The Tyranny of Oneness

December 8th, 2019
by Chris

I should preface this by saying, as I have before, that I regard myself as a definite non-philosopher, so I particularly invite any reader who is a philosopher to comment or email me…

In one of those coincidences (synchronicities?) which, these days, seem to mark my interaction with the internet, I find myself listening to Peter  Rollins course “The Tyranny of Oneness” (which is broadly on Hegel) – it’s available to his Patreon supporters – at the same time as happening across a link to an article on Hegel on Partially Examined Life and discussing the limits of knowledge and of representation in two other locations.

The article says at one point “The safest indication of the rupture is our gut feeling that overwhelms us when we read some classical metaphysical. Something tells us that today, we simply cannot any longer think like that…” Yes. I look at Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s realism (or Spinoza’s), and I can’t think like either of them any more – but they are classical philosophy, pre-Kantian philosophy, and my brain can get me up to shortly before Kant, but Kant himself, and pretty much everything in philosophy after that, leaves me feeling that I don’t quite understand what’s going on. That may be at least in part because the way philosophers word their work seems to me to take a nosedive with Kant, and to keep on getting worse as time goes by (I make an exception for a few – William James’ pragmatism, for instance). In their case, it isn’t so much that I can’t think like that anymore, it’s that I’m not certain I ever could think like them.

However, from what I understand of Kant from second hand sources, I am entirely with him in thinking that there exists a transcendental divide between perception and underlying reality; we can only know phenomenology, not ontology.

That is one reason why I came to like Pete Rollins’ work – he is clearly entirely up to speed on post-Hegelian continental thought, at the least, and sometimes it has seemed to me that he has put bits of that in terms which make sense to me.

The trouble is, he talks extensively in this course (and a lot of his other recent work) about a fundamental inconsistency in reality (otherwise a lack or a conflict), and I get the same overwhelming gut feeling about that as well. I do that when reading the later stages of the article as well.  It states, for instance “With regard to philosophical issues that have predominated in the last decades, a new and more convincing case for the rupture was made by Paul Livingstone who, in his The Politics of Logic, located it in the new space symbolized by the names “Cantor” and “Goedel.” Here, of course, “Cantor” stands for set theory, through self-relating procedures (an empty set, a set of sets), compelling us to admit an infinity of infinities. “Goedel,” for his part, is notable for his two incompleteness theorems, demonstrating that – to simplify it to the utmost – an axiomatic system cannot demonstrate its own consistency since it necessarily generates statements that can neither be proved nor disproved by it.”

I rather fancy that my problem with those two luminaries is a function of the very action of making something self-relating. Russell and Frege, it seems (and again, this is insofar as I understand either) consider that self-reference is an illegitimate logical step (what you can say of a set is not what you can say of a set of sets, for instance). Gödel’s famous proof is based on a very devious way of making a system self-referential, and I find it impossible to accept it as logical, while being intuitively confident that, while it is not a proof, his thesis (which I’ve emboldened above) is correct. Without going into the depths of Russell and Frege, I just think that the idea of something which includes itself with remainder is logically ridiculous.

I am equally unprepared to accept an infinity of infinities as being something real; it has been suggested that there are only three really interesting numbers in mathematics, zero, one and infinity, and I am sceptical of the existence of two of those (zero, which is a nothingness elevated into reality, and infinity, which is never observable)[1]. I grant you that both of those are readily manipulatable in mathematics and, indeed, maths couldn’t survive without them. Mind you, quite a lot of maths (for example, quantum mechanics and electrodynamics) also couldn’t survive without the square root of -1, which (“i”) is even called an “imaginary number”.  What we can do in what I often refer to as “concept space” does not map accurately onto what is actually in existence… we can, clearly, imagine (at least in the sense of being able to put some symbols together on paper) things which do not and cannot exist.

I’m in more or less the same place when it comes to people talking of “being itself” or “the ground of all being”; to me, these are the inverse of Russel l and Frege’s position on nothing or nothingness – whereas they consider that “nothing “ merely denotes the falsity of a correspondence between a statement and reality, “being” seems to me only to connote the truth of such a correspondence. I used, once, to quite like talk of “ground of all being” used by some mystics (Teilhard de Chardin’s “Milieu Divin” springs to mind), but further thought has given me another dose of the overwhelming gut feeling that there is something wrong – and in the case both of nothing and of being, the basis for that is that there is no referent for them. This, unfortunately, means that a substantial slice of Pete’s thought (including  in a recent seminar “A Contingent Gristle of the Real”) where he talks of a rupture or a deadlock between something and nothing floats serenely over my head, having no referent for me.

Working more from the article than from Pete’s seminars, though, I have a couple of worries about Hegel. Firstly is the complete dismissal of anything other than phenomena. Now, I’m entirely happy with the idea that we cannot know, for certain, what is beyond phenomena, but entirely unhappy with the suggestion that there is nothing beyond phenomena. We may not be able to know that an ontology is correct, but we can be pretty certain that some ontologies are not correct, due, if nothing else, to the fact that most if not all ontologies demand that the resulting phenomena be some way which they are not.

Beyond that, however, I have the very strong feeling that, if this kind of interpretation of Hegel is correct, he is in effect constructing an equivalent to an ontology, and lapsing back into a form of idealism. When Pete talks of a “rupture at the heart of reality”, how can this be anything other than an ontological statement?

The article puts it like this: “We remain within the domain of reason, and this domain is deprived of its consistency from within: immanent inconsistencies of reason do not imply that there is some deeper reality which escapes reason. Rather, these inconsistencies are in some sense ‘the thing itself.’“ For me, while yes, those inconsistencies do not imply that there is a deeper reality, they equally do not imply that there isn’t, and while Schopenhauer’s irrationality is rejected (why, I ask?), they absolutely cannot be “a sign that we touched the real”.

I am not persuaded by Peter’s mention of quantum mechanics either. True, at the most fundamental level we can examine, we have phenomena like wave-particle duality, non-locality and “spooky action at a distance” to contend with, but in that case we are definitely looking at a failure of our system of representation adequately to describe what is there, and inasmuch as that is not amenable to rationality at the moment, it is at least in part because it is probabilistic, not rationally deterministic. “Fuzzy” is not the same thing as “ruptured”, and I observe that that fuzziness only operates at the quantum level; at higher levels, things are not fuzzy, because (at least in part) those probabilistic effects sum into something dependable.

That said, we know that we are examining reality through the lens of our own subjectivity, and when the article talks of that embodying exactly the kind of self-reference which Gödel made use of and which Russell and Frege rejected, it is a relatively straightforward deduction that some form of self-reference is involved (though not self-inclusion with remainder). We are clearly (and I think here of Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher Bach” and “I am a Strange Loop”) composed in at least some part of one or more feedback loops, and when Pete talks of something not being self-identical, in the case of a human subject (and any other organism which is in any sense self-aware), this is obviously true, on the basis that what is in view in this feedback loop is always going to be a slightly previous version of its current state – in the manner of Heraclitus’ river, it cannot be stepped in twice.

That, however, is not a fully adequate answer – after all, what is observed by that feedback loop is probably only infinitesimally different from that which observes. Hofstadter, however, is usually talking of “a” strange loop, and we are not simple. What does the observing is very probably also a loop separate from the loop which is doing the thinking in the first place, and so is not truly feeding back to itself – but what it is observing is then not itself. The “conscious mind” observes a subset of the conscious mind and thinks that that is all it is… and that is, in a sense, a “rupture”, but only one which betokens multiplicity rather than simplicity. (Where the “interesting numbers” I mentioned earlier are concerned, what is perhaps most interesting about infinity is that it is multiple, not that it is infinite – and that is something which can be observed, at least in some way.)

It follows that when the article says “The elementary gesture of reflexivity is that of taking a step back and including into the picture or situation one is observing or analyzing one’s own presence. Only in this way one can get the full picture.” I think “No, you are still not getting the full picture”. Not only, from my point of view, can you “not have totality and consistency at the same time”, you cannot have either of them in any absolute sense[2]. I also have no time for “The Hegelo-Lacanian perspective conceives these paradoxes as an indication of the presence of subjectivity: the subject can emerge only in the imbalance between a genus and its species.” There is no need for any imbalance as such, only for a feedback loop.  Nor am I impressed by “paradoxico-critical analysis demonstrates how this order is already in itself its own exception, sustained by permanent violations of its own rules.” There is no need, in Hofstadter’s system, for any violation of its own rules.

I have, in passing, an even more visceral rejection when the article says “For a Lacanian, it is immediately evident that Livingston’s duality of the generic and the paradoxico-critical perfectly fits the duality of the masculine side and the feminine side of the ‘formulas of sexuation.’” As soon as any writer uses masculine and feminine to mean anything other than gender, I turn off.

However, I repeat, I am not a philosopher. If anything, I’m a scientist – I have a bachelor’s degree in Physics, and am currently active, albeit very part time, doing research Chemistry. As such, I look at this as a problem in using some lab equipment (in this case the lab equipment being ourselves); most of the time my first line of enquiry where some phenomenon occurs is to look at the equipment to see if it is generating that phenomenon irrespective of the observation you are trying to make through it. And there, I find that we do indeed have a fundamental rift; the most basic feature of our thought is to distinguish one thing from another (the archetypal essay question starts “compare and contrast” with the split already in existence and asking to be better defined). We start with “A and not-A” and work from there. This is an even more basic feature than the “strange loop”, and, from what I can see, gives rise to quite a bit of philosophical thinking, possibly including Hegel (if I could only wade through the word-salad and come up with something understandable). As soon as the division becomes “A or B”, we arrive at excluded middles, surpluses of meaning and arbitrary divisions of continua, and this gives philosophers endless amusement, such as saying “For Hegel, the One of self-identity is not just always inconsistent, fractured, antagonistic, etc.; identity itself is the assertion of radical (self-)difference. To say that something is identical with itself means that it is distinct from all its particular properties, that it cannot be reduced to them. ‘A rose is a rose’ means that a rose is something more than all its features: there is some je ne sais quoi which makes it a rose, something ‘more in a rose than the rose itself.’”

Inasmuch as this has any meaning to me, it is perhaps saying that the old saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is true, perhaps saying that the framework in which you observe that something is a rose is a different framework from that in which you identify properties of a rose, a different set of distinctions is being made. It may just be returning in a slightly disguised form to Kant’s absolute barrier between reality and phenomena. What it appears to be saying, however, is that if you were to write “A=A” there is suddenly some kind of inconsistency (and we are possibly back to things including themselves with remainder). That just appears ridiculous to me, and symptomatic of the tendency to make distinctions where there is no difference which I’m afraid I tend to see in philosophy (and which is one of the things which probably disqualify me as a philosopher). I note in passing that this includes the apparent compulsion to make binary distinctions where there is actually a continuum.

That, in itself, leads me to what I think IS a fundamental difficulty of logical systems in dealing with the way things are (or, more accurately, appear to be) or, at least, language-based logical systems. I find, in this area, philosophers taking wave-particle duality or the concept of the “Dirac sea” as supporting ideas of fundamental inconsistency or fundamental rift, and comment as a Physicist that neither of them seems to me to support those ideas. What they more reasonably support for me is the superiority of ideas of uncertainty and of probability over deterministic concepts and the view that natural language and the concepts we have in it fail miserably to describe adequately the way things behave at quantum levels (the oft-quoted “shut up and do the maths” line which many quantum physicists have used is here indicative that the maths, which is itself a logical system, works a lot better than does natural language…)

There IS, therefore, a rather fundamental rift in human thinking, but it seems to me to derive from our binary way of thinking rather than from anything fundamental. What is fundamental seems to be something more like fuzziness, at least at the smallest scales we can investigate.

Of course, as the whole area we are now talking of is observations made by humans, we are inevitably talking of human psychology; to use my analogy, the experimental apparatus is our senses and minds (the two are inseparable), and psychology is possibly better suited to examine our minds than is philosophy. I am therefore less reluctant to accept the introduction of figures like Freud and Lacan into the discussion than I instinctively want to be – again, I’m to a significant extent a scientist, and I instinctively prefer philosophy to psychology, which still seems to me an appallingly imprecise science, and I long for “objective truth” even while being convinced that this is not ultimately obtainable.[3]

That said, both Freud and Lacan, as psychotherapists, tended to see people with psychological disorders. I worry that, as a result, they are imposing specific pathologies on the generality of humanity, because that’s what their sample is drawn from. For instance Pete, based on Lacan, makes much of the “big other”, and I try in vain to find any “big other” in my own psychology. Not that I’m saying my own psychology is normal and they are just dealing with abnormal psychology; I am well aware that my own psychology is abnormal in a number of ways, just not those which Freud and Lacan typically wrote about.

Similarly, when Pete talks of some person or object making you “whole and complete”, this is something which doesn’t afflict me, possibly because, as a mystic, I am used to experiences of “oceanic oneness” which do, briefly, provide a feeling of wholeness and completeness. Nothing else is going to do that. Thus, I don’t have the drive to find that in persons or objects.

This, however, does not mean that Freuds or Lacan’s insights do not have very wide applicability, indeed, I think they probably do (Lacan’s more than Freuds…) I just worry that they are being taken as being of universal application, as a quasi-ontology, and one counterexample is sufficient to defeat that.

I have one more note, and that’s on the use of the term “deadlock”. Pete is starting from the Hegelian idea of dialectic, which, to him at least, is something more than the mere human tendency to distinguish into binary oppositions and then need to find some wider sense. A deadlock is a situation which prevents movement. It is similar to the physical concept of stability, in which the forces on an object are balanced so that no movement occurs, but may well be more like the concept of metastability, in which if a force is applied, the object returns rapidly to the balanced condition. Now, as I don’t relate well to many of the concepts he is using (see above!), I need to find some other way of viewing this – and my own base dichotomy is between order and chaos. Order is balanced, static, immovable and yes, deadlocked. Chaos, on the other hand, is all movement and no regularity.

And, in order to have the world as we perceive it, we need both order and chaos. Yes, at the smallest scales we can perceive, chaos appears to reign (we cannot be certain where things are, how fast they are moving, what wavelength they are if they are wavelike or, ultimately, whether they exist or not) but at the scales we perceive in normal life, there is a balance – things move, they develop, they grow and shrink and are born and die. Movement requires an imbalance of forces, and things which are not moving and developing are essentially dead. However, they are ordered. The order is temporary and, given entropy, inevitably ceases.

Somewhere in that mode of thought, I hope to find some access to Pete’s thinking…

To conclude, I don’t see Oneness as in any way tyrannical, though I grant you that it would be for someone who was seeking it at the expense of living a reasonably balanced life. I do however see it as counter to the general project of philosophy and science in particular and human thought more generally, that being do divide things up into smaller and smaller bits and then argue about where the dividing lines should be…

I wanted to get this down on paper before Pete’s next talk (later today), which is titled “The Deadlock of Mysticism”, which I confidently expect to hate!


[1] Please do not go away and try to construct a mathematics which avoids zero and infinity (or, indeed, either of them). That way lies madness…

[2] I note here that “absolute sense” equates, for me, to taking things to an infinity – and I’m sceptical about infinities. I also note that there is a very strong tendency in science for theories to break down in “limit” conditions, strong enough for me to expect that any explanation is going to do that when called “absolute”. This could link very well to Pete’s ideas of taking a position to the extreme, and seeing it fail…

[3] Though self-referencing systems (and science in general may be thought of as a complex self-referencing system) can produce iterative solutions which approximate more and more closely to an accurate answer, as an example the very simple formulae for calculating a square root. If X is the number you with to find the root of, make a guess of A(0), then instead of Aexp2=X, take A(0)*A(1)=X, i.e. A(1)=X/A(0). Then the next guess A(2)=(A(0)+A(1))/2; repeat until A(n)=A(n-1) to however many places of decimals you want. One might hope that a similar more general procedure could produce, if not “absolute” accuracy, then an arbitrarily close result to that. The formula needs to be convergent rather than divergent, and there is huge additional complexity where multiple factors are in play, of course.

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