TA 114 (Simon Critchley on Quentin Meillassoux)


Commentary 1




by Herbert FJ Müller

20 April 2009, posted 25 April 2009




In the following I discuss Q. Meillassoux’s  book on finitude, contingency, and related questions, both as presented in his original French version, and as discussed by S. Critchley in the Times Literary Supplement.    It is reviewed in its  relation to my zero-derivation structuring view (0-D), a constructivism centered on Jaspers’ insight that the mind encompasses all mental structures, which leads to an explicit denial of   the possibility of mind-independently pre-structured reality (MIR, ontology);   including simple structures like gestalt-formations and qualia, which too are tools (and do not ‘represent’ onta).   Structures, and the differences between them, are not ontic but pragmatic.   This view is needed for the access to the mind-brain problem, which can  serve as a criterion for the adequacy of epistemological propositions.  


Abbreviations : 

[MIR] the view that reality is mind-independently pre-structured (metaphysics, ontology, realism, etc)

[QM] Quentin Meillassoux and his book

[SC] Simon Critchley and his review

[HFJM] my opinion, and papers listed at the end

[0-D] the zero-derivation structuring view of reality.




A general characteristic of Meillassoux’s discussion is that all his arguments presuppose belief in subject-exclusive mind-independently pre-structured reality (MIR).   This is only implied and not expressly stated, nor is the alternative, of subject-inclusive reality-structuring, mentioned (cf. for instance the Radical Constructivism of von Glasersfeld).




On Locke, primary and secondary qualities


[SC 1]  ‘...  we have knowledge of the world as it appears to us, but no knowledge of the world independent of us.  This, of course, recalls the famous Lockean distinction between primary and secondary qualities - that is, between qualities that are properties of objects independent of any observer (solidity, extension, figure and the like) and those qualities that are subjective (colour, sound, taste, etc). 


[QM p.16]  ‘Pour réactiver en termes contemporains la thèse cartésienne, et pour la dire dans les termes mêmes nous entendons la défendre, on soutiendra  donc ceci :  tout ce qui de l'objet peut être formulé en termes mathématiques, il y a sens à le penser comme propriété de l'objet en soi.   Tout ce qui, de l'objet, peut donner lieu à une pensée  mathématiqueune formule, à une numérisation), et non à une perception ou une sensation, il y a sens à en faire une propriété de la chose sans moi, aussi bien qu'avec moi.  


[HFJM]  This I find difficult to understand.    Many human activities, including perception, have a mathematical aspect.    For instance one can distinguish color perception in ‘mathematical terms’, namely according to wave lengths of light.    Does that make color perception a subject-exclusive thing-in-itself or not ?   Or grocery shopping ?




On  Kant  and  Things-in-Themselves


[SC 1-3]   ‘For Meillassoux, what happened in 1781 with the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason was a "catastrophe" ’ [QM p.166ff].   Against Kant, it is precisely this distinction [between primary and secondary qualities] that QM wants to defend, claiming that we can have access to primary qualities, to the world as it is in itself without being dependent on the existence of observers.   QM wants,  against Kant’s opinion that the observer cannot know things-in-themselves,   to ‘defend thought’s connection with the absolute’.   In Kant’s view, the outside world exists but it is only the correlate of concepts and categories through which we conceive of it. 


[QM p.14] ‘ la ‹chose en soi› qui est, au fond, ‹la chose sans moi› ’  


[HFJM]  Exactly, the thing-in-itself is assumed to be  mind-independently (subject-exclusively) pre-structured reality (MIR) :  it requires an ontological leap-of-faith.   But that can be converted into subject-inclusive reality-design,  mon dessin’, and we have access to it.




On  Ancestral  Statements


[SC 7]  As an example, there are ‘ancestral statements’ that refer to a time before humans existed.  They are projections from the perspective of the present.  ‘The correlationist either has to presuppose the material world that he philosophically disavows or simply deny its existence and fall prey to the windiest idealism.  If the correlationist affirms the former he is an intellectual hypocrite, if he embraces the latter he is defenceless against irrationalists like believers in creation.’ 


[p.28] Concerning the formation of the earth, one can only give mathematical expressions [p.37]; it does not make sense to talk about secondary qualities, because there were no humans.


[HFJM]  QM proposes that one has to choose between naïve realism and correlationism.   But this is a false alternative :  without giving a justification, QM implicitly pre-supposes the universality of MIR-belief (ontology, despite his repudiation of metaphysics), and thus that it is valid for both ‘realism’ and ‘correlationism’.   But the projections (or extrapolations, transcendences)  from now-ongoing experience with its structures, for instance backward in time, do not require MIR-belief.  



For QM’s MIR-view, there is a difference, in that only back events have already been MIReal, not future ones.   Although later he discusses later events as well (dia-chronicité, [p.156]), he does not address the question of the  ‘block universe’,  which results from the assumption of (‘mathematicized’) MIR-time and obliterates the difference between past, present, and future.


Postulating MIR naïvely is a practical shortcut, of practical help for many tasks, for instance in daily life, but in principle it is indefensible because MIR is a human construction.   There is no way of ‘proving’ MIR qua MIR :  it would mean proving that it is not a human construction.   However, in 0-D it can be used by converting it into a working hypothesis, a mental tool, ‘as-if-MIR’ or ‘working-MIR’.    This eliminates the problem of naïve MIR.    All structures are working structures, including objects and hypotheses,  posited; they are expected to be of help for understanding, handling, and prediction.     No structures can therefore be absolute, without subject-inclusive structuring.    The world is our structure, like all mental structures, and that includes structuring back in time.   They are our structures, whether for ‘now’, or for minutes or for billions of years backward or forward (and also concerning other aspects,  like distance in space,  or assumptions about hidden processes, etc).   



It is true that creationism too is a human structure.  The way to deal with it is to show its incompatibility with evolution, which is based on (extrapolated from) present findings, while creationism is not.   It does not require naïve MIR-belief to do that, as QM claims [pp.35-36].   In fact this is a good demonstration of the pseudo-questions and pseudo-answers prompted by naïve realism.


Incidentally, to see the pervasiveness of mathematical principles in nature, one does not have to back to the beginning of the universe or of the earth.   Soap bubbles on  water form close to perfect half-spheres, thus maximizing the enclosed space within the available enclosure.    They have formed in the same way before the invention of mathematics.   That is similar to what happened with increasing knowledge in chemistry, plate tectonics, evolution, and other fields of human endeavour, within and outside of science.    Without theism, we see things differently :   they become less anthropo-morphic and more indifferent.




The  Proposal :  A  Return  to  Descartes  and  to  Naïve  Realism   -   and its Problems


[QM pp.16-17]  ‘La thèse soutenue est donc double: d'une part on admet que le sensible n'existe que comme rapport d'un sujet au monde; mais d'autre part on considère que les propriétés mathématisables de l'objet sont exemptées de la contrainte d'un tel rapport, et qu'elles sont effectivement en l'objet tel que je les conçois, que j'aie rapport ou non à cet objet.  Avant de justifier cette thèse, il faut saisir en quoi celle-ci peut paraître absurde à un philosophe contemporain - et dévoiler la source précise de cette apparente absurdité.


Si cette thèse a toutes les chances de sembler vaine à un contemporain, c'est parce qu'elle est résolument précritique - parce qu'elle représente une régression à la position «naïve» de la métaphysique dogmatique. Nous venons en effet de supposer que la pensée pouvait discriminer entre les propriétés du monde qui ressortissent à notre relation à celui-ci, et les propriétés d'un monde «en soi», subsistant en lui-même indifféremment au rapport que nous entretenons avec lui. Or, on sait bien que cette thèse est devenue intenable depuis Kant, et même depuis Berkeley: thèse intenable, parce que la pensée ne saurait sortir d'elle-même pour comparer le monde « en soi » au monde « pour nous », et ainsi discriminer ce qui est à notre rapport au monde et ce qui n'appartient qu'au monde. Une telle entreprise est en effet autocontradictoire : au moment nous pensons que telle propriété appartient au monde en soi - nous le pensons, précisément, et une telle propriété se révèle donc elle-même essentiellement liée à la pensée que nous pouvons en avoir. Nous ne pouvons nous faire une représentation de l'en-soi sans qu'il devienne un «pour-nous» ou, comme le dit plaisamment Hegel, nous ne pouvons « surprendre » l'objet « par-derrière», en sorte de savoir ce qu'il serait en lui-même ...: ce qui signifie que nous ne pouvons rien connaître qui soit au-delà de notre relation au monde. ... ’


[HFJM]  Here QM outlines some of the difficulties of his proposal   -   to return to naïve realism and metaphysics, to before Kant’s critical efforts   -   quite well (though he does not mention that long before Descartes, Plato had already said that one cannot know reality).    But firstly, how will he deal with them ?    And secondly, there are quite a few additional objections, some of which I bring up in this commentary.




On  Correlationism, Heidegger,  and  Wittgenstein   -   The cage :  Subject  or MIR  ?


[SC 8]  ‘ This is why we have to get back to the Great Outdoors.  If Continental philosophy since Kant has been stuck in the prison house of subjectivity, consciousness or Dasein, where the world is what you make of it, then philosophy has to reacquaint itself with the absolute understood as physical reality that is independent of us and that science tries to explain. ’ ... ‘ The doctrine that Meillassoux calls "speculative realism" defends the idea that reality is absolute, namely it is independent of us and knowable, but abandons the principle of sufficient reason.   There is an absolute reality, but it is utterly contingent. ’


[SC 5] In particular is QM critical of phenomenology, such as Heidegger’s opinion that there would be no things without beings-in-the world (Dasein).   He proposes that the correlationism which is implied in such opinions is wrong [7].   


[QM pp.18ff]   It follows from Kant’s critique (‘le transcendental’) that not only one cannot know things-in-themselves, but also that only that is available which is shared by a (scientific) community;   the subject too is not comprehensible without objects (he calls that the ‘pas de danse corrélationnel du moderne’).   The ‘correlates’ of the absolute (MIR) are consciousness and language, which act as a transparent cage (‘nous y sommes toujours déjà’) and in that situation we have lost the great outdoors (‘perdu le Grand Dehors ... absolu des penseurs précritiques’) [p.21].  He gives [p.22] Heidegger as an example :  ‘la co-appartenance de l’homme et de l’être’ (see also R9 of TA112), as well as Wittgenstein [p.57].    QM claims that   because one can think about one’s possible not-being (i.e., death),   one  ‘touches the absolute’ [p.80].



[HFJM]  I found SC’s statements in the above  paragraphs difficult to understand, and that is the main reason why I purchased QM’s book.   The prison, if any, I would say is the assumption of impossible subject-exclusive MIR,  which consists of a primarily unexamined edifice of mental structures, which we absorb from others  (‘nous y sommes toujours déjà’ :  Geworfenheit, Heidegger).     Belief that reality is mind-independent also makes the mind automatically unreal, because the mind cannot become mind-independent.    For all who pre-suppose MIR, including for instance Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Meillasoux,   MIR is the subject-exclusive cage that causes the conceptual problem in the first place.    But it can be neutralized by return to the unstructured and re-structuring.  


[QM p.23]  discusses several possible ‘decisions’ which present-day philosophers have to make, and says that his decision is to go back to before Kant.


[HFJM]    But the real problem here is that   he does not consider the possibility of constructivism   as an alternative to both his naïve MIRealism  and to what he calls correlationism, which also pre-supposes MIR.   He spends a considerable effort on invalidating this   MIR-‘correlationism   without ever questioning the MIR-presupposition which he shares with it.   In 0-D, subjects and objects are both structured within thinking as needed.   They are not found ready-made and thereafter ‘correlated’ with each other.   The ‘correlation’ of MIR with thinking and language is replaced by creating, positing, and trying structures within thinking.   MIR-belief excludes subjects, but thinking which is necessary for any thinking, including the thinking of MIR-belief, pre-supposes subjects.   


The described problems dissolve in 0-D, because ‘the world’ requires the subject(s)’ design, including, for instance, the structures dealing with the beginning of the universe, or with one’s own not-being (death).    This also includes the sharing between subjects (scientists as well as others) of working-structures.    None of this requires MIR-belief (but QM never mentions constructivism :   QM implicitly pre-supposes MIR-belief for all of the various theoretical positions he discusses).




On  Realism :  Knowing   Non-Metaphysical  Absolutes


[HFJM]   There is a curious statement in QM’s presentation [p.35] :  he claims that the events at the time of the formation of the earth are ‘unthinkable’ (sans objet pensable) and therefore ‘nonsense’ (un non-sens)  -  what he seems to mean is that they are ‘unknowable’  (in-connaissable) directly by humans, only ‘imaginable’, but that would imply that they are ‘thinkable’.   (Later [p.61] he explains that ‘Being has become opaque to thinking’.)    But then QM insists [p.39]  that because of the ‘ancestrality’ problem one has to think about a world without thinking (un monde sans pensée  -  un monde sans donation du monde), but without thinking means also without subjects.   And then comes his chief conclusion :


[QM p.39] :  ‘or, dire cela, c’est aussi bien dire que nous devons saisir comment la pensée peut acceder à un absolu :  à un être bien séparé de la pensée, qu’il s’offre à nous comme non-relatif à nous  -  capable d’exister que nous existions ou non.’ 


[HFJM]   That is, he claims that  humans can know the absolute.     But how ?    He says that   because of the ancestrality problem    ‘we must grasp how thinking can access an absolute, which is not relative to us’.    But he does not explain his central proposition :    how something that is outside and independent of the mind  (‘billions of years ago’) gets inside the mind,  and that presumably with no leap of faith, because he claims that the absolute can be directly known.    QM’s ambition is not short of Hegel’s,  but Hegel was more plausible, because he started from within human ideas.   


But QM writes [p.40] that does not mean dogmatic metaphysics.  The absolute is what is mathematically thinkable, along the lines of Descartes’ ‘ontological proof of God’ [p.41].  He wants a ‘non-metaphysical absolute’ [p.70].



[HFJM]  These propositions are unclear.   QM does not want metaphysics but proposes absolutes and ontology, both of which are metaphysical concepts.   It did not become clear to me in which way mathematics might be able to help to clarify this conceptual muddle.  


In 0-D there is no problem thinking about a world before human thinking;  ‘billions of years ago’  (or also in the future) is an extrapolation from ‘now’ within thinking, and has nothing to do with absolutes (see above).    All such thinking uses conjectures, working-hypotheses, and they are ‘thinkable’ as designs; no MIR-belief is needed.  


(The notion that absolutes are in the background is itself also a human product (and thus a tool, a ‘working-absolute’), not traditional or absolute MIR but working-MIR;  but it is less confusing to disregard that option.) 


The so-called ontological proof is a proof by definition :  because God is defined as perfect, he must exist; if did not exist he would not be perfect.  Kant denied the ontological proof saying that a defined being may or may not exist  ( ‘ ‘existence’ is not a predicate ’ ) :   that I suppose means that Kant saw ‘existence’ as not a part of the definition of perfection.    These efforts are a bit like those of the   blind men trying to describe an elephant.    Furthermore, the concept of  ‘the one’  does not need a positive structure, such as ‘God’;   it is implied in the encompassing aspect of experience, and an unstructured holistic concept will serve the purpose, while avoiding conceptual problems.


And a further, rather simple, point :  you can think and write about something if it is in your mind;   if it isn’t, you can’t.    ‘Le Grand Dehors’ has to be ‘dedans’;   it is a structure,  a postulate, within QM’s thinking and argumentation [p.80];  he could not write about it if it were not inside his mind.    This is the reason why absolutes, ontology, or naïve realism,  are impossible (except in an as-if fashion;   better still, one can call them reality-design, which obviously happens within subject-inclusive experience).    But this point is not mentioned by Meillassoux or Critchley,  nor by Badiou in his preface to the book.




On  Existence  and  Meaning


[SC 8]  ‘ For Meillassoux, and this is the kernel of the book, the response to Leibniz's question "Why is there something rather than nothing ?"   is  "For no reason".   [see QM p.151]


[HFJM]  As I have recently stated in a discussion of the metaphysics of Heidegger, who starts with the same question (TA112 R9 [3]) :  ‘ 0-D has an immediate answer to this question :   because we mean and say so, in case we mean and say so.   Firstly, in order to live we (have to) create and posit structures of self, world, and everything within ongoing experience [where it] is not otherwise structured   [i.e., more automatically, for instance on the basis of unquestioned gestalt formations].    And secondly we may ascribe a status of mind-independently pre-structured reality (MIR) existence (‘being’) to the created structures;  but when we think in MIR terms, we say ‘it is’ ..., not that we ascribe being.   ...  The first of these steps is inevitable, the second one ... can be omitted (we don’t have to say so), or undone, without interfering with a pragmatic function of the first.  In that case,  ‘being’  is compatible with an operational and pragmatic meaning. ’


Without MIR-ascription the question changes to :  why can we structure experience in certain ways and not in others ?   The answer  (which is identical with that of QM)  is :   that is how it works; no further explanation.



The difference between QM’s opinion and 0-D is that   -   for an unstated reason, but evidently because he is committed to MIR-belief   -  QM asks for a subject-exclusive MIR-opinion concerning existence and the meaning of life, which has to be ‘no mind-independent reason’.    Nothing makes sense without subjects.   Without God we are left to ourselves, and we have to take that seriously.  


0-D gives a subject-inclusive answer ;  ‘we create meaning’ :  if we want meaning in our life, we have to create it, in a bootstrap operation à la Münchhausen, with or without the help of religion.   Theisms are structured and fortified generalizations of subjectivity (with externalization of agency).    That is a central aspect of the conflict between creationism and evolution, which accepts the lack of reason.   But over the long term the results of evolution can be seen as-if they had been   purposefully designed.   Self-replicating molecules introduce this aspect :  they ‘want to’ multiply.   Theism results in absurdities, but the conflicts and absurdities can be avoided by using an unstructured start-point. 


[SC 8]  ‘ The classical metaphysical questions "Where do we come from?", "Why do we exist?" are not pseudo-questions.   But the answer is nicely disappointing :  "From nothing, for nothing".   [QM  P.151]


[HFJM]  I disagree :   they can be answered in the objective (biological and also historical) sense;   but according to 0-D, that objective statement is made within phenomenology;  we add meaning to this because we require it for a full life.  




On  the Necessity  of  Contingency  (in the sense of  fortuity :  things and events may or may not be or happen)


[SC 9]  After Finitude aims at the rational elaboration of an ever more determinate concept of contingency, what Meillassoux calls "chaos".   The book's subtitle is "An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency".   This means that there is no ultimate necessity to the universe explained by God (Leibniz) or concealed to reason (Hume).   There are no a priori principles that govern nature, just a brute contingent chaos that is not subject to any principle of sufficient reason, but which reason can demonstrate and explore. ’


[QM p.54]  ‘La contingence signale le fait que les lois physiques permettent indifféremment à un événement de se produire ou non  ...   Mais la facticité, quant à elle, concerne les invariants supposés structurels du monde ...’  He writes that ‘correlationism’ produces a ‘de-absolutation’ of reason, and in its strong form also of the principle of non-contradiction [p.58].  Then he asks whether it also means a ‘de-universalization of thinking’;   what he means here is whether things-in-themselves are universals, and answers that they have to do with scientific norms of the ‘thinkable’, not of the ‘possible’;  for ‘post-moderns’, in contrast, all universals are ‘remnants of mysticism’ [p.59].  



The result is, he says, [p.82]  ‘La vérité absolue d’un principe d’irraison’.  [p.84]  ...l’absolue nécessité de la  non-nécessité de toute chose’ ... and this [p.85] not as a consequence of empirical contingency, of ignorance ... a  ‘pure possible’  which may never happen.   [p.87]  ... la pensée parvient à sortir d’elle-même ... par la facticité ...  un chemin vers l’absolu ... ’ 



[HFJM]  Here we are :  this is how QM wants to be able to think the absolute.   But firstly, what he proposes here can’t be done.   No one, QM included, can think outside of thinking.    This is where the subject comes in, and that is decisive;    it is the difference between subject-exclusive MIR-belief and subject-inclusive 0-D.   It is the problem not only for Meillassoux, but also for Wittgenstein and all others who do not want to change MIR-belief to a subject-inclusive view.   Secondly, as mentioned, the ‘dehors’ is a ‘deans’, an unstructured origin within the mind.    And thirdly, there is no reason without minds ( = people). 


These considerations throw a light on what follows :  the implied mind-independently pre-structured absolute dissolves into a non-structured non-entity, nothing.




On  the  Absolute,  Chaos,  and  the  Unstructured


[QM p.87]  Cet absolu, en effet, n’est rien qu’une forme extreme du chaos ... auquel rien n’est, ou ne parait être, impossible, pas même l’impensable.  Dès lors, cet absolu est au plus loin de l’absolution receherchée :  celle permettant à la science mathematisée de decrire l’en-soi. ... Nous y découvrons une puissance plutôt menaςante  -  quelque chose de sourd, capable de  détruire les choses comme les mondes;  capable d’engendrer des monstres d’illogisme ... ’


[HFJM]  What happens here is that QM discovers, as he should, that   there are no structures-in-themselves   -   including the absolute   -   without people.   Mental structures are our pragmatic working-tools;  that includes instruments like logic and mathematics.    If you start from a mistaken premise (that is, MIR-belief), you will, in a rigorous analysis, as QM performs it, arrive at the conclusion that the premise is not valid.    Logic and mathematics are human tools, they are not there without someone thinking.


The situation is less scary if we accept that we structure in the unstructured, as 0-D proposes :  the problem can be more directly addressed by a ‘decision’ to see the unstructured (what QM calls ‘chaos’) as a goal, a start-point and reference (matrix, background) as Buddhists and Taoists have long done.     This principle is for instance involved in the Koan practice of Buddhism, which breaks through habits of thinking. 


In a roundabout way, QM’s reasoning here meets that of 0-D :   it is indeed necessary to discover that metaphysics and logic are not primary pre-structured givens.    This is non-metaphysics, or even negative metaphysics.    Illogisme’ and ‘mysticisme’ can,  among other things,  show ways to recover from ingrained metaphysics.    


In encompassing experience   -   if this term is understood without restriction   -   there can be no absolutes, only pragmatic structures, differences, working assumptions.    And a  ‘pragmatic absolute’  would be an oxymoron.


QM’s positive assertions about mathematics, on the other hand, will need further scrutiny.




On  Mathematics  and  the transfinite


[SC 10] ‘... Meillassoux claims that only mathematics can demonstrate the relative stability of contingency.   This is where he relies on the work of his teacher, Alain Badiou, and Badiou's mathematical ontology.   But the inspiration for Meillassoux's project is classical and his book is essentially a defence of the project of the mathematization of nature that one can find in Galileo [see QM p.157ff] or Descartes. ’ 


[QM p.115] discusses ‘Hume’s problem’ : the question how one can make certain that future events follow the same rules as now, and answers [p.128-129] that ‘if the natural laws could change without reason, that is if they were not necessary, they would change often;  but this they don’t; and consequently they cannot change without reason’.  That, he claims [p.133], is a question of mathematical probability, and this method can be extended to the universe.  He wants a ‘résolution speculative réellement satisfaisante du problème de Hume ... une condition precise de la stabilité manifeste du Chaos.   ...   une telle condition existe, et elle est de nature mathématique :  il s’agit en effet du transfini.’   ’The ‘ontological presupposition’  for that [p.139] is that   ‘ the possible a-priori be thinkable in the mode of a numerical totality ’.   According to Alain Badiou [p.141],  this has to do with the ‘ontological reach of Cantor’s theorem’  ‘à dévoiler la pensabilité de la détotalisation de l’être-en-tant-qu’être’.    



[HFJM]   The ‘transfinite’ gives rise to the book’s title.   Transfinite goes beyond finite, but is not equal to infinite.   Thus it seems QM wants to suggest that the absolute can still be grasped with the help of numbers.    This cannot be done, I suggest,  because   

(a)  the absolute = chaos = the unstructured  is a subject-inclusive state,  not subject-exclusive,    

(b)  mathematics, including set theory, is a mental tool like logic, within the mind, and does not walk about by itself, and 

(c)  ontology = MIR   is impossible.  


But since I am not a mathematician, and in particular am not familiar with the propositions of Badiou,  I found QM’s reasoning here difficult to follow, and have only quoted a sample.    For the evaluation of the mathematics proposition, I otherwise refer to Critchley’s opinion, with which I provisionally agree : 


[SC 10]   ‘ In a move that would make Kantians red in the face, Meillassoux even defends the seemingly indefensible :  intellectual intuition.   It is as if mathematics gives us the keys to look straight into the heart of reality.   As Ray Brassier, Meillassoux's translator, has pointed out, perhaps this is a remnant of the very idealism that stands most condemned in After Finitude.   Having accepted Hume's argument that there are no a priori principles that govern nature and that we are faced with a brute contingency that cannot be rationally explained, I worry that Meillassoux's mathematical romance seduces itself into offering the kind of "theory of everything" that Hume's scepticism perhaps rightly prohibits. ’


But it is of interest to discuss some of QM’s further thoughts. 




On  Verifiability


[QM p.150]  Concerning questions like   why there is something rather than nothing,   he writes  that contemporary philosophers do not answer, saying there is no enigma because there is no problem.   But [p.152]  Il n’y a plus de mystère,  non parce qu’il n’y a plus de problème,  mais parce qu’il n’y a plus de raison. ’    On the other hand he claims [p.153],  theabsoluité du discours mathématique’, as though mathematics were not a human tool like reason or logic.   He thinks that hypotheses can not only be falsified but also verified [p.157] with the help of numerical information obtained by instruments.   


[HFJM]  The verifiability claim is incompatible with Popper’s view;  cf. [QM p.29] :  one may trust a theory, that is, act ‘as-if it were true’ :  of course, that is what it is for, but that does not mean that it can be verified;  it is used as a tool, until further notice.    Verifiability is also incompatible with the 0-D opinion, which understands all designs as  ‘hypotheses-on-trial’;  although they may work, it follows directly from the principle of 0-D that they cannot be ‘verified’ as absolutely true (nothing can, and that is in strict contrast to QM’s aim).    It is probable that QM claims   the assumption of possibility of verification   because  he wants to know the absolute.    Popper’s denial of the possibility of verification is on the other hand quite compatible with the 0-D position.    The non-verifiability applies to all mental structures, and the questions of  ancestrality  and  diachronicity  are irrelevant, in this context at least. 




On  the Separateness  of  the  World  from  Humans


[QM p.159]  Since Galileo there is   ‘un monde séparable de l’homme   [p.160]   ‘un monde se donnant à nous comme indifferent ... inaffecté par le fait d’être pensé ou non.’   [p.162]  ... tout ce qui dans le donné est mathématiquement descriptible peut persister que nous existions ou non ... ’


[HFJM]  The indifferent world, not affected by thinking, corresponds to Nagel’s ‘view from nowhere’.    However, this indifferent world is nevertheless in our head.   -   The mathematical angle, in analogy to Descartes, does not change that.   -   Although with the weakening of theistic beliefs the world appears more and more indifferent, we have to become more and more responsible not only for ourselves but also for the world around us.   This knowledge could be a direct counter-reaction to the change in perspective described by Meillassoux.




On  Finitude


[QM p.167]  A mesure que l’homme  « de la science »  intensifiait l’excentrement du savoir scientifique en decouvrant des événements dia-chroniques de plus en plus anciens,  l’homme  « de la philosophie »  réduisait l’espace du correlat vers un être-au-monde originairement fini, une époque de l’être, une communauté linguistique, une  « zone »,  un sol, un habitat toujours plus restreints  -  mais don’t le philosophe demeurait pourtant comme le maître et possesseur par la singularité supposée dede son savoir spécifique.


[HFJM]  This explains  further QM’s central term of  ’finitude’.    But the reasoning is faulty :   we know more and more within our ‘finite’ subject-inclusive experience, including the knowledge that the ‘world’ is indifferent and unlimited.    The mind encompasses all structures, including the infinite.


And :   how does QM deal with the mind-brain problem ?   He does not mention it.   The problem is this :  you cannot deal with the  mind after it has disappeared.    And it does disappear in QM’s view as it does in all exclusively-objectivist views;   it becomes swallowed up by the imagined absolute within it.   


[QM p.172ff]  There were three steps to the ‘Kantian catastrophe’ :  1. The Copernico-Galilean event which generated the idea of mathematical knowledge of nature;   2. The destruction of all a-priori knowledge of  ‘being-so’;  and 3.  Kant’s start of ‘correlationism’.   [p.175]  Now philosophy has to :   ‘re-absolutize the reach of mathematics ... without metaphysics which is obsolete ... and to stick to Descartes’ thesis that what can be mathematized can be absolutized, without reactivating the principle of reason.’  [p.176] Experimental sciences are possible because natural laws are in fact stable.   




Overall   -   Indifference and  Aim  in  Nature


[SC 11]  ‘ There is something absolutely exhilarating about Meillassoux's argument, and it is not difficult to see why his book has already aroused so much interest.    The exposition and critique of correlationism is brilliant and Meillassoux is at his best when showing the philosophical complacency of contemporary Kantians and phenomenologists.   The proposal of speculative realism is audacious and bracing, particularly when he defends the idea of nature as a "glacial universe", cold and indifferent to humans.   Such is Pascal's "Eternal silence of infinite spaces", but without the consolation of a wager on God's existence.   However, by Meillassoux's own admission, his proposal is incomplete and we await its elaboration in future books.    Although, his style of presentation can turn into a sort of fine-grained logic-chopping worthy of Duns Scotus, the rigour, clarity and passion of the argument can be breathtaking. ’


[HFJM]  I agree that QM’s reasoning is very thorough, persuasive, and stimulating,  despite what I consider (until further notice) to be some errors.   The main result I think is a question :   how can human agency stand up to the ever increasing mind-less automation of human tools (see my 2005 paper), and a universe which, as QM shows, is indifferent to humans, in the absence of theistic beliefs.   The indifference notion has developed from Parmenides’ statement that ‘it is and cannot not be’.    This is usually taken to mean that existence is mind-independent (and even that it is immutable :   change and even movement are not possible, as proposed by his student Zeno of Elea).  


On the other hand, Parmenides also said that knowing and being are the same, which I understand to mean that there is  at least the possibility of subject-inclusive  reality-structuring,  although he may not have meant it that way   (this statement can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and for instance  Heidegger concluded from here a primacy of what he called  ‘being’, Sein).


There are three main answers, I think.   Firstly, a new principle has developed   within   the indifferent physical universe, starting with self-replicating molecules.    They can be seen as simultaneously indifferent to us   and as   ‘as-if purposeful’  over the long term.    They gave rise to evolution  (‘the selfish gene’),  biology, and finally human goal-directed thinking, with development of purposeful anthropomorphic theistic,   and also neutral non-theistic,   religions, and other holistic structures.    Secondly, in practice we are presently witnessing an almost non-stop human directive activity on a global scale,  which appears destined eventually to become a world-government with universal (democratic) participation.   And thirdly, if we agree on reality-structuring, the subject maintains a central place also on the theoretical side, despite the increasing formalization, automation, and the increasing awareness of the indifference of MIReality.




Critchley’s  Criticisms  and  Other  Comments  [with Remarks by HFJM]


[SC 12-14]  Critchley asks : 

(1) what role is left for philosophy when mathematics is absolute.   [This I would say is more or less the same as asking what is left for human agency;   see above.    But I am doubtful about this role of mathematics.]

(2) QM’s emphasis is only on physics;   biology, psychology, and economics are not discussed [also as above]. 

(3) What about secondary qualities ?   [again, as above;   in 0-D, the so-called primary qualities are aspects of subject-inclusive design like the others.]


[SC 15]  ‘ A. J. Ayer met that most excessive of Continental thinkers, Georges Bataille, in a Parisian bar in 1951.   Apparently, Merleau-Ponty was also in attendance and the conversation lasted until three in the morning.   The thesis under discussion was very simple :  did the sun exist before the appearance of humans ?   Ayer saw no reason to doubt that it did, whereas Bataille thought the whole proposition meaningless.   For a philosopher committed to scientific realism, like Ayer, it makes evident sense to utter ancestral statement such as  "The sun existed prior to the appearance of humans", whereas, for a correlationist like Bataille, more versed in Hegel and phenomenology, physical objects must be perceived by an observer in order to be said to exist.   Bataille concludes, "Yesterday's conversation produced an effect of shock.   There exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss".   The virtue of Meillassoux's book is that this abyss might be elsewhere than we previously thought.   We should watch where we place our feet. ’



[HFJM]  For 0-D, objectivity (Ayer) is a specialization within phenomenology (Bataille).  The 0-D answer to the question is :  in a working-objective (as-if MIR) sense the sun existed before humans.   That is a   ‘back-in-time’-extrapolation   from  ‘now’-structured experience, with probable accuracy.    Physical objects are structured (including their primary and secondary qualities) by  ‘subjects’,  but this does not require  ‘now-present-observation’.   


The question has meaning (contrary to Bataille),  because we see ‘reality’ as constituted not only by  ‘now’  structures but also by structures extrapolated from now :   using memory,  and/or  transcending both present and past experience (interpretation, prediction, intuition, fantasy,   of widely differing reliability).    Nor does that have to imply that the structures have been  (or have to be)  ‘invented’;  although that can be the case.    Non-invented structures are accepted on the basis of gestalt-formations or other simple sensory phenomena, mostly without further scrutiny, although scrutiny is possible and desirable.    Because it has been structured,  the existence of the sun is not ‘absolute’,   without relation to subjects;   one can only think about concepts of the sun  (contrary to Meillassoux).   In practice it is often, but not always, more practical to use naïve realism (in the ‘as-if’ meaning).   But the principle of that view   in the ‘absolute’  sense   is not defensible, because all structures are   created and used   within and not outside of   experience (contrary to Ayer and Meillassoux).





Similarities  and  Differences  between  the  View  of  Meillassoux  and  0-D



There is agreement concerning the inadequacy of traditional metaphysics, but for opposite reasons.

[QM]   Kant and metaphysics generally abolish the access to the absolute,   by re-introducing the ‘Ptolemaic’ subject-centered point of view and thereby  correlationism.
[HFJM]   Kant and the phenomenologists have started to re-introduce the subject into ‘reality’, which since Parmenides has tended to exclude it.   The problem is that they did not manage to let go of the supposed mind-independent absolute, maintaining it in form of the unknowable ‘thing-in-itself’ (‘absolute’).



[QM]   Reality is absolute, separate from thinking.
[HFJM]    Reality is a mental structure, within thinking (experience).    If QM sees reality as separate from thinking;  thinking is, in his scheme, no longer real.    Belief in absolutes is not needed to understand reality.    Reality is the result of creating, positing, and evaluating (feedback during use) mental   mind-and-world-and-all   structures.    Those which are not disqualified can be used as working-reality.

[QM]   The absolute is chaos.
[HFJM]   Chaos is unstructured, and the unstructured  serves as start- and reference-point for structure-formation.    But QM also says that mathematics opens access to a structured absolute.   The relation between QM’s unstructured and structured absolutes is not clear.

[QM]   We can know the absolute which is outside.
[HFJM]   The absolute is a mind-internal construction.    We experience within subject-inclusive experience, not outside.   Despite his claim QM does not show that or how something outside the mind can get inside.    His ‘absolute’ is his imagination, a working-structure within his mind.    

[QM]   Reality is indifferent to thinking.
[HFJM]   Correct for physical reality, but that still means :  as understood within thinking.   And  the principle of self-replication arises within the indifferent reality; it becomes goal-directed and governs biology, evolution, and thinking.   In practice,  human initiative becomes ever more important on a global scale,  and in 0-D reality-construction the subject remains central also in the theoretical sense.

[QM]   The subject is a cage which excludes access to the absolute.
[HFJM]   Subject-elimination is a cage which excludes access to ourselves.

[QM]   does not discuss the conceptual mind-brain problem.
[HFJM]    The mind-brain problem requires a subject-inclusive view.

[QM]   Verifiability of hypotheses.
[HFJM]   Falsifiability only, structuring with trial-and-error use.    If hypotheses are not falsified they can be used but they cannot be verified in the absolute sense.   QM does not demonstrate that verifiability is possible.

[QM]   Mathematics is a property of the absolute.
[HFJM]   Mathematics is a human (and subject-inclusive) tool like gestalt-formation or logic.

In Summary :

Although I disagree with much of what Meillassoux proposes, I have found his book very original and stimulating,  and a challenging standard with which to compare my own 0-D structuring view.   Critchley’s review as well is very helpful.  

At the end I repeat the purpose of my present commentary.   I need an epistemology which is able to deal with a specific, circumscribed and concrete but central, question :   the conceptual mind-brain relation puzzle.   Most epistemologies I am aware of are not able to help with it.





Critchley S. (2009), Back to the Great Outdoors.  Review of :  Meillassoux Q., After Finitude,  An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency.  In :  Times Literary Supplement 28 Febr 2009, p.28.   (Posted for discussion as TA114 in Karl Jaspers Forum,  21 March 2009)


Glasersfeld E von (1991 / 1999), Knowing Without Metaphysics: Aspects Of The Radical Constructivist Position. In 'Research and Reflexivity (Inquiries into Social Construction)', ed. Steier F, London: Sage Publications, 1991.  Also as Target Article 17 in the Karl Jaspers Forum   http://www.kjf.ca/17-TAGLA.htm


Heidegger M (lecture 1935, printed 1953 / 1998),   Einführung in die Metaphysik.  (157 pp.)   Max Niemeyer Verlag  :  Tübingen.

Jaspers, K. (1947 / 1991) Von der Wahrheit.  Piper: München.


Meillassoux Q. (2006), Après la Finitude.  Essai sur la nécessité de la contingence.  Préface d’Alain Badiou.  Éditions du Seuil :  Paris.


Müller HFJ (2001/2007)  Brain in Mind - The Mind–Brain Relation with the Mind at the Center.   Constructivist Foundations 3.1, November 2007 <http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/articles/3.1.030.muller.pdf>

An earlier version is in the Karl Jaspers Forum as Target Article 45 <http://www.kjf.ca/45-TAMUL.htm>


Müller HFJ (2005),  People, Tools, and Agency :  Who Is The Kybernetes ?   "Constructivist Foundations", 1.1,

Also as Target Article 78 in the Karl Jaspers Forum (Nov / 18 Dec 2004)  <http://www.kjf.ca/78-TAMUL.htm>


Müller HFJ (2007),  Epistemology Returns to its Roots.  Constructivist Foundations 2.2-3  March 2007 <http://www.univie.ac.at/constructivism/journal/articles/2.2.14.muller.pdf>

Also as Target Article 93 in the Karl Jaspers Forum (15 / 24 March 2007) http://www.kjf.ca/93-TAMUL.htm


Nagel, T. (1986) The view from nowhere. Oxford University Press: Oxford.




Herbert FJ Müller

     e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>