DARK SUBJECTIVITY AND AN APODICTIC HERMENEUTICS OF SCIENCE: On Naturalism as Nostalgic Pathos

Levi Bryant has posted some rather dogmatic and reductionistic aphorisms expressing his extrapolations of conclusions taken not from science itself but from his own rather confused hermeneutics of science. Bryant has been through a long intellectual apprenticeship, involving harrowing work on Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Badiou and Luhmann. He has at last come to a mature moment of synthesis where he can deploy these sophisticated resources in a concise rejection of fundamentalist Christianity. The man is amazing, he actually asserts that there is no creator God and no plan to history. And this is just the tip of the iceberg! No arguments are advanced, as none are needed – these declarations are presented as “axioms”, that is to say, according to Bryant, “the only legitimate conclusions that can be drawn from the state of knowledge today in the physical sciences, biology, neurology, psychology, etc”. This is of course a rather personal definition of “axiom”, but in fact none of these dogmatic assertions are axioms. All Bryant wants is the apodictic connotations of the word “axiom”. Not only are his rather wordy and repetitious aphorisms not axioms they are in no way conclusions “from science”.

Having been soundly trounced for his puerile version of naturalism, Bryant has decided to dress it up in aphorisms and re-name it “post-nihilism”. It’s true that just as in the case of “axiom” we need a dictionary to read his text correctly. Remembering that Bryant has styled himself a “post-mastery” Lacanian we can be pretty sure that the prefix “post” means “credulous”, so the syntagm “post-nihilist praxis” translates out as “credulous naturalist theorising”, which does seem an apt description of Bryant’s actual practice.

“There is no meaning” Bryant tells us “darkly”. This is not the conclusion of any science but a piece of  hermeneutic embroidery. Physics does not tell us there is no meaning, nor does biology. They are not about meaning and so have nothing to say on the matter, either for or against. Unless you’re being reductionist and claiming that physics accounts without remainder for “existence” and “anything in the universe”. But it sounds scientific and hard-headed, and more importantly  it sounds “cold”, “bleak”. Disguised as a seemingly objective statement, it functions as an expression of the type of subjectivity that Bryant is both exemplifying and proposing as a model for us all. Not secular subjectivity, which is compatible with a democratic pluralism, but “dark subjectivity” that needs to impose its sombre but “only legitimate” precepts on a world of fundamentalists, who believe in the Rapture or some other Divine plan.

What is worrying about such dogmatic proclamations is not their wilful blindness: any reference to other types of spirituality than Bryant’s model of religion as blind literal belief in institutionalised creeds (this model is based unsurprisingly on no research, it just sounds right to a blind literal objectal naturalist, it sounds “dark”) is dismissed as illegitimate. No, the main problem is that Bryant is proposing this wordy repetitious naive and credulous cartoon synthesis based on nothing as an actual heuristic for science and philosophy. Take his assertion “Life is an accident”. This would rule out reverse engineering the existence of life to come to conclusions about unknown features of physical law or about initial conditions prevailing just after the Big Bang, for example. Such an assertion is either empty windbaggery or has empirical content and consequences for the direction future research could take. A “dark” ontologist in charge of government funding would judge projects in terms of such principles. Luckily Bryant is at pains to specify that even if his axioms are not “self-evident” they are at least apodictic, the “only legitimate conclusions” from current science. Thus he avoids the dogmatism of the fundamentalists, who are not just political adversaries but major intellectual enemies requiring the development of a whole new metaphysics, “darkness” ontology, to reply to their ideological hegemony.

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14 Responses to DARK SUBJECTIVITY AND AN APODICTIC HERMENEUTICS OF SCIENCE: On Naturalism as Nostalgic Pathos

  1. Philip says:

    Understood simply as a list of things held to be true I find little to object to — I share most of these beliefs even if I wouldn’t phrase them all in quite the same way. The problem comes with relating these ‘axioms’ to a coherent philosophical discourse. As it stands they are merely assertions. And, actually, there’s nothing wrong with just listing assertions but it’s pretty difficult to reconcile unquestioning scientism and critical constructivism on a conceptual level. One can only be constructivist if one agrees first of all that all knowledge forms are equal in kind even if they’re not equal in scale, connectivity, power, practicality and so on. But scientism doesn’t accept that. It asserts that there is science on the one hand and everything else on the other. And Levi appears to be reasserting this duality.

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  2. arranjames says:

    Just to say that “post-nihilism” and/or “post-nihilist pragmatics/praxis” aren’t Levi’s terms. They are terms that Michael from Archivefire came up with and that I have attached myself to. “Post” nihilist
    doesn’t amount to credulous nihilist theory but rather a theory that accepts and absorbs an understanding of the world as “objectively nihilistic”- that meaning is in one way of another lacking from reality in itself. Post-nihilism as Michael and I understand it has nothing to do with “dark ontology” but with the rediscovery of bodies and worlds after the exorcising of epistemic sovereignties and idealism. It isn’t a question of darkly proclaiming a meaningless universe but of realising that meanings and truths are locally produced and that, as their seems to be no inherent meaning, we are liberated from a tragic-heroic conception of the world. Nihilism isn’t a problem or a disenchantment; it reveals the micro-processes of swarming bodies that traverse one another in choreographic motion. Of course, these are my terms so I can’t confidently say Michael would agree. Perhaps a better term is needed, one that itself moves beyond nihilism.

    i don’t know about the idea of whether thinking life as an accident would rule out any reverse engineering; even accidents have conditions. I read ‘accident’ from the perspective of Paul Virilio: that the accident is integral to the thing. If you have this universe with these conditions then you get life, rather like the invention of the car is the invention of the car crash. To say, “life is an accident” is to say that it wasn’t designed or crafted, but it also demands that we ask what it is the accident of…what has it “accidented”?

    On the last point, about religion and spirituality- I think this is the weakest part of Levi’s post. Simply, if there is no inherent meaning then there is no a priori limit on the meanings we can produce for ourselves. We are theological animals: and there is no problem with that. Given the world we have we must find a way to cope, and there is no reason that spirituality can’t be exactly a mode of coping that is full blooded, that is that it is life advancing. I like to think about our avowed meanings and our ideologies in terms of delusion, understood in a non-pejorative way. What is the distance between delusion and spirituality? Isn’t that a question eventually settled by force, by power?

    At any rate, I’m not trying to speak for Levi..,just to clarify the term “post-nihilist” a bit.

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    • The question of “delusion and spirituality” may be settled by force, but that could just as well be the force of argument. We may be able to produce “meaning” but we cannot produce God. And if God is absent from the beginning then he is simple Not. We cannot pull it into existence with our hopes. So, Heidegger may be right that “Only a God can save us” but if he is then we are royally screwed. Simply put, if there is no inherent meaning then we can at least assert (following Lucretius) that the gods are simply not there for us, and should not be worried about/prayed to.

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      • arranjames says:

        A perfectly legitimate reply. There are spiritualities that don’t rely on Gods, and a kind of conception of religion that make God and the death of God identical (Gnosticism, for instance where God is perfectly withdrawn). For myself, I am not religious in the least bit… but I’m not an aggressive atheist prolysthetising for God’s absence, and nor would I take away from other people their faith. I would argue against religion having truth-claims, but not that it has efficacy in helping people cope with the world.

        For me, the ultimate problem with religion is that it will always lead to nihilism: the erection of an Idol always leads to it’s twilight and the dawn of a Godless world. To begin from the position of Godlessness…that is much better. In a way that is what I mean by nihilism even having a sense of relief… God is dead? Thank God!

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  3. “Life is an accident”

    I don’t understand the critique that you are leveling here. Perhaps you and I are understanding the word “accident” is different ways. You seem to be attributing to Bryant a position that he is not claiming for himself. I don’t think he is trying to say that he is a scientist or that his “axioms” are, in themselves, scientific. Instead he is doing what philosophy does. It abstracts (or synthesizes, if you prefer) the claims that a particular field is making (in this case, physics & biology) and makes new assertions based on the available evidence. Philosophy has been doing this since at least Plato and his “All who enter must be geometers. It may be good philosophy or bad but it is at least legitimate based on form. Physics asserts that there is no privileged position in space and thus undermines the Aristotlean claims to the contrary (claims advanced for theological reasons after Constantine). Lawrence Krause (a working physicist) says that the Universe arose from Nothing and thus undermining the Aristotlean argument for the Prime Mover (claims advanced for theological reasons after Constantine). Evolutionary Biology claims that all species currently living now and all that we have found evidence of arise from a single ancestor whose own existence arose without the purpose of producing Terence Blake or anyone else. Furthermore the journey from there to here was not put forward as a pre-existing blueprint but instead functioned (and functions still) through a series of blind, accidental mutations that usually killed the host. Physics and Biology both claim that our current conditions are the product of blind (i.e. purposeless) process. Bryant has synthesized these claims (along with sciences understandings in Chemistry, cognitive development, etc.) to assert a new claim that “Life is meaningless” or “Life is Meaningless”.

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  4. Pingback: On Levi Bryant’s Axiomatic Absolutism * | Lacques Jacan

  5. terenceblake says:

    I think that Levi is just whistling in the dark (or blogging in the darkness) and if he uses any syntagm such as “post-nihilist praxis” he gives it his own particular sense. I suppose I am post-nihilist if that means after the death of God, but I think that is nothing to do with science. Levi’s post is an example of scientism, ie of meaningless waffle around science. He has no idea of what an axiom is, nor even of what an argument is. Never forget he talks science but he is a Lacanian ie an idealist. All his talk about science is in fact idealist despite the materialist vocabulary.

    One possible meaning of “life is an accident” is that it is not a probable outcome of the laws and initial conditions of our universe. That’s an empirical claim and one that can be made the basis of research strategies. The “anthropic” principle in at least some of its forms is not disguised faith-based science, like creationism or intelligent design, but a sort of reasoning backwards to get at laws and conditions from another angle. If all it means is that life is not created or designed by some creator God, then I say big deal! this is not news at all. Also coming out boldly against God does not make any of Bryant’s other claims more plausible.

    Bryant is just doing bad philosophy under the supposed aegis of science. So his “unquestioning scientism” as Philip correctly calls it is Bryant’s own little tendentious construct. In a previous post I talked about the rampant subjectivity in so-called object-oriented philosophy, and I find that Bryant’s post is a very good example of a subjective posture camouflaged as an objective philosophy. I talked about how OOO permits one to be both geek and esthete, and I find his title with “dark ontology” is a perfect example of that too. There is nothing hard-headed about windbag rhetoric around science. A science like physics says nothing at all about the existence of meaning – both terms (existence and meaning) are notoriously vague and Bryant’s phrase could mean all sorts of things, many of which are obviously wrong. But if all it means is no creator God then the post is of an astounding banality.

    If nihilism means that meaning is locally produced, then as you say there is no disenchantment, nothing “dark” at all. The problem is that Bryant seems to accept the Lyotardian notion of the collapse of legitimating meta-narratives including those applicable to science, but he wants to exclude science and exclude his own legitimating meta-narrative. He wants to be able to sound off about religion and science without knowing anything about either, and without proposing any coherent new ideas. Translating his apodictic axioms into heuristic propositions shows us that Bryant’s ideas do not derive from science but are capable of limiting research and impoverishing our lives.

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    • You have made these critiques before on Bryant. I am thinking particularly when he made a negative comparison between Science and VooDoo. You successfully showed that he did not know any specifics about VooDoo, and maybe Bryant is just ignorant of the concept of religion in general. But what about the next step. Instead of critique his specific examples, is there a way to understand the general theme of his statements and reply to those? What do you mean by SCIENCE? Does such a thing exist? Or are there only sciences? What do you mean by RELIGION? Does such a thing exist? Or are there only religions? These may seem like a stupid questions but I can’t really tell where this critique goes next.

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      • terenceblake says:

        I do not beleive in the existence of “science” or “religion”, as these are monist abstractions. The next step is not my own, I have nothing original to propose. I have made it clear that I am in favour of epistemological, ontological, and psychological pluralism. Many people have such ideas, and my own particular flavour is a synthesis of Feyerabend, Deleuze, and James Hillman.

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      • What is the process through which one is able to differentiate between different epistemological, ontological and psychological “systems”? How does one determine whether one system is better than another? What allows one to say that something is rational or that something is irrational?

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      • terenceblake says:

        Who is “one”? I don’t know him. My overall “criterion” is individuation, so you can see from the name that it has no universalising pretention. Indeed it is deliberately vague and ambiguous. How do I differentiate and determine which is best? The only way I know is by immersion and hard thinking. Very often in my case that involves following the best arguments. But one has to be able to see the arguments. Feyerabend’s AGAINST METHOD for example is one of the most well-argued texts in epistemology, but he had the unpleasant surprise, as I did, of seeing that very many could not identify and engage with the arguments, and just stuck to deformed and simplistic stereotypes. The same is true of Deleuze for example. To my shame I read Jung but was not enthused, and I needed to read Hillman as a way into seeing the arguments in a deeper light. Creation of concepts is another criterion, and Feyerabend despite claiming that none of the ideas he expresses are his own is rich in invention of concepts. Having immersed myself in such intercessors I can see that Bryant for example is not only ignorant (we can’t be familiar with everything) but also blind. Bernard Stiegler is a thousand times richer, has better arguments and more useful concepts. What more do you want? Have you found it yet?

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  6. prsmith5 says:

    Bryant’s post-nihilistic praxis is a political position (much like the turn to objects and the search for a really-real materialism), little more than another way of telling Caputo and phenomenologists in general that they are doing Knowledge a disservice in confining themselves to the symbolic and imaginary. Rather than take on the numerous approaches to religion (whether of the rigorous variety or the faith of anyone’s grandmother), presenting a series of shotgun theses or axioms tells the academic world what is and what is not acceptable theory. Such charges are not ineffective, as Caputo himself has called for phenomenology to abandon its attacks on the sciences (originally attacks on positivism or empiricism that can be traced back to at least Hegel). Whether this set of axioms turns out to be good theory or good for theory is another question entirely.

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    • Michael- says:

      I don’t want to be an ass about all this but “post-nihilist praxis” is a term I coined (although obviously its nothing special) and Arran and I are deploying, and has relatively nothing to do with what Levi is up to.

      Arran made some great distinctions above, so I would only add that the difference between ‘post-nihilism’ as doctrine/dogma vs. ‘post-nihilist praxis’ as anti-dogmatic method speaks to what Terence is saying about the necessary of rejecting all metanarratives even our own. The constant jostling of “isms” is a game only legitimate from a pre-nihilist worldview. The death of God as the death of transcendentalism, of idols and Ideas, means developing the cognitive capacity for a perpetual surrendering of our pretensions to Truth in favor of local/tactical expressions and adaptations. The only game in town then is a methodological and epistemological pluralism attending to the intensities and complexity of corporeal existence.

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  7. Pingback: THE PULSATION BETWEEN IMAGE AND CONCEPT vs ANALYTIC LITERAL-MINDEDNESS | AGENT SWARM

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