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

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Blind Mind-unmaker

Imagine that you are in possession of a full, Laplacean knowledge of the state of another person's brain, a person who is arguing with you for a position diametrically opposed to your own. It does not matter what the content of the disagreement is; but what is essential, for the purposes of this thought-experiment, is that your knowledge of your interlocutor's brain-state -- a knowledge which is of course scientifically mediated, say by the enormous quantum-parallel-processing capacities a hyperfuturistic supercomputer -- also gives you the manipulative access to these brain-states. This means that in addition to being able to interfere with their brain "from above," i.e., trying to change their brain-states the old-fashioned way, by argument, you now also have the capacity to interfere "from below": changing one neuro-chemical or neuro-structural detail after another. We will further stipulate that this alteration be performed "non-invasively," and "cleanly" (with surgical precision but without surgery). No other collateral changes (no "unintended consequences") will attend the alterations of your opponent's brain. In fact, they will not experience you as having done anything to them at all, except argue with them. You have a Ring of Gyges when it comes to their brain. But, and here is the important point, you will be able to literally "change their mind."

In short, as you go on arguing with them, you can alternate your argumentative moves with making incremental changes in the brain, in such a way as to cause them to abandon their former intractability, and to agree with you.

Do you now feel that you have "won the argument?"

Have you done anything unethical? Do you feel guilty?

If the answer to the latter is Yes, you needn't worry -- on the terms we are supposing, you can also have a full account, scientifically mediated, of your own brain states, and can make any necessary adjustments to dissolve your reservations.

This is one extension -- by no means the most disturbing one -- I think of when I consider R. Scott Bakker's "worst-case scenario" of his Blind Brain Theory. I have to admit, I am relieved to see him say he regards it as a worst-case scenario. Now I have not read all of Bakker's (many and lengthy) posts on this matter, so I am open to correction; moreover, his hypothesis is so unpalatable to me that, while I applaud his refusal to pull his punches, I have almost certainly misconstrued it in some way. (Bakker predicts that one should find the theory unpalatable -- he does so himself.)

Insofar as I understand him, it would seem that he is drawing radical conclusions from the notion, also argued by Colin McGinn for instance, that the brain, a natural system like any other, simply did not evolve to understand its own processes but rather to ensure the survival of its organism. Consciousness is thus an inherently mysterious process to itself, not primarily because of some weird quality of self-reference qua self-reference, let alone because of something essentially ineffable and spiritual about consciousness itself, but because the brain inherently lacks the capacity to register the relevant data.

It isn't just what Bakker suggests here, it's specifically what he opposes, and his manner of opposing, that causes me to shudder.
science is overcoming the neural complexities that have for so long made an intentional citadel out of the soul. It will continue doing what it has always done, which is offer sometimes simple, sometimes sophisticated, mechanical explanations of what it finds, and so effectively ‘disenchanting’ the brain the way it has the world.... Since there are infinitely more ways for our mechanistic scientific understanding to contradict our intentional prescientific understanding [than to confirm it], we should, all things being equal, expect that the latter will be overthrown. Indeed, we already have a growing mountain of evidence trending in this direction. Given our apologetic inclinations, however, it should come as no surprise that the literature is rife with arguments why all things are not equal. Aside from an ingrained suspicion of happy endings, especially where science is concerned (I’m inclined to think it will cut our throats), the difficulty I have with such arguments lies in their reliance on metacognitive intuition. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are in any better position peering into our souls than our ancestors were peering into the heavens. Why should the accumulation of scientific information be any friendlier to our traditional, prescientific assumptions this one time around?
Bakker critiques phenomenology and post-phenomenological philosophy, for instance, as a massive rationalization of our cherished illusions of being special, a rationalization doomed to being exposed as the New-Age conceit it is:
Yours is a prescientific discourse, one whose domain is about to be overrun by the sciences. The black box of the brain has been cracked open, revealing more than enough to put your conceptual conceits on notice. Did you really think you would be the lone exception? That your discourse, out of all of them, would be the one to prevail, to hold back the empirical philistines that had conquered all corners of existence otherwise? It’s not quite that point yet, but the longer you continue your discourses independent of the sciences, the more magical you become – the less cognitive. And with legitimacy goes institutional credibility. Like it or not, you have begun the perhaps not so long drift toward Oprah spots with Eckhart Tolle.
One possible rejoinder to Bakker is Davidsonian "anomalous monism," according to which there is no strict law-like account of the relation between mental and physical events, despite the fact that mental events are identical with (certain) physical events. But on the other hand, Bakker may have skirted this ploy already, because for the Blind Brain Theory (as I understand it), such terms as "beliefs," "desires," and so on, are not actually mental states, but rather extremely coarse-grained terms that don't so much refer to brain-states only indirectly, as not refer to anything at all. The terms themselves are an effect of the illusion the BBT is supposed to account for.

Now Bakker insists, his theory is an empirical one: it makes predictions and could be shown to be false by these predictions failing to obtain. What he doesn't want to brook is an a priori argument that reasons from the specialness of consciousness per se. I am not sure that Bakker's argument is entirely falsifiable in this way; many of his empirical predictions (e.g. that human knowledge will prove to be the function of heuristic brain "modules") do not seem to me to be uniquely predicted by his hypothesis; more importantly, the brain might experientially fail to account for itself, might endemically fall prey to the illusion of selfhood, and be structurally and functionally incapable of grasping its own function -- might, in short, fulfill these characteristic expectations of the theory, even in the absence of any number of the specific features Bakker names. Thus, even if Bakker were wrong about why the brain is blind, the brain might still be blind.

Nonetheless, it's clear that Bakker wants to make the Blind Brain Theory as strong as possible, if only as a devil's advocate. This caveat arises because, at the post where Bakker links to his original exposition of the BBT, he has a single clause for a tagline. The clause is: Please convince me it's gotta be wrong!

I respect Bakker for drawing so starkly the nihilisitic outcome of his thoughts, and for trying to frame them in a falsifiable manner. Neither of these is easy. The first takes tremendous courage, the second exhausting work. But I think what I appreciate most is this one sentence. The same ghost of a plea occurs at the very end of his abstract to the same paper. There Bakker writes:
BBT separates the question of consciousness from the question of how consciousness appears, and so drastically narrows the so-called explanatory gap. If true, it considerably ‘softens’ the hard problem. But at what cost?
That little question mark at the end "leaves unsaid" a great deal. Towards the end of his paper, Bakker says a bit of it:
If you are anything like me, you find this thesis profoundly repellent. BBT paints a picture that is utterly antithetical to our intuitions, a cartoon consciousness, one that appears as deep as deep and as wide as wide for the simple lack of any information otherwise; and yet a picture that we might nonetheless expect, given the Recursive System and it myriad structural and developmental infelicities. A chasm of some kind has to lie between consciousness as possessed and consciousness as experienced. Given the human brain’s mad complexity and human consciousness’s evolutionary youth, it would be nothing short of astounding if it were not profoundly deceptive somehow. ... Imagine all of your life amounting to nothing more than a series of distortions and illusions attending a recursive twist in some organism’s brain. For more than ten years I have been mulling ‘brain blindness,’ dreading it – even hating it.... And I still can’t quite bring myself to believe it.
And yet. And yet, the honest man Bakker is wants to argue for it; because, clearly, turning away from it just because he hates it is also unpalatable. Or, is there something more?

Bakker has had a ridiculous time of it with fans and detractors of his fantasy fiction, particularly in regards to his depiction of the bad treatment of women, which in the barbaric settings he describes can be very bad indeed (it gets bad for the men, too). In his self-defense Bakker has reiterated what artist after artist has insisted: depiction is not endorsement. Describe a rape and you are not describing one of your own fantasies. Well, OK, the reply goes, maybe not one rape, but when do we get to start being suspicious? Two? Ten? The critics get out their pencil and paper and start adding up tick marks. You can read a depressing amount of this back and forth if you hang out on various message boards (or just trawl them later), lots of recriminations and he-should-know-better, some of which is substantive, lots of which is from weird trolls who get their entertainment in this way. I'm not linking to it, but you can find it easily enough. I assume, because I like to assume the best about people, that Bakker has taken some of the substantive points to heart.

None of that is directly relevant to the question of the material causes of consciousness, you might say; but there is an isomorphism of sorts, for in the relevant BBT writings, too, Bakker is describing a catastophic theoretic scenario while at the same time insisting that he's not advocating for it. It's more just staring the bleak possibility in the face; the need to not flinch just because the possibility is bleak. It's like a game of chicken played with a brick wall. "There will always be apologists" for consciousness, Bakker shrugs. But someone has to articulate the case against it....

Well, maybe. Still, there is that "ingrained suspicion of happy endings," a sort of anti-eucatastrophe stance, in which Bakker is certainly in good, or at least populous, company. Is it just this which goads one on, this unsettling drip-drip-drip of skepticism...? or is there in us some kind of Poe-esque imp of the perverse that wants (and does not want) to be shown, impossibly, to be what Francis Crick wrote in the opening of The Astonishing Hypothesis:
 ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it, "You're nothing but a pack of neurons."
But let us take Bakker at his word and accept that driven though he is to articulate BBT, he nonetheless hates it. Reframing the initial thought-experiment, suppose I am arguing with Bakker about the BBT. Suppose that without his knowledge, I am supplied with such a display as I mentioned before, mapping his brain and supplying me with all the hitherto-missing information I need to understand his cognition. Obviously, I am aware (in this scenario) that the Blind Brain Theory, or something like it, is true, since the technology I have access to presupposes it. But I also know that Bakker, despite his obsessive interest in the theory, can't stand it and does not want it to be true. Should I then tweak his brain to remove his qualms? Or to remove his propensity to believe the theory?

A sharp reader will note immediately that I am leaving aside many, many possibilities. There is no reason after all why I couldn't, on this theory, tweak Bakker's brain in any of a thousand thousand other ways, some of them highly entertaining to certain dispositions. I refer you to Bakker's novel Neuropath for an exploration of some of these implications. Neuropath includes (fair warning) some of those upsetting rape-scenarios, so go advisedly into that dark night. It explores (with, let it be said, somewhat less subtlety) a victim-&-victimizer relationship between Neil Cassidy and Thomas Bible that, to my mind, recalls Winston and O'Brien in 1984. This comparison raises a question: who will wield this power over the malleable mind, and to what ends? This is a question asked also by Mark Fisher in a recently published essay on Bakker's novel, and by Steven Craig Hickman in a recent post. And, like the return of the repressed, here comes that question of motives again. Fisher notes that the question of Why the villain of Neuropath would set out to torture his victims can only arise in the structure of the novel as a kind of narratological relic, a fossilized souveneir from a time when the question of motive made sense. Why, in particular, try so very hard to drive home the truth of eliminative reductionism, the horror of the astonishing hypothesis?
instead of moving beyond intentionality, Cassidy’s relationship to Bible shows all the signs of an obsessive attachment. It matters very intensely to Cassidy what Bible thinks and feels. Rather than being a coolly rational presence, scientific detachment incarnate, Cassidy is a Romantic, Mephistopholean figure, engaged in a contradictory, necessarily self-defeating, quest. Despite having exposed experience as a myth, he wants to close the gap between experience and knowledge; he wants Bible to live the Argument.
Fisher is surely correct to point out that the "agentless" agency at work in this logic is that of ideology:
The agent without intentionality in Neuropath is that of capital itself. Bakker is correct to say that the most important implications of the novel concern capital’s instrumentalization of neuroscience....Cassidy’s neurosurgical work illustrates Paolo Virno’s claim that “[n]ihilism, once hidden in the shadow of technical-productive power, becomes a fundamental ingredient of that power, a quality highly prized by the marketplace of labor.” [Paolo Virno, Grammar of the Multitude, p 86] But capital’s practical nihilism remains a mitigated nihilism. Even while capital fully exploits the results of neuroscientific research, it is at the same time committed to disseminating the ideological image of the conscious subject capable of exercising choice. It is capital, therefore, that must keep deferring the “semantic apocalypse”.
This gets things, I think, both right and wrong, though I cannot argue the point extensively here. Suffice it to say that I regard capital as indeed in denial of its nihilistic implications (in certain moments i would say it is constituted by this denial), but I do not regard a glorious apotheosis of this nihilism to be the deliverance we all await -- as if we will be liberated finally once capital's mitigated nihilism at last casts off this mitigation.

Orwell, for his part, has O'Brien articulate what drives him to destroy Winston, to take him apart and reassemble him in a shape of O'Brien's own choosing:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. (1984 p 263)
This passage, it seems to me, is far more cogent than is Fisher's too-quick shrugging-off of the implications of the "Argument," as Bakker calls BBT in Neuropath. The Argument is not merely what powers the tools of sadism in the novel; it is what makes the sadism possible.

At the same time, the BBT certainly invites us to raise our eyebrows at O'Brien's claim that the Part officials "know what we are doing." And yet, there is nothing "Mephistophelean" about O'Brien; he is no spirit of negation. Doublethink is not negation; it is too shallow for that. It is simply the requisite thinking of whatever thought currently needs thinking for the purposes of power; a thought that is as close as thinking can come to being contentless, since "content" is purely functional. (This is what "2+2=5" means). And it seems to me that this is also very close to what the BBT asserts.

In his post commenting on Neuropath and on Fisher's essay, Hickman first notes
the either/or scenario that Fisher draws out[:] how either the technocapitalists or the technosocialists (‘General Intellect’) in the immediate future might use such knowledge to wield powers of control/emacipation never before imaginable...[Fisher] brings up two notions, both hinging on the amoral ‘practical nihilism’ of neuroscience itself: 1) the reinforcement by the dominant ideology, technocapitalism, to use such technologies to gain complete control over every aspect of our lives through invasive techniques of brain manipulation; or, 2) the power of some alternative, possibly Leftward, collectivist ideology that seeks through the malleability or plasticity of these same neurosciences to use the ‘General Intellect’ to freely experiment on itself.
Hickman then reasonably asks:
Do we really want either of these paths?
I am not at all sure that my answer to this question is Hickman's -- I'm not sure either of us have "an" answer -- but one could be forgiven for observing that at any rate, this is a separate question from whether the BBT is true. Maybe it is true, and we should just hope that it does not become generally known? But among other obvious ethical and meta-epistemic difficulties, the problem is, it seems very hard to ask the question of truth in complete separation from the question of what motivates the question, and to what use the answer can be put. Philosophy is not simply the discipline involved in keeping these rigorously distinguished; it is also the passionate comprehension of the desires at play in their conflation.

What I like (if that is the word) in Bakker is his unstinting calling-it-as-he-sees-it, his willingness to remind us of the horrible implications of posthumanism, without any escape route. One can only be reminded of Nietzsche:
Socrates and Plato, in this regard great doubters and admirable innovators, were nonetheless innocently credulous in regard to that most fateful of prejudices, that profoundest of errors, that "right knowledge must be followed by right action." In this principle they were still the heirs of the universal madness and presumption that there exists knowledge as to the essential nature of an action. "For it would be terrible if insight into the nature of right action were not followed by right action." -- this is the only kind of proof these great men deemed necessary for demonstrating the truth of this idea; the opposite seemed to them crazy and unthinkable. (Dawn, II, 116)
I once wrote a thirteen-point Credo of sorts. The seventh item read:
If you have never felt the undertow of pure nihilism, you do not know what [you think] you're not missing.

"It would be terrible." This is not an argument with any dispositive force. But it is a datum, and that datum requires an account like every datum. Here the question is, what do you mean, "terrible?"

If we mean, "unpleasant for me," well, Bakker is clearly prepared to say, Too bad. But this is not what we mean, I think. "Terrible" in this context means, this is a catastophic way of constructing the universe. It would be better to make it otherwise. Better for who? What do you mean, better? The entire range of questions about ethics, from Euthyphro to Sam Harris, rise up like ghosts, and on the Blind Brain Theory they are indeed as substantial as ghosts. This means, please note, that you cannot have recourse to any ethical or moral or normative concept whatsoever at bottom. The universe does not care that you care. You caring is just a local tic every bit as significant as a sunspot or a sandwich. Caring is an accident.

Strictly speaking, on the BBT, all moral evaluation of the universe is meaningless. Your preferences are meaningless. Bakker's recoil from the BBT is meaningless. He has no actual criterion to appeal to. I say, No. The recoil is meaningful. It is a grammatical response in the "space of reasons," a different neighborhood of the very same space in which we have reasons for believing things. Things like theories of the brain.

And this had better be the case, because in the absence of a moral space of reasons, the entire question of whether I should pull that switch for Bakker, or which choice of the two Hickman proposes we should choose -- indeed, any "should" question at all -- is completely unanswerable.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews Digest

At the roughly-half-way point in the year, it seems a good time to put links for the reviews all in one place.

To reiterate: these blogs are sites I commend to your attention for being (1) dependably well-written and responsibly thought, (2) likely to stay in business, (3) frequently updated, and (4) blogs I have hitherto not yet cited in my other posts. This last point explains why such excellent blogs as Love of All Wisdom, Siris, or Footnotes2Plato have not been included, despite satisfying points (1), (2), and (3), not to mention being blogs about philosophy (like this one, nominally).

I'll add links to this list as the year progresses, Insha'Allah.

January: Just Thomism
February: Glory to God for All Things
March: Isola di Rifiuti
April: The Duck of Minerva
May: RateYourMusic
June: Noir Realism
July: not Light of a Golden Day, alas,
but Star Slate Codex
August: Meaningness
September: Poems and Poetics
October: The Talmud Blog
November: Disinformation
December: Smitten Kitchen
plus a recap.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Down and Out and About in Paris and London

Any Parisian or Londoner readers of SCT up for a pint of beer or a glass of wine are welcome to email me -- my moniker is skholiast, my email server is gmail -- if they would like to meet up between June 20 - June 25 (Paris), or July 5 - July 10 (London), when my wife and I will be travelling. Philosophy, pace Žižek, is meant to be dialogue, and dialogue is best face-to-face.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Brief Blog Reviews VI: Noir Realism

This is the sixth brief blog review. It may be about time to review a philosophy blog. (I started out in January with one that walks the line between theology and philosophy, but that's as close as I've come.) This is mainly because, surprise, I tend to refer to a lot of philosophy blogs in my posts, and my goal in this year-long series is to point to blogs I haven't otherwise referred to. This turns out to be harder than my very long blogroll would lead you to believe.

Even now, I have to bend the rules: Noir Realism has, speaking strictly, never figured in a blog post here, but I have referred, at least once and maybe more, to Dark Chemistry, the previous blog of author Steven Craig Hickman. But then Dark Chemistry went, uh, dark, and I am only just getting caught up on Hickman's new blog. Another criterion of mine has been that I want to point to blogs that have some staying power. Hickman has been more or less continuously online about as long as I have, and three years of fairly continuous work is a decent track-record for a blog. I am counting Dark Chemistry as the starting-point, here, but the thing is, sooner or later Hickman is going to write something that's going to spur me to remark. So, if I'm ever going to review Noir Realism, maybe I should hurry.

Noir Realism is extremely well-written and well-considered (and also well-designed visually). It presents, for me, some of the most challenging of thinking, and this both in how uncongenial I often find it, and how careful and well-wrought. I'll concentrate on the former aspect, but do not assume I am complimenting with the back of my hand. Hickman's vision is indeed "dark"; writers he seems drawn to tend towards dystopianism and the persistent work of disenchantment: Ligotti, Lovecraft, Ballard (especially Ballard) are the recurrent names cited from fiction. Cioran's suave despair, the triumphal anti-triumphalism of Nick Land's thanatology, Brassier's steeled starring-down of extinction, are the default colors here. The recurrent motifs are the void, nihil, lostness. Not my cup of tea, you'd think. There is more than a hint of advocacy in Hickman's descriptions of castaway alienation in a universe that never intended us. In one post he poses his question with regards to Hegel's claim that the "aim of knowledge is to divest the objective world of its strangeness and to make us more at home in it":
But what if the opposite were true that the real aim of knowledge is to invest the objective world with abject strangeness and to alter our mode within it as pure homelessness?
Hickman seems to me to pose this as an inescapable problem, but what commends him is the unremittingly intelligent writing he brings (with apparently endless energy) to reiterating this problem in all its (very scary) shades of black. (I should add, for the sake of completeness, that Hickman is also a man of the left -- so how could he not despair? -- and knows when to critique his heroes, for instance Cioran's arch anti-enlightenment biases, or more recently Land's accelerating into the arms of the reactionaries.) After all, is there any question that our era (like any) presents us with a very long list of reasons -- from the all-but-inescapable pornographic wreck which "the market" has made of our capsized culture, to the slow-motion eco-nightmare into which a gluttonous humanity has all but intentionally turned the natural world, to the acid of scientism eating through the hull of the human soul -- reasons to feel bereft and abject? In an obvious and I hope deep sense, it is true, I demur from Hickman's case (unless I misconstrue him); I'm a "believer," as we used to be mis-called; one who really thinks that the True, the Good, and the Beautiful of philosophy can be meaningfully matched with the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But I lived a long while in nihilism's dark vale, and I still move on its edge (responsibly tethered, I hope, and always having told someone where I'll be and when I plan to be back). I have learned to value, and listen to, those like Hickman who are unsatisfied with any half-way measure. If this makes him suspicious of any measure at all, who can condemn him?

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"