“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Of Wheels and Their Reinvention: The Trouble with AQAL

So I'm the grumpy guy at the back of the car driving through the land of Integral Ecology, a book by Michael Zimmerman and Sean Esbjorn-Hagens (with Marc Bekoff), now abbreviated to E/Z, a slightly unfortunate acronym as I shall soon show.

So far Adam Robbert and Sam Mickey of Knowledge Ecology have very elegantly covered chapters 1 and 2, and Adrian Ivakhiv has done two equally marvelous posts on chapters 3 and 4. This is in parallel with being a new dad—talk about all quadrants, all levels! (That was an AQAL joke, for those of you not familiar with Ken Wilber).

In my curmudgeonly fashion I poked my walking stick into the bushes of E/Z's ideas about Romanticism, which frankly I found too—E/Z...

Now I'm afraid I have another “problem,” and this time it's with the notion of AQAL, which seeks to integrate all forms of knowledge.

Here's the thing: the four quadrants reproduce almost perfectly human knowledge as given to us: subjective (“I”), intersubjective (“we”), objective (“it”), and interobjective (“its”). Robbert reproduces E/Z's assertion that “These are roughly equivalent to fine arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.” Then E/Z add some Vernadsky like language (the spheres): physiosphere, biosphere, and noosphere. Adrian is good on this in his first post. I'm going to address the issue not so much in terms of the form of the spheres (they are too static for Ivakhiv) but simply in terms of what they cover.

In a nutshell, the trouble is that the four quadrants and four levels map perfectly onto normal everyday human prejudices. For example:

The noosphere is limited to beings that are sentient. It's not difficult to read into the “noo” prefix the Neoplatonic idea of a sphere of nous (same word) that transcends the physical. Some kind of Neoplatonism is at work here, though E/Z are at pains to say that nous emerges out of material physis and not the other way around—now that would be cool, a twenty-first century book that really is fully Neoplatonic.

Now science is discovering limit cases of sentience that don't require neurons, such as plant sentience, or brain-like behavior of sponges. Should these be included in the noosphere? So we have a Sorites problem: the noosphere is vague and inconsistent. Yet it seems like it wants to be consistent.

I also detect in this noosphere a traditional Heideggerian prejudice about humans, now somewhat generously extended to sentient beings in general: only they can carve out a world. This isn't surprising since Zimmerman is a Heideggerian.

I must protest as an object-oriented ontologist. Nothing about what a sponge or even a pencil does differs very much, at an ontological level, from what a human does when she cognizes. Yet if the noosphere can be said to cover not only the entire biosphere but also the entire physiosphere, how useful is it as a heuristic concept?

I put it to E/Z that the noosphere can only be functional if it discriminates between some kinds of thing such as cognizing with neurons versus other kinds of thing such as cognizing with plant hormones, or resting on a table, or spanning a river.

But these discriminations shouldn't just be imported wholesale into the system: that's just smuggling pre-given contraband into your philosophical view. Otherwise the system just can't account for the very things it is trying to integrate: all knowable things. This is a big problem.

If AQAL is only saying that some beings with neurons have minds, then I can think about that using my pre-given prejudices in a way that is just as good as AQAL. If not better, because I'm unencumbered by a metalanguage that inevitably is more brittle than the language I'm using, ordinary English. (As Adrian puts it, AQAL is a meta-methodology.)

Now we could do the same thing to every other set in the quadrant and sphere model. For instance, the difference between my use of interobjectivity and E/Z's use of the term is that for them, “object” just means “something that isn't social, human, sentient or noetic” or something like that. An AQAL object just is an ordinary object as it appears to non-examined, everyday human prejudice. Whereas for me, “object” can mean the Pope, wallabies, the Oort Cloud and flapjacks.

So far from breaking the deadlocks within Cartesian dualism, favorite whipping boy of environmentalism, AQAL reproduces them by importing them wholesale. In fact, in some sense we're worse off than where we were with Descartes, because at least there we have an interesting (that is not pre-given) conception of extension (rather than objects), and an asymmetry between subject and object to which AQAL appears willfully deaf.

Postcript: a note on mandalas. E/Z clarify that they aren't creating a hierarchy but something like a Buddhist mandala of beings. People love to say that their model isn't vertical but horizontal, as if this made everything better. For a kick off, I'm not convinced that one dimension is less oppressive than another. But for another thing, mandalas are also vertical. Both in a real and a metaphorical sense:

1) The circular form you see in thangka paintings is a 2D map of a 3D structure (see above).
2) To wit, a palace, that contains a divinity at its center.

No points for guessing why this must be hierarchical, in the nasty old sense of that word (if you must).


ai said...

Tim - I think you're right about the way in which E/Z's hierarchy (physio-, bio-, noo-) lends itself to propping up traditional prejudices. But I'm not sure there's any way of getting around recognizing ontologically relevant distinctions altogether. See my comments on this here: http://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2011/06/17/those-objects-in-the-rearview-mirror/


Adam said...

Lots of really great dialogue going on here, thanks for the post. I started a response to both you and Adrian over here: