Reading DISPARITIES (11): quantum deconstruction and formal causality

In my previous post I am basically reporting, but also reconstructing, Zizek’s position.

As I report, Zizek does not reply explicitly to Johnston’s feasibility objection, but on my reconstruction there is an answer to be found in the text. Johnston argues that Zizek’s use of quantum mechanics to explain the emergence of free subjectivity starts at a level that is too far from the phenomenon that it is trying to explain and would require a long series of “bridge” theories before getting to the level of the human subject. It is thus more economical to begin with biology and brain science, which occupy levels just adjacent to the human subject, and which equally premise an ontological incompleteness of nature.

The feasibility objection depends on what I call “the argument from distance”, which itself depends on the stratification of levels of emergence (or of reduction, depending on which direction you take, up or down the levels). This is what has been called the “layer cake” model of explanation and reduction.

Zizek’s idea is that on the layer cake model the quantum level is “distant” from the human level, with many other intervening levels, but that from a formal view they are quite close. This means that for him the layer cake model is not always the best or most useful way to envisage the relation between different ontic domains.

The quantum model, for Zizek, deconstructs the stratification of levels:

here quantum physics enters: what makes it so ‘spooky’ is not its radical heterogeneity with regard to our common sense, but rather its uncanny resemblance to what we consider specifically human – here, effectively, one is tempted to say that quantum physics ‘deconstructs’ the standard binary opposition of nature and culture.

Zizek gives primacy to the quantum model not because it is the most fundamental level following the the descending line of reductions and of efficient causality, but because it is the most “deconstructed” model, and thus formally closer to human subjectivity. The sort of causality that Zizek is emphasising here is a formal causality, where the “highest” (or most distant) abstractions are inscribed in the real itself. In other words, Zizek is arguing for a realist interpretation of quantum concepts.

This formal analogy between quantum physics and subjectivity means that the formal causality is operative not only at the “base” or sub-microscopic level but equally at every succeeding level. Real emergence from one level to another, that cannot be explained by reduction to lower levels, is only possible because of the ontological incompleteness that is best described by quantum mechanics (at the present moment).

Zizek does not fetishise quantum mechanics the way Laruelle does. He remarks that the question of which theory best describes the transition from the paradoxical incomplete “proto-reality” to constituted manifest reality is an empirical question:

Therein resides the strength of decoherence theory: it endeavours to articulate the purely immanent way a quantum process engenders the mechanism of its ‘observation’ (registration). Does it succeed? It is up to the science itself to provide an answer.

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Reading DISPARITIES (10): Zizek’s quantum genesis

In section five of Chapter 1 of DISPARITIES, “Biology or quantum physics?“, Zizek takes on an impossible task, that of justifying “the priority of quantum physics” (page 39) in the explanation of emergent properties, in particular of the emergence of subjectivity in the human organism. Of course, he fails. Any such primacy is forbidden by the principles of his basic research programme. However, in the course of this failed mission Zizek gives a very interesting account of his entangled engagement with quantum physics.

This section takes the form of Zizek’s reply to Adrian Johnston’s objections to the primacy of the quantum model in the materialist account of the genesis of free subjects. (If I were Adrian Johnston I would be seriously tempted to commit hara-kiri as Zizek’s replies are  most often infuriatingly wrong-headed).

Johnston’s theoretical strategy is pluralist and pragmatic, arguing that Zizek’s reliance on quantum physics is neither necessary nor feasible:

1) it is not necessary as other theoretical models that break with the naive materialist presupposition of a fully constituted, complete, determinate and deterministic nature are available (he cites “emergentism, neuroplasticity, and epigenetics”) – this is his pluralist point.

2) it is not feasible, as the distance between the sub-microscopic quantum level and the macroscopic level of human subjectivity is too great for the quantum model to have any real explanatory power. The parallel between the quantum level and the human level is thus more formal than explanatory – this is his pragmatic point.

In his reply, Zizek does not consider this second point. He responds to a more general version of the first point, to the pluralist objection that the primacy he accords to the quantum model amounts to an undue ontological privileging, collapsing the universal ontological level and a particular ontic level, effacing the very ontological difference that he claims to defend.

Zizek’s argument serves to complexify this dual vision of ontological difference. He argues that between non-manifest Being and the various manifest realities or ontic domains there is a third term, that of an ontologically incomplete “proto-reality”, a de-substantialised “embodiment of nothing”. This is the level that is, according to Zizek, best described by quantum physics.

Quantum physics is necessary because the “triumphant triad of evolutionary biology, biogenetics, and brain sciences” is not enough. It is not paradoxical enough to account for the emergence of human subjectivity and of the paradoxes inherent in the symbolic order. He concludes that “something stronger is needed” (48).

The quantum model provides this “something stronger”, not because it is reductively more primary, but because it is closer to human subjectivity. Zizek’s argument is after all a pragmatic one. He refuses what one could call Johnston’s “argument from distance” as being too epistemological. On pragmatic grounds Zizek can say quantum physics is closer than the biocognitivist  triad to human subjectivity, as it has an “uncanny resemblance to what we consider specifically human”.

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ACADEMIC TRAUMA OR NOETIC DREAM: on the vicissitudes of dialogue

Readers may see my blog as just more froth in the prevailing sea of philo-babble, but my goal is more democratic (and more pedagogical), and I have made quite a few enemies in trying to de-esotericise the philosophies I discuss.

The almost universal form that this enmity takes is that of ignoring my very existence, of refusing to acknowledge my work or to cite me. This has nothing to do with my use of the blog form, as the same authors occasionally cite blog posts favourable to their cause.

One notable exception is Babette Babich () who has referenced me in several papers, for my clarifications and contributions. This referencement is in part to highlight and in part to compensate my non-referencement by others who constantly pay lip service to pluralism, openness, and democracy.

Publicity, not dialogue, is their aim. Laziness, not openness, is their method. Tautological self-validation is their pay-off.

These people transpose the power structures of the university to discussion on the web. They seem to be unaware that academics talk of dialogue, its openness and pluralism in order to prevent it from happening. Dialogue would be too traumatic for them, and their careers are based on avoiding it, or repressing it.

In the neo-liberal university there is only one dialogue that counts in the last instance (to cite a cynical expression of the Laruelleans). Money talks to money, and deals are made on that basis.

Power, the power to make and to do, to think and to express oneself, does not count, and is actively discouraged. Anyone who has been to university has witnessed this obscene underside (to talk like Zizek) and its symbolic violence at work, and seen its casualties.

Popper told us that confirming instances prove nothing, yet academics feel content when students agree with them. When I was an undergraduate Alan Chalmers used to beg me to attend his lectures because everyone agreed with him, and he found that stifling. He was already an exception, along with George Molnar and a few others, and such love of wisdom is even rarer today.

Philosophy is not the creation of concepts. Deleuze, who espoused that idea, knew it was false. Concepts are simply the by-product of something more fundamental. Philosophy is dialogue unbound.

The internet makes this dialogue more possible at the same time as the fragilisation of the status of the academic makes it less likely.

This is a highly contradictory situation. Every day I ask myself whether my contributions are worth the effort. Today the answer is yes.

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Some people have expressed objections to my posts on Zizek’s DISPARITIES, against their style and utility, treating them as an acute case of post-modern psycho-babble. Here is the outline of a reply:

“Psycho-babble”? No, definitely not. Maybe “philo-babble” would be an appropriate term.

My goal in this series of posts was to write a review of Zizek’s new book that would take his ideas seriously both in themselves and in relation to a broader context of thinkers. In short, I was trying to explicate Zizek’s thought in order to show that it was not just pure “babble” as many of his detractors think, nor that it is the amazing unprecedented theory of everything philosophical that many of his admirers believe it to be.

Zizek’s books can read as a conceptual mess, but I think that I have made some parts of it clearer, even though the use of some jargon is necessary if I want to be faithful to the letter of his text. Of course as I integrate his vocabulary into a larger context I transform its scope.

The first post in particular has also a polemical intent. I wanted to compare Zizek’s philosophy to that of François Laruelle, and to show that Zizek gives us a better, more satisfying, and more comprehensible account. If you want to see real hard-core philo-babble just take a look at Laruelle’s writings. Zizek is much clearer, and usually more entertaining.

The thing that I am proudest of in this post is the relation I establish with Karl Popper, something that noone has commented on. I think that Continental Philosophy as it is most often practiced is too self-absorbed and jargon-laden, and so uninterested in and incapable of relating its ideas to a more general discussion.

By using Popper’s idea of metaphysical research programmes I was able to set up criteria for comparing rival schools of thought that habitually ignore each other and that actively discourage (pretentiousness!) and obfuscate (jargon!) comparison, discussion, informed critique and evaluation. These “criteria” constitute an open list of considerations to help us get our bearings in the rather obscure common problem-situation, made obscurer by the fact that its participants are indifferent to or ignorant of the shared values and to the possible points of comparison

Laruelle and the Laruelleans are the most hostile to such open discussion, and maintain a near impenetrable wall of jargon based on idiosyncratic definitions of terms. To them the idea that Laruelle’s thought could usefully be considered a “metaphysical” research programme comparable with that of Latour, or Zizek, or Stiegler is unthinkable, because they define “metaphysics” in a way that suits their grandiose claims of being the only ones to get outside metaphysics.

Here I was obliged to use Popper’s jargon in order to let us see through Laruelle’s jargon and to take it down a peg. Sometimes you have to fight jargon with jargon. I would never try to give an account that replaces the original and exempts you from reading it, but my claim is that if you are reading this stuff and you have difficulty understanding it, or if you find it problematic in ways difficult to articulate, my posts will help you out. I can’t convince you to take the ride, nor do I want to, but if you do decide to take it I can help make it smoother-going.

As to “post-modern”, I plead guilty only on the noble acceptation of that term given by Lyotard: incredulity towards meta-narratives of legitimation. This incredulity is an anti-dogmatic and anti-authoritarian stance that must not be confused with the unfortunately more widespread acceptation of postmodernism as relativism. There is no problem with meta-narratives, only with their dogmatic or authoritarian uses as ultimate instances of legitimation.

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See storify here:


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LARUELLE AND WAVE ABSOLUTISM: against quantum integrism

We have seen in many posts on this blog (e.g. here) that François Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy represents a significant advance over the naive absolutism that characterises “sufficient” philosophies, including Graham Harman’s idealist object-oriented philosophy and the diverse forms of scientism.

By adopting a “quantum” model of thinking Laruelle is able to jettison, at least partially, his long-standing scientism. This scientistic prejudice continued as a grave flaw in phase II and phase III of his non-philosophy, and that persists ambiguously in his phase IV and phase V.

Laruelle himself began to see his thought as evolving through different “phases”, and later in Phase V or non-standard philosophy, based on quantum thought, declared that these preceding phases were themselves to be conceived in quantum terms as so many “waves”. The latest wave, non-standard philosophy, was thus considered to be the most inclusive as it allowed Laruelle to conceive his philosophical evolution in quantum terms and as the least scientistic, as his use of the quantum model was open and generic rather than closed and scientific.

However, this “wave” view is not enough to guarantee that Laruelle has escaped from all sufficiency and absolutism. Each of these waves, including the last, is highly exclusive of alternative and rival views. Each wave posits the Real as pure immanence in such a way as to demarcate itself from “sufficient” philosophies. Thus each wave is absolute even if it is constituted, if we grant credence to Laruelle’s often grandiloquent claims, on different principles, notably on a principle of non-sufficiency (as against standard philosophy’s putative structuration by the principle of sufficiency).

Laruelle’s retroactive re-conceptualisation of these phases as “waves” attempts to nullify the closed nature of the universal structure of sufficiency that he purportedly uncovered as constitutive of philosophy as a thought-form. In particular it introduces, in principle, a degree of the quantum porosity and uncertainty that he appropriates in his most recent phase.

Yet this fifth phase of non-standard philosophy, despite its porousness as “wave” and its ambiguous inclusiveness (extended to selected philosophical, scientific, religious, and artistic experimentations), is itself highly exclusive and demarcationist, as Laruelle’s ANTI-BADIOU demonstrates.

It is interesting to compare Laruelle’s grandiose claims and exalted self-image with Ken Wilber’s “integral” research programme. Like Laruelle, Wilber divides his own work into five “phases”, and he indicates the presence of waves characterising noetic development. His difference with Laruelle is that for him waves are no guarantee against sufficiency and closure, but contain their own specific danger of “wave absolutism”, stigmatising other waves in the name of an exclusionary Real.

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VIEWS OF A GLIMPSE (2): Realist Reprise and Platonic Recall

Stephen Mumford’s GLIMPSE OF LIGHT bears the Cartesian subtitle New Meditations on First Philosophy. In a reprise of Descartes’ MEDITATIONS ON FIRST PHILOSOPHY the book is organised in seven chapters comprising six “Meditations” and a seventh chapter “Objections and Replies”. While not strictly self-contradictory there is some tension in the subtitle, as a reprise can be either a beginning again to do properly or a continuation and transformation. The meditations are new contributions to the old task of first philosophy.

There is also an influence from Husserl’s CARTESIAN MEDITATIONS in that Benedict seeks to withdraw into himself to resolve or banish his doubts:

anyone who seriously intends to become a philosopher must “once in his life” withdraw into himself and attempt, within himself, to overthrow and build anew all the sciences that, up to then, he has been accepting (Husserl, CARTESIAN MEDITATIONS, page 2) .

The difference between the two is that Husserl’s meditations found his phenomenology, a philosophy oriented towards the subject, whereas Benedict’s meditations seek to found a realist vision oriented towards the world. Husserl’s Cartesian meditations are presented in a philosophical treatise and can proceed without interruption, while Benedict’s new meditations are presented in a novel where the real world constantly intrudes on his attention and other people interrupt his cogitations. The real, it is implied, often signals its presence by interruption.

In the first meditation Benedict considers the skeptical arguments against realism, which have begun to undrmine his previous realist certainties, the wellsprings of  his sense of the meaning of life and also the premises of his career (and income). In Benedict’s view Skepticism has a new incarnation in “social constructionism”, just as its ancestry can be traced back to the Sophists’ arguments combatted by Plato. Benedict has come to Norway to isolate himself in search of a glimpse of Platonic light. Aristotle claimed that unlike the gods humans cannot dwell in this light, but can only gain glimpses of it by intermittence.

Benedict’s problem stems from the doubts he has begun to feel in the face of skeptical challenges to his realist conviction in a world that exists independently of us, of our beliefs, concepts and practices. He sets up these challenges in a disembodied way that conflates arguments for skepticism based on the omnipresence and the inextricability of mediations, on the necessary filtering (and perhaps constitution) of the real by means of experience, of theoretical presuppositions, or of social construction.

This scenography is unfortunately one-sided, despite the novelised format. On the one hand the novel gives us a good view of the person and the motivations of Benedict, and offers a thick description ofsome important aspects his embodied existence. On the other hand we get no such description of the skeptics, but a vague composite image where all the different types of skeptical argument are grouped together. So we suspect from the beginning that there is no real suspense in the intrigue, despite the protagonist’s sense of existential urgency.

This lack of suspense is no real objection to the book. We all know the real world exists in at least relative independence of us. I do not know of any representatives of a full-blown social constructionism that denies the existence or even the conceivability of a human-independent reality. The arguments of the idealist-sounding social constructionist that Benedict cites, who posited only the retroactive existence of electrons constructed post hoc, are not fleshed out. We get no embodied idea of why anyone would come to defend such a position. There is a certain resemblance with Bruno Latour’s ideas, but Latour has written many books trying to define how construction and realism are compatible.

In short, Mumford’s first chapter sets out the scenography of a quandary that following Quentin Meillassoux can be called the “correlationist” predicament: how can we affirm the mind-independent existence of a real world that we can only know by means of the mind and its products?

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