This morning I read this NYRB article on symmetry in quantum mechanics, which I highly recommend. The overall theme is the use of the assumption of various types of symmetries in nature as a guide to scientific research, even when there isn’t much else to go on. What emerges through the argument, however, is the fact that some apparent symmetries in nature aren’t actually symmetrical at all, but are near-symmetrical side effects of more fundamental, underlying symmetries. He uses the example of the near-symmetry that particle physicists had detected between protons and neutrons — as it turns out, that apparent symmetry was just a coincidental after-effect of the symmetries among the particles that make them up.

Being a philosopher and theologian, however, I naturally found the most interesting part of the article to be his highly speculative account of the apparent order in the universe:

As far as we can see, when averaged over sufficiently large scales containing many galaxies, the universe seems to have no preferred position, and no preferred directions—it is symmetrical. But this too may be an accident.

There is an attractive theory, called chaotic inflation, according to which the universe began without any special spatial symmetries, in a completely chaotic state. Here and there by accident the fields pervading the universe were more or less uniform, and according to the gravitational field equations it is these patches of space that then underwent an exponentially rapid expansion, known as inflation, leading to something like our present universe, with all nonuniformities in these patches smoothed out by the expansion. In different patches of space the symmetries of the laws of nature would be broken in different ways. Much of the universe is still chaotic, and it is only in the patches that inflated sufficiently (and in which symmetries were broken in the right ways) that life could arise, so any beings who study the universe will find themselves in such patches.

This is all quite speculative. There is observational evidence for an exponential early expansion, which has left its traces in the microwave radiation filling the universe, but as yet no evidence for an earlier period of chaos. If it turns out that chaotic inflation is correct, then much of what we observe in nature will be due to the accident of our particular location, an accident that can never be explained, except by the fact that it is only in such locations that anyone could live.

For me, this idea resonated with Meillassoux’s infamous concept of “hyperchaos.”

In addition, the mention of Plato’s Timaeus, combined with the “intro to fine arts” class I’ve been auditing as part of my training at Shimer, led me to wonder if we might be living in a “well-tempered” corner of the universe, similar to the way Plato’s demiurge has to “force” the universe to fit together in approximate whole-number ratios because the real whole-number ratios won’t actually work. (This last bit might make no sense to anyone but me, though.)

Kicking the archefossil

It’s brave of Meillassoux to begin After Finitude with the argument from the archefossil, because it’s such a terrible argument. Indeed, Meillassoux admits that it is a terrible argument, which the correlationist will have no trouble dispatching; the reason for this, though, is that the discussion of the archefossil isn’t actually supposed to be an argument at all. When I first heard of it, it seemed to be a strange updating of Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, with the curious addition of a complicatedly constructed hypothetical stone. But that’s not really how the discussion of the archefossil is supposed to work: the archefossil isn’t supposed to present an example of brute reality and thereby disprove idealism. It is presented and refuted as such during the course of the first chapter, but this argument is really preparing the ground for the real use of the archefossil, which is not to prove something about reality, but rather to raise a question about the relationship between thought and reality.

The point of the example of the archefossil is to “raise the question of the emergence of thinking bodies in time,” which is also “the question of the temporality of the conditions of instantiation, and hence of the taking place of the transcendental as such” (25). The archefossil is an example of ancestrality, but the real problem of ancestrality is, if space and time depend on thinking beings, how would we understand the fact that thought first arose at a specific space and time? However, this is only a question at all if there was indeed a moment at which thought first arose, that is, if thought and being are fundamentally distinct. Meillassoux accepts this inasmuch as he points out that ancestrality is only a problem for the transcendental idealist, not the speculative idealist; but he does not consider that this ancestrality is, for the same reasons, not a problem for the materialist, either. Continue reading “Kicking the archefossil”

“An Online Orgy of Stupidity”

This morning I shared a link to a delightful interview with Ray Brassier, but became increasingly aware that I should probably give it some main page love. Not least because of the savagery of the following:

“The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity”

So, yeah, have fun with that.

On Meillassoux’s style

One of the things that makes Meillassoux’s After Finitude so compelling is its genuine argumentative rigor. I have in the past disputed with analytically-trained philosophers who seem to me to be overly fixated on a very narrow idea of what an “argument” is, so I should say up front that I have found a wide range of philosophical styles as compelling as Meillassoux’s. What I like about Meillassoux’s approach in specific, though, is the way it carried me along, almost made me feel like a participant — I could anticipate where he was going and felt confident in saying what was left to be done by the end of the book.

A turn toward this type of style seems to be characteristic of younger “continental” philosophers. Continue reading “On Meillassoux’s style”

Meillassoux and German Idealism, with incidental thoughts on “blog philosophy”

I have finally read Meillassoux’s After Finitude, and I am deeply impressed. At the same time, I am distressed by the ways I see him being received in blog circles, because I have almost never experienced such a yawning gap between the way a thinker is presented and the way he seems to be “in himself.” It seems to me, however, that this gap is rooted in Meillassoux himself — it corresponds to the gap between his actual argumentation and his rhetorical positioning. The blog reception seems to be dominated by his more programmatic statements, which in my mind are often overblown and actually obscure what’s going on in his argumentation.

It seems to me that there is a kind of serendepity linking together the main “theoretical” works I’ve read in the last few months — the Gabriel/Zizek book, Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology, and Meillassoux’s After Finitude. Though I read them all for different reasons, all of them obviously deal with the aftermath of Kant, and despite Meillassoux’s programmatic statements, he seems to take things in a very similar direction to Rose (whose refrain that the Hegelian step beyond Kant requires the absolute to be thinkable) or Gabriel (whose inclusion of Meillassoux in a discussion of the consequences of German Idealism seems much more appropriate and even obvious after actually reading Meillassoux rather than relying on second-hand accounts).

Drawing on Rose, I would claim that Meillassoux’s “correlationism” is essentially neo-Kantianism and that Meillassoux’s own work is an attempt to go back behind neo-Kantianism and recover the “missed opportunity” encapsulated in post-Kantian Idealism. Continue reading “Meillassoux and German Idealism, with incidental thoughts on “blog philosophy””