Fall_Creek_2For some time now I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from biological thought. In part, I suppose, this is because I went through a period when I wanted to be a marine biologist and watched The Food Chain Channel (National Geographic and Animal Planet) nightly. Between the ages of eight and thirteen I could be found, on any given Summer day, mucking about in the creek in my backyard, shorts rolled up all Tom Sawyer like, capturing various critters such as tadpoles, frogs, snails, crayfish, turtles, fish, and whatever else I could find for my numerous aquariums in my room. Needless to say my parents were much dismayed by a rather swamp-like miasma that came to permeate the upper story of our house. Despite the social alienation I experienced then, this was a happy time in my life, spent exploring the plants and trees and animals and building all sorts of things. Beyond my fascination with the biological, however, I’ve found that biology converges on issues central to contemporary debates. When I suggest this there are, no doubt, those who shudder, immediately jumping to the conclusion that I am suggesting that philosophy should be “biologized”. But really that isn’t it at all. If biology should be of interest to philosophers, then this is because it deals with issues at the heart of contemporary debates such as the nature of what constitutes an individual, the nature of systems, how change takes place, how negentropic phenomena are possible, the nature of difference, and so on and so on. As my brilliant friend Adam Miller recently exclaimed when describing his encounter with Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, “it is like an embarrassment of ontological riches”. This is not, I take it, because of the contributions Gould makes to evolutionary theory, but because of how he tackles questions like what constitutes an individual?, what is the relationship between different scales of individuals?, how does change take place?, what is difference?, etc. Adam is right, just read the book. If anything else it is good for pushing you into different constellations of thought.

For the last week I’ve been working through Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students. Written in a gorgeous conversational and entertaining style that I can only dream of having and which emulates Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach (who was, incidentally, one of his mentors), Dennett’s book, no less than Gould’s, is an embarrassment of riches. If this is so, then it is not because one is ultimately convinced by his arguments– though that’s always possible –but because the book is so rich in concepts, analogies, and thought experiments that it functions as a rich machine for producing other associations very remote from his own immediate aims and interests.

read on!

Of particular interest and importance, I think, is Dennett’s analysis of possibility. Dennett distinguishes between four grades of possibility: logical, physical, biological, and historical possibility. Logical possibility is probably the form of possibility we’re all most familiar with and is that around which most debates on possibility revolve. Dennett gives the example of Superman to illustrate logical possibility. “Superman, who flies faster than the speed of light, is logically possible, but Duperman, who flies faster than the speed of light without moving anywhere, is not even logically possible” (105). In other words, the key criteria of logical possibility is whether or not the proposition contains a contradiction. If the proposition is contradictory, then it is not logically possible; whereas if the proposition is without contradiction, it is logically possible. Clearly logical possibility is not of much interest outside the domain of mathematics as it really doesn’t tell us anything salient about the world. This alone, I think, is enough to raise significant questions about Badiou’s mathematical ontology and ontology.

While Superman is logically possible, he is not physically possible. Since nothing– so far as we currently know –can fly faster than the speed of light, Superman is not physically possible. Here things become more interesting as we get the emergence of constraints determining what is and is not possible. Things get even more interesting when we start raising questions about biological possibility. Clearly answers to the question of what is biologically possible will be variable, in that they are premised on issues pertaining to time and geography. Clearly any type of organism that exists now is also biologically possible. However, were bats possible three billion years ago? The answer is no. In order for there to be bats there had to be a particular developmental sequence of organisms. However, this is not the only issue. In order for there to be bats, there had to be an appropriate environment. Yet in order for that environment to exist, all sorts of other critters first had to take place creating that very environment. Without eukaryotes, for instance, there would not yet be oxygen in the environment necessary for bat metabolic systems. Thus, biological possibility is forever shifting. Dennett gives the example of winged-horses to illustrate the concept of biological possibility. Are winged horses biologically possible? Certainly they are logically possible. However, it is likely that they are not physically possible (as conceived in mythology, at any rate) as the weight to wing ratio would not allow them to get off the ground, and they are not biologically possible because of the absence of a genetic cross-over between birds and mammals (note, this doesn’t rule out the biological possibility of much smaller horse-like creatures that have wings like bats rather than birds).

If the category of biological possibility is so interesting, then this is because it allows us to think living organisms as a sort of topology. Deleuze and Guattari, of course, were fascinated by the topological concept of living organisms where we think of differences among organisms as a series of plastic transformations through topological operations of bending, folding, stretching, etc. Taking extant organisms as defining a set of possibilitistic constraints, we can then imagine variations on these forms as a means of thinking what is, in fact, actual. In other words, once constraint is introduced into the picture we get a much richer and informative notion of possibility.

Finally we have historical possibility. Historical possibility refers to events that had no physical or biological possibility, but which nonetheless could have taken place. For example, we can ask ourselves what the world would have been like had Gore won the 2000 election. Interestingly, these sorts of questions have the curious ability of actually generating other possibilities for us in the present. Feyerabend, in Against Method, suggests that scientists and philosophers create an alternative imaginary world as a sort of heuristic tool for discovering salient features in this world (this would be one of the values of Bogost-Harman’s proposed philosophical video game). Yet alternative imaginary worlds do not simply allow us to “problematize” the obviousness of this world turning it into a research opportunity, but also allow us to envision alternative possibilities for ourselves. As Zizek and Benjamin like to put it, we here have the power of redeeming missed opportunities through a “repetition with a difference”.

However, following Marx, we can also ask ourselves what is historically possible for us in the actuality of time. Something, I think, often missed by certain Neo-Marxist thought was his attentiveness to the issue of historical possibility. If Marx spent so much time analyzing the nature of contemporary economy, the role of technology in his current moment (to use one of Mel’s favorite words), new institutions like the factor that had come into being, this wasn’t simply to reveal the presence of exploitation, but rather because he discerned in these new formations the emergence of new historical possibilities. As Marx famously said “we make our own history, but we don’t know it”. The aim of his analyses was both to discern what is historically possible as a result of these emergent social relations and to assist in rendering us active in taking up these potentialities and turning them into new actualities.

The paradox is thus that constraint is actually enabling. As Quine recognized, there is something paralyzing in the infinite realm of logical possibility. However, when we examine various grades of constrained possibility, suddenly all sorts of new opportunities become available. Far from being oppressive, the discipline of the Shau Lin monk is enabling, allowing the monk to discover unheard of possibilities of the physical body as well as the mind. My gripe with a lot of Neo-Marxist thought is that it lacks attentiveness to the analysis of constrained structure of possibility in the historical moment. Instead it dreams of an ex-ceptional subject that escapes all constraints of the situation (demiurge?), or an event that departs from all constraints of situations. If I have been led away from hermeneutic and semiotic based approaches to these social and political questions, then this is because I believe the solutions to our problems lie in becoming conscious of the enabling power of constraint. But this requires a form of analysis that refuses theoretical abstraction and is willing to look at the actual networks being formed, the impersonal life of technology (and I do not use this term pejoratively), the new forms of economy and social relation. We must resist the urge to be princes in castles in control of armies and look at all the engineering links that characterize a situation and define its field of possibility. Only in this way does it become possible to determine what acts have the potential to generate new attractor states and basins of attraction.