3 August 2008

Rolling the Dice-Universe

Filed under: Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 12:19 pm

My prior post on After Finitude looked at Meillassoux’s agenda for revivifying realism within continental philosophy. He wants to establish a basis for asserting the “facticity” of the world – its existence as an absolute independent of what and how people think about it:

We must grasp in facticity not the inaccessibility of the absolute but the unveiling of the in-itself and the eternal property of what is, as opposed to the mark of perennial deficiency in the thought of what is. (p. 52)

Prior rationales for the world’s facticity have relied either on God’s vouchsafing the truth of the world’s existence (Descartes) or on the reality of the world being structured in such a way that humans are able to perceive and to understand it (Kant). Both of these arguments ultimately rely on the world’s accessibility to human thought, on its intrinsic reasonableness. It’s a small step then to assert that there is a reason for the world’s reasonableness; i.e., of all the possible universes that could have come into existence, it’s hard to believe that chance alone would have generated one that is intrinsically comprehensible regardless of the minds doing the comprehending. Even more improbably, the universe retains its comprehensibility: the principles on which it is organized remain stable, effects predictably following causes rather than events randomly occurring or cause-effect relatonships changing capriciously from eon to eon or even from moment to moment. All this consistent reasonableness seems to imply that the universe came into being in such a way as to present itself to minds like ours; i.e., that the universe itself is contingent on sentience, such that sentience can only emerge in a universe where sentience “works.”

In other words, it is not absolutely necessary that causality governs all things, but if consciousness exists, then this can only be because there is a causality that necessarily governs phenomena. (p. 89)

At this point metaphysics throws up its hands. If the universe operates according to causal necessity, we can never know why this extremely unlikely possibility turned out to be the case. Meillassoux has no answer to this “why” question either. What he wants to question is the line of reasoning which suggests that a reason must be found. He does so by critiquing the improbability hypothesis; i.e., the idea that, among the vast number of a priori possibilities, a universe operating on the basis of stable cause-effect relationships would have been the one to manifest itself.

The idea that there is some underlying reason why, despite impossibly long odds, we live in a stable understandable universe is what Meillassoux calls the “necessitarian inference.”

The implicit principle governing the necessitarian inference now becomes clear: the latter proceeds by extending the probabilistic reasoning which the gambler applied to an event that is internal to our universe (the throw of the dice and its result), to the universe as such. This reasoning can be reconstructed as follows: I construe our own physical universe as one among an immense number of conceivable (i.e. non-contradictory) universes each governed by different sets of physical laws… Thus, I mentally construct a ‘dice-universe’ which I identify with the Universe of all universes, bound globally by the principle of non-contradiction alone, each face of which constitutes a single universe governed by a determinate set of physical laws. Then, for any situation given in experience, I roll these dice in my mind (I envisage all the conceivable consequences of this event), yet in the end, I find that the same result (given the same circumstances) always occurs; the dice-universe always lands with the face representing ‘my’ universe up. (p. 97)

Meillassoux’s critique of this hypothesized dice-universe is three-fold. First and all-too-briefly, Meillassoux (following Jean-René Vernes) contends that the whole logic of narrowing down from a priori possibilities to a single actuality is itself a product of human thought. In fact, the only real and absolute a priori is the universe as it is. The potentially limitless number of possibilities from which the actual emerged are actually the products of human imagination, contingent on the a priori fact that the really existing universe generated beings with the ability to imagine the nonexistent. There is no intrinsic reason to assert even the hypothetical reality of possibilities preceeding the actual.

Second, Meillassoux observes that, even if these a priori possibilities were real, the logic of statistical improbability doesn’t apply. Calculating the probability of an event’s occurrence depends on the ability to enumerate the possibilities; e.g., the chances of rolling a die and getting a 3 is one in six because we know a priori that the die has six sides, only one of which displays 3 pips. But what if someone rolls a die and you don’t know how many sides it has? Or what if, instead of turning up one of its sides, a rolled die transforms itself into a bird and flies away, or splits itself into two dice? In that sort of crap game all bets are off. It’s not possible to quantify, even theoretically, the universe of all the possibities of which the actual universe is an element or a subset. The possibilities may be infinite and inconceivable, or they may be zero. Therefore, says Meillassoux, statistical reasoning can’t legitimately be applied to the problem.

Third, just because we can presumably enumerate the universe of possibilities a priori doesn’t mean that each possibility is equally likely. E.g., suppose you roll a 6-sided die and it turns up a 3 ten times in a row, or a hundred times, or a million times. On grounds of pure chance this outcome is almost infinitesimally unlikely, suggesting that some other principle is at work causing the die to turn up 3 over and over again. But if we’re playing with a loaded die, the other five sides never come up because they can’t – they’re hypothetical possibilities that can never actualize themselves. As Meillassoux observes, chance itself is nothing other than a certain type of physical law (p. 99).



  1. The idea that the universal possibilities cannot be enumerated a priori is I think a critique of a particular version of immanence. It’s proposed that the current state of a system contains within itself a multitude of potentialities, collectively constituting a host of virtual future states of that system. Which of these virtual realities becomes actualized is a function of chance, adaptability, intersection with some other system, some sort of agency, etc. But to presume that future possibilities already inhere in the present state of affairs seems awfully deterministic, as if all possible future universes already exist virtually in the present universe. We could take this line of reasoning back in time, suggesting that early hominids contained within themselves the potential to become movie directors or corporate attorneys. I suppose it’s true, but only retrospectively, after movie directors and corporate attorneys have already appeared on the scene. And how far back can this reasoning go — did the early human ancestor that crawled out of the sea already have the potential to become human, to become a movie director, etc.?

    Also, think about a virus: does it contain within itself all the potential future mutations it might undergo depending on which particular environmental circumstances it might encounter? If so, then the range of future potentialities far exceeds the genetic complexity of the present organism itself.

    So I think Meillassoux is right in his critique of the relationship between the current state of a system and its range of possible future states. His reasoning with respect to the uncountability of the range of possibilities comes from Badiou, for whom the current state is inchoate multiplicity without enumerability. This irreducible multiplicity leaves the future open to true emergence of the event — immanent in the a priori situation but still unthinkable until after the event has already happened. I think I agree with this point of view.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 August 2008 @ 12:54 am

  2. As usual, I am intrigued by your intro to an interesting problem and I find myself wondering which out of the infinitude of possible future arguments you are going to chance upon deciding to explore as we go along…

    I’m not sure that I get the point. Is this a way to escape from a reasonable universe becoming too deterministic, and thus denying a place for “event”?

    Probability-statistics is always based on the study of a past series or sequence. This is true even for scientific experiments. The fact that there is an x “probability” does not imply that in the next n instances y will happen x number of times. Whether this makes chance something real or not is another question. Then you have all that wonderful stuff being explored in chaos theory.

    On the other hand, I do agree that facticity is important. Whatever one imagines about the presence or absence of immanence or of the makeup of reality, eventually the truth should out and that is what each of us should be interested in connecting with whether it agrees with our preconceived world of possibilities or not. How we are going to actually find out is another matter altogether.

    But then most probably I just don’t get it!


    Comment by samlcarr — 4 August 2008 @ 3:27 am

  3. I can see how you’d feel like you’re missing something, Sam, inasmuch as I’ve started at the back of Meillassoux’s book and tried to work my way forward. It’s a short and clearly-written book but densely packed, so it’s hard to summarize ideas more concisely than they’ve already been stated by the author. And I’ve barely touched on the “arche-fossil,” which is what seems to capture the imagination of most commenters I’ve read. So maybe introducing that idea will help.

    Meillassoux says that all continental philosophy since Kant has emphasized that man has no direct access to the world as it is in itself, independent of how it presents itself to human perception and cognition. Meillassoux wants to reverse this trend. To do so he asks the reader to think about what it would mean to talk about the world before sentient beings ever appeared on the planet. Science claims to have developed methods for exploring this “arche-fossil” earth, and to have developed knowledge about the pre-human world. Are the scientists just projecting their own contemporary perceptions and methods back in time, so that they’re still only talking about a sort of conceptual extension of the present scientific zeitgeist? Or does science really generate knowledge about the world beyond human experience? This question comes up in Christian discussions about evolution, the big bang, etc.; i.e., isn’t science too bound up with theory, ideology, etc. to provide a reliable alternative to revelation? In this regard the post-evangelicals find common ground with continental postmodern types who want to combat the hegemonic metanarrative of empirical science. Meillassoux wants to provide metaphysical support for empiricism.

    Part of the continental philosophical argument against absolute scientific knowledge is the oh-so-convenient observation that the kinds of regularities scientists discover in nature — cause-effect, empirical laws, etc. — just happen to be structured in a way that human minds are able to grasp. In cosmological discussions this coincidence serves as the basis for the “anthropic principle,” discussed at some length by Ivan’s hero Paul Davies. For Descartes, the reason scientists can understand nature is that God, who made a comprehensible world, isn’t the sort of “evil genius” who would plant false clues in the world or false consciousnesses in human minds. For Kant, the human mind is innately equipped with certain structures and processes that correspond to the world itself. This innate human capacity for understanding the world suggests a couple things. First, the world turned out the way it did, seemingly against great odds relative to all possible worlds, in order that man might understand it. Second, because the world and the human mind are structured the same as each other, knowledge of the world is inextricable from human self-knowledge. Hegel ran with these Kantian ideas big-time, and they continue to dominate continental theories of structuralism, where e.g. language is a self-contained interpersonal system with indeterminate and perhaps negligible connection with the world it purports to describe.

    So, returning to the point of this post, Meillassoux is trying to offer reasons why the universe isn’t necessarily such a special place, conveniently adapted for human understanding. It’s not just that we don’t understand the reason why the universe turned out this wasy against such long odds — it’s that there is no reason. “No reason” isn’t just an agnostic throwing up of one’s hands: it is a legitimate answer to the question. The universe just is; to assert that it could have been otherwise is to take probabilistic reasoning, which is a tool for understanding the universe we live in, and extrapolate it to the universe of all possible universes. But, says Meillassoux, this is an error, for the reasons I outlined in the post.

    Now I find the idea of unknowable and uncountable possibilities interesting for other reasons, which is the basis for my comment on my own post. But, back to Meillassoux and your comment…

    “The fact that there is an x “probability” does not imply that in the next n instances y will happen x number of times.”

    So you say, but in our range of experience the probability distributions of the physical (non-human) universe seem to remain fixed and invariant. Why is this? Did God make it turn out this way so we could understand it? One could make an evolutionary argument: humans have evolved the ability to detect consistent laws and distributions because it’s adaptive to act as if the world wasn’t suddenly going to change in unpredictable ways. If our understanding of the world is entirely contingent on human perceptual-cognitive abilities, then it’s conceivable that the world might be wholly other than the way we understand it. E.g., if our understandings rely on consistency of cause and effect, the world might actually be random and chaotic. But wouldn’t we notice it? E.g., if from time to time the force of gravity doubled, or reversed itself, or disappeared altogether, wouldn’t we have noticed? I.e., the regularities in the universe’s operation seem to be intrinsic to the universe itself, even if understanding these regularities is contingent on distinctly human modes of understanding.

    I don’t know if I’m clarifying things or muddying the waters further, so I’ll stop for now.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 August 2008 @ 9:27 am

  4. I’d think that one possibility that needs to be seriously considered is that science itself is too young and cocky both to introspect properly and to step outside of its own favourite paradigms and think in new ways. I recall you had something in your sidebar a while back on how flounders (and such) may have evolved and that scientist’s own comment that our imaginations had been collectively shackled. I believe that this is something in scientific epistemology and in methodology too that simply is not given enough cognizance. I got into seriously wondering about such stuff after reading some of Kuhn who generally studied the issue of ruling and competing paradigms.

    Another area that should bring us pause is that as we have delved into genomics it has become rather obvious that form and phylogeny are not as plainly interlinked as we had thought and assumed for the last few centuries now. The genome’s ability to be flexible and to recreate or branch off in unexpected ways is something that a more Mendelian approach had never seriously considered possible.

    On why the human mind seem able to connect with ‘reality’ I’ve always thought as a good evolutionist that it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing. We are supposed to have evolved, after all, and that is a process of continuous refinement and and interaction where even as far as the human brain is concerned, one would assume that being able to connect, understand, explore, hypothesize, test, etc. are part of our built-in and now innate abilities. Anything unrealistic would have proved to have a lesser survival value, less fitness, and this has had its consequences in fine tuning us to be open to and observant of what is ‘real’, in a survival sense at least.


    Comment by samlcarr — 5 August 2008 @ 12:47 am

  5. “science itself is too young and cocky”

    I presume, Sam, that you’re referring to the burgeoning of empirical science dating to the Enlightenment, which is about 400 years old now. Part of the point of scientific method is to get the self-centered cockiness out of the way; e.g., the idea that the sun revolves around the earth because that’s how it looks to me. Sometimes this approach supports theological reasoning; e.g., the sun seems like a more perfect thing than is the earth, the laws of nature reinforce the idea of a systematic and constant God.

    Kuhn’s position is that an existing paradigm become ripe for change when it’s not robust enough to account for seemingly anomalous findings that don’t fit the model. Rather than deny the evidence, the scientists have to rethink the model. If a new paradigm can handle the anomalies while continuing to account for the data for which the old paradigm was adequate, then progress in knowledge is asserted. This seems like sound empirical practice even within “normal” science, which as Popper and others have pointed out is a more theoretical undertaking than Kuhn’s “puzzle-solving” caricature would have us believe. I.e., science is never just raw observation and accumulation of data; it’s an attempt to understand principles and laws and so on that make sense of the data. Not only that, but the principles and laws “open one’s eyes,” so to speak, for kinds of phenomena that had previously eluded us because we weren’t prepared to look for it or to recognize it.

    In this regard science is always young, and so it ought to be: it’s always prepared to tweak or even to overthrow old established theories that don’t work very well if something demonstrably better is put forward. Granted that there are conservative sociological forces that keep old paradigms in play longer than is justified, and that occasionally an alternative paradigm becomes popular for reasons other than better fit with empirical findings. However, in theory and in general practice this is how science works.

    Certainly scientific knowledge is bound up with human perception and cognition. What Meillassoux wants philosophy to acknowledge that the scientific enterprise is designed to abstract knowledge away from the human scientist, and that it does so as a matter of ordinary practice. It’s a cup that’s half full and getting fuller, rather than a cup that’s empty and must remain so. What the speculative realist’s job is, says Meillassoux, is to provide theoretical underpinnings for the filling of the cup that scientists actually succeed in doing.

    I have to go, but I’ll return. I may post something more about probabilistic thinking.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 August 2008 @ 8:04 am

  6. …briefly, though, Meillassoux’s discussion of probability isn’t so much about observably probabilistic laws of this universe like quantum mechanics, but rather the hypothetical probabilities that generated those specific mechanistic laws of this universe rather than some other mechanistic laws. E.g., why these specific gravitational constants, why this particular ratio between strong and weak forces, rather than some others from among the vast array of possibilities? And why are the constants so evidently constant for vast stretches of time and space, rather than changing dramatically and randomly from time to time, or every day for that matter? It’s this hypothetical meta-universal use of probabilistic reasoning to which M. objects, rather than probabilistic models for accounting for empirical observations within this really existing universe.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 August 2008 @ 8:36 am

  7. Perhaps PoMo European philosophers are guilty as accused, but for the most part I have a feeling that it is a bit of a straw man sort of argument. I guess some of the extremes in physics are also probably being targeted for getting altogether too philosophical in their approach – viz Davies – but I am reminded now that in the old relativity vs. quantum mechanics debate, again very often it seemed more of a theologicophilosophical one than really about ‘hard’ science.

    Kuhn’s critique was that all too often the ruling paradigm takes on a dogmatic colour and scientists are loath to allow rival paradigms to stake a claim, preferring precisely to keep tweaking rather than being willing to throw the baby out with the bath water…


    Comment by samlcarr — 5 August 2008 @ 9:45 am

  8. Regarding the process of hanging onto the existing paradigm, surely there’s resistance to change on the part of people who’ve made their names in the “old school,” and often the old guard controls the field of inquiry, access to journals, etc. On the other hand, the “game” of science runs on the basis of challenging the existing paradigm and trying to knock it off its pedestal. Whoever successfully does so stands to attain far more glory than someone who repeatedly defends the status quo. People like to claim revolutionary status for what on closer inspection proves to be more of a tweak.

    There’s also a conservatism built into the method which prevent willy-nilly paradigm changes. In much empirical psychology, for example, a researcher tests the validity of a new idea by seeing whether the empirical findings more closely match the new idea or the old one. In the method the older established theory is given the edge — kind of like “innocent until proven guilty” in law courts. The old theory is presumed innocent and the new theory has to prove itself “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” which in psych research means 5% or less likelihood that the old theory is supported by the new data. If enough studies supporting the new theory knock the old theory down on the 5% probability criteria, the new paradigm begins to supplant the old one. Then the new paradigm becomes the champion and must be knocked off by ever-newer paradigms playing the same game.

    In other words, the methodology supports the old paradigm because it has in effect earned its right to be champion not on a single fight but on a whole lot of fights. One knockout by an upstart isn’t enough to dethrone the champ, nor is there an official cutoff when the challenger deserves to be crowned. Nor is there a panel of experts which decides: it’s more a matter of the weight of opinion gradually shifting. The test is based on empirical findings, but deciding whether the cumulative weight of the evidence is enough remains a judgment call.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 August 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  9. If we start delving into what being scientific is all about we probably will get quite far afield from what it is that Meillassoux’s really on about. The main point I would make about present day science is that there is a distinct lack of ability to discern the difference between theory and fact. Most scientific stuff is still theory and as such should not be treated as though it has become accepted as fact. If that humility and actually proper scientific approach takes hold it will be all the better for science.

    Without being able to enumerate and explore the possible, how does Meillassoux expect the scientific process of theorization to actually proceed? The problem is acute enough when talking about the past (origins and such) but becomes really urgent when considering the future.


    Comment by samlcarr — 6 August 2008 @ 3:53 am

  10. “Most scientific stuff is still theory and as such should not be treated as though it has become accepted as fact.”

    What would count as a scientific fact, Sam? Is it something you can experience through the senses? Then there can never be scientific knowledge about what can never be directly experienced; e.g., the appearance of life before man existed to observe it, the formation of the universe, etc. For that matter, much of what exists in the here and now cannot be experienced directly; e.g., stuff at the subatomic and intergalactic levels. Then again, if science can only stake knowledge claims to directly perceivable objects, then its knowledge is fatally intermingled with the human ability to sense and perceive it. And because sensation and perception always intervenes between the observer and the thing observed, scientists can never have anything about which it has direct experience. So every scientific truth claim becomes irreconcilably compromised. This is the philosophical trajectory since Kant, what M. refers to as “the correlation” between knowledge and human thought. It’s what Meillassoux wants to push back against.

    Even in the everyday realm of human experience, science doesn’t limit itself to recording observations. There’s always the attempt to account for the observations via theory. So we can observe trees falling from apples but we can never observe gravity. Gravity as a force, gravitational constants by which gravity functions in a regular and predictable law-like way: this is always a matter of theory accounting for evidence. So is gravity a fact? Not really, nor can it ever be. And it turns out that theories of gravity do change, even to the point of radical paradigm shifts. The theoretical shifts are prompted by phenomena outside the range of ordinary human experience, at the subatomic and galactic levels of observation, which are always only indirectly apprehended.

    These dual contentions — that science can only talk about what humans experience directly, that theory is false knowledge because it’s the product of human thought — are the bind that Meillassoux wants to work his way out of. If science can only know that of which we have direct experience, then scientific knowledge is inextricably linked to how the world presents itself to human perception. However, if the world’s presentation is the basis for scientific knowledge-so-called, then it becomes impossible for science to make any claims about a world that existed before there were any humans to which it could present itself. And if all experience of the world is mediated by perception and thought, then all scientific knowledge becomes illusory. This becomes the arrogance of the philosopher, who claims to know what scientists are really doing even better than working scientists themselves do.

    For the more science has exhibited thought’s actual capacity to probe ever more deeply into a world anterior to all humanity, the more ‘serious’ philosophy has exacerbated the correlational Ptolemaism inaugurated by Kant, continually tightening the ambit of the correlation while ascribing to this increasingly constrictive realm the true meaning of the ever expanding domain of scientific knowledge. While the ‘man of science’ has intensified the decentring due to scientific knowledge by uncovering diachronic (outside of the human historical era) occurrences of increasingly ancient provenance, ‘the man of philosophy’ has been narrowing the ambit of the correlation towards an originally finite ‘being-in-the-world’, or an epoch of Being, or a linguistic community; which is to say, an ever narrower ‘zone’, terrain, or habitat, but one of which the philosopher remains lord and master by virtue of the alleged singularity of his specific brand of knowledge. While the Copernican revolution has revealed its full extent, philosophers have accentuated their own pseudo-Copernican counter-revolution, remorselessly exposing the metaphysical naivety of their predecessors by contracting the bounds of knowledge ever more stringently within the limits of humanity’s present situation. And so it is that philosophers today vie with one another in terms of Ptolemaic narrowness while hoping to unveil the genuine meaning of a Copernican decentring whose scope has never seemed so vast or blindingly evident as it is now. How did we arrive at this state of affairs? What happened in philosophy after Kant to render philosophers — and only them, it seems — incapable of understanding science’s Copernican revolution as a genuine Copernican revolution? (p. 121)

    So, evolutionary theory extends back in time to what M. calls the “arche-fossil” — the world before humans. The arche-fossil can by definition only be indirectly experienced and apprehended by humans, putting it out of the realm of empirically experienced fact. Can scientists stake truth claims about the arche-fossil, or must all such claims be prevaricated by saying that the scientists are mentally projecting themselves back in time to a world they can imagine themselves experiencing? That, says M., seems silly, and it merely extends the purportedly inextricable confound of science with human perception that affects even the here-and-now world. What philosophy needs to do is to explain how it is that science is able to obtain valid knowledge about the arche-fossil without this sophistical imaginary time-travel rationale. This is what M. proposes as the scope of work for “speculative realism” in philosophy: coming up with a way of understanding the kind of decentered knowledge that scientists generate every day.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2008 @ 6:03 am

  11. Like you, I’m skeptical of M’s reluctance to explore unactualized possibilities. I think what he has in mind is the idea that the sheer unlikelihood that this particular universe came into existence points back toward some metaphysical reason behind the universe. E.g., the set of mathematical constants underlying our universe are set the way they are in order that the universe would invariably produce sentient life forms who would inevitably either (a) come to know their Creator or (b) give full manifestation of the Universe’s immanent drive toward self-understanding. But science explores the field of possibilities to look for reasons that aren’t metaphysical but scientific. E.g., the question of why sentient life forms evolved can be explored by looking at all the rest of the known life forms and trying to infer what happened differently. The “why” questions are answered within the context of the material universe itself, and within the frame of scientific discourse. As you note, Sam, imagining the unrealized possibilities helps science explore alternative hyptheses. Observation thought about imaginatively is intrinsic to the scientific process.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2008 @ 8:41 am

  12. In response to an email I wrote this further clarification of Meillassoux’s book:

    Meillassoux goes back before Husserl et al. to “Hume’s problem”: if what we call the laws of nature are merely human constructs about how we perceive the world and not descriptions of the world itself, how do we know that the operation of the world won’t suddenly change drastically from one moment to the next? I.e., if natural laws are really just our ideas about our perceptions of the world, then these laws are really about our perceptions and cognitions and not about the world. Or conversely, if all we can know of the world is how things appear to us and not the essence of things themselves, how do we know that, even if the appearance of something stays constant, its essence hasn’t changed? I.e., if natural laws are really just our ideas about our perceptions of the world, then these laws are really about our perceptions and cognitions and not about the world. This gets to the basic question: how do we know that the appearance has anything whatsoever to do with the real? Meillassoux traces philosophical responses to Hume’s problem through Hume’s solipsistic empiricism, Descartes’ rationalism and Kant’s transcendentalism — this is the legacy that modern continental epistemology follows.

    Meillasoux wants to put together an argument about the validity of empirical knowledge of the world that doesn’t rely on some form of transcendental presuppositions — either Descartes’ non-trickster God or Kant’s innate mental categories that correspond to the categories built into the world itself. Meillassoux wants to set aside the idea of cause as reason: that the world and humanity fit together so nicely because (as in Molinism) some transcendent force caused this one possibility to materialize from all the innumerable alternatives.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 August 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  13. I’m surely missing something here but your understanding of Meillassoux’s appropriation of Hume’s problem strikes me as wholly unfamiliar. Meillassoux utilises Hume’s problem not in order to recapitulate the history of the sceptic’s challenge to the possibility of knowledge but, on the contrary, to make skepticism itself the only instance of a purely absolute knowledge. As he puts it later on in the book, Hume’s principal error (and later, Kant’s) consisted in identifying our inability to divine a reason for the consistency of natural law as a deficiency in thought rather than a simple fact of being. Meillassoux wants to acknowledge this truth of the necessity of contingency and then discover the possibility of knowledge through that fundamental discovery. In AF, of course, he derives the principle of non-contradiction (or at least non-inconsistency) and provides a solution to Leibniz’s question based purely on the contingency of being. And, as he states elsewhere, one of the ultimate goals of his project is to deduce certain, if not all, true mathematical statements from the singular fact of contingency alone.

    I don’t think that Meillassoux so much wants to ‘put together an argument about the validity of empirical knowledge of the world that doesn’t rely on some form of transcendental presuppositions’ such that we can rationally use ‘appearances’ to learn about ‘reality’. Ultimately, I think it’s exactly the opposite – knowing that appearance has absolutely no relation to reality, how can we ever come to know anything about reality at all? And if Meillassoux wants to finally ‘think a world without thought’ I don’t know how you could hope to do so without in some sense suspending the empirical image of the world.

    I apologize if I’ve severely misunderstood you.


    Comment by Jack — 14 September 2008 @ 4:20 pm

  14. Jack, you must understand that there is absolutely no relationship between how my writing appears to you and what I know. The summary of Meillassoux says that he regards empirical science as actually making progress in understanding the world, while continental philosophy continues to emphasize the disconnect between human knowledge and what the world is really like, and that philosophy instead ought to address itself to how science can have this sort of success rather than trying to persuade scientists that they’re misunderstanding their own discipline. This problem is most acute in understanding science’s probing of those parts of the universe where thought doesn’t exist: the prehuman past and the posthuman future:

    For the more science has exhibited thought’s actual capacity to probe ever more deeply into a world anterior to all humanity, the more ‘serious’ philosophy has exacerbated the correlational Ptolemaism exacerbated by Kant, continually tightening the ambit of the correlation while ascribing to this increasingly constrictive realm the true meaning of the ever expanding domain of scientific knowledge.

    Meillassoux thinks it silly to argue that scientists have knowledge only of the present and “project” themselves imaginatively into pre- and post-human space-time. How is it that, though scientists never escape the correlation of knowledge with human thought, they can still acquire knowledge about the world before and after human history? This seems to be the question Meillassoux is trying to address, yes? The whole book reads like a preamble, a setting-up of the problem and why it’s important. I don’t know how he plans to “think a world without thought” either, but he says it’s important to acknowledge that scientists do it all the time, despite continental philosophers’ objections.

    “to make skepticism itself the only instance of a purely absolute knowledge.”

    Yes, but this stopping here is what Meillassoux regards as the tragedy. The correlation doesn’t afford absolute knowledge, yet somehow it does generate knowledge beyond the historical era in which the correlation holds. This knowledge can’t be reducible to the empirical correlations, which is the only sort of knowledge that’s possible for humans to generate, and this knowledge is relative to human thought. How can this be? That’s Meillassoux’s question going beyond After Finitude. I’m not sure what he’s going to propose, but he seems to want to establish the idea of number as a kind of knowledge that exists in the universe itself, outside of human thought about number — knowledge that precedes and transcends thought. It has to precede and transcend observation too. But science, with its systematic ways of thinking and observing, is able to tap into this “unthought thought” intrinsic to the universe.

    If, as you say, “appearance has absolutely no relation to reality,” then why would Meillassoux accept that science does acquire knowledge? Are you saying that science acquires knowledge in spite of its empiricism? That’s not how I read his position. It’s more an acknowledgment of a paradox that isn’t yet resolved but that ought to be addressed: how is scientific knowledge of the arche-fossil conceivable? My worry is that he’ll contend that the scientific method has nothing to do with it — that the universe somehow transmits its truths directly into minds in the form of numerical absolutes inherent in the structure and process of the universe itself; that minds can grasp the thoughts of the universe without actively thinking them.

    Is this close to your understanding, Jack? Do you have a better grasp than I of how Meillassoux explains science’s ability to acquire knowledge about the universe before/after the existence of the correlation and of human thought? The correlation is the basis for human knowledge, but this knowledge is relative to the human condition, yet operating within the correlation science breaks out of the correlation in its knowledge. How?


    Comment by ktismatics — 14 September 2008 @ 8:33 pm

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