Revisiting Catastrophes. Thought of the Day 134.0

The most explicit influence from mathematics in semiotics is probably René Thom’s controversial theory of catastrophes (here and here), with philosophical and semiotic support from Jean Petitot. Catastrophe theory is but one of several formalisms in the broad field of qualitative dynamics (comprising also chaos theory, complexity theory, self-organized criticality, etc.). In all these cases, the theories in question are in a certain sense phenomenological because the focus is different types of qualitative behavior of dynamic systems grasped on a purely formal level bracketing their causal determination on the deeper level. A widespread tool in these disciplines is phase space – a space defined by the variables governing the development of the system so that this development may be mapped as a trajectory through phase space, each point on the trajectory mapping one global state of the system. This space may be inhabited by different types of attractors (attracting trajectories), repellors (repelling them), attractor basins around attractors, and borders between such basins characterized by different types of topological saddles which may have a complicated topology.

Catastrophe theory has its basis in differential topology, that is, the branch of topology keeping various differential properties in a function invariant under transformation. It is, more specifically, the so-called Whitney topology whose invariants are points where the nth derivative of a function takes the value 0, graphically corresponding to minima, maxima, turning tangents, and, in higher dimensions, different complicated saddles. Catastrophe theory takes its point of departure in singularity theory whose object is the shift between types of such functions. It thus erects a distinction between an inner space – where the function varies – and an outer space of control variables charting the variation of that function including where it changes type – where, e.g. it goes from having one minimum to having two minima, via a singular case with turning tangent. The continuous variation of control parameters thus corresponds to a continuous variation within one subtype of the function, until it reaches a singular point where it discontinuously, ‘catastrophically’, changes subtype. The philosophy-of-science interpretation of this formalism now conceives the stable subtype of function as representing the stable state of a system, and the passage of the critical point as the sudden shift to a new stable state. The configuration of control parameters thus provides a sort of map of the shift between continuous development and discontinuous ‘jump’. Thom’s semiotic interpretation of this formalism entails that typical catastrophic trajectories of this kind may be interpreted as stable process types phenomenologically salient for perception and giving rise to basic verbal categories.

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One of the simpler catastrophes is the so-called cusp (a). It constitutes a meta-diagram, namely a diagram of the possible type-shifts of a simpler diagram (b), that of the equation ax4 + bx2 + cx = 0. The upper part of (a) shows the so-called fold, charting the manifold of solutions to the equation in the three dimensions a, b and c. By the projection of the fold on the a, b-plane, the pointed figure of the cusp (lower a) is obtained. The cusp now charts the type-shift of the function: Inside the cusp, the function has two minima, outside it only one minimum. Different paths through the cusp thus corresponds to different variations of the equation by the variation of the external variables a and b. One such typical path is the path indicated by the left-right arrow on all four diagrams which crosses the cusp from inside out, giving rise to a diagram of the further level (c) – depending on the interpretation of the minima as simultaneous states. Here, thus, we find diagram transformations on three different, nested levels.

The concept of transformation plays several roles in this formalism. The most spectacular one refers, of course, to the change in external control variables, determining a trajectory through phase space where the function controlled changes type. This transformation thus searches the possibility for a change of the subtypes of the function in question, that is, it plays the role of eidetic variation mapping how the function is ‘unfolded’ (the basic theorem of catastrophe theory refers to such unfolding of simple functions). Another transformation finds stable classes of such local trajectory pieces including such shifts – making possible the recognition of such types of shifts in different empirical phenomena. On the most empirical level, finally, one running of such a trajectory piece provides, in itself, a transformation of one state into another, whereby the two states are rationally interconnected. Generally, it is possible to make a given transformation the object of a higher order transformation which by abstraction may investigate aspects of the lower one’s type and conditions. Thus, the central unfolding of a function germ in Catastrophe Theory constitutes a transformation having the character of an eidetic variation making clear which possibilities lie in the function germ in question. As an abstract formalism, the higher of these transformations may determine the lower one as invariant in a series of empirical cases.

Complexity theory is a broader and more inclusive term covering the general study of the macro-behavior of composite systems, also using phase space representation. The theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman (intro) argues that in a phase space of all possible genotypes, biological evolution must unfold in a rather small and specifically qualified sub-space characterized by many, closely located and stable states (corresponding to the possibility of a species to ‘jump’ to another and better genotype in the face of environmental change) – as opposed to phase space areas with few, very stable states (which will only be optimal in certain, very stable environments and thus fragile when exposed to change), and also opposed, on the other hand, to sub-spaces with a high plurality of only metastable states (here, the species will tend to merge into neighboring species and hence never stabilize). On the base of this argument, only a small subset of the set of virtual genotypes possesses ‘evolvability’ as this special combination between plasticity and stability. The overall argument thus goes that order in biology is not a pure product of evolution; the possibility of order must be present in certain types of organized matter before selection begins – conversely, selection requires already organized material on which to work. The identification of a species with a co-localized group of stable states in genome space thus provides a (local) invariance for the transformation taking a trajectory through space, and larger groups of neighboring stabilities – lineages – again provide invariants defined by various more or less general transformations. Species, in this view, are in a certain limited sense ‘natural kinds’ and thus naturally signifying entities. Kauffman’s speculations over genotypical phase space have a crucial bearing on a transformation concept central to biology, namely mutation. On this basis far from all virtual mutations are really possible – even apart from their degree of environmental relevance. A mutation into a stable but remotely placed species in phase space will be impossible (evolution cannot cross the distance in phase space), just like a mutation in an area with many, unstable proto-species will not allow for any stabilization of species at all and will thus fall prey to arbitrary small environment variations. Kauffman takes a spontaneous and non-formalized transformation concept (mutation) and attempts a formalization by investigating its condition of possibility as movement between stable genomes in genotype phase space. A series of constraints turn out to determine type formation on a higher level (the three different types of local geography in phase space). If the trajectory of mutations must obey the possibility of walking between stable species, then the space of possibility of trajectories is highly limited. Self-organized criticality as developed by Per Bak (How Nature Works the science of self-organized criticality) belongs to the same type of theories. Criticality is here defined as that state of a complicated system where sudden developments in all sizes spontaneously occur.

Metaphysical Continuity in Peirce. Thought of the Day 122.0

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Continuity has wide implications in the different parts of Peirce’s architectonics of theories. Time and time again, Peirce refers to his ‘principle of continuity’ which has not immediately anything to do with Poncelet’s famous such principle in geometry, but, is rather, a metaphysical implication taken to follow from fallibilism: if all more or less distinct phenomena swim in a vague sea of continuity then it is no wonder that fallibilism must be accepted. And if the world is basically continuous, we should not expect conceptual borders to be definitive but rather conceive of terminological distinctions as relative to an underlying, monist continuity. In this system, mathematics is first science. Thereafter follows philosophy which is distinguished form purely hypothetical mathematics by having an empirical basis. Philosophy, in turn, has three parts, phenomenology, the normative sciences, and metaphysics. The first investigates solely ‘the Phaneron’ which is all what could be imagined to appear as an object for experience: ‘ by the word phaneron I mean the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind, quite regardless whether it corresponds to any real thing or not.’ (Charles Sanders Peirce – Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce) As is evident, this definition of Peirce’s ‘phenomenology’ is parallel to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction in bracketing the issue of the existence of the phenomenon in question. Even if it thus is built on introspection and general experience, it is – analogous to Husserl and other Brentano disciples at the same time – conceived in a completely antipsychological manner: ‘It religiously abstains from all speculation as to any relations between its categories and physiological facts, cerebral or other.’ and ‘ I abstain from psychology which has nothing to do with ideoscopy.’ (Letter to Lady Welby). The normative sciences fall in three: aesthetics, ethics, logic, in that order (and hence decreasing generality), among which Peirce does not spend very much time on the former two. Aesthetics is the investigation of which possible goals it is possible to aim at (Good, Truth, Beauty, etc.), and ethics how they may be reached. Logic is concerned with the grasping and conservation of Truth and takes up the larger part of Peirce’s interest among the normative sciences. As it deals with how truth can be obtained by means of signs, it is also called semiotics (‘logic is formal semiotics’) which is thus coextensive with theory of science – logic in this broad sense contains all parts of philosophy of science, including contexts of discovery as well as contexts of justification. Semiotics has, in turn, three branches: grammatica speculativa (or stekheiotics), critical logic, and methodeutic (inspired by mediaeval trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric). The middle one of these three lies closest to our days’ conception of logic; it is concerned with the formal conditions for truth in symbols – that is, propositions, arguments, their validity and how to calculate them, including Peirce’s many developments of the logic of his time: quantifiers, logic of relations, ab-, de-, and induction, logic notation systems, etc. All of these, however, presuppose the existence of simple signs which are investigated by what is often seen as semiotics proper, the grammatica speculativa; it may also be called formal grammar. It investigates the formal condition for symbols having meaning, and it is here we find Peirce’s definition of signs and his trichotomies of different types of sign aspects. Methodeutic or formal rhetorics, on the other hand, concerns the pragmatical use of the former two branches, that is, the study of how to use logic in a fertile way in research, the formal conditions for the ‘power’ of symbols, that is, their reference to their interpretants; here can be found, e.g., Peirce’s famous definitions of pragmati(ci)sm and his directions for scientific investigation. To phenomenology – again in analogy to Husserl – logic adds the interest in signs and their truth. After logic, metaphysics follows in Peirce’s system, concerning the inventarium of existing objects, conceived in general – and strongly influenced by logic in the Kantian tradition for seeing metaphysics mirroring logic. Also here, Peirce has several proposals for subtypologies, even if none of them seem stable, and under this headline classical metaphysical issues mix freely with generalizations of scientific results and cosmological speculations.

Peirce himself saw this classification in an almost sociological manner, so that the criteria of distinction do not stem directly from the implied objects’ natural kinds, but after which groups of persons study which objects: ‘the only natural lines of demarcation between nearly related sciences are the divisions between the social groups of devotees of those sciences’. Science collects scientists into bundles, because they are defined by their causa finalis, a teleologial intention demanding of them to solve a central problem.

Measured on this definition, one has to say that Peirce himself was not modest, not only does he continuously transgress such boundaries in his production, he frequently does so even within the scope of single papers. There is always, in his writings, a brief distance only from mathematics to metaphysics – or between any other two issues in mathematics and philosophy, and this implies, first, that the investigation of continuity and generality in Peirce’s system is more systematic than any actually existing exposition of these issues in Peirce’s texts, second, that the discussion must constantly rely on cross-references. This has the structural motivation that as soon as you are below the level of mathematics in Peirce’s system, inspired by the Comtean system, the single science receives determinations from three different directions, each science consisting of material and formal aspects alike. First, it receives formal directives ‘from above’, from those more general sciences which stand above it, providing the general frameworks in which it must unfold. Second, it receives material determinations from its own object, requiring it to make certain choices in its use of formal insights from the higher sciences. The cosmological issue of the character of empirical space, for instance, can take from mathematics the different (non-)Euclidean geometries and investigate which of these are fit to describe spatial aspects of our universe, but it does not, in itself, provide the formal tools. Finally, the single sciences receive in practice determinations ‘from below’, from more specific sciences, when their results by means of abstraction, prescission, induction, and other procedures provide insights on its more general, material level. Even if cosmology is, for instance, part of metaphysics, it receives influences from the empirical results of physics (or biology, from where Peirce takes the generalized principle of evolution). The distinction between formal and material is thus level specific: what is material on one level is a formal bundle of possibilities for the level below; what is formal on one level is material on the level above.

For these reasons, the single step on the ladder of sciences is only partially independent in Peirce, hence also the tendency of his own investigations to zigzag between the levels. His architecture of theories thus forms a sort of phenomenological theory of aspects: the hierarchy of sciences is an architecture of more and less general aspects of the phenomena, not completely independent domains. Finally, Peirce’s realism has as a result a somewhat disturbing style of thinking: many of his central concepts receive many, often highly different determinations which has often led interpreters to assume inconsistencies or theoretical developments in Peirce where none necessarily exist. When Peirce, for instance, determines the icon as the sign possessing a similarity to its object, and elsewhere determines it as the sign by the contemplation of which it is possible to learn more about its object, then they are not conflicting definitions. Peirce’s determinations of concepts are rarely definitions at all in the sense that they provide necessary and sufficient conditions exhausting the phenomenon in question. His determinations should rather be seen as descriptions from different perspectives of a real (and maybe ideal) object – without these descriptions necessarily conflicting. This style of thinking can, however, be seen as motivated by metaphysical continuity. When continuous grading between concepts is the rule, definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions should not be expected to be exhaustive.

Husserl’s Flip-Flop on Arithmetic Axiomatics. Thought of the Day 118.0

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Husserl’s position in his Philosophy of Arithmetic (Psychological and Logical Investigations with Supplementary Texts) was resolutely anti-axiomatic. He attacked those who fell into remote, artificial constructions which, with the intent of building the elementary arithmetic concepts out of their ultimate definitional properties, interpret and change their meaning so much that totally strange, practically and scientifically useless conceptual formations finally result. Especially targeted was Frege’s ideal of the

founding of arithmetic on a sequence of formal definitions, out of which all the theorems of that science could be deduced purely syllogistically.

As soon as one comes to the ultimate, elemental concepts, Husserl reasoned, all defining has to come to an end. All one can then do is to point to the concrete phenomena from or through which the concepts are abstracted and show the nature of the abstractive process. A verbal explanation should place us in the proper state of mind for picking out, in inner or outer intuition, the abstract moments intended and for reproducing in ourselves the mental processes required for the formation of the concept. He said that his analyses had shown with incontestable clarity that the concepts of multiplicity and unity rest directly upon ultimate, elemental psychical data, and so belong among the indefinable concepts. Since the concept of number was so closely joined to them, one could scarcely speak of defining it either. All these points are made on the only pages of Philosophy of Arithmetic that Husserl ever explicitly retracted.

In On the Concept of Number, Husserl had set out to anchor arithmetical concepts in direct experience by analyzing the actual psychological processes to which he thought the concept of number owed its genesis. To obtain the concept of number of a concrete set of objects, say A, A, and A, he explained, one abstracts from the particular characteristics of the individual contents collected, only considering and retaining each one insofar as it is a something or a one. Regarding their collective combination, one thus obtains the general form of the set belonging to the set in question: one and one, etc. and. . . and one, to which a number name is assigned.

The enthusiastic espousal of psychologism of On the Concept of Number is not found in Philosophy of Arithmetic. Husserl later confessed that doubts about basic differences between the concept of number and the concept of collecting, which was all that could be obtained from reflection on acts, had troubled and tormented him from the very beginning and had eventually extended to all categorial concepts and to concepts of objectivities of any sort whatsoever, ultimately to include modern analysis and the theory of manifolds, and simultaneously to mathematical logic and the entire field of logic in general. He did not see how one could reconcile the objectivity of mathematics with psychological foundations for logic.

In sharp contrast to Brouwer who denounced logic as a source of truth, from the mid-1890s on, Husserl defended the view, which he attributed to Frege’s teacher Hermann Lotze, that pure arithmetic was basically no more than a branch of logic that had undergone independent development. He bid students not to be “scared” by that thought and to grow used to Lotze’s initially strange idea that arithmetic was only a particularly highly developed piece of logic.

Years later, Husserl would explain in Formal and Transcendental Logic that his

war against logical psychologism was meant to serve no other end than the supremely important one of making the specific province of analytic logic visible in its purity and ideal particularity, freeing it from the psychologizing confusions and misinterpretations in which it had remained enmeshed from the beginning.

He had come to see arithmetic truths as being analytic, as grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact. He had come to believe that the entire overthrowing of psychologism through phenomenology showed that his analyses in On the Concept of Number and Philosophy of Arithmetic had to be considered a pure a priori analysis of essence. For him, pure arithmetic, pure mathematics, and pure logic were a priori disciplines entirely grounded in conceptual essentialities, where truth was nothing other than the analysis of essences or concepts. Pure mathematics as pure arithmetic investigated what is grounded in the essence of number. Pure mathematical laws were laws of essence.

He is said to have told his students that it was to be stressed repeatedly and emphatically that the ideal entities so unpleasant for empiricistic logic, and so consistently disregarded by it, had not been artificially devised either by himself, or by Bolzano, but were given beforehand by the meaning of the universal talk of propositions and truths indispensable in all the sciences. This, he said, was an indubitable fact that had to be the starting point of all logic. All purely mathematical propositions, he taught, express something about the essence of what is mathematical. Their denial is consequently an absurdity. Denying a proposition of the natural sciences, a proposition about real matters of fact, never means an absurdity, a contradiction in terms. In denying the law of gravity, I cast experience to the wind. I violate the evident, extremely valuable probability that experience has established for the laws. But, I do not say anything “unthinkable,” absurd, something that nullifies the meaning of the word as I do when I say that 2 × 2 is not 4, but 5.

Husserl taught that every judgment either is a truth or cannot be a truth, that every presentation either accorded with a possible experience adequately redeeming it, or was in conflict with the experience, and that grounded in the essence of agreement was the fact that it was incompatible with the conflict, and grounded in the essence of conflict that it was incompatible with agreement. For him, that meant that truth ruled out falsehood and falsehood ruled out truth. And, likewise, existence and non-existence, correctness and incorrectness cancelled one another out in every sense. He believed that that became immediately apparent as soon as one had clarified the essence of existence and truth, of correctness and incorrectness, of Evidenz as consciousness of givenness, of being and not-being in fully redeeming intuition.

At the same time, Husserl contended, one grasps the “ultimate meaning” of the basic logical law of contradiction and of the excluded middle. When we state the law of validity that of any two contradictory propositions one holds and the other does not hold, when we say that for every proposition there is a contradictory one, Husserl explained, then we are continually speaking of the proposition in its ideal unity and not at all about mental experiences of individuals, not even in the most general way. With talk of truth it is always a matter of propositions in their ideal unity, of the meaning of statements, a matter of something identical and atemporal. What lies in the identically-ideal meaning of one’s words, what one cannot deny without invalidating the fixed meaning of one’s words has nothing at all to do with experience and induction. It has only to do with concepts. In sharp contrast to this, Brouwer saw intuitionistic mathematics as deviating from classical mathematics because the latter uses logic to generate theorems and in particular applies the principle of the excluded middle. He believed that Intuitionism had proven that no mathematical reality corresponds to the affirmation of the principle of the excluded middle and to conclusions derived by means of it. He reasoned that “since logic is based on mathematics – and not vice versa – the use of the Principle of the Excluded Middle is not permissible as part of a mathematical proof.”

Triadomania. Thought of the Day 117.0

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Peirce’s famous ‘triadomania’ lets most of his decisive distinctions appear in threes, following the tripartition of his list of categories, the famous triad of First, Second, and Third, or Quality, Reaction, Representation, or Possibility, Actuality, Reality.

Firstness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, positively and without reference to anything else.

Secondness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, with respect to a second but regardless of any third.

Thirdness is the mode of being of that which is such as it is, in bringing a second and third into relation to each other.

Firstness constitutes the quality of experience: in order for something to appear at all, it must do so due to a certain constellation of qualitative properties. Peirce often uses sensory qualities as examples, but it is important for the understanding of his thought that the examples may refer to phenomena very far from our standard conception of ‘sensory data’, e.g. forms or the ‘feeling’ of a whole melody or of a whole mathematical proof, not to be taken in a subjective sense but as a concept for the continuity of melody or proof as a whole, apart from the analytical steps and sequences in which it may be, subsequently, subdivided. In short, all sorts of simple and complex Gestalt qualities also qualify as Firstnesses. Firstness tend to form continua of possibilities such as the continua of shape, color, tone, etc. These qualities, however, are, taken in themselves, pure possibilities and must necessarily be incarnated in phenomena in order to appear. Secondness is the phenomenological category of ‘incarnation’ which makes this possible: it is the insistency, then, with which the individuated, actualized, existent phenomenon appears. Thus, Secondness necessarily forms discontinuous breaks in Firstness, allowing for particular qualities to enter into existence. The mind may imagine anything whatever in all sorts of quality combinations, but something appears with an irrefutable insisting power, reacting, actively, yielding resistance. Peirce’s favorite example is the resistance of the closed door – which might be imagined reduced to the quality of resistance feeling and thus degenerate to pure Firstness so that his theory imploded into a Hume-like solipsism – but to Peirce this resistance, surprise, event, this thisness, ‘haecceity’ as he calls it with a Scotist term, remains irreducible in the description of the phenomenon (a Kantian idea, at bottom: existence is no predicate). About Thirdness, Peirce may directly state that continuity represents it perfectly: ‘continuity and generality are two names of the same absence of distinction of individuals’. As against Secondness, Thirdness is general; it mediates between First and Second. The events of Secondness are never completely unique, such an event would be inexperiencable, but relates (3) to other events (2) due to certain features (1) in them; Thirdness is thus what facilitates understanding as well as pragmatic action, due to its continuous generality. With a famous example: if you dream about an apple pie, then the very qualities of that dream (taste, smell, warmth, crustiness, etc.) are pure Firstnesses, while the act of baking is composed of a series of actual Secondnesses. But their coordination is governed by a Thirdness: the recipe, being general, can never specify all properties in the individual apple pie, it has a schematic frame-character and subsumes an indefinite series – a whole continuum – of possible apple pies. Thirdness is thus necessarily general and vague. Of course, the recipe may be more or less precise, but no recipe exists which is able to determine each and every property in the cake, including date, hour, place, which tree the apples stem from, etc. – any recipe is necessarily general. In this case, the recipe (3) mediates between dream (1) and fulfilment (2) – its generality, symbolicity, relationality and future orientation are all characteristic for Thirdness. An important aspect of Peirce’s realism is that continuous generality may be experienced directly in perceptual judgments: ‘Generality, Thirdness, pours in upon us in our very perceptual judgments’.

All these determinations remain purely phenomenological, even if the later semiotic and metaphysical interpretations clearly shine through. In a more general, non-Peircean terminology, his phenomenology can be seen as the description of minimum aspects inherent in any imaginable possible world – for this reason it is imaginability which is the main argument, and this might point in the direction that Peirce could be open to critique for subjectivism, so often aimed at Husserl’s project, in some respects analogous. The concept of consciousness is invoked as the basis of imaginability: phenomenology is the study of invariant properties in any phenomenon appearing for a mind. Peirce’s answer would here be, on the one hand, the research community which according to him defines reality – an argument which structurally corresponds to Husserl’s reference to intersubjectivity as a necessary ingredient in objectivity (an object is a phenomenon which is intersubjectively accessible). Peirce, however, has a further argument here, namely his consequent refusal to delimit his concept of mind exclusively to human subjects (a category the use of which he obviously tries to minimize), mind-like processes may take place in nature without any subject being responsible. Peirce will, for continuity reasons, never accept any hard distinction between subject and object and remains extremely parsimonious in the employment of such terms.

From Peirce’s New Elements of Mathematics (The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4),

But just as the qualities, which as they are for themselves, are equally unrelated to one other, each being mere nothing for any other, yet form a continuum in which and because of their situation in which they acquire more or less resemblance and contrast with one another; and then this continuum is amplified in the continuum of possible feelings of quality, so the accidents of reaction, which are waking consciousnesses of pairs of qualities, may be expected to join themselves into a continuum. 

Since, then an accidental reaction is a combination or bringing into special connection of two qualities, and since further it is accidental and antigeneral or discontinuous, such an accidental reaction ought to be regarded as an adventitious singularity of the continuum of possible quality, just as two points of a sheet of paper might come into contact.

But although singularities are discontinuous, they may be continuous to a certain extent. Thus the sheet instead of touching itself in the union of two points may cut itself all along a line. Here there is a continuous line of singularity. In like manner, accidental reactions though they are breaches of generality may come to be generalized to a certain extent.

Secondness is now taken to actualize these quality possibilities based on an idea that any actual event involves a clash of qualities – in the ensuing argumentation Peirce underlines that the qualities involved in actualization need not be restrained to two but may be many, if they may only be ‘dissolved’ into pairs and hence do not break into the domain of Thirdness. This appearance of actuality, hence, has the property of singularities, spontaneously popping up in the space of possibilities and actualizing pairs of points in it. This transition from First to Second is conceived of along Aristotelian lines: as an actualization of a possibility – and this is expressed in the picture of a discontinuous singularity in the quality continuum. The topological fact that singularities must in general be defined with respect to the neighborhood of the manifold in which they appear, now becomes the argument for the fact that Secondness can never be completely discontinuous but still ‘inherits’ a certain small measure of continuity from the continuum of Firstness. Singularities, being discontinuous along certain dimensions, may be continuous in others, which provides the condition of possibility for Thirdness to exist as a tendency for Secondness to conform to a general law or regularity. As is evident, a completely pure Secondness is impossible in this continuous metaphysics – it remains a conceivable but unrealizable limit case, because a completely discon- tinuous event would amount to nothing. Thirdness already lies as a germ in the non-discontinuous aspects of the singularity. The occurrences of Secondness seem to be infinitesimal, then, rather than completely extensionless points.

Nomological Unification and Phenomenology of Gravitation. Thought of the Day 110.0

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String theory, which promises to give an all-encompassing, nomologically unified description of all interactions did not even lead to any unambiguous solutions to the multitude of explanative desiderata of the standard model of quantum field theory: the determination of its specific gauge invariances, broken symmetries and particle generations as well as its 20 or more free parameters, the chirality of matter particles, etc. String theory does at least give an explanation for the existence and for the number of particle generations. The latter is determined by the topology of the compactified additional spatial dimensions of string theory; their topology determines the structure of the possible oscillation spectra. The number of particle generations is identical to half the absolute value of the Euler number of the compact Calabi-Yau topology. But, because it is completely unclear which topology should be assumed for the compact space, there are no definitive results. This ambiguity is part of the vacuum selection problem; there are probably more than 10100 alternative scenarios in the so-called string landscape. Moreover all concrete models, deliberately chosen and analyzed, lead to generation numbers much too big. There are phenomenological indications that the number of particle generations can not exceed three. String theory admits generation numbers between three and 480.

Attempts at a concrete solution of the relevant external problems (and explanative desiderata) either did not take place, or they did not show any results, or they led to escalating ambiguities and finally got drowned completely in the string landscape scenario: the recently developed insight that string theory obviously does not lead to a unique description of nature, but describes an immense number of nomologically, physically and phenomenologically different worlds with different symmetries, parameter values, and values of the cosmological constant.

String theory seems to be by far too much preoccupied with its internal conceptual and mathematical problems to be able to find concrete solutions to the relevant external physical problems. It is almost completely dominated by internal consistency constraints. It is not the fact that we are living in a ten-dimensional world which forces string theory to a ten-dimensional description. It is that perturbative string theories are only anomaly-free in ten dimensions; and they contain gravitons only in a ten-dimensional formulation. The resulting question, how the four-dimensional spacetime of phenomenology comes off from ten-dimensional perturbative string theories (or its eleven-dimensional non-perturbative extension: the mysterious, not yet existing M theory), led to the compactification idea and to the braneworld scenarios, and from there to further internal problems.

It is not the fact that empirical indications for supersymmetry were found, that forces consistent string theories to include supersymmetry. Without supersymmetry, string theory has no fermions and no chirality, but there are tachyons which make the vacuum instable; and supersymmetry has certain conceptual advantages: it leads very probably to the finiteness of the perturbation series, thereby avoiding the problem of non-renormalizability which haunted all former attempts at a quantization of gravity; and there is a close relation between supersymmetry and Poincaré invariance which seems reasonable for quantum gravity. But it is clear that not all conceptual advantages are necessarily part of nature, as the example of the elegant, but unsuccessful Grand Unified Theories demonstrates.

Apart from its ten (or eleven) dimensions and the inclusion of supersymmetry, both have more or less the character of only conceptually, but not empirically motivated ad-hoc assumptions. String theory consists of a rather careful adaptation of the mathematical and model-theoretical apparatus of perturbative quantum field theory to the quantized, one-dimensionally extended, oscillating string (and, finally, of a minimal extension of its methods into the non-perturbative regime for which the declarations of intent exceed by far the conceptual successes). Without any empirical data transcending the context of our established theories, there remains for string theory only the minimal conceptual integration of basic parts of the phenomenology already reproduced by these established theories. And a significant component of this phenomenology, namely the phenomenology of gravitation, was already used up in the selection of string theory as an interesting approach to quantum gravity. Only, because string theory, containing gravitons as string states, reproduces in a certain way the phenomenology of gravitation, it is taken seriously.

10 or 11 Dimensions? Phenomenological Conundrum. Drunken Risibility.

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It is not the fact that we are living in a ten-dimensional world which forces string theory to a ten-dimensional description. It is that perturbative string theories are only anomaly-free in ten dimensions; and they contain gravitons only in a ten-dimensional formulation. The resulting question, how the four-dimensional spacetime of phenomenology comes off from ten-dimensional perturbative string theories (or its eleven-dimensional non-perturbative extension: the mysterious M theory), led to the compactification idea and to the braneworld scenarios.

It is not the fact that empirical indications for supersymmetry were found, that forces consistent string theories to include supersymmetry. Without supersymmetry, string theory has no fermions and no chirality, but there are tachyons which make the vacuum instable; and supersymmetry has certain conceptual advantages: it leads very probably to the finiteness of the perturbation series, thereby avoiding the problem of non-renormalizability which haunted all former attempts at a quantization of gravity; and there is a close relation between supersymmetry and Poincaré invariance which seems reasonable for quantum gravity. But it is clear that not all conceptual advantages are necessarily part of nature – as the example of the elegant, but unsuccessful Grand Unified Theories demonstrates.

Apart from its ten (or eleven) dimensions and the inclusion of supersymmetry – both have more or less the character of only conceptually, but not empirically motivated ad-hoc assumptions – string theory consists of a rather careful adaptation of the mathematical and model-theoretical apparatus of perturbative quantum field theory to the quantized, one-dimensionally extended, oscillating string (and, finally, of a minimal extension of its methods into the non-perturbative regime for which the declarations of intent exceed by far the conceptual successes). Without any empirical data transcending the context of our established theories, there remains for string theory only the minimal conceptual integration of basic parts of the phenomenology already reproduced by these established theories. And a significant component of this phenomenology, namely the phenomenology of gravitation, was already used up in the selection of string theory as an interesting approach to quantum gravity. Only, because string theory – containing gravitons as string states – reproduces in a certain way the phenomenology of gravitation, it is taken seriously.

But consistency requirements, the minimal inclusion of basic phenomenological constraints, and the careful extension of the model-theoretical basis of quantum field theory are not sufficient to establish an adequate theory of quantum gravity. Shouldn’t the landscape scenario of string theory be understood as a clear indication, not only of fundamental problems with the reproduction of the gauge invariances of the standard model of quantum field theory (and the corresponding phenomenology), but of much more severe conceptual problems? Almost all attempts at a solution of the immanent and transcendental problems of string theory seem to end in the ambiguity and contingency of the multitude of scenarios of the string landscape. That no physically motivated basic principle is known for string theory and its model-theoretical procedures might be seen as a problem which possibly could be overcome in future developments. But, what about the use of a static background spacetime in string theory which falls short of the fundamental insights of general relativity and which therefore seems to be completely unacceptable for a theory of quantum gravity?

At least since the change of context (and strategy) from hadron physics to quantum gravity, the development of string theory was dominated by immanent problems which led with their attempted solutions deeper. The result of this successively increasing self- referentiality is a more and more enhanced decoupling from phenomenological boundary conditions and necessities. The contact with the empirical does not increase, but gets weaker and weaker. The result of this process is a labyrinthic mathematical structure with a completely unclear physical relevance

Something Out of Almost Nothing. Drunken Risibility.

Kant’s first antinomy makes the error of the excluded third option, i.e. it is not impossible that the universe could have both a beginning and an eternal past. If some kind of metaphysical realism is true, including an observer-independent and relational time, then a solution of the antinomy is conceivable. It is based on the distinction between a microscopic and a macroscopic time scale. Only the latter is characterized by an asymmetry of nature under a reversal of time, i.e. the property of having a global (coarse-grained) evolution – an arrow of time – or many arrows, if they are independent from each other. Thus, the macroscopic scale is by definition temporally directed – otherwise it would not exist.

On the microscopic scale, however, only local, statistically distributed events without dynamical trends, i.e. a global time-evolution or an increase of entropy density, exist. This is the case if one or both of the following conditions are satisfied: First, if the system is in thermodynamic equilibrium (e.g. there is degeneracy). And/or second, if the system is in an extremely simple ground state or meta-stable state. (Meta-stable states have a local, but not a global minimum in their potential landscape and, hence, they can decay; ground states might also change due to quantum uncertainty, i.e. due to local tunneling events.) Some still speculative theories of quantum gravity permit the assumption of such a global, macroscopically time-less ground state (e.g. quantum or string vacuum, spin networks, twistors). Due to accidental fluctuations, which exceed a certain threshold value, universes can emerge out of that state. Due to some also speculative physical mechanism (like cosmic inflation) they acquire – and, thus, are characterized by – directed non-equilibrium dynamics, specific initial conditions, and, hence, an arrow of time.

It is a matter of debate whether such an arrow of time is

1) irreducible, i.e. an essential property of time,

2) governed by some unknown fundamental and not only phenomenological law,

3) the effect of specific initial conditions or

4) of consciousness (if time is in some sense subjective), or

5) even an illusion.

Many physicists favour special initial conditions, though there is no consensus about their nature and form. But in the context at issue it is sufficient to note that such a macroscopic global time-direction is the main ingredient of Kant’s first antinomy, for the question is whether this arrow has a beginning or not.

Time’s arrow is inevitably subjective, ontologically irreducible, fundamental and not only a kind of illusion, thus if some form of metaphysical idealism for instance is true, then physical cosmology about a time before time is mistaken or quite irrelevant. However, if we do not want to neglect an observer-independent physical reality and adopt solipsism or other forms of idealism – and there are strong arguments in favor of some form of metaphysical realism -, Kant’s rejection seems hasty. Furthermore, if a Kantian is not willing to give up some kind of metaphysical realism, namely the belief in a “Ding an sich“, a thing in itself – and some philosophers actually insisted that this is superfluous: the German idealists, for instance -, he has to admit that time is a subjective illusion or that there is a dualism between an objective timeless world and a subjective arrow of time. Contrary to Kant’s thoughts: There are reasons to believe that it is possible, at least conceptually, that time has both a beginning – in the macroscopic sense with an arrow – and is eternal – in the microscopic notion of a steady state with statistical fluctuations.

Is there also some physical support for this proposal?

Surprisingly, quantum cosmology offers a possibility that the arrow has a beginning and that it nevertheless emerged out of an eternal state without any macroscopic time-direction. (Note that there are some parallels to a theistic conception of the creation of the world here, e.g. in the Augustinian tradition which claims that time together with the universe emerged out of a time-less God; but such a cosmological argument is quite controversial, especially in a modern form.) So this possible overcoming of the first antinomy is not only a philosophical conceivability but is already motivated by modern physics. At least some scenarios of quantum cosmology, quantum geometry/loop quantum gravity, and string cosmology can be interpreted as examples for such a local beginning of our macroscopic time out of a state with microscopic time, but with an eternal, global macroscopic timelessness.

To put it in a more general, but abstract framework and get a sketchy illustration, consider the figure.

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Physical dynamics can be described using “potential landscapes” of fields. For simplicity, here only the variable potential (or energy density) of a single field is shown. To illustrate the dynamics, one can imagine a ball moving along the potential landscape. Depressions stand for states which are stable, at least temporarily. Due to quantum effects, the ball can “jump over” or “tunnel through” the hills. The deepest depression represents the ground state.

In the common theories the state of the universe – the product of all its matter and energy fields, roughly speaking – evolves out of a metastable “false vacuum” into a “true vacuum” which has a state of lower energy (potential). There might exist many (perhaps even infinitely many) true vacua which would correspond to universes with different constants or laws of nature. It is more plausible to start with a ground state which is the minimum of what physically can exist. According to this view an absolute nothingness is impossible. There is something rather than nothing because something cannot come out of absolutely nothing, and something does obviously exist. Thus, something can only change, and this change might be described with physical laws. Hence, the ground state is almost “nothing”, but can become thoroughly “something”. Possibly, our universe – and, independent from this, many others, probably most of them having different physical properties – arose from such a phase transition out of a quasi atemporal quantum vacuum (and, perhaps, got disconnected completely). Tunneling back might be prevented by the exponential expansion of this brand new space. Because of this cosmic inflation the universe not only became gigantic but simultaneously the potential hill broadened enormously and got (almost) impassable. This preserves the universe from relapsing into its non-existence. On the other hand, if there is no physical mechanism to prevent the tunneling-back or makes it at least very improbable, respectively, there is still another option: If infinitely many universes originated, some of them could be long-lived only for statistical reasons. But this possibility is less predictive and therefore an inferior kind of explanation for not tunneling back.

Another crucial question remains even if universes could come into being out of fluctuations of (or in) a primitive substrate, i.e. some patterns of superposition of fields with local overdensities of energy: Is spacetime part of this primordial stuff or is it also a product of it? Or, more specifically: Does such a primordial quantum vacuum have a semi-classical spacetime structure or is it made up of more fundamental entities? Unique-universe accounts, especially the modified Eddington models – the soft bang/emergent universe – presuppose some kind of semi-classical spacetime. The same is true for some multiverse accounts describing our universe, where Minkowski space, a tiny closed, finite space or the infinite de Sitter space is assumed. The same goes for string theory inspired models like the pre-big bang account, because string and M- theory is still formulated in a background-dependent way, i.e. requires the existence of a semi-classical spacetime. A different approach is the assumption of “building-blocks” of spacetime, a kind of pregeometry also the twistor approach of Roger Penrose, and the cellular automata approach of Stephen Wolfram. The most elaborated accounts in this line of reasoning are quantum geometry (loop quantum gravity). Here, “atoms of space and time” are underlying everything.

Though the question whether semiclassical spacetime is fundamental or not is crucial, an answer might be nevertheless neutral with respect of the micro-/macrotime distinction. In both kinds of quantum vacuum accounts the macroscopic time scale is not present. And the microscopic time scale in some respect has to be there, because fluctuations represent change (or are manifestations of change). This change, reversible and relationally conceived, does not occur “within” microtime but constitutes it. Out of a total stasis nothing new and different can emerge, because an uncertainty principle – fundamental for all quantum fluctuations – would not be realized. In an almost, but not completely static quantum vacuum however, macroscopically nothing changes either, but there are microscopic fluctuations.

The pseudo-beginning of our universe (and probably infinitely many others) is a viable alternative both to initial and past-eternal cosmologies and philosophically very significant. Note that this kind of solution bears some resemblance to a possibility of avoiding the spatial part of Kant’s first antinomy, i.e. his claimed proof of both an infinite space without limits and a finite, limited space: The theory of general relativity describes what was considered logically inconceivable before, namely that there could be universes with finite, but unlimited space, i.e. this part of the antinomy also makes the error of the excluded third option. This offers a middle course between the Scylla of a mysterious, secularized creatio ex nihilo, and the Charybdis of an equally inexplicable eternity of the world.

In this context it is also possible to defuse some explanatory problems of the origin of “something” (or “everything”) out of “nothing” as well as a – merely assumable, but never provable – eternal cosmos or even an infinitely often recurring universe. But that does not offer a final explanation or a sufficient reason, and it cannot eliminate the ultimate contingency of the world.

The Concern for Historical Materialism. Thought of the Day 53.0

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The concern for historical materialism, in spite of Marx’s differentiation between history and pre-history, is that totalisation might not be historically groundable after all, and must instead be constituted in other ways: whether logically, transcendentally or naturally. The ‘Consciousness’ chapter of the Phenomenology, a blend of all three, becomes a transcendent(al) logic of phenomena – individual, universal, particular – and ceases to provide any genuine phenomenology of ‘the experience of consciousness’. Natural consciousness is not strictly speaking a standpoint (no real opposition), so it can offer no critical grounds of itself to confer synthetic unity upon the universal, that which is taken to a higher level in ‘Self-Consciousness’ (only to be retrospectively confirmed). Yet Hegel does just this from the outset. In ‘Perception’, we read that, ‘[o]n account of the universality [Allgemeinheit] of the property, I must … take the objective essence to be on the whole a community [Gemeinschaft]’. Universality always sides with community, the Allgemeine with the Gemeinschaft, as if the synthetic operation had taken place prior to its very operability. Unfortunately for Hegel, the ‘free matters’ of all possible properties paves the way for the ‘interchange of forces’ in ‘Force and the Understanding’, and hence infinity, life and – spirit. In the midst of the master-slave dialectic, Hegel admits that, ‘[i]n this movement we see repeated the process which represented itself as the play of forces, but repeated now in consciousness [sic].

Whitehead’s Anti-Substantivilism, or Process & Reality as a Cosmology to-be. Thought of the Day 39.0

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Treating “stuff” as some kind of metaphysical primitive is mere substantivilism – and fundamentally question-begging. One has replaced an extra-theoretic referent of the wave-function (unless one defers to some quasi-literalist reading of the nature of the stochastic amplitude function ζ[X(t)] as somehow characterizing something akin to being a “density of stuff”, and moreover the logic and probability (Born Rules) must ultimately be obtained from experimentally obtained scattering amplitudes) with something at least as equally mystifying, as the argument against decoherence goes on to show:

In other words, you have a state vector which gives rise to an outcome of a measurement and you cannot understand why this is so according to your theory.

As a response to Platonism, one can likewise read Process and Reality as essentially anti-substantivilist.

Consider, for instance:

Those elements of our experience which stand out clearly and distinctly [giving rise to our substantial intuitions] in our consciousness are not its basic facts, [but] they are . . . late derivatives in the concrescence of an experiencing subject. . . .Neglect of this law [implies that] . . . [e]xperience has been explained in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first (161).

To function as an object is to be a determinant of the definiteness of an actual occurrence [occasion] (243).

The phenomenological ontology offered in Process and Reality is richly nuanced (including metaphysical primitives such as prehensions, occasions, and their respectively derivative notions such as causal efficacy, presentational immediacy, nexus, etc.). None of these suggest metaphysical notions of substance (i.e., independently existing subjects) as a primitive. The case can perhaps be made concerning the discussion of eternal objects, but such notions as discussed vis-à-vis the process of concrescence are obviously not metaphysically primitive notions. Certainly these metaphysical primitives conform in a more nuanced and articulated manner to aspects of process ontology. “Embedding” – as the notion of emergence is a crucial constituent in the information-theoretic, quantum-topological, and geometric accounts. Moreover, concerning the issue of relativistic covariance, it is to be regarded that Process and Reality is really a sketch of a cosmology-to-be . . . [in the spirit of ] Kant [who] built on the obsolete ideas of space, time, and matter of Euclid and Newton. Whitehead set out to suggest what a philosophical cosmology might be that builds on Newton.

Dissipations – Bifurcations – Synchronicities. Thought of the Day 29.0

Deleuze’s thinking expounds on Bergson’s adaptation of multiplicities in step with the catastrophe theory, chaos theory, dissipative systems theory, and quantum theory of his era. For Bergson, hybrid scientific/philosophical methodologies were not viable. He advocated tandem explorations, the two “halves” of the Absolute “to which science and metaphysics correspond” as a way to conceive the relations of parallel domains. The distinctive creative processes of these disciplines remain irreconcilable differences-in-kind, commonly manifesting in lived experience. Bergson: Science is abstract, philosophy is concrete. Deleuze and Guattari: Science thinks the function, philosophy the concept. Bergson’s Intuition is a method of division. It differentiates tendencies, forces. Division bifurcates. Bifurcations are integral to contingency and difference in systems logic.

The branching of a solution into multiple solutions as a system is varied. This bifurcating principle is also known as contingency. Bifurcations mark a point or an event at which a system divides into two alternative behaviours. Each trajectory is possible. The line of flight actually followed is often indeterminate. This is the site of a contingency, were it a positionable “thing.” It is at once a unity, a dualism and a multiplicity:

Bifurcations are the manifestation of an intrinsic differentiation between parts of the system itself and the system and its environment. […] The temporal description of such systems involves both deterministic processes (between bifurcations) and probabilistic processes (in the choice of branches). There is also a historical dimension involved […] Once we have dissipative structures we can speak of self-organisation.

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Figure: In a dynamical system, a bifurcation is a period doubling, quadrupling, etc., that accompanies the onset of chaos. It represents the sudden appearance of a qualitatively different solution for a nonlinear system as some parameter is varied. The illustration above shows bifurcations (occurring at the location of the blue lines) of the logistic map as the parameter r is varied. Bifurcations come in four basic varieties: flip bifurcation, fold bifurcation, pitchfork bifurcation, and transcritical bifurcation. 

A bifurcation, according to Prigogine and Stengers, exhibits determinacy and choice. It pertains to critical points, to singular intensities and their division into multiplicities. The scientific term, bifurcation, can be substituted for differentiation when exploring processes of thought or as Massumi explains affect:

Affect and intensity […] is akin to what is called a critical point, or bifurcation point, or singular point, in chaos theory and the theory of dissipative structures. This is the turning point at which a physical system paradoxically embodies multiple and normally mutually exclusive potentials… 

The endless bifurcating division of progressive iterations, the making of multiplicities by continually differentiating binaries, by multiplying divisions of dualities – this is the ontological method of Bergson and Deleuze after him. Bifurcations diagram multiplicities, from monisms to dualisms, from differentiation to differenciation, creatively progressing. Manuel Delanda offers this account, which describes the additional technicality of control parameters, analogous to higher-level computer technologies that enable dynamic interaction. These protocols and variable control parameters are later discussed in detail in terms of media objects in the metaphorical state space of an in situ technology:

[…] for the purpose of defining an entity to replace essences, the aspect of state space that mattered was its singularities. One singularity (or set of singularities) may undergo a symmetry-breaking transition and be converted into another one. These transitions are called bifurcations and may be studied by adding to a particular state space one or more ‘control knobs’ (technically control parameters) which determine the strength of external shocks or perturbations to which the system being modeled may be subject.

Another useful example of bifurcation with respect to research in the neurological and cognitive sciences is Francesco Varela’s theory of the emergence of microidentities and microworlds. The ready-for-action neuronal clusters that produce microindentities, from moment to moment, are what he calls bifurcating “break- downs”. These critical events in which a path or microidentity is chosen are, by implication, creative: