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Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?

In reading through Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warefare (aspects of which I have already engaged, here), there are pockets of useful summation that one runs into in his narrative that simply call for investigation. I’m going to have to pass on an elaborate presentation of the ideas of Cybernetics and Complexity, but Bousquet provides excellent, essential cartography. In particular is his emphasis that Cybernetic thinking from the 40s, 50s and 60s concerned itself with a borrowing of the concept of “entropy” from thermodynamics, organization processes of “negative feedback” in pursuit of system homeostasis, with a concentration upon system “control”. Systems were seen as hermetically closed loops which worked inwardly to organize themselves to fight off entropy, noise, confusion, and establish an unending homeostasis which required no fundamental change in their own internal structure. The most basic form of the system was one that was able to note internal deviations from system “norm” which promoted external actions which would affect either a change in the environment or within, which then directed the system back to where it was before disturbed.

For some concerned with the philosophy of Spinoza there are immediate prima facie correspondences here, enough to suggest that Spinoza seems something of a proto-cyberneticist. Spinoza’s stoic-like internal regulation of one’s own thinking processes, especially on the order of the avoidance of “confused” ideas, along with his doctrine that the conatus (essential striving) of a person or a thing was a driving force to preserve itself against outside destruction, seem to hold true to a cybernetic framing of the question of epistemology and power/control. Add to this that cybernetic models were of a distinctly linear mathematical nature (marked by the additive property of cause), and that at times Spinoza seems to treat causes in the same linear fashion (for instance the idealized assertion that two men of the same nature, when combined produce a new body twice as powerful), suggests deep conceptual ties been Spinoza’s self-regulating bodies of conatus continuation and early information theory, cybernetic concepts of the control of “noise” and pursuant homeostasis. (There is of course the signficant difference in the concept of entropy itself, as Spinoza reads all degradation as caused by external influence, and not natural to any system itself.)

To this comparison of affinities we also have to add a significant metaphysical homology, something that struck me as rather surprising. I have long emphasized that Spinoza’s onto-epistemology partakes in an unusual though very distinct way in the Neoplatonic model of Being as read in degrees. This is to say, things do not simply have Being or not, but rather have degrees of Being. And, as I also emphasized, Augustine was probably the greatest purveyor of this Neoplatonic doctrine, taken from Plotinus, through the Christian Middle Ages to post Renaissance thinking. In such a view, “evil” is under a non-Manichean, and one wants to stress, non-Dualistic definition. Evil was simply the absence of good (and not a force in its own right).

Historical Digression: Handled briefly so as to give a sketch of the historical ground we are covering, the Augustianian, Neoplatonic position is perhaps best expressed in his Enchiridion. There  the ontology of the Good is equated with Being (an argument also found in the City of God  XI, chap. 9, where the relative non-Being of evil is also briefly stated. As with Spinoza so many centuries later, the question of the Being of evil becomes one merely one of privation:

CHAPTER IV. The Problem of Evil

12. All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its “nature” cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good.

One can see the correspondence between Augustine’s Ne0platonic “privation” and Spinoza’s theorizing on falsity, wherein the “Good” has been transposed into issues of truth; in the Ethics the gradated Being resolution of traditional dualisms has taken on its most systematic character. As Spinoza writes, ultimately echoing Plotinus’ radiating conception of Being (Enn. 3.2,5; 4.5,7):

E2p33 There is nothing positive in ideas whereby they can be said to be false.

Proof: If this can be denied, conceive, if possible, a positive mode of thinking which constitutes the form [forma] of error or falsity. This mode of thinking cannot be in God [E2p32], but neither can it be conceived externally to God [E1p15]. Thus there can be noting positive in ideas whereby they can be called false.

E2p35 Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate ideas, that is, fragmentary and confused ideas, involve.

Return to Our Main Point: What is interesting is that Bousquet brings to our attention that Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, actually subscribed to an Augustinian concept of evil as well. That is to say, he regarded informational “noise” as that which a cybernetic system fought to overcome, understood as the absence, or non-recognition of order (pattern). When a cybernetic system fails it is due to a confusion resultant from an inability to read clearly the pattern of the events outside of it. And Wiener felt that cybernetic systems not only described thermostats and computer negative feedback loops, but also human beings and social systems.

The passage Bousquet evocatively cites is this:

I have already pointed out that the devil whom the scientist is fighting is the devil of confusion, not of willful malice. The view that nature reveals an entropic tendency is Augustinian, not Manichaean. Its inability to undertake an aggressive policy, deliberately to defeat the scientist, means that its evil doing is the result of a weakness in his nature rather than of a specifically evil power that it may have, equal or inferior to the principles of order in the universe which, local and temporary as they might be, still are probably not to unlike what the religious man means by God. In Augustinianism, the black of the world is negative and is the mere absence of white. (190)

The human use of human beings: cybernetics and society

One can see an immediate base similarity of project, in which the scientist looks to make clear and distinct the noise of the world, presumably by ordering his/her own ideas and internal organization as best that he/she; this, coupled with Spinoza’s own significant ontological tie of ordered and clear ideas with self-affirmations which render real changes in power in the world seems to place both Wiener and Spinoza within a world of potentiating noise and confusions, in which systems of every sort create islands of relatively more self-acting, clearer idea’d, internally coherent workings. The internal patterns of recursive coherence are those which recognize and order themselves amid a general pattern producing world. And there is ever the sense that the patterns, the coherence, the rationality is already out there. In Bateson, this is the “pattern that connects”.

But There Are Other Aspects of Spinoza

This is the way that Spinoza is often read, as the devoted, internally turned Rationalist. Neglected though is an entirely countervailing second aspect of Spinoza’s thinking. His Letter 12 skepticism towards mathematics, which he relates to products of the imagination (often overlooked), exposes a general distrust of ANY finite, localized expression of the universe, especially on the aspect of “control”. This is to say, Spinoza is ever suspect of the human mind/body’s ability to direct itself in the world, and as such, this skepticism yields to distinctly non-linear, non-equilibrium prescriptions which go far beyond Cybernetic science presumptions.

As Bousquet tells it, it is the realization that negative feedback isn’t the only primary organizing principle in systems. Indeed if a system is ever going to be able to adopt to environments which themselves are changing, it must have the ability to rewrite and change its own internal interpretative relations. And in order to do so they must be able to move from equilibrium pursuit (that ordered Good), to other equilibrium states. In fact in a certain sense the more semi-stable states a system is able to move into, the greater the chance it will have the flexibility to adapt to expected (unwritten yet) events. In short, one might want to say in a dangerously rhetorical way, a bit of “chaos” has to be introduced into the system. It is here where the conservation oriented, evil noise fighting cybernetic model gives way to Chaos theory and Complexity theory, fused into what has been called Chaoplexic thinking.

Positive feedback loops are those of a kind that do not push the system backdown to a homeostatic state, negating the effects of some outside perturbation. Instead they excite the system and work to produce more external events which, in what could be a vicious cycle, stimulate the system into further action. Positive feedback loops are those which can be self-extinguishing, as they throw the system forward into states from which it might not ever be able to return.

Now one can definitively say that just such mad chases are what Spinoza most often theorizes against. The burn-out amplifications of the imagination are just the kind that produce violence and hatred among peoples, and, as Spinoza artfully worked to show, these hatreds are logically linked to loves as well. Love and hate each can produces amplified destructions of reverberation. But if we look closer, is it not the case that negative feedback closure is also what Spinoza sees as insufficient? And, can we not agree with some systems theorists, that it takes a combination of negative-feedback groundings, and positive feedback exposures, flights, in order to produce a viable and self-preserving system? And, at the most fundamental level must we not also admit that for Spinoza behaviors and conditions of rationality are themselves positive feedback in their nature: rationality and clear understanding tends to produce more rationality and clear understanding (however contingently contextualized). What I suggest is that Spinoza’s cybernetic model of clearer self-organization amid a potentially threatening environment of noise is tempered (or one should say spiked) with an alternate Chaoplexic embrace of positive feedback amplifications, and that these amplifications help us read out some of core prescriptions in Spinoza’s advisement.

I feel a turn to an excellent diagram offered in Linda Beckerman’s informative essay “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” will be of some help in uncovering the non-linear thinking of Spinoza. The diagram along with some of her explication hopefully will show the numerical, as well as still determinative aspects of chaoplexic organization, such that Spinoza skepticism of finite systems/expressions may dovetail with such thinking.

In explanation of the diagram Beckerman writes in a passage so clear it is worth quoting at length…

3. Bifurcation

3.1  Non-linear systems have the capacity to exhibit multiple stable states. This is illustrated in Figure 1 in what is termed a bifurcation diagram. The far left hand side of the diagram represents systems that are mono-stable and upon perturbation will eventually settle down to a single static or steady state condition. Just to the right of this region, the system “bifurcates”. This merely means that there are two states available to the system. For one range of perturbations and conditions, the system will settle down to one state and for another range of perturbations and conditions, it will settle down to another state. As we progress towards the right, each branch splits, and then each branch further splits resulting in a rapid increase the number of stable states. On the far right hand side are those that are Chaotic. Chaotic systems appear to have an infinite number of potentially stable states. But they never settle down to any of these for long and are therefore considered to be unstable…

3.3 Systems that are mono-stable or in steady state are so stable that any perturbation causes them to snap back to their stable state, leaving no opportunity for adaptation. Change requires “surgery”. An example of this would be a nation that solely uses attrition warfare to achieve its aims, regardless of the perturbation and underlying conditions (e.g. nature of adversary) causing them to go to war.

3.4 Figure 1 also shows an opportunistic region for adaptation. It is opportunistic precisely because there are so many states available. Many non-linear systems can be caused to bifurcate repeatedly merely by increasing the magnitude of the control parameters (see section 4). The most opportunistic portion is that immediately preceding the chaotic region (referred to as the “Edge of Chaos). The difficulty is the danger that a high amplitude perturbation (input) or change in system configuration (number of interconnections) could push the system into the chaotic region.

What I would like to put into immediate juxtaposition to such a Chaos-oriented framework is Spinoza’s famously suggestive numerical, and physical equation of “the Good”, where the Good is understood as “useful”…

E4p38Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great number of ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is: on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

Hopefully you can see clearly how deviant this axiom of use is to the perturbation-shrinking model of negative feedback elimination. Indeed, much more suitably does Spinoza view of the enhanced body seem to reside – not in some fixed, closed off organization – but actually in the twilight region so described above in the diagram, the place between rigid stable states and pure chaos. Once in such a mathematical and determinative sweet-spot too much a deviation, either towards stability or toward turbulence, reduces the number of ways a body can effect and be affected. Only in the wave-line is this ideational maximality found, and one could say that for Spinoza it is this aesthetic line – caught between a hubris of excessive control and a reckless amplitude of destruction – that constitutes the proper, which is to say living, positive feedback loop.

It is Spinoza’s skepticism both towards finite expressions of knowledge, and also towards the human being’s capacity to become self-determined, that ever directs any individual outward, towards the surface of its interactions. But not only outward, where the border between self and world, self and other is ultimately broken down and reconfigured, but so breadthwise, across the horizontal of explanations. It is Spinoza’s pursuit of the maximization of interactive powers that undermines any primary subject/object, or subject/world concerns. Instead, it would seem, that all our interally directed, cybernetic-like orderings, all our reductions of informational “noise” must also then turn back towards the very interface that composes them, to the living line of a multiplicity of possible states.

Valuably Bousquet notes that the passage from Cybernetics to Chaoplexic thinking has been characterized as the move from concerns of “control” to those of “coordination”, what has been called the “coordination revolution”. Bousquet cites Arquilla and Ronfelt who put the case in the context of military theorization. No longer is the ultimate thought for the control of all events internal to a network or system, but rather in terms of the loosely configured relatability of elements:

In these and related writings, we see a trend among theorists to equate information with “organization,” “order,” and “structure”—to argue that embedded information is what makes an object have an orderly structure. As this trend has developed, its emphasis has shifted. At first, in the 1940s and 1950s, information theorists emphasized the concept of “entropy”—and were thus concerned with exploiting feedback to improve “control.” Now, the emphasis has shifted to the concept of “complexity”—and this has led to a new concern with the “coordination” of complex systems. Control and coordination are different, sometimes contrary processes; indeed, the exertion of excessive control in order to avoid entropy may inhibit the looser, decentralized types of coordination that often characterize advanced forms of complex systems. What James Beniger called the “control revolution” is now turning into what might be better termed a “coordination revolution.” Entropy and complexity look like opposing sides of the same coin of order. About the worst that can happen to embedded information is that it gives way to entropy, i.e., the tendency to become disorganized. The best is that it enables an object to grow in efficiency, versatility, and adaptability (148)

In Athena’s camp: preparing for conflict in the information age John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

The reason for this is that, in perhaps a rediscovery of many rule-of-thumb warnings against excessively directed control, if one too strictly links internal elements within a finite system, the very improvements of the system when under stress might actually lead to the catastrophic collapse of it. Instead of tightly organized linkages, loosely based, more chaotic and therefore flexible relations are desired. Bousquet citing John Urry:

In loosely coupled systems by contrast there is plenty of slack in terms of time, resources and organizational capacity. They are much less likely to produce normal accidents since incidents can be coped with, so avoiding the interactive complexity found within tightly coupled systems. In the latter, moreover, the effects are non-linear. Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster. And sometimes this results from a supposed improvement in the system.

Global complexity  John Urry

At the risk of having steered too far from our course, the genuine skepticism over finite, linear, rationalistic, internally directed and corrective, often hierarchical organizations, shows itself in the truism of how such linearity can switch into non-linear collapse, blindside to the episteme of the system itself. Instead a skepticism towards rational systems in general directs our attention between towards horizon creating interactions themselves, towards the notion of co0rdination and agreements, out towards an aesthetic of mutual bodies forming a crest of living, self-producing edge-of chaos complexification.

If it is so that Spinoza possesses such a non-equilibrium appeal, where is it to be found? Is it enough to invoke his defintional awareness of the usefulness of numerical interactions? Does his skepticism towards mathematics and any finite division of magnitudes establish a non-linear bent, enough to quell the dominant linearity of his age with Newton just around the corner? Is there a radical non-equilibrium pursuit that balances out the conservatism of his conatus doctrine? I think there is. And it falls to the entire directionality of the Ethics, in particular the acme psychologies of the fourth book, and at last the passing into Intuition of the fifth book.

This is the determinative passage I feel. Spinoza is an interesting writer, for as he is often times at such pains to draw out and weave concepts into an extensive web of taken-to-be luminous clarity, pages and pages of definition, proof, axiom, proposition, all interlinked. His very best stuff can be expressed gnomically, small statements whose interpretation is that upon which everything else turns:

E5p2 If we separate out aggitations (commotiones) or affects (affectus) from the cognition (cogitatione) of an external cause, and we join them to other cognitions, then Love and Hate, toward the external cause, as are the vacillations of the soul (animi fluctuationes) arising from affects, are destroyed (destruuntur).

Carefully consider this proposition in the context of the Cybernetic/Complexity dichotomy. It subsumes the whole of Spinoza’s quantifiable psychology of the preceding fourth book. It is the very cognitive temptation to give wholesale systemic valuation (“good”/”bad”) to external events that Spinoza has called into question. To put it into cybernetic terms, when the human body/mind system passes away from a state of equilibrium (moves to a condition of greater or lesser power), the credit is inordinately attributed to an external event. That external “cause” is given the valuation of good or bad given the changes in the system. When the experience is negative, that is, a breakdown of the internal coherence of the system experienced as Sadness, the system steers itself away from such events, back to equilibrium (risking a fixed, conservative stasis induced by fear). But when it is experienced as positive, that is, an increase in the internal coherence of the system experienced as happiness, then a positive feedback loop ensues, and the system steers towards the amplification of such events, promoting their increase (risking runaway dissolution).

Spinoza’s psychology is based upon moving clear from either of these determinatives, each of which are governed from an inordinate assessment of the power of an external cause. He at first directs the eye inwards, in a cybernetic-like valuation. It is not in the nature of the external event (alone) that the passage from one desired or undesired state has occurred, but rather in the very orders of our bodies and minds. We were predisposed to be affected a certain way, but it is our cognitive tendency to attribute the cause of these changes to some external thing that ultimate weakens our self-determination and freedom.

Compellingly, once this internal self-check is conducted separating out the affect from any one-to-one dichotomization of some state of our bodies/mind and some state of the world, the affect itself, the very feeling of the body in change is to be joined to other cognitions besides those of the thought of some overt external cause. I find this fascinating because Spinoza is advocating a kind of turning the body and its feelings over to the very interface with the world, wherein the world is seen as a great screen of causal effects. This is to say, our affects continue to distribute themselves across our bodies (minds), but they do so in a broad-spectrum fashion that invokes the edge chaos sweet-spot of Beckerman’s diagram. One can see this I believe in Spinoza claim that the fluctuations of the soul are “destroyed” in this process of opening up and cognitive awareness. This is not for him a passage into a conservation of the Self, so defined apart from the world, a falling back into an equilibrium of maintanence, but rather an expansion. The oscillations he has in mind are the oscillations of Love and Hate, the way in which loves generate fears and conservative retrenchments of the self against the world. And hates open up into flights that can disintegrate into turbulent chaotic flow. Instead there is an aesthetic place, between the two. It is a kind of equilibrium of perpetual growth, or the openness to a complexity of states that defies the equilibriums of the past, a literal opening up of the finite to the Infinite. A rift of becoming. Because the affect itself becomes separated out from its distinct (and false because partial) conscious interpretation, the affect exists almost as pure bodily thinking, or put another way, thinking purely through Joy (transitions towards perfection, power, freedom).

Thoughts Tending Towards Deleuze and Guattari

This is I think what Guattari and Deleuze called the Body Without Organs. And while for some it makes difficult sense to see where Guattari and Deleuze can find common ground with the sobriety of Spinoza, I believe it is here, in the intermediate, where the BwO meets Chaoplexic edge that the two/three find their home. And while Spinoza’s aesthetic setting seems closer to “stable” and D&Gs closer to chaos, they are operating in the bandwidth, in proximity, as each takes Joy as its compass heading. What Spinoza provides is a careful analytic of the powers of Cybernetic organization, at the level of epistemology and psychology. Indeed the rewriting of internal codes, the reorientation of cognitions toward each other, within the understanding that the affects of our body serve as material guide, is essential to seeing that Spinoza’s Rationalism is ever an A-Rational theory of growth, a search for the line of complexity that is ever re-inscribing anew the boundary between self and world.

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The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism

Stones that Think, Imagine and Have Ideas?

Any serious confrontation of Spinoza’s supposed Panpsychism runs right up against some very hard ground, in particular how his ontological descriptions – meant not only for human beings, but for all of existence – are to be taken on down the scale, all the way down to the smallest, micro-existential level. By virtue of how Spinoza defines modal expressions of Substance it seems that from the widest of views anything that does exist would in some sense “think” ; that is, due to Spinoza’s parallelism, even the most minute speck of dust, every tumbling molecule or atom, is an expression of Idea which seeks to preserve itself and stays in existence out of this striving. Yet, when we apply the very terms and analysis which Spinoza applies to the weakness of human cognition, the descriptions which reveal the aspects of man that push him further down the chain so to speak, making a human being more passive, more in-animate, these are very difficult things to apply to animal, then plant, then mineral, and then even lower forms of modal expression. For what would it mean for a Table to possess inadequate Ideas? Or a fishpond? And while we might be tempted to see that higher animals like wolves and giraffes could be dominated by Spinoza’s first form of knowledge, confused, Imaginary Knowledge, condemned merely to a world of images and association traces, is this how we imagine earthworms to be, or bacteria, or even more incomprehensibly, viruses? The categories that Spinoza gainfully employs to criticize the human condition, when brought over to all of existence, simply seem to break down. And the difficulty arises when this disintegration of terms comes to grip with the genuine decentralization of human beings that is meant to guide his ontology in the first place. What we are looking for are descriptions of the variability of human capacities which can also be applied to all things in existence, and these Spinoza does not seem immediately to give. In part this is because he is in particular concerned with the nature of Human Bondage, and so his conceptualizations are in some sense decidedly human (are we to talk about the Passions of the Animus 0f the cactus, the love, jealousy and hatred of the sedimentary rock?) And partly this could be because although Spinoza certainly had a vitalist-like conception of the world as one huge animate expression of Substance/God, in which every part vied with every other part, becoming free only through rational cohesion, how this played out beneath the human level really was not of much importance to him. Man was to use the environment for his benefit, just as man uses man.

So how are we to conceive of the mental actions of the sub-human, and sub-animal in Spinoza’s own terms if we cannot readily apply concepts such as the Inadequate Idea or Imaginary Knowledge to a piece of slate? The answer to this I think comes back down to Spinoza’s definition of the body which I have been dwelling on here for some days. I’ll reprint it.

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies.

or, as Curley translates the important middle phrase: “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner”.

If we begin with this notion of Body as any continuing and communicative ratio of parts (or even the sedimentary-like vision of parts pressed close to each other, as Spinoza opens the description); understanding that for Spinoza this activity, this persistence must be mental activity as well as extensional activity we are forced to ask, What is it about these relations themselves that give us to see them as somehow “thinking”? What does it mean for a bowling ball to think?

Not Representation

I think we go a long way towards our answer if we give up the notion that for Spinoza an Idea Represents  ssomething, for we really are at a loss if we want to say that the internal relations in my pencil are in some way representing (that is, re-presenting) some aspect of the world to the pencil. (I think a great disservice was done to philosophy when it made its turn toward seeing the Scholastic notion of Idea as a Representation, ssomething that I think even comes to a wrongful interpretation of what Descartes meant by Idea.) So let us explore a bit what kinds of things that can be happening inside a taken to be inanimate object which might in some sense give a clue for how Spinoza conceived of Idea. What is a viable connection between the inside of things, and the outside of things that presents some kind of traction to the mental?

Well, let us take a deeply over simplified model, one that will emphasize the notion of border that seems implicit in Spinoza definition. Take an object to be something like a water-balloon. If we strike the balloon with our finger there is a certain reverberation of internal effects which we might say “reflect” the external or at least boundary-bound event. That is, as the balloon wobbles back into relative stability of form, there are a transfer of balances between parts within the balloon which are at least roughly coherent unto each other. Any one event within the baloon, or even subset of them does not so much represent the finger strike at it surface, as somehow express it unto the very nature of its internal relations. This is, in my thinking, a semiotic relation, an indication (I use the term semiotic not in its strict Peircian nor Saussaurian Idealist sense, but in a pre-modern Augustinian fashion). This semiosis indicates to the internal relations a consequences of changes (differences), but also is somehow oriented towards the boundary of the balloon. I think something of this is required to give sense to the cognitional capacities of the bodies so defined by Spinoza. It is not that the ideational changes (that is to say, recursively organized semiotic differences) represent  the world to the Body, so much as they indicate to the internal relations themselves how to react, a chain of reactions which in turn can be seen as a reaction to events external to the body. For Spinoza it key to see that the horizon-defined semiotic differences are determined, internally referential actions (ratios which preserve)…thus, Ideas are best seen as mental actions  of the physical, not representations per se.

This internalization of ideational changes, the way that a body can only “perceive” the outside world with reference to awareness of its internal states is precisely what Spinoza has in mind when he says of human beings:

The human Mind does not know [cognosit] the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, accept through Ideas of affections by which the Body is affected, E2p19

The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode [certus modus] of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else, E2p13

It seems that this essential notion of mental closure, in parallel to physical closure is something that Spinoza would take to be all the way down the ladder in the order of things, for Spinoza, which work from the most active to the least. In keeping with this “affections” [affectio] are the material changes within a body, and their Ideas are their semiotic relations to each other (and relation to all materiality in general). Necessarily, though the semiotic relations which help constitute the body as a closed body may be adequate to that purpose, that mind, they are inadequate to the preservation of that body in all conditions it may and will find itself in (thus, there is an answer to the disputable question  whether human beings, or any finite being, can hold completely adequate Ideas: in a certain sense complete adequacy simply does not make sense as a semiotic, finite relation).

So what is the difference at the level of the take to be inanimate between an Inadequate Idea (semiotic relation) and a slightly more Adequate Idea? For Spinoza the question is of the nature of preservation. I think it safe to say that for Spinoza the internal relations of stones and fingernail clippings are essentially Inadequate, the inadequacy a reflection of their fundamental passivity to the world. Yet, these things are also things that in some sense press their existence forward. They do not act in any intentional way (showing beliefs, or fears, or even needs), but they to persist in time, both against countervailing forces, and with forces sympathetic to their cause. This calls to mind one of the more overt panpsychic passages of Medieval Philosophy, Augustine’s notion that each thing is cognizant in that it finds ways to preserve itself:

For if we were cattle, we should love the carnal and sensual life, and this would be our sufficient good; and when it was well with us in respect of it we should seek nothing else. Again, if we were trees, we could not, of course, be moved by the senses to love anything; but we would seem to desire, as it were, that by which we might become more abundantly and bountifully fruitful. If we were stones or waves or wind or flames or anything of that kind, we should indeed be without both sensation and life, but we should still not lack a kind of desire for our own proper place. For the weight of bodies is, as it were, their love, whether they are carried downwards by gravity or upwards by their lightness. For the body is carried by its weight wherever it is carried, just as the soul is carried by its love. – The City of God, Book 11 chapter 28

Adequacy to Landscape

Upon this gradation of capacity to act Spinoza has grafted a more precise internally semiotic notion of degrees of freedom. It is not just that things find their place in the world, and thus persist, but that the internal relations within a thing express a degree of freedom possible for that thing (whatever its boundary), and thus that bodies as their in an increase in the adequacy of their semiotic relations become more powerful, more active entities. (As a sidenote, we can see something of this notion expressed in Stuart Kauffman’s Complexity Theorist take on the self-organizing systems of closure that gave rise to life, not a connection I wish to pursue here though.)

But the question remains, just how are we to conceive of changes in adequacy in internal semiotic relations at the inanimate and then near inanimate level? If we take clue from how Spinoza has divided up imaginary knowledge from rational knowledge, perhaps we can get a sense of this. Despite Spinoza all out and categorical denial of contingency, it is very much the case that a particular body can and does have completely random experiences of increases of power (and hence Ideational adequacy, and thus Joy). This can happen in two ways. One is that a body may find itself in local circumstances which favor it. Suddenly the finite internal relations which have thus far been preserving it suddenly are even more adequate to their local environment (one has a strong sense that Spinoza has presaged a logic of Darwinism here, several hundred years early). The second, in the same vein, is a change in the nature of the internal relations themselves which makes them more adequate to local environments. In either case there is no necessity that the advantage be preserved…it can be pure happenstance…a dust ball might fall into a whole corner of dust balls in an abandoned house. But the way that Spinoza understand it, there are ways to pursue this advantage, either through improvements of the internal semiotic relations (an increase in the adequacy of ideas), a change that would lead to an orientation toward more favorable environments (including the shaping of one’s current environment). In this regard, rivers that shape riverbeds, gene populations which carve out ecosystems, seem to possess systematic increases in an adequacy of internal relations to their environments. There is a strong sense that their determinations of what is outside of them are expressive of determinations which are inside of them. How far down the ladder we can push this, I am unsure, but someone like Kauffman would tell you that the autocatalytic processes which formed the simplest of organic compounds exhibit both organizational closure, and also shaping effects upon their environments, something which seems to suggest a very elemental kernel of an increase in semiotic relations at the heart of even the most random of our material processes (at least in our material history).

Adequacy to Totality?

But Spinoza wants to go beyond questions of adequacy toward local environments (fitness landscapes), but adequacy as per the Total (which for human beings or any other finite body serves as a kind of aysmptotic limit which principally can never even come close to being reached). For this he provides a material/numerical vector by which we might be able to judge  the relative sufficiency of internal semiotic relation of any particular body:

Whatever predisposes to the human Body that it is affected in a great number of ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or affecting other bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful. E4p38

Now interestingly there is nothing in this proposition which guards against the contingent local manifestation of destructive forces. One could conceivably increase the number of ways your body can be affected (or affect) at a moment in time it would be advisable not to be susceptible to those influences, at the ludicrous level, taking a Joyful walk outside just when a piano was falling. And there is some question on just how to read this numericity. Does a monk in seclusion mediating increase the number of ways he/she can be affected…perhaps? But in terms of the inanimate/animate nexus, it is a general call toward the real consequences of complexity (a multiplicity of folds, if we literalize it). The cockroach might not be a very complex creature as far as animals go, but its grouped expression nested into all the worlds environments might be quite so; a water molecule may only be able to be affected or affect other things in a few ways, but rich is the number of ways that water itself interacts and manifests shaping the world to give two open questions of the application of this definition.

You can recognize in this Spinoza offering a development of Plato’s own definition of Being as offered in the Sophist (the dunamis/capacity to affect or be affected), and Bateson’s own modern cybernetic “difference that makes the difference” definition of information or Latour’s idea of gradated and Networked Being.

In terms of Spinoza, it seems to be that deeply inadequate semiotic relations are those which hardly register events beyond them so as to be fundamentally passive to those events, subject to any random occurrence whatsoever, yet still adequate enough to have preserved the body, the thing (res) to that point. The expressive conditions of its internal relations are in enough harmony with the relations around it so as to maintain its existence in harmony (opening up the question which Spinoza is always turning to, by virtue of what do we isolate a body from the forces and patterns of others). Under these descriptions it seems possible to stake that all things do think, that is there is some internal relation of which we find things composed that preserves itself in sympathy to events outside of it under a variety of circumstances of increasing complexity and self-reference, much of it involving the mutuality of coherences between bodies which become more and more communicated. This is something of what I believe Spinoza means when he thinks about the whole world being a vital and coherent expression of Nature, God, Substance.

It is not really for Spinoza that we are all One, with an emphasis on the meld of Great Oneness (if that were so he would have written mystical treatises), and this Hegel got wrong. It is rather the incredible distinctiveness, the concrete contours of our separations, under the logic that anything that separates must also necessarily join. His determinative reading of causation and immanation is an attempt to locate the joints of Being that when recognized lead to real shifts in power, in a real world (not imagined to be later or beyond rewards). A change in power is immediately its own reward and consequence. If the world is panpsychic for Spinoza, and I do believe that it is, it is because each and every little thing, each speck of Being is something with which we have the potential to combine (and not just instrumentally observe or detachedly use). The reason why things think for Spinoza is linked to his emphasis that for a person to think is to materially change yourself. When you think a thought you are changing your brain, your body (we don’t often think like this). And when we enjoin a material thing, place it our hand, press its button, flip its pages, we are necessarily joining to its mentality. Things think because we in thinking are akin to them, such that we cannot be kept apart.

The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences

The Pleroma and Creatura: Bateson

Gregory Bateson, a father of modern cybernetic has some very important things to say about the nature of differences, and has been fruitfully appropriated in any number of ways, primarily due to his very powerful defintion of Information as “a difference that makes a difference”. But it should be noted that Bateson’s approach to differences is one that drives a very firm, dualistic line between Mind and Matter, one that follows Carl Jung’s categories of the Pleroma and Creatura:

The significance of all this formalization was made more evident in the 1960s by a reading of Carl Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead, of which the Jungian therapist Jane Wheelwright gave me a copy. I was at the time writing a draft of what was to be my Korzybski Memorial Lecture and began to think about the relation between “map” and “territory.” Jung’s book insisted upon the contrast between Pleroma, the crudely physical domain governed only by forces and impacts, and Creatura, the domain governed by distinctions and differences. It became abundantly clear that the two sets of concepts match and that there could be no maps in Pleroma, but only in Creatura. That which gets from territory to map is news of difference, and at that point I recognized that news of difference was a synonym for information. (Angels Fear, Introduction)

For Bateson, the separation is one of processes, and not one of Substance like it is for Descartes, but all the same, it imposes a strict heirarchy which privileges the mental over the physical. A stone simply is restricted to the domain of the Pleroma, while any differential making process, even the simplest of biotic discrimination is given over to the realm of Creatura:

It is, of course, true that our explanations, our textbooks dealing with nonliving matter, are full of information. But this information is all ours; it is part of our life processes. The world of nonliving matter, the Pleroma, which is described by the laws of physics and chemistry, itself contains no description. A stone does not respond to information and does not use injunctions or information or trial and error in its internal organization. To respond in a behavioral sense, the stone would have to use energy contained within itself, as organisms do. It would cease to be a stone. The stone is affected by “forces” and “impacts,” but not by differences. (Mind and Nature, Chapter II)

To most of us this is a perfectly acceptable, perhaps even obvious designation. There seems a powerful instinct that tells us that a stone simply is not in any sense like an amoeba, which is to say, what a stone does (if it does anything at all) is somehow categorically different than what an amoeba does (though both can kill you). The difficulty arises for anyone who wants to theorize in a way that does not privlege the Mind over Matter. This begins perhaps as a desire to not privlege human realities over animal realities, and then ultimately to give over to even the animate some kind of “right”, some play in the game in determining what is “real” and thus “what matters”. When Mind (in some form of Idealism) becomes the heirarchial source point of what matters, somehow this all slips back into a remote solipsism of the merely human world (and then even, the Western world, or the American world, or white upper middle class academic world). If one instanitates a fundamental primacy between the Pleroma and Creatura, wherein the Ceatura determine the status of the Pleroma in heirarchial, a priori fashion, something of the Mind/Bodd, Spirit/Matter dichotomies that have long haunted philosophy are dragged forward (often with explicit political consequences of such binarism).

The Difference that makes a/the Difference

For this reason one must keep in mind the essential metaphysical base from which Bateson is employing his work (Marx makes just such fateful Nature/Culture distinction from the start as well).  If one is going to grant equal footing to the non-human (and non-biotic) actor in the world, this essential binary must be categorically undone. As long as one has divided up the entire world into realms, one realm becomes paramount, and the line merely shifts.

What Bateson has in mind when he speaks of “a difference that makes a difference” is the way that information connects what is “out there” in the world to the “in here” of a cybernetically organized system. To put it most simply, the internal relations within a system form a boundary which is sensitive to only particular kinds of disturbances (a blind person does not turn his head to see someone waving to him from across the street, a tick does not drop from its leaf when a breeze blows). The difference out there in the world that makes a difference in here, is for Bateson the difference that makes a difference, it connects inside to outside.

But out of a completely unintended difference in the way that Bateson has framed his defintion of Information, I would like to use his notion of difference differently. Because I am not interested in giving priority of mind over matter, I am less concerned with the way that mental systems exercise dominance over physical structures (picking out what matters so as to eventually predict and control it), I am not going to follow the breadcrumbs of difference from outside to inside. This is far too Idealist for me. Rather, I want to see if we can talk about differences in such a way that the things a stone is doing, and the things that an amoeba are doing, are in someway signficantly related (and such that the actions of each are given footing).

Bateston states his defintion of Information in at least two ways in separate works.

1. A difference that makes a difference.

2. The difference that makes the difference.

It might sound trivial, but in the spirit of acknowledging even the smallest of differentiations, of this variation between the definite and indefinite article, I would like to spin out a profound distinction which maps onto a fundamental ontological distinction of Medieval Scholasticism. Much of Scholasticism spent its time trying to iron out the remarkable, but underdeveloped semiotic point that Augustine made, that signs transcend the Culture/Nature dichotomy. There are natural signs, and their are signs of convention. And (natural and cultural) signs are defined as:

“a sign is something which, offering itself to the senses, conveys something other to the intellect,” (Signum … est res praeter speciem quam ingerit sensibus, aliud aliquid ex se faciens in cogitationem venire) (Augustine De doctr. chr. II 1, 1963, 33)

Attempting to work out the full consequences of an ontology of the semiotic which transcended the Nature/Culture barrior, Scholastic philosophy realized that there must not only be material signs “out there”, but also mental signs “in here,” and much ado was made on how to connect the two (until in modern times gradually questions of signification became a questions of representation…many like to put this at the foot of Descartes, or even the Locke, but it is not altogether clear that this is the case).

A product of this debate was the two classifications Ens Reale and Ens Rationis. A real thing, and a rational thing. These are treated in various ways, often as the difference between “physical being” and “logical being”, but I want to speak much more broadly, without precision. An ens reale is a thing in the world, and an ens rationalis is a thing in the mind. Is here that I want to propose a loose though hopefully enlightening homology.

1. A difference that makes merely a difference  is an ens reale.

2. The difference that makes the difference is an ens rationis.

Leaving behind Bateson’s use of information as the thing that connects inside to outside, as an ontologist I want to speak of differences in their variety of states. Following Plato’s initial definition of being as the capacity for anything to affect or be affected, as found in the Sophist, the general sense of the reality of differences is that anything that makes a difference in general, “a difference” has being, and is ens reale. But any difference that is strictly internal  to a closed horizon relation of parts, is an ens rationis, that is which is to say, it is a difference that makes the difference, recursively. In this way, and event out there in the world, perhaps lightning strike, is an ens reale difference insofar as it is not taken with in an overarching internal circuit of relations, and its effect upon the human organism, that actual internal differences which are within the horizon of person, are each ens rationis. It is important to keep track though, that every ens rationis is an ens reale. The question is: Is every ens reale also an ens rationis. I think they are.

Spinoza’s Bodies as Certain or Fixed Ratios

As I mentioned previously, Spinoza’s defintion of Body is far more rich that it is often taken to be. More than simply a billiard ball image of circulating motions (which is how it appears at first glance), his panpsychic metaphysics grants some degree of mind (Idea) to any extensional expression, such that even the simplest of bodies in composite have a foothold in the mental. Here is the definition in bodily terms:

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies. E2p13a2d

It is quite interesting that Spinoza finds what separates out one body or individual from another is a certain or fixed ratio, certa ratione. It seems safe to say that not only living things preserve for Spinoza through a certa ratione, but also taken to be inanimate things. We have here the potential for categorical description that crosses through the Pleroma/Creatura divide that Bateson privleges. The ultimate question is: Do abiotic wholes which do preserve through a certa ratione, also achieve within that horizon of “individual” an order of differences that allows us to say that they are each ens rationis.

It is hard to know exactly what Spinoza has in mind: when he describes this perpetuation of communicated motion, for instance, is it a different sense of body than that brought about by external causes in the earlier part, When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or it is simply the internal specification of those external forces? What we can do is use the definition as tellingly as possible. What I suggest is that differences that are internal to an object or body as Spinoza sees it, are differences that are indicative of a mutuality of effects. A change in this part of the body effects a change in another part of the body, and then another, and so forth, such that the whole is still maintained. And there need not be the cybernetic closure that Bateson enjoys with Creatura. The entire world would seem vectored with communicated balances between bodies that however briefly or enduringly remain in ratio with each other. These mutuality of communications I hold is the threshold for an ens reale to be an ens rationalis. The cybernetic closures which map a territory are certainly different kinds of internal organizations of horizons, but rocks, breeze patterns, neuron rhythms, photon pathways, planetary equalibriums, dust corners, electron loops, all possess an internal coherence of differences which is preserved, and in which a single difference (I would say) semiotically indicates consequences of internal coherence. Stones “think”.

Stone Cognitum

There is a perspective of stones, one that is not reducible to the way in which differences in stones make differences upon us. In this sense, as Graham Harman says in Latourian fashion, stones translate other stones when they encounter each other. (I do not see how such a claim can be separated out from panpsychism.) The internal relations that make up a stone (semiotic, of each an ens rationalis), are also each an ens reale (a difference that makes a difference) which can make a difference that makes the difference to us (or some other internal set of relations), is itself also a difference as ens realis.

There are several interesting ways to procede from this, but the one that I would like to take up follows through from my last post on Spinoza, and that is that any ens realis (a difference that makes a difference), is not only already a difference that makes the difference in the internal expression of Substance as a modal whole, and thus an ens rationalis. But it is already caught up in any number, perhaps an infinite number, of ens rationalis horizoned closures. In this way, differences which are semiotic to an internal whole of differences, are also because real, differences that are internal to a plethora of bodies that cross cut that body. That “fixed ratio” is tugged at from any number of other “fixed ratio” directions, as parts of its coherence respond not only to an external horizon of differences, but also to their participant share in a cross-sectioning fixed ratio, communication whole. Any ens rationalis is Semiotically Conjoined to a variety of mentalizations.

For this reason, it is not just that the totality of coherent differences that make up a body are occluded from us, selected out by our cybernetic, ratioed closure, but also that the semiotic investment of those differences is occluded from that body itself, the coherence of its inside/outside closure. And the same is said of our own body (bodies, really).

There is another aspect which should be grasped so that we don’t fall too deeply into any Subject/Object binary. And this is something I will develop later. Because ultimately an entia rationales closure is itself a perspective, when one or many entia rationales closures come into supportive relationships to each other they can be read as forming new bodies. This is to say, when we come to know something else and intimately relate to it in a bodily, the boundary between us and it at least is semiotically problemized (if we seek to keep them completely distinct). Thus, it is not merely the case that the “kernel” of relations of an object we engage is kept from us, like a forever retreating shadow, but also the case that as we engage an object (an aspect of our environment), we at a very real, semiotic level (that is, at the level of entia rationales), become it.

Thus, as the carpenter uses his hammer, or the lens grinder his grinding lathe, there is a communication of motions which exceed the boundary of bodies, forming one of two (to some degree). The world is felt, mutually, through the performance union of both bodies. It is for this reason that Tommaso Campanella tells us: To know is to be, cognoscere est esse. This is not a metaphorical transformation of the subject into the object, but rather a real, substantial in-form-ation, binding the two bodies both epistemologically and ontologically, through the ordering of their mutual coherences. If the object of the hammer remains somewhat blind to the carpenter (some of its variety of aspects still hidden), these aspects must be accorded their place within the causal, and hence semiotic, internal relations of the body (body + body). Ultimately, these differences can only be the differences of Conjoined, and thus often silent, Semotic inherence at the bottom of any entia rationales closure, the way that an ens rationalis is necessarily polyvalent to a variety of cognitioning, and therefore persisting, bodies.

Spinoza’s Idea as Information

 

E2p13 The correspondent of the information contituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

A brief thought, which I constantly have imagined that needs to be said, but I have yet to say it fully to myself, and not to others. Is there not something in Spinoza’s notion of Idea (Adequate or Inadequate) which is readily implied by the concept “Information”? In many of the standard views of information we can more clearly see the implication of the thought that all things come in expressions of Extension and Information (Idea). Information would simply be the relations between material expressions. There are perhaps many potential pitfalls in translating Spinoza’s Idea as “information”, the greatest of these is perhaps reducing knowledge to an input/output model (but I sense that it is exactly this model that Spinoza’s theory of knowledge resists). What is most beneficial though, is that phrases like “Inadequate Idea” become “Inadequate information”, quickly making more clear at a glance why falsity is only a privation (of power), that there is no such thing as a completely false idea, (because information, even the most mis-directed, is still doingsomething; it just isn’t doing what you think it is). Talking of Idea as information does much to dispell the thought that Idea is a “representation” as in a picturing, which for Spinoza I don’t think it really is.

I cannot help but feel that there are several avenues to this understanding.

1. Chalmers panprotopsychism lays heavy on this possibility.

2. Bateson’s definition of Information, as “the difference that makes a difference” putting information (Ideas) in a matrix of vectored questions about what difference, how and where?

3. Understanding the non-representational, “direct realism” character of Descartes’ notion of Idea (Behan, Yolton, Nadler, etc.), from this heritage we get even a deeper sense of the non-representational character of Spinoza’s correction to Descartes. “Sign” as signification and representation. Idea as an action.

4. Related to 3, seeing the Scholastic heritage of Spinoza’s thinking, the way that he synthesizes a Scotist notion of the formal distinction, for instance, and a Plotinian concept of degrees of being, understood to be degrees of power. (The two alternate proofs, concepts of contingent existence and power, from Ethics Ip11)

5. An autopoietic idea of recursive organization, from Mantura and Varela’s biology, to possibly Luhmann’s social modeling, both being friendly to an informational conception of organization. (Importantly, see Gould’s use of the term exaptation)

These are but a few of the potential theories which may dovetail into a translation of Spinoza’s Idea into the concept of Information. If you are familiar with Spinoza, do a bit of an experiment. Each time you read a proposition of his which uses the term Idea, simply re-translate it as “information”. At first it is a bit jarring, like hearing the King James Version of the Bible in another diction. It ruins it. But then, let it sit. I cannot say that it is necessarily a better word because “information” is a heavily laden word in our culture (much as perhaps “idea” was in his), filled with numerous philosophical underpinnings, but it does free up Spinoza’s thought to new understanding.