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Absolute Free­dom

(The End of History)

Immanuel Kant’s Analogy

What does it mean to make our thinking free? In October 1786, Immanuel Kant finally responded to a public controversy between Jacobi and Moses Mendelssohn concerning the status of rational faith.[1] His response was developed by means of a conceptual transposition illustrating how the faculty of reason can make use of maxims to adequately constrain its supersensible cognitions and avoid falling into illusion or fancy. Reason must orient itself or risk succumbing to idle speculations that would ultimately make it amount to nothing at all.

At this point, Mendelssohn had already appealed to the need to orient faith through reason in his exchange with Jacobi,[2] but Kant reinterpreted the concept of orientation to bring it into accord with his own doctrine, where he clearly departs from its geographical use. Orientation in thinking can be understood on the model of orientation in geographical space.

In the proper meaning of the word, to orient oneself means to use a given direction (when we divide the horizon into four of them) in order to find the others—literally, to find the sunrise.[3]

But in order to find the sunrise, one requires something else too, namely the “feeling of a difference in my own subject, namely, the difference between my right and left hands”.[4] The difference between left and right provides a subjective principle for orienting ourselves. Without this ability, one could simply rearrange a scene—like a room or a starry sky—by moving everything from left to right and vice versa while retaining its symmetry and one would not be able to tell the difference. Nor would one be able to tell one’s right hand from one’s left. The problem of incongruous counterparts was a longstanding point of interest for Kant, but what makes his Orientation essay so peculiar is what he made of the source of the ability to distinguish between left and right in connection to the relationship of said distinction to the analogous ability of thought to orient itself. Indeed, he went on to say that “the faculty of making distinctions through the feeling of right and left comes naturally to [our] aid—it is a faculty implanted by nature but made habitual through frequent practice”.[5]

This is a remarkable statement coming from Kant. The incongruity of left and right parts had served as one of the motivations for distinguishing between sensibility and understanding that precipitated the Critique of Pure Reason. In the latter, space is given the role of the a priori form of outer sense.[6] Space is that in virtue of which differences can be sensed. It is therefore strange that the ability to tell the difference between right and left was seen to have been “implanted by nature” in the Orientation essay. Even if it has mere subjective validity, if our ability to orient ourselves is given by nature, it definitely has to be a posteriori—downstream from the conditions that make nature sensible—if it is a feeling, but that seems unlikely if said ability actually inheres in the subject. Had the ability to differentiate between left and right been implanted by nature and granted transcendental status, however, Kant would find himself facing a “transcendental naturalism”. The determining subject would itself be determined by nature in the last instance which would be at odds with the crucial distinction between phenomena and noumena.[7] That the faculty of telling right from left is given the status of a “feeling” does precisely not help the matter, especially when the concept is extended via analogy to the case of reason. Does Kant mean to say that reason feels?

In a minimal sense it does not. Insofar as “to orient oneself in thinking in general means: when objective principles of reason are insufficient for holding something true, to determine the matter according to a subjective principle”,[8] “feeling” is a kind of shorthand. Orientation in thinking just means that reason must restrain itself to be free, but doing so still requires responding to a “felt need” to restrict its ambition with the use of subjective maxims. Properly speaking, this feeling is “effected” by reason itself through its “drive for cognition”, as Kant remarks in a footnote.[9] It is not reason that feels, and it would be better to say that reason responds to a feeling it has created or engendered. It is when it comes to interpreting the engendering and the response to it that the analogy to orientation in space comes into play. At first glance, the capacity to distinguish between left and right does not survive the translation to the case of orientation of reason as Kant defines the latter, but nevertheless, the concept of orientation remains intelligible firstly in terms of its geographical use. Kant invokes orientation in space to help us interpret the use of maxims: the self-discipline of reason is therefore an art that finds its model in an empirical concept that supposes an implantation into the subject of something that comes from nature.

As a consequence, the engendering and its interpretation become subject to a deeper set of conceptual associations that have been inherited from orientation in space. The problem here is twofold. First, it would seem that reason, insofar as it has a “drive for cognition”, is also subject to a deeper set of constraints that belong to nature. The picture of reason restraining itself so as to not squander its freedom is the image of a goldfish trying to keep its bearings in a very small bowl.

Second, the heuristic of orientation and the ease with which it comes to mind suggests that there is a structural resemblance between the constraints that obtain in both geography and reason. The analogical hermeneutic of orientation effectively traces a model of thought’s good conduct from manipulations of the human body in space, a body that is capable of navigating a terrestrial environment divided into cardinal directions according to custom: a body that faces in one direction. The concept of orientation thus evokes a strange isomorphism between the forward-facing subject and the proper behavior of thought, as if the proper use of reason depended on the literal shape of the subject. Let us take this connection as the starting point for a study in speculative anthropology that takes note of beliefs across cultural history, evolutionary biology, and formal images of thought.

Logic and the Original Concept of Orientation

About 200 years after Kant, the idiosyncratic timespace sociologist Bernd Schmeikal-Schuh proposed a peculiar hypothesis. The sixteen truth functions of the n=2 table of Boolean logic could be derived from the structure of an “original concept” of orientation in space.[10] He illustrated the idea with interpretations of cultural history, notably modeled on ancient quadripartite stone tablets discovered in Hungary whose different rotations map onto the different truth functions.

By rotating the stones in 90° increments from a starting position, it is possible to derive eight movements, counting clockwise and anti-clockwise moves. If a stone is turned upside down, and the “inverted” moves are given their own identities, there is a total of sixteen different moves available. Each move can be granted its own identity that may correspond to a logical operation. For example, moving a stone 90° clockwise from the starting position might express the operation F (contradiction), whereas moving it 270° clockwise might express the operation ↚ (converse nonimplication), and so on. The operations can of course be carried out with any quadripartite object, such as two crossed sticks.

Schmeikal-Schuh’s speculative conclusion is that logic, the laws of thought, could plausibly have been learned or developed from an original understanding of orientation in space that utilized the stones as tactile learning aids or even as rudimentary computational operations.[11]

The Kantian upshot of Schmeikal-Schuh’s conclusion is of course that one does not need recourse to any external object to derive logic from space. In virtue of its basic symmetry, a top-down view of our own bilateral bodies reveals that they already constitute diagrams of the rules of reasoning. By rotating our own bodies in the cardinal directions of terrestrial space, we can think of ourselves as expressing logical operations. With this in mind, one may think that noögeny is guided by bodily symmetry, impacting the cultural acquisition and development of logical practices over time. Taken to its farthest extent, one could even trace a speculative cultural and natural history to ground and validate Kant’s analogy, from the advent of the bilaterian body more than 550 million years ago. Even though other types of logic have been invented or discovered, it is plausible that they are subject to ergonomic factors, such that alternatives can only be built on top of Boolean operations enabled by deep-seated, bodily constraints. It bears remembering that the human body is itself the result of an evolutionary history that has transpired under the intractable conditions provided by the Earth itself.[12] The bilaterian body is the cross on which our minds are crucified.

Accordingly, philosophy discovers itself in the middle of an evolutionary process. The symmetry of the philosopher’s body contributed to shaping the bedrock of his or her thought, with the spatial structure of experience serving as an intermediary. The thinkable is thinkable in virtue of its symmetrical substrate. Let us entertain this as a postulate with generic validity. In animals, thought follows orientation follows symmetry which is entrenched via the environment; noötype follows phenotype follows topos. The history of thought is a geohistory. The corollary is that the environment is where thought can intervene to reengineer itself; a practice that is more difficult and more profound than its ability to discipline itself within given constraints. A goldfish remodels its bowl to change itself.

Let us consider the constraints on what is thinkable in the language of negative freedom. Throughout the history and prehistory of its evolution, thinking has been set on a fixed path. Negative freedom describes liberty from restraint or external influence. In evolution, there is no such thing as absolute freedom since life is always bound to its environment at different levels of organization; and in the same way, thinking is always bound to some sort of substrate, whether it is the neurochemical basis of human thought or some hypothetical machinery that is subject to its own unique constraints. Freedom is always relative. The secret line that runs between Kant and Schmeikal-Schuh is that the symmetry of the human body is a salient determinant of how thought thinks. The shape of the body is recognized as a limiting factor on any desire for increasing the autonomy of thought, one which cannot simply be negotiated from “outside” since we, as thinkers, are deeply embedded in it ourselves. Turning against these restraints on the veritable form of what thought can think would be to turn against some of the most entrenched constraints there are; that is, the symmetry of the bilaterian body itself. It seems absurd. But history is far from over.

Thought Experiment: A Game of Developmental Lock Picking

So far, we have gathered the components required to introduce a little game: a demand for thought to acquiesce to the body, a cultural history of how thought has discovered its acquiescence, and a natural history of the conditions that made bondage necessary. Three interconnected perspectives on the connection between orientation and thought.

Let us now imagine a future culture that, taking the aforementioned perspectives seriously, decides to maximize the degree of negative freedom of thought enjoyed by its members. Knowing what we know, they quickly translate their decision to a eugenic project to deliberately and fundamentally remodel the human phenotype over many generations, focusing on breaking the entrenched symmetry that binds them to the cross. The challenge they face is massive, but their task may be less insurmountable than it may seem at first, provided they show sufficient dedication.

What is required to reshape the conditions of thought can be understood through Wimsatt and Schank’s developmental lock model.[13] In a developmental system such as is common in animal ontogeny, upstream determinations are more constraining than their downstream dependents because the former have more things that hinge on them being in place. When building a house, the third floor has fewer dependents than the second, which has fewer than the first. A genetic mutation that impacts the basic development of the spine is very unlikely to result in reproductively viable offspring, whereas a mutation that results in a missing digit is likely to be less disastrous. On a phylogenetic level, developmental locks are a conservative force that limits the number of viable evolutionary trajectories at any given time in a way that can result in path dependencies. Developmental locks limit the number of viable mutations. The model has also been proposed as a contributing explanation for von Baer’s laws, according to which evolution tends to proceed from the general to the specific (arms before fingers; legs before toes). Lineages that have evolved organs or features that develop early in ontogenesis are unlikely to lose these organs in the future since so much depends on their functioning. Developmental locks can therefore be considered limiting factors for evolvability. In the bilaterian clade, to which well over 90% of extant animal species belongs, planar symmetry is usually one of the first macro-level features to develop during ontogenesis;[14] and almost everything else depends on it. It has been in place for roughly half a billion years.

Faced with such deep entrenchment in their quest to liberate thought from its constraints, the ethicists of our future culture need to conceive of a means to unlock their basic morphology. They decide to interpret their project as a “game of developmental lockpicking” to be realized through a carefully planned practice of niche reconstruction. The developmental lock model allows the players to consider their own bodies from the point of view of entrenchment, as a series of doors that can be unlocked. The means they have at their disposal are genetic engineering, planned breeding, and iterative modification of their environmental niche to create an intergenerational pathway along which the human evolutionary trajectory can be reoriented. As they progress, they will likely have to use all their means to reach their end: a new corporeal symmetry that will usher in an unending era of maximally free thought.

The environment is gradually modified to select a new adaptive picture. The players begin by working backward, from less entrenched traits, to remove downstream dependencies from upstream determinants, starting with the elimination of traits like digits, limbs, and sensoria. Rinse and repeat.

And repeat.

As the game proceeds, slowly and with good fortune, even the most thoroughly entrenched determinations prove tractable. After having rendered most organs superfluous for their new environments and by winning the genetic lottery that eliminates the vestiges, the players face greater challenges, such as the Earth’s gravitational influence and magnetic field, if they are to avoid falling into the trap of a local maximum all over again.

The players depart for elsewhere, one step at a time.

They know that freedom of thought must remain constrained by some corporeal form. Nature trades in few absolutes. They ask themselves: Is there a global maximum? They arrive at a conclusion.

True freedom is freedom from restraint. The terrestrial habitat of our ancestors bound thinking to a local maximum, guiding thought onto the bilaterian cross. Indeed, the ancestors modified their habitats to fit the cross, coming to depend on their modifications, in turn, only to deepen their crucifixion. They may have been free to act, but they were never free from the cross and its consequences. It follows that any habitat will have similar effects and force thought into a suboptimal shape. No matter how autonomous one becomes, there will always be a limit that forces thought to conform. It can even be said that autonomy correlates with bondage; liberty with reliance on scaffolds that need to be in place. Such is the useless freedom of standing on a ladder. None of these faux liberties amount to the infinite weakness that is true self-determination:

Proposition: Maximizing negative freedom in nature means to become adapted not to all environments but to none.

The players’ goal is a stable symmetry from where there is nowhere to go; where environmental constraints approach 0, rendering the bodily support of thinking permanent, intractable, inescapable on pains of maladaptive mutations that would mean death. They seek a truly stable state that yields the highest freedom of thought. The end of history. What remains when everything is taken away and every direction is equal?

The solution to the game of developmental lockpicking is a reorientation of human evolution toward the renunciation of orientation and its hold on thought. The final result must be the perfect form, adapted to the void, forever unchanging. And so, to reach the apex of freedom in nature, the players must strive for their far-off descendants to become:

Homo sapiens sphera, the Human Noöspheres

In the void between stars where there is nothing.

H. sapiens sphera is the end result of a thought turning against its own constraints within the bounds of nature, renouncing everything that binds it. It is equipped with a body that falls into itself, held by its own mass. It has a mind that lacks orientation. All its directions are equal. It can do nothing but contemplate its freedom in a state of perfect self-determination. It is free, like its ancestors could only be when they turned in the drunken stupor of their dance halls—and who would not wish for true liberty?

Recognizing the image of freedom could be the most convincing reply to Fermi’s quandary: in the void between stars where there is nothing besides liberty. That is where we should search, since that is where we must eventually go ourselves. Extragalactic solipsism is an inescapable attractor for any self-determining mind; whether it reaches it through eugenic transformation or more direct means. The sphere is a stable refuge for maximally free thought in the void between stars.

As for us who retain our bilateral form, H. sapiens sphera is the projective result of deriving implications from speculative anthropology. H. sapiens sphera is a reminder that our history is not over; that until we find a stable state, we will suffer from being on a ladder that leads us nowhere. Such a stable state exists. H. sapiens sphera will be the living result of a game “we” can play in a culture that values freedom above all and accepts evolvability as not just an inescapable fact but as the proper domain of ethics. Success is obviously less than certain.

We cannot be perfect.

Unless we are round.

Postscript: A Brief History of Enspherement as Finale

A sphere once formed continues round and true.

—Marcus Aurelius, Communings, Bk. XVIII[15]

But what is greatest is round; it has no qualities.

—F. W. J. Schelling, Weltalter, 1811[16]

It is hard to resist the notion that the path to absolute freedom would be anything other than the result of a psychosomatic or “materialized”[17] psychosis perpetuated over many generations. The act of turning human offspring into spheres has been a surprisingly common motif in narratives about the end of history. What follows is a selective review of some examples. The would-be progenitors of H. sapiens sphera may draw inspiration from any number of them. In each case, the real spherification of the human body cross should be seen as the corporeal consummation of the idealist philosophies proposing that history can be brought to a close.The French psychiatric theorist Eugène Minkowski interpreted schizophrenia as a failure to inhabit time, as a preference for the static, unmoving, and regular. The sphere is noted as a salient object of the schizophrenic patient’s “morbid geometrism”[18] because of its perfection.

[H]e is persuaded that “everything in life … [is] reducible to mathematics”; this leads him to mathematical formulas and geometries; there is geometry in our body, and from this point of view one is led to wonder whether the perfect form for the body would not be the “spherical form”, a form which, from the geometric point of view (but only from this point of view), attains a high degree of symmetry and harmony.[19]

The same morbid focus recurs on a grand scale in Anno Hideaki and Tsurumaki Kazuya’s The End of Evangelion.[20] The consummation of Supplementation[21] makes everyone fall inward to their origin, coating the Earth in biotic slime as the terminus of human evolution, while their souls are returned to their spherical womb.

If Anno and Tsurumaki successfully narrate the implosive ensphering of humanity, a minor character from Stanisław Lem’s The Futurological Congress predicts the opposite. As reported by the Swiss congressional delegate, Professor Dringenbaum, humanity may just lift itself into exponential expansion.

Professor Dringenbaum went on with his lecture, which was fairly pessimistic in tone, for it maintained that the next phase of our civilization would be cannibalism. He cited several well-known American theoreticians, who had calculated that, if things on Earth continued at their present rate, in four hundred years humanity would represent a living sphere of bodies with a radius expanding at approximately the speed of light.[22]

One would imagine that such an explosive expansion would quickly collapse inward under its own weight, with effects reminiscent of the post-Supplementation sea.

A suitably bold question is whether it may be that Lem’s solipsistic ocean-planet Solaris[23] is the intelligent outcome of a spherification event that has erased the boundaries between some previously self-enclosed inhabitants of unknown origin. These oceanic cases suggest a fundamentally different, dissolvent solution to the problem compared to the schizoid prospect of H. sapiens sphera which, as we have seen, is based on retaining human individuality.

Indeed, the vast literature on speculative evolution contains occasional references to sphere-like posthumans. In a work first published under the penname Nemo Ramjet, C. M. Kosemen describes our far-off descendants that have resulted from an evolutionary radiation event precipitated by a war between Earth and Mars. One of these subspecies, which Ramjet terms the “deranged” Ruin Haunters, chose rapid spherification in response to the deadly expansion of their Sun. But in stark contrast to H. sapiens sphera, the Ruin Haunters opted for technological ascension by constructing

floating spheres of metal that moved and molded their environment through subtle manipulations of gravity fields. In earlier versions the spheres still cradled the organic brains of the last Haunters. But in successive generations, ways of containing the mind within quantum computers were devised, and the transformation became absolute. The Ruin Haunters were replaced by the completely mechanical Gravital.[24]

As Kosemen’s illustrations reveal, the mechanical phylum born by the Haunters appears to have retained a vestigial bilateral symmetry for their post-biological bodies, with circular openings creating a kind of visage. For the 21st century mind, it still remains almost inconceivable that we might one day overcome our forward-facing posture, which may well amount to our deepest bias. It is considerably easier to picture a humanoid robot than a genuinely faceless human.

The posthumous condition appears to break the moratorium on human spheres, as though the face is no longer needed in death. There are many examples of spherical monuments intended for the storage or glorification of individuals—usually those seen as the greatest minds. It could be that the connection between the sphere and the end of the human is a reverberation of an unconscious recognition that the sphere marks the highest degree of freedom and perfection. But as of yet, it is only in death we may find true liberty, and it has remained the privilege of architects and sculptors to succeed where biologists and philosophers have failed.

A well-known example from the speculative architecture of the late 18th century: Étienne-Louis Boullée published plans for a cenotaph to honor Isaac Newton. The spherical monument would dwarf the grand pyramids of Giza and contain an (empty) tomb for the scientist. Unsurprisingly, the grandiose structure has never been built, perhaps in part because Boullée’s presentation of the project was so thoroughly steeped in megalomania.

O Newton! With the range of your intelligence and the sublime nature of your Genius, you have defined the shape of the earth; I have conceived the idea of enveloping you with your discovery. That is as it were to envelop you in your own self. How can I find outside you anything worthy of you? It was these ideas that made me want to make the sepulchre in the shape of the earth.[25]

A less grandiose example that has actually been built is the gilded orb that serves as Nikola Tesla’s funerary urn.[26] It is currently on public display in the Tesla museum in Belgrade, surrounded by the personal belongings of its content, as if testifying to a lesser, vestigial shape that has been cast off en route to perfection.

  • 1

    KANT, Immanuel, “What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”, in: WOOD, Allen W. & GIOVANNI, di George (eds.), Religion and Rational Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, Ak 8: pp. 133–146.

  • 2

    WOOD, Allen W., GIOVANNI, di George, “Translator’s Introduction”, in: Religion and Rational Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 5.

  • 3

    KANT, Immanuel, “What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”, Ak 8: p. 134.

  • 4

    Ibid, Ak 8: pp. 134–135.

  • 5

    Ibid, Ak 8: p. 135.

  • 6

    KANT, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, A26/B42.

  • 7

    Kant explicitly argues against this possibility when it comes to what ought to be done in the Dialectic: “Whether reason is not, in the actions through which it prescribes laws, itself again determined by other influences, and whether that which, in relation to sensuous impulses, is entitled freedom, may not, in relation to higher and more remote operating causes, be nature again, is a question which in the practical field does not concern us, since we are demanding of reason nothing but the rule of conduct; it is a merely speculative question, which we can leave aside so long as we are considering what ought or ought not to be done.” (KANT, Critique of Pure Reason, A803/B831)

  • 8

    KANT, Immanuel, “What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?”, Ak 8: 136n.

  • 9

    Ibid, p. 139n.

  • 10

    SCHMEIKAL-SCHUH, Bernd, “Logic from space”, in: Quality and Quantity, 27(2), 1993, pp. 117–137.

  • 11

    Ibid, p. 118.

  • 12

    OLSSON, Carl, “Peak Face”, Urbanomic, 2023, https://www.urbanomic.com/document/peak-face/. See also BUEY GONZÁLEZ, Maria, ABBOTT, M. C. & OLSSON, Carl, “Peak Face”, The Terraforming 2021, 2021,
    https://peakface.strelka.institute/.

  • 13

    SCHANK, Jeffrey C. & WIMSATT, William C., “Generative Entrenchment and Evolution”, in: PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1986, pp. 33–60.

  • 14

    RASMUSSEN, Nicolas, “A New Model of Developmental Constraints as Applied to the Drosophila System”, in: Journal of Theoretical Biology, 127(3), 1987, pp. 271–299.

  • 15

    AURELIUS ANTONINUS, Marcus, The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916, Bk. VIII, par. 41.

  • 16

    SCHELLING, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph, The Ages of the World (1811), Albany, NY: SUNY Press, p. 71.

  • 17

    FERENCZI, Sandór, “‘Materialization’ in Globus Hystericus”, in: Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psycho-Analysis, London, Maresfield Reprints, 1980, pp. 104–105.

  • 18

    MINKOWSKI, Eugène, Lived Time, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970, p. 277.

  • 19

    Ibid, p. 279.

  • 20

    Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion, ANNO, Hideaki & TSURUMAKI, Kazuya (directors), Toei Company, 1997.

  • 21

    The official English translation of the planetary-scale ensphering of mankind is the “Human Instrumentality Project”, a term that is borrowed from Cordwainer Smith. The Japanese “嗐駍” (hokan) carries the sense of complementation, supplementation or completion, which honestly seems far more suitable.

  • 22

    LEM, Stanisław, The Futurological Congress (From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy), New York: The Seabury Press, 1974, p. 24.

  • 23

    LEM, Stanisław, Solaris, San Diego: Harcourt Inc., 1970.

  • 24

    KOSEMEN, C. M., All Tomorrows: A Billion Year Chronicle of the Myriad Species and Varying Fortunes of Man, 2006, p. 88, http://www.cmkosemen.com/books.html.

  • 25

    BOULLÈE, Etienne-Louis, Architecture, Essay on Art, ROSENAU, Helen (ed.), Paris: Academy Editions, 1976, p. 107.

  • 26

    Tesla’s urn was designed by Nebojša Mitrić (https://tesla-museum.org/en/legacy/collections/memorial-items/).

Carl Olsson

Carl Olsson is a writer and theorist working with histories and philosophies of science and geography. His current project narrates the natural history of naturalism as a story about self-effacement, like a mouth that is destined to eat itself up.