Review: Unseen Reality; Kastner

Kastner’s is one of two “most important” books in physics and cosmology that I’ve read (and in my opinion of course) over the past 7+ years, the other being “Singular Universe” by R. Unger and L. Smolin. How many books have I read addressing the subject of “quantum mysteries”? Paradoxes of the “double slit experiment”, “action at a distance”, “the impact of the observer”, and so on. Except for hidden variables, mostly rejected for good reasons these days, all of the *explanations* are either mere speculative descriptions of phenomena taking place independently of their observation, or they explain them away. Dr. Kastner (building on the work of her mentor John Cramer) does actually explain these phenomena without hidden variables! Whether you like her hypothesis or not, it has to be a contender.

“Unseen Reality” is Kastner’s very good explanation for a popular audience familiar with the basic issues of quantum mysteries. She also has a more technical version for physicists: “Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”, very expensive, and filled with the math to back her up. I include a link to it here for completeness. If you can follow this more technical version, you probably aren’t interested in my opinion anyway!

I have taken the liberty of modifying this review by adding (following Kastner) a short review of “Quantum Ontology” by Peter Lewis. Lewis’ book is a summary of the ontological implications of various interpretations of Quantum Mechanics. Most was review for me but I read the book because he mentions Kastner’s “Transaction Interpretation”. I criticized Lewis (in the review) for failing to note what Kastner claims is the ontological implication of her interpretation, but I now realize the possibility that Lewis was working from her longer more technical book which I have not read. It is possible she does not introduce the ontological implications of her work until “Unseen Reality” published only the year before Lewis.

In 2019 Dr. Kastner published a second book: Adventures in Quantumland in which she reprises and expands on this earlier book. I review and comment on the later book here.

Understanding Our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles (Kindle Edition 2015)

Ruth E. Kastner resolves 100 year-old quantum mysteries. Moreover, she explains them without explaining them away and all-the-while retains the fundamentality of the particles (as compared to the Schrodinger wave) and forces in spacetime. She calls her theory a “transactional interpretation”. We’ll see why in a moment. The solution proposed supposes (an inference anlogous to the status of atoms in 1850) that physical reality, the universe explored by science (particularly physics), includes something besides spacetime. She calls this Quantumland and compares it to the bulk of an iceberg which exists beneath our sight while the tip, spacetime, is only a small part of all of what is the physical universe.

All quantum phenomena (“incipient transactions”) happens in this bulk part of the iceberg. It has important qualities. Foremost, it is outside spacetime. Second, unlike the bulk of a real iceberg, incipient transactions are in principle invisible to observation as that is commonly understood by science. What science can observe is what makes it from an incipient transaction to a real transaction, and in that transition moves from Quantumland to spacetime. At that point, an event becomes measurable, essentially observable. This has nothing to do with whether or not it is observed by human beings. It isn’t human observation that turns an incipient transaction into a real transaction but the response of absorbers to an emitter. An absorber might be a molecule in a human eye that evokes some response in human consciousness, but it might also be an atom on the surface of a rock. Our instruments are absorbers, the environment, the whole of spacetime, is filled with absorbers whose transaction-capable atoms can respond to an offer wave outside spacetime.

Here’s how the system works as I imperfectly understand it. Inside Quantumland there is constantly going on an exchange of virtual particles. These are “offer waves” of an emitter (say a photon or an electron), and these waves are met by corresponding “response wave” that comes from the side of every particle surrounding the emitter that can potentially absorb the particle implicit in the offer wave. Individual absorbers can only respond to a fraction of the offer wave, that fraction that the response encounters. When offer wave and response wave meet (remember this is all taking place outside spacetime) we have an “incipient transaction”. The meeting sets up probabilities for any part of itself to become a real transaction. No part of the offer-response (incipient) process transfers energy. Only one of a possibly near infinite number of incipient transactions can become a real transaction and in doing so transfers a quantum of energy. The process is fundamentally random. When it happens, that event enters spacetime and we can measure it!

Quantumland where virtual particles are the origin of the forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic at least) we experience in spacetime is not particularly controversial in quantum mechanics and is the main reason that physicists believe there is a quantum realm even though we cannot observe it directly. Dr. Kastner explores this origin of forces in her book as well, but her addition to the whole idea is that all of this quantum stuff takes place outside spacetime but remains a part of “the physical universe”. It is a transaction’s emergence into spacetime that makes it observable! Quantum physics merges into classical physics because as quantum events emerge into spacetime, one of many incipient transactions into a real transaction, energy is transferred. As these events cluster, quantum physics becomes classical physics. Kastner makes clear how each aspect of the relation between Quantumland and classical physics in spacetime result in what quantum experiments tell us. She explains action-at-a-distance, incipient transactions take place outside spacetime and are not constrained by the speed of light. But the effect cannot be used to send information faster-than-light because sending information requires actual transactions that have entered spacetime and therefore restricted to the lightspeed limit!

There is even more to Kastner’s book than I explore here. She spends time on the distinction between mind-as-absorber and absorbers generally, that is the physical universe, and explores a role for Quantumland in an explanation of free will. Significantly, her explanation really is an explanation. She writes beautifully for a non-mathematical audience and her analogies (many more than the iceberg) capture her concepts well. At least I thought I was with her at every step. I’m sure some of the concepts are oversimplified for the lay audience (including myself) but I think there is a genuine insight here. Excellent book if you have any interest in quantum mysteries.

Quantum Ontology: A Guide to the Metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics (Kindle Edition 2016)

A book at the intersection of quantum mechanics and metaphysics. Lewis focuses on the three dominant interpretations of quantum mechanics and various of their variations exploring the advantages and disadvantages of each from a viewpoint of the metaphysical ontology (the philosophy of what exists or what is real) of the universe and our experience. On the whole the book delivers on what it promises. While it fails to come to any definite conclusions, the author is clearly biased towards “the many worlds” view, one of the three dominant interpretations of quantum mechanics.

When I first bought the book I searched it for a mention of my own favorite interpretation, the “transactional theory” of Cramer and Ruth Kastner (see my review of her book “Understanding our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles”). Lewis casts this interpretation as one of a class involving temporally reversed cause. Oddly he fails to mention that Kastner herself rejects this interpretation based precisely on a unique ontological commitment; that quantum phenomena take place outside (as Kastner puts it “underneath”) timespace. In her view, the quantum phenomena only appear to be causally reversed from a viewpoint within time but in reality no such reversal occurs because prior to the phenomena being particularized as energy is transferred in timespace they occur outside of it. This is a big ontological consequence that Lewis utterly fails to notice.

But aside from this quibble, the book is a good review of the dominant interpretations of quantum mechanical phenomena and their associated ontological implications.


Review: Singular Universe and Reality of Time


Of all the physics and cosmology I’ve read over the past 7+ years this book stands out as one of the two most interesting, the other being Ruth Kastner’s “Understanding Our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles”. Now this is a tough call because I’ve read a lot of great books, But this book inspired not only this review but one of my books, while Kastner’s work manages to actually account for phenomena like “action at a distance” and the paradoxes of the “double slit experiment” without hidden variables or merely explaining them away.

The crucial insight of Singular Universe is that time is not only real but the most fundamental (brute) characteristic of our universe. No other property of our universe (including space) could begin to exist in the absence of time. Impressively, Unger manages to disentangle the “global time” that both authors insist must be real from the temporal insights of Special and General Relativity. Einstein discovered that the measurement of time can only be a local measurement (from within some relative reference frame) but that discovery does not at all preclude a global time for the universe as a whole. In terms of shaking up modern physics, this might be Unger’s greatest contribution. Smolin adds to Unger’s fundamental a rationale accounting for the crystallization of “the cosmological settings”. He has a hypothesis grounded in empirically verified cosmology (black holes) suggesting an answer to the question “why did the cosmological settings come out with the values they have?” I think his rationale is far fetched but in the present community of cosmologists it counts as a strong rational hypothesis.

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy (Kindle Edition 2014)

This is a superb and important book. It is quite long and two books in one, the first by Roberto Unger and the second by Lee Smolin. Both address the same topic, the reality (and fundamentality) of time and the failure of the Newtonian paradigm when applied to the whole universe. Each author takes a different approach to the subject on which, for the most part, there is a wide area of agreement between them and a few differences as concerns some details.

Neither book is “popular science”, but rather both are serious attempts at a novel “natural philosophy” that contributes (or should contribute) to advancing the subject of cosmology by illuminating little considered implications and interpretations of the physical (standard model) and cosmological data we already have.

Unger’s approach is more purely philosophical. He begins straightforwardly enough with the common (in science) metaphysical assumption that only the material universe is real. Although he abjures a strong metaphysics and offers instead what he calls a “proto ontology” that does not attempt to fix the kinds of things there are in the universe for all time, he is nevertheless stuck with this basic materialism and that forces him onto one of two horns of a dilema. The mystery is the extreme unlikeliness of “the settings” that make the universe hospitable to life. Most physicists being philosophically trapped in the “block universe” model of relativistic time (which in effect denies the fundamentality of time by casting time in terms of spatial geometry) have gone over to the multiverse as an (untestable) explanation (along with the “anthropic principle) for the unlikely values of the settings in our universe. From Unger’s viewpoint, the opposite tack, assuming time to be both real and fundamental, and that there is a global “preferred time” (perfectly compatible with relativity given appropriate alterations in what Unger calls its “metaphysical gloss”) which all means that there is nothing in the physical universe that is immune from the effects of time including the laws and settings which change (albeit in this universe phase very slowly) and that instead of multiple universes, the unlikeliness of our settings is explained by our one universe having an indefinite (not eternal) past that has gone through phases having various settings and has just happened, in this phase, to end up with the settings it has. Unger believes that this option, the “indefinite past” and a single universe at a time is better than the multiverse hypothesis because it provides for a causal (although the laws governing causal interactions will be different from phase to phase) continuance between phases. Time and causation entail one another, they are both fundamental in that what ever the laws and settings operative at a given moment happen to be, there is still some sort of causal interaction in time. As difficult as it might be to detect records of past universe phases (that is prior to our own big bang) such detection remains possible and therefore within the scope of science, while non-communicating multiverses that preclude any interaction do not.

Unger covers his ground very well. His approach is to revisit the same questions and issues over and over again like a skeleton on which he lays a little more flesh with each pass. In the end he leaves out two things. He offers no specific explanation for our particular settings this time around, and he fails to address how it is that the laws and settings we measure in our universe phase happen to hold over a range of conditions from the cold of interstellar space to the interior of stars. He admits that in our present “cooled down” universe the laws and settings appear very stable. His failure to offer any explanation for their stability does not detract from the argument that time is real and there is only one universe at a time. He explicitly leaves the rest to Lee Smolin.

Smolin is a physicist writing here as a natural philosopher and he is very good at it. His argument here is a reprise of his book “Time Reborn”. He’s had a few years to chew over these ideas, and I think his more concise treatment here is clearer than it was in that book. Smolin does offer two possibilities for explaining what Unger leaves out. The first is his “principle of precedence” which goes only part of the way, explaining how it is that the settings might get set, but not why they are what they are. The second, his notion of “cosmological natural selection” does actually explain both the settings and to some extent their stability across the wide range of conditions in our present universe. But these explanations rely on two rather speculative ideas.

First, new universes arise from the interior of black holes. The point of the settings and their stability is that these two properties are necessary to produce lots of black holes from massive stars. Such black holes in effect set the parameters of the universes they generate. Our own universe is in fact such a baby universe generated by a black hole in another universe. Second, the range of possible (or likely) settings of the baby universe would be different than those of the parent universe but only and always in a small range. This is what sets up the “natural selection”.. Universes whose properties happen to produce a lot of those kinds of black holes will end up dominating a history of branching universes such that the great majority of them have settings similar to ours just so that they can produce a lot of black holes.

Of course the very idea that universes are born in black holes (or that ours emerged from a black hole) is at present utterly beyond observational science, so this is sheer speculation whose only relation to physics (as distinct say from asserting that “God did it”) is that there is a potential causal chain (no matter what transformation the settings might undergo in between) connecting parent (black hole) to child (new universe). Smolin fails to say why it is that the variation in settings through black holes from massive stars (he explicitly rejects primordial black holes as selectable parents for this reason) should vary by only a little.This property is what makes them selectable. If the settings vary by very much, the outcomes (as far as black hole creation are concerned, not to mention life) will be random and not converge to an optimal type. There is no mention here that the coincidence of these same settings being conducive to life AND black holes is itself something of a mystery. Dr. Smolin spends a small chapter addressing the nature of qualia in consciousness, but he is interested in suggesting an example of precedent-agnostic causation (brain correlates of qualia) and not the coincidence of settings conducive to both black holes and life.

Both men address “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”, and claim, reasonably enough given their history-first foundation, that present mathematics happens to be fit-able to present physics but that the discipline has no magic insight into the nature of every particular event in the history of the universe (Smolin) or into some Platonic structure that is metaphysically prior to actual history taken in aggregate (Unger). This is one of the more fascinating parts of both arguments because both men get to the same place about math in very different ways.

It is unfair to criticize either author for not solving every problem. For both this book is to be the foundation of a natural philosophy, not its completed edifice. Both author’s arguments rest on a foundation of time, causation, and therefore history as being fundamental. The universe is what it is and if we discover structure in its behavior, that structure, mathematically describable regularities, it doesn’t mean those very regularities weren’t different in the past and won’t change in the future. There is every reason to believe they are both onto something here. Smolin’s illustration of how we slip from an observation of causal stability in the present universe to a mistaken notion of absolutely deterministic precedents is illuminating to say the least. All of this above does not do justice to the over-all philosophical integrity of this work. Drs. Unger and Smolin happen to discover in one another kindred spirits as far as this business of the reality and fundamentality of time is concerned. I hope there will be more collaborations between them in the future.

Review: After Finitude

My intuition tells me this will be an important book in the development of my own philosophical thought. It will prove important to my philosophy and theology although like all materialists, Meillassoux rejects theology as nothing more than “speculative metaphysics”. Yet he is brave enough to call what he writes here “speculative realism”, and it is speculative because his starting point is very much antirealist in orientation. Fundamentally an antirealist (he might disagree with me), he cannot know that he is correct. Like my theology (I cannot know that God exists), the evidence that Meillassoux is correct, is the result; his grounding of the insight that scientific discovery is about the world.

In my essay “Realism and Antirealism” here on the blog I note that “…one of the possibilities for explanations of experience in antirealism is realism.” This comment, made in a marginal note to Zizek’s “Less than Nothing” was made in the context of Zizek’s discussion of Meillassoux, and Meillassoux himself does not disappoint. The point of this little book is to recover realism, that is the genuineness of scientific insight into the nature of a world independent of experience, that there is a world independent of experience and that we can reliably have knowledge of it. Meillassoux achieves this with a very clever argument concerning the relation between necessity (there isn’t any except…), contingency (the only necessary thing about the world is that everything is contingent), and consistency — the reliability of the world’s regularities present to experience really is in the world itself and not merely in the “categories of our experience” a la Kant.

Meillassoux here is after nothing less than establishing a warrant for “scientific realism” on an antirealist foundation. As I note in my review below he doesn’t quite finish the job. He does manage to lay out all the elements of the argument and provide reasons for the validity of the assumption that science discovers truth about the world “as it is” in the absence of our experience of it even as he denies the validity of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a principle “scientific realism” implicitly embraces. This is a singular achievement on his part. I’m glad I decided to read him.

Besides Meillassoux, there are two other philosophers who comprise the “New Realist” school Maurizio Ferraris and Graham Harman. I have reviews of both of them now with commentary comparing the three.

Quentin Meillassoux, “After Finitude” (Kindle edition 2013) Reviewed for Amazon

Meillassoux’s writing reminds me much of other top tier philosophers of the present day like E. J. Lowe (recently passed away), David Chalmers and a few others. Not in what he says of course his starting points and subject are different, but stylistically, carefully crafting his arguments and at each point stopping to describe and evaluate alternatives advanced by his contemporaries and historical predecessors. In “After Finitude” he begins, conceptually, with Hume and Kant, accepting with the latter that the proper starting point for philosophy is the world experienced by humans; what can be thought, but rejecting in both the idea that we cannot come to “know”, in the sense of rely-on experience, to deliver genuine insight into the world in itself.

Meillassoux rejects speculative metaphysics (mostly coming down these days to religion) and accepts the generally anti-realist notion that the Principle of Sufficient Reason, need not apply to the world apart from human experience of it, but holds that the principle of non-contradiction should not be abandoned. Even if we cannot conceptually embrace infinite possibility (totalize the world), it cannot be that the world contradicts itself. All of this comes down to there being no absolutes, no “necessary being” and no “thinkable totality of all possibility” except for the fact of contingency. The only absolute for Meillossoux is that everything is contingent and might have been other than it is.

But all of this leaves historical and present day (postmodern) anti-realists in the position of claiming that we cannot know anything beyond our experience at all, and it is this mistake that he aims to rectify. Despite his general acceptance of the Kantian starting point, he insists that the achievements of science over the last two centuries well demonstrate that we can discover (through an objectivity emerging from shared experience, the results of repeated observations and experiments) much that is true about the world of the past and the present even if such truth lacks the a priori assurance of mathematics.

That problem comes down to why, if it is correct to reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason for the world apart from human experience, the world, that is the laws of physics, seem to be so stable? If the history of the universe comes out to its not-necessary “facticity”, that it is the way it is merely by chance, why aren’t the laws and regularities constantly changing rendering our ability to comprehend anything, even to be conscious at all, impossible? Kant’s answer to Hume was that the stability is only the effect of the categories of our consciousness, and if the in-itself (Kant’s noumenon) were not stable there couldn’t be any consciousness in the first place. But Kant accepted the Principle of Sufficient Reason which Meillassoux rejects. Instead he points out than an unstable in-itself might appear stable for long periods (essentially an anthropic argument). Instability need not mean moment-by-moment instability.

Meillassoux argument rests itself on our ability to “mathematize” our shared experience. That we can describe phenomena in-the-world in mathematical terms and discover not only that 2+2=4 (a priori) but also that E=mc^2 (a posteriori) speaks to us of the world’s stability. But he never quite gets around to telling us how mathematics grounds the stability. Indeed I do not see how it can because if it did, that would render the world necessary.

But there is a further problem here. If instability were really a quality of the in-itself and the universe was infinitely (or trillions of years) old, a few tens of billions of years of stability would not be problematic. But if he is right about the meaningfulness of scientific discoveries, then the universe is only 13.8 billion years old and yet the laws have been stable at least since the moment of nucleosynthisis a second or so after the big bang. That means the laws have been the same for 13.8 billion years minus 1 second! Extraordinary stability indeed!

To sum up, a beautifully written book, well argued, a delight to read, with many insights into the relation between human experience (the for-us) and the antecedent (the for-itself) world. But it doesn’t quite finish the job, something Meillassoux says he must let go of (for now I presume) at the end of the book. A fantastic example of how good philosophy is done even if, in my humble opinion of course, he begins from the wrong starting point and never quite finishes.

Review: Explaining Postmodernism


Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault

Postmodernism a popular subject these days. What is it? What is its history? There are a number of books on the subject — just key ‘postmodernism’ into an amazon search. I have read only one of them, this one, published in 2010. Hicks has written a great introduction here to both philosophical history and present implications. Here is a LINK to the book on Amazon. The subject ties into my recent essay REALISM and ANTIREALISM. Postmodernism is a final descent, very much the logical (or illogical) end point to Antirealist madness!

Not often I get to say of a non-fiction book that I didn’t want to put it down and was sad when I reached the end. Except for a sense of the movement’s nihilism, I didn’t know much about Postmodernism, but Dr. Hicks has covered the ground. He begins with a broad brush of what postmodernism stands for metaphysically (anti-realism), epistemologically (skepticism), ethically (collectivism in the social, educational and political sphere) and aesthetically (the meaninglessness of art and criticism). One gets the impression that he knows the subject well. His attention to detail is that of the scholar and even the true believer, but he hints slyly at the movement’s absurdity even here. From his review he goes backwards and traces the roots of the movement beginning with Kant’s response to the Enlightenment in an attempt to shore up the authority of the Church, and up through Rousseau, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Fichte, Nietzsche, Marx, and then Heidegger to the later 20th century with Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty. There are many other voices mentioned along the way (Kierkegaard plays a role as does Freud). Besides philosophers he traces political movements of the left and the right in opposition to the Enlightenment’s development of capitalism resting on individualism.

In the last chapter HIcks returns to Postmodernism proper and its absurdity from the metaphysical and epistemological to the political and aesthetic. In 200 hundred years every political and social consequence of anti-Enlightenment philosophy, every prediction and political hope has singularly failed. Postmodernism is the response to this failure by philosophers who come to the conclusion that if the foundation and development of the anti-Enlightenment movement over 200 years is rotten the only thing left to do, besides admit that you are wrong, is attack and destroy what the Enlightenment produced. Even Nietzsche (who Hicks returns to illustratively at the end) presciently suggests that one can take anti-realism and nihilism too far leaving the postmodernists to “quote Nietzsche less and Rousseau more”. Not only is Postmodernism nihilistic, it is destructively so, the bitter fruits of jealousy over the failure of collectivist anti-realism and seeming political, economic, and social success of Enlightenment realism, rationalism, and individualism.

An excellent review, thorough, scholarly, and easy to read. I find Hick’s style both serious and humorous at the same time. Superb!

Review: The Big Picture


This is my Amazon review of Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”. Although I am a theologian, I read a lot of books by atheist/materialist scientists. In my reviews of these books, I leave religion out if they do. But Dr. Carroll’s book is as much about his scientific theme as it is a book explicitly critical of religion all the way through. In the following review I mention this only briefly, but I have written also a longer piece here in the blog covering this ground more thoroughly. The link will take you to it. Meanwhile here is a link to Carroll’s book on Amazon. Hope you enjoy the review. —

Sean Carroll’s book has two broad themes. The first is to explain to us how it is that everything we observe in the universe, including all of what makes up human experience, emerges from the physics that lies at the heart of the universe, what Carroll calls “the core theory”; quantum field theory and the “standard model” of particle physics. Here he makes the case that what exists is what emerges from very special (low entropy) conditions in the universe’s past. It all comes down to the the second law of thermodynamics, the fundamental forces and the fact that the universe is far from an equilibrium state. In this he does an excellent non-technical job of describing how it is that the universe we find produces so much complexity from but humble beginnings. As he moves up the chain of complexity (emergence and phase changes) he applies the same principles of development to everything from galaxies and stars to life, consciousness, and the complex mentality of human beings. He admits that we have a much better explanation of the emergence of stars and even life from physics and chemistry than we do for the emergence of consciousness from biology. But he is confident his model works all the way to the top.

In his second theme, Carroll is concerned not only with establishing that physics tells the right story, but that it is the only story and no other story is reasonable. Put another way, by his lights, any other story is highly unlikely. By this he doesn’t mean that we don’t use different languages to speak of particles, biology, or feelings, but that nothing besides emergence from purely physical roots is going on as concerns consciousness, moral sensibility, and the seeming appearance of free will. Since the argument that there is more than physics going on here comes mostly from religion, he pointedly and repeatedly criticizes it claiming it has no genuine bearing on anything real. To be sure he doesn’t claim to know that there is no God, only to have established (he believes) that God’s reality is very very unlikely. One wonders why he feels the need to be so forceful about this, but the reason is clear enough in the book’s last section where he attempts to make sense of experiences that (to many) most strongly suggest that there is something besides physics going on; meanings in life, love, moral choices, desires, a sense of self, and what seems to us to be robust free will. To explain these, he applies the same model of emergence and phase change to consciousness and from there to all things mental. He confidently asserts that all of these things are nothing more than “a way of talking” about phenomena that are, in the end, nothing but physics.

What perturbs me about this second theme is certainly not his desire to mention (at least) and critique the competition but that he critiques such a straw man version of it. Time and time again he demonstrates his grasp of the nuances of physics while criticizing grossly superficial and unnuanced notions of what religion is and what it says.

There are other recent mainstream books that cover much of this same ground as concerns cosmic evolution, life, and even consciousness. Dr. Carroll is good here. He writes well, non-technically, and does an good job of stretching the idea of emergence into the human experience. That this is a part of the whole story is undoubtedly true, but it is unwise to declare that it is the whole story, or even likely the whole story, without knowing the whole story (which he admits is not known), or at least appreciating what the competition actually says.

Review: Zizek End Times

I recently posted a review of Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism” (2013) here in the blog. A book inspiring my “Realism and Antirealism”. Here is my Amazon (October 2016) review of his earlier “Living in the End Times” (2011). When I wrote this one I hadn’t yet keyed in to Zizek’s fundamentally antirealist outlook, something that became obvious in the opening pages of the later book. I was sensitized to the distinction by Maurizio Ferraris, a continental “new realist”, and an excellent book on Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks (The links will take you to their books on Amazon) both read in between the two Zizek books. The review does however capture my intuitive realist rebellion to Zizek’s approach. Now I understand why.

I’ve watched Slavoj Zizek through several YouTube interviews, a very articulate and animated speaker who always seems to have an unusual but common sensical slant on goings on in the world. I bought this book because I thought I might find more of the same between its covers and the title was especially interesting. But how to review this book? The author has a vast background in European social and political philosophy from Marx and Hegel (on whom he particularly rests for the grand picture) to more contemporary figures like psychiatrist/philosopher Jacques Lacan and Alain Badiou (a modern French Marxist) one or the other of whom is mentioned on almost every page!

This book ranges over the entirety of Earth’s present social, political, and economic space. Marx and Hegel updated to the present serve as the backdrop. Of course Freud is in there too along with a few dozen other philosophers and authors both popular and literary. Zizek brings into this business not only thinkers and writing, but film, architecture, modern art, and technological transformations. War and peace, terror, contentment, and sexual mores all fall within his gaze.

Within this scope, with every political, cultural, economic event event, philosophy, and interpretation, nothing is quite as it seems. Freedom is not free, goodness is not entirely good, nor badness all bad. Every “ism” is evil and yet highlights something important about the human condition. You name it, and Zizek will find a viewpoint that stands whatever the “it” is, on its head. Much of this would be laughable, but Zizek’s viewpoints (and he takes many of them, often opposed to one another for the sake of illuminating consequences actually felt by real human beings) are not easily dismissed as fantasy. Each has something to say to us. A few struck me as unfair, perhaps contrived, but that would be reading my own personal political and social biases into what I know of history and psychology. None of his varied perspectives lack force. Perhaps there is an over emphasis here or an under-emphasis there, but who is to say if it is I or he who has the greater insight into the true weight of it? It is clear that he is very well read and deeply thinks about all that he encounters.

Does he ever answer the question? Are we living in the end times? I think, if you mean the end of biological humanity as such the answer would be no (unless someone triggers a global thermonuclear war). But if you mean the end of life as it is presently known and understood, the answer is probably yes. What will it be that gets us? Economic exhaustion? Ecological (and so biological) collapse? Old fashioned war, or a new fashioned loss of the very center of our “selves” to virtual reality; “the Matrix” for real, not imposed by aliens but by our own economic elite and not even the elite as individuals but the system itself! Quite possibly it will be all or much of it together. Nor is he sanguine about what will follow. His view of history is pessimistic. Civilizations and political systems come and they go and when they go what replaces them, while perhaps different from what went before, is no less oppressive to the majority of individuals alive at the time. His is not a view of ever evolving perfection, of goodness eventually triumphing over evil, but rather more of the same, more of the mix of good and bad that makes human beings what they are now and ever will be.

In the end he reverts back to his updated Marx. The governments of Eastern Europe were evil, but what replaced them was also evil and continues to wreck its corrosive influence. Interestingly he discerns, in the political and economic patterns of the world, the further expansion and domination of capitalist-oriented systems regardless of the politics of individual nations. He in fact discerns the emergence of the “market state” from the nation state, but he never gets around to naming it. It is no doubt a mix of adaptation to the totality of the global situation, though he does loudly proclaim that for all that adaptation it is itself a part (if not the main part) of our present problem and about this he is surely correct. Oddly, for a Marxist-Hegelian, he doesn’t seem to recognize its present inevitability.

This is a book of great scope. If you are interested in a dense survey of our age from the viewpoint of an updated Marxist/Hegelian “rolling on” of history written by a scholar of the highest caliber (which doesn’t automatically make him right) then this is a good book for you. If you prefer a simple or unambiguous answer, then perhaps it is not.

Book Review: Less Than Nothing, Zizek 2013

The text of my Amazon review of Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism” Verso Books 2013. I know I could post a link, but Amazon has enough power already! If you are interested in the book, here is a link to it and other reviews of it.  Here is a recent blog post of mine on Antirealism and Realism inspired by  Zizek and other reading like this article on Antirealism from SEP.


This is a sweeping review of Hegel’s “dialectical method”, its application in his history and phenomenology, and then its outworking in the thought of Hegel’s contemporaries and successors. All of this is Zizek applying Hegel (beginning with the genesis of Hegelian-ism in Kant) to [mostly] continental philosophers influenced by Hegel, which comes out to just about everybody in the European antirealist tradition that Kant began. Besides Hegel Lacan takes up the most consideration but beyond him there are many many others to numerous to name.

Philosophers never declare themselves for “realism” or “antirealism”, a division always reflected in their thought. Zizek is an acknowledged heavyweight in the antirealist domain and his dominant interests, psychology, and political history, reveal themselves in all the threads of this book. He covers these and many more subjects (and philosophers) as he interprets them through Hegel. Sometimes he notes where he thinks their thought “goes wrong” (relative to Hegel) but more often he uses their material to illustrate the added insights they bring to the subject matter via their Hegelian influence.

It is impossible to cover this book in detail, but I can describe its broad structure. Imagine a wheel with a hub and spokes, perhaps a bicycle wheel. Zizek begins at the hub with a theme “truth has the structure of fiction”, almost his opening line. His writing spirals around the hub in tight circles outward toward the rim. On the way, he crosses the same spokes which in this analogy stand for both discrete subjects within the universe of his interests (and they are broad) and the philosophers whose thought he uses to illustrate his point. Round and round he goes touching the same spokes again and again each time adding more or new context with which to understand the particular subject and philosopher involved. Throughout the book, Zizek weaves together his own commentary with extensive quotes from dozens of philosophers from Kant to Meillassoux. As he crosses each spoke over again their thought is re-illustrated, re-applied to the subject matter at hand whether it be language, sex, politics, economics, history, or quantum mechanics.

I am a realist philosopher and it has been a long time since I’ve read Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Freud, Nietzsche, or Marx. I’ve not read Lacan, or any of the many other continental antirealists of the later 20th century Zizek uses here. Zizek’s vocabulary, evolved over two centuries of antirealism, is dense, obscure, and difficult for me. But as the many subjects are touched on again and again his meaning became clearer. Thanks to the enhancing repetition, retouching each spoke, his central arguments became clearer. Was Zizek’s repetition solidifying my impressions, or was I just getting used to the lingo? Probably some of both.

There is probably more than one legitimate way to interpret Hegel, Lacan, and the rest. Zizek’s authoritative grasp of this material certainly makes his interpretation one of them, an approach to be taken seriously. He runs into trouble only when he crosses into the subject of science, represented by the association between quantum mechanics and cosmology, where he seems a bit out of his depth. His description of the relation between the Higgs field and the “true and false vacuum” (the next-to-last chapter) quotes Paul Steinhardt and is clear enough, but then Zizek goes back and casts this phenomenon in Hegelian, Lacanian, and even Freudian terms! None of this could be more than poetic metaphor, but Zizek doesn’t seem to take it that way. To me (and I opine here because I’ve read so much physics and cosmology) quantum physics as described by modern physicists, can only be understood in realist terms. If I understand antirealism properly nothing in the corpus of antirealist thought can possibly be about (signify) the quantum world which is washed out long before the point where the external horizon appears to phenomenal experience.

Although I am not an antirealist, I enjoy reading Zizek. This book is long and dense, but his enthusiasm and humor reveal themselves throughout. I enjoy reading philosophers who are passionate about their work and at the same time refuse to take themselves too seriously. It’s hard to tell if Zizek takes himself too seriously. I don’t think so, but this ambiguity coupled with a little self-deprecating humor (where do you see that otherwise in philosophy these days) is all a part of the book’s charm.

To finish this review, I do want to give kudos to the publisher (Verso Books)! I recently read a 125 page Kindle book priced at $40 (greedy publisher who shall remain unnamed). This book is 1000 pages long and only $11! Very reasonable! Highly recommended for Zizek fans and anyone interested in a forcefully argued interpretation of Hegel and much of antirealist thought from Kant to Meillassoux.