“What Matters?”

What Matters?


As soon as we pause and start asking the question “What matters?”, we enter the antechamber of philosophy. We are not yet thinking per se if we are still thinking about something that would matter (a job for example) in comparison with something else that could matter (a relationship for example). Yet, as soon as we ask: “Does this matter?”, the philosophical leap is close. Such a leap happens when we pause a little longer and consider the question “what matters?” for itself. Not what matters when I compare my job and my family life, not even yet what matters when I evaluate my desires and my duties — but first and foremost what does it mean to ask the question of mattering.

“What matters?” is a question. When we have a question in front of us, we should always ask: “How is it phrased?” We could have asked: “What is important?” But in asking “What matters?”, we are partly led to think about material realities, as if we were pondering different existential weights, according to their gravity. “What matters?” not only means “What is important?” but also “What is it that I have to carry that is of heavier weight?” This is a metaphor: if such weight can be felt by the body, it can also be light as a feather, apparently imperceptible. Hence the difficulty sometimes to decide what matters existentially, for you, for me, for us, because spiritual realities, as opposed to material realities, can be forgotten, ignored, or appear to remain “out of the matter.”

We would not ask “What matters?” if what mattered was purely material, because it would be obvious as a thing. It would be more or less heavy and objective. The mere fact of asking “What matters?” shows that we are not sure, or that we forgot for a while. It suggests that our reality is not an obvious book that could be read like a recipe or a code of behaviour. Whenever we ask ourselves “what matters?”, we are re-enacting the Cartesian cogito. By asking, for yourself: “What is not an illusion?”, you receive a first indirect answer: “If I think about what matters, and if I ask myself the question rather than asking journalists, or professors, or friends, or enemies, or the social norms, then this means I am considering myself as the source of my thinking. I am therefore affirming that I do matter as a thinking being.

“I doubt for a while about what matters, therefore I am.”

At the same time, and this is the intersubjective aspect of the cogito which was so important for the existentialists (Sartre) and the phenomenologists (Merleau-Ponty), I have to admit that all beings that are capable of thinking about the question “What matters?” without immediately answering it with a pre-existing answer proposed by a given social consensus or ideology, all these beings should also matter to me in a similar manner that I matter as the source of my questioning. Philosophy, as a quest for what deeply matters, is not a solipsism, it is an intersubjective communion of minds.

Minds? Can we better determine who is this intersubjective cogito, this collective entity that asks “What really matters?” This, by definition, has to be answered collectively, in a dialogue of thinkers.

But I would like to offer you one possible answer, open for discussion.

Let’s start from the beginning anew.

And if there is a beginning, it is perhaps because there is an end. Would we ask “What matters?” if we were eternal? If our existence was infinite, we would eventually experience all there is to experience, the most profound and the most superficial. We would have a thousand lives. Everything and nothing would matter, because we would be caught in a story without end, where each event could turn out to be important or insignificant in the course of a million years. This is precisely the implicit moral of the current dominant Darwinism or Chaotism. An infinitesimal and often accidental modification can produce strong effects in several million years or in some other region of the universe. Conversely, the beauty of a poem is considered to be a negligible drop in the ocean of matter’s metamorphoses.

Today, matter matters too much.

But when we ask “What matters?”, we are positioning ourselves out of the evolutionary process where every thing is interrelated in a materialistic chain of causes and effects, and where death does not really exist, being a mere transformation of structures and matter. When we ask “What matters?”, we are aware that as an individual thinking being, we might very well be mortal and have one life only, as opposed to one billion chances. The question: ”What matters?” is a question for someone who needs to make choices (or not), to fulfil a destiny (or not), in any case to renounce a great deal of experiences for the sake of other experiences, beliefs, or values. This person may like to find an ultimate answer, the answer that allows her or him to say that “nothing else matters.” This desire can turn the question “what matters?” into a deadly weapon. History shows us that much blood is sacrificed over the idea that only one thing and nothing else matters, be it a God, a Nation, Money, Sex or Family. Because we believe we are mortal and that life is short, we tend to adopt universalist views of what matters, views that we can share with others without contradiction or doubt. We become afraid of stopping and asking if this absolutism itself really matters, because we believe we will be left behind in the race for social conformism. Fanatics of this-that-matters are often not satisfied with following the illusion for themselves, be it a religion or a social consensus: they want the contagion to expand, because they do not want anybody to ask them: “Does it really matter?” Therefore, they reproduce the illusion every day, they maintain it as a strong social reality simply by acting as if it mattered the most. “Get a real job!”, “Join our Church!”, “Join Our Party!”, “Put your family first!”, “Buy our new mindfullness programme!”

Beware those who tell you what matters! They share a common ideology: the idea that their reality matters, a reality that they call The Reality.

But when the intersubjective thinker has the courage to carefully ask: “What matters?”, she, he, we realise that reality is over-rated. Reality seems to matter because it seems to stand there in front of us, in the form of credit cards, buildings, institutions, television, bodies, rituals, loss, etc. But the being that asks what really matters is nothing of the kind, nothing material: it is a spiritual aspiration, and therefore can never be satisfied or troubled for too long with matter.

“What matters?” This that can never be matter: spirit.

Cosmology and Anthropology

“In Anthropology a cosmology is an analytical construct but above all it is an object of study, and it can be defined as a set of knowledge, beliefs, interpretations and practices of a society or culture related to explanations about the origins and evolution of the universe as well as the role and the meaning of humans, life, and the world, within the universe or cosmos. A cosmology involves explanations of the past, present and future of a society, and these explanations are part of its understanding of cosmo-eco-ethnogenesis, and it deals with the origins as well as with the finality and destiny of humans and of other forms of existence.
If cosmology in Physics and Astronomy is a science for specialized researchers who study the origins and evolution of the universe and these specialists construct an interpretative framework for what is called a scientifically-based cosmology, thus, when using the word ‘cosmology’ we are dealing with two different approximations, one from Physics and Astronomy that refers to cosmology as a science or as a scientific process, and another one from Anthropology that usually defines cosmology as an object and as a socio-cultural phenomenon produced by all societies. Thus a cosmologist from Physics studies the universe; and an Anthropologist studies a cosmology.”

Read the rest of the post here: http://timeo-habla.blogspot.se/2008/09/cosmology-and-anthropologytowards.html

A Myth of Love and Creation Compatible With Techno-Science and Cosmology


It begins with the idea of scale. In English, the word scale designates a succession of levels of various sizes, often related within a set of homothetic transformations. A scale can also be a hard membrane, a form of fishy skin.

In my research, I have been interested in scales, from the individual to the cosmic. I agree with Nancy Abrams and Joel Primack, who argue in their book The New Universe and the Human Future that we have forgotten our relationship with the over-terrestrial cosmos, and that we lack a shared cosmology. We lack a global scale of belief or communion, one that would be non-anthropocentric.

The origin of my philosophical journey, which is not necessarily to be found at the chronological beginning of my efforts, is the concept of Creal. Creal, or Créel in French, or Kreell for my Swedish friends, is the name I have given to the Real with a capital R, except that I write it by adding a capital C, the initial of Creation, not primarily to indicate that there is an individual creator, but rather that the absolute Real is not a thing (res in Latin), but rather a creative flow of — perhaps infinite — virtual possibilities, some of them being actualised into a form of reality, some of them remaining un-actualised, or actualised in parallel universes, if any. The word Creal is new but not the idea, which can be found in several traditions, the Chinese Daoism, the Greek Chaos or Becoming, as in Heraclitus, and more recently in the philosophies of Whitehead, Bergson, or Deleuze, which have been called ‘process philosophies’. I proposed to call Creal the creative metamorphic multiplicity that is the ground of being — as Whitehead put it in his Process and Reality, ‘creativity is the universal of universals characterizing the ultimate matter of fact.’

I have proposed elsewhere, for example in my book L’Être et le néon (to be published in English translation in 2019), a slightly more detailed cosmology, and will not develop it again here. I simply wanted to present you with my primum mobile. I believe that even the apparently most sceptical and empirical researcher relies on an implicit absolute axiom, if not several. I try to keep the Creal intuition in mind (in body) — creation is an emotion, as Bergson put it — at the centre of my semantics or system-to-be, which I call crealectics.

Let’s now return to the idea of homothetic scales of being. We have at least two extreme limits, the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large: both, I would propose, are the same Creal. If the universe is coherent, the smallest microcosm and the largest macrocosm are of the same nature. This idea is not uncommon for us at least since the rediscovery of the tablets of Hermes Trismegistus which were so important for European Renaissance. The Emerald tablet was translated as follows by Isaac Newton in his alchemical papers: ‘That which is below is like that which is above, and that which is above is like that which is below, to do the miracles of one only thing.’ In short, ‘as above, so below’. This idea was familiar to alchemists, but is to be found since Newton and Leibniz in modern science, all the way to quantum physics and quantum cosmology. Newton’s translation continues thus: ‘And as all things have been and arose from one by the mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. […] So was the world created.’

Micro-Creal and Macro-Creal: in between these two noumenal extremes, we observe different scales of actualization or materialisation — worlds. And this is where we meet the idea of cosmos with its Greek meaning: not only a world, but an order, a structure, a collective skin or, if we wish to use the terminology of Jakob von Uexküll: an umwelt. At the two asymptotic limits of the infinitesimally small and the infinitely large, we posit a pure becoming, a pure multiplicity, virtuality, possibility — and the logically connected idea of One, because we cannot speak of the multiple without suggesting the idea of its opposite, as already intuited by Plotinus in his henology (the science of cosmic unity). In between the two homothetic limit-scales, we observe the emergence of more or less ephemeral spaces of order, structure, and relative integrity. It is my purpose here to describe how these structures can emerge: I have written about it in L’être et le néon, albeit insufficiently, of course, as this is probably the hardest question of all.

My PhD is about one of these spaces of order, at the level of organised human groups, societies, institutions, social bodies. More precisely, it is about the kind of attraction that maintains these social and human structures in synchronised cohesion, a quality which in French and English is called esprit de corps. Between 2014 and 2017, I conducted a thorough examination of discourses relating to the phenomenon of esprit de corps since the birth of the expression in the eighteenth century until today. My monograph on esprit de corps will be published around 2019.

Esprit de corps designates the capacity of a human ensemble to remain strongly united, focused towards a common goal, and to keep its spiritual integrity or ethos over time. Its individual members, often working collaborators, are strongly dedicated to the maintenance of the group’s coherence, power, and existence. We find in French, English and American intellectual history, since Montesquieu, Diderot and d’Alembert, both laudative and depreciative evaluations of the phenomenon of esprit de corps. It has been compared to groupthink, a cognitive corset which undermines the capacity of the individual to think autonomously. But thinkers like Durkheim or Tocqueville thought that esprit de corps was — paradoxically perhaps for us postmodern individualists — how the individual could individuate herself, by belonging to a group that was constantly stimulating her need for intersubjective growth and maturation. A healthy esprit de corps is an ethos in which the more experienced members help the newcomers, and the stronger help the weaker against the corruption and attacks of the outer world. Academia, for example, is a structure where esprit de corps could be a virtuous one. Universities can be a space of epistemic solidarity. Yet, the individual members of a corps are not always brave enough to remain united in the face of the kind of atomised competition imposed by capitalism. My study of the history of esprit de corps shows how capitalism tends, since the seventeenth and eighteenth century, either to destroy esprit de corps solidarities, or to transform them into a standard bellicose form of group control. Because esprit de corps can also degenerate into groupthink, ideology, a form of cognitive sectarianism, or bureaucracy, it was the ruse of neo-liberal history to destroy certain spaces of solidarity in the name of freedom and equality. Tocqueville’s visionary descriptions of democracy in America are still very useful to understand the paradoxes of equality and liberty, and how these values can be the Trojan horses of capitalism. The ideology of humanism has developed an abstract version of fraternity in which the difference between human rights and client rights tends to be blurred. It is worth remembering that the Latin etymology of the word client means to serve and obey. A client was bound, attached, tied to a protector.

Speaking of obedience, if not slavery, the study of esprit de corps has led me to consider another neologism: anthrobot. I proposed to extend the meaning of this term, which was coined by a roboticist, Mark Rosheim, to describe cybernetic technologies such as robotic arms or exoskeletons. In the paper I wrote with Ramamoorthy and Rovatos in 2016 (‘We Anthrobot: Learning From Human Forms of Interaction and Esprit de Corps to Develop More Plural Social Robotics’), anthrobot is the recognition, in the spirit of Lewis Mumford and his Myth of The Machine, that humans, when they create organised spaces, do develop mechanical procedures and algorithmic protocols that partly automatize the spirit or the body of each member, and the social bodies of which they are a part. We are an anthrobotic species because of our capacity to and need for orders, protocols, algorithms, social machines, esprit de corps, but also because our minds and bodies, at the individual or social scale, tend to perform operations that are not conscious and yet are effective. Social and individual life is partly robotic.

Now, we are also daughters of the Creal, of poietic lines of flight, as I have described in my short monograph on Deleuze, Is a New Life Possible? We are constantly attracted by lines of play, novelty, rule-breaking, improvising, contemplating, creation in all its forms, including its explosive and apparently destructive aspects.

Let’s now look at an example of anthrobot in more detail. This is what I call the Shizuoka Case. In the 1980s, the first collaborative robots were introduced in Japanese factories. In his book Inside the Robot Kingdom: Japan, Mechatronics and the Coming Robotopia, Frederik Schodt mentioned in 1988 a story on ‘technostress’ published by the Nikkei Sangyo newspaper, entitled ‘The Isolation Syndrome of Automation’:

‘A state-of-the-art factory run by Star Micronics in Shizuoka Prefecture used […] robotized machining centres that ran unmanned during the night — a source of great pride to the older workers. But several of the younger, new employees began to complain that they “felt like robots” as they operated and programmed the automated machinery during the day; one local parent complained that all his son did all day long was push a button. As it turned out, there was a major perception gap between the old and new employees. The former, who had worked with the engineers to design the system, had a vested interest in it and a basic knowledge of its operation; they knew that pressing a specific button would operate the system in a specific way. But to the new employees, a button was merely a button to be pushed, and the total system was a technological black box that merely worked in unfathomable ways.’

We can distinguish here at least two groups, a group of belonging and well-being, let’s call it the well-belonging group, and a group of isolation and existential distress. The group of well-belonging is the anthrobotic system made of older workers and the collaborating robots. These can be called cobots, or collaborative robots, not only because they are part of the work process but also because the work or labour relationship with them is perceived in terms of a gratifying ‘vested interest’. The group of isolation or ill-belonging is the anthrobotic system made of younger workers and machines. The robots, whilst being the same machines we previously called cobots, are this time not perceived as collaborators, but as antagonists.

In this case, perhaps the machines could be qualified as the ‘dominant species’, since they are described as body snatchers: the young workers ‘felt like robots’. This is an example of mental and physical colonisation or alienation. For Sandra Silverman, a psychotherapist who works on the socio-politics of clinical work, ‘the colonized are not just invaded but occupied. […] Colonization is about destroying space, about crowding an other’s mind with the unprocessed contents of one’s own mind, about restricting the freedom to think. To colonize is to invade, inhabit, and alter.’

How can there be, on the one hand, anthrobotic systems of wellbeing and well-belonging, and on the other hand anthrobotic systems of isolation and de-humanisation? According to Schodt’s description of the Shizuoka case, an anthrobotic system of well-belonging would be a system that has been co-designed by its users, who have a ‘vested interest’ in its functioning, possess a ‘basic knowledge’ of how it works and how each part has a specific role. And they feel proud about it. Wellbeing and well-belonging in an anthrobotic system seems to be dependent on at least these four factors:

A) The workers did co-design the system: this is the praxical factor.

B) They are engaged in its success: we can call it the reciprocative factor.

C) They believe they understand more or less how it works: this is the epistemic factor.

D) They are attached to it, with good rather than bad feelings: this is the emotional factor.

The sum of these four characteristics constitutes a good esprit de corps, the workers’ cohesive and pro-active attachment to a system of production or community of labour that expands their agency, common sense, and self-respect.

I have distinguished four dimensions of systemic well-belonging: praxical (co-design, co-creation), reciprocative (vested interest), epistemic (knowledge of the system), and emotional (pride). The young worker’s feeling of ´being like robots’ is nothing like that. It is rather reminiscent of the phenomenology of automated labour that originated with Marx and his analysis of the ‘objectification’, ‘alienation’, or ‘estrangement’, in the Manuscripts of 1844. Let’s recall this techno-social equation, proposed by Marx in the following terms: ‘The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things.’ The world of things is, literally, the synonym of reality. Work is a means of self-actualization by which a human being actualises his or her essence, which is the virtuality of the Creal. The capitalist mode of production tends to transform everything into reality. This is why effective anti-capitalist politics needs a concept of creality or Creal, as I have advocated in a published chapter entitled ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute.’

So a good anthrobot, a virtuous techno-social system, is one where each member has a sense of authorship and co-creation. Equally, a good anthrocosmic system is an anthrobot in which members and colloborators don’t forget that we are a part of the cosmic Creal. One of the questions behind my crealectics programme of investigation is: how are our actualisations and social articulations more or less alienated from our cosmological belonging? Such a question might seem esoteric, because science and capitalist individualism at least since Kant and the French Revolution have developed a narrative of analytic separation rather than synthetic belonging. I would like now to propose a thought experiment that will show, rather practically, how the anthrobotic question is entangled with the cosmological question.

Let’s assume that our species will colonize extra-terrestrial land, such as the planet Mars or a more distant planet, such as Kepler 186f. Science-fiction often describes this colonisation as a physical journey, in the model of the former colonisation of the United-States for example: we would build (space)ships that would allow us to travel physically out of the earth into space. This is not the scenario I find more likely to happen.

The scenario I find more likely is one that is already happening: we will probably explore interplanetary space not so much physically but more often than not through robotic avatars. Our human bodies will remain on Earth, perhaps, like in the movie Matrix, confined in technological bathtubs. A combination of virtual reality and robotics will take us out there in the cosmos. This anthrobotic scenario is already happening on Mars, on the surface of which the rovers Spirit and Opportunity for example were (in the case of Spirit) or still are (in the case of Opportunity) moving and acting, piloted by human drivers that remain physically on Earth (for example Julie Townsend, Scott Maxwell, Vandi Verma, or Paolo Bellutta). These drivers are the first cosmic anthrobots, developing more or less consciously a phenomenology of the robonautic future of our species.

We already are cosmic anthrobots or creal robonauts. And this is where the idea of a shared cosmology comes into play. Abrams and Primack wrote in The New Universe and the Human Future: ‘Astronomy appears to have little relevance. People think of astronomical discoveries as inspiration for kids or a great topic for five minutes of clever dinner party banter, but there’s no widely understood connection between what’s happening in distant space and us, right here. The truth is, however, that there is a profound connection between our lack of a shared cosmology and our increasing global problems. Without a coherent, meaningful context, humans around the world cannot begin to solve global problems together. If we had a transnationally shared, believable picture of the cosmos, including a mythic-quality story of its origins and our origins — a picture recognized as equally true for everyone on this planet — we humans would see our problems in an entirely new light.’

In fact we need a global social contract, as I have argued with Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari in ‘On the Concept of Creal: The Politico-Ethical Horizon of a Creative Absolute’. Lacan has shown how any discourse, any web of belief, revolves around a more or less invisible absolute signifier. To be sustainable, a structure, an order, a discourse, a tribe, need to rely on a totemic value or set of values sometimes virtualised by the chain of signifiers, sometimes expressed in god-like — or ghost-like — concepts. The universal or set of universals around which such-and-such social reality is constructed maintains the cohesion of the ensemble by playing the role of a slippery axis mundi, a master signifier. To avoid the ongoing modern naturalisation of war and conflict, and other forms of totalitarianism, I propose that communities and nations agree — through a Earth-scale social contract — on a positive absolute, one that cannot logically become the fetish of a form of totalitarianism: the Creal as an affirmative and generous politico-ethical value that constantly self-destroys and constantly re-emerges again, as is logically implied by the idea of ongoing creation. The Creal hypothesis suggests that reality never expresses all there is, and that it never will. Reality is over-rated, and this overrating is always dangerous. Reality is a bad master. And only the Creal can destroy its imperialism.

Our collaboration with reality-machines should always be viewed alongside our co-participation in the cosmic creative flow. Machines and protocols are unifying processes of objectification. The Creal is the Other of the machine. It is the Anti-Robot.

Yet, between the Creal and the One, between the multiple and the structured, I do not think there is a war, but a love story, a complex story of desire and admiration, a narrative of asymptotic union. Ancient cosmologies were in part mythical discourses of love; I do think we need today a new global myth of love and faith, one compatible with technology and science yet not reductionist, neither anthropocentric. How such a myth can create hospitable and plural worlds is the perspective of crealectics, which is the study of the actualisations of the Creal, an interdisciplinary perspective that I invite you to help me develop.

Luis de Miranda (link to my official site)


Modern cosmology and the theory of eternal recurrence, by Paul Steinhardt

“If you go back to the different theories of cosmic evolution in the early 1990s, the data we’ve gathered in the last decade has eliminated all of them save one, a model that you might think of today as the consensus model. This model involves a combination of the Big Bang model as developed in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s; the inflationary theory, which Alan Guth proposed in the 1980s; and a recent amendment that I will discuss shortly. This consensus theory matches the observations we have of the universe today in exquisite detail. For this reason, many cosmologists conclude that we have finally determined the basic cosmic history of the universe.But I have a rather different point of view, a view that has been stimulated by two events.”