On Some Terms in Network Ethics: Robustness, Metaleptics, and Fundamental Maxim

by Christopher Vitale

So, this post is an introduction to the ideas I’m currently working on developing under the notion of ‘network ethics’ in one of my works in progress. This summary of some basic ideas was originally posted on my personal blog, Networkologies, to explain some of my positions in regard to some debates going on between this blog and a few others. For more on the context, see that blog.

All valuation is done by conscious organisms. And these organisms value because they have been evolved to value, and they have been evolved to value one thing: complexity. For by acting in a manner that they believe will allow them to increase in complexity (to continue living, growing, and developing), organisms value complexity. Evolution, however, does not ‘value’ (more on this sort of valuation) merely complexity, but robustness, that is, the ability to make complexity increase in a sustainable manner. This is why robustness, which is composed of both complexity and sustainability, is essential for network ethics. Organisms value complexity, but the overall goal of evolution is to create organisms that value robustness. The gap between one state and the other, the valuation of complexity and that of robustness, is the separation between evolution as it is and evolution as it strives to be.

We cannot say that ‘evolution’ truly values in the ways that organisms value, however. An evolutionary population is known in network ethics as a plex, a collective entity which is quasi-living, for it resembles living organisms in many ways, but can do so only when supported by living organisms. An evolutionary population is a plex, just as a language is a plex. There are many types of plexes, for example, memeplexes, semeplexes, etc.

An evolutionary population therefore doesn’t value robustness, but rather, can be said to quasi-valuesrobustness. This quasi-valuation indicates the manner in which the collective desire of the population exceeds the desire of the individual agents within that population in a manner which precisely indicates the ‘part exceeds the whole’ structure which is indicative of the definition of complexity itself. For complexity is precisely that within wholes which exceeds their parts.

Metaleptics is the discipline within network ethics which works to understand the manner in which emergence within quasi-liviing populations allows organisms to ‘pick themselves up by their own bootstraps’ by means of evolution. Metaleptics attempts to describe the manner in which the quasi-valuation of robustness by evolution provides an immanent telos to evolution from complexity to robustness. This telos is not absolute or transcendent, but immanent to the very structure of the evolutionary process itself.

Evolution has three forms: material, natural, and cultural. Material evolution occurs when meta-stable energetic conditions give rise to increasing material complexity. While material systems do not value, we can say that material evolution occurs when material systems increase in complexity, because these systems then approach the realm of value exhibited by conscious (and most often living) organisms. In this sense, material evolution proto-values complexity, just as organisms in natural evolutionary populations value complexity, and natural evolutionary populations quasi-value robustness. Cultural evolution is a much more difficult topic, to be discussed at a later date.

The point is that according to network ethics, in a chain of logic to be described another time, the fundamental maxim is as follows: “Let all your networks operate at maximum robustness.” This is an immanent, flat, and anti-transcendent ethical doctrine. It is justified by the discipline of metaleptics, and employed by the discipline of practics to specific situations. Within this maxim, robustness should be understood as sustainable complexity, and complexity as the potential to produce greater complexity in the future (the discussion of potential should also be relegated to another time).

Robustness and complexity are not necessarily anthropocentric values. They value anything which gives rise to a greater intensity within what is. Complexity is necessarily mental and material, because in order for there to be one, there needs to be the other, as these are two sides of the same (in the sense in which Spinoza speaks of mind and matter as two ways of looking at substance). A human mind, for example, is not some Cartesian entity floating in a void. It is only by means of the material complexity of the human brain that the mental complexity of the human mind could come about, for human minds and brains are two aspects of the same.

Nevertheless, to ask the question of value, and ethics with it, is to always be within a realm which privileges humans, if simply because we are the phenomenon which values the most complexly.

Also, when the fundamental maxim of network ethics speaks of ‘your networks’, ‘your’ should be understood to mean all the networks in your world, if in differing degrees. For in fact, all networks are your networks, for each and every network is a refraction of all the others with which it is related. That said, as Whitehead has argued, because there is extension within the universe, giving rise to time and space, each entity in the universe is ‘ranked’ in ‘relevance’ to each other by the very structure of the universe itself. Mars is more relevant to me than Alpha Centuri, for example. And so, while both are still ‘my networks’, the one which is more relevant to me is mine in a stronger sense.

I should strive to increase the robustness of all my networks, because this is the manner in which I will increase not only my own robustness (for all networks are connected, if differently), but that of the system as a whole within which I exist. Wanting to increase the robustness of the world in which I exist is the most selfish and most altruistic way to relate to that world. It is in fact to be in sync with the immanent order of that world, and to value that which has allowed you to value in the first place, namely, robustness.

In order to ‘let’ your networks operate at maximum robustness, however, you must learn about yourself and the world and the ways in which they are interconnected. Understanding the immanent order of the world, that which gave rise to valuation, is what allows us to promote robustness. It is in this manner that network ethics proposes something quite similar to what Spinoza called the ‘intellectual love of god’ as its primary ethical goal. This goal is also quite similar to that of the ancient Stoics, a clear influence on Spinoza’s immanent ethics, as well as Nietzsche’s own attempt to create a ‘this-worldly ethics’. Linking this to genealogy is the project of metaleptics, and it is in this manner that the project of network ethics works to ground itself by valuing itself, and thereby ‘eating its own tail’, so to speak.

Practics requires that we apply network ethics. And this is why I think it is possible to say that having OOO and SR deal with racism before frogs is because of a philosophical system of value which is flat, immanent, and not classicly anthropocentric. Or as Steve Schaviro has lately put forth, they are anthropomorphic but not anthropocentric.

The fine-toothed implications of these statements are being worked out at length in my manifesto book, which will be done quite soon. I’m going to be out of the country for July, but back at work on this in August, and I see no reason why the entire text won’t be done by then.


~ by chris on July 1, 2010.

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