By the end of Chapter Three of Meillassoux’s After Finitude we are left with a rendering of the world reminiscent of Monadology, expect with some rather big differences. Meillassoux has described a world of chaos wherein each entity is at once self-contained, completely contingent and not connected to any one thing or another vis a vis a principle of reason etc. Naturally, this leads to a chapter long consideration of Hume, but Meillassoux insists “one unavoidable consequence of the principle of factiality is that it asserts the actual contingency of the laws of nature” (83). In the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes:
We have said that all arguments concerning existence are founded on the relation of cause and effect; that our knowledge of that relation is derived entirely from experience; and that all our experimental conclusions proceed upon the supposition that the future will be conformable to the past. To endeavour, therefore, the proof of this last supposition by probable arguments, or arguments regarding existence, must be evidently going in a circle, and taking that for granted, which is the very point in question.
…It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance…Let the course of things be allowed hitherto ever so regular; that alone, without some new argument or inference, proves not that, for the future, it will continue so.
Finally, Hume concludes:
In vain do you pretend to have learned the nature of bodies from your past experience. Their secret nature, and consequently all their effects and influence, may change, without any change in their sensible qualities. This happens sometimes, and with regard to some objects: Why may it not happen always, and with regard to all objects?
For Meillassoux, all of the philosophical interlocutors we met in the previous chapter believe in causation, the only difference being that some think that we can’t ever know the sources of the cause. While Meillassoux (for better or for worse) ultimately places Hume on the same side as the other philosophers he is criticizing, his argument rests on a distinction (which is generally conflated) between the necessity of the laws of nature and their stability. Thus, the problem is recast:
…we might ask how we are to explain the manifest stability of physical laws given that we take these to be contingent…if laws are contingent, and not necessary, then how is it that their contingency does not manifest itself in sudden and continual transformations? How could laws for which there is no permanent foundation give rise to a stable world? (92)
While many would think that the continual consistency of the physical world refutes any claim to contingency, and that if the laws of nature could change, they would have to change quite frequently. In After Finitude, Meillassoux is only concered with showing that this “frequential implication” is inadequate, especially the version put forth by Rene Vernes. Vernes defends “frequentilism” and invokes probability to argue that Hume and Kant both believe in the neccessity of laws. I’m not going to rehash Meillassoux’s account of Vernes argument, but here’s the gist:
The nub of the argument consists in registering the immense numerical gap between those possibilities that are conceivable and those that are actually experienced, in such a way as to derive from this gap the following probibalistic abberation: if physical laws could actually change for no reason, it would be extrordinarily improbable if they did not change frequentely, not to say frenitcally (99).
Meillassoux’s response to this is quite interesting and creative, and I certainly look forward to reading the fully developed critique of necessity and solution in his future work, but all in all, I found this to be provactive but not nearly as convincing as say, his hammering away at correlationism throughout the book (which is growing on me). Real “quick and dirty,” Meillassoux locates the underlying assumption that drives “frequenitalism” as a confusion of possibility with the sum total (if not infinite) of conceivable possibilities. Here’s Meillassoux again:
Thus, this probabilistic reasoning is only valid on condition that what is a priori possible be thinkable in terms of numerical totality (101).
Meillassoux distinquishes contingency from change and draws on Cantor’s principle of the transfinite–e.g. the quanitifable totality of the thinkable is unthinkable–to problematize the notion that talking about a totality of conceivable events at all. Again, I’m not going to reproduce the argument, so I’ll just let Meillassox speak for himself once again:
We have at our disposal one axiomatic capable of providing us with the necessary resources for thinking that the possible is untotalizable. However, the mere fact that wer are able to assume the truth of this axiomatic enables us to disqualify the necessitarian inference, and with it every reason for continuing to believe in the existence of the necessity of physical laws–a necessity that is mysteriously superimposed onto the fact of the stability of these same laws (105).
Nice move. In fact, if we commit ourselves to absolute contingency we cannot necessarily have any recourse to physical laws which means that once this very scaffolding of necessity is taken away, chance is impossible (109f). So, at bottom, Meillassoux is trying to illustrate that just because the stability of events that occur seems to be stable, it doesn’t imply any form of necessity. Meillassoux qualifies his argument by noting that in order to make such an account of nature more convincing an account of how stability emerges even in face of absolute contingency (110f). Issues for another book I suppose. And this doesn’t really minimize the overall argument and really, accomplishment of After Finitude (it’s only 128 pages after all!).
Again, in the closing paragraphs the Cartesian thread returns (and promises to return in future work):
…it is clear that such a resolution of the problem would require that we be in a position to do for mathematical necessity what we tried to do for logical necessity. We would have to be able to rediscover an in-itself that is Cartesian, and legitimate the absolute bearing of the mathematical–rather than merely logical–restitution of a reality that is construted as independent of the existence of thought (111).
This, says Meillassoux, will form the bridge between the problem of ancestrality and stability emerging from absolute contingency (111). It should be clear by now that ancestral occurences exist in themselves and not for us. The insistence of the philosophy of access is a direct result of the “Kantian catastrophe” in philosophy, and we should we jolted out of our “correlational slumber:”
In philosophical jargon “Copernican revolution” means that hte deeper meaning of science’s Copernican revolution is provided by philosophy’s Ptolemaic counter-revolution. We will henceforth refer to this “reversal of the reversal” as the “schism” of modern philosophy, which expresses the following paradox: it is only since philosophy has attempted to think rigorously the revolution in the realm of knowledge brought about by the advent of modern science that philosophy has renounced the very thing that constituted the essence of this revolution; that is to say, science’s non-correlational mode of knowing, in other words, its eminently speculative character (119).
Ultimately, if we read the two above quotes together, the retrieval of Descartes (from page 3) notion of mathematical necessity and absolutization without any recourse to the principle of reason, but instead the principle of factiality, is deployed in order to translate mathematical statements into necessary conditions of contingency. His position is an odd one: the absolutizing mathemetical necessity is to be brought to bear or rather, joined with the absolute contingency of the physical world, especially detailed throughout the chapter on Hume and in the final chapter, which verges on a rather damning critique of the Kantian legacy and its effects on both science and philosophy since.
All in all, I’m still evaluating the whole of the book, but it’s absolutly worth reading, if only for the clear and direct presentation (rather than those professors of Derrida Mikhail hates so much) and filled with strikingly original lines of argumentation. One thing I wonder is if the problem of ancestrality repeats the same mistake as say, a possible critique of Derrida, (I think launched by Zizek) viz., that Derrida generally rests deconstruction on something undeconstructable. That is to say, as something that persists in-itself and completely free from correlation, is the arch-fossil actually the “undeconstructible kernel” or uncontainable “excess” of the correlate? I don’t know. Perhaps the question does too much violence to Meillassoux, but it has been floating around in my head for a while now. Yet, this should not take away from what I thought was a rather novel book. If I’m not too lazy I’ll post some thoughts about the overall project later on.
For the morbidly curious and completely maschochistic, here are some prior Posts on After Finitude: