Originally discussed on May 5, 2012
Meillassoux’s first principle is factiality: contingency is the eternal and absolute truth of all things. Any and every thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently, and all things can change from one of these states to another for no reason. The principle of factiality stands in sharp opposition to contemporary philosophy’s fiercely feigned indifference towards the questions of absoluteness and a world outside human thought.
In the essay “Spectral Dilemma” and some released excerpts from his still unpublished book Divine Inexistence, Meillassoux opposes factiality to feigned indifference towards another topic: the capital-G Good. For some time now, philosophy – so far as it refuses the religious answers of a Levinas – has been attempting to describe an ethics that would not be beholden to an absolute Good. Meillassoux seeks to end this refusal.
An absolute Good needs to have three characteristics. First, it needs to be universal: justice must be possible for all people everywhere, and, crucially, at all times. If it is not universal, then some people would be excluded from it. Second, it needs to be rational: the conceptualization of the Good cannot be incoherent. Finally, it requires legitimation: it must actually bridge the divide between the is and the ought. Meillassoux believes he has discovered an ethical principle that fulfills all three requirements: the joyful hope for the resurrection of the dead. Let’s be very clear: this is not a metaphor.
The Universality of Hope
Our world is full of misery and memories of misery. From the ongoing slaughter in the Congo, to past brutal occupations, to the deaths of small children, we are surrounded by spectres: the memories of those who lived terrible lives and died terrible deaths. They are the dead we cannot properly mourn, and they form the basis of our knowledge that the world is not just. The spectre is not simply a metaphor for evil: it is the actual memory of a death that cannot be reconciled with our desire for justice. If we could properly mourn all deaths, then we would be able to come to terms with suffering as such; yet we still resist and lament suffering, so spectres continue to haunt us.
The atheist can maintain that spectres teach us one of two things about God: either God accepts or inflicts this suffering, and is therefore evil, or God is non-existent. Any God that would allow so many spectres could not possibly be a good God – rather, it would be evil, capricious beyond measure. Yet, in denying the existence or goodness of God, the atheist loses the hope of justice: there can be no hope for the dead. No matter how much better things become in the future, the spectres of those who died useless, vicious or early deaths will still haunt us.
The theist can maintain that we can hope to one day properly mourn spectres. Someday, God will reconcile all things to Himself; we can be joined with our lost loved ones in an afterlife. It is the existence of another life that gives this life meaning. Yet, what the theist loses is truth: in order to believe in God, the theist must either accept the irrational belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, or the theist must accept that God is responsible for measureless suffering. God would be worthy only of fear and perhaps hatred, and would be all the move evil for actually demanding love instead of fear and hate.
The virtuous atheist does not believe because of her love of the True, while the reasonable believer believes because of their love of the Good. Both end in one of two illusions: the virtuous atheist must believe in a mysterious connection between virtue and happiness (otherwise there is no reason to be virtuous). The atheist must irrationally convince themselves that in a world without the possibility of justice, a conclusion other than simple cynicism and the victory of sheer force is possible. The reasonable believer must hold on to the illusion that it is possible to reconcile a good God with the existence of evil. The atheist loses the Good, while the theist loses the True.
Both lose the universal. The atheist cannot hope for justice for the dead; even in a communist utopia beyond Marx’s wildest dreams, concentration camp victims will forever remain nothing but spectres, memories of suffering and vicious death. The theist may hope for the resurrection of the dead, but only on the basis of submitting the universal to the non-universal. God. God is not universal precisely because of his transcendence, his position as the pinnacle of being. All value is accorded to a being that is both irrational (for example, the logical contradiction of the Christian trinity) and capricious (allowing or inflicting suffering).
Meillassoux’s solution to the problem of the spectre is to combine the virtues of the theist with the virtues of the atheist. Under what conditions can we hope for justice for everyone, including the dead, without accepting the irrationality and non-universality of a capricious God? Meillassoux offers two conditions: the current inexistence but future existence of a God who, by virtue of not existing during the Holocaust, would not be responsible for it, and the resurrection of all those who died to become spectres. Time and space requirements mean we will only deal with half of this issue: resurrection.
Universal justice can only be universal if it includes everyone that has ever lived. It offers the hope of one day being able to properly mourn spectres, that is to say, to come to terms with the suffering of the world – precisely by erasing it. It is a second chance to find joy in this life. It is therefore the only possible form of a Good for everyone, which is what the theist lays claim to. Because it does not insist on belief in an irrational God whose alleged goodness is wholly mysterious, it can also hold the requirement of truth, which is what the atheist can offer. It is the combination of the best of the atheist and the best of the theist. It is neither the absurd belief in atheistic morality nor the irrational attempt to reconcile God and suffering. (Q4)
The Rationality of Hope
Let’s do a quick recap of the principle of factiality: the fundamental truth of every existing (and non-existing) thing is contingency. That is to say, at bottom, the universe is a chaos in which everything is possible, except contradiction and necessity. We can nutshell this as: everything is possible, anything can happen. It is therefore not irrational to believe in the resurrection of the dead. This requires a little more description, however.
Meillassoux argues that once the principle of sufficient reason has been discarded, the only rational explanation for why truly new things come to exist is advent ex nihilo. That is, the eternal time of contingency is capable of bringing forth things that did not exist in anyway beforehand. Remember his explanation of the stability of the world: when we roll a die, the only possibilities given in experience are the six faces of the dice. All the other logical possibilities are not properly called “possibilities,” because they are not submitted to probability or determinism. Random chance only exists within a context of stability, a stability governed by contingent laws which are fully describable by science.
Within the context of our World (the capital W will be explained below), a great many new things are possible. New stars can form, new species can arise and new art forms and political styles can emerge. Yet all of these new things are simply variations within the context of the laws we already know, which is to say, they can all arise from the World we already have. 500 years ago, the emergence of democracy was a possibility on the face of the die, even if it had never come up before.
Meillassoux argues that there have only been three true novelties – new arrangements and sets of laws that produced new stabilities. Each of these three novelties did not exist in seed form before they appeared – they appeared from nothing, without cause. The first novelty was the emergence of matter. The second was the emergence of life, and the most recent emergence was that of thought.
Life was radically new because we can find no trace of the all the perceptions and emotions that make up life in rocks. Life appeared in the context of matter, on the basis of it, but not caused by it. It was a new stability, a new set of faces on the die, a new set of possibilities that did not exist in the set of laws that govern matter. Thought was also a new set of possibilities on the face of the die: for Meillassoux, thought is marked by an ability to think the absolute truth of the universe: contingency. When humans first began to contemplate their mortality – the fact that they could not exist or exist differently – they discovered the absolute truth. This knowledge of the absolute is not found in life as such; the emergence of thought was a genuine radical novelty, and it is what separates humans as thinking beings (and “human” would include all thinking beings, including, say, aliens) from all other forms of life.
Each of these new sets of laws, these new faces on the die, these new sets of possibilities, are what Meillassoux calls new Worlds, with a capital-W. Within a World, there is a 1:X chance of any one possibility taking place. A World is a set of possibilities that emerged ex nihilo from the lower-case w world, which is the non-totalizable infinities of contingency: the world is the non-completable set of possibilities that cannot be used to form the X in 1:X. Instead of calling the lower-case w world a set of possibilities, let’s call it a set of virtualities.
Thought was a virtuality that did not exist in life; life was a virtuality that did not exist in matter; matter was a virtuality that did not exist before… what, the big bang? I’m not sure. There have been three Worlds, then, and we currently live in the third World, the World of thought.
What new virtuality could lay in the future? Once thought, the ability to think absolute truth, has emerged, what could possibly follow it? New stars, new species and new political systems would be simply the results of new rolls of the die we have now. Each new World emerged from out of the previous World, without being caused by or reducible to that previous World. So what new World could emerge out of thought, without being caused by it?
Meillassoux calls the fourth World the World of justice. Given the miseries that plague our current World, and the fact that even an ideal political system could not erase past injustices, a World of absolute justice would have to be a new set of possibilities. Certainly, we know that the resurrection of the dead is not a current possibility – once you’re dead, you’re dead. If the dead are resurrected, it could only be because the die we are rolling has changed: there is a new set of possibilities, which means a new World.
Of course, this new World may never emerge. The principle of factiality admits of absolutely no necessity. But it is the only true “potential” novelty that could emerge from out of thought. Anything else would simply be a variation on the currently existing sets of possibilities. But this virtuality is what can give us hope, now; the fact that justice can emerge ex nihilo in the future allows us the knowledge that one day, we will be able to mourn spectres because their suffering will be erased by their resurrection, their second chance at a better life and death.
Legitimation: We Ought to be Just Now
An immediate contradiction apparently appears here. If the resurrection of the dead is the object of hope that can animate our lives now, what happens once the dead are actually resurrected? Once we enter the fourth World, we would no longer have anything to hope for. It seems the new World would just create a new despair, because hope would be over and done with. And, of course, the fact that one day we could rationally mourn spectres through their rebirth does nothing to bridge the divide between the is and the ought, the gap that is the bane of all ethical thinking.
In order to show that the fourth World would simply not produce a new despair, and to bridge the gap between is and ought, there must be something that is objectively valuable in both the third World (of thought) and the fourth World (of justice). Meillassoux claims that what is most valuable is the ability to think the absolute. The thought of the absolute is the unsurpassable virtuality – nothing else could ever appear that could think a higher absolute. A sharp distinction must be made between the thought of the absolute and the absolute itself: the absolute itself is nothing other than the dumb, blind contingency of all things. It is just a property of things; it is nothing in itself, so it is nothing valuable in itself. Humans do not derive their value from the absolute, in which case the absolute would be more valuable; humans derive their value from their knowledge of the absolute.
Because it is logically impossible to think something more absolute than contingency, there could be nothing more truthful or more rational than the human (or the intelligent alien). What this cashes out as is the absolute preeminence of the human. Meillassoux points out something rather startling: this is not a position that has ever been put forth before. Humans have always drawn their value either from their relation to God or the fact that they have won the Darwinian arms race, or they have accorded humans no value at all. No one has ever made the human as human the highest thing possible.
In both the World of thought and the World of justice – or in any World, even the world – there can be nothing higher than the thought of the absolute. It is the ability to think the absolute that confers value, because nothing can surpass it. Even a God could think nothing more truthful or fundamental than contingency. Nothing can surpass the human, therefore the human is the advent ex nihilo par excellence. The human is the highest value; the only rational response is to respect the human, which is to say, to live an unselfish life towards other humans, the most unsurpassable things in existence.
An immortality of this life is a rational object of hope, and it is legitimate to live in hope of this (which is to say, to act and believe as it were possible) because humans as the highest value deserve nothing less. It is universal because it includes everyone; it is rational because it is non-contradictory, and it is legitimate because it happens for the human, the unsurpassable advent ex nihilo.
So be good to each other. Live out rational justice now, because there is nothing more valuable than other humans. Remember that one day, the suffering of the oppressed can be erased, not simply cease. Joy may be absurd for the atheist, and it may depend on cynical submission to a capricious God for the theist, but it is wholly valid for the philosopher.