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After Finitude

Philosophy has always arisen as a response to big, burdening metaphysical questions like “where do we come from?” and “why do we exist?” Quentin Meillassoux, in his brief but profound book recently translated from the French by Ray Brassier, After Finitude, confidently surveys the trajectory of contemporary philosophy in meeting these obstacles and uncovers a remarkable consequence that it has entailed; viz., the resurgence of irrational religiosity.

The philosophy of finitude, represented by postmodernity, maintains that our finite experience of life is the ultimate horizon of human knowledge. There is no absolute truth, thinking the absolute is pretentious. We have no grounds for claiming that a determinate reality—whether it is this God, this society, or this ideology—must necessarily exist the way it is. The recognition that we are finite and limited beings thrown into a particular time and place discredits all discourses that claim access to ultimate truth.

More to the point, radical finitude owes its strength to what Meillassoux calls “correlationism”. Correlationism, in a word, proscribes any knowledge of the absolute. Whereas pre-critical naïve realism took it for granted that objects appeared to subjects as they actually were, the basic line of argument for correlationism is that objects are relative to the subjects perceiving them. We have no access to things-in-themselves so all knowledge is conditioned by our finite apprehension of sensible qualities.

This umbilical link between objects and subjects is all that remains. In a sense, correlationism absolutizes the correlation itself.

But if objects are unthinkable apart from how they appear to us, then it seems unjustifiable to assert that something, rather than absolute nothingness, subsists beyond our representations. Contemporary philosophy is utterly agnostic on this point.

For Meillassoux, it is clear that correlationism “culminates in the disappearance of the pretension to think any absolutes, but not in the disappearance of absolutes.” In other words, contemporary philosophy has exposed the inherent limits of thought and has left a deficient gap of knowledge in its wake. Metaphysical problems like “why is there something rather than nothing?” still occur, but philosophers now admit no solution.

The unforeseen upshot Meillassoux catches sight of in this skeptical position is a shocking return to superstition. Reason cannot answer why what is, is the way it is, so religious belief systems, including the most alarming ones, have served to posit some supreme meaning underlying all things. In perhaps his strongest chapter, “Metaphysics, Fideism, Speculation”, Meillassoux demonstrates how “correlationism itself does not maintain any irrational position” but is incapable of disqualifying “irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality.” Radical finitude can only think the limits of thought; “it makes no positive pronouncements whatsoever about the absolute.”

In trying to prevent any claims regarding the absolute, the critique of metaphysics has paradoxically fueled fanaticism and a form of ultimate truth that only fideistic piety can provide.

What seems obvious to Meillassoux, however, is that philosophy could have gone in another direction other than correlationism. The great Galilean-Copernican revolution discovered for the first time thought’s capacity to gain knowledge of the world independently of thought’s relation with it. Moreover, the very inception of empirical science replaced myths and fabulations with repeatable experiments that could test and rationally support one theory over another concerning a world unaffected by human existence or inexistence.

In the simplest possible terms: modern science indicated the autonomy of an object without recourse to a subject’s correlation with it.

Nevertheless, instead of reorienting itself in an attempt to think the revolutionary potential of science, modern philosophy carried out its own “counter-revolution”—chiefly with the transcendental idealism of Kant and Berkley—which asserted that the subject was still central to the process of knowledge; viz., correlationism.

But, conceding the stability and apparent permanence of nature’s physical laws that can be empirically studied, it is still plausible that given the same initial conditions “a hundred different events” could have resulted. While majority opinion objects that this universe could not possibly have occurred by erratic chance, scientific discourse knows that “the acausal universe is just as consistent and just as capable of accounting for our actual experience as the causal universe”. The crucial difference between the two hypotheses, however, is that an acausal universe is devoid of enigmas in need of superfluous explanation.

If, then, an extreme form of incalculable chaos underlies every aspect of empirical constancy it stands to reason that chaos itself, rather than God or even the visible world, is the only determinate absolute.

Meillassoux identifies the exigent task of philosophy today as overcoming the current deadlock between ideological dogmatism and skeptical fanaticism. He thinks that if the great schism dividing science and philosophy is resolved it may succeed “in waking us from our correlationist slumber.”

The task Meillassoux sets for himself in his unique model of “Speculative Materialism” involves some way of thinking a non-metaphysical and non-religious absolute without regressing to either naïve realism or correlationism; neither of which are viable nor desirable to resuscitate.

Meillassoux proffers that scientific knowledge of reality insists that there is no ultimate Reason governing the world. Everything springs forth from an omnipotent “hyper-Chaos.” But unlike relativist postmodernism, this speculative thesis is a “positive knowledge” without any marks of finite and limited knowledge. There is no other meaning capable of expanding our understanding of existence; especially not an inappropriate religious one.

To be clear, Meillassoux takes metaphysical problems to be genuine ones. “Why is the world thus and not otherwise?” is an excellent question and Meillassoux’s remarkable reply is “for no reason!” There really are answers. There are no mysteries after all.

It is worth asking, on the other hand, whether Meillassoux’s speculative thinking could coincide with a return to a non-anthropological metaphysics rather than abandoning it altogether. As other speculative realists have found, sometimes where the danger grows is also where the solution hides. This would, at least, curtail the ethico-political wilderness that Meillassoux is ostensibly journeying towards.

One thing is for sure, Meillassoux will wake up comatose metaphysicians and fundamentalists alike.

Lions and Children and Fanaticism, Oh My!

Although contemporary philosophers and religious fundamentalists appear to be bitter enemies, Meillassoux has aptly shown that they are more like friends than foes; they are but two sides of the same coin. That is because philosophy still asks important questions such as “why is the world thus and not otherwise?”, “where do we come from?” and “why do we exist?” but admits there is in fact no solution to such problems. Metaphysical questions such as these cannot be answered, they say, because our thought is intrinsically limited and inadequate to the task. Therefore, the questions remain but are surrounded by mystery and enigmas rather than clarity.

The remarkable outcome of this situation is a renewed recourse to superstition. Since it is still believed that there must be ineffable reasons underlying all things, some sort of constant absolute that escapes our intelligence, religiosity in all its forms has stepped into the gap. This is what Meillassoux has termed a “see-sawing between metaphysics and fideism.”

This scenario is not unlike the Nietzschean passage from Lion to Child that Žižek has commented on in The Parallax View. It reads as such:

[I]t is not yet possible for us, caught as we are in the web of the reflective attitude of nihilism, to enter the ‘innocence of becoming,’ the full life beyond justification; all we can do is engage in ‘self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness,’ that is, bring the moralistic will-to-truth to its self-cancellation, because aware of the truth about will-to-truth itself (that it is an illusion of and for the weak). We ‘cannot create new values,’ we can only be the Lion who, in an outburst of active nihilism, clears the table and thus ‘creates freedom for new creation’; it is after us that the Child will appear who will mark ‘a new Beginning, a sacred Yes’ (p. 43)

Žižek’s point is the same as Meillassoux’s: the critique of metaphysics (the “attitude of nihilism”) can only clear the table of dogmatism. However, in its wake, this space-clearing gesture provides an opening for “new beginnings,” “new creations” and “new values;” viz., Nietzsche’s will-to-power. The only viable gesture left after radical doubt, in other words, is a just do it spontaneity that is “not covered by any rational consideration.” This “innocent” child-like wager (read becoming) is a “fundamental practico-ethical decision about what kind of life one wants to commit oneself to” that is founded on nothing other than radical irrationality; what Badiou calls “anti-philosophy” and attributes to the legacy of both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. What Žižek fails to miss, it seems, and the possibility that Meillassoux suggests, is that these post-metaphysical choices include the most menacing ones. In the simplest possible terms: all professions of faith whatsoever are legitimated, even the worst forms of violence that are divinely sanctioned for an elect few. Meillassoux insists, rather, that we can indeed answer the aforementioned metaphysical questions with affirmative solutions to avoid fideistic outbreaks while simultaneously steering clear of a regression to dogmatism:

As a result, metaphysical problems are revealed always to have been genuine problems, since they do admit of a solution. But their resolution depends on one precise and highly constraining condition – that we begin to understand that in reply to those metaphysical questions that ask why the world is thus and not otherwise, the response ‘for no reason’ is a genuine answer. Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like ‘Where do we come from?’, “why do we exist?’, we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies ‘From nothing. For nothing’ really are answers, thereby realizing that these really were questions – and excellent ones at that. There is no longer a mystery, not because there is no longer a problem, but because there is no longer a reason (After Finitude, 110)

The Cognitive Void Post-Metaphysical Mediation

Quentin Meillassoux has aptly shown how fideistic religion has covertly emerged in the “appalling vacuum” left by the withdrawal of metaphysical mediation which previously accounted for what was real and desirable. It was shown that when the correlation between objects and subjects becomes absolute there is no longer any criterion for eliminating possible discourses that rush in to fill this “cognitive void”. John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy however offer a renewed metaphysics that avoids the double danger of hermeneutic despair and hermeneutic arrogance. In The Future of Love Milbank argues that finite reality is a gift of creation and, as such, all created things “participate in the divine creative power” in fashioning our own world. Contemporary philosophy is generally associated with a despairing attitude that “anything goes” because nothing is illegitimate. But Milbank argues that the flux or void beneath our life meanings is not a challenge to the transcendent due to the theological axiom that creatures have been gifted the creativity to create their own “complex and always relatively stable” world.

The issue then is to understand just how the process of temporal becoming participates in the eternal procession of the creation from the divine Trinity, which is itself a kind of eternal and perfected process of emanation and yet equally a process of internal ‘becoming’ (p. 330)

Milbank names this participation in creativity imagination. As such, imagination is “the threshold between matter and spirit” and a “fusion of sensation and thought”. That is, the mind is capable of a primary imagination that is able to rationally reflect upon and understand existence while simultaneously employing a secondary function of imagination that is able to contemplate its modification.

For a greater sense of our reliance upon the primary imagination grounds thought back in sensation and image, and makes us realize that our thinking is inseparable from our corporeal living and from all that has really happened to us. On the other hand, the further release of the secondary imagination (escaping from ecclesiastical, political, and sexual censorship), reveals to us the fluidity of physical nature as such and the way that form and image is far more intrinsically spectral than even rational speculation (p. 332)

In this mode of theology, Milbank is inhabiting a rationally informed faith that might avoid Meillasoux’s double-bind of dogmatism or relativism. For Milbank imagination is the “between” of contemplating historical events and visualizing alternative pictures or symbols. Even if these fictions may never be fully enacted, such as we find in literature, they nonetheless serve as reminders that our given reality is not ontologically necessary. The blend of (1) understanding and (2) transforming our world that Milbank calls imagination is, in fact, theology.

The End of Metaphysics = The Return of the Religious

Ideology is contingent upon a particular social situation. The critique of metaphysics knows this much is true. In fact, the refusal of dogmatic metaphysics is “the minimal condition for every critique of ideology, insofar as an ideology cannot be identified with just any variety of deceptive representation, but is rather any form of pseudo-rationality whose aim is to establish that what exists as a matter of fact exists necessarily” (Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, pp. 33-4).

The way “radical finitude” or “postmodernity” came to reject absolutism was an acknowledgment of how thinking pertains to a particular a time and place. The corollary to this pre-critical or naïve realism was a kind of pretentious dogmatism that took every existing political, social, religious institution as a necessary given; a reality that must be the way it is. The wisdom of critical philosophy, and Kant in particular, was an understanding that the in-itself of a given object could never be grasped in its purity but was always mediated by the subject’s experience of the object. In other words, there would always be a correlation between objects and subjects, never an independence of either. Correlationism maintains that it is illegitimate to think the thing-in-itself by itself because the in-itself is unknowable apart from the subject’s apprehension of the object. But post-critical philosophy went one step further and questioned whether the in-itself even existed beyond our representations. They asked: Is there something independent of thought? Is there something beyond our representations? Is there anything outside of phenomena? By abolishing the in-itself because it is unthinkable and radically inaccessible to thought “strong correlationism” was left only with the relation between the subject and object. In a sense, this correlation has become absolutized itself. Objectivity is ruled out. Subjectivity is ruled out. The correlation between the two is all that remains. The concluding argument of contemporary philosophy regarding the de-absolutization model is as follows:

One could maintain that phenomena have no basis in things-in-themselves, and that all that exists are ‘phenomenal realms’, which is to way, transcendental subjects, coordinated between themselves but unfolding and ‘floating’ in the midst of an absolute nothingness into which everything could dissolve once more were human species to disappear….As far as we know, no one has ever come back form a voyage into the in-itself with a guarantee that meaning is absolute (p. 35-6)

The remarkable consequence of disqualifying rational argumentation is that anything now goes; what is popularly termed relativism. More accurately stated, “it becomes rationally illegitimate to disqualify irrational discourses about the absolute on the pretext of their irrationality” (p. 41). So even while discourses, particularly religious belief, may be scientifically and logically meaningless, they continue to be meaningful for people who are looking for some absolutes in the vacuum left by the critique of metaphysics.

Yet correlationism itself does not maintain any irrational position, whether religious or poetic; it makes no positive pronouncements whatsoever about the absolute; rather it confines itself to thinking the limits of thought, these functioning for language like a frontier only one side of which can be grasped. Thus, correlationism provides no positive ground for any specific variety of religious belief, but it undermines reason’s claim to be able to disqualify a belief on the grounds that its content is unthinkable (p. 41)

To put it in other words, since it is now conceptually illegitimate to refute any sort of religious belief then it follows that no possibility can be ruled out by philosophy. All discourses become legitimate and validly justified. Meillassoux summarizes the situation as such:

…by forbidding reason any claim to the absolute, the end of metaphysics has taken the form of an exacerbated return of the religious. Or again, the end of ideologies has taken the form of the unqualified victory of religiosity….Consequently, by destroying metaphysics, one has effectively rendered it impossible for a particular religion to use a pseudo-rational argumentation against every other religion. But in doing so – and this is the decisive point – one has inadvertently justified belief’s claim to be the only means of access to the absolute….Faith is pitched against faith, since what determines our fundamental choices cannot be rationally proved (pp. 45-6)

The end of pretentious metaphysics invariably leads to the victory of fideism. Piety is now esteemed equal to thought and ultimate truth. Every form of fideistic belief whatsoever is legitimate. All professions of faith are justified, even the worst forms of violence that are divinely sanctioned for an elect few.

Accordingly, the contemporary devolution towards the wholly-other (the otherwise empty object of the profession of faith) is the strict and inevitable obverse of interpreting the obsolescence of the principle of sufficient reason as reason’s discovery of its own essential inability to uncover and absolute – thus, fideism is merely the other name for strong correlationism (p. 48)

The contemporary paradox is as follows: we do not want to regress to ideological dogmatism, but we also must defend ourselves against skeptical fanaticism. Rather than bury belief further in the past, it seems as though the victorious critique of ideologies has led to a “renewed argument for blind faith” (p. 49). Meillassoux’s speculative solution is to refute dogmatic metaphysics but maintain the absolute. “In other words, we must think an absolute necessity without thinking anything that is absolutely necessary” (p. 34). He thinks we can do this by thinking objects before correlations were even a possibility; for instance in ancestral statements, such as the origin of the universe.