Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

Humans, with all their myriad differences, are rational beings and as such are bearers of the absolute truth of contingency;

This is why humans, as long as they think, are affected by injustice whenever it strikes them, since nothing permits us to found an inegalitarian difference of humans from themselves.  And of all these injustices the most extreme is still death: absurd death, early death, death inflicted by those unconcerned with equality.  Hence those who exercise their humanity, those who think the impassable character of a condition shared equally by all beings of reason, can only hope for the recommencement of our lives in such a way that justice would surpass the factual death that has struck down our fellow humans. . . . Justice can survive only as an idea of existent and irreparable wrongs, and we owe the dead nothing less.  When the requirement of justice actually transfixes us, it also summons our refusal of injustice for the dead, for recent or ancient deaths, for known and unknown deaths.  For the universal is universal only when it makes no exceptions.  (191-192)

When Meillassoux says “universal justice,” he really means universal justice, and this includes the dead, and so resurrection is the necessary condition of truly universal justice.  This paragraph describes the practical effects the hope of resurrection can have:

The hope of justice ceases to be a simple passing fashion and becomes instead the true intuition of the highest innovative power of becoming.  What is the immediate practice that is yielded by such a symbolization?  Values return to life because they are wagered on the being to come; hope rebounds the unity of the human collective, giving it a common project that does not outstrip individuals in the manner of an abstract generality, but is nourished instead on their ownmost experience: that of the boundless refusal of the death of one’s neighbour.  Humans, through a fidelity initially aimed at those who are closest among the deceased, act to conserve the community in expectation of its ultimate possibility.  They do their best to be worthy of the return of those who are beloved, and broaden their concern (through a memory of the other human, ignited by mourning) to encompass all the living and the dead.  Humanity can be unified by intensively lived values, because they are founded on the active expectation of an ontologically remarkable event that is accessible to every thinking being. (207)

This mere possibility of justice does not tell us why we ought to be just, however.  Just because justice is possible, does not mean there is a requirement to act justly.  As stated above, this is the problem of the split between being and values.  He goes on to say, “The goal of every philosophy must be the immanent inscription of values in being” (195).  This means philosophy is always opposed to sophistry, which says that morality is a human invention not linked to any reality, meaning that one ought to submit to values only if it is advantageous for oneself or one’s group. To refuse the merely human character of norms is to say that norms ought to teach us something about the world, which in turn means that the world should further the moral aims of humans in some way.  Humans cannot be satisfied with an arbitrary tradition or mere artifice; they have to find something in the world itself.  He says, “Seen from this perspective, the problem of the philosopher is not knowing the meaning of justice, but knowing what good it is to be just” (196).

He chooses the term “symbol” for this function for etymological reasons; the Greek sym-ballein means to join two things together.  It refers to the Greek custom of the “hospitality tablet”: two people who had not seen each other for many years could join these tablets and renew links of hospitality.  The symbol allows us to renew such links by “demonstrating that moral aspirations are not absurd illusions or vulgar ideologies, but that they rest instead on the non-reflective, intuitive perception of the world in its ultimate truth” (197).

Philosophy has produced three basic types of symbols: the cosmological, the naturalist, and the historical.  Each one was a new philosophical relation between being and value; Plato established the existence of value in the perfect movements of heavenly bodies, which humans could imitate.  The rise of modern astronomy destroyed this image of perfection, and the battle between philosophy and sophistry became the battle between Enlightenment philosophers and libertines.  It was Rousseau who proposed the naturalist symbol, inscribing values into being by pointing at the human capacities for pity and innocence.  However, cruelty is just as common as pity, so the naturalist symbol was short lived and could only survive as an amoral romantic vitalism.  The true heir to the Greek symbol was the historical symbol: the belief that history bends towards justice, and this is primarily captured by Marxism.  After the twentieth century, however, we can no longer believe in history.  Justice has disappeared from being again.  Our time is the time of the death of the symbol of modernity, and we are trapped between traditionalism and sophistical immoralism.

Why have all the symbols failed?  “Because philosophy has always remained prisoner of the metaphysical postulate of real necessity, and of nothing else” (203).  Once necessity was turned into the property of a being, philosophy was left with two choices.

First, it could try to say that the necessity of the world is in accord with our moral ends.  This is a necessarily religious stance, since all previous symbols ultimately have to rely on transcendence: “All the metaphysical Symbols thus give rise to the irrationality of behaviours stemming from belief.  The cosmological easily becomes an article of faith for apostolic Roman Catholicism.  The romantic gives way to the Robespierrist cult of the supreme Being.  The historical is degraded into the dogma of infallibility, whether of the Party or of the Invisible Hand” (203).

The second possibility is that we can submit our ends to the necessity of the world without falling into cynicism, since virtue produces its own happiness.  This opposes individual happiness to universal justice; it promises us happiness if we submit to the amoral order of the real. This possibility is logically dependent on the first, because to say that the virtuous renunciation of the illusion of the good produces happiness relies on a mysterious relation between virtue and happiness.   

There are two possible responses to this: reasonable belief and virtuous atheism.  Either philosophy attempts to avoid fanaticism by conceptually establishing that the world is ontologically saturated by value while sanctioning belief in a divine order, or philosophy tries to establish a relation between virtue and happiness to avoid the despair of disbelief.  Both attempts fail when they rely on the necessity of the constancy of the world:

For as soon as this world is posed as necessary, only an illusion can make us believe it is a desirable world for a human tormented with the desire of justice.  Thus, the illusion of reasonable belief consists in believing that the irrational basis of every theodicy can be avoided.  Meanwhile, the illusion of virtuous atheism is to believe that one can renounce every ontological link between being and the Good without ending up in vulgar cynicism, the sole meaningful consequence of such a separation.  (204)

These positions lead to two extreme solutions.  First, we could untruthfully say that the world is just, in an attempt to make this illusion produce the fervour necessary to actually make the world just.  Or second, we could affirm that values are an illusion and make this illusion itself into a value; the illusion itself makes us happy.  The first is basically Hegel, the second is basically Nietzsche.

These solutions are two sides of the same coin, the derealization of all value.  The ethical requirement is only an illusion, but at least this illusion is.  It supposed to be possible to find some version of the “Good” by the affirmation of illusion.  This obviously entails a contempt for the true.

The factial is a new symbolization, a non-metaphysical one.  It is made possible by the contingency of worldly laws, a contingency which allows us to ontologically found the hope of justice: “Value is inserted into a reality no longer identified with a determinate and perennial substance, but rather with the possibility of lawless change” (206).  This is not the claim that this is the best of all possible worlds, but that it can either be the best or worst.  This does not abandon our discontent with the world (remember that for Spinoza, hope and fear go together), but allows us to sketch for humans a project worthy of our desires.  The aspiration to the Good is once again based on the knowledge of a world that is allied with hope.

The attempt to found the requirement of justice seems to lead us into a tautology a lot like the tautology in Kantian moral law, which is valid because it is valid.  It looks like we have to tautologically posit a valuable universal, and then subordinate everything else to it.  This actually gives us the opposite of what we want: the universal is set aside in favour of a non-universal as the true source of value.  This is what we do when we found values on God who conforms neither to the true (because of his alogical nature) nor to the just (because of the amorality of his reign).  Basically, the origin of Justice and Truth loses any connection to any recognizable meaning of these words.  We need to figure out how to found human dignity in a non-tautological way without subordinating the resulting values to another principle.  The only way to do this is to establish “the essential ultimate status of the human” (209).  We need to do this without relying on a divine image or a simple factual acknowledgment that humanity has won the Darwinian arms race.

We already have the idea that allows us to do this: the fact of the existence of the thought of the eternal as both actual and contingent.  Stated differently, it is the statement that the human is the “factual but ultimate effect of advent” (209).  He says,

The superiority in principle of the human, its eternally unsurpassable unparalleled worth (except for the worth of other thinking beings), is thus accompanied by its essential mortality. . . . “To say in this sense that every human qua human has a right to justice ceases to be a tautology, for such an assertion now rests on a remarkable ontological proposition: namely, that the value of humans cannot proceed from any cause (and in particular not from a divine cause) since every cause is inferior to humans. (210)

The value of the human seems to be banal, but no one has ever really given the idea its due: “This is true to such an extent that on closer examination, one realizes that no such thing has ever been seriously maintained” (210).  Others have founded the value of the human on an external object like God, or the fact that humans have won the Darwinian arms race, which makes value a matter of might: “The affirmation of the impassable value of the human, and the corresponding affirmation that all negation of such a proposition tends toward simple barbarism: all of this is in no way established by the most up-to-date version of humanism, which grants the human only a factual and descriptive knowledge of techniques and rules” (210).

Humans acquire value because they know the eternal—not from the eternal, because the eternal is only the blind, stupid contingency of all things.  To affirm the ultimate value of the human, we have to de-reify the eternal to stop it from being a determinate and eternal being (a God, a Good beyond being) which would itself end up being the ultimate value.

There might be a host of problems with all this, so let’s discuss two of them.  The first is the most obvious: if the world of justice can appear with no antecedents, for no reason at all, then it can appear regardless of whether or not anyone was hoping for it.  It is the same problem that Christians who believe in predestination have: if God has chosen you, then you are definitely going to heaven, regardless of how you behave (and vice versa).

His solution to this fatalism seemingly contradicts the fourth world’s emergence-from-nothing-and-for-no-reason: “the World of justice is itself possible only on the condition that it should be desired in action in the present World” (215).  There must be a sense in which the fourth world is conditioned by, without thereby being caused by, human action in the present.  

Meillassoux argues that we would only perceive a world of resurrected humans as a world of justice on the condition of having acted with a view to justice in the present.  Without this condition, a world in which former camp victims roam New York would certainly be amazing, but it would not be perceived as a world of justice.  The two worlds might be objectively identical, but there is a difference in the way they related to thought: “And this relation, proper to the sole order of justice, is none other than that of beauty” (218).

He means beauty in its Kantian sense.  For Kant, beauty is the experience of a sudden, contingent agreement between the natural world and our rational ends.  When we see a sunset or a mountain range, for that moment, the world simply is as it should be.  The fourth world has to be beautiful in a similar way; it has to correspond to, and be charged with, the memories of an active hope.  The beauty of the fourth world corresponds to the phenomenal emergence of the Symbol, the reconciliation of humans with a finally hospitable world.

The second problem involves our knee-jerk fascination with power.  Divine Inexistence is as much a polemic against any and all religious views as it is an account of ethics, and one hallmark of the religious is a fascination with a form of being that is impenetrable to reason.  But the awaiting of the Symbol can itself be exactly this sort of religious fascination; it can be the awaiting of a divinized real, as opposed to the awaiting of that which arises.  It desires the manifestation of the power of being; it makes the Symbol the end of justice, rather than the condition of it.  Ultimately, what the religious spirit desires is something entirely other, something absolutely inhuman.  This is a religious motivation, rather than a properly philosophical one.

So there is something missing in the universal, something that would allow us to distinguish between the two motivations (religious or philosophical) for awaiting rebirth; one is hope in being (the advent), and the other is hope placed in humans (being’s highest moral possibility).

There has to be something that links the advent and the universal, a gesture of some sort.

Power can be finally accepted, or it can be conditionally accepted, and the only proof as to which is which is the free act of relinquishing power.  But the sudden advent of rebirth does not allow for this sort of abandonment, because we cannot go beyond it.

The idolatry of being (through which the rebirth would take place), the shared subordination of humans to the becoming on which our fate depends, is an amorality of power inherent in the awaiting of an advent towards which no gesture is possible.  The ambiguity of the universal will thus be removed if we think the universal in such a way that there is a possible gesture towards emergence itself, which amounts to a requirement that the advent of the universal should be incarnated. (224)

He continues,

The human mediator between the advent and the specific realities that appear in it ought to be considered as that which not only obtains (by advent ex nihilo) the power of producing the rebirth necessary for justice.  It also ought to be considered as that which fulfills the unique gesture of abandoning the power of this advent, once the justice is accomplished for which the advent was (only) the condition. (224)

This human mediator needs five characteristics.  First, it must be a person guided by the universal (goodness).  Second, this person must possess the knowledge or memory of the living and the dead (omniscience).  Third, this person has the power to voluntarily resurrect the dead (omnipotence).  Fourth, they have the power to abolish their own powers.  Fifth, they actually do abolish their power.

This “Christlike” aspect “worn by the universal” does not make this a rational religion; it is what chases away the final temptations of transcendence.  This mediator makes any religious idea of advent impossible, and teaches us that power has no value in its own right.    

Power is of so little importance that the child abandons it once it has fulfilled its work, manifesting with this gesture a superb humanity.  The child is the very incarnation of someone who teaches us the impossibility of despising ourselves with respect to that which makes us human.  Thus it cannot be loved as Lord but only as the one who, by a clear consciousness of what is important, knows itself to be equal: the non-elect par excellence.  It is that being whose beautiful singularity can be found in having made itself a human among humans. (225)

So, the hope placed in being and the hope placed in humans are no longer unrelated.  By hoping for the advent of rebirth, we hope for the most extreme possibility of humans; we hope for a becoming that can liberate itself from the power of becoming. The hope of the universal is the anticipation of fidelity to this unique gesture.

The philosophical divine pushes atheism and religion to their ultimate consequences: “God does not exist, and it is necessary to believe in God” (233).  For the atheist, it removes the belief in necessary laws, the last remnants of the religious impulse.  To believe no longer means to have faith.  This divine no longer alienates humans from their capacities, unlike atheism, which diminishes humans.

As for the believer, we have to tell them that “to believe in the existence of God is not to believe in God but to believe in existence” (235).  It is to believe in a God-master which one must both fear and love; it is a veneration of incomprehensible power.  Belief in the existence of God is more than an error; it ruins all authentic belief in God, and this ruins all religion to its core.

Meillassoux goes so far as to say that belief in God is blasphemous, because it necessarily means that God reigns over the world in a kind of grand politics, carrying out projects that are impenetrable to just humans.  Our greatest object of hope becomes an object of fear.

This blasphemy consists in fusing love and power: “It is for this reason that the best of believers have always attempted, through reasoning of the most tragic subtlety (and subtlety is always the management of an impasse), to remove God from existence and make him a being of such transcendence that he is outside being, beyond being, indifferent to being” (236).

The belief in the existence of God is also an idolatry.  If God is this horrifying and incomprehensible being, then he ought to be loved as such.  All sincere love directed at God is “always crosse-bred with deference for the mighty and cunning master who by holding back his strength is all the more threatening in his strange supposed affection for us” (236).  Belief in this God allows for the same amoral acts God himself carries out.

We should not be surprised that religions of benevolence and forgiveness turn into hateful fanaticism, because they believe simultaneously in the promise of loving justice and a demand for servility to a malicious master.

There are four basic links humans can have with God.  The first is the atheistic link, in which one does not believe in God because he does not exist. All the variations on atheism lead to the same impasses: sadness, cynicism, and the disparagement of what makes us human.  Atheism is an immanent despair.

The second is the religious link, which believes in God because he exists.  The impasse here is fanaticism, flight from the world, and the confusion of love and power.  This is a transcendent form of hope.

The third link is one of revolt: not believing in God because he exists.  It would rather hate God than declare him inexistent, or it declares itself above the issue: “It is a superb indifference that mixes apathy towards God (and all displays of indifference are nothing but hatred trying to be as hurtful as possible) with classical atheism, whose impasse it aggravates to the limit: cynicism, sarcasm toward every aspiration, hatred of self” (238).

The fourth link, believing in God because he does not exist, is the immanent form of hope, and has been defended for the first time here.  Meillassoux ends by saying we must choose one of these four links.


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