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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.


Chaosmos: Does religious ritual have to preserve humanity from chaos and entropy?

Recently I came across a theological post that struck me with fascination but one that, I concluded, was ultimately erroneous (the original article can be found here). The argument purports that the practice of liturgy is necessary to preserve humanity from the onrush of chaos. More specifically, the author David Gelernter notes that the second law of thermodynamics “helps to write a commentary on religion”. He claims additionally, more boldly this time, given the Second Law, science must therefore sit “at the feet of religion”. Although this statement is obscurely unclear, he implies that religion must defy the “onrush of chaos”, the propensity of the universe to run down. Or again, the entropy of the universe naturally moves towards chaos, disorder, and “mixed-upness”. To be sanctified then, according to Gelernter, is to separate “the forward-tumbling chaos of ordinary time” from the rest of existence.

Although the argument is provocative, if not at least interesting, there is plenty of scientific evidence and theoretical speculation that is pointing in a divergent direction. The claim presented here, as follows, argues that order or cosmos presupposes chaos, what we can describe as chaosmology, to use a Joycean phrase. A brief theological interpretation is attempted here in response to the aforementioned post, but the present argument will go much further in elaborating the distinct contribution of systems theory and the idea that systems, structures or existent entities in general require some degree of unsystematic, unstructured or unrepresentable substance as their necessary condition of possibility. (For what I consider a more persuasive account of theological ‘becoming’ see Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, or related posts here and here).

A central axiom of dynamic systems theory is the notion that order emerges from and even presupposes chaos. In fact, even once constituted, chaos continues to circulate within identifiable and ordered entities as a vital force to the continuation of those very identities. Indeed, it is the very lifeblood or life-force of existent individuals. To be desiccated of these ‘crowned anarchies’ or ‘nomadic distributions’, to employ the terminology of Deleuze, identifiable entities would in effect – metaphorically – bleed out and die, or as Deleuze puts it, collapse into the immobile fascist body.

To use an example of Deleuze’s, the becoming of sedimentary rock is a process that involves the transformation of heterogeneous sedimentary particles through a filtering process into consistent, homogeneous layers. In other words, the identifiable entity of sedimentary rock is recognized through a process of differentiation and differenciation in which the ‘unstructured’ flows of sediment are strained and condensed to form a critical density mass. Indeed, the formalized and structured entity of sedimentary rock presupposes as its own condition of possibility the fluid and chaotic-like substance of sedimentary particles.

This process can again be reversed, as Deleuze notes in the opening of Difference and Repetition: “The constants of one law are in turn variables of a more general law, just as the hardest rocks become soft and fluid matter on the geological scale of millions of years. So at each level, it is in relation to large, permanent natural objects that the subject of a law experiences its own powerlessness…” (p. 2). Although the case cannot be seen as readily in rocks as in living organisms, “a dynamic system involves stability, slowness, and stratified elements, while also requiring the flexibility to adapt, transform, and destabilize these very elements” (Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 221). Put simply, the synthesis and cementation of heterogeneous elements into a homogeneous, self-consistent strata can always in turn collapse back into its disparate parts.

The point is, for Deleuze and Guattari, as follows: the differentiation of unstructured, indeterminate ‘anarchic’ flows is the necessary facilitation for the possibility of various new stable and consistent forms to emerge in the cosmos. Of course, this process does not guarantee success, but no new states or determinate substances can emerge without this condition. Or to repeat Nietzsche’s claim, one must have chaos in one’s self to give birth to a dancing star.

This peculiar tendency of stable objects emerging from ostensible chaos is lucidly described in detail in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, a passage worth quoting at considerable length:

A guiding question of recent work in dynamic systems is how order – that is, the sophisticated, stable patters which are readily apparent – are able to emerge despite the second law of thermodynamics, which states that order tends to move to chaos, or that systems in disequilibrium tend to move to equilibrium.[…] To take a frequently cited example, oil, when heated, will suddenly exhibit convection rolls and vortices as it is heated and before it boils. Before the oil is heated, the oil is in an equilibrium state in which entropy is at a maximum; in other words, the oil molecules are randomly scattered throughout the container such that no order or consistency is present. One section of the container would be indistinguishable from another. We thus have chaos, or a random set of points with no identifiable order, what is called ‘equilibrium thermal chaos.’ When heated, however, the oil moves away from equilibrium, and it is under these conditions that the convection rolls and vortices appear. Once the oil is in a full boil, chaos reappears, or ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos,’ and subsequently one section of the boiling oil is indistinguishable from any other. Dynamic systems and chaos theorists will pay particular attention to far-from-equilibrium conditions, and more precisely to the order which emerges at the critical threshold between equilibrium and non-equilibrium chaos.

The far-from-equilibrium conditions which give rise to spontaneous order most often occur during what is called phase transition. A phase transition is a transition between two steady and stable equilibrium states, such as liquid and gas, or liquid and solid. As these systems approach a phase transition, they enter a far-from-equilibrium state wherein self-organized patterns tend to emerge, and at a critical point (e.g., of temperature), there is a discontinuous jump to the new phase. Related to these phase transitions, and also occurring in far-from-equilibrium conditions, is the phenomenon of bifurcations. As Ilya Priogogine and Isabelle Stengers discuss bifurcations in their well-known book Order out of Chaos, a bifurcation point arises at a critical point where a system is poised to transition and when not just one stable state but, rather, ‘two new stable solutions emerge.’ For example, at the critical point where the stable solution of a convection roll appears in the heated oil the rolling motion may assume either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction – both solutions are possible. Which solution, or which branch of the bifurcation the system will ‘choose,’ is impossible to predict: ‘How will the system choose between left and right? There is an irreducible random element; the macroscopic equation cannot predict the path the system will take … We are faced with the chance events very similar to the fall of dice.’ As the oil is heated, further bifurcations appear, rolls within rolls, in what is called a process of ‘cascading bifurcations,’ which then leads to turbulent chaos. A bifurcation diagram of such a process between ‘equilibrium thermal chaos’ and ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos’ is surprisingly ordered, or ‘order or coherence is sandwiched between thermal chaos and non-equilibrium turbulent chaos’ (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, pp. 200-201)

Eminem’s threshold of intensity

In a somewhat fortuitous and nerdy connection, the first time I heard Eminem’s latest album immediately what came to mind was Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a plateau. Eminem is the prince of intensity, that is, he sustains intense levels of energy or a plateau that neither collapse nor climax. In the translator’s foreword to A Thousand Plateaus Brian Massumi’s offers a preliminary definition regarding the notion of a plateau:

In Deleuze and Guattari, a plateau is reached when circumstances combine to bring an activity to a pitch of intensity that is not automatically dissipated in a climax. The heightening of energies is sustained long enough to leave a kind of aferimage of its dynamism that can be reactivated or injected into other activities, creating a fabric of intensive states between which any number of connecting routes could exist (p. xiv)

Eminem’s experimental dynamic music subsists at a level that neither swerves beyond all identifiable limits of uncontrolled chaos nor into a register of smothering rhythm. Instead, he maintains a functioning system between the two extremes of a stable, consistent strata and an unstructured flow. Eminem’s music is, therefore, paradoxical: the condition of possibility for his unique lyricism is the fundamental both / and of pure chaos and pure order. To fall to either side of the delicate balance would undermine his success. In their isolation, to use the language of Deleuze and Guattari, unstructured flow would be the ‘cancerous body’, obstructed flow the ‘fascist body’.

Eminem raps at the edge of chaos: his rap is “is both complete, ordered, and incomplete and chaotic” (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 10). In this sense, his songs are ‘chaosmic’: simultaneously excessive and contained. As Bell says, in another context, chaos and cosmos must be kept in precarious equilibrium: “Neither chaos nor cosmos should be realized to the exclusion of the other. A functioning system would collapse under either of the two possibilities – pure chaos would destroy just as readily as pure cosmos, for to function a system needs order and predictability (cosmos), but to be able to adapt to novel, unforeseen situations a system needs to experiment with untried, uncommon methods (chaos). Both chaos and cosmos are necessary…” (p. 36).

For Deleuze and Guattari, this non-actualized undifferentiated force always subsists virtually within all dynamic systems but is not identifiable as such. Instead, it is only every accessible as filtered, sustained and contained in a given actualized stable state. Moreover, “stable, identifiable states and systems presuppose, as a condition of possibility, dynamic, virtual systems” (p. 173). That is to say, unrestrained force continues to inhere in an identifiable system as its circulating life-blood even after it has stabilized in a concrete, determinate form. Identifiable systems, therefore, are always at risk of collapsing into chaos if the force becomes unrestrained past its threshold of order. Or, to go to the other extreme, systems are threatened by death when the flows are blocked—the equivalent of bleeding an organism dry. It goes without saying: all living systems are in flux by nature.

Although I believe any song of Eminem’s would have suited for our purposes, Eminem’s rap in ‘No Love’ is explicitly at the threshold of intensity in the same manner that Massumi identifies at work in Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of dynamic systems. If Eminem had pushed the lyrics closer together the unity would seemingly have been lost. Similarly, if they had been spread apart he would likely cease to be interesting or significant (he might as well be ‘dead’). Eminem sings as though he’s about to derail. State otherwise, he’s at the edge of chaos. I’d like to see how far he could ‘deterritorialize’ the flows, that is, how close he could get to the limit of absolute chaos while still maintaining some semblance of structure. Experimental jazz improvisation certainly adopts a similar strategy of chaosmos, I just happen not to have as many examples at-hand.

I actually tried to see what I could do to ‘nomad-ize’ Eminem with Final-Cut Pro, but given my limited knowledge of the program (which is none) my deterritorializing efforts were frustrated. I had attempted to simply cut out the choruses, instrumental fillers and other ‘extraneous’ movements to get to Eminem in his ‘purity’. Although, upon further reflection, I think this approach is fairly crude, viz. it presupposes that everything surrounding Eminem’s lyrics is supplemental, inessential and prosthetic. If I were to try the process again I would have to rethink my strategy. Suggestions are certainly welcome.

For those more interested in chaos theory, here is an excellent post.