Thinking the Absolute: The Ambiguities of Emergence, Novelty and Life in Formal Systems.

Some good news to report; our panel “The Ambiguities of Emergence, Novelty and Life in Formal Systems“, has been accepted at the “Thinking the Absolute Conference at Liverpool Hope University, June 29th – July 1st.

The panel will involve myself, Charlie Gere and Francis Halsall – our abstracts are below. Looks like it will be a fantastic event, with Paul Ennis, Mike O’Rourke and Pete Wolfendale all presenting too, plus the all star keynote line-up.


The Ambiguities of Emergence, Novelty and Life in Formal Systems.

‘Computers are useless, they only give you answers.’

Pablo Picasso.


The panel seeks to explore a deeper relationship between formal systems, computation and the contingency of creation (life, emergence and generative phenomena). The importance of diverse subjects, such as scientific emergence, metamathematics, speculative philosophies and neo-positivism are already giving ground to new conceptions of creation that modify or wreak havoc on existing theological claims. It makes sense then, to investigate what sort of impact literature on self-organising systems built on formal iterative rules may have on theological subjects.

The overarching question of the panel is the following one: Can the existence of emergent complex systems be thoroughly explained by computation and social systems alone, or does the sheer unpredictability of these systems stake a claim in something higher, irrational or ‘other worldly’ in their recursive iteration? This question will be navigated in three specific areas; the system/environment distinction in social systems theory, the use of computational invention to explain evolutionary processes and the role of computability theory in the recent French turn towards axiomatic set theory, contingency and metamathematics.


Occult Systems: ‘Thinking the Absolute’ in Luhmann’s Systems Theory.

Francis Halsall (National College of Art and Design, Dublin)

Here I read Luhmann’s social systems theory somewhat against the grain of standard accounts. I propose that there is a weird, and what I will call occult strand to Luhmann in which he uses ‘system’ as a means to ‘think the absolute’ in post-religious terms.

At first glance such an occult reading of Luhmann seems improbable; heretical even. His sociological account of modernity presents an increasing secularization of society. He characterizes modernity as a turning from religion as a means by which to observe and describe the world to forms of social systems (systems of law, economics, science etc.) that are self-observing and self-describing.

However in this paper I argue that through his use of ‘System’ Luhmann’s thinking is far weirder than it first appears. It is, I argue, infused with a form of occult spirituality, albeit a post-human spirituality in which system has an occult dimension. I discuss two aspects of this here.

First: Luhmann’s makes several enigmatic statements about God in relation to Modernity and seems to suggest that the system/environment distinction occupies a place once filled by God; that is as an expression of The Absolute in which God observes the totality of relations in the world from a position-less position.

Second: autopoesis (that is self-organization) functions as an animating, first cause in Luhmann’s systems (particular his later work when he draws on the biological theories of Bateson, Maturana, Varela et al). This is what Habermas recognized in his critique of Luhmann’s systems theory as meta-biological; that is, relying on a principle of irrational “life” as its organizing principle. Here I consider whether this is comparable to a spirit, or life-force perhaps, that inhabits and regulates his systems, with an occult, irrational and, ultimately unknowable force.


Darwin after Dawkins after Derrida.

Charlie Gere: (University of Lancaster)

‘Darwin after Dawkins after Derrida’ starts with an account of computer pioneer Charles Babbage’s attempt to produce a natural theology based on that of Charles Paley, who famously compared God to a watchmaker. Babbage based his explanation of the miracle of species evolution through reference to his proto-computer calculating machines. It is unlikely he appreciated the degree of unpredictability or contingency inherent in the most logical computer program. Against the grain of his intentions Babbage’s ideas influenced Charles Darwin in his understanding of the emergence of different species.

The paper pursues this connection between evolution and computing via a discussion of the computer program described by biologist Richard Dawkins in the third chapter of his book The Blind Watchmaker, which he wrote in order to prove that evolution, understood as an accumulative process, could produce complex organisms. In describing the operation of the program Dawkins conflates the distinction between the finding and the creating of these virtual organisms, which is similar to Derrida’s conception of ‘invention’, as explored in his essay ‘Psyche: Inventions of the other’ and his work on the poet Francis Ponge. Derrida’s work bears a number of interesting relations to that of Darwin.

Following Dawkins’ own description of the process of evolution as a ‘blind watchmaker’, nature is always blind, though perhaps it is not a blind watchmaker as Dawkins suggests but a blind draftsman, such as Derrida describes in Memoirs of the Blind. Finally it looks at some recent works of digital art influenced by Richard Dawkins’ program, which involve computational evolution and also invoke tropes of blindness and touch.


How to make the best out of undecidability: Enumeration vs. Fidelity, Absolute, Noise and God.

Robert Jackson (Plymouth University)

In computability theory, undecidability refers to a problem whereby a specific algorithm or effective method of procedure fails to construct a yes or no answer, as given from a formal system.

Whether one appreciates this computational import or not, this paper will argue that undecidability has had an (ironically) decisive impact on debates concerning theology and novelty within recent speculative thinking. Arguably, Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux’s mediations on immanent mathematical novelty depend on the contingency of the undecidable: For Badiou, undecidability takes place in the ‘miracle’ of the indiscernible event, pivoted on the fidelity of a subject. For Meillassoux, the absolute in-itself, is undecidable in the secular sense.

Other philosophers have staked a claim on the undecidable. Ray Brassier’s essay ‘Nihil Unbound: Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capitalism.’ (2004) critiques the Saint-Paul inspired ‘subjective grace’ of Badiou’s subject and supplements it with an objective account of randomness and the ‘indecipherable noise’ of uncomputable excess (as influenced by the mathematician Gregory Chaitin). On the opposite end of the scale, Noah Horwtiz, who draws on set theory and Stephen Wolfram’s research for ‘Reality in the Name of God‘ (2012), argues for a ontic-pancomputationalist reality of undecidable information created by God.

In comparing each of these positions, the paper will argue against each interpretation of undecidability and their specific dependency on the ‘void’. Using Stephen Wolfram’s important scientific intervention in A New Kind of Science (2002), the paper will defend the translation between simple, independent automated procedures as a basis for “contingent undecidable novelty”.

To make the best of undecidability, one does not require the dependency of a void, randomness, reverse engineering, or a theological import of a deity, but a radical new principle of irreducible science. This principle requires variations of models which enumerate (anti-chance) all possible systems computationally.


2 thoughts on “Thinking the Absolute: The Ambiguities of Emergence, Novelty and Life in Formal Systems.”

  1. This looks very interesting and original. I am sure the criticism and commentary will be insightful. I hope you will make the papers available here or otherwise after presenting.


  2. Hey Noah,

    Hopefully – depends if (and it would be a big ‘if’) someone wants it published somewhere. I’ll PM it to you anyway, because these things need to be Pm-ed.

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