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Interview with Rainer Zimmemann

posted Nov 29, 2011, 5:22 AM by José María Díaz Nafría   [ updated Nov 29, 2011, 5:30 AM ]
José María Díaz Nafría
IntervieweeRainer Zimmermann
Date: 09/11/2011

On the occasion of Rainer Zimmemann’s 60th birthday on November 9th, I met him in Vienna while attending a whorkshop on system science chaired by Wolfgang Hofkirchner. Nearby the Burg Theatre, we met in the pleasant atmosphere of the Viennese café Landtmann, where he first sketched out to me his forthcoming book on Schelling which I am now looking forward to hold in my hands. Before bringing up the matter for discussion, let me give a short review of his scientific carrier:

Rainer Zimmermann, born in Berlin in 1951, studied mathematics and physics in Germany and England not far from those who have formulated some of the best candidates to provide a unified understanding of the physical world, then he arrived to philosophy after having deepened into the core knowledge of our natural sciences. Thus his philosophy has been a “philosophia ultima” in the first place, as he advocates that it properly should be. His academic itinerary shows an earnest dedication to both the updated knowledge about the world and a philosophical speculation driven to find a more adequate conception towards human life in its social praxis.  As professor of philosophy, he has taught and developed extensive interdisciplinary research in Berlin, Kassel and Munich, also in Cambridge (UK), Bologna and Salzburg.

In the territory of philosophy he has dug into the work of Sartre, Bloch, Schelling and Spinoza –among others – finding out that among them there is an underground thinking line which goes back to both Averroism and Stoicism. His inquiry into the work of these philosophers – as we can see in his recent “New ethics proved in geometrical order”– has not been a sort of mere archaeology of thinking or apologetic reflexion, but a sort of heuristic approach to current problems of our knowledge and praxis and particularly in the understanding of complex evolutionary systems. To this end he has respectfully followed the path pointed out by these authors though using the horizon of our current knowledge.

His approach can be better branded as transcendental materialism as he names it since 1990. He has authored about 350 publications including some 24 books and monographies, scientific articles in a broad spectrum of topics (from mathematics to ethics, from physics to political systems…).

J.M.: In your writings, you often refer to the necessity to reorient philosophy as it has been conceived in the 20th century in order to properly reflecting the world. You mention that it should be “visualized as a science of totality” following the works of Hans Heinz Holz, and you also consider the task of your own philosophy, the “transcendental materialism” as an “ultima philosophia” rather than a “prima philosophia” in the Aristotelian sense (referring to an expression introduced by Theunissen for the first time). As I understand, both things are closed related. Can you explain in some detail the requirements of this reorientation, as well as its alleged benefits?

R.Z.: The basic idea is that we cannot conceive a theoretical nucleus of what is traditionally called “metaphysics” as something which can be derived from first thoughts entailing then a picture of the world which prescribes so to speak the latter’s evolution and structure. Instead, we have to look first for what the sciences (and the arts as to that) are offering us in terms of insight. This present state of knowledge is our raw material for constructing then the desired picture of the world such that philosophy can be visualized as one which follows up the scientific and artistic modeling of fragments of the world rather than laying the grounds for them (this is Theunissen’s 1989 aspect of ultima philosophia) and, by doing so, drafts out an overarching “theory of everything” whilst composing a meta-theory telling us about what is common to the worldly fragments in structural terms, but also about what we actually do or have to do when developing theories about the world in the first place (this being Holzen’s aspect of philosophy as science of totality). The important point is here that within this approach, philosophy gains an explicitly empirical character: It is thus possible to speak not only of theoretical and practical philosophy, but also of experimental philosophy, namely by exploring possible worlds whilst exploring possible implications of scientific and artistic results and viewpoints. Thanks to recent developments in computer technology, these somehow “artificial worlds” can be modeled much more easily nowadays. (I have discussed these aspects in detail in my book on transcendental materialism and within the framework of the INTAS cooperation, led from 2000 through 2005 by Wolfgang Hofkirchner.) Obviously, this type of philosophy is achieving nothing else than what philosophy is always achieving: i.e. an improved orientation within the world in order to eventually draft adequate principles for an appropriate ethics.  

J.M.: This implies –to my understanding– a significantly different conception of interdisciplinarity as it is usually claimed. Could you give some insight on the methodological requirements of a proper interdisciplinarity?

R.Z.: There are essentially two important tasks: First of all, in order to comprehend what the present insight of the sciences and arts actually is, one has to refer to all what is known at a given time. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre once called “method of totalization”. Obviously, this cannot mean that philosophers have to repeat the work of scientists or artists by themselves: Instead, it means that they have to look for what is structurally stable and meaningful in an evolutionary sense within all these different fields.

Second, for being able to do so, it is necessary to utilize the terminology and the conventions established in the various fields on the one hand, and to attempt for this purpose the explicit development of a unified language on the other. The idea is here to speak about the world in terms of a unified approach in the first place in order to eventually facilitate the understanding for as many colleagues as possible. In fact, this is the true meaning of “interdisciplinarity”: to look for what is common to all disciplines and thus shared by them within a space which is literally “between” them.

J.M.: What should be the task of a philosophy of information within this framework?

R.Z.: As within the approach of transcendental materialism the worldly (i.e. physical) ground of the world can be visualized as constituted by its two fundamental aspects, namely energy-matter on the one hand, and information-structure on the other, the philosophy of information shows up as that part of philosophy that deals with the second half of these aspects. But by doing so, it also shows up as part of the philosophy of physics in so far as we hold that information is physical. Hence, the information part of this theory deals with the first basic differentiation of what there is in the physical world when talking about it in terms of a physical theory of everything.

J.M.: As we can see in your work, your criteria of what philosophy should be is closely related to ethics – as it was for Spinoza, for instance –. Can you explain this relationship?

R.Z.:  The point is that all of this knowledge which is being achieved in the sense explained above does exclusively serve the purpose of being capable eventually to derive a reasonable framework for an adequate ethics. This is what we learn from Spinoza. And the first one to show this in detail was actually Deleuze. In other words: Ethics itself shows up as a kind of science, and it does not really deal with values at all. The latter are reserved for moral judgement, but this has nothing to do with ethics. At most it is a bad form of approximation to ethics. On the contrary, ethics asks what kind of behaviour is adequate within a given situation. And more than that: If the ethical analysis finds that some behaviour was non-adequate, then it is the further task to clarify how the conditions for the given situation should be changed such that non-adequate behaviour is not necessary anymore. In other words: Ethics is formulating then explicit proposals which have to be discussed in the proper institutions. But in order to find out about adequacy, the relevant criterion for this is knowledge at a given time about a given situation in the first place. Hence, it is already the choice of the method which is always an ethical choice.

J.M.: In some of your works, for instance in “Die Kreativität der Materie” (The creativity of matter, 2007), you show and refer to the line of thinking which links the Stoicism, Averroism, Spinoza, Schelling, Bloch and Sartre (just to mention those you deal more often with). Reading your texts, this connection – alongside their alleged “systematic” character from Spinoza on – is clearly argued. However, talking about this connection with many philosophers, I have found out they often consider it bizarre at the first place. Can you briefly clarify this connection as well as the frequent astonishment about it?

R.Z.: The point is simply that most colleagues are educated within a specialized field which they hardly leave for the rest of their career, unless they change their field according to job conditions. Especially in Germany, it is the custom to concentrate on historical aspects of philosophy first. But instead of continuing the historical taking in sight of philosophical thought by applying it afterwards, most of them are not able to eventually leave history and come forward to philosophy proper. Once they have acquired detailed knowledge of a philosopher and his works they argue the sorting out of these would consume most of their time. This is the reason why in Germany, there are very few active philosophers by now. Exceptions are Habermas e.g. or Manfred Frank, but most of them keep to the history of one philosopher only. Hence, in the long run, the individuality of philosophers of the past is being stressed, not what is common to their thoughts. Because, generically, one would expect that if the same thought is showing up in different philosophers, this fact would add to its relevance and consistency. I myself did not have this sort of problems, because I came from the sciences, where the strategy as to acquiring knowledge is quite different. This is especially so because in the sciences, the state of knowledge is changing very quickly, and one is asked to keep pace by permanently extending systems, frameworks, and methods. So what I did was to apply scientific rather than literary methods to discussing philosophical problems in the first place, rather than discussing philosophers and their work as prime objective. Hence, after a while, I recognized generic lines of thought, and by trying to reduce their complexity, I tried to find structural morphisms among them in order to derive general results. This is why I can say that I am actually working on a line of thought (ranging from the ancient Stoa via Spinoza and German Idealism, especially in the version of Schelling’s, up to French existentialism in the sense of Sartre’s and to Ernst Bloch). Bloch himself used this viewpoint of visualizing lines of thought as did in fact the disciples of Hegel. It was Bloch who introduced the expression “Aristotelian Left” for the line he chose to be a member of, parallel to what is commonly called “Hegelian Left”. I would like to locate myself very much on this first line made explicit by Bloch.

J.M.: According to your “transcendental materialism” – correct me, please, if I’m mistaken –, matter has to be understood in a much broader and dynamic sense as it is commonly thought. It represents not only a potentiality in the Aristotelian sense, but also the foundation for its own dynamics, which allows it to create new properties, new structures, new causalities… . i.e. new beings. What are the foundations for this vision?

R.Z.: I started from re-phrasing Spinoza’s system in a modernized language (as he did himself once when re-phrasing Aristotle). The fine structure of this approach comprising of substance including its modes and attributes has been developed further by Schelling then. In fact, there is not much choice than to visualize matter as what in the Aristotelian terminology would show up as “hypokeimenon”, i.e. subject, different from substance: Matter (in the philosophical sense) turns out to be prime material of modality. But it is observed in the fourfold shape of energy-mass (or conventionally: matter) on the one hand, and as information-structure on the other. Both of these are physical aspects of the underlying prime material (Urstoff). The latter itself is physical ground of the former, while substance itself is speculative ground of this physical ground. This leads straightforward into the systematic differentiation of being, non-being, and speakable as well as unspeakable nothingness for which Schelling has done important preparatory work. These concepts are being discussed within current international research.

J.M.: To the concept of information in its broad diversity – from physical systems to cognitive or social ones – this understanding of matter might have significant repercussions. What is the role of information in the – so to say – architecture of reality from the point of view of the transcendental materialism?

R.Z.: The side of information (comprising of information-structure, where the first part refers to both potential and actualized states of information, and the second to actualized states of information only) is serving the purpose of defining the organizational structure of systems: In order to evolve their characteristic shapes, systems have to utilize energy, while information is telling them how to actually utilize it. The idea goes back to Penrose, Smolin and others: The universe has to be visualized as a self-organizing system. If this is so, then information must be present from the beginning on in order to define the possibility for the system to organize itself. This is also why this information is meaningful from the beginning on, because, following a definition of Wittgenstein’s here, its meaning is in the function which it triggers. Hence, the constituents of the universe themselves act as autonomous agents from the beginning on, as Stuart Kauffman would say.

J.M.: Now that you mention meaning, its foundation is probably a key issue to bridge the understanding of information between the natural sciences – particularly in physics and chemistry – and the social sciences and humanities. This concern is often referred to as the “grounding symbol problem” – by Floridi for instance –. Which is your insight into this fundamental and open problem – as Floridi states in his “Philosophy of Information” –?

R.Z.: I think this problem is clarified best in terms of the physical perspective as explained above. If it is feasible, on a very fundamental level, to implement a task for agents which is essentially defined in terms of a thermodynamic law (Kauffman calls this 4th law which tells us that an actualized state of a system evolves exclusively to those possible states which are just one reaction step away in phase space – he calls this principle of the adjacent possible), then there is an overall meaning for models of evolutionary processes, i.e. the tendency to internally reduce complexity while externally maximizing it. Obviously, this can be interpreted as a dialectical version of the competition between order and disorder as expressed in terms of the 2nd law of thermodynamics valid for the entropy balance. Therefore, there is always already meaning from the beginning on. Once, a theory of this is constructed by human beings when performing their research, the symbolic language utilized entails an adequate mapping of this meaning from the beginning on.

J.M.: We started talking about the need to reorient philosophy as to become an “ultima philosophia”, and we have also deal with the requirements of a proper interdisciplinarity. I understand both are closely related to the role mathematics should play in our reflexion about the world. Nevertheless, I notice many people disqualify the role of mathematical models as a means to avoid facing open problems of a substantial kind. To what extent does modern mathematics actually change the landscape of reflexion in comparison with classical mathematics – as available to Spinoza for instance, or even to 19th century scientists –, as well as in relation to what we know about the world?

R.Z.: The first significant difference is in the concept of discontinuity: Nowadays, we deal with a mathematics which is capable of modeling discrete rather than continuous processes, because we believe that the majority of processes in nature are of the former kind. On the other hand, mathematics has become qualitative rather than quantitative: In other words, the objective is not simply to compute things (although even computation alone also entails organization and interpretation of data after all), but to actually model systems. Hence, the mathematical language has not only become more and more qualitative (and thus amenable to hermeneutic methods), but it has also gained more and more the structure of a meta-language such that mathematical expressions (as we find them in category theory or topos theory) do not only map structural patterns of underlying processes, but also the logical choice for this mapping in the first place. As far as I can see, the enormous potential of topos theory for the modeling of actual everyday life processes is far from being fully recognized yet. For the first time, we have the chance to include the epistemology in the ontology of a problem whilst modeling its underlying system. Or to re-phrase it in ethical terms: The choice of methods as derived from topos theory suggests itself as an adequate choice of our days.