Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Correlationism, Cybernetics and Nothing

Correlationism is a critical objection to the ontology of Kant, and by extension to philosophical thought influenced by him, including varieties of descriptions of the 'transcendental subject' (Kant's idealised subject which is deduced to exist in the light of the possibility of human reason). Among these varieties of transcendental subjectivity, I have argued we must include the various elaborate cybernetic descriptions of the world, alongside most of the activities of cognitive psychology, educational psychology and so on. However, whilst each case upholds transcendental subjects, their correlationism exhibits itself at different levels. The correlationist objection centres on the fact that Kant assumes 'natural necessity' - that there must be order and regularity in nature with which the cognising subject 'correlates' their categories of understanding. In assuming natural necessity, Kant departs from Hume, whose philosophical scepticism about causality set Kant towards his conclusions in the first place. Many cyberneticians agree with Hume (without acknowledging it!), not Kant, and argue that there is no necessary order to the natural world - indeed, in positing complex mechanisms of perception and construction of knowledge, reality and even its regularities are constituted through perceptual dynamics. However, the mechanical metaphors that are employed in cybernetics do depend on natural necessity in order to be known.

If the correspondence between transcendental subjectivity and natural necessity is a philosophical problem whose ontological foundations are unsupportable, does this rule out any kind of correspondence between mind and nature? In Bateson's thinking, mind and nature are a 'necessary unity'. What he means by this is partly inspired by his readings of Lamarck and its contrast to Darwin. Lamarck's great book ("Zoological philosophy") starts with nature and works towards mind, attempting to describe the processes whereby mind and the imagination arise. Darwin on the other hand, describes a general principle which he deduces to be at work from making observations of nature. It might be unfair to argue that mind is completely absent in the unfolding of this principle, but it is fair to say that Darwin's concern is the explanation of observable phenomena and the abstract unfolding of his principle. Since mind cannot be observed, it doesn't feature particularly strongly (although it might be inferred). Darwin is cold; Lamarck is warm. 

The correlationist objection setttles on categories of understanding and the ideas that emerge from their interaction with the world. What I want to ask here is that whilst we might rule out a correlation between ideas and the necessity of the world (denying natural necessity and transcendental subjectivity), the relationship between between mind and nature need not reject all correlation. It seems to me that whatever an idea is, whatever a category is, there is a space which is not that idea, not that category: there is absence. Similarly, it seems to me that whatever regularity there is in the world, there is that which isn't regular (indeed, for the anti-correlationist "speculative realists" this is all there is), indeed there is that which isn't. 

Can we reject Kantian correlationism but uphold a correlation of absence? Or, put another way, does absence in the head correlate to absence in the world? Can we negativise Kant? Can we negativise cybernetics? (I wrote this on 'negative cybernetics' a while ago - - it's been a long-term fascination) What does negative learning analytics look like? What about negative big data? or negative agent-based modelling? Is the unity of mind and nature driven by what isn't there?

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