Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Emergence as Sensual Object Part 2

The anxiety about form and formal causation (Aristotelian term!) in modern science and philosophy is probably what gives rise to the mystery and slight fascination or dread surrounding notions of emergence. Somehow we want causation to be clunky, to involve materialities bonking into one another like the proverbial metal balls in the proverbial executive toy.

But if causality happens because of shape (as well as, or even instead of, because of matter) then we are forced to consider all kinds of things that materialist science, since its inception, has had trouble with (such as epigenesis). Formal causes are precisely the black sheep of science, marked with a big scarlet letter (S for Scholastic).

Emergence steps in as a kind of magic grease to oil the engine presumed to lurk in the sub-basement of reality beneath objects.

For my OOO, however, emergence is always emergence-for or emergence-as (which kind of means the same thing). Think of a kettle boiling. What is happening? Electrons are quantum jumping from lower to higher orbits. This behavior, a phase transition, emerges as boiling for an observer like me, waiting for my afternoon tea.

The smooth, holistic slide of water from cool to boiling happens to me, an observer. Just like the way the dalmatian pops out of the patches of black and white (see my previous). Emergence appears unified and smooth, but this holistic event is always for-another-entity. It would be wrong to say that the water has virtual properties of boiling that somehow “come out” at the right point. It's less mysterious to say that when the heating element on my stove interacts with the water, it boils. Its emergence-as-boiling is a sensual object, produced in an interaction between kettle and stove.

Likewise, on this view, mind is not to be found “in” neurons, but in sensual interactions between neurons and other objects. There is some truth, then, in the esoteric Buddhist idea that mind is not to be found “in” your body—nor is to be found “outside” it, nor “somewhere in between,” as the saying goes.

There is far less mystery in this view, but perhaps there is a lot of magic. The ordinary world in which kettles boil and minds think about tea is an entangled mesh where it becomes impossible to say where one (sensual) object starts and another (sensual) object stops.


Henry Warwick said...

Ummmmm - dude - you need to read this. I think you might have something to add to the discussion that is very useful:

possibly worth a lengthy post here.

ai said...

Tim - If I follow your argument here, you seem to be suggesting that the water doesn't actually boil, and that the molecules (in their relationship with heat) don't actually start to roil around and eventually turn into steam. All of that only happens for an observer (me, expecting tea). But isn't that correlationism in a nutshell?

Wouldn't an OOO position (say, Levi's) be that the water, or the molecules of water (I'm not sure where he'd draw the line and call it an 'object' - water molecules? a kettleful?) have inherent 'powers,' and that under the right conditions (e.g. heating) those powers activate a phase shift into a different form? The water 'object,' however (whatever it is), stays the same in its 'virtual proper being'...

To me it just seems easier to say that a kettleful of water is a certain state of a certain kind of substance-in-motion (i.e. in emergence, in ontogenesis) that has arisen in certain ways (was poured from the sink by me after it was transported from the water filtration plant, etc etc), and that its transition to steam is a further modification resulting from interaction with particular other things (e.g., heat, which itself is produced through certain processes, and so on). The causal relations here are complex, and they involve decisive action every step of the way - from my decision to boil water for tea (probably a 'conscious' decision) to individual molecules' decisions to speed up and change state, which they do out of deeply ingrained habit ('unconscious' decision, the way for which has been paved over many generations of heating of water molecules etc.), much more deeply ingrained, say, than my own habit of drinking tea at this time of day, but nevertheless changeable/resistable in principle (and under the right conditions).

This way of describing things captures both the exteriority (what things - e.g. me, the tea kettle, etc. - look like to outsiders) and the interiority (what it feels like to be 'me' in this moment, or to be a water molecule rushing around in the kettle, or being blown out the whistling end of it, etc., that 'feeling' always being experienced-as-such, whcih means open to tweaking, since experience is always active, never just passive).

There are temporary congealments here, each with their own stabilities and rates of change between certain phase-states: water molecules (relatively stable), a kettleful of water (not stable at all except insofar as the kettle dictates a stable shape), steam whistling out the kettle, me sitting patiently anticipating tea, etc. Each can be described as a certain set of certain kinds of ontogenetic processes, with the differences between them all giving shape to the relative stabilities and instabilities of the whole ensemble.

Okay, maybe that doesn't seem so simple after all... But it certainly jibes with my understanding of Buddhist ontology. I call it process-relational, and yet you guys (e.g. Levi yesterday) keep knocking it down as insufficient ('conservative' and 'reactionary' and whatnot in that post of his) and proposing alternatives that seem (to me) more difficult to wrap a head around. But I enjoy the effort of trying (and hope you enjoy the result of my efforts here in your comments).

Will your Buddhaphobia book get into defending an OOO Buddhism (or a Buddhism OOO-ism) at all?


Timothy Morton said...

The water really boils. Look at the photo! Boiling is a sensual interaction between water + energy coming from my stove top. It boils without me quite frequently. But it can't boil all by itself. It needs energy from my stove top.

Timothy Morton said...

Henry--I'm on it!