Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.

Futurama

Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.

Creative Experimentation and the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Thought is a ‘witches’ flight’ in the sense of carrying us to beyond the frontier of what the body and the mind have been presumed able to do.
– Joshua Ramsey

A book I am currently working on is called Hands-On Chaos Magic by Andrieh Vitimus. Throughout the sections I’ve read, the author lists many exercises that develop visualization and concentration skills. The book uses these examples to encourage an open source approach to its exercises, inviting the reader’s participation in making their own magical frameworks. It has us adopt a questioning attitude and develop exercises that are effective and have meaning to us.

This book feels like a natural extension of developing individual, creative approaches. Interestingly, I think this kind of experimentation prevents its practitioners from too narrowly channeling their creativity. Rather than focusing all of our efforts on a particular form of art, any circumstance becomes creative. We become a kind of craftsman, but for all of life, and through a kind of inquisitive play with existence, new solutions emerge. Although there is much that is outside of our control, we can experiment in every moment. By nurturing the details of our lives, we find novel and often beautiful possibilities.

This kind of free play is present in the work of some of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They carve out the still-beating heart of the Entrenched Position, giving it over to the cascades ever in the process of desiring-production. Deleuze and Guattari provide us with concepts that allow us to think differently, shifting away from a blind insistence on our possession of Truth. Their concepts, collected under terms like schizoanalysis, provide a pivot for creative experimentation and expansion in our own lives.

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I will try to focus on some important concepts from their studies in A Thousand Plateaus. By observing how these concepts relate to each other, we can then grasp what Deleuze and Guattari are offering us when we work to understand it. They give us a truly rare and wonderful thing. Not only is their conceptual system coherent, it also adheres to lived experience. By being highly realistic, and not necessarily idealistic, its range of practical applications is enormous.

Two of Deleuze and Guattari’s most useful concepts are the rhizome and the assemblage. The rhizome offers a model for connections within reality between what are referred to as heterogeneous elements. These can be understood as aspects that occupy a network of connections that constantly fluctuate, connect, and re-connect. In A Thousand Plateaus, it is described as “[passing] between things, between points.” [505]. In its process of connection, the rhizome creates new realities of its own.

The assemblage expands upon this, offering us a way to understand provisional collections of these heterogeneous elements. An assemblage:

[extracts] a territory from the milieus. Every assemblage is basically territorial. The first concrete rules for assemblages is to discover what territoriality they envelop, for there is always one: in their trash can or on their bench, Beckett’s characters stake out a territory. Discover the territorial assemblages of someone, human or animal: ‘home.’ The territory is made out of decoded fragments of all kinds, which are borrowed from the milieus but then assume the value of ‘properties’ . . . [504]

The environment organizes itself in particular ways, pulling itself together into coherent groups that make an assemblage. Depending on how these differences are brought together changes the territory and therefore the assemblage. This process of constitution is elaborated on with Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of territorialization and deterritorialization.

These territories have certain exit points within them to other states of being and intensity, called lines of flight. Since the territory occupies a certain level of organization, when we change how that matter organizes, we begin moving along these lines towards deterritorialization. These are transitions that embrace the fount of possibility and our ability to move along different paths at any time. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari describe two different parts of this process. The first is when we move outside of a territory but “reterritorialize” on a different one. The second is when we reach the “plane of consistency,” an extremely abstract and difficult concept to describe. The plane of consistency underlies all universal order and allows it to exist, but it is more fluid and potential. If we transition from more rigid conceptions of order, we can reach the plane of consistency and find more creative freedom.

I think this understanding helps shed light on human habits. For example, we tend to move in default patterns of thought, behavior, and organization. This can be conceived as a territory. It is a particular state of energy that we occupy at any given time, with tendencies to move in certain directions, whether intellectual, verbal, etc. This can be observed in children, with a more chaotic creativity limiting itself over time to the construction of a personality. However, this cuts both ways, and we can follow our personality back across time, along the paths of its formation, and sense its limitations. This is to realize our freedom. It is helpful, once we recognize that incredible freedom, to understand the balance of crafting and dissolving transitions along the flux of events. Our territories contain “lines of flight” that describe other possible states of becoming and how we may best follow them.

These ideas all tie into the concept of a body without organs. A body without organs is a process of reality in becoming, of how we each give shape to a life’s work. As I understand it, the body without organs is how each of us shape actualities in accordance with our deepest desires in ongoing experiment. It “pulls” potentials into existence. Set in motion, the body without organs constructs itself through the events of our lives. Since reality is processual, it necessarily follows that any moment we express opens onto multiple dimensions, including the full scale of heavenly bliss and hellacious suffering. The body without organs teems with possibility and danger, that we may not survive beyond this moment to carry on this grand experiment.

At any rate you have one (or several). It’s not so much that it preexists or comes ready-made, although in certain respects it is preexistent. At any rate you make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t. This is not reassuring, because you can botch it. Or it can be terrifying, and lead you to your death. It is nondesire as well as desire. It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. [149-150]

Understanding these concepts clarifies Deleuze and Guattari’s purpose.  These concepts are not held in a death grip.  Instead, they energize and reconnect language from within, allowing us to conceive and feel other dimensions of existence. Their writing mirrors this, teeming with the associations, loops, and spirals of life. We can observe new connections forming and see what can be drawn from them. We then enter and better effectuate processes of change. An application of this philosophy is how best to use this framework to liberate ourselves. Through it, we continuously work to realize a much broader and diverse experience of life, a “nomad science” and philosophy of freedom.

Schizoanalysis

There is nothing
except
the impossible
and not God

– Georges Bataille (taken from The Thirst For Annihilation)

Schizoanalysis, also known as pragmatics, is an open-ended, creative system of experimentation outlined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their seminal philosophical/theoretical texts. They describe it as “a set of practices.” This set of practices pulls us further from our moorings and casts us out into unforseen vistas. Reality is described as a productive process, in which assemblages (diverse interconnections of matter/energy) spontaneously self-organize. This process is always becoming and never finished; creative dimensions emerge as this process continues and are strictly relative to the process itself. In the process of production, phenomena constantly come to fruition.

What the schizophrenic experiences, both as the individual and as a member of the human species, is not at all any one specific aspect of nature, but nature as a process of production. What do we mean here by process? . . . the real truth of the matter, – the glaring, sober truth that resides in delirium – is that there is no such thing as relatively independent spheres or circuits: production is immediately consumption and a recording process (enregistrement), without any sort of mediation, and the recording process and consumption directly determine production, thought they do so within the production process itself. Hence everything is production: production of productions, of actions and of passions; productions of recording processes, of distributions and of co-ordinates that serves as points of reference; productions of consumptions, of sensual pleasures, of anxieties, and of pain. Everything is production, since the recording processes are immediately consumed, immediately consummated, and these consumptions directly reproduced. This is the first meaning of process as we use the term: incorporating recording and consumption within production itself, thus making them the productions of one and the same process. (Anti-Oedipus, 3-4)

Dispensing with transcendent, all-pervading formalisms and staid absolutes, Deleuze and Guattari explore and mine the edges where theory begins to break down and fissure. Instead of becoming more rigid, we redirect the flows of matter/energy, pulling us further towards potentiality and what they term the “body without organs.” We experiment with different configurations of reality, always helping to connect and create. The ever-shifting panoply of form is referred to as “the strata.”

This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bringing forth continuous intensities for a [body without organs]. Connect, conjugate, continue: a whole ‘diagram’ as opposed to still signifying and subjective programs. (ATP, 161)

Matter/energy flows, and we are part of this flowing process.

We are not only enmeshed with all other life as our own stratum, but form dense webs of interconnections with all other phenomena. In this conception, we are what Manuel De Landa calls “intensive processes” and flows that constantly define and change our organism in each moment. The strata constantly flow into each other. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome describes how vast linkages between what appear to be divergent forms of life constantly form and fluctuate.

Each existent strata is riddled with lines of flight that can pull it further away from certain forms and towards a more open, wild space. These lines of flight link it to different strata, different ways of life and orders of being. This is the body without organs, or the plane of consistency, the vast sea of potential matter/energy that we actualize in the process of raw creation. It progressively “becomes different” and describes the flowering of space itself, leading to worlds within worlds.

We tap into the energetic potential of the Body without Organs and pull ourselves in the direction of new possibilities. This conception of reality as an open question is an extension of Deleuze and Guattari’s experimental approach to life and knowledge. Teleology is abandoned in the free play of energetic becoming in untold (and self-creating) dimensions.

At any rate, you have one (or several). It’s not so much that it preexists or comes ready-made, although in certain respects it is preexistent. At any rate, you make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t . . . It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. People ask, so what is this BwO? But you’re already on it, scurrying like a vermin, groping like a blind person, or running like a lunatic: desert traveller and nomad of the steppes . . .
A BwO is made in such a way that it can be occupied, populated only by intensities. Only intensities pass and circulate. Still, the BwO is not a scene, a place, or even a support upon which something comes to pass . . . It is nonstratified, unformed, intense matter, the matrix of intensity . . . Matter equals energy. Production of the real as an intensive magnitude starting at zero.
(ATP, 150-153)

And from the work of Manuel De Landa:
The metaphor supplies us with a target for the theory of the virtual: we need to conceive a continuum which yields, through progressive differentiation, all the discontinuous individuals that populate the actual world. Unlike the metaphor, however, this virtual continuum cannot be conceived as a single, homogenous topological space, but rather as a heterogeneous space made out of a population of multiplicities, each of which is a topological space on its own. The virtual continuum would be, as it were, a space of spaces, with each of its component spaces having the capacity of progressive differentiation. Besides this multiplication of spaces, we need a way of meshing these together into a heterogeneous whole. Deleuze, in fact, refers to the virtual continuum as a plane of consistency, using the term ‘consistency’ in a unique sense, and in particular, in a sense having nothing to do with logical consistency, that is, with the absence of contradiction. Rather, consistency is defined as the synthesis of heterogeneities as such. (Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 72).

I would now like to discuss how the metaphysical description of virtuality and its connections to applied science and chaos theory can be paralleled and creatively applied with contemplative practice (especially its aspects of depth psychology).  Our lives can express this spontaneous, free-flowing creativity in its very workings. This creative possibility is only unlocked once one begins to explore these concepts in an engaged way.

A common description of mystical experience is the realization that our experience barely scratches the surface of universal potential. Our senses, though varied and complexly detailed, are still limited. Something vast lies beyond this experiential island, in which we are immersed. We are all expressions of this immense Unknown. In certain intense experiences, old patterns break down, freeing us from some of our self-imposed constraints. This is a parallel of the process outlined in schizoanalysis, as we explore and experience new ways of becoming and being.

Trapped in a constricting tangle of language routines we tread a narrow circuit in the maze Nick Land

This is similar to the destratification process outlined in A Thousand Plateaus. Following a line of flight in our contemplative practice, we open ourselves to divergent ways of being. If our self-image is viewed as an abstract stratification over time (habits, patterns of feeling, etc.) we come face to face with the intensive processes that gave birth to and lurk behind that self image in the first place. This is the realm of the suppressed and unconscious.

Once we begin to meditate, we begin to understand more fully the limits of our surface experiences and self-constructions. Once we strip those protective layers away, we immerse ourselves in the swarm of the Body Politic, the seething mass of often contradictory desires, impulses, thoughts and sensations that make up our organism.

Coming to understand the often frightening aspects of our diverse natures, our self-image can begin to dissolve, as it is often unable to contain these strands of contradiction. This creates a wider space that emerges as we turn our attention inwards. This engages us in the direction of increasing degrees of freedom, and new potentiality.  Once this image, and all its attendant conceptualizations and meaning-making processes, begin to disintegrate, we can experience what Ray Brassier has termed “a crisis of meaning”:

Very simply, nihilism is a crisis of meaning. This crisis is historically conditioned, because what we understand by ‘meaning’ is historically conditioned. We’ve moved from a situation in which the phenomenon of ‘meaning’ was self-evident to one in which it has become an enigma, and a primary focus of philosophical investigation. The attempt to explain what ‘meaning’ is entails a profound transformation in our understanding of it; one that I think will turn out to be as far-reaching as the changes in our understanding of space, time, causality, and life provoked by physics and biology.

Over the past few years of extended meditative practice, I have felt this loss of an absolute meaning more and more acutely. However, I do not think that this is a negative, as it emerges inexorably out of the universe’s freedom to grow, develop, and become. Since meaning is not something that is handed down to us, we are free to create and develop our own. We can explore, via some of the concepts described in schizoanalysis, whether we wish to create new ways of life that are more in accord with our desired wish for meaning. This is not a strict injunction, however, and the question of meaning can remain wonderfully open, making room for possibility. Sometimes we may wish to change those concepts and create our meanings once again.

Mystics and ex-statics dissolve and create experience-ordering structures.
– Jess Hollenback

This is the beating heart of the koan Mu (“No”) shining and pulsing in all of creation.

Schizoanalysis is thus an open-ended practice and toolkit for breaking down our rigid personal barriers and constructions. We are drawn further into the constant proliferation of life and the universe, and are part of its ever-breaking wave. We can then see the vast potential for inventiveness and creative flux open in each moment, and explore various interlocking states of being. We recirculate the flows, and with every breath, word, and action, we create the world anew.