November 26th – 27th 2014 | Wirtschaft Neumarkt – Cabaret Voltaire | Zurich
The decades of our immediate past throughout the 20th century are characterized by the perhaps unprecedented air of an apparently post-cosmological era, where secular politics builds on scientific knowledge rather than on theological authority, and where questions of moral value are framed ‘critically’ within the various cosmopolitical (rather than cosmological) orders (humanist, neo-humanist as well as post-humanist) that seek to render the very touchstone of enlightenment philosophy fit for our contemporary time: namely to find an alternative to cosmology as the domain from which the nature of thought might be deduced. Because, as Kant realized, cosmology – if pursued undogmatically, and that meant for him purely rationally – is prone to produce paralogisms, and hence poses irresolvable antinomies for a modern, secular and non-tradition-based philosophy at large. Like this, enlightenment philosophy distances itself from theological narratives of time, involving ideas of apocalypse, the fall, and accounts of salvation.
But critical distance doesn’t mean having done with. The questions of justice, decision and judgment, in short the problem of good and evil have not, of course, disappeared. They remain entangled with the relation between the concrete power of cognition and thought’s abstract character.
Despite the general appreciation of Kant’s insight and his call for moderateness and critical distance vis-à-vis a cosmic ‚truth,’ scientists from the mid-19th century on were bound once again by the idea of an apocalypse purported by insights into the cosmos itself, now arising from within the Laws of Thermodynamics. Considered as a scientific Universal Law (not cosmological in the pre-critical sense!), the second law seemed to inevitably announce a „heat death“ of the universe (Helmholz), which would be the „end of all physical phenomena“ (Rankine). Thus, once again, there was a big interest in waving Kant’s cautions against a scientific cosmology from the table, and in setting out instead to formulate one – in a sense that could now claim to be based on an approximative, empirical and experimental basis, rather than on abstract rationalist speculation alone. Henri Poincaré’s „Leçons sur les Hypothèse Cosmogonique“ cover, and put into a more Kantian-like, moderately-minded perspective, many of the then prevalent ideas about ‘entropic creation’ and ‘cosmic evolution’ that began to rise with the development of thermodynamics. Helge S Kragh’s book Entropic Creation. Religious Contexts of Thermodynamics and Cosmology (Ashgate 2008) gives an informative overview.
In the post Second World War era, there is another line of intellectuals who, in apparently untimely manner, stick to cosmical categories in one way or another: (1) Among the most prominent of these is Georges Bataille, who, writing directly before, during and after the war used political, anthropological and religious examples to illustrate how the operations of what he understood as the equilibrium of a „general economy of energy“ is destabilized by capitalist focus on accumulation, and what he designated as a dangerous deferral of the expenditure of excess energy. Bataille draws attention to solar abundance as a systemic model that focuses on the expenditure of the excess energy beyond utilitarian need and survival. (2) Then we have Jean-François Lyotard, for whom the question of the condition of postmodern knowledge is tied up with the foreseeable cosmic extinction of all embodied forms of life – “the sole serious question to face humanity today“ (Lyotard, The Inhuman, 9). By asking „Can Thought Go On Without A Body“, he relates the interest in liberating thought, through its aspired mechanization, from actual embodied life forms and their diversities (as it motivates, at least as a not-so-insignificant factor, programs of Artificial Intelligence) to the apocalyptic future as foreseen by the astroscientific theories that confront humanity with the finitude of the solar ‘reservoir’. For him, the sun’s approximating death is the sole important question because he sees it as organizing the vectors that are followed by capitalist techno-science, and that revolve around the question: how can science defy the upcoming cosmic catastrophe? Lyotard sees as the apparent goal of cosmopolitical capitalism the emancipation of intelligence from life. Today, as Lockheed announces their break-through in controlling processes of nuclear fusion (which would factually bring the production of an artificial sun on earth into proximate reach), and apparently plan to build fusion reactors (www.spiegel.de, October 17th 2014), Lyotard’s perceptive observation can be extended from Artificial Intelligence to Artificial Life and Robotic Forms of Embodiment. (3) Michel Serres is a third contemporary intellectual for whom a characterization of the sun is central to philosophy. The sun, for him, is “the real, ultimate capital” (Serres, The Parasite, 173). And it is as capital, he dares to think, that the sun can count as the origin of all things insofar as they can be reasoned in the terms of a systematical account. The sun is the realm of general equivalence, and as such it is outside the true and outside the false, “it indicates contents that are jokers” (The Parasite, 163). This introduces a turn in how to think about rationality and the nature of thought. Our challenge today is not to think the Universe’s dynamics as revolving around an axis of cosmic time, he maintains. Rather, it is to reason about a universe that expands. The nuclear particle perspective is only one aspect of the universe’s physics. Of equal importance is the wave dimension of the photons radiated from the fusion of nuclei. Photons are parceled quanta of light – light characterized by different frequencies – from which electrons can bind with atomic nuclei and accrete into the chemical elements that make up, materially, all the bodies in a solar system. If a cosmic order, rather than an anthropological one, is to inform philosophy, it must take both aspects into account. In consequence, where philosophy has hitherto been thinking in descriptive terms of relations of equivalence, we ought to think in contractual terms of relations of equipollence – being same in the mediate aspects of force, power or validity (the symbolic character of Being), rather than immediately in form or essence (Being). This relation of equipollence, he maintains, is different from the relation of equivalence in that it cannot, by principle, be stated in any firm and foundational manner – it needs to be articulated contractually, symbolically, in discrete terms that formalize the reciprocal bonds of all that factors in the relations that can be reasoned philosophically, and investigated scientifically, between the real (world) and the rational (cosmos). We can think about relations of equipollence, he suggests, as a contract with nature (The Natural Contract, 1980).
With Serres’ position, the vector of computability’s inevitable alliance with the fulfillment of cosmopolitical capitalism, as exposed by Lyotard, can be seen, to a certain extent, as disempowered – simply because the notion of ‚signature‘ interrupts the continuous transformability of functional conclusiveness. The notion of ‚signature‘ appears in Serres book rather abruptly, and given that Serres introduces the idea of a Natural Contract as an answer to the concerns of the planet’s climate and its health, speaking of ‚signatures‘ is likely to raise associations to Paracelsus’s 16th century pharmaceutics, developed out of his doctrine of a ‚harmony between the macro- and the microcosmos‘. But more urgently, perhaps, we can relate it to the technologies of communication and information that constitute science today as techno-science. Here, ‚signatures‘ occupy a central role in where and how we compute: the transmission of messages is organized by protocols, on the level of hardware as well as on that of software. Protocols establish encrypted keys that work with so-called ‚signatures‘ used to specify abstract data types algebraically. In communications technology, the notion of ‘signature’ exposes that all inferences of a computation-based logics are actually based on symbolical contracts.
In the seminar we want to discuss the problems that are implicated within the question ‘Where are we when we think computationally?’. We would like to invite you to speculate with us: what would it mean to ask about the Inverse of the Sun?*
* In mathematics, an inverse problem is a problem considered as indetermined. Or, pertaining to the language of logics, with inverse problems it is the domain of an argument (its established reason or firm ground, as we might say metaphorically) that is treated as unsettled, while the range of an argument (its manifestation in cases, like the symptoms of an illness) can be registered, labeled and documented.
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