Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Comments on Meillassoux

I enjoyed Quentin Meillassoux’s book (please see my prior post): it is creative and thought-provoking philosophy at its best. I can’t endorse Q.M.’s quest for a “speculative materialism”, but I found his views on the central topics of contingency and necessity (hyper-chaos!) very interesting and challenging to my own opinions.

1. Why Materialism?

I came to Q.M.’s discussion of “ancestrality” and its challenge to “correlationism” from a different perspective: I don’t agree that the right goal involves purging mind from nature, thereby elevating the scientific account as such to truth. (I’m actually not even sure why he wants to be a materialist, as I’ll explain below). I don’t think “correlationism” is completely wrong in that I think subjective points of view are indeed ineliminable aspects of our world. I note ancestrality poses no prima facie problem for Russellian monism and panexperientialism. But I thought Q.M. made excellent points in his critique of most philosophers’ failure to provide an account of the compelling nature of scientific facts, and the trap of centering reality on human consciousness and/or language. He draws a persuasive connection between these problems and philosophy’s slide into deflationism/anti-realism (and sometimes postmodernism) which has hurt its relevance.

Now, I really liked his exploration of contingency and proposal of a hyper-chaos model. Q.M. views facticity (the absence of a reason for something) as a kind of universal solvent that ultimately undermines any view of what’s necessary other than contingency itself. Interestingly he shares with his “correlationist” opponents the rejection of arguments for any necessarily existing entity or entities. And it is certainly true that many or most modern philosophers reject not only classic arguments for the existence for God – but also broadly reject the possibility of engaging in metaphysics to reach conclusions regarding the necessity of logical truths, mathematics, physical laws, morals, etc.

With regard to the “correlationist” philosophers, Q.M. uses the fact that they themselves might agree that subjectivity itself can't be demonstrated to be necessary as ammunition against them. If even this can be doubted --and note a correlationist would tend to argue this in refuting an absolute idealist, for example-- then the correlationist subject-object “circle” is not necessary either. It turns out then, that, in rejecting absolute idealism, the correlationist has endorsed the ubiquitous scope of facticity. And, ironically, this is evidence to Q.M. that facticity itself can be elevated into something absolute and necessary (“factiality”). (Note he sees this as a necessary principle, not an entity).

Now, here is where I pause to wonder why Q.M. is a self-described materialist. He believes he has derived that things-in-themselves do exist (as contingent facts), but even if he has shown they exist independent of human minds, he hasn’t ruled out that they might have aspects of both mind and matter, or that perhaps facts might be somehow neutral with respect to those categories.

2. My “well-behaved” chaos vs. Hyper-chaos

But let me get back to the issue of necessarily existing entities.

A. Has he really shown necessarily existing entities are impossible?
B. Couldn’t hyperchaos be a necessary entity?

Now, in the absence of a knock-down argument for the necessary existence of something, why would someone believe in its truth? Well, some assume rationality can reach beyond our world and conceive of what is possible, and that this can lead us to map what is metaphysically possible and what is necessary. There are two problems: first, some disagree with this rationalist premise; second, people disagree regarding what’s conceivably possible. In fact, the widespread disagreement can be taken as evidence for the faultiness of the premise.

Now, Q.M. doesn’t offer new arguments against rationalism, he just assumes that the forces of modern anti-rationalism are on firm ground, and then he turns to his project of finding (ironically) a new absolute in the fact that everything can be questioned and found lacking a reason for its being.

But I’m not ready to concede that rationalism is dead just because there exist a preponderance of modern philosophers who think so (they could be wrong). I’ve argued there is a viable modern foundation for rationalism, inspired by the discovery that indeterminism is true of our world (see recent posts here and here).

In fact, I have been entertaining a model for a necessarily existing entity which is a chaotic ground of all metaphysical possibilities (including variation in physical law) – with the creation of the actual an intrinsically chancy process. (see for instance my posts on Timothy O'Connor's book). But my chaos has been “shaped” via rationalism: I thought certain conclusions, such as the fact that logical and mathematical truths were necessary, and that actual events are always experiential events, were justified by reason. And I have been willing to entertain the possibility that other truths might be necessary, too (morals/values?).

But Meillassoux has done a good job making me question my capacity to reach such conclusions. For every necessity I propose he might assert there is no way to be sure, and thus the only sure thing is (“super-”) contingency.

And yet I note that he immediately follows his conclusion of supercontingency and hyper-chaos with a derivation of the principle of non-contradiction, which, as it is based on conceptual analysis, seems pretty rationalist. And he hopes to derive other such conclusions, involving mathematics for instance. At this point I start to wonder if his project is very different from mine (albeit more sophisticated). And by the way can’t I define hyper-chaos as the set* of all non-contradictory possibilities and refer to this as a necessarily existing entity?

I’ll stop there. There’s lots to think about, and “hyper-chaos” is definitely haunting my thoughts, thanks to Q.M.

* I assume he'd say that we can't sum the possibilities because they are "transfinite", hence untotalizable, given his arguments in Ch.4.


Allen said...

A good review!

So I liked QMs discussion of the correlationist response to both realists and nomological (rule-based) idealists, as it seems quite convincing to me on both counts

However, I wasn't very taken with his discussion of Ancestrality. If you reject realism, I don't see why there would be a problem of ancestrality.

And I also thought that by far the best part of the book was his discussion of facticity and hyper-chaos.

But I do have a few serious problems with his theory.

First, like you, I don't see why hyper-chaos shouldn't be capable of bringing non-physical things into existence. For instance, purely experiential entities that have no physical component at all. In fact, I think the correlationist argument that we can't know the "thing-in-itself" still holds. All of the properties that we associate with the physical world are just aspects of our experience of this world, not properties of the world-in-itself. Given that this is the case, I'm not sure what it even means to say that hyper-chaos can create "material" things. When someone speaks of something physical "existing", I don't think that they're saying anything meaningful.

Second, his theory of hyper-chaos has a necessary component other than just contingency - Time. In order for things to come into and pass out of existence, there must be some background Time dimension. But why should this be the case? Why should an independent background time exist for this purpose? Why can't existence be objectively timeless, with time being merely another aspect of subjective consciousness? I find this entirely conceivable and plausible.

Third, it seems to me that his re-derivation of the law of non-contradiction is a little off. It seemed overly focused on the contradiction of something that simultaneously existed and didn't exist. But what about a contradictory thing that is simultaneously pure red and pure green?

BUT, on the whole I really liked the book - it's hard to believe that the topic of facticity hasn't received more attention in the past.

My take on it all is that some sort of accidentalism is answer. And given the emptyness of the term "physical" mentioned above, I lean towards only mental entities existing.

Which leaves us with idealistic accidentalism. Or accidental idealism. I'm not sure which way sounds better.

Allen said...

An interesting post.

Steve said...

Hi Allen. You raise interesting questions regarding his use of time. In his defense, in the "Time without Becoming" paper he tries to stress that the notion which goes with hyperchaos isn't ordinary time. It seemed like just the dimensionality of hyperchaos creativity or some such.

With regard to his materialism, you and I agree that adopting materialism seems unmotivated within his system. For your part, would it be fair game to ask you whether your accidentalism couldn't result in the existence of something non-mental?

Allen said...

So we have facticity...the absence of reason for any reality.

And we have something that exists for no reason. Which means that it could suddenly cease to exist.

But even if it ceases to exist in the present for me, there's still the fact that it *did* exist in the past. Nothing can erase that fact, can it? Can we change the past? If we do, there's still the fact that the past *was* different before we changed it.

We have two pasts: the original one and the altered one. But then why not go back and change the past again? We could have 1000 pasts...P1, P2, P3, P4, etc. We're now starting to build up another time dimension that runs perpendicular to our "changeable" past. What we originally thought of as the past becomes more like a spatial dimension (it's contents can change) and our new dimension takes on the properties we originally attributed to "normal" time.

Okay, that's a bit of a digression. Back to the original point:

The question then is what is the difference between the present and the past?

Even if Hyperchaos time isn't the same as ordinary time, it still serves the same purpose...to provide a way of separating or differentiating things. According to QM, something can be red and not-red...but not at the same "time".

But if something is red, and then it's not-red...how do we really know it's the same thing? Maybe the red-thing was zapped out of existence and replaced by a new thing identical to it in every way *except* that it's not-red?

But we have another undefined term floating around: what is a "something"? What are "things"?

Here we hit the problem I have with physicalism. I can only talk about how things seem to me. Not how they really are. I *don't know* what things are. I only know how they seem.

Redness isn't an aspect of apples...it's an aspect of my experience of apples. Even the apples that appear in my dreams. But for a color blind person, redness would *not* even be an aspect of their experience of apples.

So it's possible that there are things that have some existence independent of the way they seem to me, but I can't say anything about that existence.

It seems equally possible that all that exists are experiences that aren't of "any thing"...like my experience of apples in my dreams.

This actually solves the problem of non-contradiction. If there are no things, there can be no contradictory things.

Can there be contradictory experiences? Can I experience a red and not-red apple? Maybe, but who cares? It's just an experience.

Can I simultaneously experience and not-experience an apple? Sure. Not-experiencing something just means that I didn't have that experience.

Hmmm. I actually think this seems quite promising...

Allen said...

Possibly of interest:

Quentin Meillassoux, "Potentiality and Virtuality".