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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Meillassoux: A Foundation of Absolute Contingency

I thank Allen for recommending that I read Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Meillassoux is an innovative thinker on a philosophical mission. His goal is to re-establish a secure foundation for our scientific knowledge, lacking in modern philosophy, without returning to an outmoded metaphysics of the past. The key for him will be taking the notion of contingency to the limit. If there is truly no reason for anything (including physical laws), then, rather than seeing this as a limitation, we should embrace this as the one positive absolute truth on which we can build our foundation.

Meillassoux (hereafter Q.M.) is a French philosopher; the English translation is provided by Ray Brassier. (A talk given in England by Q.M. which offers an overview of his work is here -- however, in my case I needed to read the book for things to sink in.) In some ways, Q.M.’s writing betrays a bit of what I think of as “continental style” – including some tendency toward the grandiose, and an unfortunate penchant for creating new terms. However, the content transcends any intra-academic boundaries – he is dealing with big philosophical questions of perennial interest, and indeed he doesn’t invoke the work of any postwar philosopher with the exception of a shout-out to Alain Badiou (who also wrote the preface).

Below are my notes on the book; I’ll add some further thoughts of my own in a follow-up post.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Quantum Measurement in an Infinite Universe

Anthony Aguirre, Max Tegmark, and David Layzer have an intellectually stimulating paper on Arxiv called “Born in an Infinite Universe: a Cosmological Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”. They seek to show that if eternal inflation has led to an infinite, statistically uniform universe which therefore contains innumerable exact copies of our local region, then this leads to a new interpretation of quantum mechanics. Specifically they say we can associate the Born rule probabilities of QM with the actual frequency of measurement outcomes realized across the identical spatially distributed experiments. In other words, when we do an experiment, the uncertainty in the outcome is a result of our ignorance of which copy we are. (Layzer has a related paper posted here).

Monday, August 02, 2010

Della Rocca on the PSR

Yale’s Michael Della Rocca has a paper out in support of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Della Rocca, whose expertise is on the Rationalists, begins the paper with a humorous shtick about how he is writing the paper against his better instincts, since he knows how little credibility the PSR has in contemporary mainstream philosophy.  [UPDATE 4 August 2010: I neglected to tip hat to Sympoze.]

His strategy in the paper is to push the burden of proof back onto those who dismiss the PSR.