Commentaries, Contemplation

On Quentin Meillassoux: Speculative Realism and the Necessity of Contingency

Today, I would like to talk about Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude (2008) and the contemporary philosophical movement known as “Speculative Realism” (SR). SR is very alive today which has already influenced a wide variety of disciplines such as epistemology, ontology, literary theory, eco-criticism, post-humanism and many more. In addition to Quentin Meillassoux, there are many others who are doing serious theoretical work in this field: Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, Steven Shaviro, Martin Hagglund, and Adrian Johnston. A good introductory book to SR is The Speculative Turn which features many essays by these scholars along with a few others like Slavoj Zizek. Another good book is The Universe of Things (2014) by Steven Shaviro. And for those who are more literary minded, in 2011, Meillassoux published an interpretation of Stephane Mallarme’s famous poem, “The Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance” .

Although Meillassoux is a pretty good writer (even in English translation), the ambitious ideas that he presents are not easy to understand. I strongly suggest you to read After Finitude on your own. If not, here is a chewed up version casually written by me (I have also written about Meillassoux in the past). In order to understand the contemporary debates around what it means to “speculate reality”, one must understand some of the classical debates in philosophy and the problems in the ways which humans engages with the Cosmos.

For those who are new, one could think of philosophy as a discipline that attempts to explain “common sense”. Philosophers are similar to physicists who explain things that are already apparent (i.e. a physicist seeks to explain space-time which are experiences humans already inhabit). The difference is that, while a physicist seeks to understand the defining laws of Nature and Cosmos, the philosopher will investigate the conditions which allows for the physicist to experience these laws and achieve various degrees of knowledge (i.e. a physicist can make these claims because of their own consciousness as they engage with the appearances of things they see). We will gradually get a better understanding of this as we move along.

Rationalism and Empiricism

Perhaps the two biggest names that surrounds rational and empirical philosophy is Rene Descartes and John Locke, who both had opposing views on how humans achieve knowledge. Descartes was a rationalist who used the famous wax argument to show that knowledge achieved through reason is the most certain. Through his sensory experience (sight, smell, touch, etc.), Descartes observes how a piece of solid wax melts as he places it in front of fire. Our sensory experience of the wax shifts as it melts. Yet, through deductive reasoning, we are aware that the liquid wax comes from its solid form before it melted. Descartes realized that his senses of the world can deceive him, like how the piece of wax revealed to him that it was a solid object until it melted into liquid. In the same way, my observation tells me that there is a puddle of water in front of the road as I drive my car in the hot weather, even when there is nothing as I approach it. Descartes concluded that his rational mind was foundational to establishing a knowledge that was absolutely certain. This rational knowledge is what he calls, “a priori”. For Descartes, mathematics is an excellent example of a priori knowledge.

Furthermore, Descartes also established the “Casual Adequacy Principle” which asserts that the causes of an object is as real as the object itself. A classic Cartesian example is: a stone, which previously did not exist, cannot begin to exist unless it is produced by something which contains, either formally or eminently everything to be found in the stone. Without going into detail of the logical games, Descartes uses this argument to justify the preconception of God within humans.

On the other hand, Locke argued against Descartes by saying that we are not born with the preconception of God, but as a blank slate (famously known as the “tabula rasa”). Locke asserts that it is through sensory experience where we first learn to be rational, i.e. our observation that the solid wax could melt into liquid through heat. In opposition to Descartes, Locke thinks that all knowledge and ideas are based on our sensory experiences known as “a posteriori”; a form of knowledge that can only be acquired through our sensory experiences. If I want to find out whether a rabbit is a mammal or not, I will have to go and catch one to determine the conclusions through my senses. The popular dispute between Descartes (rationalist) and Locke (empiricist) is a debate between how humans achieves certainty of knowledge about the Nature of our Cosmos.

David Hume’s Problem on Induction and Causality

David Hume was an atheist renown for his skepticism on induction and causation. Summarized by Quentin Meillassoux, Hume’s principle question is: “Can one establish that in identical circumstances, future successions of phenomena will always be identical to previous successions?” (After Finitude Ch. 4). Hume’s answer to this question is that, causality is reduced to the subject’s inductive relationship with their past experiences. The easiest way to understand this is to look at the issues with inductive logic:

The deductive formula of Modus Ponens (MP) states: “A—>B, A therefore B”. In this formula, we can substitute anything with the letters and it would always make logical sense. A simple example might be, A: “It is raining” —> B: “the roads are wet”; “it is raining therefore the roads are wet” (A therefore B). Inversely, inductive reasoning reverses MP: “A—>B, B therefore A”. In this scenario, we come to a different conclusion: “the roads are wet therefore it is raining” (B therefore A). Here, we infer the causation based on past experiences that rain causes wet roads. Thus, every time it rains, the roads will be wet. The problem with induction is that, just because the roads are wet does not always mean it is raining (someone could be cleaning the roads, etc.).

An inductive argument is based on probability. If one can observe that the road is wet every time it rains, it must be a universal law that the wet road is always caused by rain. This type of logic is commonly seen in “scientific surveys” (or even scientific theories): if 20 000 people shows that Y is true, then it must merit the certainty of knowledge. But just because X amount of people shows that Y is true does not mean that it is true for everyone, nor can it be used to predict the future (see, replication crisis). The issues found within induction is the problem of predicting the future. Just because past experience tells us that we get an egg yolk out of every egg we break does not mean that the next egg will not consist of two or three yolks.

To situate this into an even bigger picture, just because something consistently happens in the same way throughout the Cosmos does not mean it will continue to do so in the future. And what causes something to occur in one instance may not be the cause of it in another. On one hand, no matter how I deduce the egg via a priori and predict whether it consists of one or two yolks, I would never be able to predict its outcome unless I physically crack the egg and observe it via a posteriori. But on the other hand, no matter how much I rely on my past a posteriori experience of egg breaking, I would not be able to predict whether the next egg consists of one or more yolks. These are the basics of the famous “Hume’s problem”.

Immanuel Kant’s Transcendental Philosophy and the Copernicus Revolution

“Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this pre-supposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get further with the problem of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition, which would agree better with the requested possibility of an a priori cognition of them, which is to establish something about objects before they are given to us.” (Critique of Pure Reason, Preface)

Kant famously regarded Hume as the one who woke him up from his “dogmatic slumber”, and ends up taking up a lot of his ideas while trying to salvage the necessity of causality. Basically, Kant revisited Descartes and Locke where he saw that they are only half correct. Descartes went overboard by focusing solely on logical a priori systems and ignoring observations. One can make mathematical arguments that has nothing to do with our observed empirical world. Locke did the same by focusing on observational a posteriori systems. While simple sensory observations can explain simple math, it cannot explain why one drop of water plus one drop of water only makes one drop of water.

Kant was a half rationalist and half empiricist who caused a “Copernicus revolution” in philosophy. Many philosophers before Kant thought that knowledge was centered around the universe and its objects, which allowed humans to understand its “natural laws” (something Hume thought was problematic). For Kant, instead of placing the universe at the center of knowledge, he places the conscious mind. It is our minds which creates a synthetic structure of knowledge that allows us to see the necessary laws of the universe. For Kant, our thoughts on the necessity of causality is not the knowledge about things in itself, but of how things appear to us through our cognitive faculties (phenomena). In other words, the causality that Hume is critical of is experienced by the subject through the appearances of stable phenomena found in Nature and Cosmos.

Kant’s view holds that, humans as conscious subjects can only experience the phenomena of reality as they appear before us through our perceptions, but never the actual properties and the objects in itself (noumena). We can only experience the universe from a first person point of view, and we can never know the “thing in itself” within objects (the absolute properties of an object; i.e. the Cosmos “as such”). I can never know any object in itself because I am never the chair, the table, I am never your consciousness, etc. I can understand the object in itself by creating complex synthetic concepts such as the notions of causality. But I can only do so through my mind in relationship with these appearances of objects that exists in reality. As a result, this leaves a “gap” in our knowledge between what we can know about the universe as a subject, and the universe in itself as object, which can never be completely known. By saying that X object consist of Y properties via synthetic concepts, one is idealizing the universe. This gesture is famously known as transcendental idealism. A good example of transcendental idealism is mathematics, where we idealize the object in itself (i.e. universe) as math.

The point I wish to make is to show how enlightenment philosophy of Kant suggests the idea that human subjectivity cannot know anything in itself. This correlation between human and synthetic concepts that are used to represent the world and Cosmos has been the dominant mode of thinking ever since. The most common form of synthetic concept humans use to represent the world is language, which had been the subject of study throughout most of 20th century—it is often known as, “the linguistic turn” .

Quentin Meillassoux: The Necessity of Contingency, “Chaosmos”, and Ptolemy’s Revenge

This relationship between human and Cosmos, is what Meillassoux refers as “correlationism”. Humans can only establish a correlation with the world through representational structures, but never can they access the in itself. But if one can only experience the world from their own perspective and understand it through synthetic categories via languages, then what is reality “as such”? This is part of what a speculative realist attempts to answer. It is also here, as what pertains to this “real”, where Meillassoux intervenes the discourses of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and 20th century philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas. Meillassoux does so by asking the question: what if human thought does not require any justification of causality as necessity?

Kant attempts to save the necessity of causality (and thereby saving the causality of “thought” and consciousness) by justifying that it depends on the stability of phenomena as humans experiences them through their perceptions. For example, the consistent occurrence of the phenomena of sunrise and sunset reinforces the idea that there is something which causes these experiences (that the Earth spins and rotates around the Sun). For Kant, our cognitive perceptions of Nature (i.e. sunrise and sunset) not only shows us that there are stable principles which governs these experiences, they are also necessary in order for Nature to function (i.e. life on Earth; or Earth’s rotation around the sun is governed by the laws of physics, etc.).

Meillassoux intervenes this correlationist argument by saying that Kant is only concerned with human thought and its reason for the necessity of causality, i.e. it is necessary to explain the cause of sunrise and sunset because it is important for science, humanity, etc., even when there are no reasons that can explain the first principles of our perceptions of causality that we observe in Nature. This non-reason is what Kant refers as “facticity”, and what Meillassoux radicalizes into the “principle of factiality” which denotes the idea that everything is other than what it already is via the lack of reason. For Meillassoux, a physicist can understand the principles which explains our stable experiences of space-time and the laws of our Cosmos, but they cannot explain the reason for their necessity because these occurrences are purely contingent. Instead of saying, “everything in the Cosmos happens for a reason” (because they are governed by necessary laws), Meillassoux attempts to say, “everything in the Cosmos happens by chance”. Or as Sigmund Freud would say, it is by “accident” that there is intelligent life on Earth.

The point (I think) Meillassoux wishes to show is that, when a correlationist denies of knowing anything in itself, they must have already accepted the fact that it is possible that the in itself can be anything other than the synthetic concepts they are conceiving of. In other words, the correlationist must have already accepted the necessity of contingency, which is the gist of Meillassoux’s argument. To say something is not something is to suggest the possibility of it being something else. The thought of the necessity of contingency is independent of correlationism because if possibility did not already exist, then the correlationist thought of “X is not Y” would not have occurred in the first place. While one can never know whether the in itself is identical to the synthetic structures that humans create to represent it, what a correlationist knows is that there is a possibility this might happen through their own thought.

For Meillassoux, thought does not require the necessity of causality, the latter which allows us to study the causes of thought and consciousness (and in turn, grants us the ability to establish a science, philosophy, phenomenology, psychology, etc.). Instead, thought allows us to think of the possibilities that correlationists believe are necessary, such as causality. It may appear difficult to conceive of what Meillassoux is trying to say because we are always caught within correlationism that he is arguing against (this is why he introduces a term called “ancestrality”—something that I decided to leave out in this post). The thought of possibility is to engage with the absolute real which allows for necessity of causality “as such”. What is possible isn’t something that happens in correlation between humans and reality vis-a-vis Kant. Possibility expresses the lack of reason that is inherent within thought and the things in it self. This is why Meillassoux argues that it had always been possible for humans to conceive of the in it self which is independent of the Kantian human correlation with the world. The reasons being first, the Cosmos consists of pure contingency; and second, contingency and non-reason (the principle of factiality) allows the correlationist to think beyond their own correlationism.

This contingent movement of the Cosmos is what Meillassoux refer as “Chaos”, or “Chaosmos” which suggests the idea that laws within the Cosmos can change without any reason. Meillassoux’s doctrine highlights a paradoxical question: how can the laws of the Cosmos / Nature be contingent while appearing to be consistent and stable? No doubt, science relies on the consistencies of these phenomena to establish its discourse—even Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution relies on the consistency of Nature (yet it also relies on chance and the phenomena of gene mutation). Nevertheless, Meillassoux foresaw how the frequentialists would argue that the Cosmos is stable and not contingent. Thus, he goes into great detail by counter-arguing them through Georg Cantor’s set theory and suggests that contingency occurs outside of mathematical probability—something that I will leave for another time.

What Meillassoux appears to be suggesting is to not only challenge Kant’s attempts at salvaging the necessity for causality by claiming it as mere fiction, but to reverse his “Copernicus revolution” by metaphorically referring back to Claudius Ptolemy in his final chapter titled, “Ptolemy’s Revenge” (Ch. 5). Ptolemy is the astronomer who claimed that the Earth was the center of the universe until Nicolaus Copernicus’s heliocentrism. Certainly, After Finitude is only the beginning of Meillassoux’s thoughts, for we must also wait for his next book called, L’ Inexistence Divine, which is his unpublished PhD dissertation (unless you can read French, then you might have to wait longer for English translation). Regardless, where Kant thinks one can never know anything in itself, Meillassoux thinks that humans always had the capacity to think of the absolute in itself which functions as the necessity of contingency. Meillassoux ends his book by writing:

“No doubt the question remains obscure in the formulation. But our goal here was not to take this resolution as such. Our only aim has been to try to convince the reader not only that it is possible to rediscover thought’s absolutizing scope, but that it is urgent that we do so, given the extent to which the divorce between science’s Copernicanism and philosophy’s Ptolemaism has become abyssal, regardless of all those denials that serve only to perpetuate this schism. If Hume’s problem woke Kant from his dogmatic slumber, we can only hope that the problem of ancestrality succeeds in waking us from our correlationist slumber, by enjoining us to reconcile thought and absolute.

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