Comments on “Nebulosity”

'I've looked at clouds from both sides now...'

Kate Gowen 2010-12-16

I love this about nebulosity, David– although I can’t [of course!] say precisely why. A couple of poets that I like a lot, come to mind: the first is Emily Dickinson– “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant: success in circuit lies.”

The other is Marianne Moore– “What is more precise than precision? Illusion.” Paradoxical bits of poetry have always served as koans for me, fermenting away at the back of my mind and sparking unexpected leaps in understanding. This one has informed my sense of the interplay between emptiness and form, existence and appearance.

A few years back, I noticed that sky phenomena seemed to have started calling attention to themselves more. Clouds, in particular– very dragon-like in their metamorphoses, are clouds…

I'd rather not be poetic

David Chapman 2010-12-17

Thanks, Kate. Glad you liked it. This is a case in which I’d rather not be poetic, though. I’d be a lot happier if I could give a straightforward, no-nonsense, engineer’s definition. Oh well!

Negative capability

mtraven 2011-02-15

Speaking of poetic, Keat’s notion of negative capability sounds like a version of nebulosity to me:

For some nebulous reason, I just wrote a long flame on the philosophy of knowledge representation for a conference, more academic that I’ve been in years. I didn’t use your vocabulary, but now that I think about it, it seems that the field is dominated by a raging, pathological fear of nebulosity, and I was arguing that that was perhaps not a good thing for the progress of science.

...and the subtle knife

David Chapman 2011-02-16

Thank you very much—that's apropos, yes.

There's two complementary error one can make in the face of the ill-defined. One is to force some conceptual scheme on it that doesn't actually fit, because you'd rather have a wrong explanation than none at all. The other is to say "Ah, this is a holy mystery, to investigate further would be sacrilege." The first error is characteristic of the European Enlightenment; the second is characteristic of Romanticism, which (to its credit) understood the Enlightenment's error and sought to avoid it. Keats was a Romantic, and possibly fell into the second mistake.

When I started reading the negative capability article you linked, I thought "I'm pretty sure I've heard of this before somewhere." And then it mentioned that negative capability plays a major role in The Subtle Knife, which is the second volume of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy<img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />; which is probably my "somewhere."

If you don't know about it, His Dark Materials is a brilliant sword-and-sorcery novel aimed at teenagers which is actually propaganda for maltheism. Maltheism solves the problem of evil by supposing that God is evil, and that he ought to be killed. I ought to re-read the books; they are a lot of fun, and a close parallel in some ways to my The Vetali's Gift, which also disguises philosophical propaganda as a sword-and-sorcery novel. (Or will, once I get it unstuck—it's been on hold for six months.) The "subtle knife" was so sharp it could effortlessly cut through anything; it occurs to me that my book centrally features a similar weapon, taken from Indian mythology. The detached tongue of a vampire, according to Tantra, can slice through even diamond.

Interesting what you say about knowledge representation. AI could be seen as calling the European Enlightenment's bluff; and as such it has systematically fallen into that first error of premature conceptual interpretation.

Interesting also that you are getting sucked back into that... On the recommendation of Tom Clark and Jayarava, I am reading Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel<img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" />, a neuroscience-influenced pop philosophy-of-mind book. It is quite good, but I am gritting my teeth a bit because it looks like his unquestioning assumption of the representational theory of mind is going to lead him into some big mistakes. His main aim seems to be slaying the homunculus; but he enthusiastically elaborates what Phil Agre called the "orbiculus"—the mentally represented world-in-the-head. And that doesn't work—as we figured out sometime in the late Ordovician.

I have a bad feeling that I might get sucked back into philosophy of mind when it comes time to write the self chapter of this book. It might be impossible to explain my take on the nebulosity of selfness without explaining what's wrong with the representational theory of mind. And that is a total pain in the butt; doing it once was bad enough. On the other hand, I am writing this book for a general audience, and probably regular folks are less committed to the RTM than cognitive scientists are.

Maybe we can make a pact to both not re-write our respective PhD theses?

Eternal recurrence

mtraven 2011-02-18

I do know Pullman’s books quite well, but the term “maltheism” is new to me…useful concept.

I got sucked into this due to a chance encounter with Carl Hewitt, of all people, who is out in the Bay Area now…he’s organizing a symposium on Inconsistency Robustness (, and for some reason it got me interested. The semantic web/biological ontology community is being overrun by naive realists of the worst sort, and I thought I’d join in the battle for sanity…probably a waste of time. It’s also a function of being in close proximity to a bunch of elderly GOFAIers at SRI. Definitely had thoughts of you and Agre in mind while writing it…I had forgotten about the orbiculus, which is another very useful concept.

I actually had two papers in mind for this thing, one on representation that I actually wrote, and the other on goal-conflict in society of mind like systems, comparing Minsky to the work of George Ainslie. That seems like it might actually be of more interest from a Buddhist perspective (insert standard disclaimer that I don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to B.). Ainslie has a worked-out theory of phenomena like addiction and akrasia, based on a sort of abstract utility calculus, and according to him the self developed mainly to enforce peace among the conflicts between lower-level agents with inconsistent time preferences. I’ve talked about Ainslie on my blog [link omitted due to your spam filter], but writing a paper on him maybe is too close to redoing my thesis.

AI as religion

David Chapman 2011-02-18

Your "elderly GOFAIers" made me start thinking about the analogies between AI and Buddhism. They are both primarily baby-boom phenomena, with hype peaks around the same time (late 80s for AI, mid-90s for Buddhism), which have gone out of fashion. Both claim to be powerful ways of understanding the mind that are radically different from common sense. And there is a religious, soteriological current in AI (although few practitioners would admit that). AI went out of fashion because it couldn't deliver on its promises. Maybe that's true for Buddhism too. ("We've been doing this Buddhism stuff for 30 years, and who's gotten enlightened? Nobody.") Hmm, I'll keep thinking about whether that analogy is productive.

I read Ainslie's book on your recommendation. Thank you very much; it's brilliant. I think you are right that his view and the Buddhist one are similar (and seem to cast light on each other). I expect to make heavy use of it in my "selfness" chapter.

Sorry about the spam filter! Here's a link to your discussion of Ainslie.

Living and dead forms of AI

mtraven 2011-02-18

Interesting analogy…not quite sure I see it. AI as practiced in industry and academia seems largely sterile, so if there’s a religious aspect to it, it’s one that’s reached the stage of priests going around in meaningless rituals that have lost whatever juice they once had…now, on the other hand, there’s the cultish, fringy Singulitarians. While I generally think they’re crazy, at least they have some energy and liveliness to them. They seem to embody something of a living as opposed to a dead religion. They are in touch with the original alchemical madness of AI, which however wrongheaded is better than being dull.

Why Buddhism and not the Dao?

ngvrnd 2014-10-29

I’ll take my answer off-air, thanks!

Why Buddhism and not the Dao?

David Chapman 2014-10-29

I’m not sure quite what your question refers to—why Buddhism where? I’m guessing you mean “why are you, David Chapman, interested in Buddhism in general” rather than “why is it relevant in this comment thread.” And also I’m not sure how much you want to know about “why Buddhism” and how much “why not Daoism”?

As for “why Buddhism,” I suppose this page might be the best thing to read (depending on why you are asking).

As for “why not the Dao”… No particular reason… I don’t know very much about Daoism. I’ve read some books, and I don’t understand them. Some people I respect (Will Buckingham, St. Rev. Dr. Rev) are enthusiastic about it, so occasionally I read more, and find “nope, I still don’t get it.” Maybe some day light will dawn.

Dao/ Buddhism

Kate Gowen 2014-10-29

As a person with a deep interest in both Dzogchen and Daoism, I highly recommend a book I discovered rather recently:

Tao of Zen
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
“The Tao of Zen is a nonfiction book by Ray Grigg, published by Charles E. Tuttle Company in 1994, and reprinted by Alva Press in 1999.

The work argues that what we recognize as traditional Chinese Ch’an/Japanese Zen Buddhism is in fact almost entirely grounded in Chinese Taoist philosophy, though this fact is well shrouded by the persistence of Mahayana Buddhist institutional trappings. Utilizing an array of scholarly commentary on the two traditions and historical deduction from what can be considered to be the best primary source material available, the author traces the development of Taoism and Buddhism in China and Japan for two millennia.

The story unfolds in China as Buddhism appears on the scene and is accepted by the Chinese population as a “simplified version of Taoism” that the Western barbarians (subcontinent Indians and Central Asians, e.g. Tibetans, et al.) could understand. They shared many philosophical similarities that made Chinese acclimation to Buddhism much easier – but the more dogmatic ways in which Buddhism was practiced helped it to get the fast track on becoming the predominant religion in China…”

I’d add that Daoism does better by nebulosity than Buddhism generally– and that is part of its appeal to me.

Doing better by nebulosity

David Chapman 2014-10-29
I'd add that Daoism does better by nebulosity than Buddhism generally-- and that is part of its appeal to me.

Thanks for the book recommendation. And yes, I’ve come to think that the Madhyamaka account of emptiness is useless and has nothing to do with anything.

I’ve come across the idea elsewhere that the Zen version of emptiness owes more to Daoism than Buddhism—maybe from something you recommended! It seems plausible.

The Daoist accounts I’ve read don’t seem to add up to much, but at least they seem to talk about the right thing (whereas Madhyamaka, if it talks about anything—which I’ve come to doubt—talks about the wrong thing).

Maybe there’s just not much to say.

As with 'nebulosity,' Daoism

Kate Gowen 2014-10-29

As with ‘nebulosity,’ Daoism is good with paradox. It favors experience over explication, so I guess from a philosophical point of view, it’s fairly maddening. Very much in the spirit of men-ngag-de– there is a similar caution about saying too much.

The important texts seem like poems, or jokes: very elliptical. I expect it reflects both the Chinese language (which to my barely-tutored ear seems to imply, in very open-ended terms, rather than to assert) and its roots in a cosmology that predates Buddhism by quite a bit. I would love to hear Will Buckingham’s much better-informed take on these subjects!

Suicide Cloud

James B Drummond 2016-08-30

Suicide Cloud

Drifting alone
In blue skies
With no purpose
Move like a turtle
Feel like a clown
I am so high
As I look at earths surface
The worlds in such chaos
Bringing me down
Taking control of
My destiny
Letting gravity
Get the best of me
My rain always pouring
This act’s getting boring
I’ll shake things up
By heading straight down
What will become
Of the rest of me
You’ll only remember
The best of me
There is no shame
There is no pain
Affectionately named
A lonely nebulosity
The Suicide Cloud
The Suicide Cloud

James B Drummond

Nebulosity and depression

David Chapman 2016-08-30

Hi James,

I like your poem a lot. The rhyming is skilled, and it expresses eloquently a feeling I’ve often had, of the alienation and depression that comes with a feeling of meaninglessness.

For what it’s worth, Meaningness is meant to address just such feelings. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet written most of the relevant sections. However, you might like to look at its introduction to purpose, or what I’ve written so far about nihilistic depression.

A central idea is that nebulosity—the inherent vagueness of meaning—is inescapable, but not cause for despair, or even anxiety. It’s something we can be comfortable living with.


James B Drummond 2016-08-30

Thank you…and agreed with your prospective.

A cloud fell from the sky as I drove down the highway at dawn. It appeared to be falling but clouds, I thought, don’t fall. I was witnessing the suicide of a cloud and directly related it’s meaningless existence not exclusively to myself but the populous in general.

Nebulosity may be a sad, lonely, lost feeling or a belief of no purpose yet a very powerful and enlightening, euphoric moment of self realization that can make a person smile and find a more personal sense of self-worth.

We are mistaken often by purpose because we narrow the possibilities. Everyone tries to sell us something, we try selling something too and no one’s buying it. “Drifting alone in blue skies with no purpose.” It’s a great big and lonely world but we are not alone.

A cloud crashed into earth and taught me in one silent moment about a word I hadn’t heard before…nebulosity and I’m very comfortable with it.

A cloud crashed into earth

David Chapman 2016-08-30

I loved that; thanks!

Definition of confused stances

Francesc Gomez-Morales 2017-11-07

Hi David!

Thanks for your work. It’s helping me to re-structure my mind after a major mental breakdown. These lines are written from the mental hospital.

In this page you define confused stances as “attitudes to meaningness that refuse to acknowledge nebulosity”. But after reading about the patterns, the feeling I have is that confused stances are “attitudes to meaningness that refuse to acknowledge its dual nature”.

Obviously, people is more obsessed about “predicting the future” (denial of nebulosity and fixation in patterns) than
“breaking up with the past” (fixation in nebulosity and denial of patterns), but you can still find some of the second category in highly existentialist cities like Berlin.

Very enjoyable discussion

Hal Morris 2021-07-16

Mike Travis, Ainslie, and Metzinger, and Mike’s “You’re Soaking In It” is his sort of answer to singulatarianism. We are headed towards a singularity though predicting just how it will come off is a fool’s errand. It may take all we’ve got to keep our balance and get through it and start heading back to some kind of sanity, as the Enlightenment-arians (esp. the Royal Society and Bill Bryton’s written a book about it. He writes about every damn thing).

Metzinger’s trying to settle something about consciousness, which I shy away from to say the least, but his genius, like Venkat’s it that of convener. He created a virtual conference called The Open Mind (an overused title so you might get confused looking for it) in which the elders wrote papers and the juniors gave the commentary. Look for “The Avatars in the Machine” by Revonsuo (a Finnish neurologist) and others. It’s the only reason I bumped into Metzinger and the Open Mind as I was looking for someone who agreed with me that dreaming is a simulation of social life. Isn’t it perfectly obvious!? But I don’t know anyone else who’s said it.

I’ve been binge-reading Meaningness, and it is balm for my soul.

I meant to say...

Hal Morris 2021-07-16

as the Enlightenment-arians guided us back from the precipice of the 30 Years War and simultaneous English Civil war.

Concentration is a continuum?

Brent 2021-09-20

By “concentration” I mean the opposite of “diffusion”.

I won’t argue that lots of significant things aren’t nebulous. But could that be because they are primarily symbolic?

I would, however, contrast such things as instrumental music—to which we relate in subtle, non-obvious ways—with more fixed things, like food. Things which meet our basic needs don’t seem very nebulous at all. Nebulosity increases as we climb Maslow’s hierarchy into the realm of abstractions.

The realm of abstractions is a perilous one. It is constructed, and often poorly so. It is a realm of association and similarity. Many things can be similar to many other things, to greater and lesser degrees, and in different ways. Analogies are powerful, but they can also be misleading. That is human pattern matching. When the match is of low confidence, but we treat is as high confidence, it can lead us into all sorts of trouble.

Loss of significance arises from being distracted and confused by many low-reliability matches between speciously similar concepts, and trying to build systems out of them.

Science avoids this by de-emphasizing pattern matching, in favour of rigourous mathematical explanations, whose inconsistencies are sharp and clear, not nebulous. Taxonomies are compelling, but misleading, in comparison to genotypes, or mechanical explanations, which are described in a consistent language, and have fewer glaring gaps and inconsistencies, unlike taxonomies that ignore significant dissimilarities.

Just to emphasize that a lot of information has sharply defined meaning, and that there are ways to avoid nebulous meaning when looking at the real world.

Still too eternalist

Will 2022-03-29

The concept which you are hitting on through “nebulosity” is mystery, not in the sense of something essentially or necessarily unknown, but in the sense of a presence which cannot be fully grasped (due to our own incapacity).

It is mistaken to hold that, because we cannot grasp a thing, it is in itself not graspable, essentially unreal.

This apparent unreality is an artifact of the reality that all things are greater than our minds can comprehend. Even earthly things. But they are not vague, diffuse, “cloudy” in themselves. They are mysterious.

But the modern mind sublates “unknown” into mystery until that is all there is to the concept—nothingness (the mind takes “unknown” too seriously, or too absolutely, such that there is nothing to know, no underlying substance grounding apparent phenomena). But mystery, while normally hidden, is not essentially so. There is an inexpressible substance to everything, but it is a substance—it is solid, substantial, not cloud-like (except in the way that it typically appears to subjectivity). The cloud metaphor is also well taken in that mystery is something essentially above us, like the clouds themselves.

If there were no essences to things, we wouldn’t be able to begin to speak about them, not really. It’s not like our words are identical with reality (far from it), but they do express some truths about it.

There is something out there, some presence underlying and supporting all that exists. We can come to it by faith or reason, but it is perfected in faith, because (like everything else in our existence) it is something that we receive from the outside.