Philosophy Phriday: Towards a ‘Pataphysics of Anthills

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the eighteenth contribution in the series, submitted by Dr. Curtis Franks.

Towards a ‘Pataphysics of Anthills

A quick Google search of the noun-phrase “Ant Hill” turns up fifty-three million articles about Clarence Thomas and almost nothing about ant hills themselves. A more conscientious search, especially one that does not utilize the autocomplete device provided by most modern webreaders, returns only about a tenth as many articles, but more than half of them are about ant hills. This single observation should suffice to underscore the importance of methodological piety in all inquiries about ants and their hills. One must be clear up front: What are our questions? What methods shall we use to answer them? What are the limits of reasonable precision for this type of investigation, and how can we most efficiently surpass them?

An anthill. Or is it? Photo: Alex Wild

Now, philosophers are less interested in questions like “How can something so small be so strong?” or “Where shall I set up my picnicking paraphernalia so as to not succumb to the nuisance of terribly many ants?” — which perhaps bemuse and inspire less actualized human minds — than in questions like “Do ant hills even exist, I mean really exist?” This last question is a devil. No one who has felt its sting can again care much at all about trifling details. We must know!

But what exactly does it mean? One proposal for making it more precise, recommended by the biological sciences, is to ask about whether the hill as a whole is something more than its parts. You will notice that this question has the familiar ring of the very general “problem of universals.” But don’t be misled!

The ant hill provides a dramatic disruption of the biological orthodoxy because of the fact that the ontogeny of every ant recapitulates, not its own ancestral phylogeny, but that of the colony as a whole. This can be seen in many ways. For example, every female ant has the capacity to become a queen. Which member of any particular colony will fill this role has nothing to do with the individual’s genetics and is purely a function of the colony as an integrated and continuously reorganizing unit. When an ant emerges from the larval stage as a queen, the distribution of hormones and enzymes that trigger the ontogenic path of each other member of the colony is changed dramatically. But the function of each ant in this network is not confined to its own ontogenic pathway. Each ant’s development is determined through feedback with that of each other ant in the colony. Some scholars like Maturana and Varela have even suggested that the colony is best understood as an autopoietic unit, even determining its own phenomenology.

A queen ant, living the life. Photo: Alex Wild

Shall we ask — instead of “What is it like to be an ant?” — “What is it like to be an ant colony?” This is perhaps too speedy a move. For it remains true that however complex the autopoietic unit whose organizational history is the relevant phylogeny for reproductive data, the individual organism in the unit is the sole courier of that data. “Bees do it,” so the expression goes. So do ants, not their colonies.

For this reason one is left with the suggestion that both the ant and its colony exist in the same sense, although the one is a part of the other. Ours is not the same old question about holism. The whole and the part are so entwined as to give the question of the existence of the ant hill a delicious twist.

Fortunately, questions of this sort can be mowed over vigorously with a device called metaphysics. Check it out:

  1. We want to know: Do ant colonies exist, really exist, in the same
    way that an ant does? Perhaps they do not; perhaps they are just a
    literary convenience that can ultimately be reduced to or analyzed in
    terms of what really exists, i.e. their own individual parts, i.e.,
    ants, i.e., red and black ones predominantly.
  2. We observe: If ant colonies do not reduce to their parts, then
    certainly it’s not true that by devoting my entire life to the study
    of individual ants I could learn all about their colonies.
  3. We emphasize: This observation is not supposed to be
    controversial. Whether you believe that ant colonies really exist or
    not, you should agree to it.
  4. We abbreviate: Ant colonies reduce to their parts = R. I devote my
    entire life to studying individual ants = I. I could learn all about
    ant colonies = C. This lets us schematize our observation: ~R -> ~(I
    -> C).
  5. I tell you honestly: I have not devoted my entire life to studying
    individual ants, i.e., ~I.
  6. We observe: From these two premises, ~R -> ~(I -> C) and ~I, one
    plainly true to everyone who is paying attention and the other
    confided by the author of this essay, one may reason as follows: If ~I
    is true, then I is false, so that I -> C is true, so that ~(I -> C) is
    false, so that ~R -> ~(I -> C) cannot be true unless ~R is false. But
    ~R -> ~(I -> C) is true, so ~R is false, and so R is true. We conclude
    that ant colonies reduce to their individual parts.

Here is what you need to understand. First of all, this is no flash in the pan. All metaphysical problems about ant hills are readily solved in a similar fashion. It sounds good at first — and it should — that these perennial questions can be so easily put to rest when the subject matter is so delicately understood as are our ant hills.

But, second of all, our argument makes it abundantly clear that the reason ant colonies don’t (currently) really exist is that I have not devoted my entire life to studying individual ants. Had I done so, then all bets would be off. This performative basis of fundamental features of truth and existence has been shamefully overlooked in the history of Western philosophy.

This is E.O. Wilson, who has devoted his entire life to studying individual ants.

Third, and finally, how do you feel right now about ant hills? I mean, do you feel any differently about them than you did yesterday?

People are very concerned about ant hills and their existence — not only metaphysicians, but picnicers, gardeners, owners of old wooden houses, golfers, dictionary editors, epidemiologists, ant collectors, neighbors of ant collectors. But apparently the methods showcased above don’t address these concerns one bit. Frankly, it’s a bit nauseating to have to point this out in the year 2017. Although he wasn’t talking about ants, Wittgenstein put the same point this way: “Isn’t the imprecise [picture] often exactly what we need?” It wasn’t a new idea. Already, Zhuangzi had opened one of his more illuminating investigations with this announcement: “I’m going to try speaking some reckless words and I want you to listen to them recklessly. How will that be?”

Let us take stock. Our biological understanding of ant hills cannot get off the ground without ascribing equal footing to ants and their colonies. We have no scientific description of one that doesn’t also involve mention of the other. On the other hand, we have a very pretty proof that ant colonies do not really exist, a proof that makes quite clear that reality depends on how we live our lives.

To whose conclusions shall we submit our credence?

The enticements of science are seductive. What better way have we of understanding our world and our place in it? So much the worse for precise, undiluted arguments if they asks us to scrap our best explanations!

But the metaphysician reminds us that one era’s science is a future generation’s embarrassment. What really exists cannot depend on what sense about the world we have managed to muster up. Only pure reason can usher in timeless truths about fundamental reality!

Myrmecologists, or metaphysicians? Photo: Alex Wild

This debate can obviously continue, but what would be the point? Whose methods should we consult to resolve it? The metaphysician’s? The biologist’s? You can place bets with my cousin Harpo about what verdicts will be reached in each case.

This fallacy is called cooking the books. It was Plato’s greatest contribution to human thought to point out how easily we fall for it. So his Socrates asks questions like “Which decisions ought we make according to the outcomes of our brainy arguments?” Questions about whether or not to invest in solar energy are obvious candidates. Questions about whether we ought to spend time with our loved ones? Not so much. Where do we draw the line? It is a good question, but it is not a good question to turn over to the tribunal of brainy arguments or to our impassioned whims. Either way, you aren’t meaningfully asking the question you think you’re asking, because you’ve already presupposed its answer.

Only ‘pataphysics can resolve these, our deepest conundra, because only ‘pataphysics prescinds from all method and proceeds without any commitments or presuppositions. Plainly, a pataphysical solution to the problem of ant hills is called for.

Sadly, though, previous pataphysical attention to this question is scant. In the entire Pere Ubu corpus, I find only one remark about ant hills. It is from the song “A Small Dark Cloud“:

There’s a fly in the ointment.
It’s a speck of a fly,
But a fly nonetheless.
There’s a fly in the ointment,
It’s a speck of a fly,
But a fly nonetheless.
It’s a picnic!
Dark cloud.
Fly in the ointment.
It’s a picnic!
Put out the cloth on the ant hill.
It’s a picnic!
Dark cloud.

Fly in the ointment.

I see confusion.
It’s a picnic!
I see confusion.
It’s a picnic!

We’ll sit around,
And sit around,
And wait.
Picnic time!
It’s a picnic!
Don’t rock the boat!

We’ll sit around,
And sit around,
And wait.

I am, I admit, no Charles Kinbote, but I can make pretty good sense of a text, and I find the treatment of ant hills here to be inconclusive.

How shall we proceed? Wittgenstein suggested that we always look before, or perhaps instead of, thinking. But there are many ways to look. He stressed: “Look close-up.” Methinks he has succumbed to just another absolutism. Surely how close one should get to one’s subject depends on the subject. Study fingerprints close up, yes. But how shall we study guns, for example? Suddenly “close up” has another name: “point blank.” It is advisable to run away.

Wittgenstein, it should be said, really put the “b” in “subtle.” Notice that it is doing no real work. A suttler approach can only be more promising.

Returning to the question of the ant hill: So far we know (1) that the question has only now, for the first time, made any real sense, (2) that there is no way to simply plagiarize an answer from previous studies. Happily, Wittgenstein has another tactic that will service our needs.

In conversations with Alan Turing, Wittgenstein remarked that he had no intention of driving mathematicians out of a research environment called Cantor’s paradise with arguments. “I would try to show you that it is not a paradise — so that you’ll leave on your own accord.” Peer pressure as scholarly method! It is, after all, how the majority of our opinions are formed to begin with. Why shouldn’t we just lead our fellow men around until they make up their minds?

In the past academic year I have led many tours among the ant hills of the Ozark region of the United States with the hope of facilitating a consensus on the question of their existence. I have had limited success. For this reason, I must submit this report as a modest, if subtle, advance “towards a ‘pataphysics of ant hills.” We still await the resolution of its characteristic question. I hypothesize that by the end of the seventh season of these tours, I will devote myself full time to the scientific study of individual ants and their habits, refuting thereby the current solution to the problem in its metaphysical sense. Will mass dissatisfaction with this “solution” inspire consensus among my clients sufficient for a wholesale resolution of the question in its intended voice? It is yet too early to tell.

Another anthill. Right? Photo: Alex Wild

On the question of the phenomenology of the colony, a significant partial result can be announced. It is well known that Alan Turing devised a test for machine intelligence according to which our ascriptions of understanding are not responsible to any underlying mechanism and in that sense cannot be wrong. Meredith Williams has transposed this perspective onto her own reading of Wittgenstein, with the observation that “Checking for understanding in a child who has taken the pill is, in fact, training the child in the mastery of the skill” (p. 213). I am convinced that this sentence is lifted directly from Wu Tang Clan, but I have not been able to verify this. In any case, from this perspective, it would seem that simply surveying informants about whether it makes sense to apply mental adjectives to ant colonies as a whole will settle the matter.

Good fate but that I found myself in the Ozarks pursuing this sophomoric research agenda! Several informants turned up a legend from those parts that woke me from my dogmatic slumber and reminded me that communal ascriptions are seldom sensitive even to the variety of mental phenomena that our own species has exhibited. The legend is about a young woman from Arkansas who once traveled to Kansas City for trade. There she met a sophisticated gentleman who afterwards took to writing her. Having received only the meager education customary for girls in those days, our heroine was unable to read these letters herself and had her husband read them to her — on condition that he first put cotton in his ears.

How mad with joy I was, realizing that my surveys could measure only what we are inclined to recognize! As easily as we forget that our own species once could not understand what we could not hear ourselves read, we forget that our own convenient use of mental adjectives cannot reflect anything but our own current theory of mind.

In sum, neither line of inquiry has been anywhere near conclusive. On the question of existence, we have no recourse but patience. On the question of consciousness, our method exposed its own inadequacy but in so doing turned up a fine joke. Few philosophical programs have been as successful.

Of significance is one finding that we never expected to fall within ‘pataphsyics’ purview. But, as any practitioner of the experimental sciences can confirm, our greatest discoveries are often of things we had not even set our sights on. If ours is not the holy grail we sought, the question it settles is one of those perennial bugbears all the same, and one whose solution I confirmed more times than I care to recount: It is possible to step in the same ant hill twice.


Works Cited

Chuang Tzu, The Inner Chapters (Burton Watson trans. Columbia 1996)
Thomas, D. et. al. “A Small Dark Cloud” (Rough Trade 1979)
Maturana, H. R. and F. J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Shambhala 1992)
Williams, M., Wittgenstein, Mind, and Meaning: Towards a Social Conception of Mind (Routledge 2002)
Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations (Wiley-Blackwell 1991)
Wittgenstein, L., Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics (MIT Press 1983)


CurtisFranksDr. Curtis Franks is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, studying the history and philosophy of mathematics and logic.