After Finitude, Chapter 3: Facticality

Originally discussed on April 7, 2012

Meillassoux has established three things so far. First, if the ancestral is thinkable, then an absolute must be thinkable.  Second, there is no thing that exists necessarily.  Third, we must get past the strong correlationist position in order to establish an absolute.  In this chapter, Meillassoux finds his absolute in facticity – our “inability” to know why thought and the world are not different.  He then uses facticity to show that real contradiction is impossible, and then answers the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

The Absolutization of Facticity

Meillassoux considers the two most common forms of the absolute to be disqualified.  A realist absolute, for which this table obviously exists apart from me, “cannot pass through the meshes of the correlation.”  In order to think about this table existing apart from me, I have to also acknowledge that I am doing the thinking.  This is the contradiction inherent in every naïve realism: claiming to think about something without the corresponding thought of it.

There is also the correlationist absolute, for which the forms of thought are deducible and necessary.  However, this absolute “cannot pass through the meshes of facticity.”  Facticity refers to the fact that, in the absence of a godlike necessary being, we have no reason to believe that either half of the correlation between perceiver and world could not be different, even if we can’t imagine the details of such a difference.

What Meillassoux proposes is not to absolutize the correlation, but facticity.  It is not the correlation, but rather the facticity of the correlation that is absolute.  In chapter 2, facticity was seen as a limit – we can’t imagine how thought could be different, without already assuming the kind of thinking we have now.  In contrast, Meillassoux says “We must show why thought, far from experiencing its intrinsic limits through facticity, experiences rather its knowledge of the absolute through facticity.”

In other words, instead of taking our inability to find an ultimate reason why things are the way they are as a limit on thought, this absence of reason is and can only be the ultimate property of the entity.  We can’t find a reason because there is no reason.  “We must convert facticity into the real property whereby everything and every world is without reason, and is thereby capable of actually becoming otherwise without reason.”  The failure of the principle of sufficient reason does not follow from our inability to think the absolute.  Rather, it fails because it is false.  At first, Meillassoux will call this the principle of unreason, though eventually he will call it the principle of factiality.  I will use unreason and factiality interchangeably.

The Non-Limit of Death

Meillassoux provides an example of how a particular limit can be turned into an instance of positive knowledge: the question of immortality.  The theist says yes to this because of God, while the atheist says no.  Both the theist and the atheist are making realist claims about the world, which fall to the same contradiction as every other realist claim.  The correlationist can remain agnostic about the question of immortality, because both non-existence and being-otherwise are logically possible, but both exist outside the relation of our perception and the world, and so are unknowable.

The metaphysical idealist says the agnostic correlationist is just as inconsistent as the other two.  I am only capable of thinking of myself as existing; if you imagine the world after your death, you obviously have to imagine yourself as still living in order to witness that hypothetical world. So the metaphysical idealist disqualifies both the thought of non-existence and the possibility of existing in a radically different way.  If the forms of thought are necessarily deducible, then they cannot be otherwise, therefore to be otherwise is actually unthinkable.

How can the correlationist refute the theist, the atheist and the idealist?  She must press home the claim of facticity: that my capacity-to-be-otherwise after death is just as thinkable as my continuing to to be myself in life.  If I think of myself as “devoid of any reason for being and remaining as I am”, the thinkability of this unreason leaves open the possibilities of either not existing or existing in a wholly new way (in whatever version of the afterlife you prefer).  For correlationist, facticity means we cannot know what will happen after death.

Meillassoux makes a slight but significant change to the correlationist’s claim.  It is the capacity to be otherwise after death that is the absolute.  The possibility of me changing from my current state to any other, without any reason, is an absolute possibility. The correlationist position already acknowledges this, but his position is agnostic – he claims not to know what lies beyond death.  For speculative thought, the possibilities of being other otherwise or being non-existent are no longer possibilities of ignorance.  That is, they are not possibilities that are “merely the result of my inability to know which of the [two] aforementioned theses is correct – rather, it is the knowledge of the very real possibility of all of these eventualities.” We know we could become anything else, including non-existent or unified with God or reincarnated.

So the correlationist’s defense against idealism is the absolutization of my potential for non-being, or in other words, the absolutization of facticity.  The upshot here is that de-absolutization only functions by absolutizing one of the two theses of correlationism.  In order to get rid of all absolutes, one must either absolutize the correlation, which leads to metaphysical idealism, or absolutize facticity – the implicit phenomenological move.  The first option makes one half of the correlation necessary, but the refutation of the ontological argument refuted all forms of real necessity.  The second option is all that is open.

Finally, here is the absolute we are looking for.  It is not that any particular thing exists, but that all particular things are contingent.  The absolute is, in effect, the absolute impossibility of a necessary being, and the absolute truth of unreason. “There is no reason for anything to be or to remain the way it is; everything must, without reason, be able to not exist and/or be able to be other than it is.”

The Absolutization of Facticity 2: An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Unreason is a anhypothetical principle – a fundamental proposition that cannot be deduced from any other.  The proof of the principle of unreason/facticality is refutational; it does not deduce the principle from some other idea, in which case it would not longer be a principle.  Rather, the proof proceeds “by pointing out the inevitable inconsistency into which anyone contesting the truth of the principle is bound to fall.”

The point is that denying the principle of unreason presupposes it.  In order to deny the principle of unreason, the correlationist still must acknowledge that they can think death and immortality as actual possibilities, not points of ignorance.   Further, the attempt to defend post-mortem agnosticism presupposes the difference between the for-us and the in-itself – both non-existence and being-otherwise are entirely outside our experience, and to accept them even as unknowable or even just empty logical possibilities already acknowledges that there is something outside our experience.

The refutational argument not only establishes unreason’s anhypothetical status, it also establishes its absoluteness.  If everything is contingent – that is, if everything could be different or non-existant – then unreason must be eternal.

We can see this to be true when we relate “this capacity-to-be-other-without-reason to the idea of a time that would be capable of bringing forth or abolishing anything.  This is a time that cannot be conceived as having emerged or as being abolished except in time, which is to say, in itself.”  So this is a time that could not appear or disappear except in time; so that time of emergence must be eternal.  It is a time that is not only capable of destroying or creating within the bounds of physical laws, “but a time which is capable of the lawless destruction of every physical law.”  The time of contingency must be eternal, therefore unreason must be eternal and absolute.

Omnipotent Hyper-Chaos

Empirical contingency, or precariousness, designates a possibility of not being that will eventually be realized.  This table will eventually cease to exist, even if against all odds it survives until the heat death of the universe.  Absolute contingency designates a pure possibility.  It is the possibility that anything could happen: from the emergence of matter ex nihilo to a radical change in the physical laws that govern the universe.  Everything exists without reason, and everything could change without reason and without exception.  Meillassoux says “There is nothing beneath or beyond the manifest gratuitousness of the given – nothing but the limitless and lawless power of its destruction, emergence, or persistence.”

To take facticity seriously means to believe that, at bottom, there is nothing but chaos: a hyper chaos that will admit of no competing fundamental or absolute order.  Quite literally, anything could happen – in two meeting’s time, we will see how far Meillassoux is willing to push this: he will argue for the future emergence of a currently non-existing God and the literal resurrection of those who suffered premature or unjust deaths.

Chaos, being absolute and eternal, cannot be limited by any higher law.  So there is one impossibility: chaos can never result in some absolute order.  This is the one limitation on chaos, and it is what allows us to say something more than the banal assertion “anything is possible.”  If chaos must always remain chaos, what does this imply?

A Rational Unreason I: The Impossibility of Contradiction

Every thing that exists (from stars to gravity) could either not exist or exist in a wholly different way.  In order for this statement to be true about a thing, that thing cannot just be anything.  In order to be contingent, an entity must have certain characteristics, and those characteristics must apply to all entities.  So this is the rational side of unreason: under what conditions can an entity exercise both its capacity-not-to-be and its capacity-to-be-other?

The first condition is that “a contradictory entity is absolutely impossible”.  There are two reasons for this.  First, if an entity were truly contradictory, then it would be capable of both existing and not existing at the same time.  If the entity maintains both existence and non-existence, it would be not only eternal but also necessary.  It would already have non-existence as a quality, so it could never be destroyed.  It would also already have existence as a quality, so it could never emerge.

The second reason follows from the first.  If an entity could have contradictory traits, then it could be both completely black and completely not-black; it would have no way of becoming different.  In other words, a contradictory entity, since it would include opposites within itself, could never change and would be exempt from all becoming.  Meillassoux says “The only possibility of reintroducing difference into being, and thereby a conceivable becoming, would be by no longer allowing oneself the right to make contradictory statements about an entity.”

A Rational Unreason II: Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

The second condition for chaos to remain chaos is that the thing-in-itself actually exists.  One must show that the world can exist without any givenness.  In other words, we have to ask the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”  (Q9)

There are two attitudes to that question.  First, the metaphysical attitude, which claims to solve the problem by recourse to some kind of prime mover or a god.  The second is the fideist attitude, which dissolves the problem by claiming it is a false problem – the question has no rational meaning.  The claim that being is a pure gift is a fideist claim.  Metaphysics provides a rational answer by invoking god, fideism removes the question from the jurisdiction of reason to the benefit of god.  The question needs to be resolved in a way that invokes no mysticism.

There are two interpretation of facticity: strong and weak.  The weak interpretation says if something is, then it is contingent.  The strong interpretation says things are contingent, and there must be contingent things.  The principle of factiality can be accepted without accepting the strong interpretation, so we need to see how the strong interpretation is the only really available conclusion.

Assume only the weak interpretation is valid: it is a fact, not a necessity, that factual things exist.  So the very existence of facticity would have to be described as a fact, because if nothing existed, there would be nothing to be factual, and so there would be no facticity.  “But the only way for me to maintain such a thesis would be by asserting a facticity of facticity, which is to say, a ‘second-order’ facticity.”  There would be the facticity of things, and then the facticity of the facticity of things.

In order for something to not be necessary, or to be capable of lawless change, its facticity must be absolute.  It is the same for myself: in order to conceive of myself as mortal, the possibility of my non-existence must also be absolute.  “Accordingly, I cannot doubt the absoluteness of facticity without immediately re-instating it as an absolute.  When I claim that the facticity of things (first-order facticity) is a fact, I also assume that the facticity of facticity (second-order facticity) can be thought as an absolute.”  This results in an infinite regress, in which facticity is constantly instated as an absolute.

Meillassoux brings up a possible objection to the strong position.  Contingency not only applies to things that could not exist, it also applies to non-existant things that could exist.      So why can’t contingency subsist as the contingency of negative facts alone?  “This would mean that there are non-existing things capable of existing, but there are no existing things capable of not-existing.”  Everything would remain potential.  Every thing could eternally not exist.

This objection admits that facticity is absolute.  Yet to admit that facticity is thinkable as an absolute is obviously to admit it can be thought, full stop.  Meillassoux says facticity cannot be thought  “merely as the possibility that existing things could not exist, or that non-existing things could exist – the persistence of the two realms of existence and non-existence provides the very condition for the conceivability of facticity.”

I can think the contingency of a particular thing, but not the contingency of existence as such.    Contingency is a properly of particular things – from trees to the speed of light – not of existence in general.  Contingency is thinkable as an absolute, but it is unthinkable without having both existence and in-existence; “we have to say that it is necessary that there always be this or that existent capable of not existing, and this or that inexistent capable of existing.

Why does something exist?  Because it is “necessary that there be something rather than nothing because it is necessarily contingent that there is something rather than something else.”

There are two tasks left to accomplish.  First, “the transition from the truth of the Kantian-in-itself to the truth of the Cartesian in-itself.”  Second, answering the question of why, if everything is contingent and changeable,  things do not change randomly and frenetically.  In a world of absolute contingency, why do we have the stability that science demonstrates and depends upon?  Meillassoux will kill both these birds will the single stone of mathematics.


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