Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sufficient reason & contradiction, together again.

Meillassoux's readiness to abandon the principle of sufficient reason is not, er, sufficiently remarked. I noted earlier that this step is what validates his argument that "for no reason" is a sufficient response to the "question of being," "why is there anything and not nothing?" I observed then that it is hard to imagine Socrates being satisfied by such a response. To consider this "answer" sufficient requires a revision of the concept of sufficiency. This is what one calls in some circles "re-defining success."

Barfield, to whom I have already contrasted Meillassoux, was (again) here first. He is speaking here of Darwinian evolution, but the point is more broadly applicable:
It was found that the appearances on earth [i.e., of biological life] so much lack the regularity of the appearances in the sky that no systematic hypothesis will fit them. But astronomy and physics had taught men that the business of science is to find hypotheses to save the appearances. By a hypothesis, then, these earthly appearances must be saved, and saved they were by the hypothesis of—chance variation. Now the concept of chance is precisely what a hypothesis is designed to save us from. Chance, in fact, = no hypothesis…. The impressive vocabulary of technological investigation was actually being used to denote its [own] breakdown; as though, because it is something we can do with ourselves in water, drowning should be included as one of the different ways of swimming. (Saving the Appearances p 64)
It would take me far afield to differentiate what is sound and what mistaken in Barfield’s account of evolutionary biology (even if I were assured of my competence). But I am juxtaposing him again to Meillassoux not merely because of his having anticipated the latter’s argument about ancestrality by fifty years (this really is remarkable enough to deserve some comment by bigger enthusiasts of Meillassoux than myself), but also because Meillassoux’s readiness to throw over the principle of sufficient reason is the mirror image and answer to the alleged ease with which, Lévy-Bruhl claims, primitive humanity (rich in the participatory consciousness Barfield unpacks) dispenses with the law of non-contradiction. This, in turn, is the one logical principle upon which Meillassoux builds his edifice, the one he is prepared to stake everything upon.

As is well known, it is these two that Leibniz declared essential to philosophy in the Monadology §§31–32: “Our reasonings are based on two great principles, that of contradiction… [and] that of sufficient reason.”

When I am in an especially Hegelian mood, I find myself thinking that the history of thought unfolds between these two “laws.” In such moments, it takes a considerable effort for me not to construe Meillassoux’s thinking as a kind of dialectical bookend to Barfield’s notion of “original participation.” As if the human race started with a weltanschauung that knew nothing of contradiction, and has ended up apparently ready--at least in speculative realism--to throw over the principle of sufficient reason. Whether this philosophy can be expanded into an entire world-view is another question of course. But hold these two philosophies up and look at them together, especially bearing in mind Meillassoux's campaign against "superstition" (a.k.a. fideism), and it really is as if something has come full-circle. I find myself muttering, "surely some revelation is at hand." However much I remind myself that Meillassoux isn't actually the culmination of any inevitable process (cutting-edge though he may look right now), I am still given pause by this.


  1. I think you've got to be careful with the reading of Meillassoux's rejection of sufficient reason you seem to put forward above. As far as I understand it, although ultimately everything that happens happens 'for no reason', the fact that the there is something rather than nothing is supposed to follow from the necessity of contingency. So, against Heidegger, he thinks that this fundamental question of metaphysics has an answer, it's just not what either of them would classify as a 'metaphysical' one.

    That aside, I agree that the intersection of the principles of non-contradiction and sufficient reason is of utmost importance. There is some limited sense in which Hegel wants to suspend the former (along with contemporary dialethists), and some limited sense in which Meillassoux wants to suspend the latter (along with Zizek, Badiou and other contemporary indeterminists). I think we've got to resist both of these moves and defend both principles, not principally because they tell us about the structure of the world (e.g., that it is non-contradictory, or that it must have a first cause or some such), but rather because it is the demands that these principles place upon us which drive the process of rational inquiry, forcing us to revise our commitments (to remove incompatibilities) and forcing us to expand our commitments (by continually seeking deeper grounds).

    Rejecting these principles is tantamount to sabotaging the engine of rational inquiry, be it scientific or otherwise. It is of course a challenge to interpret the metaphysical significance of sufficient reason without falling into the onto-theological trap of classical rationalism, but it is possible.

  2. Pete,

    Always a pleasure to get your perceptive comments.

    You are right, there is a kind of minimal necessity in After Finitude: things are as they are and not another way simply because it is necessary for something to be the case. I will await further elucidation from Meillassoux (at least the translations forthcoming in Harman's book on him) before I speculate too much further. But while I see that M's move putting contingency "first", so to speak, facilitates some of his countermoves against fideism and idealism and other positions he disagrees with, and while I appreciate the novelty of this move, I do not see what makes it compelling, unless one likes the moves it makes possible. M.'s claim that things are as they are "for no reason" comes down to saying that pine though we might for a an ultimate account of why things are, reality just is not the sort of place that will give us that. Well then, fine, but let's not say that this itself is an ultimate account!

    In the post, I am being willfully provocative (but I hope not mean-spirited) when I try to imagine Socrates being satisfied w/ such an answer. Of course, Socrates shrugged plenty, and I don't think that a shrug is an impermissible move in philosophy. But I do think we should call a shrug a shrug.

    I will come clean, though, and acknowledge that I have a higher tolerance for "metaphysics" in the old pejorative sense. I do see the trap-ishness of "the onto-theological trap," but that trap is baited with something, and that something answers to a deep desire which I am not inclined to merely [psycho]analyze away.

    A question for you: when you write that we need to hold to both principles (Suf R. and Non-Contr.), "because it is the demands that these principles place upon us which drive the process of rational inquiry, forcing us to revise our commitments (to remove incompatibilities) and forcing us to expand our commitments (by continually seeking deeper grounds)," I feel I can read this in at least two ways-- a Kantian way that sees these as features of how we have to see the world (whether or no the world "is that way,") and a pragmatist (or even quasi-Wittgensteinian) way that sees these as discursive norms without which what we are doing is "not what we call rational inquiry," or some such. I suspect neither of these is quite what you want, though. Without asking you to recap everything you've said elsewhere, I wonder-- if you have time/patience-- can you clarify how (or if) you distinguish your defense of Suf.R and Non-C from these two reads specifically?

  3. I suppose I find Meillassoux's supposed answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing compelling because it avoids the onto-theological trap of positing some special entity which would function as the ground of everything. He would call this a non-metaphysical solution to the problem, but I don't accept the identification of metaphysics and onto-theology. However, I'm in complete agreement with you that the price for this answer is too high.

    To answer your question, I think that there is a good sense in which my approach is both Kantian and pragmatist. I think that these principles are part of the transcendental norms governing rational inquiry, and therefore features of the way we have to see the world. I suppose what distinguishes my approach is that I don't accept the qualifier "whether or not the world is that way". I don't think that the world could be any other way.

    Now, I can't reiterate all of the reasons for my position here, but I'll do my best to explain why I think this way. For me, metaphysics is a matter of interpreting or giving content to the formal structure of the world, which is just the structure of thought about the world. There are various metaphysical questions which correspond to the formal features of thought (or categories) that must be so interpreted, such as 'What are entities?', 'What are properties?', 'What is modality?', 'What is causality?', etc., and what it is to ask what the metaphysical structure of the world is is just to ask all of these questions together.

    As such, given the assumption that the structure of thought necessarily (i.e., transcendentally) involves predication, I don't think it makes any sense to say that the world in itself involves no properties. The assumption that there are properties is built into the meaning of the metaphysical question about how the world is in itself. This doesn't seem that controversial a claim when our example is properties, because it's hard to defend the idea of a world without properties. It gets more controversial when you get into seemingly less fundamental features of thought, such as modality, or non-contradiction and sufficient reason (which really place constraints on how predication, existence, modality, causality and whatnot are to be understood). The more it seems like there could perhaps be thought without these things, the more it seems like perhaps there could be a world that did not have the corresponding structural features. I simply maintain that all of this 'seeming' is misleading. It's analogous to the way in which it 'seems' like there could be a mathematical system that is both complete and consistent, because this doesn't contradict our 'intuitive' grasp of what mathematics is. The answer to the former is that your 'intuitive' grasp of thought and world is inadequate, just as the answer to the latter is that your 'intuitive' grasp of mathematics is inadequate.

    So, I think that as long as we can demonstrate that non-contradiction and sufficient reason are transcendental norms of thought, we know that any adequate metaphysical picture of the world must not only be consistent with them, but must also provide an interpretation of their metaphysical significance. Does that make any sense?

  4. Pete, Yes, this answer is very to the point. Thanks. I am gratified to see that you think I haven't got you totally wrong. I like how you expand from arguing that properties are indispensable, to asserting the same of modality or our two principles here. But I'm struck by something-- you say that thinking the world could be without SR or N-C is like thinking that mathematics could be both complete and consistent. This analogy seems problematic to me: the first half is imagining the world without some feature we have long taken for granted (SR or N-C); the second half imagines the world (or one aspect of it, the mathematical) with a feature that we long took for granted (since it long seemed unproblematic that maths should be consistent and completable in principle). It's fine to argue that this taking-for-granted was based upon a faulty intuitive grasp of mathematics; but I do not think this is quite the same as arguing that thinking that the world could be describable sans either SR or N-C, since these latter have always been a part of our intuition, and dispensing with them, however much we can make the gedankenexperiment work, is actually counter-intuitive. (At least, the way my intuition works!)

  5. I take your point. I think what I was trying to say was that the whole idea that there could be a world without X feature is dependent upon the idea that we have an independent grasp of the concept of world that doesn't contain this. The point was then that when we try to analyse this notion properly we find out that there are consequences of it that we did not initially grasp, and that the simple fact that we did not initially grasp them is not enough to justify the claim that they could have been otherwise. It doesn't matter whether these consequences demand some additional feature or prohibit it, the point is that in each case we are constrained by the proper analysis of the notion, be it 'world' or 'mathematics'.

    I hope that clears things up a bit. The point I'm trying to hammer home is that there are a lot of metaphysical positions that are prima facie plausible, but where this prima facie plausibility depends on a kind of tacit understanding of what metaphysics is. Once one does the hard work of analysing what metaphysics is, many of these positions are ruled out outright.

  6. Pete, I think we are reading each other correctly here. But in re-reading my own comment, I think I was a bit unclear, so even though you have answered to the point, I want to clarify that my argument is not about whether, as you put it, our prima facie plausible conclusions demand or prohibit a feature, but rather that some of these conclusions support, and some counter, our intuitions.

    Now in either of these cases, of course, we may find out that we need to reconsider based upon rigorous analysis. But in any case, we still need to account for our intuitions in the first place. Our intuition that maths ought to be consistent and complete may be wrong, but we need to be able to fit this realization together with the intuition it corrects. With the issue under discussion, things are a little different: it may be (as I take it we both agree) impossible to lose either SufR or Non-C, and this conclusion will in this case confirm rather than refute our intuition; in this case it refutes instead the argument that one could wholly dispense with either of these principles. This argument, to be sure, did have a kind of plausibility, but it was one that came at the cost of counter-intuitiveness.

    I should clarify, too, that I do not believe this cost is always too high -- I happen to like surprise in my metaphysics, and I take it that the best sort always confirms some intuitions by way of surprising counter-intuitive moves. This is, e.g., Kant through and through (c.f. Nietzsche on "Kant's joke," (Gay Science 193), or Russell on Bradley: "Metaphysics, according to F.H. Bradley, 'is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.' ...When [Bradley] was serious he was sophistical, and a typical philosopher; when he jested, he had insight and uttered unphilosophical truth."

    It's this dance of intuition and surprise that I take to be of the essence. Suf R and Non-C are, as it were, ways of describing the steps of the dance. I don't think we can do better than these for our choreography.

  7. I think we may have gotten our appeals to the notion of intuition cross (and I apologise if it's my fault). I agree that it indeed would be counter-intuitive for the world to not conform to SR and NC, just as it is counter-intuitive that mathematics cannot be both complete and consistent.

    What I was trying to point out was that the argument that the world *might* be such as to not conform to SR and NC generally depends upon assuming that we have some independent grasp of the notion of world, and that this does not necessarily incorporate them. This would make it an open question as to whether they hold, much as the open metaphysical question of whether there is a beginning in time, or that of whether there are fundamental entities. My argument is that this 'intuitive' grasp of the notion of the world is inadequate, and that a proper analysis can end up settling certain questions in advance.

    I've got nothing wrong with this analysis, or metaphysics itself, producing counter-intuitive results, and I even expect it to. That's half the fun I suppose ;)

  8. Pete, if there's been any mis-communication I'm sure I bear some responsibility for it. But I think I follow you here-- the notion that either SufR or NonC might not obtain is predicated on thinking(/intuiting) that we have some grasp of what the world is like aside from these. Thus our "intuition" here is that this could be, as you put it, an open question. Are you suggesting that our "grasp" of the world just is SufR and NonC? (Or at least that these are an essential part of such a grasp?) This is how I am reading you now.

    I have thought a lot more about counter-intuitive results in philosophy since writing the last comment, but I will have to put those reflections into a full post as they've gotten too long. Thank you for this exchange, it has given me a great deal to think about.

  9. I think we can draw a distinction between what the world is, in the sense of what it's essential structure is (as opposed to its contents), and what 'world' means. My claim is that in order to properly ask after the former (metaphysics), we've got to get clear about the latter (the critique of metaphysics). As I said above, I think if we properly analyse the notion we find that it has various essential aspects, including that it involves entities, properties and modality, but also that these are articulated in accordance with SR and NC.

    Now, this is all promissory, as I've actually got to prove all this, but this is what I think can be proved. In essence, the critique of metaphysics ends up ruling out any kind of indeterminist or dialethist metaphysics a priori, while nonetheless not fully determining which other metaphysical story is the correct one.