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.

6 thoughts on “Review: After Finitude

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s