Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On Essence and Existence

Where Spinoza, in laying the groundwork of his Ethica, talks of "that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent," he is dealing in notions of essence and existence uncontroversial in his day, as a preliminary to the ontological bootstrapping these conceits facilitate. (Where we argue existence as necessarily part of the essence of something, and hold up the articulation of that essence as proof that the thing must therefore exist; see previous entry.) Where Anselm and Descartes before sought to bootstrap an absurd Toy God--anthropomorphised with a pretence of agency but enacting only the agendas of its puppeteers--however, Spinoza's Deus sivi Natura is so stripped of the Toy God's attributes, the sleight of hand is more subversion than sophistry, turning the trick against its theistic purpose, using it to demolish the Toy God. In establishing instead only the existential (Nature) as by definition existing, and therefore existing by definition, Spinoza's antitheist application is perhaps the nearest thing to a valid ontological bootstrapping. Still, it inherits the fuzz of those terms--essence and existence--and such obfuscation begs to be dispersed.

It is not difficult. I'm not versed enough in current philosophy to know whether it might have moved on already and dealt with all this, but I do know this: in linguistics and object-oriented programming there are far clearer notions that invite application where we are talking, ultimately, of instantiated things and the schema that model them. Return to the discourse of essence and existence with a more sophisticated toolkit drawn from these domains, and Spinoza's talk of an essence involving existence unpacks fairly straightforwardly to a definition involving instantiation, to an abstracted class unimaginable other than as a manifest object.

With existence and essence, that is to say, we are dealing with the categorical distinction between the manifest and the abstract. It should be transparent to anyone versed in object-oriented programming that this is the distinction between objects and classes, between performances and procedures, between stuff-in-action and the patterning of such. These must not be confused; the specimen is not the specification. To anyone versed in a little linguistics--especially if you've read any of my blatherings on narrative modalities--it should also be transparent that there are two quite different modes of judgement for claims regarding objects and performances, and claims regarding classes and procedures. Or at least, if it's not immediately obvious, if I point out that with one we're talking facts while with the other we're talking models, you might at least not be surprised by me throwing in two old favourites from the glossary: epistemic and alethic.

My premises then:






• To talk of existence is to make epistemic judgements, judgements of actuality, articulating some scried patterning of instances within the substance of reality (as mediated by sensation, of course.) Existence applies to this or that, here or there, the instance being local. With existence, we are reckoning state, parsing it as particular--which is to say, particulate--objects and performances.

• To talk of essence is to make alethic judgements, judgements of possibility, articulating some scried patterning of constances within the substance of reality (again, as mediated by sensation, of course.) Essence applies to these or those, here and there, the constance being global. With essence, we are reckoning change, categorising and collating it into abstracted--which is to say, abstract--procedures and classes.

Note the reversal of priorities from objects and performances to procedures and classes. The flipped order of presentation reflects the difference between analytic and synthetic processes, between circumscribing zones of substance as instance and abstracting from commonality of instances to constance. The bounded object will establish itself as a notion, I'd hazard, before the performance which seldom has a clear start and end point. But we'll begin abstracting from regular repeated performances to procedure, I dare say, before we begin taxonomising items into types.

It may seem counter-intuitive to cast the modern analogue of Platonic forms--a class system of theoretical templates each as abstract and eternal as the form of a triangle--as modelling change of all things, but this is a simple shift of perspective. Forget for a second that concretising impetus to treat a class like "dog" as some sort of abstract object, the whole problem of universals that comes with it. Take a side-step and a skip back into linear programming, libraries of procedures to be invoked--performed--in the course of a program running, each procedure delimiting a potential operation, a rule of how a certain type or category of change will work in the system. Patterns of transformation categorised, and algorithms developed for each category, each implemented as a procedure--this is clearly a (prescriptive) modelling of change.

Now follow the simple development of object-oriented programming, where procedures that make sense together--like all the things a dog can do, all the changes it can carry out upon the world or itself, or that the world can carry out on it--are collated into classes which encapsulate those sets of procedures--giving us the class "dog" as a model that defines any object of that class by defining how it works, modelling it fundamentally in the abstract as the totality of possible changes any object of that class can carry out. So, for all that we attach words like "eternal" and even "spiritual" to the notion of essence, as I say, what we are reckoning here is change. This is why it's alethic judgements in play. Always already a matter of how certain types of changes work, it is always already a matter of what could happen and what could not, what can or cannot happen. Not what is.

Having clarified essence, I hope, a digression to clarify exactly what I mean by existence. Because there are nuances in the informal use of "is" that are lost as we collapse existence to a simple either/or, and I rather think it's due time for us to restore them. So:

An epistemic judgement is usually treated as a wholly one-dimensional claim, a statement on what was, is, or will be simply to be found true or false by looking up or down the timeline to see if it fits at the when it's meant to. I hereby declare that whole approach obsolete. It is crude, reductive and quite simply wrong, the product of bad epistemology. An epistemic judgement is not complete without specifying the claim of actuality in all three temporal dimensions (what I like to refer to as stint, span and shift.)

Yes, three.

If we say that something is so, I mean, there are facets to the extent of its actuality beyond a myopic focus on this instant in which we speak, in which we claim existence for it: When was it not so, and when will it no longer be? How wide is the field of alternative possibilities, or how narrowed toward the certainty that it is exactly this that is so? How deep a difference does it make that this is so, how wide the impact proving it? The last may seem an unconventional way to talk of existence--in terms of impact--but where classes, and therefore objects of that class, are defined by function or role, effectuality does become a measure of actuality. Consider the questions, "How much of an artist is he really? Is he actually an artist?" What we are asking is the degree to which the object in question performs the function/role of artist in creating art. The degree to which he effects change thusly is being made the measure of the degree to which he is or is not an artist.

One may argue that the use of "is" and "actually" in the examples above is informal, idiomatic, not the stuff of propositions to be found true or false, decided as known or not. My argument is precisely that a new epistemological approach is called for to incorporate the full complexity of knowledge as it actually works, as we actually articulate it. What we need is nothing less than a suppositional calculus. Until we have it... the modality of "might" and "might not" reveals the everyday parlance of those who've never had a philosophical thought in their life to be categorically superior to the philosopher's one-dimensional notion of truth.

One may take this notion of three temporal dimensions as figurative conceit, but it is rather ... a suppositional sortie at a metaphysics of the substantial, intended as a literal if informal model. Durational location, potential (or uncertainty) and perturbation (or profundity or power)--it's these questions we seek to ask and answer at the quantum level to establish what is or is not in the most literal sense, in terms of energy. It seems an unassuming metaphysics then to say that the stuff composed of such energy in any spatial location is, to all intents and purposes, the extension of actuality at that location in these three dimensions. That's to say, substance is instance is time. Reality is a shape in six dimensions. Perhaps.

This is what I mean by existence.

Digression over.

In this distinction of existence from essence, epistemic from alethic, object and performance from procedure and class, Spinoza's starting point becomes a problem. Killing the premise of his ontological gambit stone cold dead, an abstracted class being the non-instantiated schema of an object, it is unimaginable as a manifest object. Else we simply have an object--e.g. a notion as a model of the class, a model class, or as a model instance of an object of the class. We cannot talk of classes in this way. To do so is automatically to particularise the class--e.g. into the collective. Take the class "human." If we want a manifest object here, we must look to a human object in reality, a model human object in our imagination, or the model class object we that is instantiated so we can define and edit the class we label "human." If we try to say think of the class itself as existential, this is only to instantiate a collective of model human objects we map to the collective of real human objects.

So, we cannot simply add existence to a class as an attribute. To add existence to a class "dog" is only to set a redundant criteria of "existing" on the class--the criteria redundant because it will be matched by any object that matches all other criteria. Or, if we are dealing with imagination, it is to invoke the instantiation procedure of the model class "dog," one or more times, adding the variant instance(s) out of which a class is abstracted, thereby creating a collective of one or more imaginary dog objects, and leaving the model class itself as it was before.

In the interests of elucidating this--what I mean by "adding" here--it may help to clarify that to make a judgement, epistemic or alethic, is and can only be to strike a stance. That is to say, there is no meaning-as-content such that we can talk of a judgement as a thing in its own right, as a relationship of signs somehow loaded with sense by being placed in that relationship. There is only meaning-as-import. There is only the stance that this is a sign for that, that these signs can be related thusly, and a stance toward that in relation to the world, a stance that in the disposition of those signs (e.g. an imaginary dog object) one has modelled an actuality or possibility in the substance of reality.

We're dealing with the realm of attitude wherever we talk of judgements epistemic or alethic. We're dealing with the performance of an object--in this case a subjective agent, in this case projecting structure into substance, trying to glean discrete patterns of instances and constances in it, parsing and categorising to a systematic model of objects and performances, procedures and classes, a personal semiocosm. What do I mean by semiocosm? Language itself is an informal alethic model, a matrix of suppositional and presuppositional stances by which sensations are interrelated, regarded as surrogates one for the other, and by which the resultant "signs" are themselves interrelated, the denotation of one dependent on the denotations of all, as per Derrida's différance. The totality of that model, ever changing as the imports of these "signs" shift subtly from articulation to articulation, in terms of connotation and even denotation, can be considered as a sort of world of signs, a semiocosm.

The term "sign" is in scare quotes above to mark the superfice. While "semiocosm" seems a useful coinage, it should be kept in mind that any part of this semiocosm referred to as a sign is in fact a stance, that the notion of the sign is only a cursory and inadequate gesture in the direction of the actuality, which is not encoding but attitude. This notion of the sign is as obsolete as the notion of spirit, is arguably the same superstitious piffle at its root: the content metaphor. The sign is dead. There is only stance, epistemic or alethic, boulomaic or deontic, (albeit those last two are not pertinent here.)

An epistemic stance parses substance into instance: objects and performances set into declaratives. We use terms denoting classes and procedures to articulate the claim, but the determiner the or a tells us we're dealing with a particular object in performance. In English, simple present tense narrative could theoretically create ambiguity between singular and recurrent performance--while present progressive "The dogs are barking," is clear, "The dogs bark," might be conjuring a singular performance or abstracting a collective of instances to a procedure--but in practice we seldom find it hard to distinguish between someone describing a performance and someone ascribing a procedure. When Capote says, "The dogs bark and the caravan moves on," we do not mistake his figurative alethic stance for the beginning of a story.

An alethic stance (like Capote's) parses substance into constance: procedures and classes set into articulations that may be couched as declarative but which in conjecturing a patterning of constances within substance, a patterning of change, are always already ascriptive rather than descriptive. In a generalisation such as "The dogs bark...," gnomic rather than declarative, what we're really dealing with is a procedure being ascribed to a class, a proposed rule-of-thumb, essentially, "Exceptions aside, dogs can't not bark, at some point or other." Like the addition of "existing" to "dog," the addition of "barks" is essentially a (procedural) criteria being specified on the class; the procedure is only loosely definitive so we might best see it as characteristic, but it remains a criteria. Indeed, with Capote's dogs figurating critics, this is essentially a critique of the procedure of critique which, that procedure being functionally definitive of the critic as a class, makes the metaphor a redefinition of the class. He's talking not of actuality but of possibility, not of instances but of constances, proposing (however flippantly) that we edit the class and procedure to conceive critics as, pretty much by definition, pointless nuisances.

The crux of the ontological bootstrap can now be understood in these terms, as an attempt to edit some class by ascribing to it the procedure of existence. So, in his definition of the self-caused, Spinoza proposes a class to which has been ascribed existence, one which is unimaginable other than as a manifest object. It's the classic self-sustaining sleight of hand: if we can define a class in which we can't imagine any instance of this class not performing the procedure of existence, then any instance we imagine must perform the procedure. If the subjective agent can construct a class, call it God or Nature, such that there's a logical contradiction unless the procedure of existence is ascribed to that class, logical integrity requires the instance to exist--e.g. to flip Anselm upside down, if we can imagine a beast more monstrous than anything, if it doesn't exist it's not as monstrous as the less monstrous thing that does, ergo it must have existence not to contradict itself, meaning the actual instance must exist. As addressed in the previous post, this simply doesn't work.

No matter what procedure is ascribed to what class, such an adoption of an alethic stance is always already a performance on the part of some subjective agent. So too is the adoption of an epistemic stance, on the part of our subjective agent, that the semiocosm they uphold (or any part of it) is applicable to the actual cosmos. As procedures go, there's few more basic than the confirmation of applicability by the gleaning of evidence, and that's the crux of it here: the assignation of existence can't be performed as an edit of the class because of this. In so far as it might be contrived to simulate working as an edit, all it does is add a redundant criteria for any object of that class to match.

In so far as the pointlessness of this maneuver is obfuscated, what we'll get is even worse than redundancy: the actual core procedure of assigning existence to a class necessarily consists of instantiating one or more model objects of that class, and adopting an epistemic stance toward them that they exist. That is to say, this is the core procedure to be performed during or as a result of the successful performance of a procedure of confirming applicability. There is no procedure of existence being assigned to a class. The procedure of confirming applicability is just being performed without evidence.

But the invalid operations of the ontological argument are not the point here. Rather, I return to that fallacy in the hope that the mechanisms of its failure elucidate the distinction between essence and existence. Out of the demolition of that specious obfuscatory involution, one might if one looks closely enough at the ruins, draw a more stable and more sensible notion of the relationships between the specifications and the specimens. It seems to me that this might be a tad more useful, in philosophical terms, than muddle-headed confusion over things like "the problem of universals" based on blatant misconceptions of the very fundamentals of how we model state and change.

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