Suspicion on Consciousness as an Immanent Derivative

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The category of the subject (like that of the object) has no place in an immanent world. There can be no transcendent, subjective essence. What, then, is the ontological status of a body and its attendant instance of consciousness? In what would it exist? Sanford Kwinter (conjuncted here) here offers:

It would exist precisely in the ever-shifting pattern of mixtures or composites: both internal ones – the body as a site marked and traversed by forces that converge upon it in continuous variation; and external ones – the capacity of any individuated substance to combine and recombine with other bodies or elements (ensembles), both influencing their actions and undergoing influence by them. The ‘subject’ … is but a synthetic unit falling at the midpoint or interface of two more fundamental systems of articulation: the first composed of the fluctuating microscopic relations and mixtures of which the subject is made up, the second of the macro-blocs of relations or ensembles into which it enters. The image produced at the interface of these two systems – that which replaces, yet is too often mistaken for, subjective essence – may in turn have its own individuality characterized with a certain rigor. For each mixture at this level introduces into the bloc a certain number of defining capacities that determine both what the ‘subject’ is capable of bringing to pass outside of itself and what it is capable of receiving (undergoing) in terms of effects.

This description is sufficient to explain the immanent nature of the subjective bloc as something entirely embedded in and conditioned by its surroundings. What it does not offer – and what is not offered in any detail in the entirety of the work – is an in-depth account of what, exactly, these “defining capacities” are. To be sure, it would be unfair to demand a complete description of these capacities. Kwinter himself has elsewhere referred to the states of the nervous system as “magically complex”. Regardless of the specificity with which these capacities can presently be defined, we must nonetheless agree that it is at this interface, as he calls it, at this location where so many systems are densely overlaid, that consciousness is produced. We may be convinced that this consciousness, this apparent internal space of thought, is derived entirely from immanent conditions and can only be granted the ontological status of an effect, but this effect still manages to produce certain difficulties when attempting to define modes of behavior appropriate to an immanent world.

There is a palpable suspicion of the role of consciousness throughout Kwinter’s work, at least insofar as it is equated with some kind of internal, subjective space. (In one text he optimistically awaits the day when this space will “be left utterly in shreds.”) The basis of this suspicion is multiple and obvious. Among the capacities of consciousness is the ability to attribute to itself the (false) image of a stable and transcendent essence. The workings of consciousness are precisely what allow the subjective bloc to orient itself in a sequence of time, separating itself from an absolute experience of the moment. It is within consciousness that limiting and arbitrary moral categories seem to most stubbornly lodge themselves. (To be sure this is the location of all critical thought.) And, above all, consciousness may serve as the repository for conditioned behaviors which believe themselves to be free of external determination. Consciousness, in short, contains within itself an enormous number of limiting factors which would retard the production of novelty. Insofar as it appears to possess the capacity for self-determination, this capacity would seem most productively applied by turning on itself – that is, precisely by making the choice not to make conscious decisions and instead to permit oneself to be seized by extra-subjective forces.

Conjuncted: Demise of Ontology

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The demise of ontology in string theory opens new perspectives on the positions of Quine and Larry Laudan. Laudan stressed the discontinuity of ontological claims throughout the history of scientific theories. String theory’s comment on this observation is very clear: The ontological claim is no appropriate element of highly developed physical theories. External ontological objects are reduced to the status of an approximative concept that only makes sense as long as one does not look too closely into the theory’s mathematical fine-structure. While one may consider the electron to be an object like a table, just smaller, the same verdict on, let’s say, a type IIB superstring is not justifiable. In this light it is evident that an ontological understanding of scientific objects cannot have any realist quality and must always be preliminary. Its specific form naturally depends on the type of approximation. Eventually all ontological claims are bound to evaporate in the complex structures of advanced physics. String theory thus confirms Laudan’s assertion and integrates it into a solid physical background picture.

In a remarkable way string theory awards new topicality to Quine’s notion of underdeterminism. The string theoretical scale-limit to new phenomenology that makes Quine’s concept of a theoretical scheme fits all possible phenomenological data. In a sense string theory moves Quine’s concept from the regime of abstract and shadowy philosophical definitions to the regime of the physically meaningful. Quine’s notion of underdeterminism also remains unaffected by the emerging principle of theoretical uniqueness, which so seriously undermines the position of modest underdeterminism. Since theoretical uniqueness reveals itself in the context of new so far undetected phenomenology, Quine’s purely ontological approach remains safely beyond its grasp. But the best is still to come: The various equivalent superstring theories appear as empirically equivalent but ‘logically incompatible’ theories of the very type implied by Quine’s underdeterminism hypothesis. The different string theories are not theoretically incompatible and unrelated concepts. On the contrary they are merely different representations of one overall theoretical structure. Incompatible are the ontological claims which can be imputed to the various representations. It is only at this level that Quine’s conjecture applies to string theory. And it is only at this level that it can be meaningful at all. Quine is no adherent of external realism and thus can afford a very wide interpretation of the notion ‘ontological object’. For him a world view’s ontology can well comprise oddities like spacetime points or mathematical sets. In this light the duality phenomenon could be taken to imply a shift of ontology away from an external ‘corporal’ regime towards a purely mathematical one. 

To put external and mathematical ontologies into the same category blurs the central message the new physical developments have in store for philosophy of science. This message emerges much clearer if formulated within the conceptual framework of scientific realism: An extrapolation of the notion ‘external ontological object’ from the visible to the invisible regime remains possible up to quantum field theory if one wants to have it. It fails fundamentally at the stage of string theory. String theory simply is no theory about invisible external objects.