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0x002 Report ::: Trespasser Theory

Document compiled from salon notes, interpretation & additional theory.

Published onAug 19, 2020
0x002 Report ::: Trespasser Theory
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The 0x Salon is an experiment in reformulating the salon context as a venue for post-disciplinary exchange.

This written outputs was produced following 0x002 salon conversations. Contributors that have consented to be credited are listed here.

Process development, editing, transcriptions and topic research: Wassim Alsindi

Article writing & feedback: Wassim Alsindi

Salon discussion participants listed below

The purpose of this ‘Salon report’ is twofold: to provide some written documentation for the recent 0x Salons on Epistemic Trespassing as well as creating an opportunity to fold in some additional remarks and observations.

Update: we’ve just opened this for community feedback, please comment away! We would love for the conversation to continue between salons.


Event Information

0xSalon002 (c) & (d) ::: Epistemic Trespassing
(c) Theory Branch ::: Tuesday 4th August ::: Virtual
(d) Praxis Branch ::: Wednesday 5th August ::: Virtual

Supporting materials ::: are.na ::: Instagram ::: Twitter ::: Trust
0xsalon.pubpub.org

“Epistemic trespassers judge matters outside their field of expertise. We should doubt that trespassers are reliable judges in fields where they are outsiders.”
Nathan Ballantyne, Mind (2019)


Participants

Theory branch - Nathan Ballantyne, Laura Lotti, Craig Warmke, Kei Kreutler, Valentin Golev, Wassim Alsindi

Praxis branch - Oliver Beige, Kelsie Nabben, Matthew Lutz, Primavera de Filippi, Wassim Alsindi

Document compiled by Wassim Alsindi from salon notes, interpretation & additional theory.

Materials mentioned

Gross’ book on Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher

Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind: cold war politics and the sciences of human nature

Stoljar’s Philosophical Progress: In Defence of a Reasonable Optimism

Stenger's Ecology of Practises - mentioned in external discussions


Against Copernicus? Epistemology’s Inward Turn

“Knowledge is not made for understanding; it is made for cutting.”

Michel Foucault

If - as Foucault intimated - the goal of collating, classifying and systematising knowledge should be a compression (or more precisely a selectively reductive abstraction) how can we resolve this with enduring and contrary trends observed in the academic practice of epistemology? Our systems of knowledge are typically structured (by accident and design alike) to be additive with constant revision necessary to postpone obsolescence in rapidly evolving domains of inquiry. 

Does this tension bear some responsibility for academic epistemology's counter-Copernican turn as it withdraws from interaction with the wider world? Taking epistemology as the study of knowledge, ideas and beliefs is the professional epistemologist not somehow self-motivated (going further, discipline-pilled) to move towards further individuation, stratification and discretisation of knowledge systems? In combination with entropic bias favouring divergence and hyperspeciation in various types of information networks, any structuralist approach to the classification of knowledge appears susceptible to death by a thousand taxa - the epistemic equivalent of a DDoS or spam attack.

There are also long-standing structural problems inside academic philosophy. Very often different schools of thought will stake out narrowly-defined and mutually exclusive positions without much evidence and occupy them for generations - imagine a sort of scorched-earth discourse where no progress can take place. More generally, one can ask; what drives output in legacy institutional contexts? Incentives are set out in such a way that careers are most successfully lived out in a conservative manner, not straying too far from the canonical path charted by one’s epistemic forebears in that particular ivory tower. Indeed in each of these facultat towers there exists a proverbial epistemic ladder, which is your linearly benchmarked career gauge. Climbing the ladder provides rewards - chairs, tenureship etc, but are there also adequate incentives to move between these established structures?


What Is Evidence?

A pragmatic approach is required when judging the quality or veracity of evidence, and more broadly what can be considered appropriate evidence in an interdisciplinary or trespassing context. In many settings it can be unclear what appropriate evidence should be, how to formulate a “testable” scenario or even a general formulation of the question we wish to ask is. If the hypothesis isn't formulated, how can we know what the needed evidence will be? 

There are so many shades of grey with evidence as well, particularly in experimental fields which rely on statistical averaging to “demonstrate” phenomena to an arbitrarily acceptable degree of confidence (see p-hacking). If verification of hypotheses depends on confidence  levels there will always be question marks over quality and sufficiency of evidence, and therefore the replication / retraction crisis in experimental disciplines will continue to cause major ethical issues in scholarly publishing. Some philosophers of science maintain that there are no confirmatory tests, only disconfirmatory ones.

The goal of practical inquiry is not necessarily to arrive at a stable “notion of truth”, rather to approach a level of confidence in a justified belief which is sufficiently close to the hypothesised truth being investigated or measured. There is always a risk of relying too heavily on metrics and paying too much attention to self-anointed benchmarks. Goodhart’s Law is perpetually in play, arguably stronger than ever when combined with the GIGO-ification of today’s post-scarcity digital information landscape - a Shithart’s Universal Law of Terrible Heuristics if you will. Progress towards goals is also heterogeneous, proceeding in both linear cadence through Kuhnian “normal science” as well as through Foucauldian discontinuities accelerated by interlocutors or trespassers for example. 

Epistemic Pictures

Maps are not the territory, even at the best of times. When the picture is epistemic, we may have a very low degree of knowledge regarding the terrain that we intend to navigate. Representations can take different forms from scale reproductions (Borges’ 1:1 map in On Exactitude in Science for example), faithful representations such as anatomical drawings to speculative, de/hyper-real and absurd abstractions (Okayama Art Summit map, pictured above). Though epistemology deals in the trade of knowledge, “truth” and “truth value” are something else altogether. Perhaps one reason why cranks and conspiracy theories are so prevalent in the present day is due to the lack of tolerance of epistemic speculation in public discourse. The role of creative practice in epistemic transgression is also significant - artists as epistemic nihilists take arbitrary information from various knowledge traditions and decontextualise through various abstractive processes to synthesise conceptual, technical, visceral and experiential outputs.

(Side note - Salon001 was on abstractions!)

“Science, art and religion are all about making the invisible visible. Supposedly the domain of science is what's measurable, the domain of art is what's experienceable but not measurable, the domain of religion is what is beyond the realm of experience. There's a huge overlap, and unsurprisingly one anecdotally experiences them to be highly contingent.”

Oliver Beige (edited)

The historian of science Peter Galison uses the metaphor of trading zones - borrowed from anthropology - to rationalise the emergence of radar technology in Cambridge MA in the mid 20th century. The necessary baseline conditions of a broad base of intellectual talent and adequate (public or private) funding were easy to meet given the geographical concentration of educational, military and financial institutions. The principal issue encountered at first was one of lacking a common language, and out of necessity a simple blended language (between field theory and engineering tools) was arrived at. Key element of the trading zone is a place where people can go to discuss trans-disciplinary matters - a trespasser’s redoubt.

“Two groups can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged; they may even disagree on the meaning of the exchange process itself. Nonetheless, the trading partners can hammer out a local coordination, despite vast global differences. In an even more sophisticated way, cultures in interaction frequently establish contact languages, systems of discourse that can vary from the most function-specific jargons, through semispecific pidgins, to full-fledged creoles rich enough to support activities as complex as poetry and metalinguistic reflection.”

Peter Galison, 1997

‘Social’ sciences such as ethnography trade in the creation of these epistemic pictures through the observation of values, norms, communities and processes in different fields and topics of inquiry. According to the research code of ethics, researchers are explicitly required to respect the norms and behaviours of the community you trespass upon. Can other fields borrow trespasser’s affordances and best practices from the epistemic ethics of anthropological methodologies?

Trespassing can be defined broadly as the act of navigating through unfamiliar terrain with lessened regard for the customs, norms, principles and traditions of that territory. How can we gain understanding of the territory as we traverse it, if our epistemic pictures are also inadequate?

Where are disciplinary boundaries helpful for trespassing? Can we even know we are trespassing a boundary until we are there? As Deleuze and Guattari intimated, the limit can never be the limit. As there must necessarily be something beyond the limit, the “limit” is also necessarily subsumed within the interior. Perhaps Foucault’s notion of permeable discontinuities is of use here, where an interiority can be opened to forces from the outside.

One way of framing the difference between an epistemic trespasser and a post-disciplinary epistemic anarchist (in Feyerabendian terms) is in how much the wanderer pays heed to the “culture” of the territory that they are navigating. A more granular understanding of the intentions, purposes, confidence levels and epistemic transversality of trespassers would be useful.

Possible differentiators to a trespasser’s “quality” - towards a typology of trespass:

  • Transience & intent - an epistemic forager humbly sampling the richness in another domain or a settler looking for lands to colonise and exploit?

  • Reciprocity & hysteresis - is it easier to trespass certain boundaries in one direction than another? Do people with backgrounds in technical fields trespass into humanistic and creative fields more often than the other way around?

  • Rights of way - exchanges across disciplinary boundaries can also be carried out with the help of a third party playing the role of translator, shepherd or guide. Using collaboration and cooperation in this way, it may be possible for a trespasser to gain sufficient credibility to carry on their exploration of unfamiliar areas to realise their goals and synthesise something of value. 



Interdependence and contingency

A number of definitions invoked in the Epistemic Trespassing paper - in particular fields, disciplines, experts, expertise - are interdependent which places constraints upon further concretisation. What if the epistemic formation is incomplete or the domain boundaries are undergoing a “revolutionary” reorganisation? More importantly, who decides and how? Is this another possible avenue for obfuscated gatekeeperism in the academy as epistemic gerrymanderers rearrange frontiers to their favour? Particularly in situations undergoing or preceding epistemic formation surely we can see the egress of trespass as a positive act, reclaiming agency from epistemic orthodoxy?

“Possibly we're in the process of experiencing a new relationship between theory and practice. At one time, practice was considered an application of theory, a consequence; at other times, it had an opposite sense and it was thought to inspire theory, to be indispensable for the creation of future theoretical forms. In any event, their relationship was understood in terms of a process of totalisation. 

The relationships between theory and practice are far more partial and fragmentary...from the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles, walls, and blockages which require its relay by another type of discourse - it is through this other discourse that it eventually passes to a different domain. 

Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.”

Gilles Deleuze, Intellectuals & Power transcript (1972)


On confidence, ignorance and counterfactuals

Epistemic trespassers of the overconfident variety may lack awareness that they are trespassing in territory which their skills and expertise do not translate well to. How might we end up with such misplaced views? Sometimes we cannot even comprehend the extent of our lack of knowledge. As a bias on meta-knowledge, epistemic trespassing is in some senses similar to the Dunning-Kruger “ignorance of ignorance” self-appraisal bias. Self-recognition of trespassing behaviour (possibly manifest as a variant of impostor syndrome) requires higher-order criticality which ought to largely preclude other meta-knowledge biases such as Dunning-Kruger.

We can regard counterfactual interlocutors as ways of helping us understand limitations in the pictures of the world we carry with ourselves. Such interlocutors are a semi-hypothetical construct which can be invoked to create intellectual contingency in an idea, concept or knowledge tradition being challenged. These can be differentiated into the “unhelpful variety” which may map onto internet trolls, as well as constructive examples such as devil's advocates to help us be less confident about our theories. Descartes' denier & Maxwell’s demon are pertinent examples of abstract tooling to clarify concepts and ways to think about their own beliefs. Interlocutors may not necessarily be intimidating or aggressive, an interlocutor can behave in an outright positive and constructive manner but still significantly change the epistemic picture through disproving of weak and spurious domain-bounded theories and through the infliction of damage to the credibility of their proponents.

“There is a deceiver - I know not who he is - most highly powerful and most highly cunning, who always industriously deceives me. If he is deceiving me then without doubt I also am. And he might deceive me as much as he can, he will still never effect that I would be nothing, so long as I shall cogitate that I am something. So that - all things having been weighed enough, and more - this statement were, finally, to be established: "I am, I exist" is necessarily true, so often as it is uttered by me or conceived by the mind.”

René Descartes, Meditations 11:3


Superpersonal Inquiry

Superpersonal inquiry is a powerful concept to help us comprehend longer time horizons of knowledge advancement. Collective sense-making on large-scale problems spread throughout time and space may be the only way that certain complex challenges can be addressed, and there may be no current clear path to a solution to the problem. Indeed the earlier strands of thought culminating in major successes may have had no conception of the final hypothesis, goals and outcomes. Can we say that some attempts (of arguable success) at “institutional superpersonal inquiry” exist, for example in large scale fundamental science projects such as CERN?

Superpersonal inquiry helps to provide some reason to continue if a scholar is doubtful as to the matter of interest. Sensations of awe and wonder are also very common in providing the necessary motivation to scholars to continue on fruitless navigations. For example, there are hard and enduring problems in metaphysics with no clear answers or real senses of progress in decades. Scholars engaging in superpersonal inquiry (knowingly or otherwise) are engaging in the process of refining and improving knowledge even if their most visible contributions don't make it. Philosophers often have little evidence for the views that they hold, and superpersonal inquiry helps to overcome these roadblocks by refocusing away from individual concerns instead towards the greater goal of a collaborative macro-effort across time.

Can we think about an attempt of epistemic formation of a new field or discipline as a meta form of superpersonal inquiry? This notion is discussed briefly with an ongoing case study at the end of this report.


An “Egregious Case”

Can a piece of scholarly work which critiques epistemic trespassing and highlights its problematics whilst simultaneously engaging in trespassing? The “egregious case” of Electronic Coins suggests so, as it applies analytic philosophical approaches to formally characterise and critically engage with a crude early attempt at a technical definition of Bitcoin which has since been appropriated for political ends by particular cryptocurrency subcultures.



Post-Disciplinarity

Can we think of some “trespassers” as really being poly-epistemological or even post-disciplinary? From a post-structuralist perspective, what we view as trespassing may simply be an abstraction artifact (in other words a low-dimensional projection) due to regarding the territory with orthodox epistemic lenses. Why retain the outmoded husks of legacy siloes unnecessarily, even in outline form?

The heterogeneities in structure, form and cadence in different paradigms of knowledge productions would necessitate disciplinary boundaries ossifying at different paces, which would over time either be successfully defended by orthodox proponents or trespassed by more adventurous inquirers. In the 17th century, most leading scientific theories came from outside formal institutions, with this trend having completely inverted by the late 20th century. The momentum (if not direction of travel) of this institutional inertia appears to have inverted in recent times, so perhaps the current century will see a resurgence of independent inquiry and para-academic institutions.

According to Andrew Goffey’s interpretation, the goal of transversality - as a conceptual replacement for transdisciplinarity - is to break down the boundary between analysis and desire. Guattari saw transversality as a mechanism with which to transform institutional repositories of knowledge, to open them up.  This ability in finding ways to gain knowledge through trespassing even if it is absurd or illogical from an epistemic perspective is important from a viewpoint beyond rationalist confines. Furthermore, there are circumstances in which loaded or sensitive topics must be dealt with employing praxis-oriented inquiry, outside of institutional contexts and traditional epistemic approaches as the exploration of those ideas have become politicised within (for instance) academia.

Aside on Cryptoeconomic Systems - a case study in attempted epistemic formation?

A putative new field “cryptoeconomics”, located at the junction of a number of traditional disciplines is possibly taking shape. The advent of Bitcoin in 2008 set in motion a (delayed but eventual) concrescence of academic interest across a number of traditionally siloed faculties. Cryptoeconomics draws researchers and domain knowledge from technical disciplines - protocol engineering, cryptography and distributed systems - alongside economics, law, complexity science and philosophy. In such a context “native” norms and traditions have not been established and scholarly infrastructure is lacking in many areas. 

The forthcoming Cryptoeconomic Systems journal published by The MIT Press aims to address many of these “epistemic gaps” through an explicitly interdisciplinary approach. This is somewhat aided by the fact that the host organisation - MIT’s Media Lab - is widely known as an anti-disciplinary environment and going further back, MIT has a long history of being a "trusted neutral ground” for the exchange of ideas across geographies, disciplines and ideologies. 

At first it was hard to even get a conversation going among researchers from different backgrounds, as each discipline’s legacy training and selection mechanisms produces a largely homogeneous output of early career researchers who are highly specialised in the current epistemic vogue but suffer from weighty epistemic baggage due to institutional structure and and career incentives to stay intra-faculty. The journal attempts to encourage researchers to be intellectually adventurous and is researching mechanisms to reward and recognise researchers and peer reviewers for straying from their epistemic ladders to engage in interdisciplinary work.


A way forward?

A useful distinction can be drawn from empiricist Hans Reichenbach’s work, where knowledge-making activities were separated into contexts of discovery - ideation, creativity and generation of novelty - and contexts of justification - verification, confirmation, rationalisation - with both needed for a healthy community of inquirers to disentangle what’s known versus what’s justified to believe.

“Trespassers are important for moving research into contexts of discovery, while justification of the claims they discover appears to require a more stable epistemic base of operations from which to conduct careful inquiry.”

Nathan Ballantyne (edited conversation remarks)

Comments
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daniel shinbaum: In many conspiracy theories, the lack of evidence is understood as scandalous proof that elites are deliberately repressing information.