Tag: metaphysics

Synthesis is appropriation

December 11th, 2016 — 5:58pm

In contemporary society, we make use of the notion that things may be synthetic. Thus we may speak of synthetic biology, “synthesizers” (synthetic sound), synthetic textile etc. Such things are supposed to be artificial and not come from “nature”.

However, the Greek root of the word synthesis actually seems to refer to the conjoining of pre-existing things, rather than something being purely man-made. But what does it mean to be purely man-made?

Furniture, bricks, bottles, roads and bread are all made in some sense; they are the result of human methods, tools and craft applied to some substrate. But they do not ever lose the character of the original substrate, and usually this is the point – we would like to see the veins of wood in fine furniture, and when we eat bread, we would like to ingest the energy, minerals and other substances that are accumulated in grains of wheat.

Products like liquid nitrogen or pure chlorine, created in laboratories, are perhaps the ones most readily called “synthetic”, or the ones that most readily would form the basis for something synthetic.  This owing to their apparent lack of specific character/particularity, such as the veins of wood or the minerals in wheat. On the other hand, it is apparent that they possess such non-character only from the point of reference of atoms as the lowest level. If we take into consideration ideas from string theory or quantum mechanics, most likely the bottom level shifts and the pure chlorine no longer seems so homogenous.

Accordingly, if we follow this line of thought to the end, as long as we have not established the bottom or ground level of nature – and it is questionable if we ever shall – all manufacture, all making and synthesis, is only a rearrangement of pre-existing specificity. Our crafts leave traces in the world, such as objects with specific properties, but do not ever bring something into existence from nothing.

Synthesis is appropriation: making is taking.

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Philosophy

Reactive software and the outer world

February 12th, 2016 — 11:13am

At Scala Matsuri a few weeks ago (incidentally, an excellent conference), I was fortunate to be able to attend Jonas Bonér’s impassioned talk about resilience and reactive software. His theme: “without resilience, nothing else matters”.

At the core of it is a certain way of thinking about the ways that complex systems fail. Importantly, complex systems are not the same as complicated systems, although in everyday speech we tend to confuse the two. Perhaps a related or even identical question is: how do composite systems fail?

Using a terminology that originates with the Erlang language, Bonér talked about the “error kernel”, which is the part of a software system that must never fail, no matter what. As long as this innermost part stays alive, other parts are allowed to fail. There are mechanisms to replace, restart or route around failures in the outer parts.

This style of design leads to a well-structured failure and supervision hierarchy. Maybe this style of thinking itself is the most important contribution. In most software systems being designed today, the possibility of errors or failures is often a second class citizen, swept under the carpet, and certainly not part of a carefully considered structure of possibilities of failure. What if this structure becomes a primary concern?

Once errors are well structured and organised in a hierarchy, it also becomes easy to decide what to do when errors occur. The hierarchy structure clearly indicates which parts of a system have become defunct and need to be replaced or bypassed. Recoverability – being able to crash safely – at every level takes the software system a little bit closer, it seems, to biological systems.

Biological systems, Bonér pointed out, usually operate with some degree of inherent failure, be it disease, weakness, mutations or environmental stress. Perfect functioning is not typical, and it seems to me that for most organisms such a state may not even exist.

Recoverability at every level, resilience, and error hierarchies – “let it fail” – is truly a significant and very humble way of thinking about software. It means that as the developer, I acknowledge that the software I am writing does not control the universe (although as a developer I often fall prey to that illusion). The active principle, the “prime mover”, is somewhere outside the scope that I control. When it produces some unforeseen circumstance, we must respond properly. Reactive software to me seems to quietly acknowledge this order of things.

I have only had a very brief opportunity to try out Akka, Typesafe’s actor framework, in my projects so far, but I felt inspired by Boner’s talk and hope to use it more extensively in the future.

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Computer science, Philosophy, Software development

The inexhaustible wealth of appearance, information and specificity

December 13th, 2015 — 2:36pm


When perceiving an object, for example a chair, the statement “this is X” (this is a chair) is almost entirely uninteresting. The concept by which we identify the object is a mere word, and in a sense entirely devoid of meaning.

That concept does help us align this object with other entities in space and time. It sets expectations about what has been done and what can be done to and with it, and it links the object to social practices. But none of these things are very interesting. After all, we understand quite well what society expects from chairs.

What is more interesting is all the other statements we could make about a particular chair, that is, all the qualities, information, phenomena and experiences that do not fit the general concept of a chair. Call this the chair’s particularity. It may be unusually sturdy or rickety. It may evoke a sense of sorrow or longing for a person who used to sit on it. It may make us think about economics. Its shape may even have something spiritual about it. It may, if it is a chair in an abandoned house, be decomposing. And even this is just scratching the surface.

In all likelihood, we are able to produce an unbounded number of interesting statements about this locus that is the chair. (Recall the famous school assignment about writing a story several hundred words long about the face of a coin.) And this would hold true both when we speak freely, metaphorically and poetically, and when we restrict ourselves to testable, scientific (in the modern sense) statements. New metaphors can always be invented, new scientific equipment may always be constructed. These additional modes of relatedness to the locus provide, perhaps, the basis for new statements.

How are we to understand this fundamental overflowing, this exuberant blossoming, the profound potential wealth that we draw upon and realise when we articulate statements about an entity such as this chair? It is not part of the concept “chair”. This concept is overlaid as an afterthought in order to make the surplus of impressions manageable and graspable. We are used to economising the use of our consciousness, dispensing it only sparingly, through the shielding, buffering and deflection that concepts afford us.

For Heidegger, being is the basis of intelligibility, a carrier of meaning. Language and intelligibility exists only on the basis of primordial being. He makes it his task to inquire as to what this being is.

For Georges Bataille, all activity that involves redistribution of energy, human and otherwise, accumulates a surplus that necessarily must be released in some way.

Myths and archetypes repeat themselves throughout history and society, in constantly renewed forms which are both always the same and always made from different specific constitutent parts. They can always be repeated in a different way. The hero myth exists in every culture (see for example Jung or Campbell). Conversely, this myth in all its specific detail is always different each time it appears.

In difference and repetition, Deleuze argues that conceptual machinery is constantly at work, extracting difference from whatever the underlying basis is.

Genetic material successfully reproduces and preserves itself, and perhaps prospers, only through the continual introduction of difference and variation at an appropriate rate.

The digital world, on the other hand, denies the possibility of generating an unbounded number of statements from some entity (such as a record in a database). In fact, its essence is the possibility of perfect copying, which happens only when the information being carried is strictly circumscribed and limited.

All these concepts, it seems, have something in common – the interaction between a specific form and the possibility of an infinite number of variations of and departures from that form.

4 comments » | Philosophy

Heidegger’s question

May 4th, 2015 — 12:52pm

Why is Heidegger interesting?

For Heidegger, the question that philosophy should concern itself with above all is the meaning of being. What is the meaning of being? What does it mean for something to be? Before this question, language itself begins to break down.

What is it to be? This question is not the same as “what is” or “what kinds of beings are there”? The latter would be questions about particular beings – ontical questions, in Heidegger’s words. The meaning of being itself would be an ontological question – indeed, the question that precedes all ontology. What is ontically closest is ontologically farthest: we somehow make use of the concept “being” constantly in our everyday life, but maybe for that very reason, it is very hard to theorise about it and become conscious of what it is.

Aristotle understood beings as substances with properties. This seems to lead quite directly to our western subject-verb-object languages, and to predicate logic, as we know it, for example, in computer science and mathematics. The stone is hard. hard(stone). P(x).

In Heidegger’s view, since Aristotle, the sciences have been busy constructing ontologies of this kind – enumerating categories, describing what kind of things there are and what properties they have, and how the properties can be manipulated – but always in forgetfulness of being. The very core that such ontologies are meant to illuminate was left in the dark.

Being and Time is Heidegger’s major work. It is very well worth the effort it takes to get through it (I recommend Hubert Dreyfus’ Berkeley lectures for anyone attempting this on their own). Here, Heidegger tries to relate being and time to each other in such a way that they each become each other’s horizons. Being becomes intelligible in terms of time, and time becomes intelligible in terms of being. Dasein – humans, beings such as ourselves – is the being which always already has an understanding of being, and lives in it. The questioning departs from this implicit, pre-ontological understanding.

If it is said that ‘Being’ is the most universal concept, this cannot mean that it is the one which is clearest or that it needs no further discussion. It is rather the darkest of all.

When we interrogate Dasein in order to gain an understanding of being, are we asking about humans, or about the universe? For Heidegger, the separation of the two is not possible. Any understanding of the universe that we experience – we humans, we as Dasein – is always dependent on our practices, our intellectual history, the understanding of being that we always already have. An objective, in the sense of being utterly separated, understanding of the universe is not possible (which is not to say that scientific efforts to be objective have no value – on the contrary). Inquiring about being seems to be simultaneously about the conditions for understanding ourselves and about the conditions for understanding the universe. These are not two separate domains.

Heidegger’s account is not always crystal clear, but it does open up dramatically new perspectives on the world, on science, on life. It shows us that the everyday understanding of so much that we take for granted is utterly obscure.


Comment » | Philosophy

Concert review: free jazz at Nanahari, Sep 19

September 19th, 2013 — 11:28pm

The performers: Kevin McHugh from the US on piano, Hugues Vincent from France on cello, as well as an Australian clarinet player, and Japanese cello and flute players and a drummer.

The venue: Nanahari – “seven needles”, 七針 – a small basement in Hachobori, east Tokyo, in an authentically Showa-era building. We are partly transported into another time – the bubble era, echoes of it.

The audience: 10-15 people. Each of us brings something there: hopes and fears, personal histories, wine.

The context: up north, Fukushima seems to be having as deep problems as ever. Governments and companies over the world are embroiled in surveillance scandals and financial problems that seem to be piling higher year by year. The economic outlook in many places, and certainly Japan, is highly uncertain. The Japanese population is aging. For foreigners whose occupation is something unorthodox like music, getting a visa to stay in Japan is not trivial. In the middle east, conflicts are raging with no end in sight.

And yet. Here and now, these musicians from four countries manage to synthesise something that could have been done nowhere else and at no other time. The format is free jazz, one of the least restricted forms of music. McHugh and Vincent probe their instruments – piano and cello – deeply. McHugh dissects the piano and begins adjusting and interfering with its strings and other innards while playing, as he is wont to do. Vincent displays an intimacy and energy with his cello that is almost frightening. One fears what he might be capable of. Through the unorthodox playing, their instruments receive lobotomies, massages and savagery that allow them to produce soundscapes one must suspect they were never designed for. Yet in the hands of capable musicians like these, the result is plausible, amazing and profoundly unique.

The evening goes on for a few hours; various combinations of the present musicians (drawn by lottery) improvise together. The result is sometimes theatre, sometimes pure aesthetics, sometimes metaphysical. There are confrontations and compromises. Something is unconcealed; veils are lifted off. Intensely true and genuine narratives blend to form new and unique stories. The evening’s performances are one justification, one redemption of the mad state of the world today. And on some level, perhaps proof that the madness is not complete, that something healthy and vital is still alive, expressing itself.

Comment » | Life, Philosophy

Back to top