short philosophy books

book review score+5

Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology
Adam S. Miller
Fordham, 2013

What the heck, you might ask, is object-oriented theology? It turns out that, acknowledging the connections between analytic philosophy and computer science, there is now a branch of metaphysics known as object-oriented ontology, or OOO. The idea here is to do away with any kind of hierarchy and take all objects, including humans, inanimate objects, and abstract ideas, on an equal footing: a “flat” ontology as described by Levi Bryant in his book The Democracy of Objects.

You might think that object-oriented theology, or OOT, which Miller wants to derive from this, would be an oxymoron, about as meaningful as “Amtrak schedule,” “government efficiency,” “safe abortion,” or, for that matter, “experimental metaphysics.” If there is a God, by this line of reasoning, he most definitely could not be transcendent and omniscient, and could even be dead. Just as Unix would regard God as just another file, in this new democratic pluriverse, OOO, which denies infinity and human privilege, would regard him as just one of the guys.

Although one might suspect from his writing that the one Adam S. Miller really worships is Bruno Latour, Miller tries hard to port Latour's experimental metaphysics to Christianity. The goal is to immanentize grace, which Miller defines as a product of passively experiencing God's presence. Needless to say, porting a materialistic metaphysics onto a non-theistic theology will not be easy.

Latour taught that there is no a priori distinction between human and nonhuman. To reconceptualize this philosophy for a religious chipset, Miller says that religion is a way of communing with real objects that are close at hand, while science is a way of communing with objects that are remote, like black holes or molecules.

I think Miller is mistaken there: science investigates remote objects only because the ones close at hand are well understood. Perhaps what he really means is that religion reduces the distance between self and object, while science preserves it. Belief, says Miller, is not a religious idea either, but a stopgap explanation that has been imposed on religion. But where does this leave us? Eliminating both belief and reason would seem to leave mysticism as the only viable approach. More work is needed here.

Considering how empiricism is the final arbiter of truth in many other fields, empirical metaphysics and triple-O sound to me like a great start for any branch of philosophy that starts from the premise that the world might, in principle, be real. Miller's attempt to use this as a basis for religious faith seems to me like doing it the hard way, but his attempt is fascinating.

aug 03, 2013; updated sep 11, 2013

book review score+2

Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason
Manuel DeLanda
Continuum, 2011, 226 pages

Whether people realize it or not, mathematical simulations and models have a profound effect on our daily life. If used correctly (as in the QED model in physics), models can be a tremendous aid to our understanding of the natural world. If not (as has happened in neural networks and climate models), they can cast an entire field of science into disrepute. Computer simulations are essential in designing everything from car tires to bombs. But at best, they can only prove that something could happen if the assumptions in the model are true. So it makes sense that philosophers would get interested in this topic.

Simulations, says Manuel DeLanda, are responsible for resurrecting the concept of emergent behavior. An example he gives is the emergence of the concept of temperature from a model of a collection of molecules. I think, frankly, this is a bad example. We all know the concept of temperature came first.

He then tries to derive insights about epistemology from simple computer models like cellular automata, genetic algorithms, and neural networks. DeLanda is trying to step back and understand how computer models influence our perception of reality. But in some ways, he comes across as a Martian who has only just discovered that the beings on this strange little planet have discovered some strange new branch of epistemology they call “chemistry.”

Most of this book consists of descriptions of experiments and insights from basic general chemistry, biology, and anthropology courses. I'm not sure exactly where Manuel DeLanda hoped to go with this as a philosophy. He loves computer simulations too much to be philosophically objective. There are not too many insights or radical conclusions here, but he does get the technical details right, so this book would be a valuable introduction for a reader from the humanities to the basic ideas behind the use of computer simulations in the natural sciences. It would also be useful for someone who wants to look at science through the eyes of a philosopher, or for a Martian interested in Earth technology.

mar 29, 2013

book review score+3

We Have Never Been Modern
Bruno Latour
Harvard, 1993, 157 pages

This book will give you flashbacks to the 1990s, the decade when angsty illiterates ran around worrying about the ozone hole and global warming and the evils of capitalism and imperialism, and people thought you could fight racism with more racism and sexism with more sexism. This latter might explain all the annoying shes and hers in this book. Or it may be that the translator just added them as a subtle way of sabotaging Bruno Latour's credibility. If so, it was hardly worth the effort.

In this book, Bruno Latour says that postmodernism crashed and burned when it tried to explain hard science as just another narrative. This should force us, he says, to re-evaluate modernism, which postmodernism was based on. Latour defines modernism as having two facets: “purification,” which creates dichotomies, such as between humans and nonhumans or moderns and premoderns, and “translation,” which forms interconnections between them. Translation breaks down the division and allows science and culture to mix. For example, atmospheric chemistry, industry, and ecoradicals constitute a “network,” or translation: a “hybrid.”

Latour says that we have never really been modern in the first place, because we always tried to make those connections. “The moderns have been victims of their own success,” says Latour [p.48]. But didn't he just say, a few pages earlier, that no one has ever been modern? As Perry Mason would say, Yes. Yes, he did. Criticizing criticism and doing sociology on sociologists is like playing with antimatter. If not done very carefully, you end up with a blast of dazzling prose and a lot of nothing.

And that's what happens to Latour's dialectic. The kindest thing one can say about his argument is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, in a ‘black is white’ sort of way, although I have to admit that, as Latour says, if it were true it would knock the wind out of cultural relativism. Of course, this is modern sociology; this book's very existence refutes Latour's argument. This book is very French and full of wit and irony. But I still have to ask: how does the existence of holistic connections in the modern consciousness prove that there is no such thing as modern consciousness? His syllogism boils down to this: both modern and premodern societies try to make connections. Therefore, they are the same, and there is no such thing as modernism and no need for its evil successor, postmodernism. Alas, as history shows, he was wrong, and postmodernism lived on, at least for a while. Nice try, though.

apr 07, 2013