Time Melted Toy Brain



I cannot hope to provide a complete or even thorough review of Reza’s Intelligence and Spirit. S.C. Hickman has provided some reflections here but it would be a tall order for anyone to do a proper review (though I imagine one is forthcoming). This introduction by Robin Mackay is very helpful.

Here I simply want to address some of the issues in Chapter 4 “Some Unsettling Kantian News, as Delivered by Boltzmann” (201-248). The reason for this is mostly that it crosses over with some of my current work on British Idealism as well as ideas in early 20th century philosophies of time. (For good stuff on this type of thing see the work of Emily Thomas here.)

It should go without saying that anyone coming into Intelligence and Spirit assuming it will follow Cyclonpedia or secretly be the Mortiloquist is in for some hard conceptual whiplash. But we can at least analogously say that if Cyclonopedia refused the theory/fiction divide, I & S refuses the analytic/continental divide in a similarly constructive manner. Because of the book’s broadly Hegelian stance, it essentially refuses the division between philosophy of mind and pragmatism which plays into refusing the difference between natural and artificial intelligences (at least at the level of constitution or any ontological branding). By suspending certain metaphysical and ontological stakes the book can ask how it is that we can construct piecemeal an idea of intelligence that could come from a being whose intelligence occurred in a similar but not equally tractable fashion. This leads to a pragmatically tethered form of speculation in terms of the creation of toy universes or toy models (123-124) which are explicit metatheories meant to be tested and broken in the real world (one such theory being the view of ‘ourselves’ as rational thinking entities capable of making these models). This is no simple matter however as it requires a rational skepticism that attempts to always find the ‘more neutral’ view from nowhere not to escape scrutiny but to avoid anchoring the view of ourselves in delusions, fantasies, or wrong-headed theories.

This brings us to Chapter 4 which addresses these issues in relation to time and temporal consciousness. The philosophy of time consciousness is a field of analytic philosophy (though often more willing to cross the line at least for historical resources) that has produced quite a bit of interesting material lately. However, Negarestani does not address contemporary figures in the specifi field but engages the problems via Kant, McTaggart, and the physicist-philosopher Boltzmann (while also addressing figures in the philosophy of science such as Grunbaum). This mixture of figures collectively highlights the difficult of assuming either a direct effect of time’s structure on consciousness or on the structure of consciousness ordering time as both strategies attempt to rely upon pre-experiential structures of either consciousness or time.

Of course Kant’s general stance on time can be read as a kind of subjectivist retreat – i.e. in stating that time is real because it is how I measure change (as he put it in the letters to Lambert) it could be read as simply meaning that the subject decides time’s measure. This would be reading the experiental dimension of time as an act of the transcendental ego rather than as an (annoyingly) necessary inner intuition. (Looking at Deleuze and Chatelet’s disagreement on the relation between time as a measure and time as a parameter is helpful here. I will return to this below).

But it is telling that even abandoning the thing in itself (the real of time) does not help get rid of the problem of the passage of time not only between different observers but also within consciousness itself or in the formation of the observations but which one could even make a claim about time’s structure vis a vis physical behaviors (such as statistical distribution of matter in Boltzmann). The first two of these problems are evident in the various formulations of the metaphysics of time (even setting aside Bergson and Einstein’s famous row) in the works of Bradley, Broad, and McTaggart.


Negarestani discusses McTaggart’s infamous “The Unreality of Time” as well as his expansion of its core ideas in The Nature of Existence. McTaggart is introduced after a discussion of time and perception that works around Russell’s well known ‘the world was created 5 minutes ago’ riddle. While Russell dismisses the possibility as ‘uninteresting’ Negarestani emphasizes that a rigorous skepticism (and one that does not fall into simply an uncritical suspicion) makes it rather clear that we cannot easily relate what he have sensed to any notion of temporal order i.e. we cannot infer an order of things from the order of things remembered. Touching on Boltzmann – there is no way to prove that empirical traces as we obtain them can guarantee a structural reality such as time-asymmetry (time’s arrow).

Negarestani defends (somewhat indirectly) McTaggart’s notion of the reality of selves in the face of the unreality of time. For McTaggart, time as a structure cannot rely upon either tense (A series) nor on ordering (B Series) if it hopes to hold up outside of our discussion of it. But this discussion of the reality of selves in McTaggart is replaced by  a discussion of the need of metaphysics if metaphysics is understood as an articulation of the infinite that avoids as many antinomies as possible.

The important stake of Hegel and of much of idealism in general (and what is consistently misunderstood) is well-represented in the closing section of the chapter – namely that idealism does not mean that the world is thought but the world may be more thought like and thought more world like than we think, or know, given our habits of projecting the basic structures of experience onto the world or our theories of the world onto the self without understanding how these regimes of understanding pollute one another. One of the important features of Hegel is to invert this relation thereby emphasizing the role of negation to complicate the thought world connection. Following this the world and thought’s relation is possible but always encounters itself in the negative moment of the minimal gap between form and content, between the grasp and what is grasped.

But as I mentioned in the last post – what tends to nag at one’s conscious is what exactly the status of the metaphysical becomes other than as an experimental assumption (a toy model of toy models – a place holder for the factory of possible hypotheses). If the metaphysical is necessary yet anti-dogmatic in its flexibility does this not change its form as metaphysical? The question becomes of whether there is another metaphysical stance that is speculative yet does not rely upon a special type of thought (intellectual intuition or conceptually-laden sense, intentionality etc).

But, in a very interesting move, Negarestani shifts the problem to one of action and inaction where becoming is not needed in order to have free will nor is determinism the enemy of free will since in order to make choices we at least require a degree of epistemological determinism in order to recognize the difference between causes and compelling causing (freedom being a choice of which constraints are constructive rather than a freedom from constraints).


This can point us back to the disagreement between Chatelet and Deleuze mentioned above. For Deleuze, following Bergson (and especially the Bergson who critiqued sense-data theorists such as Fechner) there can be so real distinction between measure and parameter since both are ‘equally’ artificial whereas for Chatelet the result of an artificial operation is not artificial in the same way a measure is, that is, an operation is not a measure since the operation produces something rather than merely restricting the flow of the world.

Thus if the world is out of joint following Kant it is not because of the invention of a subjective time (in the same way medieval time was merely the moving image of eternity, the shadow of God’s existence) but because the mode of action in time has changed as a mode of action or agency (245). This is one of F.H. Bradley’s points about time (and Bradley and McTaggart were close but differed on the substantiality of the self) – if there is no absolute order of events but only different sets of ordering of events relative to finite centers (his name for the purely formal self, the self as a locus of predication) then agreement about truths (above and beyond local coherent judgments about empirical matters) requires any take of the ‘real’ or independent order of time but rather the meaningful order of time relevant to the discourse meant move beyond any local meaning (which is in effect the agential stake of the past and the future) – or who we were and who we will be.

The status of action is particularly important for the future of contemporary Hegelianism. As Ray Brassier has warned, the alignment of Hegel with a kind of Aristotelianism, of grounding in kinds or shifting ethics to a virtue discourse, in effect neutralizes the necessarily collective aspect of reason as a collective project of negotiation. But more on this later…


One Response to “Time Melted Toy Brain”

  1. Can’t adequately express how happy I am to see this blog back up and running

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