Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


John Cage tells the story somewhere of going to a concert of music composed by a friend of his. The composer had also written the programme notes for the music in which he said, among other things, that he hoped his music might go some way to diminishing the suffering in the world. After the concert his friend asked him what he thought of the event and Cage answered, "I loved the music but I hated the programme notes." "But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?" the friend asked, obviously put out. "No," Cage replied, "I think there's just the right amount."
--Adam Phillips, Darwin's Worms

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.
--James Branch Cabell, The Silver Stallion
An odd book came through the used book shop where I work one day a week: Hating Perfection by John F. Williams. It caught my eye for reasons I will explain, and I tried to do some quick online research about the author. The searches pulled up nothing except references to the book itself, mainly a couple of online discussions among bemused philosophers puzzling over a package which they recently received. Apparently every member of the APA, or every college philosophy department, or something (read here and here to read about this) has recently been sent not one but two copies of the book enclosed in a nifty red box. (My copy proclaims "revised edition" on the cover, and this seems to be the second time publicity has been attempted for Hating Perfection; there is one online review I found from 2010.) The copy in my book store did not come with a red box, but it is a decently-produced volume, published by Prometheus Books, signature-bound, on good paper, and with some glossy illustrations of... well, I'll get to that in a minute. For the next few months, at least, many, many of these copies will be moving through the used book stores that cling like barnacles to the hulls of higher education.

The claims of the book, made in a series of arguments interspersed with narrative, are: that one can coherently formulate criteria for comparing possible worlds; and that by these criteria, one world stands out as the best: ours. Yes, Hating Perfection resurrects the Leibnizian argument (well, the claim, anyway, if not the structure of the argument) that everyone knows from Voltaire's take-down. Although God does makes a cameo appearance in one story, and Williams does describe a God of sorts in his last chapter, his project is not, like Leibniz's, a theodicy; it's a cosmodicy, and (as it acknowledges) not an altogether encouraging one. I'm going to try to present its rough outline, mainly gleaned from what Williams calls the "key" chapter, because I find the book both interesting (though far from definitive) and heartening -- heartening, that is, that in this allegedly post-metaphysical age someone can with absolute earnestness make a serious case for such an unfashionable cause. Williams goes after these questions with the naivete of someone who thinks he really could find the answer. In this respect, if not in too many others, it's like reading metaphysics in the grand old style. This alone is worth experiencing. That someone -- albeit an obvious outsider -- can go at it again, with such seriousness, and an undeniable measure of care and skill, may not demonstrate that this is the best of all possible worlds, but it is certainly grounds for some measured optimism.

Williams asks first, Who would decide, (assuming the question is meaningfully disputable), what world was the best possible world? His answer in one word is, People, by which he does not mean human beings but persons (my term), or (his), subtle agents. Agents are subtle if and only if they use "fluid comparisons" to interpret their world. ("Fluid" is defined elsewhere in the book, and refers to the manner in which subtle agents' comparisons recursively effect one another; Williams' metaphor for this is the nonlinear way that weighted elements in a mobile each impact the overall balance.)
If you walk two miles to your job every day, while most people walk ten miles, you might regard your commute as short. But if most people only walk one block to work, then you might see the same commute as long. If most people are starving, you might be happy to eat peanuts. If most people have a smorgasbord, you might be unhappy eating the same peanuts. You and I often use comparisons to interpret our experience and measure our satisfactions. (Hating Perfection p108-9)
Williams contrasts subtle agents with another sort, agents which do not make comparisons except in rigid ways, which reduce (he says) to mere calculation and combinatorics. A chess-playing computer program is such an agent. it has an "aim," if you like, buut it can be satisfied with fulfilling just this aim, and fulfilling it over and over or not at all. Spiders are Williams' main example of this sort of non-subtle agent:
If a spider has an adequate web and an adequate number of flies to eat, then he's happy -- even if all his neighbor spiders have larger webs and many more flies. (p109)
These agents Williams calls "spider-style agents," and frequently just "spiders," a shorthand which leads to interesting sentences like "Spiders have no opinions about which of all possible worlds is the best," which might seem more a propos to a science fiction novel. In any case, Williams contends that between subtle and non-subtle agents, the field of agents is exhausted; there is no tertium quid; and since "spiders" cannot have opinions about the best possible world, only the opinions of subtle agents matter.

He then argues -- and this I think is the most interesting and in some sense the deepest move of the book -- that while the explicit preferences of subtle agents often conflict, the implicit preferences of subtle agents converge. I am paraphrasing here and perhaps extrapolating as I go -- I hope other readers will correct me -- but my understanding of his point is that this convergence obtains because, while explicit preferences are for happiness or satisfaction of various ends, implicit preference is simply for subtlety. This means that the most subtle world is, by definition, the best. This result emerges as it were from the very grammar of preference.

Williams then adduces various sorts of evidence, which I won't detail here, to argue that this world, the actually obtaining world, is in fact the most subtle.

I am unpersuaded by these evidences and by the way he thinks they add up, though others may be more impressed. There are other difficulties as well: for instance, the way the argument slips from talking about subtle agents to subtle worlds. This elision is, so far as I have been able to discern, passed over rather quickly. Williams is fairly definite about what makes an agent subtle or spidery; but he is not as methodical about explaining what makes a world subtle. Is it the number of subtle agents in it? The degree of subtlety of their experience? The range or spectrum of such subtlety? (For Williams is clear that agents can be more or less subtle). In conversation someone pointed out to me that if we assume that world and agent go along with each other (dare I say "correlate"?), i.e., that a subtle agent qua subtle agent just has a subtle world, this objection loses some force. A more tricky objection is that by having recourse to the implicit preferences of subtle agents, Williams has set up a kind of unfalsifiable criterion. This objection is interesting but, as I say, tricky, because there is a strong sense in which Williams does not leave the implicit implicit; he strives to explicate these implicit preferences, to "cash them out" as they say in Analytic circles, and this effort (and the assumption that it can be done) shapes the argument.

Finally, Williams draws out certain conclusions that follow, as he sees it, from identifying this as the best of all possible worlds. Evil and suffering remain exactly where they were before. As he puts it, fifty percent of all experience must always fall below average. Williams argues at some effort that neither free will nor moral responsibility are unreal or illusory, even though there is exactly one best world and (he argues) its details are specified down to the number and length of hairs on one's head. At the end Williams spends some time answering possible objections to the project as a whole, including Parfit's claim that the notion of the best possible world is incoherent. I have considerable sympathy with one flavor of this objection, which goes as follows. Williams argues that various goods are commensurable: that it makes sense to compare, e.g., a possible life as an opera singer and a possible life as a humanitarian relief worker. Williams claims that we implicitly think we can compare these in a meaningful way, and that this comparison always adds up to a meta-claim that it is subtlety itself that trumps. It seems to me that the only way we can establish this "trumping" is by the Brandomian move of "making it explicit;" and this explication forces the matter, particularly to the point of grave paradoxes with regards to free will. As mentioned, this explicitness at least potentially spells out the precise parameters of the universe (down to the number of cells in your body or the number of grains of sand on Mars) are required for best-ness, a stark and ironclad determinism which Williams maintains is somehow compatible with free will. He can argue this because, he says, subtlety itself requires real free will; but then it is extremely hard to understand how the most subtle (i.e., best) world, which is in part the result of many "free" acts, maintains its subtlety and its absolute singularity as the uniquely best world.

I might be willing to concur that subtlety trumps, but I think the argument that gets us there is more complicated, that it hinges upon the incommensurability of experience (a principle that is, some will recall, important to me), and that this might very well mean that there is no single best universe. Again, I think it is in part his drive to wrest implicit preferences into explicitness that allows him to insist on convergence. If we leave matters at an unparsable implicity, this result may not follow.

as is usual with me, a tremendous number of half-baked comparisons arose as engaged this book. Reading Hating Perfection, I thought a good deal about Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, another book which argues that there is a logical space in which one may meaningfully map possible worlds. Harris does not claim that there is one single pinnacle in the moral landscape, let alone offer a metaphysical argument that this pinnacle is where we are situated despite ourselves, but the argument that we can make these evaluations at all is one they hold in common. On a different branch, Robert Pirsig too contends that an undefinable "principle of goodness" is the ultimate explanans of our universe, and he too traces the development and unfolding of this principle down through cosmic history and biological evolution. One might also compare, here, Fredrick Turner's complex hierarchies in Beauty: the Value of Values, or indeed Meillassoux's discontinuous "four worlds": matter, life, thought, and (as-yet unrealized -- a stark difference from Williams) justice. Above all, I find myself, um, comparing what Williams says about comparisons and what Hofstadter and Sander contend about Analogy: that it is "the core of cognition." Analogy, it seems to me, is arguably a meta-comparison, which may well be the beginning of an admissible distinction between these "subtle" comparisons and the straightforward or binary comparisons that Williams concedes even "spiders" use. It may also offer a way around the inevitable objection one can well imagine from someone of, say, Dennett's persuasion, to wit that every subtle agent is really a congeries of many, many unsubtle spider-style agents. (For myself, I am more interested in a different angle, since as a theological term, analogy is also rife with resonance with participation, a.k.a. metalpesis, another term that figures large in my thinking, but that must be left for another post).

These arguments are all incipient and less even than sketches in my brain right now. They are certainly not damning objections to Williams' book; I would rather consider them testimonials. It's a pleasure to read a book that prompts one to think like this, to take seriously a set of contentions that you might have thought would be only the guilty pleasure of a late-night stoners' bull-session -- diverting and empty of significance. Williams gives the (welcome) impression of someone engaged in the process of thinking because he believes the conclusions might matter.

The online discussions I mentioned, have so far been disappointingly shallow -- if shallow is even the word for a complete disregard of the argument of the book , in favor of witty eye-rolling over how much more useful and ready-to-hand the red box is. (Damn! To be so clever!) Allzumenschliches.

One may grant that the work bears certain tell-tale signs of an amateur effort. But just how pejorative a term "amateur" is, may say more about the judge than the matter at hand. The professionalization of philosophy is a recent cultural mutation, and not at all an indisputably viable one; and about the ill-hidden condescension some professionals nurse towards outsiders, the less said the better. I have read painfully little indication that any of the philosophers who are snickering over Hating Perfection and its (admittedly weird) free distribution have read much beyond the opening pages full of raves. If I remark a bit on the weirdness of the publicity and the book itself, this is in order to disarm in advance those who would use the weirdness to dismiss the book. The raves include accolades from Piotr Hoffman, Bruce Waller, and Hubert Dreyfuss ("Astonishing!... An electrifying achievement"), who Williams calls "my longtime mentor" and who is a speaker in a chapter called "Dialogue on Death." But they also include such barely-audible praise as "a pretty good slant on things," attributed to an "illustrator," a source not always sought out for reviews of philosophy, but then maybe that's the point. And then, speaking of illustrations, there is the matter of the cover art, which one has to guess has inspired some of the skepticism with which the book has so far been received. It is certainly one of the reasons why the book, as I mentioned, caught my eye. Or rather, it was the cognitive dissonance of seeing the blurb "Astonishing!" and Hubert Dreyfuss' name under a sultry green-eyed, red-bikini'd (and -caped!), woman in a dark jungle landscape. What was the co-author of All Things Shining doing here? Browsing through the book one discovers picture of three other women, whose canines are distinctly long and pointed; one has a trickle of red from the corner of her mouth. If your project is justifying the ways of the world to men, what, exactly, is the pertinence of nubile vampire women? I assume that their vaguely mysterious dark jungle background is meant to evoke the rural southeast Asian landscapes of some of the narrative; but the quality of the art, it must be said, winds up giving the book a kind of cheap, bad sci-fi look. In some of the narrative sections, female characters figure, but none of them (unless I am missing something) have sharper teeth than usual. My assumption at this point (and I emphasize that I am still reading the book in my own haphazard way, that the book has no index in which one might look up, say, "vampire," let alone "Leibniz") is that these figures are visual (and, it must be said, kitschy) parables for the allure and inevitable cruelty of the world Williams describes. The alluring siren (another word that recurs through the book) seems to me yet another manifestation of Parmenides' goddess, or the inseparable duality of love and strife that runs through Empedocles. (As I read Williams I found myself thinking more than once of Peter Kingsley's pop-philosophical presentations (not the less philosophical just because they are pop) of his read on ancient Pythagoreanism, in particular Empedocles' equally deterministic cosmology.) There is a strong resignation that runs through Hating Perfection. The fact that this is the best of all possible worlds has the structure of a good news / bad news joke.

But the half-full, half-empty line, the 1/2-mark that Williams insists always divides human experience, this razor's edge between yang and yin (and I do think Williams presents a curious kind of consequentialist Daosim), can be contrasted to a different proportion (and I allow myself the remark that the Greek for "proportion" is analogia), one which has a venerable philosophical heritage: in a number of studies, Vladimir Lefebvre showed that human beings' positive and negative evaluations tend to relate to each other in a ratio approaching phi, the golden section: 61.8% positive, 38.2% negative. (I first learned of Lefebvre's research in Fredrick Turner's book, mentioned above.) It would be extremely interesting if this clinical finding could map Williams' metaphysical scale over Harris' empirical moral landscape. Moreover, the reflexive self-similarity of the golden section suggests the possibility (though I have not yet thought this all the way through) of a way to evade Williams' claim that subtlety eventually "tops out" at a maximum limit; which would mean that even in Williams' scenario, there might still be the possibility of immortality and continual improvement: a kind of epektasis or perpetually-deepening deification.

This would of course fold God back into the equation in a different way. For Williams, "God" is simply "the mandate of the united opinion" of all subtle agents. Williams is careful to distinguish this God from the figure of any traditional myth or religion, but he also underscores certain structural similarities. God "has a form of omnipotence" ("everything that shuold happen, does happen"), omnibenevolence (ditto), and even omniscience ("all true facts that constitute the highest and actual world are a part of God"). At the same time, God
has acute differences from you and me. This God has no "perfect" versions of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It has no thoughts and feelings as we have. It does not love as we do, nor hate as we do. It pursues neither justice nor injustice as we do. We will never know how to play our cards right with God. It cannot be pleased or displeased as we can. pp358-9
Williams insists that attempts to overlay 'another structure" over the simple structure of the divine mandate he has outlined have repeatedly "led to complication, convolution, and contradiction," so it is clear that he would reject my suggestion. But it seems clear that entwining epektasis with Williams' best world would open "heaven" (which he says is accessible only to spiders) to subtle agents as well. But it would do so at the cost of making heaven in some measure purgatorial. I am not sure this is not, in fact, the best of all possible heavens.
The sea is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it. On the contrary, this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice and not this fluid, perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience that constitutes the sea’s beauty.
--Simone Weil, "Love of God, and Affliction"

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