Dead Vole

As the last maj…

Posted by CarlD on May 26, 2013

As the last major profession organized on the medieval guild model (masters, journeymen, apprentices), academia is now going through an Industrial Revolution of its own. In the 17th-18th century, the guild system fell apart completely because the proliferation of journeymen meant that few would ever become masters, although the system was based on the assumption that they would. The result was the proletarianization of the journeyman class and the disappearance of the independent masters. This is precisely what’s happening in academia now. Any distaste we may have for this process is just a form of misplaced bourgeois aspirationism.

From Greg A (of Slawkenbergius), buried in the comments of an old post.

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Posted by CarlD on December 4, 2009

Good news – anthropologist and super-commenter John McCreery has agreed to join Dead Voles. And I’ve decided it’s time to move the blog to a more appropriate url. I set it up as carldyke before I had any idea what I was doing. Now I know just enough to be dangerous.

The new and improved Dead Voles with John, Asher Kay and me, Carl Dyke is at

All of the old content has been moved over there too. If you’ve enjoyed the blog so far I hope you’ll enjoy it even more at its new location; please change your bookmarks and links accordingly!

I will leave this blog up indefinitely, but I don’t expect to do much with it. Note that its new name is Dead Vole.

Posted in chaos | 11 Comments »

Science, Philosophy, Territory, and Speculative Motivation

Posted by Asher Kay on December 2, 2009

This is going to be one of those minimal, opening-up sorts of posts. I’m going to lay a couple of quotes out without any commentary, and see what people make of them.

The first is from a recent post by Levi on translation:

On the one hand, my initial thought is that it is not for philosophy to answer how translation takes place in any specific relation between objects. Initially this response might look like a dodge; however, it is premised on a distinction between the sort of thing philosophy does and the sort of thing other disciplines do.

The second is from Graham Harman’s much-talked-about causation essay:

For several centuries, philosophy has been on the defensive against the natural sciences, and now occupies a point of lower social prestige and, surprisingly, narrower subject matter. A brief glance at history shows that this was not always the case. To resume the offensive, we need only reverse the long-standing trends of renouncing all speculation on objects and volunteering for curfew in an ever-tinier ghetto of solely human realities: language, texts, political power.

Any thoughts?

[UPDATE: Harman’s recent reference to the “Neurology Death Cult” might also shed some light on this subject. Graham would seem to be pointing to Brassier’s “wing” of SR. See Reid Kane’s thoughtful response here.

I joined a Neurology Death Cult once. Every Thursday we’d get together and do fMRIs on Orange Vampires to find out why they were so dismissive of other people’s ideas. We also came up with this great pudding based on glial cells. It was like Kheer, except more chunky.]

Posted in chaos | 27 Comments »

Ontology, Justification, Direct Access, and Drano

Posted by Asher Kay on November 30, 2009

We had a rousing discussion the other day here at Vole Central about emergence and reduction. The perennial topic of the justification of ontological theories came up, clothed in the distinction between strong and weak theories of emergence.

For the purposes of our discussion, strong emergence was defined as an “ontological” stance in which emergent properties are seen as a part of the actual, really-real world. Weak emergence, on the other hand, was defined as a more “epistemological” stance in which emergent properties are seen as necessary to our explanations of the real world, but not necessarily existent in the real world.

A lot of people think that we are pretty much doomed to a weak stance, essentially because we have no way of grounding ontology in the real, “noumenal” world. But even if we accept this rather Kantian limitation, the questions don’t go away.

Even if we can’t know the world as it really is, can we know something about the world? Our theories about how things are appear to have some relation to things rather than none at all. And if they do, we’re still stuck with the problem of justifying how we know those things. And it’s probably just as complicated as justifying a “strong” theory, because we still have to explain what our relationship is to things such that we can say stuff about them.

This justification can be called many things. I’ve been calling it a “theory of theories”, because it attempts to explain what makes our theories work. But it could also be called an epistemological theory, since it tries to explain how we know things. And it could be called an ontological theory, because it tries to explain how things are such that we know them. If you’re ever accused of conflating epistemology with ontology (or are accusing someone else of it), this is a good thing to keep in mind. When it comes to justifying theories, the two are conflated, at least to some degree. And I think we need to conflate them some more.

The burning question is: How are things such that our knowledge of them comes about? What access do we have to reality? Is it direct or indirect?

As a thought experiment, pour some Drano on your hand. The Drano is external reality, and your now smoking and sizzling hand is knowing about it. When I say “knowing” here, I do not mean you feeling the pain of being seriously burned by Drano. I mean that your hand is affected by the Drano in the exact manner of human flesh when it comes into contact with Sodium Hydroxide. Your hand does not have to know anything in particular about causticity, molecular structure, or anything else to be so affected. Your hand does not have to have a model of the hand-Drano interaction in order to be severely damaged. The “knowing” of the Drano is not “direct” in an absolute sense (your hand doesn’t, for example, “become” the Drano or “inhabit” the Drano, or even occupy a sensuous bubble of intentionality with the Drano — its “knowing” is just the damage and disfigurement), but we’re tempted to call this knowing “about as direct as it gets”.

Okay, you can wash your hand off now. Wasn’t that instructive?

It’s possible that we know the world in the same way as the hand knows the Drano. In the case of mental knowing, the process by which the world “damages” our conceptual apparatus is far less immediate and way more complicated, but ontologically, there may be no essential difference between the two processes.

Assuming that’s the case, what form does a theory of theories take?

[UPDATE: Apparently John at Ktismatics was already musing upon the selfsame subject of direct access to the world. It’s more evocatively put than this post *and* it doesn’t require a trip to the emergency room!]

Posted in emergence | 14 Comments »

Entropy in the cul-de-sac

Posted by CarlD on November 26, 2009

I noticed this morning [yesterday, now] that the bathroom floor had collected enough schmutz to pass my action threshold. Leaves blanket our lawn and laundry blankets a corner of our bedroom. There are dishes in the sink and a bagful of student papers to read. The fish need feeding, the dog needs walking and the State taxes on one of our cars are due. Recycling was last night, and again in two weeks.

At moments like this I feel the grip of entropy most keenly. The little orderly systems of my life require the regular application of energy to keep from sliding down into chaos. Each time it’s worth it – the modest pleasures of a clean floor, a tidy lawn and an empty bag add up to a satisfying little life. Nevertheless, as I contemplate each outlay of attention and energy on doing that’s just going to need doing again, and again and again, the happy Sisyphus remains a tantalizing ideal.

In the classic The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption (1979), anthropologist Mary Douglas and economist Baron Isherwood argue that the periodicity of tasks is a primary marker of status. High-frequency, non-postponable entropic tasks describable as chores are the specialty of women, children, and servants. This is economically rational, they propose, in the way that any specialization is.

Thus, the division of labor between the sexes is set, the world over, by the best possible economic principles as follows: work frequencies tend to cluster into complementary role categories. These differentiate upward: the higher the status, the less periodicity constraints; the lower the status, the greater the periodicity constraints (86).

It follows that “[a]nyone with influence and status would be a fool to get encumbered with a high-frequency responsibility (86-7).”

No wonder I try to turn the entropic work in my life into rare and extraordinary events rather than daily habitual duties. The problem, I suppose, is that my sense of status does not match my class, as Weber might say. The classy thing to do would be to engage Central Americans to regulate my floor schmutz and tidy my lawn; start a grad program so there are intellectual strawberry-pickers around to grade my papers; and delegate the dishes and laundry to my wife. Too bad she’s an artist and has no more sense of vocation to keep the house up than I do. If only I had a real wife and not this impressive doer of awesome things! Maybe the two of us could marry someone else to do the chores for us? Or adopt a kid, an older one so someone else has already made the training investment. But, you know, kids these days….

Posted in boring stuff about me, chaos, entitlement, self-irony, the ridiculous, vulgarities, waste | 10 Comments »

Utile hurling

Posted by CarlD on November 24, 2009

Utisz has a series of interesting posts up on human/nature interdependence, anthropocentrism, and the needs fulfilled by metaphysics:

It would be important to recognise this need, not only in the general sense Schopenhauer intended, but also with attention to the particular needs which particular forms of metaphysics might meet, or appear to meet. One ‘need’ today would surely be a means of comprehending and addressing the place of humans in the cosmos, given the actuality of an ecological crisis which threatens humans themselves, a crisis which many feel is ignored not only in mainstream and even radical politics, but also in both mainstream and radical philosophy…. It would therefore be important for those of us critical of the turn to anti-anthropocentric (can we say geocentric?) philosophies, in which new forms of realism, monism and ontology all share a family resemblance, to recognise the legitimacy of the need expressed in this turn despite the turn’s many flaws, in order not abstractly to negate it in criticising it, but address the need which motivates it with an alternative, more compelling explanation. The implicit need – here, it is being suggested, for a philosophy which can make sense of the crisis and allow a thinking and action that could alter the current, dangerous path of human societies – might well be legitimate, merely taking misguided and problematic form.

One small step for a man.

I like this suggestion to take seriously the needs behind problematic thinking. Compare this to the post and commentary at Cognition and Culture on evolutionary debunking of religious thinking. The gist of the post is that the need behind religious (and perhaps metaphysical) thinking is an evolutionary cognitive bias toward agency detection as a function of threat avoidance. This bias would have little inherent truth-value because in the evolution game, better safe than sorry. The analysis undermines all kinds of agentic and causal beliefs, not just religion, which may turn out to be fantastically emergent.

Posted in chaos, default theories, emergence | Leave a Comment »

Causation, Reduction, Emergence, and Marbles

Posted by Asher Kay on November 21, 2009

Riffing off a nice post by John at Ktismatics on whether we have direct access to our own minds…

Whenever there’s a discussion about the neuronal vs. the mental, issues of causation and reduction often come up. Can conscious activity be reduced to an explanation of neuronal activity? Does the neuronal level of organization *cause* the level at which qualia are experienced? What form does that causation take?

My stance is that causality is really a much, much looser concept than physical science would make it seem. Over time, physical science has corralled causality into a smaller and smaller area — but that area is occupied by some pretty inscrutable things — things like “forces”, which end up being mostly tautological at a paradigmatic level (“it’s a force because it makes things move — it makes things move because it’s a force”), and metaphorically hinky at the level of theory (gauge bosons as “virtual particles”).

So when we think about the neuronal “causing” the mental, we usually have in mind some sort of physical-science-like efficient causality, because that’s what we see as operating at the molecular level of description that neural networks inhabit.

But the question is — why are there multiple levels of organization at all? Is reality really separated into strata of magnification, with causality operating horizontally within a layer and vertically between layers? If so, are the vertical and horizontal causalities the same *kind* of causality?

This is where reduction comes in. It seems that a lot of people think that if we can describe something at, say, a molecular level, we have reduced it, and we no longer need the description at the higher level, because we’ve explained everything that needs to be explained. Let’s say that we have a particular arrangement of a certain sort of molecules, and we know exactly why the regularity of that arrangement and the nature of the forces between the molecules allow photons to pass through without being absorbed. Have we “reduced” the emergent property of transparency? A scientist would probably say that we have — that the perceptual level of “seeing through” something doesn’t add anything to the explanation.

But that’s just one idea of reduction. Here’s another. Let’s say that we have a game that’s defined by the manipulation of yellow and blue marbles on a grid according to a set of rules. We’re given an initial row, from left to right, of, say, a thousand marbles on the grid, some yellow, some blue — and we’re given eight simple rules about how to place marbles on the next row of the grid. The rules tell us to look at each marble in the row, and place a marble below it with a color that’s based on the marbles directly to the right and left of the marble we’re looking at. For example, a rule might say, “if you’re on a yellow marble with a blue to the right and a yellow to the left, place a blue marble below it”, or “when a yellow marble’s neighbors are both blue, place a yellow marble below it”. It will take five hundred steps, but eventually we will run out of marbles, because the ones on the ends don’t have neighbors, and therefore don’t get marbles placed below them.

So what we have is an extremely simple system with only two entities, eight rules, and 1000 objects. Reductively, we would say that we have fully explained the system, right? We know all of the things that there are (red and blue marbles), all of the possible ways that they can be manipulated (exactly eight ways), and the exact configuration of the entire universe at its inception (a line of 1000 marbles). We know everything there is to know about the system.

Okay. So what if I now asked you to tell me, given a particular row of a thousand marbles and a particular set of eight rules, what the sequence of yellow and blue marbles will be after 250 steps of applying the rules. But wait, there’s a catch — the *only* thing you’re *not* allowed to do in figuring it out is *actually carry out the 250 steps*.

Why this prohibition? Well, the set of rules and the initial lineup of marbles are what constitute the *reduction* of the system. If you actually carry out the rules to find out the configuration after 250 steps, you haven’t *reduced* anything — you are actually *running* the real, unreduced system.

So — is it possible? Can you do it?

The answer is that in some cases, it’s impossible.

Now, many people would say that the example I just gave confuses reduction with predictability. But what if, instead of asking you to predict the sequence of marbles after 250 steps, I asked you to tell me, in a general way, if the rows of marbles produced by following the rules would make a pattern, and, if so, what sorts of features (in general) that pattern would exhibit. Could you do that? The answer, once again, is that in some cases, you couldn’t. Some configurations of marbles and rules produce weird repeating patterns that look like spaceships. The spaceships are not in the rules or the marbles — they emerge from them, but are not explained by them.

What I’m getting at is that although predictability and reduction are not the same thing, they are intimately related and not really separable. Predictability is the only real test we have to tell us if we have explained something fully. Reduction is a way of formulating a prediction about how something will behave.

Posted in chaos, emergence | 58 Comments »

Tomato skins, nostalgia and the Holocaust

Posted by CarlD on November 17, 2009

What do these things have in common? Rachel is working through an installation art project, which in its ‘primitive accumulation’ phase involved canning lots of tomatoes and drying their skins. The following are some incomplete thoughts she’s written pursuant to assembling an actual art work out of her materials. This is a work in progress; she is interested in feedback. Here’s Rachel:

Concepts and Daydreams:

I have 100 jars of tomatoes that I’ve canned. As I’ve been canning (a rather dull process overall) I’ve daydreamed different fictitious scenarios that could result in these 100 jars:

* It’s a science discovery. Archaeologists uncover this stash of primitive food rations and put it on display for the public. Or anthropologists (of the old imperialist regime) discover this tribe of people called “Farmers”. They hypothesize about the tools used, etc. They show video footage of the strange customs. (I watched a documentary about head shrinking Indians of the Amazon that probably prompted this train of thinking.)

* An old woman who obsessively cans to ward off death. (playing with the idea of ritual and superstition)

* A person getting ready for the apocalypse by building and stocking a cold war era type bunker. (This one, and a bit of the one before it are based on my real life experiences with a Holocaust survivor named Helen who I knew as a teen. Helen’s son hired me to “clean” her house, saying that if she couldn’t get her life under control he would put her in a home. I had unique access to Helen’s small, filthy trailer stocked to the ceiling with junk that she just knew would come in handy when the next disaster hit (candles she made out of crayons, stacks of newspaper, magazines, half a room full of sweaters). She also collected animals and strategically left bags of their food around so that if she died they’d have food for a while and not eat her body—something she was really afraid of. Canning 100 jars of tomatoes is something Helen would’ve done if she’d found a good deal on tomatoes. Helen was obsessed with being totally in charge of her world, so to accomplish this she made her world very small—literally the confines of her trailer, which she rarely left. I never did get that house clean.)

* An old woman who copes with her anxieties about death and change by canning everything in her life—including her husband, cat, furniture, clothes, etc. She cans all winter long and by spring has filled her house with jars of household items and sits with them and enjoys how still they are.

These are just the stories I made up while I worked. I’m not sure that any of them go anywhere.

That said, I’m kind of into the idea of treating the cans and the skins as science objects. One thing I have yet to do for the jars is label them. I’ve been putting this off because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I could do this in a science format with the latin names and weights of things. I could put the skins in little sample jars and weigh them and label them.

I also think it would be interesting perhaps to make a Helen-type bunker filled with crap. Obsessive amounts of junk. What I’m interested in is nostalgia and how it is a form of controlling our worlds. Helen was extremely nostalgic about her things, no matter how junky they were. There was a reason to every single thing in there.


I’m realizing that it’s not specifically farming that I’m interested in but control, attempts to control our worlds and those in it, and the anxiety that accompanies this desire and inevitable failure. Farming is a tool or language available to me to discuss these concepts because of my background and affection for farming culture.

End Rachel. Readers, any thoughts?

Posted in conversations, the sublime | 9 Comments »

Emergence x2

Posted by CarlD on November 17, 2009

Collating two nice clear instances of emergence. The first is from xkcd, courtesy of hyper tiling. The alt-text is the kicker, but you may have to click through to get it:

Dad, where is Grandpa right now?

The second is from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972), courtesy of Ktismatics:

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”

A little Orientalism here, but it’s Calvino so everything gets its exotic turn.

Posted in chaos, emergence | 3 Comments »


Posted by CarlD on November 16, 2009

One of the criticisms that’s been leveled at the new philosophy is that it is incoherent. I am neither qualified nor motivated to investigate whether this is true in a rigorous conceptual sense — Frames/Sing has taken some good cracks at it. But without getting into that I wanted to trouble or at least expand what we might mean by coherence. I’m going to be reinventing some wheels here, bear with me.

As Kvond says in the linked post, ideas can be coherent in the very narrow way of making sense or matching up theoretical parts without having “applicable coherence.”

There is a thin line between “incoherent” and “the supposed coherence between concepts does not do the explanatory job”. “The hand of Zeus makes it rain” is both coherent (at least I understand what the sentence means), and also incoherent as an explanation. All the explanatory connectives are missing.

Kvond does a lot of heavy lifting here by distinguishing what we might call ‘internal’ coherence from ‘external’ coherence. Internal coherence self-referentially satisfies the requirement of a wittgensteinian language game, that is, it makes sense once one knows the rules. In this way “the hand of Zeus makes it rain” would have been fully coherent to an ancient Greek as both a sentence and an explanation. External coherence looks outward to see if the game makes sense in relation to anything but its own internal logic — by predicting the coming of rains, for example, rather than accounting for them post hoc. In the same way we might ask whether there’s anything (or perhaps enough) to learn about how business and finance actually work from playing Monopoly or reading The Wealth of Nations.

The externalization of coherence has barely begun here, however. Once the standard is not just logical consistency of concepts to themselves but their correspondence to some outside benchmark (which of course has to be pulled inside somehow to serve this function, but that’s another discussion), the barn door is open and all kinds of relations become available as possible moments of coherence.

Applied or applicable coherences, those relations that are actually established between concept things and other things (alliances and assemblages, for Latour), include the ways that ideas cohere with environments, resources, modes of production and so on. We may say here that ideas are coherent with or ‘fit’ their times, and become effectual insofar as this is so. Saying that Graham Harman’s philosophy is homologous to speculative capitalism is this sort of claim.

Ideas may also be affectually coherent by assembling with feelings, providing conceptual referents for them or enabling relationships based on them. In some feminist and anti-colonialist work this is asserted as a higher quality of coherence than aridly rationalist rigor. And ideas may be aesthetically or hedonically coherent by assembling with habits, dispositions, tastes and preferences, which if we follow Bourdieu may be fields within larger political-economic assemblages. These modes of external coherence are not mutually exclusive.

So from these perspectives the orienting premise is that any idea that achieves publicity is likely to be coherent according to both some internal coherence (its language game, perhaps incipient) and to a network of external coherences. The questions then are, coherent how, with what/whom, and for what purpose(s)?

In the good old days we called this sort of questioning ‘ideology critique’, naively confident that we could find one master coherence from which to judge all the others.

Posted in conversations | 10 Comments »


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