substance, but actual types of neural firings. We can continue to talk about concepts, but we must think of them as a sort of useful fiction, as what really exists is not “concepts” but some electricity in the brain moving about in various ways.

This leads to a second difficulty: if concepts and understanding are bits of electricity moving about the brain (a physical object), what is the brain? We would like to say “matter” – but what are we saying when we say matter? Conventionally speaking, “matter” names a concept of some scientific rigor, but it is admittedly contingent. We use the concept “matter” and a thousand other concepts to talk about the world, but we might have used different ones – and at times we did have different ones (for instance – matter meant something different for the Greeks, for the Scholastics, and for the early Christians as it does for us).  Furthermore, we now know concepts are just bits of electricity moving about the head, but “bits of electricity moving about the head” is a string of concepts – itself a flow of neurons. We thus find ourselves, having committed devoutly to materialism, to be stuck in a web of idealism. What really exists? Matter. But what’s that? …a concept.

So, it turns out we might not be over the mind-body distinction at all. If we give it up and ask Science to do the work for us, we find we need to either return to the mind body distinction or become idealists. Since Science is fundamentally opposed to idealism (this is perhaps a contingent phenomenon – Kant was a great philosopher of science and wholly a supporter of Newton), this option looks worse.

But might there not be some other, clever way of overcoming the mind-body distinction? I suggest yes, and the answer is already there in Aristotle. Rather than make the case for Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle, however, I wish to talk about Merleau-Ponty’s logic of “situations”. A “situation” is exactly what it sounds like – a manner of being situated. It consists of a set of circumstances in which we find ourselves involved. However, it is not merely us as mindful beings thrown in a set of empirical circumstances, it is much more clever than this. The turn is to recognize how the subject is thoroughly intertwined with the object whenever it is situated – the object-side of the situation is the situating of a subject, and the subject is the objectifying of the object. In other words, the subject only becomes subject when s/he is situated in a particular way (try to imagine not finding yourself in any circumstances whatsoever), and the object is only a set of circumstances inasmuch as it actually holds a subject “in its grip”.

Merleau Ponty is an “existentialist” philosopher – a word mostly emptied of meaning by popular but lousy undergraduate courses on Heidegger and Sartre. If it retains any meaning, “existentialist” means that existence is primary – meaning that experience comes first. Any “essences” are beholden to “existence” – which is factical existence, existence as you find yourself. We might remember that Heidegger’s notion of factical existence begins with “Befindlichkeit” – which translates roughly to “where-your-at-ness”. In keeping with the primacy of experience, we should think about what “situation” means not in terms of abstractions and concepts, but in terms of real factical situations. The best sort of situation to envision is one that holds you, one that has a grip on you. These kinds of situations are the useful life experiences that allow some existentialist philosophers to work out their concepts of “angst”, “boredom”, “wonder”, etc… because when a situation has a hold on you, you can get a hold on it and understand the way its having a hold on you. So, what kind of situations have a hold on you? What about a fight you had with your partner, perhaps a big one, or perhaps a little one that still nags at you a week afterwards. The circumstances of the fight seem to have disappeared but they have not – the situation remains insofar as it continues to have a hold on you.

Other circumstances we would intuitively want to call “situations” are situations only privatively, and make bad examples because they fail to have a hold on us. For example, if one takes the bus everyday, the average everyday journey of taking the bus is completely forgettable – nothing about that situation has a grip on you, and as soon as its over you will never remember it again, or if so very rarely and by accident. If, however, a situation arose on the bus that had a hold on you, it would be a different story. You might catch an attractive person’s eye looking at you, and play glance-tag all the way up the subway line. When you are about to disembark, you either turn your head away or look at them looking back at you and laugh, perhaps from outside the train. The situation is unresolved, you’ll always wonder, “what if I’d talked to them?” The situation nags at you, and you might remember that one thirty years from now. If you want any proof that this kind of situation gets a hold on people I can simply refer you to the craigslist “missed connections” pages. If it were merely because of the real chance of meeting the lost person again no one would bother (the odds are astronomical). However, this is the wrong interpretation – the point of these postings are to actualize the formal possibility that the other person might find you, and this eases the tension and reduces the extent to which the situation has a hold on you.

Translatability of models, and translation as such

In Philosophy, one encounters more differences in style than differences in content. The advantage of this is that one comes across many ways of expressing similar thoughts. One thought I often try to express is that truth should be understood as revealing, and always bound up with falsity, concealing. Forced to justify my claim against those who would rather grasp truth as a discrete phenomenon (T/F, 1/0), I’m often forced to return to Aristotle and assert that the differentiation of the Logos is the condition for truth and falsity even in intentional speech, before the connection of subject and predicate in logos apophantikos.

This is, however, almost completely useless – as Aristotle has been appropriated both by the Continental and Anglo-American tradition, each in their own purposes. Furthermore, to people outside philosophy, it is difficult to get anyone to believe the premise of the argument: that Greek grammar has anything to do with what we mean by Truth.

Today, it is much more “believable” to talk about semantics as modeling the world, which offers different possibilities for understanding truth as revealing. It is perfectly understandable that models do not replicate the world exactly, and thus hide something about the world. It is also perfectly believable that if they did not hide something, they would have to be identical to the world – the model would simply be a life size reproduction of the world constituted out of the same matter and energy the world is. This model would fail to be reductionist, and thus would be no easier to understand than the world itself – and furthermore since it would have to have the same sort of time as our world, it would offer no predictive power. So, we end up with the conclusion that models are either truth because they are false, or that they are useful because they are false. The difference between “usability” and “truth” originates in the disconnection between ontology and epistemology – if questions about knowledge are no longer questions about knowledge of the world, we can grasp “truth” as the internal coherence of semantics (epistemic – no concern for being), or as the unknowable relation between word and being (ontic – the mere form of truth without concern for what we can know).

It is possible to critique both the semantic and ontic conceptions of truth, but it is difficult because the separation of ontology and epistemology leaves open the retort: “Yes perhaps but we arn’t doing X we are doing Y”. However, I found a passage in Deleuze that might get around this difficulty as it is concerned merely with semantics, with the models themselves and translatability between them. The issue at hand is the ability not simply of a model to show up the world in a particular way, but the possibility of translating one model (semantics) into another model (semantics). On the semanticists truth account, everything internal about a model should be expressible as a set of true/false discrete statements, and therefore models should be translatable into each other: as they are essentially all made from the same stuff (sets of true/false statements). Deleuze talks about the difficulty with this:

“Of course, it is possible to translate into a model that which escapes the model; thus, one may link the materiality’s power of variation to laws adapting a fixed form and a constant matter to one another. But this cannot be done without a distortion that consists in uprooting variables from the state of continuous variation, in order to extract from them fixed points and constant relations. Thus one throws the variables off, even changing the nature of the equations, which cease to be immanent to matter-movement (inequations, adequations). The question is not whether such a translation is conceptually legitimate – it is – but what intuition gets lost in it. “(Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateus, p. 408-409)

Deleuze’s point is that while it is always legitimate to translate one model into another, such a process is actually messy when the models involve different sorts of lines. In a linear model lines are defined by the points which they cross – what is primary is the coding of spaces and the equations that describe movements across these codings are secondary. On the other hand, vortical models like projective geometry or nomad geography hold the line between the points to be primary, the movement, the equations are prior to the codes which they produce.

Think of it this way: imagine two machines. One machine is built in a settlement, and is used for roadbuilding which connects previously existent communities together. The lines, the paths are secondary – they tackle the landscape in order to reach pre existent points. This machine works in linear space – and must oppose the natural line with dynamite for the sake of reaching pre determined points.

On the other hand, imagine a machine which sets out with an indeterminate goal: produce a path, a road, a railway, but it is of no particular importance where to. The line of the route will curve naturally with the sinuity of nature, avoiding mountains, following river valleys. Towns will spring up along the way, but the road does not exist for the sake of these towns – the towns exist for the sake of the road. The towns do not exist in perpetuity but are rather radically contingent on the building of the road, supplying roadbuilders, or extracting easy resources made acessible by the road. Thousands of ghost towns in British Columbia are evidence of this sort of town-road relation.

Of course, it is rare, perhaps impossible that these two machines would ever be completely seperate. No one builds a road with no goal in mind, and no fixed goal completely prevents roadbuilders from following the easier route. In practice, the machines act more like the second kind when the points to connect are very far apart (as in the trans-Canadian railroad). While the end points are determined, and some points along the way, there is much choice about which route the railway will take between those points. The contingency of the path is attested by the fact that it was done twice with drastically different results. The machines are more like the first sort when the points to be connected are predetermined and of great importance. For example, Whistler and Vancouver – in this case the emphasis on the end points determines that millions must be spent blowing up rocks and building overpasses, making the route follow less the line it finds in the mountain and more the fast, relatively uncurved line that high speed automobile travel demands.
Sea to Sky Construction
On the other hand, we might think of Fort Steele – a ghost town turned living museum in south eastern British Columbia. In this case, the BC Southern railway bypassed the thriving gold rush town in favor of a shorter route and the town declined quickly into abandonment.
Fort Steele 1910

Deleuze’s point is that although we can see both kinds of (in this case) route building in every case, that we can’t grasp the first kind through the model of the second kind and vice versa. Rather, each throws out variables from the other, and what was essential escapes.

FM Radio

When I woke up today, at about 2 pm, I put on CBC radio 2 – notably on a radio and not as a streaming feed from the internet. The significance of this is it was not compromised by system performance, or by the need to shut down or restart. The upshot is there has been a continuous stream of music in my room for almost twelve hours.

And, I must say, it makes me very proud to be Canadian. Many shows have gone by – Disc Drive, the Signal, Tonic, Canada Live, and now, Nightstreem. Not a single piece of music came out of these speakers which I was not surprised by, and which I did not like. Not a single advertisement has interupted me. All of the hosts are pleasant and insightful. Some hosts are like familiar friends – Jurgen Gothe from Disc Drive is the soundtrack of my painting days. Katie Malloch seems always to be presenting the Signal in the afternoon/evening time when I’d be driving home from a day at work which ended pleasantly early. And in the height of summer – when I usually finished long after dark, the Signal with Laurie Brown would literally waft me home along Vancouver Island’s smooth and curly roads. If I had been up earlier, I would have heard Eric Friesen present Studio Sparks. I can even conceptualize different kinds of working days in terms of which programs came on at which part of them.

Truly, I am lucky to be Canadian if it means I get to listen to this.

Moral Universalizability and Climate Change: a Restatement

Premise 1: It appears on the face of it, to everyday thinking, that the right thing to do concerning climate change is to reduce one’s own emissions as much as possible, or at least as much as is convenient, and to lobby the state to change laws concerning carbon and energy, and to encourage friends and the public both to make personal sacrifice and to lobby the state and others to act similarly. The general goal in mind in all these actions is to enable and facilitate a transition to a carbon neutral economy.

Premise 2: For a principle to be a moral ground of an action, it must be universalizable. This means that if everyone to whom it applies were to follow it strictly, this would not make it impossible to follow.

Note 1: I’m taking for granted that there might be lots of different principles that are grounds for different moral actions which come out of premise 1. I cannot deal with all of them.

Attempt 1: “One ought reduce one’s own emissions as much as can be done without significant sacrifice considering one’s means, needs, and position in society.”

Problem 1: If everyone were to act as “one” ought act in attempt 1, the economy would fall into depression. This contradicts the goal of enabling a transition to a carbon neutral economy inasmuch as transition to that economy cannot happen without any money.

Attempt 2: “One ought act in such a way that promotes the transition to a carbon neutral economy”.

Attempt 2 looks better, because it doesn’t specify any concrete action that if everyone followed would contradict the goal of the principle.

However, there is still a problem. First, one can’t call others unethical for not reducing their own emissions – only for not acting in such a way that enables the transition to a carbon neutral economy. Thus, we can’t make a moral law out of how much carbon you can emit – at least not yet. It’s perfectly possible that in a carbon neutral economy, it could be a moral law to emit only 750kg of carbon.

What do people think?

The Library

We think of library as a civic or institutional space, it is essentially public. However, we also have our personal libraries. We stay in our rooms, peruse our own shelves. It is common at least in the way the upper class is portrayed in the 19th century for a library to be a room in the house. But it is not a room like other rooms, no one decided to have a ‘library room’ instead of a guest room or when their child leaves home – it is an essential part built into the house.

I think there is something to this – that no one chooses to turn an unused room into “the library”. It cannot be that people do not have enough books. My parents have thousands of books, but they are all on shelves in other rooms – there is no thought to devote a room to them. I have been to several other houses, and I think this is normal.

I think the library is essentially a different kind of space which has to be built into a building. Or, the building needs to be refitted such that the books go in the places where they would have gone if it had been built as a library in the first place.

I thus strikes me that if I do build a house, it will have a library into it – built into it, and not as an after thought. I recently came across on Classical Bookworm’s blog a photo of an example of how one might do this:

Now, I believe it is likely that this is a staircase in an actual bookstore, or civic library. However, would it not make such a wonderful library in a home? Would not a library like this give one a new corporeal relationship with books? When books sit on shelves they sit as imposing tomes, permanent – demanding of long study. And yes, books require long and careful study. But how does this study occur? Hours at a time? Sometimes, but these books – are they even in the library? No, they live on our desk, or on our small bedside bookshelf. The books that stand in the library are books we encounter in transience – we walk by, pick them up, look up a passage, and walk on. Serendipity is the best reason to have an actual library rather than a file folder system of PDF files – one never comes across anything “fortuitously by accident” in a PDF file. One’s eye is never caught by the colour of the dust jacket of a digital document. Thus, if this is the benefit of a real library (as well the physical books are nicer to hold), shouldn’t we build the library to facilitate exactly this transient capture whereby books induce us to pick them up?

How ecologically friendly is a 14 year old 8 passenger SUV?

The question recently came up on a friends blog: what would be the least Carbon intensive method of getting from Ottawa to Vancouver. These numbers are for a single 4800km trip, per person.

Jet: 6000kg


Bus: 1500kg


Well, Car I can actually calculate. It’s quite easy – for every 432 liters of fuel burnt, that’s 1000kg. And since we look at mileage in liters per hundred kilometers, we can merely multiply average mileage by 48 to get the number of liters burnt.

Honda Civic: Claimed highway mileage is 6L/100km. Calculated at 8L/100km total fuel burnt is 384 liters – crucially less than 432. Therefore, it is more CO2 friendly to drive your Honda Civic on your own across the country than to take the train.

Chevrolet Suburban: Actual Highway Mileage 12-20L/100km (POOR). Calculated at 18 (POOR!) we get 860L – about two tonnes. However, put one other person in your truck and your down to the same as the train. Put 6 in, which it can take in comfort, and you are down to 330kg each.

Take note that I’ve used a very bad mileage figure for the truck. I would be astounded if I actually managed to get such a bad mileage figure on such a trip. In practice it only reaches this kind of mileage climbing the Coquihalla. I have done as well as 12L/100km (on an 800km trip).

So, it turns out that trains arn’t environmentally friendly for long trips after all, at least not because they are CO2 light. They are good for many other reasons however- it is wasteful for everyone to own a car which is used only rarely. And you can transport more people more quickly on rails than on highways (the Lakeshore Go train line carries 3 times as many people as the Gardiner expressway during Rush house – and trains run only 4 times an hour!)

On Tea

I have begun this year to drink a lot more tea. In the past I was a bit snobbish about tea – I only wished to drink loose leaf tea and only from the best stores. This does not translate well when you live by yourself and your only kitchen is a mile high stack of your housemates’ plates.

After Christmas, 2nd Cup had on sale for 4.25$ a wonderful set of drawers for putting tea in. It came with 5 each of 8 different kinds of teas. Yes, I do realize it was the deal of the century, and no, they didn’t have any others and that’s why I wasn’t able to give any away as gifts. Now I have in my room tea cups, an electric kettle, and many kinds of tea. It turned out that none of the tea’s which came in the set (in keeping with 2nd Cup’s “very mediocre everything” policy I’m sure) were very good, but they were certainly acceptable. I’ve since replaced 2nd Cup’s teas with tea in satchels purchased from Shoppers Drug Mart. I know, I am the opposite of class. However, the “our compliments” Earl Gray is extremely good, not up to Merchees standards, but very far above Twinnings. Furthermore, I find I’m able to refill the cup at least twice and still have good flavour (this is especially good for the evening since virtually all the caffeine is instantly disolved when water is first poured on the satchel). I’ve also picked up “Calm” and “Awake” – Starbucks’ teas. I have not yet tried them but hopefully they will live up to Starbucks’ “Consistently above average” quality policy.

It is very satisfying to refill the drawers. If nick ever mails me my camera, I will take photos of myself placing and removing satchels from the drawers.

An argument concerning the morality of climate change

Some people have decided that the science shows us that humanity can produce a maximum of 750kg per year each of carbon dioxyde, and that therefore it is morally dubious to to think that one has a right to produce more than that unless one has an argument as to why one has the right to produce more CO2 than average.

This is a deeply flawed argument. Consider the implication of reducing one’s CO2 consumption not neccesarily to the 750kg level, but simply by making sacrifices that are relatively easy to make. These mostly fall under the heading of “unneccesary consumerism”, which we tend to be critical of anyway. For example, we might choose to minimize our consumption of red meat. Let’s say, we reduce it to half – we eat half as much red meat as we did before. That doesn’t seem too difficult does it? And think of all the CO2 you’re saving. And while we’re at it, let’s try to reduce the number of flights we take, say by half again. This will be more difficult, but it is probably do-able for most of us. And concerning houses and suburbia, these are very unsustainable and CO2 heavy living arrangements, so let’s say we should be willing to spend 20% more or get 20% less house to live in a transit accessible area rather than the deep suburbs. And concerning cars,  buying a new car means a new car has to be built, so let’s say that we maintain our cars better, take better care of them, and keep them 50% longer, so instead of buying a new car every 5 years, we buy a new one every 7 and a half years. This also seems pretty reasonable.

These are all sacrifices that we could all make, and we’d still live reasonable lives. In fact, we could even afford to spend more on our cars since we’re buying less of them. We could use that extra cash to buy a more expensive diesel or hybrid and save the planet that way. (* it is unclear to me whether diesels are in fact clean, since while they do get much better mileage they do so because they have more energy in their fuel, and this is reflected in the higher Co2 per liter of fuel burnt ratio for diesel).

However, whenever we are trying to make a moral claim, we are trying to make claims not only about we think we ought to do, but what others ought to do aswell. So, if these sacrifices are moral, this means that everyone ought try to make them, or make similar ones. Let’s consider what happens if the population at large was audacious enough to follow these simple recommendations.

1) The meat industry would collapse. Half demand means prices crash, farmers go out of business. Government bailouts?

2) The airline industry is crippled. They are barely profitable now, if demand were to drop by half they would have to reduce their flights by half while keeping in place most of the same infrastructure. Prices would skyrocket, which would reduce non-essential flying, which would inevitably reduce flying to much less than 50% of current levels. Many, many people out of work. Government bailouts?

3) Housing starts crash – 20% reduction, not just temporary, but permanent. This hurts the lumber industry which will compensate by lobbying the government to further decrease environmental regulation, and further reduce the requirement for logs to be milled close to where they are cut. This increases road subsidies because logging trucks do not pay anything close to the damage they do to roads (most don’t have any springs in their suspension). Also, housing starts are seen as an indicator for the whole economy – investors will get cold feet and foreign money will begin to leave. Recession?

4) Car industry destroyed. 50% reduction in cars sold means US “Big Three” go bankrupt – they rely almost entirely on domestic pickup sales (I’m considering pickup trucks to be included in the catagory “cars” as they are in Europe). Possible mitigation if people spend 50% more on their vehicles, but this does not seem like a decision which would become common.

So, now your friend who works at the airport doesn’t have a job. You’re friends father who works at the auto plant doesn’t have a job.  Your friend who works construction is out of work. And some guy you don’t know who raises cattle in Alberta had to sell his farm and go back to school. (At least there’s a silver lining).

Still enjoying your moral superiority?