The stars have no happenings: assessing Meillassoux's ancestrality challenge

The stars have no happenings: assessing Meillassoux's ancestrality challenge
"the formation of the earth in vivid color" by DALL-E

Meillassoux's challenge for "correlationism"

At the outset of his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux proposes a thought experiment which he believes poses a problem for all "correlationist" philosophies, namely, those philosophies which claim that "we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other.” This would presumably describe most philosophy after Kant.

Meillassoux’s proposed dilemma for the correlationist proceeds as follows --

“Empirical science is today capable of producing statements about events anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness...How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?

To re-phrase what Meillasoux is saying – in doing science today, we are able to speak of events, such as the formation of the sun or the accretion of the earth, which pre-date the advent of organic life on our planet. For the sake of shorthand, Meillassoux dubs such events "ancestral," and he refers to their underlying structures as "arche-fossil" or "fossil matter." Since correlationism takes as axiomatic that being is manifestation to a subject, how is it coherent to say that what is preceded in time the manifestation of what is?

Meillassoux anticipates the response of the correlationist, saying, "we have to carry out a retrojection of the past on the basis of the present... It is not ancestrality which precedes givenness, but that which is given in the present which retrojects a seemingly ancestral past." The correlationist strategy pursued here characterizes the event which we posit as "already having happened" as a retroactive construction of consciousness on the basis of phenomena given in the present.

However, Meillassoux believes this reply is insufficient. He takes the correlationist to have said “the ancestral statement is a true statement, in that it is objective, but one whose referent cannot possibly have actually existed in the way this truth describes it.” He is insistent. What actually happened? Are we just talking non-sense when we speak of such events? He proceeds to claim that an ancestral statement "only has sense if its literal sense is also its ultimate sense...either this statement has a realist sense, and only a realist sense, or it has no sense at all.”

Again, Meillassoux anticipates another maneuver available to the correlationist – they could respond that if an epistemic agent were properly located, the event would have been given to them. For instance, if I find a broken vase on the ground, I understand that if someone were there, they could have experienced the event of the vase's falling and breaking. We simply need to posit a counter-factual situation in which a subject is present to whom the phenomenon may be given.

Meillassoux claims that this argument is excluded by the nature of ancestral objects themselves, because ancestral objects predate even consciousness itself. Thus, to propose, even hypothetically, an agent who could witness an ancestral event creates a paradox: “If consciousness had observed the emergence of terrestrial life, the time of the emergence of the given would have been a time of emergence in the given...The problem of the arche-fossil is... the ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness as much.”

An attempt at a response to Meillassoux's challenge

Meillassoux's proposed dilemma provides a valuable mind pump for stimulating reflection, especially for those like myself who have taken the Kantian turn pretty hard. If the notion of things-in-themselves is an absurdity – an illusion of an outside created by consciousness's production of an artificial inside – then what do we make of statements about the ancestral events which Meillassoux describes?

Meillassoux' thought is not so facile as to be dismissed in a single essay, so I plan to re-visit this challenge in the future, but if I were pressed on how to maintain a correlationist position, I would choose to keep following the original strategy which Meillassoux proposes the correlationist might adopt, namely, that when we speak of fossil matter we are retroactively positing ancestral events on the basis of presently given phenomena. Not only do I find this speech more meaningful than Meillassoux gives it credit for, but I also think that a critical analysis of science reveals that all meaningful speech within the domain of scientific inquiry operates in this same register.

We can start by analyzing the notion of "event." What is an event? Without embarking on a comprehensive account of events (which other thinkers have done a much better job at), I think that we can at least concede that to speak of an event requires some particular internal differing whereby we can claim that 'this' event is different from 'that' event. The condition of event X is at least that it not be event Y. The accretion of the earth is not the formation of the sun, and the former presumably preceded the latter. While one of Meillassoux's goals in After Finitude is to argue for an abandonment of the principle of sufficient reason, he does still maintain the necessity of the principle of non-contradiction, thus I think we are warranted in assuming at least this much in our response.

My aim in pointing out how individual events differ from other events is to restate in even stronger terms that speaking in terms of events must be the construction of a consciousness. The universe does not have events. The stars have no happenings. Matter is an endless chaotic flux, no beginning and no end within itself, simply one monstrous maelstrom ceaselessly churning. The universe's experience of itself is so utterly alien to us as to be mostly inaccessible. Meillassoux presses the correlationist to say what really happened, but if he's asking us to provide an internal description of the event in its own terms, it's not clear how such a thing can be provided by a human consciousness.

Meillassoux's demand for a realist interpretation of ancestral events neglects to undertake a critical examination of the operation of the science which he takes to inform him of these ancestral events which he cannot directly observe. The "laws of nature" and abstract theoretical structures which he believes provide him with descriptions of the primary properties of objects (properties which Meillassoux posits to exist independent of their relation to an observer) are human, all too human. They are no different from a telescope or an X-ray machine in that they are technology for giving us "eyes" to "see" a phenomenon by forcing it to appear to us. Our mental frameworks and conceptual tooling for conducting scientific inquiry are technologies no more or less than the paper and pencil we use to record them.

The correlationist can press this point further by drawing a homology between ancestral events and other abstract events, such as the fission of an atom. Although these abstract events take place in the present, they are as inaccessible to the human being as an ancestral event. The moment of an atom's fission is not something which a human being can witness without the aid of technologies of observation. This is to say that both abstract events and ancestral events require us to artificially extend our experience in ways which are dependent on the tools which we rely on to do that work of extension. Since these tools are not distinct from human consciousness, they extend our consciousness' reach only in alien ways which place us in alien realms. As the advance of scientific insight has shown, we can navigate this alien terrain in order to bring home treasures, but we shouldn't forget what is happening – through the use of technology, the conscious experience of a human being employs conceptual models and physical implements to arrive at a mental construction of an event.

Husserl talks about this in his own descriptions of the operation of scientific inquiry. Even if I understand that my lover is a sack of continuously reacting chemicals, I cannot directly experience her as that. I can only experience her as the person which she is to me. My consciousness cannot experientially access this abstract state of affairs in which my lover is simply chemicals, even if I can mentally recall and assent to this fact. A doctor could approach such an experience with increasing conceptual approximation by way of performing various tests or surgeries on my lover, although the doctor also will never fully be able to experience her as a sack of chemicals rather than as a person. Perhaps morticians are able to come closest to this experience of other human beings, but I would need to talk to a mortician to explore that possibility in greater detail.

To close and summarize, I am inclined to find Meillassoux's ancestrality challenge to correlationism unpersuasive for at least two reasons – (1) understanding ancestral events as events or recognizing fossil matter as indicating the existence of such ancestral events relies on the conceptual power of technologies, both physical and mental, to access them in the first place, and (2) I do not see any evidence which persuades me that the answer which Meillassoux seeks – a description of the event in terms of internal properties which exist without reference outside of themselves – can exist or be coherent. With Wittgenstein, I would counsel that whereof we cannot speak, we must be silent.

I hope that this piece alerted you to some new ideas that you might not have encountered before! Meillassoux's work is exceptional, and demands to be taken seriously. You can help support Samsara Diagnostics by purchasing his After Finitude through my Bookshop affiliate link.

A free piece of theory in your inbox once a month