»  The Infinite Staircase   »   Starting the Dialogue: Discussing the Infinite Staircase via Amazon Review

Starting the Dialogue: Discussing the Infinite Staircase via Amazon Review

One of the earliest reviews of The Infinite Staircase on Amazon was submitted by Ryan Boissonneault.  It is both lengthy and thoughtful, and I am delighted and honored that he made the effort to write it.  That said, he did give the book only 3 stars out of 5, for reasons he clearly explains below.  As the author, you will not be shocked to learn I took exception to some of those reasons, hence my desire to reply.  I reached out to Ryan for permission, which he graciously granted, all of which has led to this post.

But set all these dynamics aside.  The whole point of writing and reading a book about metaphysics and ethics is to engage with challenging ideas and debate their merits.  Thoughtful and respectful dialogue is fundamental to this process.  It is what is so sorely missing in much of today’s digital noise.  So, while I am going to take issue with Ryan’s critique, I also want to stand firm with Voltaire is saying, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

With that in mind, what follows is Ryan’s review interspersed with my comments, the two are distinguishable from one another by the font color change to blue for my replies.

While you can’t fault an author for trying to work out their own personal philosophical views, those views don’t always turn out to be as profound as the author might have initially believed them to be. Unfortunately, I think this might be the case with The Infinite Staircase. I’ll explain why shortly, but let’s first explore the main claims of the book.

Ouch!  But not necessarily unfair.

The principal claim, I suppose, is that your picture of how the world works (metaphysics) influences the moral principles that govern your behavior (ethics), and so before you consider what it means to be a good person, you had better give your metaphysical views some thought. I think this is a reasonable proposition.


With that in mind, Moore spends the first two-thirds of the book reviewing his own secular metaphysical view, which he calls the “infinite staircase.” Essentially, Moore is claiming that we can describe reality at different levels, and that each level contains emergent properties that are not reducible to the levels below it.

Not just my own view.  I am summarizing the views of many of the authors noted in the bibliography.  But I certainly do “own” the views I present.

At the lowest levels, we can describe reality in materialistic terms via physics, chemistry, and biology (what Moore refers to as the “metaphysics of entropy”). The next levels of description account for mind, consciousness, values, and culture, and the highest levels account for language, narrative, analytics, and theory. Because each level has emergent properties, you can’t account for, say, consciousness strictly in terms of the levels below it (via the natural sciences).

Actually, there is a miss here, and it is going to matter later on.  The stairs of the middle level are desire, consciousness, values, and culture.  Ryan inserted mind for desire.  This runs directly counter to the staircase model as mind in the conventional sense, as we understand it, is impossible to have prior to language.  More importantly, desire is critical as the precursor to consciousness because it anchors the latter in strategic value. That is what rewards its emergence and garners it a permanent place in the stairway.  So, while you can’t account for consciousness in terms of physics, via desire, you can link it to biology, and thus maintain connectivity with the stairs below, which I deem to be crucial.

There are two points of criticism the reader may consider at this point. One is that there is nothing particularly novel about Moore’s infinite staircase theory. The two foundations on which his theory critically depends—entropy and emergentism—have long been established, and this won’t be any major revelation for those grounded in the basic sciences.

I agree.  However, to be fair, most people are not grounded in the basic sciences.  That’s why I think it is important to tell the whole story end to end.

Second, his reliance on emergentism as an explanation feels shallow. To say that consciousness “emerges” out of physics is really to say you have no idea how it happens. Moore never tells us whether emergentism is a descriptive limitation (consciousness does reduce to physics; we just don’t have the capacity to understand how it does so) or an ontological reality (consciousness does not reduce to physics, period). But we must remember, while emergentism appears to be true in principle, it doesn’t explain anything; it would be like saying that oxygen “emerges” out of plants and feeling satisfied with the answer without getting into the details of photosynthesis.

OK, this is where Ryan and I part company.  I do not say that consciousness emerges out of physics.  I say that it emerges out of desire, which emerges out of biology, which emerges out of chemistry, which emerges out of physics.  I take this to be a cause-and-effect chain.  This is ontological reality as best I can determine. 

Also, the notion the emergentism doesn’t explain anything does disservice to the idea.  Now, to be fair to Ryan, I see now that I should have spent more time on what emergence actually is and how it actually works, so I have to take some responsibility for this miss.  For readers who want a better grounding in it than I gave, the book I think that is most useful for so doing is Life Unfolding by Jamie A. Davies.  She describes the emergence of a fetus over a nine-month period from a single celled zygote.  She does so in highly mechanical terms which demonstrate over and over again that a highly organized being comes into existence, bit by bit, without the aid of any plan of any kind.  That is, DNA does not contain or constitute a master plan; it is simply a tool.  Nor is there anything else around that could.  Rather, repeatedly, individual agents following simple algorithms give rise to the positive and negative feedback loops that dynamically create and sustain all living organisms, from the time they come into being to the time they die.  This is the real explanation, so the fact that it did not land as such is my fault, not the idea’s.

What you’re left with is the rather banal observation that reality can be described at different levels. Perhaps this will come as a revelation for some, but for others it will all seem rather obvious, especially to those that understand the limits of reductionism and the importance of the humanities. Yes, we know that you can’t explain the causes of World War II in terms of particle physics—even if ontologically it could be reduced to that level—and that history as a discipline is necessary to get to the appropriate level of explanation. I just don’t think this is a particularly novel insight, or that it warrants the pages devoted to the topic.

I get this point, but I think it undersells what I have done, so let me make the case for the defense.  Everybody gets that reality is organized in levels, but the staircase calls out eleven specific levels and makes what I believe is a bold claim—namely, that they are organized in exactly the correct order, and that no other order is correct.  The idea, for example, that desire precedes consciousness, that values precede culture, that culture precedes language, or that narrative precedes analytics are all highly debatable.  So, I think calling the whole thing banal is just wrong.  On the other hand, pushing back and saying that the order is not right, or that there is a missing stair, or anything along those lines is totally fair game, and if anyone has an inclination to do so, I would love to hear what they have to say. 

Moore’s coverage of ethics is a little better. Here he correctly points out that values arise at a pre-linguistic level, shared universally among all mammals. He reverses the arrow of causation between morality and religion, noting that it is not religion that makes us moral but that our inherent moral nature manifests itself in religion (along with various other narratives). Our job, in a secular age, is to use language and narrative to modulate our inherently good nature based on the universal mammalian proclivity for sympathy, empathy, and maternal/paternal love.

This may be my most important point, so I am very glad it landed.

But even here the reader may point out another flaw in his theory. Moore is claiming that values arise after the emergence of consciousness but before the emergence of language and narrative; but if that’s the case, then perhaps one does not need to flesh out their metaphysical views to be a good person. In fact, it seems that language and theory are the reasons for unethical behavior in the first place. We are taught to act evil, to consider others as outsiders, and to prioritize our own individual selfish needs. If Moore is correct, and values arise pre-linguistically, it seems that what we need is not his infinite staircase theory (grounded in language) but rather pre-linguistic methods to reconnect with our inherently peaceful and tolerant nature; essentially, meditation and mindfulness training.

This is a specious argument, along the logical fallacy lines of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  It is impossible to be a good person, indeed a person of any recognizable kind, without embracing the domains of language, narrative, and analytics.  This is the air we breathe.  Yes, these are the tools by which unethical behavior is amplified via what the book calls the metaphysics of memes, but they are also the tools by which good behavior is conducted as well.

To dig in more specifically, while I don’t think we are taught to act evil, I absolutely do believe we are taught to consider others as outsiders.  The division between us and them is fundamental to social organization.  It is impossible to do without it.  But that does not mean we have to prioritize our own selfish needs.  The whole point of the chapter on kindness, fairness, morality, and justice is that we can transcend our selfish needs to great advantage to all—that’s the reward for “doing good.”

Now, having got all that off my chest, I do agree with the last half of the last sentence above, that we need to use pre-linguistic methods to reconnect with our inherently peaceful and tolerant nature.  That is not the only way to gain the spiritual energy needed to be ethical, but it is the one I am advocating for.

Overall, Moore is trying to provide a linear, ultimate description of reality (metaphysics) as a foundation for ethics, but he fails on several grounds. First, his metaphysics relies on emergentism, which is essentially a non-explanation. To say consciousness arises out of physics, chemistry, and biology but to not elaborate on what or how this can happen is simply to state the obvious fact that we can describe reality in different ways. This isn’t a metaphysical view so much as a recognition of ignorance as to the ultimate nature of reality and the nature of consciousness.

I have already had my say about this above.

Moore also never quite takes his own theory seriously enough to fully consider the limitations of language, limitations he points out but then ignores as he builds up his staircase. At best, language and theory should adopt a more modulatory role, but what Moore really wants to say (but never does) is that non-linguistic methods such as meditation are the more direct route to ethical behavior.

Ryan has turned an and into an or.  You cannot be human without language and the stairs above it that it enables.  You can be kind, but you cannot be fair, or moral, or just.  All these domains of ethics require language.  That said, what they do not provide is the spiritual energy to fuel ethical behavior.  That does indeed come from below.  It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the end result to be achieved.

Moore even claims in chapter 4 that any viable metaphysical theory must be precise, yet his own theory lacks that precision as outlined above. He seems to be saying simultaneously that reality is too complex to capture via language (as emergentism suggests), but also that his infinite staircase theory has precisely captured reality via language. He also tells us that values arise prior to language and theory but that to be ethical we need to over-rely on language and theory as starting points.

One crux of our disagreement here hinges on our radically different views of emergentism.  Ryan consistently downplays the value of this idea, almost to the point of treating it as shamanism, whereas I think of it as Newtonian in stature, deeply seminal and foundational.  So, I do not believe that reality is too complex to capture via language—indeed, the whole point of the first two thirds of the book is to do that.  Whether or not I succeeded, of course, is open to debate.

The other crux of our disagreement is signaled by Ryan’s use of the word over-rely in the last sentence above.  My view is that there are four different starting points for developing a full set of ethics.  In that context, we do not rely on language to learn kindness, but we do need it to learn fairness, and we need to add narrative and analytics to learn morality, and we need to add theory to learn justice.  This is how I see ethics aligning with metaphysics.

In Chapter 9, Moore writes, “If all you took away from your engagement with ethics was Be kind, you would not be too far off the mark.” This is true because all ethical systems operate on some version of the Golden Rule (treat others the way you would want to be treated) or some version of the harm principle (avoid causing unnecessary harm), based on our biological nature as mammals. This is why stripping away language, bias, and preconceptions via meditation often leads to an increase in empathy and compassion. And if this is the case, as Moore seems to think it is, then why is a 200-page linguistic description of reality necessary for one to be moral when all that seems to be required is the injunction to be kind and to connect with your pre-linguistic values?

The short answer is because we live in a world where ethical behavior is not easy.  We need to use the full complement of resources available to us to do good on any consistent sustainable basis.  But those resources—particularly the ones associated with language, narrative, and analytics—can lead us astray, so we need to have a conceptual framework that lets us put them to work on our behalf and that alerts us to when they are being counter-productive. 

Again, in closing, I want to thank Ryan for giving the book his full attention and for contributing to the dialog of ideas around metaphysics and ethics.  Even though I left academe decades ago, I am an academic at heart and believe wholeheartedly in the marketplace of ideas.

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