Jul 162014

Luciano Floridi tries to make an analogy between computer systems and philosophy, calling for a “reboot” in philosophy, while promoting his new book here (linked to from here). He says:

Philosophy is a bit like a computer with a memory leak. It starts well, dealing with significant and serious issues that matter to anyone. Yet, in time, its very success slows it down. Philosophy begins to care more about philosophers’ questions than philosophical ones, consuming increasing amount of intellectual attention. Scholasticism is the ultimate freezing of the system, the equivalent of Windows’ “blue screen of death”; so many resources are devoted to internal issues that no external input can be processed anymore, and the system stops. The world may be undergoing a revolution, but the philosophical discourse remains detached and utterly oblivious. Time to reboot the system.

Echoing the always popular sentiment that philosophy is “detached” from something important (politics, history, life, etc.), and riding the wave of cultural optimism about information technology, this analogy sounds smart and relevant. Just what philosophy may need–except if you have any knowledge of actual computer systems, Floridi’s analogy falls flat.

1) Computer systems do not necessarily require rebooting. Rebooting to free memory or reset the effects of bugs has only become a universal fact of computing in our cultural mind because of the disproportionate popularity of a poorly designed system, namely, Windows. Anyway, even such a system could require less rebooting with the appropriate improvements. So what Floridi proposes is modeling philosophy after a flawed computer system and a false need.

2) There are other systems which rarely if ever freeze or require rebooting to fix something. When they do require a reboot, it is usually after installing new software or system components. Under this model of rebooting, every new idea is worthy of a revolution in philosophy. So here Floridi would be proposing a philosophy based on the principle that new is better and the task of keeping up-to-date with an endless production of cultural artefacts necessitates constant reboots. Though someone, like Floridi, would have to discern which new trends and ideas are worthy of a reboot.

3) For Floridi, the philosophical reboot needed is of both kinds (1 and 2 above). He wants to suggest that the performance of philosophy “seems to degrade progressively” over time, because “philosophy begins to care more about philosophers’ questions than philosophical ones.” It’s not clear what the difference between philosophers’ questions and philosophical questions could be, but it is clear that Floridi means to call out philosophical discussion that does not aim for the objectivity of the scientific and information positivism that is his own guiding worldview. Further, “major transformations in the surrounding reality” prompt intellectual revolutions. But these moments are rare, and Floridi makes clear the revolutions which count for him: namely, the achievements of modern reason and scientific thought which culminate in his own self-made “fourth revolution” based on the information principle and the ontologization of the information system.

4) It is, then, no surprise that Kant’s “Copernican turn” is absent from his list of revolutions worthy of mention, worthy of a “reboot” in philosophy. Indeed, for his history of philosophy to work out, for the teleology of information positivism to become inevitable, Floridi must pass over Kant, the critique of reason and metaphysics, and many of the problems that have occupied philosophy since. The legitimate philosophical revolutions, which according to Floridi are represented by Copernicus, Darwin, and the sciences of mind from Freud to neuroscience, share a commitment to which Kant, Hegel, Marx, and the whole lot of critical philosophers pose a threat. That commitment is to “displacing humanity from the centre” of all inquiry, to shift the standpoint of philosophy from that of the human and the human’s world to that of information and the information system. For this project to appear possible within the tradition of philosophy, he must reject out of hand the philosophies of finitude, of subject and inter-subjectivity, of historical and temporal being, and of political and ethical agency, while proposing a “reboot” into a “fourth revolution” grounded in the lineage of the revolutions of objectivity alone.

In such a history of philosophy, Kant is seen as anti-Copernican, as a reversal of the gains of the original Copernican revolution, because Kant is the point at which philosophy splits reason into two, a negative and a positive aspect. So whereas there is a long tradition in philosophy of seeing in the negative aspect what Derrida calls the “responsibility of reason,” a necessary check and balance on positive reason, for Floridi and the information positivist, on the other hand, the negative aspect of reason is philosophy going astray or in error. The destiny of philosophy is the employment of positive reason in the service of cultural and technological progress without regard to their particular aims and interests; philosophy transcends the petty interests of culture and human creation by taking on the neutral standpoint of information. This happens, of course, at the cost of the responsibility of auto-critique that has characterized philosophy since before even Kant.

5) From his brief blog comments above and from what I have read of his longer works, I get the sense that Floridi is committed to something like what I call information positivism, which takes the information system to be the best model for understanding reality and which believes that the progressive accumulation of information along with an increasingly accurate construction of our information model is our best chance of achieving objectively positive results in our lives. It’s important to make this explicit because it seems that the implications and underpinnings of his computer system analogy would not be clear to most readers of his above comments.

Floridi’s attempt to draw an analogy between computer systems and philosophy must confront, and ultimately fall to, the reality of the double mimesis of information positivism. This is the reality that computer systems are artefacts of human creation in the image of the human mind as reduced to the information model (first mimesis). Such artefacts are then interpreted ontologically, re-imaged and applied back onto us (second mimesis), recreating philosophy and human nature as reduced to the presuppositions of information positivism. In this model, information becomes the universal language for describing reality in the same way that mathematics describes the laws of physics, only in this case, due to the first mimesis wherein information takes on a greater reality in the objective artefacts of information technology, information is not just a language–for that would leave us with just another philosophy of subjectivity and finitude–but rather it is reality both in form and content, expression and essence. Information positivism succeeds only by forgetting this double mimesis, its origin. By making explicit the sleight of hand which tries to sell a human creation as objective reality indifferent to humanity (that is, it tries to sell reason without our interest in reason, the history of philosophy without Kant), the idea of an information revolution in philosophy falls on its own.

6) His insistence on displacing the human standpoint is even more surprising given that he all but admits the problem of mimesis above by characterizing his philosophy of information as a constructionism in the spirit of demiurgic activity.1 The information positivist (or constructionist) is like Plato’s demiurge that creates sensible things in the image of intelligible forms. But what is that form after which the demiurge models things if not some aspect of the human herself? To the question of how we are to best understand the structure of the world, Timaeus responds that it is the living creature that possesses understanding that is this structure and serves as model: “the universe resembles more closely than anything else that Living Thing of which all other living things are parts,” which “comprehends within itself all intelligible living things, just as our world is made up of us and all the other visible creatures.”2 The intelligible world is modeled after the intelligible being who comprehends the world as such. Here Plato admits an essential relation between the activity of the demiurge, the intelligibility of the mimetic model, and that living being who strives for intelligibility and who serves as model.

But Floridi wants to admit the demiurge’s model without admitting the original living being. This is a problem because, as Plato explains with a divided line in the Republic, mimesis necessarily creates a mimetic reality, which in turn divides thought into two aspects based on knowledge of the images and understanding of the original or of the mimetic process itself.3 The latter, understanding, Plato calls reason itself, which has the character of philosophy and considers mere hypotheses what the sciences take to be first principles. In contrast, Floridi would like to turn the hypotheses of the information sciences into the first principles of philosophy.4 Thus, just as he must pass over the Kantian revolution in the history of philosophy, so Floridi as demiurge in the information revolution must ignore the division created, through the double mimesis above, between understanding and imaging, between the living being and the living being as information model.

* * *

Floridi’s analogy betrays the centrality of the human act of creation that he had hoped to suppress, and the information revolution cannot achieve the historical and ontological objectivity that it desires. For whatever requires a reboot is, by that fact itself, a flawed system vulnerable to future contingencies. And whatever is flawed in this respect is such because it is the creation of the contingent, human subject. And if it is a human creation, then it would be quite odd, even unreasonable, to try to model it after a system which attempts to displace human agency and creation. But this odd move is quite common, and philosophy has had various names for it, e.g., reification, de-vivification, the theoretical attitude, reductionism, and so on. In the end, Floridi’s analogy is self-defeating in this way: it only demonstrates how information positivism, exemplified here in the failed attempt to model philosophy after the information system, is a flawed idea and a false need created from the very real human interest in information. As a positivism, it proceeds by forgetting the original act of mimesis, displacing the living being, and employing only that expedient aspect of reason that appropriately gives the sciences their success. To call itself philosophy, it must construct the history of philosophy as the history of one reason, for which the other reason alluded to by Plato and Kant is a bug in the system. We see now why the analogy of a reboot is so appealing to Floridi.

Due to the practical problems with the computer system analogy and the philosophical problems with the information model outlined here, it is difficult to see how philosophy is anything at all like a computer in need of a reboot. Reinventing philosophy according to the language and demands of information positivism and empty ideas imported from the information “revolution” are exactly what philosophy does not need, though some like Floridi may have an interest in making it so. Rather, it is an explicit task for philosophy to question such ideas and to critically assess the value of each new cultural niche that pretends to capture human thinking by throwing a dark veil over the contingent, human origins of its ideology. However, such a task for philosophy–which is an ethical and political task as much as an intellectual one since, as Floridi says, what is at stake is “every aspect of our lives”–is not a given, as it will be just as difficult for philosophers to resist the revolution of information positivism in philosophy as it is for consumers to resist the lure of each new engineered artefact of information technology that promises greater transcendence in the information market.

This is not to suggest that information technology and the information model do not pose both theoretical and practical challenges worthy of philosophical attention. But that this should be a positive project, a science of the concept of information as given by the technologies and markets which are the vanguard of the revolution, is not a necessary conclusion, though for Floridi it is his project to construct such a science. A relation between physis and techne is inevitable and desirable, and it has been a central theme in the history of philosophy, but the character that relation takes and what kind of revolution in thinking it requires will not ultimately be decided by information, computer systems, objects in the infosphere, or artefacts in the info-market, but by us. That is an important distinction which seems to be lost in the “Copernican revolution” of information positivism that reverses the roles of human agency and information. 

  1. See chapter 1 of his Philosophy of Information. []
  2. Plato, Timaeus, 30c-d. []
  3. Plato, Republic, 509d-511e []
  4. This view is expressed in sections 1.1 and 1.8 of The Philosophy of Information []

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