Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Modal World

In my last post, we were presented with three rather clear problems. Since I feel all the three problems are interrelated, I will be story-telling over the next several posts about all three problems, shifting from problem to problem. This is because none of my individual posts will claim to definitively solve any of the problems by themselves. Instead, each post will attempt to give some more credibility to my stance.

In order to make such credibility more clear, however, let us consider our options in more clear detail. Most of the arguments I have deployed up to this point have attempted not just to give a positive argument for my potentialist approach, but it has constantly been in the context of what other possible stances are possible and not possible. Since the very beginning of my theological attempts on this blog, I have rested my case in part on a strong emotivism - all of our knowledge claims rest upon our values/ethics. I have also argued that once we accept this claim, our values and ethics are clearly without any foundation. One is free to disagree with either of these claims (obviously, I realize that the first claim is more controversial than the second). In our modern scientific world, many would agree with me that ethics/values are foundationless. However, that all of our "knowledge" including descriptive statements are driven at heart by our values and ethics seems counter-intuitive to our scientific sensibilities. After all, what does my statement "the cat is on the mat" have to do with my ethical values?

However, it is critical that I establish that we have good reasons for believing such is the case. Early on, I presented several arguments that ethical primacy was indeed true (such as the possible world where descriptive knowledge of the "world" led to an increased likelihood of ethically wrong actions). However, we will need to revisit my argument for ethical primacy again and again since it presents us with the problem my story has brought us to.

Our story telling has brought us to the point of rejecting any form of moral realism. Ultimately, we are left with a choice, an either/or choice (in the spirit of Kierkegaard). We can choose to tell an aesthetic-ethical story with our conscious awareness that any such story has no foundation. To put it more simply, we can make the gesture against the void. Or we can give into meaningless, into nihilism. I want to stand with the first possibility. What kind of story can we build upon the void, upon a ghost? Of course, my dilemma proves to be false if there truly are other possibilities. To those that feel that there are other possibilities, clearly my gesture is on the brink of nihilism, grasping toward a ghost. Now that the possibility of this dilemma has been presented, however, let us put aside for the moment whether the dilemma is true.

If the dilemma is true, ultimately, it is an unrealizable burden to give an unarguable case why someone should end up on one side of the void (or the other). After all, if our ethics are without foundation, even our choice of standing against the void (or within it) holds no grounds. As Canada Bill Jones said once "I know it's crooked. But it is the only game in town." However, ultimately, if we have to roll the dice, what should we bet on? What story would we tell?

After all, the guides we have discovered thus far have left us with a fairly stark ethical system. To some degree our ethical choices are limited by the dialogue between our locality and our envisioned potential. On the other hand, we do have freedom and we do have choice. We envision multiple possibilities, multiple potentials, in each moment. How can we choose in the face of the void?

Since several posts ago I rejected the realism/idealism distinction, we have made some space within our ethical system that typically does not exist. Traditionally, ethics does function in the modal sense, but only in the should/could/ought sense. What should I do? What could I do? What ought I to do? But because ethics is primary, whether it has a foundation or not, would it not make sense to ask one more modal question? What would I do? What would I say? Or ultimately, what would the ideal story be? In a sense, we have the question of u-topia on our hands, the perfect place - but not a perfect place, but instead a perfect story. What would I will my story to be (apart from constraints)? After all, in a foundationless world, the only constraints are our vision and our locality. Otherwise, the sky is the limit. So what would we tell?

Utopias are criticized a lot for being idealistic and having nothing to do with our world, the place and time we live in right now, the locality that surrounds us. However, what if utopia stories were grounded in the moment we live in? If utopia stories are stories of potential we see, and potential is born of the moment that surrounds us, utopia stories are deeply realistic. Utopias are born of and serve the moment. We should not limit ourselves by false "materialistic" limits. Instead, we are free to allow our ethics to pull us forward. What world would we act(ualize) apart from constraints? "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall."

So what does the recognition of modality give us? Perhaps it gives us some weight for standing against the void, for remaining on the brink of nihilism instead of within it. If we were to tell any story born from our moment, would it really be a story of purposelessness? meaninglessness? of the void and nothing else? If we are to be haunted, would we not still will ourselves to live? to love? to value? And while we walk within the moment, and we struggle within undecidability, with a potential overload, should we not ask what we would do?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Birth of Potential

With much of the unstable foundation set, perhaps it is the right time to address the drive behind my project more directly. This post will attempt to pull several threads together and hopefully will present some new particulars as well. Welcome to a world of possibility (although perhaps not potential!).

So far the narrative threads we have followed have attempted to show that 1) our foundation is our values 2) our values have no foundation, and as such are incredibly unstable 3) our values are incarnated and informed by our locality (in the broad location/time sense of the word 4) our values are envisioned as the potential in each moment (contained within all the possibilities we also envision) 5) potential is on the future-side of each moment, as potential is what pulls us forward, what calls us to act(ualize).

This provides us with an fascinating image. While temporality (change from moment to moment) is a given, let us focus in on a particular locality, which we will call a moment. Recall that each locality is not simply location/time but also the unique perspective given from the particular sentience within that locality (which we might call the ghost of an individual). In other words, the moment is inseparable from the ghost (of the individual). There is always perspective within the moment.

Now, let us consider what the moment consists of. On one hand, we have the "past" end of the moment, i.e. the context/locality of the moment. A traditionalist would claim here that the "past" end of the moment is made up of "what is" leading into the moment, or in other words, the "being" of the moment. However, now that we have rejected the prominence of "being" it would be wiser to recognize that the "past" end of the moment is a flow of non-being and being, of what-is and what-is-not (since neither is reducible to other). This interchange between what-is and what-is-not in turn forms what I have referred to as our "locality-" the unique flux of non-being and being we all (as particular ghosts) live within.

In turn, as we continue to move from the "past" end of the moment to the "future" end of the moment, we discover that the locality in every moment (the "past") informs what possibilities and potential we see. If a kid is not about to be run over in the street, I cannot envision nor actualize saving a child from being run over in the street. It is also this forward-moving element of the moment which helps shape our ever-developing values. Consider that in each moment a "future" becomes a "past" for the next moment, and through this movement, we experience. Those experiences in turn shape our values, gradually changing what we value. Experiences certainly are not a foundation for what we value, but they certainly create/mold/form our values. Needless to say, because of this, as our constant pool of experience shifts, so too do our values shift.

This is not a particularly controversial view of the moment (past-to-future). However, we have also discovered that the "future" end informs how we see the past. That which we envision, grounded on our values, that remains to be actualized (potential) is the "future" end of the moment because it does not "exist" in the strictest sense of the word yet in each present moment - potential awaits act(ualization). The potential we envision may or may not be act(ualized) in the moment or not, and yet regardless it is the future we see at any given moment (and isn't that exactly what the future is... the subjective future?). Potential, as the "future" end of the moment isn't simply informed by the past end of the moment (our locality) for it also informs our locality. As was pointed out previously, our values shape how we see the world. Our potential informs our surroundings in each given moment. As such, there is also a counterintuitive part of each moment that moves from future-to-past. As an image, an easy way to imagine the flow of each moment, both future-to-past and past-to-future is a figure eight - the moment itself is the point where both circles of the eight intersect, and yet, there are two lines leaving the point in each direction - toward the future, away from the future, toward the past, and away from the past.

One of the reasons I really like the image of a figure-eight is that it presents us with a picture of the moment apart from many of the common images. Each moment is, in a sense, a self-contained entity, a past/future instant that flows within itself. There is no sense of progress (since the moment flows within itself in a circular fashion, not as a line off in some direction). Constant progress simply does not make sense here - as long as our values shift, our definition of progress will shift as well, and as such become nonsensical. We can (and should) act toward our envisioned potential, but any actualized potential will become a locality for the next moment, a past that will both help to shape the potential in the next moment and vanish as time passes as well. The thing about the past is that it disappears. Even ghosts cannot persist.

A number of new avenues now present themselves. Consider the possibility that the potential we envision in each moment might overlap a great deal with god-language. What might it mean to talk about God as potential?

Or, consider the possibility of ethics in a momentary world. What motivation do we have for acting toward our potential if there is no such thing as persistence? If everything eventually fades away, washes out, can we still find the drive to be Sisyphus and push uphill? Should we?

Or consider our plurality of values. Don't we envision multiple potentials in each moment? How should we decide which to move toward, which to act(ualize) if our values have no foundation? Is there room in a momentary theology for more than a rigid determinism, albeit a two-way determinism? If we cannot select between our envisioned potentials in each moment, isn't an ethics of choice impossible? And if we have freedom within the moment, how can we possibly choose between potentials with no foundation?

These are the three questions that I will hope to wrestle with over the next month or so. Eventually, I hope to present stories for each problem. Mixed stories of answers and questions. Ghostly stories - stories that have a call toward form. Ultimately, stories, potential, and we, ourselves, all have that ghostly vocation before us - a volition toward act(ualization). A ghost toward haunting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Heidegger once made the astute observation that the history of western metaphysics could be defined by the search for being. What does it mean to be? Much could be said why such a question has defined western history. In part, the primacy of being within the west probably rests upon the popularity of Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle (instead of Heraclitus). With that triad, the western world chose being. Certainly, Parmenides' arguments against the existence of nothingness (or voids) drastically influenced how the concept of nothingness is viewed in the west. While some later Greek philosophers would be less radical, and would not deny the existence of nothingness, they would often argue that not-being was merely derived from being. Nothingness is merely the absence of being. Cold is absence of heat, etc.

Of course, this isn't the full story. After all, western metaphysics is not just Greek, for the influx of Judeo-Christianian worldviews from 50-500 CE significantly altered how the west considered metaphysical questions. While associations between ethics and being had already been made in Plato and Aristotle, Augustine would take a step further by creating an ethics of being, ontological ethics. Good was ontos, and evil was merely the absence of good. A new approach to theodicy was born - the derivative nature of evil would allow for God not to be guilty of it, since God was completely presence, completely being. The ontological God was good because He [sic] was pure being. Ontotheology would go far beyond Augustine. Tillich's God as the ground of being would be the crowning achievement of ontotheology.

Of course, told from a position of power, the God of being is comforting. Consider my claim that God-language and value-language are inseparable. When we talk about (our) God(s) we are also asserting our values as well. Since our values are incarnated in times and places, potential is born from within the moment we live in. We wish to act(ualize) that potential in our world. Those who have power typically want to preserve that power. The powerful wish to preserve what-is (ontos, being). It is not enough that the powerful have power in a particular moment - what-is must be preserved so that power is preserved. Being is valued because being and power are inseparable, and for the powerful that is a blessing. It, of course, follows that an empowered individual's (or community's) myths would assert the value of being over everything else. Being must be preserved, must live beyond the moment.

The opposite of being, what-is-not, nothingness, ta me onta, must be devalued in order to affirm the value of being. What better way to assert such a hierarchy than to associate being, God and goodness with each other, and to associate nothingness and evil with each other? To the powerful, the power structure must be preserved. It comes as no surprise that ontotheologians typically distrust change - for change is a destruction of the current ontos, of presence. Parmenides' view against the existence of change coexist with his view against the existence of nothingess. Holding on to ontotheology has effects that travel well beyond being, power, and change, however.

John Caputo does a masterful job at illustrating how nothingness language often is associated with the oppressed, the fringe, the "nuisances and nobodies" as Crossan so eloquently put it. If the powerful hold the power of being in their hands, hearts and minds, the powerless become nothing, those-who-are-not, the ta me onta - after all, what does it matter if the powerful need to oppress the nobodies in order to preserve being? Nothingness holds no value to ontotheologians, since it is merely devoid of value, of goodness. The problem with nothingness, according to the ontotheologian, is that it holds no being. What-is is clearly good for everyone. Those who suffer simply must be mistaken.

One of the interesting byproducts of the narrative threads we have followed thus far, is that ontotheology has no foundation. Of course, the dominant threads within western metaphysics that have effected us all make such a statement seem contradictory - how could being not be sturdy? How could being be unstable?

If, however, being-language is value-language, the veil has been removed. Being is unstable as nothingness is. Our values rest upon uncertain, unstable ground, regardless of what we value. We should resist the temptation to claim that being-language is more "real" while language that does not deal with being is "imaginary." Rather than attempt to deceive ourselves with illusions of "real" stories and "fake" stories, perhaps it would be better to evaluate whether we can be proud of our stories, regardless of whatever reality they rest upon.

If all of this has dis-stabilized the priority of being, perhaps we should reject the derivative notion of nothingness. Much of the world is not as it should be - and ontological language misses such nuance. Power often should not be perpetuated endlessly, nor should it often be legitimized.

So what, then is nothingness as concerns humans? What if reality was a matter of what-is and what-is-not, in play? Neither derivative from the other, with nothingness and being making up the mixture of the world we live in. Up to this point, I have been needlessly deceptive when I speak of localities as the being and time we live in. The localities we live in that shape our envisioned potential are not just a matter of being and time - equally the localities we live in are shaped by what-is-not, of the nothingness that surrounds us. This nothingness is not merely an absence of being - the void is a fundamental part of reality. We would do well to remember that what-is-not, who-is-not, ta me onta plays an equal (if not more important) role in creating the potential we see in the world. We would do well to remember that when we act(ualize) toward our envisioned potential, we affirm just as much about what-is-not, as what-is. We would do well to remember that we live in one world - a world of nothingness and being. Before we say "I am," perhaps we should say "I am not." Or perhaps we should say "I see."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Identity: "We are the potential we see in the world"

With the rather complex network of questions revealed that hint towards the nature of identity and the self, perhaps we can move within our questions to discover hints toward answers. After all, in the beginning, I promised positive theology, and as much as questions are a critical part of the search here, they are not the only critical part. Momentary theopoetics is not a pleasant sounding, broad skepticism. At least, I hope it is not.

After so many unstabilities had been revealed within the nature of the self, one might be tempted to give up on the search completely. It is tempting to simply claim that there must be no self, no individuality, and be done with the search completely. We grow tired of the haunting. We grow tired of questions with incomplete answers.

However, if these narrative threads held up so far have any tension in them at all, they will refuse to snap under such weight, under such unstabilities. After all, if ghostly values are all we have to build upon, if we give up on our narrative threads established thus far, it is hard to imagine what will be holding back the tides of nihilism, the darkness of the void.

So if we don't give up on the search for the individual, what has our hunt revealed to us thus far? Within the mutuality shared between the questions "who are you?" and "what do you want?" it has been revealed that, like what we eat, we are what we value. As such, it becomes quite clear that if we give up on the search for us as individuals, we give up our values (and nihilism awaits). There is an important distinction in Buddhism to note here: Zen Buddhists often claim the self is empty (but they rarely claim that it is nothing). Even as we have revealed the unstable, fluxing nature of the self, the "empty" nature of the self, so to speak (as there is nothing "essential" to the self) the self is not nothing. If we assert the self is nothing, our values our nothing. (Although it is important to note here that nothingness, the typically understood opposite of being, of actuality has a critical role to play here. Too often nothingness as a concept has taken a back seat to being. Think Plato. Or Augustine. Or Aquinas. Or Tillich. Or even Heidegger. Such a privileging of being has resulted in grave consequences. More on that later.).

The interesting tie between our values and who we are extends even further than merely just drawing a line between us and nihilism. As was mentioned before, our values are pluralistic (that is they expose us to multiple, contradictory desires). We never have a singular desire that is made up of all our values united toward one cause. An interesting product of this is we see multiple possibilities, we envision multiple (valued) futures in each moment. For example, if I hold two loved individuals by each hand on the edge of a cliff side, I can envision two future possibilities, one in which I pull up one, another in which I save the other. Emphasis must be stressed on the fact that our values open up certain possibilities to us - after all, if I didn't value either person on the cliff side, an action to save either of them would become meaningless. As such, it becomes clear that our meaning, our values are not (at least not completely) exterior to us. The statement "I envision such-and-such as possible" cannot be stated without the "I," or the locality expressed with the verb "envision." After all, we see from a particular focal point.

Of course, there is an exterior interaction with our values that creates our possibilities as well. For example, if I am not at a cliff side with two loved ones the statement "I envision the possibility of saving such-and-such loved one from falling off the cliff," doesn't make any sense whatsoever. Possibilities are born within our local moment, but find focus within our individuality. And each focus is naturally different, since, each local moment (time, location, past experiences, etc) is different for each individuality. One individual on a cliff side will see different possibilities than another individual.

(At this point, it is important to note a critical part of momentary possibility that has been left unsaid, and will probably remain mostly hidden for a while. The kind of possibility that is critical here is identity possibility, i.e. envisioned possibility. In other words, what is possible is only what I can see as "possible" because of my locality, my values, my experiences, etc. However, in order to preserve the undecidability, and the possibility of possibility there also must be possibility contained within the exterior world, i.e. chance must exist even in our world apart from humans. Here I stand with the majority of quantum physicists that at the heart of physical existence lies a certain amount of chance, of undecidability on the quantum level. As such, all the possibilities we envision are possibly actualized (even if such an event is incredibly unlikely), even as there are always possibilities that are possible in the world apart from our envisioning them. For example, perhaps there is a possibility in the "world" that if I drop my two loved ones both will magically appear behind me safe and sound. However, if I have not encountered experiences that will increase my likelihood of believing such an occurrence will happen, I will probably not envision it as a possibility even though in the "world" it is a possibility to happen. Hence why we can be surprised all the time. That said, I am fairly skeptical of a self/world distinction and will have some words about such a topic at a later point. For now, this footnote on chance and possibility at two levels will have to function).

Of course, on the subjective level, our values will pull us to prefer certain possibilities in a given moment. In a more clear cut case, if I merely like one individual on the cliff side and love the other, I'll probably value saving the second individual more. Here we have discovered the slippage between could and should, between possibility and potential. My values and my own subjectivity determine what I see as possible within my local moment, within my identity, and yet even within those possibilities, my values and my own subjectivity pull me even further into my preferred actualities, my potential. Ethics is revealed as not only our guide for what we believe we should do, but also what we could do. Of course as the sands that we stand upon shift, so too do we change, and the should/coulds we see, the potential/possibilities we envision shift as well. A possible answer to our identity question has (re)presented itself - "We are the potential we see in the world." That potential (and the possibilities behind it) are ghostly, not actually yet in existence, simply on the brink of our minds. And yet that brink is who we are, who we become. Before we give up on the search for the self and/or our values, we would do well to remember that. And as we evaluate ourselves, we must ask - are we proud of what we see?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Identity: Who are you? What do you want?

As my theophilosophy has progressed, it has not pretended to be comprehensive. While comprehensiveness is a goal of mine here, it will clearly remain an unreachable goal. However, one of the critical nexuses for the network I am constructing has yet to even be hinted at. Who are these creatures that hold values? What does it mean to say "I am"?

One of the disastrous problems for much of existentialism and postmodern philosophy/theology is that it centers the foundation upon the individual. As though reaching back toward Descartes, it is often assumed that the individual, at least, can be assumed and be taken as common and obvious truth. The individual is sacrosanct.

However, what is the individual? Do individuals have essences that are distinct and self-foundational? Is there such a thing as an independent individual? Process Philosophy (as well as a lot of New Age philosophy) has pressed the importance of our relationships for who we are as individuals. Ask yourself who you are, and you will find yourself describing yourself in relationships (a son, a friend, a philosopher, etc.) It is difficult to find a firm foundation for the "I" as individual. Individualism is primarily a product of the Enlightenment and the birth of capitalism - before the notion of the free market, the notion of just self-interest made little sense. There was no such thing as self-interest, no such thing as a foundational end for any particular individual apart from relationship. Those very relationships destabilize any self-foundation. After all, our relationships are always changing, always in flux. We are never the same.

Of course, prior to the Enlightenment, philosophers had attempted to give a derivative notion to the self based off of other foundational concepts. Perhaps the most famous is Aristotle's attempt to derive the nature of the individual from the nature of humankind as a whole. One of the severe problems with Aristotle's biology is that it assumed a given teleology, a given end, a given goal for humans as a species. To Aristotle, humans had a nature that was a distinct part of their biological essence which, if unimpeded, would lead them in the direction of the good. What it meant to be an individual was to be a part of the human species as it sought its biological end. That foundational teleology would be the source of the soul, the source of the individual.

Despite a recent disinterring of Aristotle's ethics, Aristotle's ethics and biology were rightly rejected. Most of the reasons for this have already been implicitly laid out in prior posts. While we may reach for a unitary whole, a unitary value, as humans we are a pluralistic jumble of contradictory values. Our values do not pull us toward one singular end. Our values change all the time. While tragedy and hope might be rightly described as being part of the human condition, they do not make a unitary whole. After all, our tragedies and hopes are nothing if they hold nothing - my hope matters because I hope about certain ends, that I hope about an actualization and my tragedy matters because my values remain unfulfilled (or broken). Just as we cannot find foundational meaning for the individual in individuality itself, we cannot derive meaning for the individual from a concept like humankind.

Which, of course, brings us back to the original question - who am I? Perhaps, after recognizing the insight of process philosophy, we should first rephrase the question - who do I become? We are nothing apart from the locality we exist in, after all, since we are (at least in part) relationships. The localities we exist in, that we are part of, are defined by change. We stand on shifting sands, looking out into blinding dust storms. Following such - who do I become - is also, in part - where am I (or where do I go?) - and - when am I (or when do I become?).

Proceeding from the insights about localities and potential from previous posts, it has become clear that our location is inseparable from the potential we envision. The teleology we have, the potential we see, the values we have, are all part of where and when we are/become. Because of this, it is impossible to ask our previous questions without asking - what do I want? For what we desire and value has been presented as our unstable foundation, and while it might be unstable, it has become clear that we simply cannot exist apart from our values. Contra Aristotle, our values, our teleology might have no foundation, might be completely unstable, but ultimately it is all we have. We live upon ethics.

Of course, asking all these questions brings us to an important precipice. If the questions "Who are you?" and "What do you want" are inseparable, the portrait we must paint of identity must be broader than any flat painting. I am reminded of a contrast in the science fiction show "Babylon 5." Through out the show, two powerful, godlike alien species ask their defining questions to different characters in the show. The Vorlons, the paragons of order ask "Who are you?" The Shadows, the agents of chaos ask "What do you want?" The questions are designed to reveal the essence of each character, to help the viewer discover what the identity, the role of each character is on the show. The show clearly favors the question "who are you?" as the defining question of identity and value, and echoes traditional sentiments from the Enlightenment, through Existentialism to Postmodernism (and beyond). Western history can be seen as the eternal return, the eternal acting/asking of the question "who are you?" If there is any truth in what has been presented up to this point, however, that question has been needlessly shallow. Living behind the Vorlon in each of us is a Shadow - "what do you want?" Living behind our identity is a ghost. Vorlons and Shadows reveals themselves to be two sides of the same coin. A coin with no substance.

Babylon 5 ends with a character (Lorien) asking Sheridan four questions. Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going? If we are to find any value in individuality, we will find it here, in pluralistic/unitary/inseperable questions like these. The questions are not rhetorical, and yet they have no answer. We are ghosts living with ghostly values. Whatever we are, we are haunted. Let us live in that haunting.