Alien Theory: The Materialist Decision

This will be the reading for Nov 17.

Ray Brassier’s wonderfully polemical writing follows two different but related strands of thought. First, he has a strong commitment to realism, which for him necessitates a nihilistic materialism. North American writers such as Wilfred Sellars and Patricia and Paul Churchland are the main representatives here. Second, he holds that this materialism has a hidden decision at its root: all philosophy, even the best, begins with a decision to divide the world into what is explained and how it is explained. The problem is that the contents of the “what” and the “how” are always basically arbitrary, as is the line between them. In order for philosophy to consider itself a self-sufficient source of knowledge, it has to ignore this arbitrary decision. In order to deal with this problem, he turns to the excessively strange work of François Laruelle, whose non-philosophy we will deal with at greater length in the future. This week, we will take a brief look at his arguments for materialism and the necessity of its non-philosophical transformation, found in his doctoral thesis, Alien Theory.

The Empirical Contingency of Materialism’s Philosophical Necessity

“First, an admission of personal conviction: materialism seems to us to be the only serious, intellectually reputable ontological option available to the philosopher in the wake of those theoretical revolutions that have defined our intellectual modernity. We have in mind here primarily the unquestionably epochal scientific revolutions inaugurated by Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein, insofar as they definitively undermined the hitherto unassailable legitimacy of the kind of philosophical anthropocentrism harbored by Judeo-Christian culture. But also the comparatively minor, more localized philosophical revolutions initiated by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, in whose work the epistemological privileges previously ascribed to human subjectivity were effectively terminated.” (AT, 17)

This is his first argument for the necessity of being a materialist: that developments in science and materialist philosophy alike have left us with really only one serious option: materialism. The human mind has been undermined at every turn: it has been seen as the result of undirected evolutionary forces, as the plaything of the unconscious, and as laden with ideology. The tools with have inherited for thinking about the world (from intuitions to sense experience) need to be dealt with and left behind.

His second argument is the growing ability of science to produce unified theories of a physical universe, with nothing transcendent or “unobjectifiable” left over. For example, developments in evolutionary biology have “given rise to the possibility [of] a single, unitary theoretical perspective on nature encompassing what were previously considered to be incommensurable phenomena.” (AT, 18) A “generalized thermodynamics” may be provide the best theoretical framework for a monistic physical perspective. He quotes Paul Churchland as saying,

“[It] is [thermodynamics] that renders physically intelligible such things as the process of synthetic evolution in general, and the Sun-urged growth of a rose in particular. And what is human knowledge but a cortically embodied flower, fanned likewise into existence by the ambient flux of energy and information?” (AT, 19)

In other words, a great diversity of physical phenomena, including human minds, could be described as negentropic energy capture. By linking the physico-chemical and bio-organic realms at this level, we may get a unified field theory for Neo-Darwinism. Such a synthesis would ruin the usual distinctions between the physical, the chemical and the bio-organic, but even more importantly it would ruin the distinct between things like “nature” and “culture,” “thereby allowing for the naturalization of hitherto irreducibly complex socio-cultural phenomena.” (AT, 19)

In physics, super-string theory offers something similar: “The hypothesis of 11-dimensional hyperspace promises at once to simplify the laws of nature and to unify all physical forces by reconfiguring them in accordance with a strictly geometrical paradigm.” (AT, 20) Such a unification would such that the apparently insuperable gulf between quantum field theory and gravitational field theory is the “consequence of distortions engendered by partial perspective.” (AT, 20)

The philosophical importance of superstring theory is that it achieves a consistent physical monism by revealing all scalar incommensurability across the universe, such as the difference between quarks and nebula, to be the result of perspectival illusions engendered by phenomenological perception. The implication is that in order to get an “adequate conceptual grasp of the unitary nature of physical reality, it is necessary to achieve a complete theoretical suspension of the image of the world derived from perceptual intuition. In other words, physical theory has to effect a rigorously mathematical circumvention of those imaginative limitations inherent in the physiologically rooted cognitive apparatus which an aleatory evolutionary history has saddled us.” (AT, 21/22) To put a fine point on it, “Phenomenology remains a function of physiology.” (AT, 22)

None of this makes materialism logically necessary, but it does mean that we can no longer “conceive of the human as if it constituted the unobjectifiable exception in terms of which the ontological validity of what the empirical sciences define as objective nature is to be gauged.” (AT, 23) Philosophy as long since dropped ideas of the human as a rational animal or a thinking substance, but “few seem willing to admit that, after Darwin, it is no longer possible to conceive of human being transcendentally, whether it be as Subjekt, Geist or Dasein.” (AT, 23/24)

The human is a carbon based variety of information processing systems, and nothing besides. This may come off as ridiculously reductive, but it is no more reductive than claiming water is H20. All scientific truth is reductive because it dissolves the phenomenological familiarity that is rooted in anthropomorphic perspective. He offers a harsh criticism of a common attitude among philosophers:

“Is not part of the philosopher’s unease concerning scientific ‘reduction’ directly attributable to the unavowed wish that, as far as man is concerrned, there always be ‘something’ left over besides the material: some ineffable, unquantifiable metaphysical-residue, some irreducible transcendental remainder?” (AT, 25)

This is most obvious in phenomenology, which staves off this “disenchantment” by “delimiting a dimension of radically unobjectifiable transcendence: that of the phenomenon’s invisible phenomenality. It is with the inapparent ‘how’ of the phenomenon’s appearing, rather than with the ‘what’ which appears, that transcendental phenomenology concerns itself.” (AT, 25) Take Heidegger’s definition: the phenomenon is that which “shows itself in itself,” a “self-showing which manifests itself and through itself alone.”

In order to answer these questions of “what” appears and “how” it appears, we need two things: theoretical, rather than intuitive, accounts of how individual objects appear (beyond Leibniz’s “what is not a being is not a being”), and of appearances than does not invoke the optical paradigm. We need to avoid the optical paradigm because it is too closely tied to everyday common sense. Neither Husserl nor Heidegger get us there. They seem to rely on notions of manifestation derived from our empirical perception of middle-sized objects (and, I would add, limited time spans):

“Yet in exactly what sense, for instance, can the Big Bang, the Cambrian explosion, or a 26 dimensional superstring (phenomena which are strictly unphenomenologisiable because because they remain utterly unintuitable in terms of habitual spatio-temporal parameters), be said to be things that ‘show themselves in themselves’? What are the parameters of this showing? To whom and for who is it supposed to occur?” (AT, 27)

The phenomenological rejoinder is that these are theoretical entities, derived from a more originary mode of engagement. To this, Brassier responds, “Belief in this pseudo-originary, pre-theoretical dimension of experiential immediacy is the phenomenological superstition par excellence.” (AT, 28) He adds,

“Briefly: the claim that intentional consciousness subtends a continuum of eidetic intuition running from tables and chairs at one end to transfinite cardinals and hyperdimensional superstrings at the other is grotesquely reductive. Just as the suggestion that objects of ‘regional ontology’ such as quarks, leptons and black holes have as their ultimate ontological root in Dasein’s being-in-the-world . . . is an outrageous instance of anthropocentric idealism. If anyone is guilty of imperialistic reductionism as far as the extraordinary richness and complexity of the universe is concerned, it is the phenomenological idealist rather than the scientific materialist. Husserl’s idealism is as punitive as it is unmistakable: ‘The existence of Nature cannot be the condition for the existence of consciousness since Nature itself turns out to be a correlate of consciousness: Nature is only as being constituted in regular concatenations of consciousness.'” (AT, 27-28)

He labels Husserl’s position here as profoundly reactionary. “The choice with which we are confront is as clear as it is unavoidable: either Darwin or Husserl.” (At, 29)

Philosophical materialism has two key points. The first is the requirement of univocity. Univocity involves two seemingly contradictory aspects. First, Being knows of no differences in kind, hence there is no distinction between nature and nurture, freedom and necessity, etc. Second, Being is untotalizable – there is no overarching principle of transcendent ontological unity. Being is multiple.

The second requirement is that of naturalism. Here, naturalism is not some hypostatiation of a natural ontological realm which is opposed to nature, because that would contradict univocity. Rather, it means the interdependence of philosophy and science. The failure of philosophy to provide a transcendental footing for science is necessary, not just a series of contingent mistakes that could be corrected in the future.

The Transcendental Necessity of Materialism’s Non-Philosophical Transformation

Later, we will look in detail at Laruelle’s work. For now, we will have to be content with defending Brassier against charges of dogmatic scientism. In fact, he has happy to accept the charge of scientism, “if ‘scientism’ simply means refusing the obligatory subordination of empirical science to transcendental philosophy, then by our lights, there is not nearly enough ‘scientism’ in contemporary philosophy.” (AT, 39) It is the charge of dogmatism that he rejects:

“Were we continue to operate in an exclusively philosophical register, wherein everything is ultimately reducible to a basically aleatory Decision either for or against science, the accusation would be pertinent. However, it is precisely on account of our wish to circumvent the apparently deadly impasse between materialist scientism and phenomenological idealism, and in order to provide the materialist Decision with a rigorously critical degree of theoretical validity, that we wish to effect its non-Decisional transmutation.” (AT, 39)

This non-Decisional transmutation is necessary for two reasons. First, philosophical thought indexes the world to the human – almost inevitably so. As we saw above, the prominent philosopher Martin Heidegger defined a phenomena as that which shows itself in itself. The phrase leaves open the question of who or what the phenomena is showing itself to – and spoiler alert, it shows itself to the human way of being in the world, Dasein. Laruelle, on the other hand, through a series of extremely strange and confusing phrases such as “Man is given-with-givenness” and “vision-in-One” effectively removes the human as a philosophical issue: “By definitively emancipating Man’s theoretically alien, non-human existence, non-materialist theory promises to purge materialism of all vestiges of phenomenological anthropomorphism.” (AT, 43)

The second issue both materialism and phenomenology face is a set of amphiboles, or ambiguous concepts that lend themselves to equivocation. Philosophical materialism often finds itself identifying “matter” with the concept of matter, and phenomenology almost inevitably confuses the phenomenon with the logos – that is, language or reason. So we will end on on a philosophical I.O.U.: Laruelle’s non-philosophy will offer a way to rigorously distinguish between matter and the concept of matter via an even more radical version of Badiou’s thesis that Being is nothing, cashing out in a theory of truth as correspondence without adequation.

Next week, we will look at a slightly less polemical essay by Brassier called “Concepts and Objects.” It will give a better overview of the kinds of conceptual resources he brings to the table, and will offer another outline of the relation between science and philosophy he wants to effect.

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