Posts filed under ‘Metaphysics’

Varieties of Anthropocentrism and Human Exceptionalism

This is the first of a prospective series of posts on anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism; I hope to build on each one and then tie the subject into other recent topics of interest such as functional explanation. As the foundational post, this will mostly be groundwork. I will first attempt to describe a spectrum of anthropocentric attitudes and then add epicycles and observations to the initial scale and definition. So, what are some varieties of anthropocentrism?

Strong anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism is the view that there is a significant ontological difference between humans and much of the material world. A classic and famous example of this in philosophy is Cartesian dualism, with its assertion that humans are of two worlds that seem sufficiently intuitive: the mental and the physical. Much of the rest of the world is far more mechanistic in character; humans are exceptional, then, because we consist of a mental substance somehow connected to the physical. Descartes philosophy is also heavily reliant on the existence of God and various philosophical/theological details that expand on the two distinct, yet connected substances of the world. Similarly, a lot of human exceptionalism is founded on religious beliefs, particularly those religions that describe the special creation of humans and the existence of an immaterial, immortal soul linked to an eternal, omniscent, omnipresent deity.

Moderate anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism is more influenced by modern Western culture and a corresponding attention to science at a popular level. This is an anthropocentrism that acknowledges the continutity of humans with the rest of the world, usually by reference to evolution and common ancestry. However, moderate anthropocentrism remains coherent with a dualistic metaphysics.  One subscribing to moderate anthropocentrism could be a Cartesian-style believer in immaterial characteristics posessed by humans but not necessarily the rest of the world. The difference between moderate and strong anthropocentrism is the acknowledgement of a stronger continuity of humans with the rest of the (physical) world within the moderate attitude.

Weak anthropocentrism/human exceptionalism, then, anchors the other end of the spectrum. Weak anthropocentrism is coherent with a physicalist monism: the view that there are only physical substances in the world. Under this view, humans are not exceptional because they are creatures of two worlds while most beings are restricted to one, but because of other unique charactersitics of humanity. Humans are apparently more intelligent and creative than other beings, as evidenced by the existence of complex human cultures and languages. For all we know humans are the only beings with such cultural, linguistic, and creative complexity. It is this complexity and intelligence, therefore, that set humans apart from other beings (although at least, under this weak variation, humans and the rest of the world consist of the same stuff).

For each strength of anthropocentrism there are, of course, a great deal of variations. For example, in some religious thought, the existence of a soul and of a deity does not imply dualism. Indeed, the existence of a deity implies a strong monism, as everything is unified through the existence and power of the deity. This attitude can go in a multitude of directions, however– one can go from it to a Spinozistic monism, or to panpsychism, or continue to believe that, despite the unity of the world as established by the deity there is nonetheless something more or less exceptional about humans. What is true for my descriptions of the variations of anthropocentrism above is also true when it comes to this viewpoint; a metaphysical attitude leads the way, and attitudes regarding human exceptionalism follow.

With that thought, however, a psychological issue raises its head. Philosophically speaking, I think it seems clear that the metaphysics one accepts influences (if not implies, depending on the metaphysics) ones attitude towards anthropocentrism. Psychologically speaking, though, it may be the other way around. It makes sense to consider that humans are, at default, anthropocentric; we have, more or less, a preference for others of our own species, and even members of that species that bear particular resemblance to ourselves. Depending on the veracity of group selection hypotheses, there may only be so much a human can do to consider anthropocentrism from something approximating an archimedian standpoint. Between the psychological, anthropological, and philosophical, we are left with the questions: Is the anthropocentric attitude justied? Which one(s) are justified or justifiable? And even if evaluation of the justifiability of anthropocentrism is possible, how possible is it to change anthropocentric attitudes?

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August 28, 2009 at 10:53 am Leave a comment

Time and Human Embodiment

I was wondering around the internet as a distraction from my inability to think of a gift to give to my grandparents, and I ended up reading a few articles on eternalism and block time. A friend of mine, Tom, has been expressing his interest in the subject for a while and urging me to investigate the topic. It hasn’t come up academically, but now, as I’m currently on vacation and engaging in procrastination through blogging, the time seems right.

The idea of block time has to do with the ontology of time. Many contemporary physicists and philosophers have posited it as a way to understand the nature of time in a manner compatible with their understanding of relativity. I can’t claim to have the understanding of relativity that any of the citations in either the Stanford Encyclopedia or Wikipedia display, but it seems fair to say that many people understand an implication of relativity to be the subjectivity of time.

Or is that our perception of time? Block time allows for a sort of time that is independent of individual experiencing agents. It is a conception of time that declares all points of events to exist on something like a landscape rather than a linear direction. Time does not fly like an arrow or meander like a river; it exists, radiating out from the perceived moment into eternity. Block time is certainly more compatible with Einstein’s theories, but I’m uncomfortable with one of its premises.

Let’s think of an argument in favor of block time that goes like this:

1) We (humans) perceive the passage of time. In other words, we perceive temporal asymmetry. We remember events from the past, but not from the future. The present is a fleeting moment that is impossible to get a hold of due to time’s constant movement.

2) According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, one’s perception of time is spatially dependent. For example, if one person is located on Earth and the other on Mercury, one can never measure what the other is doing at the same instant.

3) Because of this, temporal asymmetry seems to be a quality of the human perception of time rather than a quality of time.

4) Therefore, a more accurate model of time will deflate time-related concepts like “past”, “present”, and “future”. Events may have some temporal connection (has anyone explored the implications an eternalist view has for causation?), but this can be analyzed on something closer to a landscape than a single, objective, linear flow.

My problem is simple: 1 and 2 do not entail 3. We, the humans described in line 2, are the ones describing how time might be if it does not flow as generally supposed. We generally perceive time to flow. We have made an observation that shows that this perception is spatially dependent. Based on this, we can say that most of our experience with time is limited by how our consciousness is embodied. But after that, what can be said about the nature of time? We’ve revealed something about humans, not the nature of time!

And so an attempt is made to transcend our humanity and create a model which is then fundamentally imperceptible to us- the block theory of time. It is a theory which describes how time might work, but it is also a theory that we, as humans, cannot perceive. This is hardly fatal for block time; after all, we don’t seem to directly perceive gravity or causation. Unfortunately, this says that we do not have a satisfactory account of gravity or causation. Block time doesn’t do much for our understanding of time in the same way that our accounts of gravity don ‘t do much for our understanding of gravitation.

I think that a better place to start than block time would be an exploration of if, and then how, we can square relativity and its challenge to our regular perception of time. But before this work can be done, we need a better understanding of our capabilities. There needs to be further investigation into the limits of human understanding and perception to figure out what it is we can know about time. In other words, more work needs to be done on how human embodiment affects our consciousness and our ability to know anything about time at all.

December 22, 2007 at 6:28 pm 1 comment

Averroes and the Limit of Thought

In criticizing Al-Ghazali, Averroes “insisted that the reality of causal operations could be inferred from sensory experience and argued that knowledge itself depended upon causality, since the distinction between what is knowable and what is not depends upon whether or not causes can be assigned to the thing in question” (John Henry, “Causation.” Gary Ferngren, “Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction.” 2002.)

This seems to blend epistemology and metaphysics together. It is critical in the sense that it draws a limit; in this way, it foreshadows both Kant and the Tractarian Wittgenstein. Averroes apparently draws the limit to what is knowable from a metaphysical principle—knowledge is based on the ability to assign a cause. I wonder if it might be better put that knowledge must be based on a justification. Averroes could have meant that when challenged on how it is we know a fact, we relate something that seems like its cause. I’m not sure that cause was the root of justification in Averroes’ philosophy. It isn’t Henry’s goal to be more specific on this point, but it seems like it could be a major failing in Averroes’ epistemology.

A theological approach to this might be what I’m finding so perplexing. For the early Wittgenstein, for example, no limit to thought can be drawn for to draw a limit is to know what is on the other side of it. To draw a limit to thought is to think, as he puts it, what cannot be thought (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Introduction). If, however, one accepts a certain amount of inscrutability in the nature of God then one can declare that much of God exists outside of human thought. We can contemplate God as Aristotle contemplated the Prime Mover, incapable of knowing its totality because of the limits of matter. As Aristotle had a tremendous influence on Averroes, this might be more fitting.

December 2, 2007 at 3:40 pm 1 comment

Popular Ideas of Epistemology and Metaphysics

My understanding of the difference between epistemology and metaphysics is best summed up like this: epistemology is the human study of truth, while metaphysics is the human study of what exists. In reading Heidegger’s Intro. to Metaphysics, a new understanding of these terms came to me. This happened early on; somewhere along the Nietzsche reference between 3 and 4.

 It seems to me that (at least in the stereotypical sense) a computer scientist would have little use for metaphysics but a keen interest in epistemology. This is because they aren’t interested in “semantics” or “philosophical mumbo-jumbo” but in how things really are. The “really” is what strikes most people as important; you can talk in logical circles all you want, but a glass of water is still nothing more or less than a glass of water. What’s interesting is that this interest in how things “really are” seems to run contrary to my original idea that computer scientists are more interested in epistemology than metaphysics. It seems to run contrary to my definitions of the terms.

A computer scientist (at least as it applies to their work) seeks an epistemic understanding of artificial situations. In those situations, there really is a definitive way the world works; in their creation, artificial situations have a set of known parameters created for them. Science looks for these same parameters in the real world, but it is impossible to know for sure that there is a set of rules which the universe follows, or whether the rules we have are correct. This is what engenders metaphysical indifference in the sciences: nobody wants to consider the possibility that their phenomena really doesn’t have a way for it to be explained. Indeed, I really don’t see a way for science to work efficiently if the idea was considered more often.

July 14, 2007 at 3:38 pm 2 comments


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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