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.

On the Ontological Argument

Spurred to reading Spinoza's Ethica after Delany's use of it in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, I've found myself thinking over the last few days of the ontological argument. Hence the previous entry, a short story as a sortie into it, a little skirmish with the irksome bootstrapping. I've tackled it before, returned to it a few times, I think, but as Bertrand Russell said, "the argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, but it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies." There is little more frustrating for someone like me, a philosophically-minded ex-programmer with a somewhat obsessive interest in religion, than the niggle of a defiant problem of mental chicanery so intuitively unsound and so gnarly one can't help but want to unravel it. So, in an attempt to deal with this bugbear once and for all, I thought I'd take to it concertedly, try and rip it apart as thoroughly and decisively as I could. It may not be of interest to many reading this blog, but so it goes. Maybe it'll exorcise that irk at last.

So, let's begin with an analysis, stripping away the archaicisms of Anselm and laying out the basics of the argument in an overview such that it might, I hope, be more transparent what is going on here. I will abstract a little for a start, for reasons that should become obvious:

1. Any quantifiable quality, X, can be used to define a hypothetical existential maximum, M, the most X thing in existence.
2. We can then define a hypothetical essential supremacy, S, which trumps all contenders, a thing so X we can't imagine anything more so.
3. We can then premise that the quantity of the quality depends on existence: a thing is less X if it does not exist.
4. But, we say, then we have countless things in existence which possess that quality X, any one of which we can imagine.
5. We already have, indeed, the hypothetical M, the most X thing in existence.
6. If S does not exist, M is more X than S, that thing so X we can't imagine anything more so.
7. Unless S exists, we say, we have a self-contradiction: M is greater than S which is greater than M.
8. So, we say, S must exist.

Problem 1: This applies to monstrosity as well as to magnificence. If it is held to work for magnificence, we can apply the same ontological argument to prove the existence of a thing so monstrous we can't imagine anything more so. If this is accepted as simply a proof of the Devil consistent with the metaphysics of the Deus, we can push further.

Problem 2: Echoing #3: if the monstrosity of S can be said to be dependent on existence, it can also be said to be dependent on potency; a thing is less monstrous if it is not omnipotent. Echoing #6: if S(1) is not omnipotent, we can imagine an S(2) which is omnipotent, which is clearly the more monstrous. Not only must the Devil exist by the ontological argument, but he must be omnipotent.

Result: We then have two omnipotent beings, utterly opposed in magnificence and monstrosity and each by definition simultaneously capable of overcoming the other to achieve their will and yet incapable of being overcome. This is a contradiction.

Response: Since a being with the capacity to empower has greater power than a being without, it must be included in omnipotence. A being limited to the degree to which it may empower another has less power than one with no such limits, so omnipotence can have no such limits. So, one may imagine a response that the omnipotence of one is invested in it as an extension of the omnipotence of the other, that the S1 so magnificent we can't imagine anything more so empowers as a subordinate the S2 so monstrous we can't imagine anything more so. A supremely magnificent being imagined without the power to empower the supremely monstrous being is less magnificent than one imagined with that power, so only the latter can fit the criteria of a thing so magnificent we can't imagine anything more so.

Problem 3: It is equally possible to argue the reverse however, that the S1 so monstrous we can't imagine anything more so empowers as a subordinate the S2 so magnificent we can't imagine anything more so. A supremely monstrous being imagined without power to empower the supremely magnificent being is less monstrous than one imagined with that power, so only the latter can fit the criteria of a thing so monstrous we can't imagine anything more so.

Result: The equal legitimacy is a problem in and of itself, again returning us to a contradiction. Moreover, the ontological argument now supports a scenario in which the Deus is subordinate to the Devil. Indeed, given that benevolence is a key aspect of magnificence, and malevolence a key aspect of monstrosity, the latter of the two scenarios is more compelling:

Problem 4: In the first scenario, where S1 is magnificent, we can imagine an S1(2) that does not empower a monstrous subordinate S2. Being clearly the more benevolent, S1(2) is clearly the more magnificent. If we are holding to the ontological argument, we must dismiss that scenario. In the second scenario however, where S1 is monstrous, we can imagine an S1(2) that does not empower a magnificent subordinate S2, but this does not render S1(2) more malevolent. On the contrary, if a supremely magnificent S2(2) simply does not exist, this is less monstrous than if a supremely magnificent S2 is in fact a subordinate of a supremely monstrous S1. Surely a Devil that has the Deus for servant is more monstrous than the Devil that does not. If we are holding to the ontological argument, we must sustain that scenario then.

Outcome: If we accept the legitimacy of the ontological argument for the quality of magnificence, we must do so also for the quality of monstrosity. This creates a contradiction which in itself should be sufficient to invalidate the ontological argument. If we appeal to omnipotence in order to resolve this contradiction, supposing the empowerment of one supreme being by another, we can do so for the monstrous as legitimately as for the magnificent. Indeed, if we apply the ontological argument again, we see we can only truly do this for the monstrous, and we are left with a Supremely Magnificent Being which is empowered on the whim of a Supremely Monstrous Being.

Response: We should assume a response then in which the ontological argument is held to be legitimate for magnificence but not so for monstrosity. Rather than being valid for any quantifiable quality, X, the ontological argument must be held valid only for those qualities which would serve to construct magnificence. To this end, Anselm constructs magnificence--or greatness, as he calls it--as a product of sundry perfections, perfectible properties such as knowledge, power and righteousness that make a being great.

Problem 5: Monstrosity can equally be constructed as a product of perfectible properties. Knowledge and power may be perfected to omniscience and omnipotence, and we need only replace perfect righteousness with perfect iniquity in order to turn the supremely magnificent into the supremely monstrous.

Response: We must imagine an argument that iniquity cannot be a negative perfection, that it is rather a state of imperfection. While righteousness is perfectible by cleaving perfectly to the righteous path of action, iniquity is defined as straying from the path; no matter how far we imagine straying from the path, we can always imagine a step that takes us further, so no matter how wicked we can imagine a being, we can therefore always imagine an action making the being more wicked.

Problem 6: For righteousness to be perfectible requires iniquity to be so too. If omniscience is knowing all things, and omnipotence is the power to do all things, perfect righteousness must be constructed as a state in which all things done are right. All things must thus be decidable as right or wrong, good or wicked, so perfect iniquity can be constructed as a state in which all things are done other than they would be done by the righteous. It does not matter if we say that there are multiple ways to do things wrong, some more wicked than others. This only means that some are less wicked, and therefore more good. This is only to set a sliding scale of moral judgement, a spectrum that runs from mandatory (acts we must do) through laudable (acts we should but may not do) through reprehensible (acts we may but should not do) to forbidden (acts we must not do.) That is to say, if straying from the righteous path means breaching the mandatory and the forbidden, greater wickedness can only be achievable via reprehensible acts if greater righteousness is achievable via laudable acts. Perfect righteousness would then be the state in which the least wicked option is always selected, while perfect iniquity would be the state in which the most wicked option is always selected.

Problem 7: Alternatively, if the perfectibility of iniquity is denied, we can as legitimately deny the perfectibility of righteousness. Where ethical perfection is cast as supremacy, supremacy as the achievement of a state so ethical we can't imagine anything more so, the ontological argument crumbles if we can always imagine a more ethical state, if there is always a further step that we can imagine being taken which would increase virtue. This is exactly the case. Perfect righteousness would entail not just cleaving to the mandatory and eschewing the forbidden, but doing every laudable act possible in every given context. If we consider benevolence as a linchpin of righteousness however, and acts of charity as laudable exercises of that principle, there is no intrinsic maximum to charity. Where Gaunilo seeks to show the ontological argument absurd by proving the existence of a perfect island, his argument is held to fail because the qualities that make an island magnificent are not perfectible; if we suggest an abundance of fruit as a perfection, for example, there is no inherent maximum for this, so it will always be possible to imagine a more magnificent island. In so far as we can map an island's production of fruit directly to an individual's provision of charitable gifts, the same problem holds for the argument here. In the form of charity, benevolence has no inherent maximum, so any ontological argument including this as a facet of magnificence is incoherent.

Problem 8: Further, the very notion of righteousness as a quantifiable quality may be seen as incoherent. If we consider justice and mercy to be linchpins of righteousness, there is a clear incompatibility if we imagine these two as perfected: perfect justice would entail punishing every wrongdoer to the degree they merit, while perfect mercy would entail exercising leniency on every wrongdoer, punishing them less than they merit. That incompatibility points to a more fundamental problem with the notion of righteousness though, in so far as the two constitute competing imperatives on a judge, rendering his judgement subject to evaluation in both dimensions. That's to say, whether he is just or lenient, his action is both laudable and reprehensible--by different measures. With any number of other principles that might be applied, the righteousness of an act may well be ultimately irreducible to a singular measure. If we consider virtue in any but the crudest sense, by any ethical system other the most primitive one-dimensional moralism, we may well reject the notion of maximal righteousness entirely, holding that there is only the ethically optimal course of action.

Problem 9: We may question also whether omniscience could truly be maximal, or whether it too must be optimal. For omniscience to be maximal, the omniscient being must know completely what it's going to think next. If it does not, it doesn't know everything, so it is not omniscient. Since thoughts include intentions, decisions and actions of volitions, indeed, without complete foreknowledge of one's thoughts, one can have no foreknowledge of one's future deeds, only imperfect predictions. If the omniscient being's own future deeds are not perfectly predictable to itself, neither is the eventual outcome of those future deeds upon the world, in which case its knowledge of the world's future is also uncertain. Omniscience is meaningless without this last, so the omniscient being must know what it's going to think next. If this is the case however, then it is aware of the thought. Since entry into awareness is the action by which a thought becomes a thought, by which a being thinks that thought, the omniscient being aware of its future thoughts is thinking them in that instant. For omniscience to be maximal, all future thoughts must enter into awareness in the instant omniscience comes into being, and must remain so as long as omniscience persists. The omniscient being is therefore static, and therefore not thinking in any meaningful sense of the word. It is arguable that it is not even aware. The only possible solution to this is to posit optimal rather than maximal knowledge, the limitation of omniscience to that which is needful to know at any given moment.

Problem 10: We may question also whether omnipotence could truly be maximal, or whether it too must be optimal. For omnipotence to be maximal, the omnipotent being must be able to perform in the immediate instant all actions it might perform in any future instant. That is to say, it must be able to preempt its own future actions. If it cannot, it is not omnipotent but rather bound within its own performance. Again, this limitation propagates to the world: if the omniscient being cannot preempt its own future actions upon the world, all changes in the world resulting from those actions could not have been made preemptively. At any given moment, the omnipotent being is unable to change the world by any action that would be premature; thus it is not truly omnipotent. If it can preempt its own future actions, it must have foreknowledge of them, including its own thoughts. It can't not preempt its own thoughts. Since thoughts include intentions, decisions and actions of volitions, it can't not preempt its own actions, carrying them out at the moment of its own creation--and continuing to do so if it continues to experience every thought, every decision, every act of volition. If every act of volition and therefore every act occurs the instant this omniscient omnipotence comes into being, and continues as long as it persists, again this is not action in any meaningful sense of the word. The only possible solution to this is to posit optimal rather than maximal power, the limitation of omnipotence to that which is needful to do at any given moment.

Problem 11: As well as being individually incoherent, these qualities are mutually incompatible in all combinations. If the perfectly righteous being cannot perform any wicked action and remain perfectly righteous, then it cannot therefore be omnipotent. If the omnipotent being can perform any wicked action and remain perfectly righteous, then righteousness is infinitely mutable and therefore cannot be perfected. If the perfectly righteous being cannot know completely what it is to enjoy a wicked action because one does not know that it is wicked, then it cannot be omniscient. If the omniscient being can know completely what it is to enjoy a wicked action because one does not know that it is wicked, then it cannot be perfectly righteous. If the omnipotent being can create a being with the free will to perform an action that is not predestined, it cannot know whether the being will perform that action or not, and is thus not omniscient. If the omniscient being knows every action that a being will perform as a predestined outcome, then it cannot invest that being with free will, and is thus not omnipotent. The notion of maximal magnificence as a totality of these three maximal qualities is therefore incoherent.

Problem 12: The notion of maximal magnificence is also incompatible with that of a being in so far as it extends to defining the being as unlimited. While maximal magnificence is often decomposed simply to these three qualities, omnipotence entails the power to do anything anywhen, and precludes external causes of creation and destruction beyond the omnipotent being's control. Thus, the omnipotent being must be eternal and indestructible, removing all limits (except perhaps logic,) and we find ourselves at Norman Malcolm's simplification of the notion as that of an absolutely unlimited being. But the use of the determiner, a, requires that the being so determined is determined as distinct from any other being or thing. If it is determined as distinct from any other being or thing, it is by definition limited: it is not any of those other beings or things. Malcolm's notion of an unlimited being is hence logically impossible, a non-starter.

Response: One might respond that this holds for all but the totality of all things. We can say that a being determined as distinct from its constituent things--e.g. as a person is distinct from their hand--is an exception, as the constituent things are included within the limits of the being rather than excluded as beyond them: the being is that constituent thing in combination with all others; the constituent thing, in combination with all others, is the being. If all things are constituents of one totality, then all things are within the limits of that totality, and that encompassing totality may be considered to have no limits in and of itself. Here we approach Spinoza, since there can be no distinction then between that being and the entirety of Nature. Indeed, if we admit of a multiverse beyond the scope of even the universe, that being must be considered, to coin a term, holocosmic.

Problem 13: A being is, however, a subclass of thing which is limited in a singular and profoundly distinctive aspect: a being must have agency or it is not a being, merely a thing. Or at least, where we may strictly speaking include as beings the most basic orders of creatures, those too primitive to respond with more than a taxis or suchlike, the agency that emerges, as creatures scale up in complexity, as the animating system of each individual being is an absolutely fundamental attribute of the type of being (being-as-agent) that the term is being used to refer to here. The crux of the issues with omnipotence, omniscience and perfect righteousness is, as much as anything, the degree to which each of these attributes individually and as a whole specifies criteria for the conceit of a being-as-agent that become entirely incompatible with the very definition of a being-as-agent even before we follow the ramifications through to their ultimate end-point in the holocosmic. Spinoza nails this to the wall in his Ethica, sweeping away all anthropomorphic projection, down to the very idea of (intellect and) will as he parses it--i.e. agency. Spinoza speaks with forked tongue, his use of the term "God" a patent feint for a stance that is actually radically antitheist, but given a modern context with no threat of heresy accusations hanging over us, let us dispense with that weakest of sops to propriety:

• Agency is an existential phenomenon, the definitive feature of a sentient being with the capacity to react autonomously to changes in its environment. Note: not sapient, but sentient: there is nothing in the world to substantiate a specious exceptionalism conflating sapience and sentience, ratiocination and basic (self-)awareness, in order to sustain a conceit of agency as an exclusively human phenomenon; until such time as that sort of haughty claim is proven, a simple principle must be applied: Where sensation is, there agency am. What we can rule out as capable of agency is any conceit of a thing that can struggle with neither the world nor itself. Agency is a matter not just of aims and objectives manifest on whim, but of the formation of such in response to disruptions exterior or interior, a matter not just of the achievement of goals by willing it so, but of active engagement with the obstacles that thwart achievement until agency is applied (and applied right.) For agency, there can be no decision without dilemma. A little hyperbolic perhaps, but the core point is simple:

• By the term agency what I mean is the animating system emerging in and of a sentience as it parses sensations of self and world into stances of one toward the other, these stances (boulomaic, deontic, epistemic or alethic) being always already ephemera of a dynamics driven by the absence of power, knowledge and/or aesthetic equilibrium. At its most basic level, I mean, we can perhaps situate the very birth of agency in the breach of aesthetic equilibrium we call hunger, in the sentience of this absence of power in its most immediately and intuitively measurable form: the fuel we call food. One might say that the conceit of a thing woven by the ontological argument can never know hunger, but this is not a matter of knowledge, but rather of the dynamics of agency which is the very thing abolished with the abolition of limitation.

Result: All the omniscience in the world will not help the ontological argument, since agency is not to know hunger but to be driven by it to a decision the consequences whereof we do not know.

Response: We must imagine a response which ignores all these problems, obliviates all criticism and retreats to entrench within the logical gambit at the heart of the ontological argument. Yet, it insists, there is a notion defined here of a being of maximal magnificence, and without the property of existence such a being is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps, if we set maximal magnificence as maximal for a being with agency, if we appeal to the mystery of a transcendent agency to excuse aspects that appear incoherent in the idea, is it not still so that this being would be less magnificent if it did not exist and therefore, to be what it is defined as, must exist?

Problem 14: A thing is not less X if it does not exist. If it does not exist, a thing has no state. None of its quantifiable properties are actually set, as we can tell if we simply imagine a ten ton bus. Rather than an object property, ten tons is a specification made upon a class. That is to say, "ten ton bus" functions as a template such that an object fitting that template is and can only be a ten ton bus. Such an object having a state, it has weight as an alterable property, and we can change this without changing the object into another object. Changing the weight specification of the class to five tons gives us a different class, "five ton bus." If we imagine a "ten ton lorry," indeed, we can change the vehicle specification to bus and reconstruct the original class in our imagination. The fact that we can do so tells us that neither class has an alterable state such that properties can be increased or decreased. Rather any constituent dimensions--e.g. "weight: ten tons"; "vehicle type: bus"--are criteria, specifications that an object with state must meet in order to be of that class. Where Hume says that existence is not a quality, we can say that this is because it is a state, the state of instantiation that only an object can have; and because to treat it as an attribute and specify a class with such is, as with any attribute, simply to set a criteria that an object must meet to be an object of that class. The same is true for Kant's rejection of existence as a predicate. If we imagine existence as something that an object of a class does, as a procedure of that class, any procedure is simply another type of criteria, a specification of requisite performance that an object must match to be an object of that class. So we can construct a class "ten ton lorry driving down the road," where "driving down the road" is a procedural criteria. But it is still a criteria, a specification that an object with state must meet in order to be of that class. We do not make a class more magnificent by ascribing existence to it. Applied to a class, existence is a criteria.

Problem 15: The ontological argument obfuscates this simply by sleight of hand. If we construct a class of a "being so X we can't imagine anything greater" this has no state and therefore no alterable property of greatness. Where we inspect existential beings for their relationship to this class, we're not matching property with property but rather criteria with property, which makes that action inherently a confirmation of existence rather than a comparison of quantities. The class in question is however constructed wholly in relation to other classes. It is--and you must forgive the convolution--a class of being with the criteria (of greatness specified such) that no other class of being can be specified with the criteria of greatness specified higher. If the convolution obfuscates what's going on here, let me spell it out. The sole criteria of the class is not actually specifying the class's own greatness at all; it's specifying the limitation of all other classes. We can remove the bracketed text to clarify: It is a class of being specified with the criteria that no class of being can be specified with the criteria of greatness specified higher. It may become clearer still if we restructure: It is a class of being specified with the criteria that a criteria (of greatness specified higher) cannot be specified in any other class. Again, we can remove the brackets to draw out what is going on: It is a class of being specified with the criteria that a criteria cannot be specified in any other class. Boil it down to this and we find the notion is empty. It sets no matchable criteria, only performs an operation on how a certain criteria can be specified.

Problem 16: In fact, an operation like this is inherently metalinguistic (for notional classes considered as a language.) Setting a limit on the specification of criteria for classes is a system-wide procedure. Any class with a sole criteria like that includes an implicit "henceforth," because it is in fact executing a procedure to redefine class construction: It is a class of being specified with the criteria that henceforth no other class can have a criteria specified in a now proscribed manner. What Anselm's ontological argument is really saying is that he can perform an act of imagination by which, henceforth, no being he imagines can be specified as greater than the supreme being he is already imagining. Any attempt to do so will simply result in whatever specification that would consist of being applied to the supreme being he imagines. This is all very well as a description of how faith sustains itself by shifting the goalposts, but it should now be clear that all he is doing when he specifies existence as a criteria is just that: specifying existence as a criteria that must be met. The preceding convoluted mechanics is irrelevant, not a logical premise but a description of his diversionary mechanisms of imagination. He is left with a class of "existing supreme being" which is in the exact same situation as a class of "existing ten ton lorry"--a class with certain criteria specified that must be matched to an object for confirmation that it exists. The criteria of "existing" is of course wholly redundant in a class; any object that meets all other criteria is an object and therefore, by definition, exists.

Response: The last refuge of the ontological argument is that proposed in Anselm's restatement and adopted by more contemporary philosophers like Plantinga: necessity. Here a criteria of "necessarily" is added to the criteria of "existing" such that the class proposed is that of "necessarily existing supreme being." Given that a contingent "existing supreme being" still must be matched to an object for confirmation that it exists, it is less magnificent than one which does not require matching because to deny it would be a contradiction in terms. The quality of supremacy requires necessity, so by definition it would be a contradiction in terms to deny a "necessarily existing supreme being."

Problem 17: The necessarily supreme being inherits all of Problems #1-#13, and is patently echoing the gambit unpacked in Problems #14-#16: apply a criteria to a class as a way to establish there's an object matching it. If a "contingently existing supreme being" is a contradiction in terms due to the utter incoherence of omnipotence, omniscience and perfect righteousness, individually, together, and in combination with being, we hardly really need to address a "necessarily existing supreme being." We already have a "necessarily not-existing supreme being." But let's set aside the incoherence in order to unpack this last gambit in and of itself, lest any shred of faith remain in the capacity of the ontological argument to define anything into existence. We'll take our cue from Plantinga and reproduce his argument, with a variation following to draw out the problem.

Argument 1:

Premise A: A being is maximally excellent in a given world if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect in that world.
Premise B: A being is maximally great in a given world if and only if it is maximally excellent in every possible world.

1. The notion of a maximally great being is self-consistent, so it is not logically impossible.
2. Therefore, there is at least one logically possible world in which a maximally great being exists.
3. By Premise B, if a maximally great being exists in one logically possible world, it exists in every logically possible world.
4. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in every logically possible world.

Argument 2:

Premise A: A thing is quite relevant in a given world if and only if it is applicable, comprehensible and all about dogs in that world.
Premise B: A thing is brilliantly relevant in a given world if and only if it is relevant in every possible world.

1. The notion of a brilliantly relevant thing is self-consistent, so it is not logically impossible.
2. Therefore, there is at least one logically possible world in which a brilliantly relevant thing exists.
3. By Premise B, if a brilliantly relevant thing exists in one logically possible world, it exists in every logically possible world.
4. Therefore, a brilliantly relevant thing exists in every logically possible world.

Summary: Plantinga founds his argument in the notion of all possible worlds because this is the measure of positive and negative logical possibility and necessity. A contradiction in terms is logically impossible, which means in all possible worlds it's false: there are no square circles. If to deny something is a contradiction in terms, that thing is logically necessary, which means in all possible worlds it's true: all circles are round. If neither of these is the case then, with a self-consistent proposition like "all dogs are friendly," the set of all possible worlds must contain at least one world where this is true. So, Plantinga constructs a premise he holds to be self-consistent, and hence not logically impossible. If we accept that the premise is not logically impossible, we have to accept that there's one logically possible world in which it's true. That premise is so constructed, however, that if it's true in one world, it's true in them all. So his maximally great being must exist in all possible worlds, making it logically necessary.

Problem 18: If there is nothing to render Plantinga's premises a contradiction in terms, there is nothing to render ours a contradiction in terms. Indeed, where the incoherence of a maximally magnificent being is detailed above, our set of characteristics are demonstrably self-consistent: we can point to any decent book on man's best friend as proof of something "quite relevant" in this world. But following the argument through, we are led by the ontological argument to the conclusion that such a thing exists in every possible world. Unless dogs are logically necessary, there is at least one world where they do not exist, and we're left with the absurd notion of something "applicable, comprehensible and all about dogs" in a world without dogs. This absurdity in and of itself surely renders Plantinga's argument fatally flawed.

Problem 19: What is being overlooked here is the flip-side of contingency. If the negation of a proposition like "all dogs are friendly" is also a self-consistent proposition ("not all dogs are friendly,") the set of all possible worlds must contain at least one world where this negation is true. If a proposition is contingent, it must also be false in at least one possible world; otherwise it is logically necessary and not contingent. If we are to take the self-consistency of "all dogs are friendly" as proof that it is not logically impossible, then unless we are assuming necessity, we must consider whether the negation is self-consistent; if so "all dogs are friendly" is also not logically necessary.

• What then if we consider: "A thing is not brilliantly relevant in a given world if and only if it is relevant in every possible world"? What if we consider: "A being is not maximally great in a given world if and only if it is maximally excellent in every possible world"? There is no contradiction in terms evident in either of these. In either, we could simply say that there are other additional properties required to render a thing "brilliantly relevant" or "maximally great" in any given world. In such a case, we have an equally legitimate alternative #1: The negation of a maximally great being is self-consistent, so it is not logically necessary. Further, this generates a new #2: Therefore, there is at least one logically possible world in which a maximally great being does not exist. If we apply Premise B in #3 now, we get the exact opposite result: Therefore, a maximally great being exists in no logically possible world.

Result: The argument is wholly unsound, crumbling at the very first hurdle. Why? Because Premise B is only a definition of a metalinguistic operation: the confirmation of the logical necessity of a class and the subsequent renaming of it. It can be rephrased thus: A class is to be branched into a subclass as ["Necessarily" + (X)] in a given world if and only if it is [(X)] in every possible world. For any value of X one cares to enter into that, for any possible renaming operation that one might replace ["Necessarily" + (X)] with, all that premise does is take an existing class and create a new subclass inheriting from it, predefined as logically necessary. What follows is simply a contorted reiteration of the relationships that pertain between: any actually logically necessary thing, self-consistency, logical impossibility, all possible worlds, one possible world, and existence. There is no substance here, not a shred. This last refuge of the ontological argument is a flourish of intricate but empty gestures, making a grand show of elegant reasoning involuted to disguise what is not remotely the breathtaking bootstrapping maneuver it purports to be, but rather a concerted effort to tie one's laces together such that at the very first step one stumbles face-forward, crashes tumbling down the stairs, head over heels and face-planking every step of the way, to lie in a crumpled heap of nonsense at the bottom and, in the oblivious delusion that one has actually performed a feat, throw one's arms up in the air with a drunken, "Tada!"

In short: The ontological argument is dead. Let the scraps of its shredded corpse be trebucheted from the city walls, to splatter the rocks of the wilds beyond, food for the feral dogs and carrion crows.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Anselm's Dream: A Drabble

Anselm dreamt.

He dreamt of a being of ultimate monstrosity, a beast nothing worse than which could be imagined, manifesting as some dread horror might in the imagination of an artist commissioned to paint a fresco of Hell.

He screamed at the beast that it was not real.

-- I am the being nothing worse than which can be imagined, it laughed. If your dream of me were all that was, you could imagine something much worse--a contradiction in terms, no?

Anselm screamed.

-- Ah, but to be the worst of all, it said...

Anselm wept.

-- You must imagine me omnipotent.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

How to NOT Cut Adjectives

It's an oft-cited Rule of Writing that adjectives are bad, that overuse will lead to a godawful purpling of one's prose. Who needs an adjective when the right noun will do? Aren't these (along with adverbs) pretty much the most-often redundant part of speech? Cut them! we cry. Take a cut-throat razor and flense that fat from the bloated corpse of your dead and rotting prose! And this is not entirely bad advice, not by any means.

Being a thrawn cocksucker, however, and a cocksure motherfucker whose grave shall read, "Fuck that shit!" I thought I'd smack that advice upside its vapid little head with a baseball bat, dump this petty axiom of the mediocre out a top floor window and offer you a completely contrary lesson. Yeah, that's right. Today's lesson in the craft of writing is how to not cut adjectives. Let's take a random example of adjective overuse, sourced from some corner of the interwebs:

"Stepping out into the bright sunshine amidst the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

Now if we were to prune this ruthlessly of all the adjectives, what we'd get is this:

"Stepping out into the sunshine amidst the singing of the birds, she sensed a stirring in her spirit that left her open to the excitement of the challenge that lay ahead of her."

Yeah, whatever. It's not as overwrought as the original, but it's hardly deathless prose. I say we can fix that sentence a whole lot better, and I say we can do so without lowering the adjective count by a single word. Surely it can't be done! I hear you say, There's fricking five adjectives in there! Surely some of them just gotta go!

Pfft! says I. Piece of piss.

Let's start by applying the first principle of decent prose: clarity. Is the sunshine "amidst" the birdsong? Can light be physically "amidst" sound? Does that even make sense? Don't be silly, you say. It's her that's "amidst" the sound. As she steps out? I say. Surely she's stepping out into the birdsong just as much as she's stepping out into the sunshine, entering them both at the exact same point. The birdsong isn't swirling around her such that it follows her out the fucking door. So:

"Stepping out into the bright sunshine and the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

But, wait! Let's apply economy too! Why are we calling it "singing of the birds" when there's the perfectly good "birdsong," as I just referred to it above? So:

"Stepping out into the bright sunshine and the delicate birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

Not that much better yet, eh? But, look! Now there's a logical pairing of sight and sound, a parallel emphasised by the compound construction of "sun-shine" and "bird-song," which makes it a logical balance to have the second adjective.

Still, they're both redundant. When is sunshine not bright? When is birdsong not delicate? (The cawing of crows or gulls is not song. Song is musical. If we're talking birdsong, we're talking canaries, nightingales and other such ickle tweety-birds.) To be purposeful, the adjectives here must conjure the additional import of the object in the narrative, what it is about them that makes these instances distinct. Here, it's clearly as much the affective experience of the ephemera, the degree to which and the way in which they impact on the character as she steps out into them. The right adjectives could conjure that and not be redundant:

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her."

While we're at it though, we might as well change that "brave." A challenge isn't brave; the person that responds to it is. If they have to be brave to respond to it, that means it's formidable:

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

OK, so where were we? Well, now it's only the second half of the sentence that goes purple. With the first half tightened, we can just about accept "passionate stirring," but when we hit "mysterious excitement," we throw up a little in our mouths, right? But we don't have quite the same redundancy in that vomit-point pairing. Not all excitement involves a sense of mystery. It's only when we have a sense of mystery together with a sense of excitement that... oh, wait.

Hang on.

What we're trying to conjure here is a composite affect, right? It's an affect with two dimensions, so the writer has picked one and shaded it with the other. But is the character open to the "mysterious excitement" or to the "exciting mystery"? Do those flipped phrasings really signify anything different, I mean? Cause if we have two affects, and one is not essentially a subordinate quality of the other, if their relationship could be flipped, then we can just have her open to both, duh. I'm going to apply the principle of specificity here though, cause the reason an adjective has been slapped on "excitement" is that "excitement" is a bit generic in and of itself. Since we want something as precise as mystery to pair with it, I'm going to switch excitiment to "thrill":

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

So, now we have actually removed one adjective, by turning it back into the noun it's derived from. (Don't worry. It ain't over yet.) Still, even doing that, while I no longer gag at that point in the sentence, that "passionate stirring" remains... a bit bothersome. Again, it feels a bit redundant. If you sense a stirring in your spirit, that's obviously a matter of affect, of passion. If you're stirred, then said passion is by definition elevated, you are by definition feeling passionate. But you know what? I'm not going to cut that, because clearly the idea is to drive home just how stirred she is. In fact, I'm going to add an adjective. That's right, motherfuckers, add. Hey, we cut one, and the game here is to fix the sentence without just pruning modifiers, so to take us back up to the original total, I'm going to bring back one that got lost along the way--"brave."

I'm not just going to tack it on to a noun though. Fuck that shit. I'm going to show how the adjective need not be bound to the heteropartist orthodoxy in which it must always be paired with a noun, married to a different part of speech, subjugated, enslaved. Let our two little adjectives bond together in a same-part marriage, strike out together, proud and dauntless, passionate and brave!

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate and brave, that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

You want to cut things from this sentence? Three "X and Y" pairings in one sentence is a bit much, so let's make those adjectives snuggle even tighter, make them even more fierce, even more in-yer-face. Adjective Rights, motherfucker! Let's go for the bam! bam! effect of conjunction elision.

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and the tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge that lay ahead of her."

Might as well prune a couple of other redundancies while we're at it. Let's bring the first pair a little closer together by dropping the second "the," and let's tighten up the last phrasing by dropping "that lay" and "of her":

"Stepping out into the glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mystery and thrill of the formidable challenge ahead."

Actually, fuck it, who needs the first "the"? And if it's the unknown potentials of the challenge that are getting her all excited, is it really a singular mystery, a singular thrill, or is it a fabulous, formless plethora of possibilities we're dealing with? So:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

And hey presto! We have a perfectly usable sentence that's shorter by some half dozen words, but with no fewer adjectives than we began with. Is it still a bit precious? Sure, but it's articulating a moment of rapture; what do you expect? The point is, the lyricism required to conjure the moment is not achieved simply by slapping an emotional button-pushing adjective onto every noun, painting everything: bright; delicate; passionate; mysterious; brave. (Puke.) In the original, this trowelling-on of vapid effusiveness only gives us prose that's crude, saccharine and false. But is the fault overuse of adjectives or simply misuse? The right choice of five adjectives and the right placement for them, and you can piss on the shallow piffle of bush-league gurus churning out the same trite mantras over and over again: don't overuse adjectives; don't overuse adjectives; don't overuzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.


This is pedestrian bollocks:

"Stepping out into the sunshine amidst the singing of the birds, she sensed a stirring in her spirit that left her open to the excitement of the challenge that lay ahead of her."

This is actual narrative prose:

"Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead."

And I tell you what... I could add a sixth adjective in there and it would still work--work better arguably. Yeah, you heard me, baby, brazen in my braggadocio. One hundred internets if you can guess what and where, answers in the comments below, prize to whoever gets closest.

Come on, motherfuckers. Show me your adjectival audacity.

Bring it on.

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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Rhapsody Cover Art

Designed by Matt Cresswell, cover art by Stijn Windig:

Coming April 2014

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