Tolkein and the Machine

“To Tolkien, the machine is something far more menacing than a mere mechanical device. Fundamentally, it represents the lust for power – in particular, for power over others.”

“To Tolkien, the machine represents a means to attain power over others. His orcs – deformed and ugly creatures, whose hands are sometimes replaced with weapons – embody this lust for power.” LOTR Wikia

I saw one person make the point that Tolkein was possibly alluding to the successive ages of civilization that you find in Hesiod and the five descending types of regimes found in Plato’s Republic. That is:

Golden Age – Aristocracy (Wisdom and Reason)
Silver Age – Timocracy (Honor)
Brass Age – Oligarchy (Wealth)
Tin Age – Democracy (Freedom)
Iron Age – Tyranny (Power)

Interestingly, although it makes sense that Hesiod and Plato have influenced my homebrew game design (my undergraduate dissertation, for example, focused on Hesiod and Empedocles), but I wasn’t really aware of how Tolkein’s view of machines might have influenced me (then again, my graduate work did involve the work of Heidegger, and I was influenced by his discussion in The Question Concerning Technology of how mechanization can conceal the true nature of things from us, and we need to question the essence of technology, because it has shifted over time from an expressive, almost poetic or artistic human activity, to one of an obscuring, instrumental, means-to-an end result).

In my TTRPG game world orcs, hobgoblins, goblins, kobolds, and bugbears, are corruptions of elves, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and hobbits, respectively. I am still working on this relationship. The main emphasis so far has been to work on making a distinction between the cosmic alignments of law, chaos, and neutrality, along with the moral alignments of good and evil. But intertwined within that there is a sense of degeneration, a loss of one’s soul, humanity, and a sense of identity. What contributes to this sense of lost identity, both personally and culturally? My Castles & Crusades game is the imaginative canvas in which I wish to explore this.

Two different ways of Looking at and Interpreting the World (A Heideggerrian Critique of Cartesianism)

[Originally published on 13 March, 2013]

How do we interpret/understand objects in the world?

Consider how we might analyze a ball of wax.  Descartes (in his second Meditation), discusses and analyzes a ball of wax as it takes different forms. He points out that it may have a certain look, feel, smell, etc, in its many forms (depending on whether it is heated up and melts, for instance), but these, Descartes says, are mere ‘accidents’ of this substance under different circumstances which the wax ball finds itself in.

But this approach of Descartes, according to Heidegger, has left the world a very sterile place. Descartes is not taking into account the different purposes, services, and functions that an entity like a ball of wax has as possibilities. That is, a ball of wax as Heidegger sees it can be poured into a mould to make a candle, or it can be used to seal a letter – Heidegger wants to know what the wax means to the person who is performing these different activities.

But surely, you might say, Heidegger is now attributing some very subjective characteristics to the wax ball, for if we are to understand the ball of wax, we need to look at it in an abstract, distant, and sterile way – this is the only way we can objectively analyze it. For example, think of how a ‘primitive’ person may see something and interpret this as an animal spirit, or a child may see a fluffy caterpillar and interpret it as a small stuffed animal. We would say that the primitive person and the child were mistaken.  Taking this into account, surely the Cartesian method of breaking things down into abstract terms allows us to avoid this problem?

But a Heideggerrian can reply that when you are attributing purely abstract characteristics to an object (and to the world in general), that this is also a subjective imposition. The Heideggerrian might say that the ball of wax is not some kind of ‘extended substance’  with different ‘accidental’ characteristics of ‘warmth,’ or ‘softness’ or ‘hardness’ that are added to it under different circumstances, rather, a ball of wax is something we use (i.e. to seal letters, or to make candles). Thus, we could say that the Heideggerrian is providing us with a description of the wax and indeed is  telling us something about the world – primarily what it is used for, and it is this use which the Heideggerrian would state is primary; any abstract analysis is secondary to this.

The Cartesian can reply by looking at the ball of wax moulded into a candle and say that this is what it is, and that this is true independent of anyone’s interpretation.

But the Heideggerrian says: ‘How do you know that?’ ‘You have come to this conclusion by thinking!’ The Cartesian approach, says the Heideggerrian, simply tells us how we can think about it.  Heidegger says that we don’t ever hear “noises or complexes of sounds, [instead we hear] the creaking of wagon wheels, or the motor-cycle, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling…It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise.'” (Being & Time, 207).  A Cartesian worldview rests on many unexplored assumptions regarding the phenomena it targets.

What about the External World and Reality itself?

The Cartesian sometimes puzzles over trying to ‘prove’ the existence of an external world which has large numbers of isolated objects and subjects.  Heidegger says that Dasein (the human way of existing) is already in the world. Dasein is constituted by the world.  When one tries to ‘prove’ that the world exists, they have overlooked the a priori nature of our Being-in-the-world.

Heidegger is in part both a realist and an idealist. He is a realist in that he accepts the present-at-hand (or ontic, or scientific) objects that are in the world. Yet he shares with the idealist that one has to begin with a description – or an awareness – of the self or subject. Our self is already in a world, and we cannot isolate it except in circumstances of abstraction.

Rather than start – as the Cartesian does – with ‘the problem of reality,’ the Heideggerrian wants to start with ‘the problem of existence.’  Reality (and let me emphasize this clearly, we are not referring to the things within reality), could not exist without human beings – reality is a mode of human existence.  Reality is simply a mode of our interpretation of the world, as a result, it depends on us existing.  Any talk we might engage in about ‘substances’, ‘things’, and ‘reality’ are all derivative.  The whole, as significance, is prior to its parts.  Our commonsense understanding of the world is a knowing-how, not a propositional knowing-that.  Facts and rules are meaningless by themselves, they need to be assigned relevance by us.  Whatever shows up as intelligible for us, shows up or emerges from a background of significance.

[A large part of this note relies on an interpretation given by Michael Gelven in his book “A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time.”]

What is Phenomenology?

[Originally published 26 February, 2013]

Phenomenology is concerned with articulating the ‘conditions of possibility’ of our experience. The lifeworld is a core concept in phenomenology. It is the collection of all the situations in which we find ourselves involved. It is our lived world as it opens up for us in all its possibilities.  Our experiences are charged  with significance and meaning. Phenomenology seeks to analyze the meaningful background for all our possible and actual actions. Most of the time this lifeworld goes un-noticed, or is taken for granted by us. Phenomenology tries to show us how phenomena manifest themselves to our consciousness, along with its shape and structure. It is an enterprise which tries to describe things as they appear to our consciousness.

One of its core ideas is that we as agents of thought and action are already situated in a world. Instead of examining experiences as they are empirically perceived as some type of ‘real fact,’ it is concerned with examining the pure essences of experience as they are intuitively given to us in their generality. It seeks to describe the experience of meaning. There is no ‘first fact’ which is preceded by a series of other facts. Instead, our instances of consciousness are already situated in a specific circumstance. There is an emphasis on ‘intentionality’ – all of our experiences are of or about some object or state of affairs. We as agents are already in-the-world engaged in pragmatic and socially defined projects.

This approach does not support the reductionistic tendencies we see in some sciences. Instead of being concerned with how things in reality actually are, it is instead focused on how we experience things in consciousness. Consciousness is our window onto the world.  All the knowledge we possess comes to us through consciousness. This is why phenomenologists give primacy to this, over how things ‘actually are in reality.’ Since, epistemologically speaking, our conscious perspective comes first, we need to be concerned about the condition of our perspectival window onto the world first, before we can attempt to understand what is outside this window.

Consider the following ‘naturalistic’ explanation of the phenomenal world, and compare it with the phenomenological description just below. First, ponder this quote from the philosopher W.V.O. Quine (from the ‘Ways of Paradox’):

“I am a physical object sitting in a physical world.  Some of the forces of this physical world impinge on my surface.  Light rays strike my retinas; molecules bombard my eardrums and fingertips.  I strike back, emanating concentric air waves.  These waves take the form of a torrent of discourse about tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas, air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil.”

Now compare that with this piece from Edmund Husserl’s Ideas:

“I am conscious of a world endlessly spread out in space, endlessly becoming and having endlessly become in time.  I am conscious of it: that signifies, above all, that intuitively I find it immediately, that I experience it.  By my seeing, touching, hearing, and so forth, and in the different modes of sensuous perception, corporeal physical things with some spatial distribution or other are simply there for me, ‘on hand’ in the literal or figurative sense, whether or not I am particularly heedful of them and busied with them in my considering, thinking, feeling, or willing.  Animate beings too – human beings, let us say – are immediately there for me: I look up; I see them; I hear their approach; I grasp their hands; talking with them I understand immediately what they mean and think, what feelings stir within them, what they wish or will.”

Edmund Husserl, instead of trying to use empirical methods, attempted to use a ‘transcendental attitude’ and implement a ‘transcendental reduction.’ He sought out the conditions of possbility for knowledge. Martin Heidegger thought that what shows itself to us is not necessarily the things in consciousness, but to some degree Being itself. He engaged in an examination of the question of the meaning of Being – fundamental ontology – via the manner in which it appears – or is hidden – to us in our experience. There is a high degree of hermeneutics (or interpretation) in phenomenology as practiced by Heiddeger. Maurice Merleau-Ponty shifted the approach and attempted to integrate phenomenology with psychology and neurology, with an emphasis on the body and our embodied existence. He drew heavily on experimental case studies to understand more clearly phenomenological experience.  He tried to bring phenomenology into the sciences to show how life is lived. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir tied phenomenology in with existentialism, and Karl Jaspers put it to work in psychiatry. It’s incorporation into guiding and influencing scientific approaches, analysis, and practice, have resulted in the creation of Existential Phenomenological Counselling and Daseinanalysis, and the influence of Ecological-Embodied-Enactive Cognition in recent Cogntive Science.

Whereas early on Husserl was sceptical of phenomenology becoming ‘naturalized,’ it has progressed much since, and in recent years there have been several attempts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology. Nowadays there are three main approaches. One is ‘formalized’ phenomenology, where the phenomenological analysis of lived experience that has been done is translated into a formal (almost mathematized) language that allows areas like psychology to improve their ability to formulate experienced intersubjective shared meaning. ‘Neurophenomenology’ utilizes dynamic systems theory to try and show that we can’t just rely on explanations that are based on purely mechanical interactions of parts in isolated moments of time. Genuine interaction is non-linear, and is based on reciprocal, dynamic interaction. There is a process of self-organization and sense-making based on our brain/body/environment coupling together. To do neurophenomenology practicioners need to be trained in phenomenological methods. Lastly, we have what is called ‘front-loaded’ phenomenology. Instead of beginning with empirical results (such as ‘formalized’ phenomenology), or with training subjects (as is done in ‘neurophenomenology), front-loaded phenomenology begins with the specific design of experiments based on the insights of phenomenology.

[The above discussion drew heavily from the following books (shown below): ‘Phenomenology’, by Shaun Gallagher.  ‘Understanding Phenomenology’, by David R. Cerbone.  ‘Introduction to Phenomenology’, by Dermot Moran.]