Speculative realism, stamp collecting, and the question of Science
“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (Ernest Rutherford)
“According to Meillassoux we must accept that even physics is mere (mathematised) stamp collecting.” (Gabriel Catren)
In the earlier version of Object-Oriented Philosophy, Graham Harman puts forward the thought experiment of trying to image a time when “Speculative Realism/OOP/Speculative Materialism” would stop beating correlationalism, turn its knives inward and begin hacking at itself. The premise being that something like “Specultive Realism” is a generic term that only finds specificity with a specific enemy (i.e. Kant and his ilk) and that once this enemy is dispatch, the SP will undergo a process of individuation that will create “camps” in the movement. Graham lays it out like this:
“There would be the eliminativist wing with a heavy cog.-sci. bent. There would be a Meillassouxian wing generating fascinating philosophical proofs out of a radicalized correlate (and with Zizekians, Lacanians, and Badiouians in the vicnity). There would be a Grantian wing with a more vitalist/materialist approach and more of a Deleuzian flavor than the others. And then there would be an object-oriented wing, with Latour as a key patron saint and a flat ontology as the price of admission.”
This themes was then picked-up on over at Naught Thought, with the concept of “dark vitalism”. I am sure others that I missed or haven’t formulated their version of the fight is out there. It is in relation to this that I read Gabriel Catren’s “A Throw of the Quantum Dice Will Never Abolish the Copernican Revolution.” This essay is remarkable, both in its positive construction of a theory of objects but also a negative element, constructed as an attack on Meillassoux’s own construction of Speculative Materialism. As I have hinted above, Catren accepts the general outline of Meillassoux’s attack on correlationalism, as he states:
“…the ultimate sense of the Copernican Revolution was, as Meillassoux clearly shows in After Finitude, completely distorted. A narcissistic reaction aims to counteract the Copernicum decentering of the planet earth – and tries to heal what Freud called the ‘cosmological humiliation’ – by re-situating human existence on a transcendental ‘unmoving Ur-earth’ (Husserl)”
But this initial affirmation turns, however, as Catren hits Meillassoux where he lives, so to speak. Part of Meillassoux’s argument against correlationialism is of a emotive variety, in that it attempts to draw a clear line connecting today’s philosophers (i.e. correlationialists) and the creationists that currently populate some areas in the US (such as the area in which I write this). Obviously, this an argument that functions along the “do you know who you are now agree with? Them!” While I don’t really have a problem with this, according to Catren, Meillassoux’s polemics against physics, as that science that wants to talk about the non-existent laws of nature, does not put him in a much better group of friends. Lets have a look.
When Meillassoux turns away from his critical section and attempts to formulate a positive construction of reality he decides to operate on a logical level. In a move that I assume anyone reading this will already know, Meillassoux denies that there are no non-logical rules that govern existence, meaning that the laws of science (e.g. Physics, genetics, etc.) that would provide consistency and permance are illusions, produced from habit (following Hume). One can easily see this as the product of a reading of Hume’s discussion on the “sun rising tomorrow”. What laws do govern reality? Well, the same that govern our own thinking. So, the law of non-contradiction is the only law governing reality. Meillssoux writes, “…the principle of unreason teaches us that it is because the principle of reason is absolutely false that the principle of non-contradiction is absolutely true…As for the principle of non-contradiction, it allows us to establish a priori, and independently of any recourse to experience, that a contradictory event is impossible, that it cannot occur either today or tomorrow. But for Hume there is nothing contradictory in thinking that the same causes could produce different effects tomorrow.” We can see then that causal effects that populate science have no basis in reality, whereas the laws of thought (i.e. logical rules) are at play. But where is the real source of this thinking, as it is a radicaliztion of Hume, and not Hume himself. Of course, it is found in Cantor and the transfinite.
As those of us familar with Badiou know, Cantor provides the ultimate proof for the force of thought in the twentieth century, namely “The One is not.” For Meillassoux, the “One is not” is translated into the impossibility for providing the global laws of nature, i.e. physics is forclosed.
But it is precisely this totalization of the thinkable which can no longer be guaranteed a priori. For we know – indeed, we have known it at least since Cantor’s revolutionary set-theory – that we have no grounds for maintaining that the conceivable is necessarily totalizable. For one of the fundamental components of this revolution was the detotalization of number, a detotalization also known as the ‘transfinite.’
This is precisely where Catren’s critique begins. As Catren points out “the project of understanding the rational necessity of physical theories defines local problems of scientific knowledge…It is difficult, then, to understand why the supposed impossibility of providing a satisfactory rational global model for the ‘topology’ of absolute knowledge would imply the futility of such a local project.” In other words, whatever the status of a global (i.e. universal) order, the local projects of science would not be effected. One could equal attempt Meillassoux’s move with Godel’s incompleteness theorems instead of Cantor’s theory “transfinite”, but only the worse reading of Godel would lead one to say that because there is no system that can be shown to be consistent and complete that therefore, all science fails.
Furthermore, Catren even rejects Meillassoux’s image of how science works. The failure seems to revolve around axiomatics. Meillassoux views science as an axiomatic choice made between competing, but equal, systems. This leads Catren to make his statement quoted above about physics and stamp collecting. Ultimately, Catren’s criticism comes down to Meillassoux’s refusal to dirty his hands with the lowly ontic investigations of science and instead remained locked within an ontological framework which will refuse any evidence to the contrary. Catren writes, ” (Meillassoux’s argumentation) is consistingly done without any consideration of physics itself – after all, why should the philosopher consider in detail scientific (ontical) descriptions lacking any rational necessity if he can produce philosophical (ontological) demonstrations? Why would he analyse in accurate terms that of which he speaks - namely, physical theories – if he knows in advance that physics is only a collection of contigent laws that can change without any reason?”
I believe that Catren’s criticism is quite damning, maybe not completely, but it certainly sweeps most of the legs of support out from under Meillassoux’s edifice. A final quote from Catren:
Even if we can decide legitimately to explore the hypothesis according to which the laws of nature lack any rational a priori necessity, we cannot pretend that we are rationally forced to accept the validity of such an hypothesis, nor that the principle of reason must be abandoned