The Emergence of Correlational Forms

We know there was a time when no form of subjectivity existed, and we know there was a subsequent time in which subjectivity did exist.  The question is, how can we describe the gap between these two times?  How, and on what basis, can we think the time of the emergence of subjectivity?  The Scylla any answer to this question faces is that any description of pre-subjective time is always thought from within subjectivity, or from within what I will call a correlational form. This problem would indict any such description as either dogmatically metaphysical or as a performative contradiction (i.e. to think where one is not).  The Charybdis is the possibility of a positivist neurological or eliminative reductionism, in which subjectivity is eliminated altogether.  With the elimination of subjectivity comes the elimination of phenomenal appearance and any kind of normative structure, which would produce its own form of performative contradiction (i.e. to insist on the truth of eliminativism after having eliminated truth and falsity).

In order to think the time of the emergence of correlational forms, we have the necessities to think where one is not and to maintain a distinction between truth and falsity.  The project is an attempt to describe a correlational form that can fulfill both requirements.

Correlational Forms

In After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux argues that the dominant concern of philosophy since Berkeley, or better, Kant, has been the correlational circle.  Put simply, there is no thought of that is not a thought of; we cannot disentangle ourselves from the relation between thought and the world which makes the world appear to us, or for us.  This is the basis of the critical refutation of dogmatic metaphysics; ”thought cannot get outside itself in order to compare the world as it is ‘in itself’ to the word as it is ‘for us,’ and thereby distinguish what is a function of our relation to the world from what belongs to the world alone.”  We cannot know anything about the world beyond our relation to it.

There are a great many versions of the correlational circle. For example, there are forms that link subject and substance, phenomena and noumena, or Da-sein and being.  The subject, phenomena, and Da-sein are forms of conceptual space, while substance, noumena and being are on the side of the world.  Each one is always linked to the other side as an indissoluble pair.  I want to clumsily introduce a terminological change: rather than referring to the correlational circle, I will refer to correlational forms, in order to avoid a collapse of many distinct circles into a single circle.

A correlational form is a description of a relation between the world as it appears for us and the world as it exists in itself.  There is no encounter with the world as it exists for us without concepts, and concepts always exist in relation to other concepts.  These relations form a conceptual space and therefore one side of any correlational form.  Given that the world as it is in-itself is only known through a correlational form, the content of that in-itself will change depending upon which form one is working from.  Since this project is about an attempt to think the pre-correlational time from which correlation emerged, we have one reason for saying that the correlate we are working with must be causal space, the material world as described by natural science.

We are searching for a theory of how conceptual space, ensconced within a correlational form, emerged out of causal space, which must be pre-correlational.  In order to avoid our metaphysical Scylla, the impetus cannot be a direct assertion of the priority of neurology or natural history; rather, the impetus must come from within the structure of correlational forms.  In other words, something about every correlation must suggest the necessity of thinking emergence.  In order to avoid our reductionistic Charybdis, conceptual space may have to be preserved in its relation with causal space, though we will leave open the extent of this preservation.  The spectre of global eliminativism haunts every question of conceptual space, and it cannot be entirely set aside in an a priori manner.

The Temporality of Ancestral Statements

Meillassoux’s project is an attempt to think speculatively about the world in itself.  Given the necessity of thinking from a correlational form, this seems impossible.  In order to establish the possibility of thinking outside the correlation, he introduces the aporia of the arche-fossil: we cannot think outside of a correlational form, but no correlational form can make sense of the world as it existed before humans.

We are capable of dating objects absolutely, and we can measure their duration based on the constant rate of disintegration of radioactive nuclei.  The objects that we use to make these ancestral statements—isotopes, fossils of single-celled creatures, star light, and so on, are what Meillassoux calls arche-fossils.

At stake in the arch-fossil is not the truth or falsity of ancestral statements, but rather their meaning.  A correlationist can only accept ancestral statements in a qualified way.  Take this ancestral statement: “Event X occurred Y number of years before the emergence of humans.”  A correlationist will not dispute this sentence at all, but they will add the silent addition—”. . . for humans.”  For the correlationist, there are two levels of meaning to any ancestral statement – the immediate, realist meaning, and the deeper meaning, activated by the amendment for humans. Intersubjectivity replaces adequation as the marker of objectivity.  Hence, Meillassoux says, “Scientific truth is no longer what conforms to an in-itself supposedly indifferent to the way in which it is given to the subject, but rather what is susceptible of being given as shared by a scientific community.”  (AF, 13)

The phrase “the present community of scientists” indicates we do not precede from the ancestral past but the correlationist present.  The “deeper” meaning that only the philosopher has access to is that what is really real is our relation now to the arche-fossil and the statements about those fossils that may be shared by all, not the world that existed before the relation that the arche-fossil reveals.

Merely dismissing the “for humans” codicil produces a series of absurdities.  One such absurdity is the idea that what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is.  This is absurd because it is allegedly impossible to speak of something existing independently of the relation that contains all qualities.  Another problem the purely realist meaning creates is that the relation itself emerged in space and time, and that we can date it – but space and time are modes of human perception, and so could not exist before the relation.  Finally, it is impossible for the correlationist to accept “that the fossil-matter is the givenness in the present of a being that is anterior to givenness.”  (AF, p 28)

Yet, we don’t measure isotopes to test their universality, we measure them “with a view to external referents which endow these experiments with meaning.”  Science is, at best, only secondarily concerned with the community of scientists.  Experiments are meaningful because they deal solely with the world, not with any universal community of humans.  Therefore, the “for humans” codicil does not deepen the sense of the statement, it cancels it.  Either the ancestral statement is only realist, or it has no sense at all.

It can be replied that in order to recover the ancestral fossil for correlationism, a counterfactual is all that is needed: if there had been an observer, the event would have appeared in such and such a manner.  Meillassoux says that this entire response involves conflating two things: the ancestral and the ancient.   The distant event is indeed like the ancient event. But the ancestral event is not an ancient event.  The distant event and the ancient event both take place in a world with givenness.  The distant event is “recuperable as an in-apparent given which does not endanger the logic of correlation.” (AF, 38)  However, the ancestral statement is not an absence in givenness – that is, something we as one half of the correlation do not perceive, like the ocean floor – but an absence of givenness.  Givenness arose in a time and place before givenness.  The relation that produces qualities arose in a time and place before the relation existed.

Therefore, no counterfactual can be used to recover the arche-fossil; “For the problem of the arche-fossil is not the empirical problem of the birth of living organisms, but the ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness as such.” (AF, 39)  Science thinks a time that is indifferent to givenness.  The challenge is the following: to understand how science can think a world wherein spatio-temporal givenness itself came into being within a time and a space which preceded every variety of correlation.  Science does think the time of the emergence of correlational forms, which is the time of ancestrality.

Ancestrality and Embodiment

A conceptual space within a correlational form always has conditions of possibility, whether these are transcendental or immanent.  For example, the Kantian transcendental subject, with its interplay between spatio-temporal intuitions, concepts, and apperception, is the condition of thinking in general, while for someone like Heidegger the condition is Da-sein’s temporalization.

We say say there is a set of conceptual conditions; and there must be a set that takes place.  This “taking place” is inherently linked to a point of view, because without a point of view, conceptual space becomes infinite.  If this space is infinite, then there would be no spatio-temporal receptivity, and it could no longer be conceived as a transcendental or phenomenological subject.  The question here is what the relation these conditions have to the body.

The conceptual conditions are instantiated in a body, rather than exemplified.  Instantiation means only the examples exist, while exemplification would mean that a quasi-Platonic form of the conditions exists apart from any instantiation.  The latter clearly involves metaphysical commitments. The conditions of conceptual space are instantiated and do not exist apart from bodily support, and bodies exist within scientifically describable causal space.

Sufficient Accounts of Sufficient Conditions

Concerning this bodily support, Meillassoux says, “Objective bodies may not be a sufficient condition for the taking place of the transcendental, but they are certainly a necessary condition for it.”  (AF, 45-46)  Additionally, in Divine Inexistence, he says, “. . .it cannot be understand [sic] how the lifeless can produce a qualitative multiplicity of affects and perceptions from a certain ‘molecular geometry’. It will always remain without reason (essentially contingent) that certain affections, perceptions, or indeed thoughts should be superadded to certain material configurations.” (DI, 189)  This presents us with two issues.

First, while a “molecular geometry” is a necessary condition of conceptual space, it is apparently not necessarily a sufficient one—on pain of vitalism, in which life is already contained within rocks.  Second, we have the already stated problem that any description of emergence must be done from within a correlational form.  The second problem can in fact provide us with a solution to the first, and so we will deal with it first.

In Wilfred Sellars’s “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” he stages a confrontation between the manifest image and the scientific image, with the goal of finding a synoptic vision of both.  The manifest image is our phenomenal first-person experience of the world, including self-identity, norms, and macro-level objects, while the scientific image views the world as subtended by theoretically postulated imperceptibles, such as superstrings.

One element of the manifest image is the claim that conceptual thinking can only take place within an already existing framework of conceptual thinking.  Because conceptual thought requires an already-existing framework of concepts, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that there was a holistic jump from pre-conceptual patterns of behavior to conceptual patterns of thought, an irreducibly new kind of awareness.  The consequence of this notion of an irreducible jump is, again, a problem of conceptualizing the circumstances of this jump, which involves thinking where one is not: thinking the emergence of concepts as occurring without the support of an already-existing framework of concepts.

The same difficulty can be phrased in Hegelian terms.  The Phenomenology presents a narration of the development of consciousness. It is an account of how subjectivity emerges, yet always finding itself intertwined (or correlated) with substance.  There appears to be an evolution from animal consciousness to the negativity of self-consciousness, but it is always already subtended by spirit.  The emergence of the phenomenal perspective, because it is always spiritual, always involves pre-existing conceptual resources supported by the we that is I.  The Phenomenology is an account of the emergence of a correlational form viewed from the perspective of an already existing correlation.  In Hegel’s vocabulary, our question is: are we locked into describing the emergence of subjectivity as a moment of spirit and all its attendant socio-conceptual resources, or can we describe it as emerging without those resources?  That is, as a pre-spiritual moment?

Transparency and the Non-Phenomenal 

We have already seen one type of object that presents difficulty for ensconcing all thinking within a finite, subjective temporality—the arche-fossil.  The arche-fossil functions as the material support for thinking pre-correlational time.  If we are to think the emergence of correlation and its attendant conceptual space, we just as much need an object that allows us to think the non-correlational (e.g. non-phenomenal) present, and that object is the brain.

Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One argues that conceptual space functions according to what he calls a self-model theory of subjectivity (SMT).  For Metzinger, the phenomenal first-person perspective (his version of what I am calling conceptual space) is a representational process, founded upon the brain’s non-phenomenal (i.e. not available for introspection, it does not appear) information processing functions.  In short, rather than representation being a function of transcendental logical constraints, or being-in-the-world, or some other account of conceptual space, it is a result of neural information processing operating under embodied epistemic constraints.

For the purposes of this project, the first key element in Metzinger’s theory is transparency.  This is not the Cartesian idea of infallibile introspection; rather, it is a lack of knowledge.  It means something particular is not accessible for subjective experience, i.e. the representational nature of the contents of conscious experience.  What makes a representation transparent is “if earlier processing stages are unavailable for attentional processing.  Transparency results from a structural/functional property of the neural information-processing going on in our brains, which makes earlier processing stages attentional unavailable.” (BNO, 11)  In short, transparency is our inability to get behind experience to see how it is made.  The processing is non-phenomenal.

The bodily support for conceptual space is non-phenomenal, and we can read it in much the same way as the arche-fossil.  Above, we saw how the attempt to use a counterfactual failed to recuperate the ancestral for idealist correlations; the arche-fossil “is the givenness in the present of a being that is anterior to givenness,” rather than an in-apparent given (like a distant or ancient event).  Our brain’s information processes can be seen the same way; scientifically circumscribed neurological data are the givenness in the present of a process that is phenomenally, rather than temporally, anterior to givenness.

To stress the point: ancestral time is ongoing.  I said above that any emergence of correlation had to be described from within a correlation; a theory of transparent neural information processing links us to pre-correlational time, and hence we live and move and having our being in a divided time.  Time is split, between the manifest finite time of presence and the ongoing, infinite time of emergence.  That infinite time is the time of the birth of stars, of the cooling of the Earth’s surface, of the appearance of the first cells, and of the development of homo sapiens.  Infinite time (i.e. non-phenomenal time) is simply another way of describing causal space, the world of theoretically postulated entities that make up the scientific image of the world.  It is what we think when we think where one is not, thus fulfilling the first necessity from the introduction.

Causal Accounts of Conceptual Space

I said that the answer to our second problem would give us an answer to our first.  How does the infinite time of emergence, accessed via material support such as arche-fossils and subpersonal neural processing systems, help us sort out whether or not the body is a sufficient condition for conceptual space?  Remember what this sufficiency would be contrasted with: being-in-the-world, Spirit, and the subject are all transcendental conceptions of conceptual space; each one underlies our perspective on the world and our ability to generate concepts about it, and would themselves be ontologically—or at least methodologically prior— prior to any scientific image.  Put in other words, the transcendental always involves something non-objectifiable, something left over, either subtending or governing both the reality of, and our perception of, causal space.  In Hegel’s terms, everything is subjectifiable.  This non-objectifiable left-over is what gives conceptual space its autonomy from causal space, or what makes it prior to the scientific image of the world.

Does that autonomy hold, however?  Is everything subjectifiable, is there always something non-objectifiable left over?  We know there was time before subjectivity, and our statements about that time can only make sense if we do not subjectify them, if we refuse the “for humans” codicil.  It is the same for transparent brain processes; we cannot assimilate them into a point-of-view because they are structurally inaccessible; they can only be theoretically postulated through material evidence suggested by the usual physicalist arguments like mental illness, optical illusions, and dreams.  The brain’s information processing systems are not transparent “for us”, they are literally transparent.  The objectified, the content of the scientific image, subtends the conceptual content of the manifest image.  We can only make sense of the scientific image if phenomenology is a function of physiology.  Or, in Paul Churchland’s terms, ““[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?”  The scientific image is prior.

The body, the material site which gathers together all the causal forces of the scientific image, is the sufficient condition for thought; only this thesis allows us to make literal sense of the scientific image.

Retaining Normativity

As the argument stands, we have hit a point of total reductionism.  Everything about the manifest world and its logical space of thought can be reduced to causal space.  This brings with it a wealth of well-known problems, all culminating the achilles heel of naturalism: if all thought is causally produced, then no normativity is possible.  If every thought is the result of physical processes, if intentional persons are eliminated, then sentences lose propositional content.  They cease to be true or false, as one can only be right or wrong if one is thinking where one is is, or from a correlational form, but so far, the argument has depended upon an ability to break out of any correlation.

Two possibilities for reconciling this problem stand out.  First, there is Sellars’s stereoscopic vision, in which reducibility and irreducibility appear on different levels. Logical space, the space in which we think, is causally reducible to brain, but it is not logically reducible.   Even if we can fit conceptual thought and sensations into the scientific image, we still need to discuss the category of persons, who are confronted by standards (logical, ethical, etc) which they may or may not conform to.  At first glance, there is only one way: the categories of the person must be reconstructed in terms of the scientific image, like biochemistry might be reconstructed in terms of physics.  In response to this, one might say free agents can’t be physical systems.  But to say a person could have done otherwise is like saying a system failed to be a different state, or that its state was predictable, but this is not a description of a person.

To think of a being as a person is to think of it as being bound up in a network of rights and duties.  More basic than the is/ought distinction; to think of a being as a person “is to construe its behavior in terms of actual or potential membership in an embracing group each member of which thinks of itself as a member of the group” or a community.

An individual may belong to many communities.  “[t]he fundamental principles of a community, which define what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘done’ or ‘not done,’ are the most common intentions of that community with respect to the behavior of members of the group.”  To think of a being as a person “requires that one think thoughts of the form ‘We (one) shall do (or abstain from doing) actions of kind A in circumstances C’.  To think thoughts of this kind is not to classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention.”  A person is a being with intentions.  Thus the manifest image is not reconciled with, but joined to, the manifest image.

The second option refers to Metzinger’s more complete eliminativism.  The existence of a coherent “self-representatum” introduces a self-world border into the system’s model of reality. It is how system-related information becomes globally available as system-related information, because the organism now has an internal image of itself as a whole. On the other hand, environment-related information is non-self. The representing process generates both the self and the difference between self and world; hence, “Objectivity emerges together with subjectivity.” (BNO, 4)

This sounds suspiciously like a naturalization of Fichte’s ego, which produces a sort of auto-constraint on thought.  Constraint, or what we could call normativity, is the work of the cogito. We become aware of this constraint after an original attempt at purely autonomous activity, i.e. to be totally autonomous from the scientific image, or to be an irreducible person.  Experience is about turning “brute facts” into products of freedom, and that requires knowing/remembering that the brute facts are originally the products of freedom.

The self-model, which involves a distinction between self-related and environment-related information, is a naturalized version of these cogito.  The difference between self and world—and hence the correlation between self and world—is generated by physical information processing, rather than a transcendental logic.  The intuitions unpinning all forms of idealist correlations may be able to be cashed out in a naturalistic, materialistic correlation.

In conclusion: our non-metaphysical time of emergence is the infinite time of the causal space of the scientific image, thought or described from within a correlation generated by the mechanisms of that causal space.  Echoing Aristotle, we could say that conceptual space originated in the dead world of causal space, and continues in existence for the sake of knowledge.


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