Thursday, June 12, 2008

Thoughts on "The Ecological Self"

Further to my last post, I've recently read Freya Mathew's book "The Ecological Self" (also partially available on Google books). In this post I'll give a brief outline of the book and make some comments on it. There is not much by way of other reviews I could find to link to (which is not to say the book has been without influence- it is frequently referred to in environmental philosophy texts and the like).

The backcover of the book describes it as a treatment of the metaphysical foundations of ecological ethics. As such it is part an elaboration of a metaphysics and part an examination of the normative implications of this metaphysics. In this post I will be focusing on the metaphysical aspects of the book.

In constructing her model Mathews draws on theories and hypotheses from various disciplines including relativity physics and systems theory. Mathews says her project "was to find a metaphysical and ethical expression for the intuition of 'oneness' and interconnectedness, and Spinoza and Einstein provided a starting point." Mathews acknowledges that quantum mechanics could potentially also form a basis for a metaphysic of interconnectedness, but considers that the interpretation of QM is still in a state of uncertainty and flux such that it may not a stable base for such a project.

Chapter 1 provides a historical and analytical critique of "Newtonian Atomism" and it's ethical, environmental and ideological implications. This sort of critique of the atomistic portrayal of the world as "inert, insensate, devoid of telos, purpose and meaning" is of course fairly common, but the chapter was an enjoyable read nonetheless.

In Chapter 2, Mathews present her alternative cosmology to Newtonian atomism in the form of a monism based on Geometrodynamics. This model posits the existence of only one substance in the universe - spacetime. By way of some background on what Geomterodynamics ('GMD') is, here are some words Mathews quotes of it's founder, Johnathon Wheeler:

"Is spacetime only an arena within which fields and particles move about as 'physical' and 'foreign' entities. Or is the four-dimensional continuum all there is ? Is curved empty geometry a kind of magical building material out of which everything in the physical world is made: (1) slow curvature in one region of space describes a gravitational field; (2) a rippled geometry with a different type of curvature somewhere else describes an electromagnetic field; (3) a knotted-up region of high curvature describes a concentration of mass-energy that moves like a particle? Are fields and particles foreign entities immersed in geometry, or are they nothing but geometry​?"

The reduction of matter and every other physical phenomenon to the geometry of spacetime sounds like an intriguing and fascinating project. However, the problem with GMD from a scientific point of view is that it failed to adequately account for all the empirical data (eg it could not explain the existence of fermions) and so was largely abandoned by physicists, including Wheeler himself in the 1970s.

Despite the lack of scientific support for GMD, Mathews argues that a geometrodynamical cosmological model can be defended on metaphysical grounds alone. Thus, while there is no (current) scientific support for GMD, Mathews believes that as a metaphysic this view can be defended, based on two primary arguments:

(1) It provides a response to Hume's critique of causation. The basis of this critique was that there are no necessary connections between 'distinct existences' , where a distinct existence is a thing that can be conceived of existing independently of anything else (such as a cause and an effect, or the interactions between two objects). Mathews argues that by positing the existence of just one substance, changes within this substance (such as waves propagating through it) are intrinsically connected, so the problem of the lack of necessary connectedness does not arise. Mathews argues that this notion of causation can be applied both to classical determinism, which relates to local changes in the geometry of spacetime and quantum indeterminism which could be related to changes in the topological structure of spacetime (refer to page 75 to 76 for examples).

(2) The second argument is a dense metaphysical argument focusing on Spinoza's conception of substance (refer page 76 to 90), which I won't attempt to summarise in detail. The thrust of the argument is based on the characterisation of Spinoza's conception of substance as essentially relating to plenitude, where the formal properties of plenitude are unity, continuity, indivisibility and unboundedness. Mathews presents an argument for the principle of plenitude based on the view that if there is sufficient reason for the existence of one thing then there will be sufficient reason for the existence of every thing with which it can logically coexist. Thus, "a sufficient reason for the sheer fact of the actuality of substantivality then appears to entail a sufficient reason for unconstrained actual substantivality." Mathews uses the argument to conclude that the Principle of Plenitude "'implies that reality takes the from of dynamic spacetime, a spherical, finite but unbounded space that expands in time".

Whilst I found the metaphysical argument of Mathews for GMD, as much as I understood them, to be of considerable merit, I did not find it very satisfying that her model was partially derived from an unsupported scientific theory (especially as the incompleteness of the interpretation of QM was the reason given for not using it as a metaphysical basis - though it should be noted that this was in reference to the philosophical foundations of QM and not in relation to any particular empirical model). Whilst metaphysics can exist independently of science, I prefer a metaphysics that gels with physics, otherwise it is unlikely to be considered to be of contemporary relevance.

Despite this perceived flaw in Mathews model, I do not think it is fatal to it. The reason for this is that a substance monism based on spacetime does not have to confine itself to geometric properties. For example, Johnathon Schaffer in his paper Spacetime the One Substance types makes the distinction between moderate monism which is restricted to intrinsic properties as fundamental properties of spacetime, and strict monism which restricts itself to to intrinsic geometric properties only. Whilst strict monism appears to be without scientific support, Schaffer presents arguments from both General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory in favor of moderate monism.

Briefly, in relation to General Relativity Schaffer provides support for the view that GR models can be expressed as being in relation to fields which are properties or attributes of spacetime, with the physical world being fully describable in terms of attributes of the spacetime manifold. In relation to Quantum Field theory, he provides support for the view that the fundamental physical ingredients are fields rather than particles and that ‘particles’ are in fact excitation properties of spacetime.

Assuming Schaffer's arguments are sound, then the geometrodynamic model of Mathews can be modified to a moderate monist model, which is supported by current science. I believe this modification would not detract from the major features of her model (although maybe the second metaphysical argument may not have as much weight under moderate monism).

In addition to this, Schaffer puts forward another strong argument for spacetime monism - that of parsimony. If a single substance can in fact account for all ontological and empirical facts, then it seems unnecessary and extravagant to introduce another form of substance to account for material objects.

Having elaborated her monistic metaphysics of spacetime, in the next chapter Mathews outlines how a criterion for individuality within this substance might nevertheless be found, given that material objects no longer possess an absolute substantival identity. Mathews seeks this principle of individuation in systems theory and argues that an open system exhibiting self-regulation, homeostasis, equifinality (the reaching of a final state from different initial conditions) and goal-directedness can be described as self-realising. Self-realisability is then put forward as the principle of individuation. Mathews calls a self-realising system a 'self'.

The paradigmatic instance of the self-realising system is of course the organism (although Mathews leaves open the question of whether other systems such as ecosystems could also qualify as selves). So under this model, the only true individuals in the universe are spacetime itself and selves. I think the criteria for individuation here seem sound.

As an aside, I find it interesting and perhaps supportive of the significance of organisms as true individuals, that coming from the opposite ontological direction, Peter Van Inwagen in his book Material Beings argues that the only true material beings are fundamental particles and living organisms.

It is important to note here that "selves' are characterised by Mathews in systems theoretic terms and she does not rely on consciousness or experiential features of selfhood in this book (although this is a theme that she develops in her later book). As I read it, Mathews' metaphysical model in "The Ecological Self" could theoretically apply to a world in which consciousness was absent.

The next step in Mathews project is to investigate whether the concept of selfhood can be applied to the Cosmos itself. Here she also uses Spinoza's term of conatus as an equivalent to self-realizability, accept in so far as the former lacks systems-theoretic connotations. Using the previous argument regarding the essence of substance as being to seek plenitude (this being the reason that substance takes the form of an expanding space), she contends that this is a straightforward 'translation into the cosmic context of the principle of the conatus'. Thus Mathews concludes that the cosmos fulfills the self-realisability feature of a self-realising system. Mathews then considers whether the cosmos could meet the systems-theoretic model of a self-maintaining system and concludes that it does meet such requirements, though one of a special sort in that it is not an open system.

I found the arguments for the self hood of the cosmos, at first blush anyway, interesting but less than fully convincing. The expanding nature of the cosmos in itself does not seem to me to equate with the self-realisability which an organism posseses. But this is something I may need to dwell on some more.

The final chapter of the book traces the ethical implications of the model. Mathews cites three levels of value; that of the cosmos itself as a self-realising system; that of value which inheres in individual selves or self-realsing systems; and value which a self ascribes to elements in the environment (which is not an intrinsic value but represents the utility of the environment for a particular self).

These notions of value are then applied in the context of environmental ethics. Again, the notion of value used here does not imply consciousness, as "to be self-maintaining is just what it is to be valuable" and "it is not that an organism seeks to maintain itself because it values its existence, but rather that seeking to maintain itself is constitutive if its valuing itself."

Whilst I am not going to analyse Mathews ethical arguments here, to me the notion of intrinsic value is tied up with the subjectival or experiential aspect of an entity being "for itself", and so consideration of ethical value demands consideration of experientiality. Nevertheless, the chapter is an absorbing read, though the extent to which one buys the ethical arguments will depend on to what extent one has agreed with the metaphysics on which it is based.

In conclusion, I think the The Ecological Self covers some very interesting territory. Whilst I don't agree with all the arguments in the book, it has attracted me to the idea of a monistic cosmology. I have found in the past that perspectives which claim to be "holistic" often end up being either incoherent or a repackaged form of reductionism. But a scientifically based substance monism seems to open up the genuine possibility of a coherent holism.

Mathews later work in developing her model to incorporate subjectivity, and the recent work on monism by Johnathon Schaffer, have now sparked my interest and will probably be where I delve into next.

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Stephen said...

a spherical, finite but unbounded space that expands in time

That would be for, uhm, small values of spherical. What else is there to a sphere other than a boundary?

And that's a problem with definitions in general. They work great in theory, as in math, but in practice, the Universe is not bound by them. Yet another case of, "The difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, they're the same."

Sounds like an excellent review of a pretty good book. I come from a country where "not bad" is high praise. This isn't an easy topic. History of the philosophy of fledgling science, or some such.

A string theorist is caught by his wife in bed with another woman. He says, "But honey, I can explain everything!"

Of course, we don't yet have a Theory Of Everything (TOE), or Grand Unified Theory (GUT), or any other satisfying body part acronym.

Justin said...

Thanks for your comments Stephen.
Mathews uses "unbounded" to mean without limitations, in the sense that a traveller within an unbounded medium could continue indefinitely without reaching an edge. Whilst from the outside, a sphere has a boundary, I imagine Mathews would say that it is incoherent to speak of something outside of spacetime/ the universe.

Steve said...

Thank you for writing the review and for the pointer to the Schaffer paper. I’m very interested in this topic.

I agree with these authors that the dual scheme of {space-time container plus material objects} must be rejected, but think the authors are slightly off-track in wanting to reduce the properties of matter fields to space-time.

In some ways the quest for quantum gravity can (should?) be viewed as a quest for a monistic theory which is rid of the dual scheme. I continue to try to follow the different theories as a layperson to see how they come down on this issue. I think I'll put up a quick post on this. Thanks again.

Justin said...

Hi Steve
I'll have to catch up with those posts on your blog re quantum gravity. All looks extremely interesting, but something about which I'm pretty ignorant to date.
I notice that youv'e already discussed Schaffer a bit. Re your comment about Plancks constant and "gunk", I'm wondering whether the practical and theoretical impossibility of never-ending division counts against the possibility of their being no ultimate parts? ? As a rough example, I could make a model airplane out of parts with glue that was impossible to get apart - the model would thus be indivisble, but this would not mean that it was an ultimate part.

Anonymous said...

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Steve said...

I think I agree, but let me know if I misunderstood your example.

Following Schaffer, we would say there is a whole and there are parts and we're arguing about which is ultimately fundamental. If parts are not infinitely divisible, I think this supports the idea that parts are fundamental. I think this is like the airplane model. In the case of infinitely divisible parts, it seems the whole is needed to "support" the parts and it has better claim to be fundamental.

Justin said...

Agree with you that infinite divisibility supports the whole being fundamental and visa versa.

But in my vague example (sorry I meant to write Planck length , not Planck constant), I was referring to your post where you say that the Planck scale is good evidence of a limit to divisibility.

Your point there seems to me to be a very valid one, but if it is correct it seems strange that “gunk” has come to be regarded by (some) philosophers and physicists as an empirical possibility. So I am anticipating how a gunk advocate might respond to your claim (but bear in mind I am doing so with pretty limited physics knowledge!).

My point was that although the Planck scale places a practical limit on divisibility, couldn’t entities at the Planck scale still be made from smaller parts ad infinitum, although it would be impossible to break them down into these smaller parts? Perhaps it would then come down to the cosmological question of the genesis of entities at the Planck scale in the history of the universe.

Steve said...

I guess that could be. I hadn't thought of it that way. Then the planck level "units" would have priority (in Schaffer's sense) over the entities at scales below and above it.

Anonymous said...

Please check out these related references which point out that our bodyminds are totally embedded in the vast cosmic display or process---or that their is not a jot of separation to be found any "where". "IT" is an Indivisible Unity.