Sunday, September 18, 2011

Speculation as Fundamental Thinking

The word “speculation” came up a few times in last week’s OOOevents, generally cloaked in ambivalence. I don’t know the word’s valence in “Speculative Realism”, so I don’t know just what these folks were being ambivalent about. I DO know that I am unabashedly in favor of speculation.

When you find yourself in the middle of the desert, but your map’s run out, what’re you going to do? Go back? Well, you can do that, but wherever you left from won’t be any better when you get back. And for YOU it will likely be worse. Or, you could dig a whole, crawl into it, and die. Once you've  given those those two a whirl, it seems to me you have only one other possibility: Forward ho! Without a map, without landmarks, without assurance that there’s any there there.

[You could, if you’re clever, manage the Indian rope trick and vanish up into the air. That’ll only last a second or three, though it’ll feel like forever while you’re up up and away in your metaphysical balloon.]

Anyhow, the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil is called “Speculative Engineering”. The engineering is as important as the speculation. Engineers design and construct; they make something out of nothing. Our scientific culture has tended to backseat engineering—too pedestrian, too dirty, too much contact with raw stuff—but computer science has put the lie to that. For computer science is as much, and often more, a matter of engineering than of science.

Here’s how I introduce speculation (p. xii):
While we have indeed learned a great deal, the story I tell is, in fact, as incomplete as it is ambitious. I have used empirical evidence wherever I could, but we don’t have enough evidence to cover the ground. There are gaping holes which I can only fill in with speculation.

It is for that reason that Beethoven’s Anvil looks to the future, not to the past. It is a plan for intellectual journeys we have yet to take, not an account of voyages past.
Now back to childhood and construction (pp. xii-xiii):
This book is thus about building blocks. When I was a child I had an extensive pile of wooden building blocks: various sizes of squares and rectangles, with the rectangles coming in several different length-to-width ratios, round rods that could serve a columns or as logs, some triangles, some arches, various relatively flat pieces, and so it. It was a miscellaneous collection, building blocks from various sets, but also odds and scraps of wood my father gave me or that I found here and there.

I loved building things with these blocks. I particularly remember building gasoline stations and ocean-going freighters. I surely must have build forts and castles, and then rockets and space ports. I certainly spent time building the tallest possible tower. In some cases the challenge was primarily imaginative: How do I make something like this? In other cases, there was surely an engineering challenge, e.g. just what is the best way to create that tall tower? No matter what I made, I used the same set of blocks.
That sense of constructedness, as I understand it, seems central to object-oriented ontology. None of the things that I built could be reduced to its parts. At the parts level, all those things—forts, rockets, towers, gas stations—were the same, for they were constructed of the same parts. Yet, as completed structures they were clearly different. They had their own irreducible form and integrity at their own scale.

Now, we simply combine the two, speculative engineering (p. xiii):
Thus I like to think of this book as an exercise in speculative engineering. Engineering is about design and construction: How does the nervous system design and construct music? It is speculative because it must be. The purpose of speculation is to clarify thought. If the speculation itself is clear and well-founded, it will achieve its end even when it is wrong, and many of my speculations must surely be wrong. If I then ask you to consider them, not knowing how to separate the prescient speculations from the mistaken ones, it is because I am confident that we have the means to sort these matters out empirically. My aim is to produce ideas interesting, significant, and clear enough to justify the hard work of investigation, both through empirical studies and through computer simulation.
The fact of the matter is, speculative thinking is the most demanding thinking there is. Anyone can follow rules already laid down. But when there are no rules? How do you carve Nature at her joints if she hasn’t already marked the lines for you? It’s all well and good to sit comfortably in your couch while the announcer intones “To boldly go where no man has gone before”.

But when you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you can’t go back, how do you boldly go forward?





Take a deep breath.




  1. Amazing post! When I recover from almost 3 days without sleep, I'll have something more to say and will also be writing up a few posts myself! Great to meet you in NYC, by the way!

  2. Thanks, Eileen. Good to meet you, too.