Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Faith in Finitude?

Lincoln Cannon is an insightful occasional commenter in the Moot, and I was intrigued to discover that he has written an extended intervention into my critique of Superlative Technocentric Discourse over on the site of an organization called the Mormon Transhumanist Association (which I must say makes a certain sense as a transhumanist affiliation once you get past the initial surprise).

Cannon writes:
While I've found many areas of agreement with Dale, such as recognition that our experience lends itself to complex and dynamic interpretations that correspond to superlatives only abstractly if at all, I don't share his faith in human finitude -- for precisely the same reason that I do share with him the rejection of concrete and absolute manifestations of superlatives in our experience.

I think Cannon may be misunderstanding me when he claims that I reject "concrete… manifestations of superlatives in our experience," since I certainly agree that there are actual, real phenomenal human encounters with the novel, the ineffable, and the sublime. I do think Cannon means to name something like our personal experiences of the "sublime" here when he speaks of "superlatives in our experience." And I am far from denying such experiences. I even agree that these experiences are often among the most significant ones to us, and that they often seem to demand in the force of their impact on us that we struggle to testify to them even if we must always make recourse to figurative language and poetic practice in our efforts to do so.

I have gone so far as to propose that there are five registers of warrant that human beings make reasonable recourse to and incarnate in our lifeways, five registers that correspond roughly to traditional branches of philosophical inquiry: the efficacious, the moral, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the political.

For me, to be reasonable means not only that one can make the case that one's beliefs are warrantedly assertible, but that one can make the case for which mode of warrant is the right one for one's beliefs at hand. A familiar example of this sort of demand is that one must be careful to distinguish values from facts, that oughts are not determined by ises, that main significances are not always written on the face of accurate descriptions. As it happens, it seems to me that Cannon's argument with me rests on a difference with me about precisely this sort of question.

When Cannon claims that he doesn't share my "faith in finitude," I must say that I cannot be sure what he can mean by this phrase. If I may be permitted a moment of pedantry, it seems important to note that there are several meanings of that word, "faith," in common parlance that we will want to keep separate if we want to understand the distinctions that are at issue in our misunderstanding here. Faith can mean fidelity or loyalty between persons and I think we can set that meaning aside for now. Faith can also denote the constellation of dogmas that solicit the shared sub(cult)ural identification of the Faithful of some sect which may actually come into our disagreement at some level, but I think for clarity's sake we can set that meaning aside for the time being as well. Faith can also describe the level of confidence in which we assert our beliefs, which is a sense that applies to all five registers of warranted belief and so I think is relevant to our discussion but probably not the ground for our contention here. No, the meaning of faith that seems to me to be the crucial one at hand is that sense in which faith is a word to describe those beliefs in particular that do not rest on either material evidence or logical proof.

Now, bear with my pedantry just a moment more. Finitude is also a term for which I think we need to be clear about our meaning here, if we would be clearer about our disagreement. Finitude is, in my understanding, quite simply the quality of being finite, where finite means being bounded or limited. In some definitions this is, interestingly enough, treated as synonymous with existing as such.

To the extent that the perception of events (among them, things) in our environment is always a matter of the discrimination of object-events against a differentiated background by means of articulated energy-absorption by sense-receptors, it seems to me that there is a primacy of finitude built right in to the empirical apprehension of the world at a very basic level. To perceive is to discriminate finite objects-events from the get-go. This finitude comes to assume foundational significance in the efficacious (or pragmatic, or instrumental, or scientific) register of warranted belief-ascription especially, since the privacy of perception is put via the test and the publication into the publicity of consensus precisely by way of the evidenciary replicability of this graspably finite event.

And so, when Cannon goes on to claim, "I do not expect to experience (nor do I consider it practically beneficial to pursue experience of) a concrete and absolute manifestation of finitude," this gives me extreme pause. It seems to me that one has endless, ubiquitous, interminable experiences of finitude, experiences that are roughly coextensive with what we mean by experience in the sense of perception and then in the sense of our confident solicitation of consensus about instrumentally efficacious descriptions of the world. When Cannon disapproves what he calls my "faith in finitude," I am flummoxed in precisely the same way. In what seems to me the sense of faith at hand, the sense that describes faith as beliefs that do not rest on evidence or proof, it seems to me that the recognition of finitude grounds the distinction of faithful from warranted belief in the first place, that without something like a "faith in finitude" we cannot make sense of the very idea of faithfulness in the first place.

Needless to say, I do not mean by belaboring this point simply to suggest that Cannon is confused in his terminology, but to say why I think we initially are talking somewhat past one another. When Cannon speaks of my "faith in finitude" it seems to me that he must not be talking about the factual question whether or not object-events in our environment universally exhibit limitedness in being discriminable as such in the first place (the denial of which point seems to me an absurdity), but talking about questions of significance and value instead. The fact that he couches a discourse of value in terms of experience is initially perplexing but it is easy to understand why he does so when you think about it.

For too long many of the loudest and clearest voices championing the force of factual description and the emancipatory power of consensus scientific practices have also happened to be voices that have denigrated as "emotivist," as facile, as "merely" subjective, as irrational, as insubstantiual, as hopelessly retrograde, and so on, many efforts to testify to the significance, the force, the indispensability of beliefs in moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes, and the actual substantial reality of the experiences that solicit these modes of warranted belief and the reasonable lifeways they incarnate. While it is undeniably wrongheaded and irrational to dismiss or repudiate the efficacious mode of warranted belief (or the social formations of publication and consensus scientific experimentalist practice that are its quintessential expression), it is exactly as wrongheaded and irrational to respond with a defense of the efficacious mode that takes the form of an imperialist championing that either denigrates every other mode of belief or, just as bad, a reductionist effort to rewrite every other mode in the terms of the efficacious.

Near the conclusion of his piece Cannon makes this declaration:
[M]y faith is in an eternal God that recurrently becomes God, an immortal God that dies and resurrects, and an omniscient and omnipotent God that progresses in knowledge and power. Without beginning, this God reorganizes worlds without end, through beginnings and endings. This is a God of life, in all its dynamic concrete complexity and its static abstract simplicity. This is a God of love, working endlessly for full reconciliation of our wills, desires and laws. I have worshiped as a slave, now as a child, and yet would be a friend in grace and works, without pity or pride. I would become one with the eternal God, even if it requires eternity.

I will admit that I am not a religious person and this is not the sort of statement in which I personally find much in the way of literal-minded usefulness or personal provocation. But I can still perfectly easily connect this sort of language to discourses which I have found significant, inspiring, provocative, liberating from Hannah Arendt speaking of politics in terms of "public happiness," William Burroughs speaking about taking drugs, Wendell Berry speaking about working the land, Gary Indiana or Jean Genet speaking about sex, Nico singing about disappointment, and so on.

When I refuse to accept the expression "faith in finitude" on the grounds that the notion of factuality on which our sense of the faithful depends is founded on the prior recognition of finitude, I do not mean to give comfort to those who in making similar claims will then tend to go on to deny the significance, the reasonableness and the actual indispensability of non-efficacious modes of warranted belief like the ones registered in -- to me -- aesthetic and moral encounters with the sublime and beautiful that give rise to so many vital testimonies to personal faith. I think it is easily possible to demarcate our pursuits of private perfection in the world directed to the attention of our fellows from our pursuits of efficacious descriptions of the world soliciting the warranted consensus of our fellows. I think it is, in fact, as easy as (or as hard as, apparently, these days) the separation of Church and State.

Cannon concludes with the assertion: "I desire superlative life, in quantity and quality, rather than superlative death." I must say that I find the notion of "superlative death" not at all meaningful. Death seems to me a fairly pedestrian matter when all is said and done. And while I agree that life is the only game in town, I cannot say that I think it benefits much from Superlativity either, unless one wants to mean by that phrase only that one seeks ever after the best beliefs, according to their mode, as open to what is emancipatory in the sublime as to what is emancipatory in the ordinary and well-ordered. I don't think anybody benefits much, though, from confusing facts with values, or the different work of science from the work of poetry (whether one finds one's poetry in art, meditation, orgasm, activism, crowds, god, gardening, or pharma).


jfehlinger said...

Oh hurry hurry hurry Dale and you can see the man himself

In Second Life, that is.

You can use that list I posted for one-stop shopping.
Let's see -- what avatar should you choose? I sort of like
the cat that shoots "non-lethal hairballs".

But if it were me, I'd definitely be going as the giant


giulio said...

Everyone is invited to Lincoln's talk of course (starts in 30 min).

Dale has also been invited to give a talk in SL, or debate. In this case please let me know in advance, I need to give martial arts training to my avatar.

Dale Carrico said...

I'm still trying to get my First Life in order. Embarking on a Second Life seems more trouble than it's worth, especially if it has to take place in what looks like an endless cyberspatial sprawl of strip malls and corporate cliches.

Lincoln Cannon said...

Dale, do you conceive of death in a manner analogous to superlative conceptions of immortality? If not, why?

Dale Carrico said...

Dale, do you conceive of death in a manner analogous to superlative conceptions of immortality? If not, why?

I don't think I do, no. And I can't even grasp exactly why you might think I would. So perhaps our larger disagreements turn in some way on the mutual incomprehension indicated by my befuddlement at your question in the first place.

Is there something superlative about the dead nonhuman animal at the end of a carnivore's fork? Is there something superlative about an accidentally shattered teacup on the tiles at your feet? Is there something superlative about the descent of a tossed ball back to earth?

As I propose in the piece to which you are responding here, I think perhaps you have mistaken my usage of "superlative" to mean simply something like "extreme" or "sublime."

But I use the phrase "superlative technology" in a very specific way, to describe a particular mode of technocentric discourse occasioned by the sweep and intensity of ongoing and emerging disruptive technoscientific change, a promissory discourse of transcendence typically soliciting faithful belief and sub(cult)ural identificaion of a kind that hitherto has been primarily (although not exclusively) an expression of organized modes of religiosity.

I certainly see the sense of the claim that the contemplation of death can be sublime. I mean this in the philosophical sense of the sublime as it is understood by classical aesthetics, as the confrontation with an overwhelming phenomenon that inspires a sense of awe that is not readily assimilated to our everyday language, and that testifying to the profundity of which typically requires recourse to figurative language.

I will also admit that coming to terms with the fact of mortality seems to me fairly indispensable to the project of becoming a reasonable responsible adult person. Meanwhile, the denial or disavowal of that mortality seems to me to produce a kind of death-in-life that is fearful, disengaged, aggressively irrational, and endlessly anxious for reassurances that never finally arrive but the quest for which and the denial of the frustrations of which yield not only death-in-life in the name of "life," but all too often attitudes and behaviors that are death-dealing as well.

I quite understand that there is something profoundly unfathomable in the fact that I who now am alive and who, in my aliveness, live in a world that exists for me as a place that is good for me to live in might somehow vanish from this world that seems a world especially for me and the world live on. It is this, I suppose, that accounts for much of the sublimity of our mortality as the inevitable narrative closure of our lived selfhood.

But I do want to say that despite all that I don't think mortality is the only constitutive expression of the finitude of the human condition that demands such traumatic reckoning if we are to become reasonable responsible adult persons. I personally think it is quite as traumatic as the recognition of our mortality to recognize as well that those on whom we depend are fallible or capable of betraying us, to recognize the ineradicable play of the unexpected in our plans and affairs, to recognize that we can so easily be the cause of unintended harms for others, to recognize that we are prone to error, to unfairness, to misunderstanding.

If you want to say the contemplation of death is a sublime encounter, then one should say the same of all these reckonings as well in my opinion.

But come what may, my use of the term Superlative is trying to get at something quite different from this, although in some ways the topics are interestingly connected to one another.