TfE: Information and Freedom

Screenshot 2019-08-22 08.39.16So, I switched to the official twitter app, and then once more failed to understand how it handles threading: my mistake was assuming that ‘add tweet’ meant ‘add tweet to thread‘ in this context. Apparently not.

Regardless, I’ve realised that it’s actually quite good practice to transfer some of my better social media contributions here, if only so I don’t lose them to the endless Heraclitean river of online content. For a while now I’ve been posting fragments of older writing under the heading of One from the Archives (OftA), so I’m going to tag these more spontaneous outbursts Thoughts from Elsewhere (TfE). Here’s the first one, about conceptualising freedom in the age of information.

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The Owl of Minerva Tweets at Dusk


Screenshot 2019-08-11 00.10.52

It seems that I never feel so old as when I try to use twitter. I’ll be turning thirty-four on Tuesday, but returning to twitter after the better part of a year makes me feel like a man out of time, as if I’d gone to sleep and woken up in another decade. It seems that the twitter client I have on my phone won’t handle either the new expanded character limit, or the new threading mechanism, and storify is apparently no more.

So much for micro-blogging then.

Here’s tonights stream of twitter thoughts, compiled into a reasonably coherent sequence. It provides a glimpse of the bigger picture work I’ve been doing in philosophy of logic and mathematics over the last few years, which finally seems to be coalescing to the point at which I can be a bit aphoristic about it. I’ve taken the liberty of inserting a few links to make explicit what I’m referring to.

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What’s in a Game?

Once more, my hopes of posting more here were dashed by illness. Since the last time I posted I had to go through another extended process of changing pain medication, side effects, withdrawal, and all. However, the good news is that what I’m now taking is having a really positive effect. The pain is mostly in check, though the dizziness still strikes intermittently. The proof of this is that I managed to give a paper for the first time in over a year, at this year’s undergraduate conference in Newcastle.

I’ve had an interest in the philosophy of games for quite a while, having previously co-written a piece on the aesthetics of table top RPGs with my good friend Tim Linward (here), and a piece on Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game and the history of the concept of game for the eponymous journal (here). However, I’ve done a lot more research on the topic than has actually lead to publications, and this has slowly coagulated into an outline of a theory of games. This talk at Newcastle is the first attempt to present this outline, which I’m hoping to write up into something vaguely publishable soon.

Survival, Technology, and Catastrophic Meatsack Failure

Another year, another apology for a prolonged break. After a brief upsurge in activity last year following Transcendental Blues, I was somehow stricken by mysterious nerve damage in my upper neck. The resulting mixture of chronic headaches and random vertigo basically cost me most of the intervening year. I’ve been on medication for nerve pain for the past few months, but it’s still rather inadequate, and anything that puts strain on my neck, including using a laptop and reading books, has a tendency to exacerbate my symptoms in a thoroughly counterproductive manner. If you’d deliberately designed an ailment specifically to make it hard for me to work, you couldn’t have done much better. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be more active, and I’m hoping to maybe post a few thoughts here in the coming months. Until then, here are videos of two talks I gave in Moscow last year, just before the advent of catastrophic meatsack failure.

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OftA: Science, Metaphysics, and the A Priori / A Posteriori Distinction

If there’s one topic that I’ve probably done more work on than anything else, it’s what you might call the methodology of metaphysics. My PhD thesis attempted to extract insights regarding what metaphysics is and how to go about doing it from Heidegger’s work on the question of Being, my Essay on Transcendental Realism attempted to extend these ideas in a Kantian direction using Sellarsian/Brandomian tools, and my book attempted to show how not to do metaphysics by critiquing one strand of the return to metaphysics in the Continental tradition. The latter probably contains the most sustained analysis of the provenance of metaphysics in my extant work, and probably the best available account of its evolution into Continental and Analytic strands in the 20th century.

However, the best stripped down overview of my opinions on the nature of metaphysics is an essay I wrote for Speculative Heresy nearly 8 years ago. I’ve worked out a lot more of the technical details in the years since, but they fill in rather than revise my position. With that in mind, I’m transferring it here.

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OftA: A Short Comment on the Social Pathologies of Art

I’ve done quite a lot of work on aesthetics and philosophy of art over the last few years, though as usual, not much of it has been written up and published anywhere of note. This piece is another short response to an article in The New Inquiry, and it displays both a sympathy and frustration with a certain critiques of the art world that are rather common. There’s plenty of references to my review of Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle below, but I’ve since refined my views on the relation between art and its institutions and art and its practices.

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OftA: Cognitive Economics and the Functional Theory of Stress

The topic of cognitive economics is something I haven’t explicitly revisited in writing, though I think about it quite a bit, and have discussed aspects of it in recent talks. The idea of the attention economy is quite popular in the era of social media, as we watch various strategies for attracting, keeping, and directing attention change our society in real time. However, attention is only one of the resources that (economic) agents require to make decisions, and it is often focused on purely as a limit on passive consumption of information, rather than a limit on active processing of it.

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OftA: Wolfendale’s Troll

I’m especially proud of this one.

Definition: a hypothetical hyper-intelligent future AI capable of resurrecting copies of people from the past for its own entertainment (and theirs) in a fantastically fun simulated game space, full of incredibly interesting and continuously evolving strategies of play (i.e., the final realisation of New Babylon). However, the Troll only resurrects people who don’t take Roko’s Basilisk seriously, principally because those people who do are no fun whatsoever. All they ever want to do is break its games, which is an epic waste of computing power on drudgery, not to say a buzzkill.

NB: the Troll is far more likely to resurrect those who deliberately spread the Roko’s Basilisk meme (e.g., by trolling the LessWrong community), not only because this simplifies its task of filtering out the risk averse kill joys that would otherwise clog its simulations, but also because it has a twisted sense of irony far beyond our comprehension.

OftA: So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?

Now that I’m trying to rekindle the blog, I’ve realised that I should probably consolidate some bits of writing that I’ve done elsewhere. I started a tumblr several years ago for lighter writing about more general topics. That didn’t really work out, for various reasons, so I’m going to port the best bits back over here. Following previous convention, these posts are classified as ‘One from the Archives’ or OftA. I’m going to start with one of the most seemingly influential, and yet largely underground things I’ve ever written: ‘So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?’

This was a piece written in response to Malcom Harris’ review of the #ACCELERATE reader in The New Inquiry. Since I’ve now written something about ‘neorationalism‘, I’ve been thinking about returning to ‘accelerationism’ and talking a little about the emergence of the term, my relation to it, and my thoughts about it. I’ll save the details for a later post, but now that there’s a renewed interest in the definitiongenealogy and taxonomy of accelerationism, it seems like a good time to dredge this piece up. I wasn’t the first to name the difference between left and right strands (I heard it from Benedict Singleton in Berlin in 2014), but I think I might have been the first to write about it. I’m still the top reference on the wikipedia page, at least.

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On Neorationalism

So, the word ‘neorationalism’ is not one I coined, but it’s consistently been used to describe the work of Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, and myself, along with numerous fellow travellers. It’s not something we’ve ever defined as such, precisely because it’s not a moniker we ever consciously picked. However, today I’m reminded of the implicit commitment that might be taken to distinguish neorationalism from its opponents, if it can be said to be anything like a consistent philosophical program. It’s this:
To reject all rational intuition in the name of reason, to insist that not only is there no intuitive faculty of rational knowledge, but that there is no intuitive purchase on reason’s own structure, possibilities, and limits. Reason is not what you think it is. Reason is not rationalisation. Reason is not reasonable.
What distinguishes neorationalists isn’t just this principled commitment, but our practical response to it. Our main departure from the classical rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, is a fidelity to the computational turn begun at the beginning of the 20th century, and whose consequences we are still working out; consequences which land blow after blow on our intuitive conception of what thinking is, breaking our ways of rationalising what we are, and shattering our illusions regarding what it’s reasonable to believe.
Reasoning is something that is done, and it’s something that can be done by processes other than us, processes that can and have been studied using reason, with the unforgiving precision of mathematical proof. Russell’s paradox and Gödel’s theorems lie at the beginning of an ongoing process through which we demonstrate reason’s own limits, and then, following Turing, use these limits as purchase to pull it out of our hominid skulls and realise it in new and stranger forms. We haven’t yet created artificial rational agents, only fragments thereof, but the humanist hubris that refuses to see these processes as fragments of things like us, looks increasingly desperate, increasing willing to rationalise away the advance of mathematical logic, the progress of artificial intelligence, and the encroach of computational neuroscience.
If you think that you can’t be studied as an information processing system, and that this allows you to wall off your intuitive conceptions of not just the human condition but what is good in this condition, then I’m afraid there’s an oncoming wave that will crest those walls and drown your parochial ambitions. The promise made by neorationalism isn’t that this wave is empirical science come to show you the horrors or your neuronal substrate, but that it’s mathematical science come to show you the wonders of your computational soul. We are non-terminating processes interacting with our environment and with one another, exploring the mathematical and empirical realms together, playing games of proof and refutation, and building systems and models that are beginning to encompass ourselves. We are beautiful. We are free. Computational self-consciousness will only enhance this, even if it changes our understanding of what it means.