People and cultures have some non-overlapping beliefs. Some folk believe that there is a God, some that there is no God, some that there are many gods. Some people believe that personal autonomy is a paramount value, while others feel that virtues like honour and courage take precedence over personal freedom. These core beliefs are serious, in that they make a difference to whether people live or die, or are able to live the kinds of life that they wish. People fight and die for the sake of autonomy. People fight, die or (institute gang rapes) in the interests of personal honour.

Some folk – the self-styled pluralists – believe that respect for otherness is a paramount political value. Respecting otherness, they say, is so paramount that it should regulate our ontological commitments – our assumptions about what exists. I must admit that I find this hard to credit ontologically or ethically. But it is also unclear how we should spell the principle out. So I’ll consider two versions that have circulated in the blogosphere recently. The first, I will argue, teeters on incoherence or, where not incoherent, is hard to justify in ethical or political terms. The second – which demands that we build a common world – may also be incoherent, but I will argue that we have no reason to think that its ultimate goal is realisable.

According to Philip at Circling Squares Isabel Stengers and Bruno Latour think that this position should enjoin us to avoid ridiculing or undermining others’ values or ontologies. Further, that we should:

grant that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone’s cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a ‘declaration of war’ – ‘this means war,’ as Stengers often says.

I’ll admit that I find first part of this principle this damn puzzling. Even if we assume – for now – that it is wrong to attempt to undermine another person’s central beliefs this principle seems to require a) that people actually embrace ontological commitments that are contrary to the one’s they adhere to; b) pretend not to have one’s core beliefs; c) adopt some position of public neutrality vis a vis all core beliefs.

The first interpretation (a) results in the principle that one should embrace the contrary of every core belief; or, in effect, that no one should believe everything. So (in the interests of charity) we should pass on.

b) allows us to have beliefs so long as they are unexpressed. Depending on your view of beliefs, this is either incoherent (because there are no inexpressible beliefs) or burdens believers that no one is likely to find it acceptable.

So I take Philip to embrace c).  His clarification suggests something along these lines. For example. He claims that it is consistent with respecting otherness to say what we believe about other’s idols but not to publicly undermine their reasons for believing in them. Thus:

Their basic claim seems to be that ‘respect for otherness,’ i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don’t ‘believe’ in them.  You are thus permitted to say ‘I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me’ but you are not permitted to say ‘your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.’  And it’s not just a question of politeness (although there’s that too).  The point is to grant others’ idols and deities an existence – one needn’t agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to ‘declare war’ – to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.

I must admit that I find this principle of respect puzzling as well. After all, some of my reasons for being an atheist are also reasons against being a theist. So unless this is just an innocuous plea for good manners (which I’m happy to sign up to on condition that notional others show me and mine the same forbearance) it seems to require that all believers keep their reasons for their belief to themselves. This, again, seems to demand an impossible or repugnant quietism.

So, thus far, ontological pluralism seems to be either incoherent or to impose such burdens on all believers that nobody should be required to observe it. There is, of course, a philosophical precedent for restricted ontological quietism in Rawls’ political liberalism. Rawls’ proposes that reasonable public deliberation recognize the “burdens of judgement” by omitted any justification that hinges on “comprehensive” ethical or religious doctrines over which there can be reasonable disagreement (Rawls 2005, 54). Deliberations about justice under Political Liberalism are thus constrained to be neutral towards “conflicting worldviews” so long as they are tolerant and reasonable (Habermas 1995, 119, 124-5).

However, there is an important difference between the political motivations behind Rawlsian public reason and the position of “ontological charity” Philip attributes to Stengers and Latour. Rawls’ is motivated by the need to preserve stability within plural democratic societies. Public reason does not apply outside the domain of political discourse in which reasonable citizens hash out basic principles of justice and constitutional essentials. It is also extremely problematic in itself.  Habermas  argues that Rawls exclusion of plural ethical or religious beliefs from the public court is self-vitiating because comprehensive perspectives are sources of disagreement about shared principles (for example, the legitimacy of abortion or same-sex marriage) and these must accordingly be addressed through dialogue rather than circumvented if a politically stable consensus is to be achieved (126).

Finally, apart from being incoherent, the principle of ontological charity seems unnecessary. As Levi Bryant points out in his realist retort to the pluralist, people are not the sum of their beliefs. Beliefs can be revised without effacing the believer. Thus an attack on core beliefs is not an attack on the person holding those beliefs.

So it is hard to interpret the claim that we should grant the existence of others’ “idols” as much more than the principle that it is wrong to humiliate, ridicule or insult people because of what their beliefs are. This seems like a good rule of thumb, but it is hard to justify the claim that it is an overriding principle. For example, even if  Rushdie’s Satanic Verses “insults Islam” having an open society in which aesthetic experimentation and the critical evaluation of ideas is possible is just more important than saving certain sections of it from cognitive dissonance or intellectual discomfort. Too many people have suffered death, terror and agony because others had aberrant and false core beliefs to make it plausible that these should be immune from criticism or ridicule. A little personal dissonance is a small price to pay for not going to the oven.

So what of the principle that we should build a “common world”. This is set out by Jeremy Trombley in his Struggle Forever blog under the rubric of “cosmopolitics”. Jeremy regards this project as an infinite task that requires us to seek a kind of fusion between different word views, phenomenologies and ontologies:

The project, as Latour, Stengers, James, and others have described it, is to compose a common world. What pluralism recognizes is that, in this project, we all start from different places – Latour’s relativity rather than relativism. The goal, then, (and it has to be recognized that this project is always contingent and prone to failure) is to make these different positions converge, but in a way that doesn’t impose one upon the other as the Modern Nature/Culture dichotomy tends to do. Why should we avoid imposing one on the other? In part because it’s the right thing to do – by imposing we remove or reduce the agency of the other. The claim to unmediated access to reality makes us invulnerable – no other claim has that grounding, and therefore we can never be wrong. But we are wrong – the science of the Enlightenment gave us climate change, environmental destruction, imperialism in the name of rationality (indigenous peoples removed from their land and taken to reeducation facilities where they were taught “rational” economic activities such as farming), and so on. It removed us from the world and placed us above it – the God’s eye view.

I think there a number of things wrong with cosmopolitics as Jeremy describes it here.

Firstly, seeking to alter beliefs or values does not necessarily reduce agency because people are not their beliefs.

Secondly, some worldviews – like the racist belief-systems that supported the European slave trade – just need to be imposed upon because they are bound up with violent and corrupting socio-political systems.

Thirdly, I know of no Enlightenment thinker, or realist, for whom “unmediated access to reality” is a sine qua non for knowledge. Let’s assume that “realism” is the contrary of pluralism here. It’s not clear what unmediated access would be like, but all realists are committed to the view that we we don’t have it since if we believe that reality has a mind-independent existence and nature, it can presumably vary independently of our beliefs about it. In its place, we have various doctrines of evidence and argument that are themselves susceptible to revision.  Some analyses of realism suppose that realists are committed to the claim that there is a one true account of the world (the God’s Eye View) but – as pointed out in an earlier post – this commitment is  debatable. In any case, supposing the the existence of a uniquely true theory is very different from claiming to have it.

Finally, much hinges on what we mean by a common world here. I take it that it is not the largely mind-independent reality assumed by the realist since – being largely mind-independent – it exists quite independently of any political project. So I take it that Jeremy is adverting something like a shared phenomenology or experience: a kind of fusion of horizons at the end of time. If we inflect “world” in this sense, then there is no reason for believing that such an aim is possible, let alone coherent. This possibility depends on there being structures of worldhood that are common to all beings that can be said to have one (Daseins, say). I’ve argued that there are no reasons for holding that we have access to such a priori knowledge because – like Scott Bakker – I hold that phenomenology gives us very limited insight into its nature. Thus we have no a priori grasp of what a world is and no reason to believe that Daseins (human or nonhuman) could ever participate in the same one. The argument for this is lengthy so I refer the reader to my paper “Nature’s Dark Domain” and my forthcoming book Posthuman Life.


Habermas, Jurgen. 1995. “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism.” The Journal of Philosophy 92 (3): 109–131.

Rawls, John. 2005. Political Liberalism. Columbia University Press.




Tagged with:

Kant, Rawls and Sandel

On June 1, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

These slides summarise aspects of Kant’s philosophy to which Sandel alludes in his criticism of Rawls in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice and list some problems supposedly generated by analogies between the two thinkers.


Tagged with:

Hacking Humans

On March 21, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


Here’s Scott Bakker with a most eloquent statement of his pessimism about our far technological, posthuman prospects:

Brain science. The reason why I fear that ‘cognitive augmentation’ will be catastrophic turns on the way I see psychology and neuroscience slowly confirming what I think should be humanity’s greatest scientific fear: the possibility that meaning and morality are simply figments of our neural parochialism. If this is the case, it means the very frame of reference that Marone uses to value ‘biohacking’ will in fact be one of the first casualties of biohacking.

It’s a response to Rachel Marone’s post on biohacking over at Memetics here.

If, as Scott urges, the posthuman is the postsemantic and (and we agree that having a semantics is a good thing) then becoming posthuman is bad in at least one respect.

I’m not sure that I agree with Scott’s assumption that meaning is an artifact of our ‘neural parochialism’. Certain aspects of our phenomenology might well be. For example, I take it that one of the implications of Metzinger’s account is that Dasein is a kind of online hallucination. In any case, Metzinger’s is a representationalist philosophy and representations have representational content, so it is hard to formulate his position without presupposing that meaning is real (if meaning is an illusion there must be at least one meaningful thing – namely the illusion of meaning). If you want to say that all meaning is an illusion you need to explain how the misrepresentation of meaning is possible without representation.

But this aside, I guess that I want to urge far more capacious sense of the posthuman. This is partly for ethical reasons. To misquote Iain H. Grant: I just can’t believe that fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution occurred  so we can have this chat. To quote my own plodding formulation “[We] know that Darwinian natural selection has generated novel forms of life in the evolutionary past since humans are one such. Since there seems to be nothing special about the period of terrestrial history in which we live it seems hard to credit that comparable novelty resulting from some combination of biological or technological factors might not occur in the future.” We may not currently be an position to evaluate our potential successors but I can’t see why they should not possess analogues of our own conceptions of the good, even if they are currently inconceivable for us, even if they transcend our powers of comprehension in much the way that the idea of number theory exceed the cognitive grasp of non-uplifted rat.

So I’ve urged a deliberately schematic and anti-essentialist conception of the posthuman in two parts. The first part recursively specifies a relation of wide human descent. The important thing here is that wide human descendants need not be humans.

An entity is a wide human descendant if it is the result of a technically mediated process:

A)    Caused by a part of WH (WH stands for the “Wide Human” – aka the human socio-technical network) where the ancestral part may be wholly biological, wholly technological or some combination of the two

B)    Caused by a wide human descendant.

A is the “basis clause” here. It states what belongs to the initial generation of wide human descendants without using the concept of wide descent. B is the recursive part of the definition. Given any generation of wide human descendants it specifies a successor generation of wide human descendants.

It is important that this definition does not imply that a wide human descendant need be human in either wide or narrow senses. Any part of the human socio-technical network ceases to be widely human if its wide descendants go “feral”: acquiring the capacity for independent functioning and replication outside the human network.

Becoming posthuman would thus be an unprecedented discontinuity in the hominization process. Human life has undergone revolutions in the past (like the shift from hunter-gatherer to sedentary modes of life) but no part of it has been technically altered so as to function outside of it.

A being is a posthuman WHD if it breaks out of the human network. If toothbrushes got smartened up and became sufficiently autonomous to reproduce without having to be teeth-cleaners, to devise their own ends, they would cease to be wide humans and become posthumans. A posthuman is any WHD that goes feral; becomes capable of life outside the planetary substance comprised of narrow biological humans, their cultures and technologies.

This formulation leaves the value and worth of the posthuman open. Since we cannot evaluate the posthuman ex ante, we can only assess its value by exploring posthuman design space for ourselves. This is where Rachel’s biohacking manifesto comes into its own, I think, for it questions who gets to decide the shape of the posthuman – military corporate systems, venture capitalists, or you and me?


Tagged with: