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“Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences.”*…

In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.

When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”

The problem with hyperobjects is that you cannot experience one, not completely. You also can’t not experience one. They bump into you, or you bump into them; they bug you, but they are also so massive and complex that you can never fully comprehend what’s bugging you. This oscillation between experiencing and not experiencing cannot be resolved. It’s just the way hyperobjects are.

Take oil: nature at its most elemental; black ooze from the depths of the earth. And yet oil is also the stuff of cars, plastic, the Industrial Revolution; it collapses any distinction between nature and not-nature. Driving to the port, we were surrounded by oil and its byproducts—the ooze itself, and the infrastructure that transports it, refines it, holds it, and consumes it—and yet, Morton said, we could never really see the hyperobject of capital-“O” Oil: it shapes our lives but is too big to see.

Since around 2010, Morton has become associated with a philosophical movement known as object-oriented ontology, or O.O.O. The point of O.O.O. is that there is a vast cosmos out there in which weird and interesting shit is happening to all sorts of objects, all the time. In a 1999 lecture, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Graham Harman, the movement’s central figure, explained the core idea:

The arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines…

We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.

… “[Covid-19 is] the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”

What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” It’s a winsome and terrifying idea. Learning to see oneself as an object among objects is destabilizing—like learning “to navigate through a bad dream.” In many ways, Morton’s project is not philosophical but therapeutic. They have been trying to prepare themselves for the seismic shifts that are coming as the world we thought we knew transforms.

For the philosopher of “hyperobjects”—vast, unknowable things that are bigger than ourselves—the coronavirus is further proof that we live in a dark ecology: “Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic.”

* “Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences. This is the paradox of the ecological age. And it is why action to change global warming must be massive and collective.” – Timothy Morton, Being Ecological

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As we find our place, we might send classical birthday greetings to James Clerk Maxwell; he was born on this date in 1831.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Though he was the apotheosis of classical (Newtonian) physics, Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.

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“Custom is the great guide to human life”*…

Which graph to use for which type of data

The r/coolguides page on Reddit has lots of fun and useful stuff to browse through from guides on wilderness survival to vintage instructions about talking on the telephone. I hope I never actually need to refer to the one about “how to make seawater drinkable”, but I do think it’s a good skill to know, just in case I find myself stuck in a rubber boat with Tallulah Bankhead and William Bendix. I have similar feelings about the “Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno” guide, but it’s probably wise to have it on hand, just in case I need it as a map one day… 

Source (see also here for a different map of Dante’s Hell)

Guides– lots of guides. Via Boing Boing.

David Hume

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As we find our way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1523 that the Parisian Faculty of Theology fined Simon de Colines for publishing the Biblical commentary Commentarii initiatorii in quatuor Evangelia by Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a “guide” to the four Gospels. Lefèvre d’Étaples, a theologian and a leading figure in French humanism, whose work anticipated the Protestant Reformation, was frequently ruled heretical– though he remained within the church throughout his life.

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“The speed of time is 1 hour per hour, no matter what else is going on in the universe”*…

All the Light You See” (02017–02019) by Alicia Eggert. Photo by Ryan Strand Greenberg.

The most commonly-used noun in the English language is, according to the Oxford English Corpus, time. Its frequency is partly due to its multiplicity of meanings, and partly due to its use in common phrases. Above all, “time” is ubiquitous because what it refers to dictates all aspects of human life, from the hour we rise to the hour we sleep and most everything in between.

But what is time? The irony, of course, is that it’s hard to say. Trying to pin down its meaning using words can oftentimes feel like grasping at a wriggling fish. The 4th century Christian theologian Saint Augustine sums up the dilemma well:

But what in speaking do we refer to more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.

Most of us are content to live in a world where time is simply what a clock reads. The interdisciplinary artist Alicia Eggert is not. Through co-opting clocks and forms of commercial signage (billboards, neon signs, inflatable nylon of the kind that animates the air dancers in the parking lots of auto dealerships), Eggert makes conceptual art that invites us to experience the dimensions of time through the language we use to talk about it.

Her art draws on theories of time from physics and philosophy, like the inseparability of time and space and the difference between being and becoming. She expresses these oftentimes complex ideas through simple words and phrases we make use of in our everyday lives, thereby making them tangible and relatable…

From Ahmed Kabil (@ahmedkabil) and The Long Now Foundation, a (wonderfully-illustrated) appreciation of the art of Alicia Eggert (@AliciaEggert) and the questions it addresses: “How Long is Now?

Sean M. Carroll

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As we tackle time, we might recall that it was on this date in 585 BCE that a solar eclipse occurred. According to The Histories of Herodotus, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted the event. (If Herodotus’s account is accurate, this eclipse is the earliest recorded as being known in advance of its occurrence.)

According to Herodotus, the appearance of the eclipse was interpreted as an omen, and interrupted a battle in a long-standing war between the Medes and the Lydians. The fighting immediately stopped, and they agreed to a truce. Because astronomers can calculate the dates of historical eclipses, Isaac Asimov described this battle as the earliest historical event whose date is known with precision to the day, and called the prediction “the birth of science”; any case “the eclipse of Thales” is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates can be calculated.

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“In wonder all philosophy began, in wonder it ends”*…

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) stands tall in the cultural pantheon for his poetry. It’s less well known that in his own lifetime, and in the decades following his death, this canonical poet had an equal reputation as a philosopher. His published works containing much of his philosophical prose span from The Statesman’s Manual (1816), which set out his theory of imagination and symbolism; Biographia Literaria (1817), one of the great and founding works of literary criticism; The Friend (1818), which includes his philosophical ‘Essays on the Principles of Method’; Aids to Reflection(1825), where he expounds his religious philosophy of transcendence; and On the Constitution of the Church and the State (1829), which presents his political philosophy.

The effect of those last two books was so impressive that John Stuart Mill named Coleridge as one of the two great British philosophers of the age – the other being Jeremy Bentham, Coleridge’s polar opposite. His thinking was also at the root of the Broad Church Anglican movement, a major influence on F D Maurice’s Christian socialism, and the main source for American Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Coleridge in 1832, and John Dewey, the leading pragmatist philosopher, called Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection ‘my first Bible’.

Yet philosophical fortunes change. The almost-total eclipse of British idealism by the rise of analytic philosophy saw a general decline in Coleridge’s philosophical stock. His philosophy languished while his verse rose. Coleridge’s poetry resonated with the psychedelia of the 1960s and a general cultural shift that emphasised the value of the imagination and a more holistic view of the human place within nature. Today, Coleridge is far more often remembered as a poet than a philosopher. But his philosophy was spectacular in its originality and syntheses…

Though largely remembered only as a poet, Coleridge’s theory of ideas was spectacular in its originality and bold reach; Peter Cheyne explains: “Coleridge the philosopher.”

For other literary philosophers, see “On Exploring Philosophy in Fiction and Autobiography: A Reading List.”

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection

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As we muse on meaning, we might spare a thought for one of Coleridge’s philosophical beneficiaries, Ralph Waldo Emerson; he died on this date in 1882.  The essayist (“Nature,” “Self-Reliance,” et al.), lecturer, and poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, he was one of the linchpins of the American romantic movement, and friend and mentor to Henry David Thoreau.

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“Society gives legitimacy and society can take it away”*…

Yesterday’s post featured an argument that attention (which social, economic, and commercial discourse increasingly treat as a limited resource) is not in fact scarce at all, and indeed, that it is dehumanizing to think of it in that way.

Today’s offering nominates a different kind of scarcity as worthy of our thought…

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.

There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone elsewill be too scared to resist as well.

Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.

Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. See also: my post on credible neutrality, though note that this is not the only kind of fairness.

Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.

Note that legitimacy is a descriptive concept; something can be legitimate even if you personally think that it is horrible. That said, if enough people think that an outcome is horrible, there is a higher chance that some event will happen in the future that will cause that legitimacy to go away, often at first gradually, then suddenly…

The co-founder of Etherium, Vitalik Butarin (@VitalikButerin) on why “The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy.” Whatever one’s feeling about cryptocurrency, it’s eminently worthy of reading in full… and of submitting to the same sort of questioning that L.M. Sarcasas mustered yesterday,

* Willis Harman

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As we channel John Locke, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1933 that the the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (after 14 years of Prohibition), came into force. Americans celebrated by consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer that day.

The Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of prohibition in the U.S., but it did redefine an “intoxicating beverage” under the Volstead Act (which was created in 1919 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment– and was fully repealed later in 1933).

During Prohibition, while alcohol consumption fell initially, it pretty briskly returned to 60-70% of its pre-Volstead Act levels. Indeed, it was in 1923 that the invented word “scofflaw” was introduced to the American vocabulary. Created to mean “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor,” it gained wide usage through Prohibition, and survives to day, referring to those who ignore/break minor laws that are infrequently enforced… which is to say, laws that rely on legitimacy for their effectiveness.

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