Kyborg 7: Knot Theory

What's urgent and unsolvable?

On Knots

Indian philosophy has this concept of Deshkaal, literally place and time, but more generally signifying the ‘situation’ or the ‘condition’ of existence. Everything is subject to Deshkaal, including ideas and philosophies. Problems arise at a given stage of intellectual, moral, social or scientific development and reach an urgency that can’t be ignored while being unsolvable within the systems available to us at that time.

For example: too much carbon in the atmosphere. It’s urgency can’t be understated in our Deshkaal, but we don’t have the existential capacity to respond to it. Resolving this conundrum will be one of the defining tasks of our era.

I have a name for such conundrums - I call them knots. Again, think of the classical Indian philosophical metaphor for illusion: the rope and the snake, where illusion or error comes from mistaking a rope for a snake.

Now dial that error to eleven and ask yourself: is that mess in front of you a coiled snake or a tangled rope? And don’t forget to add another layer of complexity: whether a tangled rope or a coiled snake, the knot is preventing you from going wherever you want to go.

A knot, then, is a bind that has to be resolved before it can be shown to be a mere error or a catastrophic mistake.

Knots and Hard Problems

In contemporary philosophy, the phrase ‘hard problem’ is used where I might use ‘knot’. Such as: the hard problem of consciousness, which poses the following puzzle:

  1. One the one hand, it seems quite clear that everything is made out of insentient physical matter that’s objective and has independent existence outside the human realm.

  2. On the other hand, we experience ourselves as conscious creatures that experiences the world subjectively - in fact, that is the only experience we ever have.

How are 2 & 1 jointly possible?

It’s a problem that interests me considerably, but I want to go back to the Kantian project to enrich the hard problem of consciousness.

What was the Kantian Knot, the hard problem that Kant assigned himself and whose successful resolution formed his ‘Copernican Revolution’ in philosophy?

Human Autonomy

There are many themes one can pick from Kant, but one central knot he was trying to resolve was: how to justify a robust sense of human autonomy that could respond to many challenges:

  1. The challenge of materialism: how does an autonomous realm of reasons co-exist with a realm of causes that seem to apply across the universe (you can hear echoes of the hard problem of consciousness here).

  2. The challenge of faith: at the very other end of the spectrum, how to defend human autonomy as a standalone form of freedom that’s protected from constraint, including divine constraint?

I am just beginning to grasp the scope of Kant’s analysis of autonomy so the above list is quite a bit shorter than what it will be in the future. Kant’s arguments for autonomy are subtle and profound, but before we get there, I want to grapple with the following question:

Why did autonomy become a knot for Kant?

Going beyond Kant, we arrive at a knottier dilemma that concerned many of the thinkers of that era:

The ‘human question’: who are we and how to do we pursue a life worth living?

The origins of that knot are understandable - as a new form of being human arose in Europe at that time, the question of being human in different Deshakaals also being important, leading to a great expansion of philology, anthropology, sociology etc - i.e., what we now call the social sciences and the humanities.

Just as the emergence of a world changing economic system - capitalism - also led to interest in modes of production in all places and times.

In particular, it’s worth noting two specific forms of being human that have transformed life on earth:

  1. Homo Economicus - humanity seen through the lens of economics

  2. Homo Linguisticus (I just made up that phrase btw) - humanity seen through the lens of language.

Modern philosophy (and computer science, cognitive science and parts of mathematics etc) takes logic & language to be the central phenomenon, while everyday life is utterly and completely dominated by economic activity. Any attempt to go beyond the knots of our times (see the planetary question below) will have to grapple with what comes beyond the human, especially the linguistic and economic human in a profoundly serious manner, i.e., recognizing the compelling reasons for the human question in the first place while charting a path beyond.

The Kyborg is a half step beyond the human

It’s worth nothing that both Hume and Kant saw themselves as pioneers of the ‘science of man’ in the post-Newtonian age. It’s also worth noting that our success in answering the human question in theoretical and practical terms has spawned the great knot of our Deshkaal:

The ‘planetary question’: what is it to be a being among beings and how can all beings flourish?

I will get to these questions again and again, starting with a foray into the work of a contemporary philosopher who has addressed the origins of the human question in the modern era - Charles Taylor, the author of books on the Self, Hegel, Secularism etc.