1, 2 and 3

May 4, 2020 – 11:12 am

Philosophers of a particular stripe like to pepper their discursive examples with tables and teapots. Occasionally a tree or a rock might be put forward as a clear object of discourse. It is naively assumed that placing “teapot” in the frame of the discourse is somehow unassailable. Clearly it exists. Clearly it exists in a similar fashion for you and for me. Surely we are on safe ground here.

This is the simplistic error of thinking about one thing at a time, and wielding the notion of “existence” as if it were without wrinkles, and as if it were immune from the paradoxes of time. It underlies the unreflective demand of science for accounts that are based on facts, not values, and that are (please do not look at this word for longer than necessary) “objective.” Damn, I put the word in scare quotes, and now it is a little suspect.

For it doesn’t take long for this kind of wishful simplistic nonsense to reach its limits. The teapot is just fine, but proceeding in that vein threatens to describe a universe without qualities, an objectivity in which no subjects arise. One still meets both scientists and philosophers for whom existence statements in this flat objective mode are the stock in trade. But a move to consider a number beyond 1 is needed.

So of course 2 arises, and we move from an ontology of things to an ontology of relations. Relations before relata. Systems and their environments. A coupled with B, whether it be the fluid coupling of the dance uniting, sustaining, producing the two dancers of the tango, or the slower structural coupling that produces the hummingbird on one side and the flower’s trumpet, on the other, exquisitely meshed. Entanglements now become obvious, but when everything becomes entangled with everything, there is still work to be done in constructing a good (and useful) story.

Von Uexküll’s tick with its Umwelt, the enactive cell and its chemical soupy milieu, the wrestlers of Heraclitus, the phase locked limbs in the synergy of gait, the notional perceiver and the notional perceived, the knower and the known: complementary pairs, the co-arising of subjects of many kinds and worlds of many kinds, and now the brute material monism must yield, but how?

Takbir! The monist urge is strong. The term “dualism” is bandied around like a slur, when language inflicts the partitionings upon us of doer and deed, of agent and patient, subject and object, this and that. Everyone wants a single account of the real. To have multiple realities would eviscerate the word “real” itself, leaving us without any ground. We are grounded. We demand to be grounded in some fashion. What is held up as the spectre of relativism or postmodern flight from certainty is not different from the difficulties of both John Locke (1689) and Thomas More (1516) in trying to be as tolerant as possible, but having real difficulty with those bloody atheists, because they do not seem to argue in good faith.

Those familiar only with the Western, modernist canon, might be interested to find that these arguments are quite generic, and are found in crystalline form in other traditions, most explicitly in debates within the Vedantic school of Indian philosophy, only one side of which, Advaita, is widely diseminated in the West. Against the non-duality of Advaita, we find the nuanced positions of Dvaita, Vishishtadvaita and Achintya Bheda Abheda, at least. Between Dvaita (dualism) and Advaita (non-duality) there are many positions we might identify, or practices we might use to help us out. One obvious move to make is to dig deeper and see if there are any more numbers there, beyond 1 and 2. Lo and behold, 3 arises as a possibility.

We find 3 in the genesis of Christian theology. The Christians had a real problem we might recognise, perhaps expressed best by Iggy Pop when he sings “I’m a mix of God and Monkey”. The Christians were monotheists, but they also had to construct a place for the incarnate Christ figure, and this led to all sorts of hoops, resulting in various forms of Trinitarian structures. Not all varieties of Christianity exploit the trinity in the same way. Adding the number 3 changes how we consider both 1 and 2.

Maturana gives us a beautiful tool here: Objectivity in Parentheses. Put a frame around your discourse, so that you are self-aware of the manner in which you bring forth the complementarities you observe. Discourse is not unbounded. Assertions lie within frames. Within a frame, we will lean on complementary pairs, on subjects and objects. This is a form of Dual Aspect Monism, one of many such forms.

Second order cybernetics does something similar: Draw a distinction, but be aware that you are drawing it. This business of drawing back, of contextualising any determinate observation, never stops. It is the recursive engine through which the universe becomes aware of itself (to use the breathless idiom of cybernetics). Adding 3 to our practices of thought helps us to relativise our assertions without destroying the ground we stand upon and from which we converse.

Adding 3 to our toolbox also reveals an urgent truth. In the midst of all the confusion about 1 and 2, we came to believe that our being in the world admits of description in either the first person (subjective, poetic, qualitative) or the third person (objective, solid as a teapot). But both are artifices. Our being in the world is relational at all times. We live in the 2nd person, in the vocative. 1st and 3rd person accounts are the means by which we engage in the fencing match of dialogue. Only the 2nd person is real. It will not be shoehorned into any sentence or equation.

There might just be a modern reimagining of Christ and embodiment worth pursuing here. We are in dire need of a consensual treatment of the human body in our accounts, and we continue to insist that we are both God and monkey. But any specific projection of dualisms, trinities, or monisms does no more than provide a frame, a basic structure for the ensuing dialogue. We parse complexities predominantly by drawing binary distinctions. An invariant sequence of beeps is heard as a rhythmic alternation of strong and weak. But we also sometimes parse things into threes, and such parsings help us to better appreciate our binaries.

Perhaps the fundamental rhythm of sense-making and revelation is a 2-against-3 polyrhythm, and not a steady drumbeat of any kind.

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