Harman on Patterns and Harms

On March 18, 2011, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Quentin Meillassoux’s  coinage ‘correlationism’ refers to any position which holds that thought can only think the relation between thought and its object; never the object as an absolute without relation to cognition. Kantianism and transcendental phenomenology are correlationisms. They conceive objectivity as an invariant structure of possible experience. Husserl conceives physical objectivity in terms of a subjective synthesis of experiences and anticipations which never give the thing in its totality. So for Husserl, there could no thought which lacked this temporal structure, just as there could be no thing that was not a correlated with it.

Graham Harman has recently cited Daniel Dennett’s patternist position (Dennett 1991) as well as Ladyman and Ross’ (L&R) ‘Rainforest Realism’ as examples of correlationism.

Here’s Graham from his discussion of Everything Must Go:

The sense in which real patterns are “real” is extremely weak in the book (as in Dennett’s article “Real Patterns” where the term seems to have been coined). They are real only because they are the most efficient descriptions, such that neither finer-grained nor coarser-grained descriptions of the same phenomenon allow us as much generalizing power. They are real only in comparison with false patterns that can be eliminated in the authors’ opinion (of which sensory qualia is the only unadulterated example given in the book).

And this is, I am sorry to say, a clearly correlationist position. These intermediate objects of the special sciences exist only for humans and animals who encounter them. The book holds that a mountain cannot even be said to be composed of smaller rocks, nor can patterns be linked to their causal ancestors either.

There are, arguably, problems with the patternist position. For example, I’m not convinced that it can deal with singularity or novelty or the reality of ‘noise’. There are also cases – e.g. in cognitive science – where functional decomposition may have more eliminativist implications than Dennett or L&R allow. Be this as  it may, I don’t think correlationism is one of the liabilities of patternism. Or rather if Dennett’s position is ‘correlationist for the reason that Harman gives, then Harman’s position is just as correlationist as Dennett’s and for the same reasons. If so, we better start being more nuanced in our metaphysical invective.

According to Dennett and L&R a pattern exists ‘is real’ if the compression algorithm required to encode it requires a smaller number of bits than ‘bit string’ representation of the entire data set in which the pattern resides (Dennett 1991, 34).

Both Dennett and L&R argue that compressibility is a non-observer dependent property of patterns – roughly a measure of the computational resources required to produce an encoding of the pattern (Ladyman and Ross, 202). An encoding can be thought of a as a string of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers (bits) formally isomorphic to the pattern itself (Collier 1999, 6).

The correlationist claims that any object of thought is constituted by a noetic relation to a possible thinker. For example, for Husserl the physical thing is the unity for consciousness of an open-ended multiplicity of perspectives (Husserl 1970, 64; Roden 2006, 81). To think of a physical object just is – according to Husserl – to think of this unity for a subject (See also Brassier 2010).

However, the mapping from pattern to string is not noetic but, as has been stated, purely formal; requiring only a one-one mapping from pattern to encoding string.

Such mappings or equivalences must also obtain within Harman’s universe. For example, let’s suppose there are Harmanesque withdrawn objects – call them  ‘Harms’.

If there are Harms we can know one thing about them: they are discrete and unified. We know this ex hypothesi because Harman says they are:

[The] reason we can’t make direct but partial contact with objects is that objects are essentially unified, and if you make contact with the parts of the unity then it’s not a contact with the unity itself.

If there are discrete Harms formal mappings of just the kind that obtain between encoding strings and patterns will abound in the Harmiverse. For example, if there are countably many Harms there is a  one-to-one mapping from the natural numbers onto all Harms. If there are uncountably many Harms – if the cardinality of the set of Harms is greater than that of the natural or rational numbers – then there is no such mapping. There are also one-to-one mappings between discrete Harms.

In conclusion, the formal relations between a pattern and its encoding string are of the same kind as must obtain between Harms – assuming that there are such. So if a mapping from pattern to bit string is noetic enough to be a ‘correlation’ in Meillassoux’s sense, so must any instance of Harm-Harm mapping. If Dennett is a correlationist, so is Harman.


Brassier, Ray (2010) ‘Concepts and Objects’, in Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (Melbourne: Re.press), pp. 47-65.

Collier, John (1999). ‘Causation is the Transfer of Information’, in Howard Sankey (ed) Causation, Natural Laws and Explanation (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999)

Dennett 1991, ‘Real Patterns’, Journal of Philosophy 88: 27-51.

Husserl, E (1970),  The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).

Ladyman James, Ross Don, (2007), Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meillassoux, Q. (2006) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Ray Brassier (trans.). New York: Continuum.

Roden, D. (2006). Naturalising deconstruction, Continental Philosophy Review 38(1-2): 71-88.


Graham Harman at Object Oriented Philosophy has responded negatively to my claim a) that his interpretation of the tool-analysis makes makes idealist assumptions and b) that intentional states such as perceptions and beliefs have real things as their intentional objects:

What is idealism is enemyindustry’s own next sentence: “In contrast, I hold that intentionality brings us into contact with the real with numbing regularity.”

This is idealism, because it holds that the real is convertible into the accessible. It gives no adequate account of the difference between the tree that grows and bears fruit and the tree that I encounter. No matter the level of “numbing regularity” with which I encounter a tree, that encounter is not the tree itself. Until you account for the difference between the two (as I do) then you are an idealist.

Ultimately, I think this is why Meillassoux remains in the Idealist camp, and the same holds even more for the Sellarsian scientistic wing of what used to be called speculative realism. They aren’t realists. They’re partisans of math and science.

Harman’s repudiation of speculative realists like Meillassoux or Brassier who cleave to some form of scientific realism is founded on the claim that insofar as X can be ‘encountered’ or ‘accessed’ or otherwise represented, X is not transcendent enough to be real. For the idealist objectivity is constituted by access conditions; for Harman, reality is constituted by its inaccessibility (to thought, perception or declaration, say) .

This account of the real-non-real distinction has the virtue of clarity, I suppose, but the epistemological problems it generates are considerable.

For example, if the tree encountered is not the tree that grows and bears fruit, the two are different entities.

So how does information about the encountered tree – that it is a cherry tree, not an apple or pear or quince – bear on the real tree? If it does – if my encounter with the encountered tree produces information about its real correlate – I surely encounter the real tree as well.

But since (according to Harman) I cannot encounter the real tree, my dealings with the encountered tree convey no information about the real tree. But then what entitles Harman to say of the real tree that it ‘grows and bears fruit’, or even that it is a tree, or living system of any kind?

If we can glean no information about the real, we are not entitled to apply to it typologies which apply to the things we can glean information about. Object Oriented Ontologists often illustrates their liberality with compendious lists of things to which their position is committed – dogs, black holes, mitochondria, clowns, etc. But if the real is informationally closed, the Object Oriented Ontologist is not entitled to say that these types belong to its domain. We have no informational hook up with the real as opposed to the encountered.

With informational closure the profligacy of OOO is spurious. Without it, OOO is incoherent.

Harman could, at this point, deny that having information generated by the real suffices for access. If we understand ‘information’ in a mathematical sense as an additive quantity representing the reduction of uncertainty produced by an event, he would be right. There is nothing remotely ‘semantic’ about this notion. However, semantic concepts of information – such as those used in causal-covariance theories of representation – are available too. They are afflicted with problems (e.g. how do we get from ‘Event A has information about [causally covaries with] Y’ to ‘A represents Y’?) but they help theorize the capacity of living systems to discriminate features of their environment. In short, semantic-informational access, seems like a candidate for the real, however problematic our theories of it may be.

If OOO was the only workable metaphysics on offer, then perhaps we should, like Kant, learn to live with the thought that the the real is informationally closed as such, that none of our empirical typologies can apply to it. But I think a more nuanced picture is available which retains a conceptual linkage between notions of reality and notions of epistemic independence.

It is hyperbolic to claim that since Y can be discriminated or accessed, it is not real. This is because it is not necessary for Y to be mugged or traduced into something else (Y*) for it to be discriminated via information bearing states of some kind (thus accessed). Informational access, at least, does not require this.

We can (consistent with this picture) deny that Y being real entails its accessibility to S, though (where ‘S’ ranges over those systems, human or otherwise, for which access is at issue).

While we are regularly in contact with some features of real things, there are other equally real features that have eluded us until recently. There may be intrinsic properties of things that elude discrimination in principle. Thus it is not necessary to hold that reality constitutively debars access, only that being real, of itself, does not entail it.

Thoughts on Flat Ontology

On September 15, 2010, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

The term ‘flat ontology’ was coined by Manuel DeLanda in his book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Flat ontologies are opposed there to hierarchical ontologies in which the structure and evolution of reality is explained by transcendent organizing principles such as essences,  organizing categories or natural states:

[While] an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status (DeLanda 2004, p. 58).

In a flat ontology the organization of entities is explained with reference to interactions between particular, historically locatable entities. It is never the result of entities of one ontological kind being related to an utterly different order of being like a God, a transcendental subject, a natural state or its associated species essences (Sober 1980). For flat ontologies, the factors which motivate macro-level change are always emergent from and ‘immanent’ to the systems in which the change occurs.

DeLanda’s characterization of flat ontology comes during a discussion of the ontological status of species in which he sides with philosophers of biology like David Hull and Elliot Sober who hold that species are differentiated populations that emerge from variations among organisms and the evolutionary feedback processes these drive (DeLanda 2004, 60). For DeLanda, evolutionary feedback instances a universal tendency for identifiable things and their properties to emerge from intensive  or (or productive) differences such as variations in heritable adaptive differences or chemical concentrations (Ibid., 58-9; 70). Thus the formation of soap bubbles depends on the tendency of component molecules to assume a lower a state of free energy, minimizing inter-molecular distances and cancelling the forces exerted on individual molecules by their neighbors (Ibid., 15). The process instantiates an abstract tendency for near-equilibrium systems with free energy to ‘roll down’ to a macrostate attractor. Thus for DeLanda’s ontology (following Deleuze) individuals are not products of the operations of a Kantian/Husserlian transcendental subject but of the cancellation of intensive differences and the generative processes they drive. These processes are governed by mathematical structures – e.g. ‘virtual’ attractors or ‘singularities’ – which are ‘quasi-causal’  influences on their trajectory through a particular state space (Ibid., 14).

How do we reconcile this second ontological claim (which I will refer to as ‘transcendental materialism’) with an adherence to a flat ontology of individuals. Is ontological flatness merely a regional principle applying to the ‘bits’ of the universe where differentiated particulars have already emerged from intensive processes, rendering their generative mechanisms irrelevant to understanding or categorizing the entities they have become? Moreover, if these processes are explained in terms of the virtual structures they exhibit, such as their singularities, doesn’t TM just reintroduce an ontological hierarchy between particular and universal?*

Graham Harman argues that the quasi-causal role of the abstract or virtual in DeLanda’s thought vitiates its commitment to a flat ontology for which “atoms have no more reality than grain markets or sports franchises” (Harman 2008, 370). Thus while depriving species and kinds of any distinctive organizing role, DeLanda inflates the role of the ‘genus’ in the form of virtual patterns (such as the relationship between the topology of systems and their capacity for autocatalysis explored of Stuart Kauffman and others). Secondly, subordinating individuals to their historical generative processes is seen by Harman as a way of ‘undermining’ the status of the particular or individual, which – against the letter of flat ontology – is somehow less real or effective than the intensive processes that produce it.

I think Harman does contemporary philosophers a favour by anatomizing these tensions within DeLanda’s materialism. However, it is far from clear to me that the regulative ideal of ontological flatness necessitates an ontology in which deep individuals and their (largely non-manifest) capacities play the central organizing role. It may be that the generative histories of particulars are relevant only insofar as they leave “lasting fingerprints” on the particulars they generate, making DeLanda’s proposal that we categorize particulars by way of the generative processes that produce them potentially problematic in some cases (Ibid.,374; DeLanda 2004, 50). However, if DeLanda’s (and Deleuze’s) transcendental materialism is correct, then any entity generated as a result of these processes will always be – as Iain Grant emphasizes – a fragile achievement, fatally involved in the play of further intensities (for example, at certain temperature thresholds, the lipid layers dividing biological cells from their watery milieu will simply melt, their ‘cohesion’ as individuals breaks down). The question of typing by generative process is thus an empirical matter of the causal relevance of such processes to the maintenance of individuals at all scales.

There  is no reason why flat ontologies have to be individualist or object-oriented. The  concept of the ‘individual’ and the wider category of the ‘particular’ are often conflated. The latter category may contain events, ‘diffusions’ or collectives: each of which may be insufficiently differentiated to qualify for objecthood (Roden 2004, p. 204). The cancellation of intensive quantities can certainly be accommodated within the category of particular events without threatening flatness (whether this is an orthodox Deleuzean solution doesn’t concern me). Secondly, insofar as the virtual laws of form which DeLanda describes reflect the mathematical structure of morphogenetic processes or systems, then their ontological autonomy need not violate the autonomy of the particular. Rather, morphogenetic structures reflect substrate neutral or formal constraints on the behavior of material systems whose effects are entirely produced by those systems. Quasi-causes do not preempt causes proper but reflect structural similarities between systems with otherwise distinct components.

For example, Stuart Kaufmann has used computer simulation of so called ‘NK Boolean Netoworks’ to argue that the capacity of systems of mutually interacting parts to generate stable auto-catalytic cycles is sensitive to the number of inter-connections between those parts. If the number of connections is large (that is, if the number of connections K to a given component approximates to the number of components N) the system behaves in a random, disordered way. However, for smaller values of K (e.g. K=2) the system settles down to exploring a relatively small number of ‘attractor’ sequences. Kaufmann speculates that this relationship is substrate-neutral – independent of  nature of the system components (they could be nodes in an NK boolean  simulation or chemical substances in a solution).

So a provisional conclusion, here, is that we can retain the role of structural ‘quasi-causes’ and reject the primacy of individuals without compromising the regulative ideal of ontological flatness.

DeLanda, Manuel. (2004), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.

___(2006), A New Philosophy of Society. London: Continuum.

Harman, Graham (2008), ‘Delanda’s Ontology: assemblage and realism’, Continental Philosophy Review 41, 367-383.

Roden, David. (2004), ‘Radical Quotation and Real Repetition’, Ratio: An international journal of analytic philosophy, XVII/2 (2004), pp. 191–206.

Sober, Elliot (1980) ‘Evolution, Population Thinking and Essentialism’, Philosophy of Science 47(3), pp. 350-383.

*We could also ask: is the cancellation of intensive difference merely a regional principle applying to various kinds of thermodynamic systems rather than, say, to more fundamental physical entities or structures?