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).