IMMANENTISE PLATO: On Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM

I am trying to explain what I like in ANATHEM. I have put togrther my various pieces published on this blog and on my SF blog (Xeno Swarm). It’s a little slow and rambling. If you have any suggestions on how to improve it please comment.

1) THE NON-CAVERN AND THE MULTIPLE TRUTHS

We are living in a period where we are looking for a way to combine the freedom of immanence with the rigour of meaning and truth.

In an interview about his new book YEUX (”eyes”) Michel Serres declares:

“The night is the model for our knowledge, not the day. We enter a classroom, we enter a museum like entering a cavern. The cavern is the place of knowledge … Plato was wrong, to see truth as a sun is a rather fascist idea. There is not just one truth, but billions of truths, like so many stars”.

This is a beautiful image of an immanent pluralism, but how can we interpret it in its own terms, in pluralist terms?

The new image of truth evoked by Michel Serres in his advice to find truth inside the cavern does not correspond to a single, unique experience, a once and for all metaphysical conversion, but to a methodological and heuristic rule of thumb. In very many situations we are in the dark, in a dark cavern, immobilised and gaping or gazing at illusions. We may want to find outside the situation some hard and fast reality, a unique Solar truth, to guide us out of this sham spectacle – and sometimes it seems to work and we find a secure truth to hold on to and to let it guide us. More often we must overcome our limitations while remaining within the cavern – free our gaze from its fixity, liberate our body from its chains, move around the cavern and see it from multiple viewpoints, exchange ideas and experiences with the others we meet. This inclusion of the truth in the cavern amounts to a re-visioning of the cavern: it is no longer the place of untruth, but a site of multiple truths: it becomes a non-cavern.

We know that the prefix “non-” does not convey the negation, but rather the extension, the generalisation, and the pluralisation of its root noun, on the model of non-Euclidean geometry. But, while true, this knowledge is merely a preliminary, superficial apprehension. The prefix “non-” does not just add more of the same familiar stuff – it involves the radical inversion, the defamiliarisation, the estrangement of the domain it operates on.

The non-cavern is not the negation of the cavern, but the suspension of its limitations, its estrangement into newness, openness, and manyness. There is not a single wholly other true world outside the cavern but the cavern is seen to be one world taking its place in a variety of other worlds. “Cavern” and “Truth” are no longer absolute terms expressing an intrinsic property, but relational terms expressing the status of one world relative to others. The non-cavern is Erewhon, a here and now under suspension and already estranged. For what is suspended is the authority and uniqueness of the single Sun of Truth. This Sun embodies a Principle of Philosophical Sufficiency which is in fact a principle of indigence, demarcation, and exclusion. Michel Serres calls on us to suspend this indigence in favour of a non-principle, one of Abundance, affirming the primacy of modest multiplicity over sufficient unity. Suspending the sufficiency of the Sun by no means signifies the abandoning of concepts, truths, and meaning. It is merely the suspension of the philosophical illusion of the bifurcation between the unicity of the Sun and the multiplicity of the Cavern. Not abandonment of Truth as in relativism, but its estrangement into abundance.

Going outdoors into the Light, leaving the cavern for its Other, is the futile Platonic gesture of leaving the world of illusion for a supposed transcendent world of pure Forms and absolute Truths.

I think this movement of inversion of Platonism accompanied by its pluralisation is a necessary one in the contemporary world, to show us a way out of the impasse imposed by the opposition between a dogmatic truth, where only one way is possible and acceptable, and relativist opinion, where there is no truth and everything is possible. There must be some model which retains the pluralism of truths without falling into the chaos of absolute contingency. The goal would be to retain some of the stability of Platonism, without its petrification into monist dogma and to combine it with the fluidity of pluralism, without its dissolution hyperchaos. This is a movement that we can see in many fields, from mathematics to philosophy, and from science to science fiction.

In various ways, with various terminologies, we can see this movement in philosophers as different as Michel Serres, with his pluralism inside the cavern; Alain Badiou with his Platonism of the multiple, Gilles Deleuze with his overturning of Platonism, Bruno Latour with his hypothesis of being-as-other and his empiricism of multiple “mini-transcendences”, of François Laruelle and his transformation of Platonism into “non-standard” philosophy. In science fiction we can see it in various guises in the work of Peter Hamilton (the Void Trilogy), Kim Stanley Robinson (AURORA), and Neal Stephenson (ANATHEM). These works of science fiction contain an explicit repudiation of transcendence and of its limiting, and sometimes devastating, consequences.

For those who cling to the old episteme based on the existence of transcendent truth this movement can seem to spell the end of science, of philosophy, or of science fiction. But if we can get used to seeing with the more diffuse light of the multi-cavern, we may discover that it is not a death but a transformation and a diversification.

2) THE END OF SCIENCE

In THE END OF SCIENCE (first published in 1996, re-edited with a new preface in 2015) John Horgan presents and argues for his thesis of the “end of science”: that we will not be undergoing and revolution in knowledge as substantive as those accompanying Newtonian Mechanics, Einstein’s Relativity, Quantum Theory, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In short, that we have essentially “got it right” about the discoverable universe, and the rest is a matter of either accepting the indiscoverable or filling in the details.

Horgan’s thesis is rather complicated and finally incoherent, but it is based on a monist model of science as progressive convergence on a single true account of the World. Despite talk about Kuhnian paradigms, it is premised on basically a cumulative vision of discoveries and problem-solving that does not sufficiently take into account conceptual change (the speculative dimension of science). Thus Horgan can only validate his thesis by dismissing bold speculative conjectures (such as multiverse theory) as un-empirical, or untestable in principle, when their testing is merely very difficult to implement.

Cosmologically, Horgan’s thesis of the end of science would be conceivable in a finite cosmos, but whether our cosmos is finite or not is an empirical question, not to be answered by naive inductive argument extrapolating from a very limited sample over a short span of time. In point of fact, Horgan gives us no reason to believe that we are living in a finite cosmos, and seems unaware that he is making an empirical, scientific claim. The discovery that the cosmos has only a finite number of explanatory levels and that we have exhausted them in principle, leaving only details to be discovered, would itself be a major scientific discovery (and a very hotly disputed one).

Further, even in an ontologically finite cosmos, Horgan would have to show that it is both epistemically and hermeneutically constrained. He would have to show not only a vertical limit to explanatory depth, but a horizontal limit to hermeneutic diversity of interpretation. Horgan’s argument is historicist in the worst sense, that of predictive historicism. It consists in extrapolating the future from a narrowly selected and one-sidedly interpreted scientific past.

A counter-example would be the reorganisation of the sciences and humanities around Gaia-in-the-Anthropocene, advocated by Bruno Latour. This would amount to a major revolution in thought, without this revolution conforming to the scientistic model based on modern physics and its pursuit of ever deeper explanatory levels. This reorganisation would lead to a different model of scientific knowledge, less preoccupied by the example of the history of fundamental physics over the last five hundred years and by its Platonic search for transcendence.

Horgan’s model of science as problem-solving envisions it as confronted with a finite list of pre-existent problems that only have to be checked off as they are progressively solved. He ignores or depreciates the speculative playing with concepts and equations that can generate new perspectives and new previously unthought of problems. In a nutshell, the more speculative the physics is the less it is scientific.

Yet Einstein’s Relativity began as just such speculative tinkering, and took many years before receiving empirical confirmation (the Eddington expedition was a bit of a fudge). Galileo was an experimentalist, whereas Einstein was not (he even ironised over the preoccupation with “little effects”, instead of being influenced by the beauty of theory). Galileo’s approach was probably much more speculative than is commonly realised, but he did a lot to hide this speculative component. Horgan’s argument seems to engage much more with a common ideology of science, promulgated also by scientists themselves, than with the practice of science in its full range from experimental to speculative.

Horgan combines an inductivist cumulative vision of progressive discovery of the truths about the world with a Kuhnian overlay. Both of these views are false, and combining them together does not make them any better. The inductive vision ignores the speculative creation of problems and the conceptual reorganisations involved in scientific progress. The Kuhnian view of unitary paradigm followed by revolution followed by new paradigm, etc, ignores the fact that there are multiple rival paradigms competing for favour at any one moment. Both fall foul of the “disunity of science” (Feyerabend, Dupré, Pickering, Latour) by treating scientific progress as far more homogeneous than it actually is.

3) THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION

In 2008, Nader Elhefnawy published a very interesting article on “THE END OF SCIENCE FICTION”, published in three parts. In this article Elhefnawy argues that the end of science fiction ” may not necessarily be upon us, but at the very least in sight”. He considers five arguments:

1) “the end of science”
2) “our changing expectations about the future”
3) “the internal dynamics of the genre of science fiction itself”

all in part one, and in part two:

“two others…concern the business environment in which science fiction writers work”.

Citing John Horgan’s book THE END OF SCIENCE Elhefnawy admits to having mixed feelings about it, but considers that “there might be something to his core idea, namely that the foreseeable future of science includes little possibility of a scientific revolution as radical as the ones we’ve seen in the last century and a half: the theory of evolution, and the development of genetics as we have known it since the discovery of DNA; relativistic and quantum physics; the “Big Bang” theory”.

Elhefnawy advances the hypothesis of a relation between the epistemic stabilisation of science and the increasing lack of originality in science fiction: “It seems only reasonable that an “end to science” like the one Horgan writes about would impact the speculative fiction written about it, especially the hard, extrapolative kind, by diminishing an important supply of fresh inspiration”. This epistemic stability and diminishing originality can be seen in the stereotypy of much science fiction: “Where tropes like time travel and multiple universes are concerned, science fiction is playing with a cosmology that’s now decades old, and looking it”.

This emphasis on “cosmology”, or even ontology, is very interesting, in that this perceptible cosmological deficit in much of recent science fiction may be indicating a sensitive point to be scrutinised for signs of invention. My analysis and evaluation of Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM is that its cosmology is one of its most innovative features.

ANATHEM’s polar opposite, THE MARTIAN, is a very good example of the end of science fiction. THE MARTIAN both tells an enjoyable story and manages to be esthetically pleasing, but the speculative cosmological dimension is absent. It is a positive version of THE COLD EQUATIONS, in that within the parameters of the problem situation we can become active subjects instead of remaining mere passive victims. Yet we do remain passive bearers of capitalist neo-liberal subjectivity. We see much “solidarity” for Mark Watney, but none for the starving masses that reap no reward from the space missions, and none for the planet Earth’s (“Gaia’s”) climatic catastrophe.

I think that Elhefnawy’s analysis is only partially true, and that insofar as it relies on Horgan’s “end of science” thesis it is based on a dubious vision of scientific truth as monistic convergence. Yet he is onto something important.

Elhefnawy’s first argument for the end of science fiction is tied to John Horgan’s thesis of the “end of science”. Horgan’s thesis is itself rather complicated and finally incoherent, but it is based on a monist model of science as progressive convergence on a single true account of the World. Despite talk about Kuhnian paradigms, it is premised on basically a cumulative vision of discoveries and problem-solving that does not sufficiently take into account conceptual change (the speculative dimension of science). Thus Horgan can only validate his thesis by dismissing bold speculative conjectures (such as multiverse theory) as un-empirical, or untestable in principle, when their testing is merely very difficult to implement.

This idea of the end of science figures in ANATHEM as the doctrine of Saint Lori:

Lorite: A member of an Order founded by Saunt Lora, who believed that all of the ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with, had already been come up with.

In the novel it is regarded as just one hypothesis amongst many, having heuristic value for the effirts it encourages to verify or to refute it. Strictly, it also implies the end of maths and the end of philosophy.

Cosmologically, Horgan’s thesis of the end of science would be conceivable in a finite cosmos, but whether our cosmos is finite or not is an empirical question, not to be answered by naive inductive argument extrapolating from a very limited sample over a short span of time. In point of fact, Horgan gives us no reason to believe that we are living in a finite cosmos, and seems unaware that he is making an empirical, scientific claim. The discovery that the cosmos has only a finite number of explanatory levels and that we have exhausted them in principle, leaving only details to be discovered, would itself be a major scientific discovery (and a very hotly disputed one).

Further, even in an ontologically finite cosmos, Horgan would have to show that it is both epistemically and hermeneutically constrained. He would have to show not only a vertical limit to explanatory depth, but a horizontal limit to hermeneutic diversity of interpretation. Horgan’s argument is historicist in the worst sense, that of predictive historicism. It consists in extrapolating the future from a narrowly selected and one-sidedly interpreted scientific past.

This strand of Elhefnawy’s argument, concerning pure science, is thus very weak, and he seems to have abandoned it. A counter-example would be the reorganisation of the sciences and humanities around Gaia-in-the-Anthropocene, advocated by Bruno Latour. This would amount to a major revolution in thought, without following the scientistic model of modern physics and its pursuit of ever deeper explanatory levels. This reorganisation would lead to a different sort of science fiction, less preoccupied by physics and transcendence, as we can see in Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA, which contains an explicit critique of such dreams of transcendence.

The time may be ripe for such a discussion as John Horgan’s book THE END OF SCIENCE has just been re-edited with a new preface. In his article “The End of Science Fiction” Elhefnawy gives us a nuanced discussion of Horgan’s theses on the state of science today, and relates them to the current state of science fiction.

Elhefnawy seems to endorse my critique of Horgan, but to worry that I may not believe in objective reality. I wish to reassure him that I do believe in reality, so I am not a “postmodernist” in the sense of “all opinions are equally valid” relativism, a view that I have combated on many occasions (for details see my academia.edu page). I am very influenced by my reading of post-structuralist thinkers, and if I had to choose a title for my views it would be “pluralist realism” (or “realist pluralism”. So I think that sometimes (but not always) increased accuracy in our knowledge about the world can only be obtained by re-conceptualisation, or paradigm change.

Imre Lakatos’s approach in terms of multiple research programmes provides a good answer to Horgan’s arguments. The premises of Lakatos’s views can be found in Popper’s ideas on “metaphysical research programmes”. Horgan remains positivist in that he seems to think that the turn to metaphysical speculation in science is a recent phenomenon and a sign of exhaustion. Popper, Lakatos, and Feyerabend show that the metaphysical component has always been present in science, and that it is not a bad thing but essential to its functioning.

Continuing his survey of arguments tending to establish that science fiction has come to an end, Nader Elhefnawy turns to a supposed deceleration of technological progress:

“we are constantly told that we live in an age of unprecedented rapid technological changet….However, a simple consideration of the technologies of daily life is enough to cast doubt on this “futurehype.” Electric lights, air conditioning, central heating, indoor plumbing, and most of the electrical appliances now standard in the modern home (like the vacuum cleaner, washing machine, and refrigerator) were in wide use before 1940. So were the skyscraper, the movie, the phone, the car, the radio, and the airplane (while the first jet engines were demonstrated in the late 1930s). Television was invented in 1928, and the first broadcasts occurred just a few years later.

It seems safe to say that the 60 years that followed did not see nearly as much change, at least where daily life is concerned”.

I think that this approach to technology in terms of lists may make us lose the wood for the trees, individual inventions are details springing up within more general trends and paradigms. History is scanded by technological revolutions, from the Stone Age through the Bronze and Iron ages on to the industrial revolution and now the digital revolution. All of these have had profound and far-reaching effects not just on our social organisation but also on our very psyche.

We still cannot teleport macroscopic objects, build faster than light spaceships, or even construct viable cities under the sea. But we are living through a technological revolution, whether it leads to the Singularity or not. The ultimate consequences of the digital revolution are still far in the future, but the inventivity here is certainly not drying up. This is a technological phylum that was foreseen by some earlier science fiction, but whose impact on our lives and on our manners of thinking has yet to be fully explored. More generally, there is no reason to insist that the only possible inspiration for science fiction must come from an extrapolation of a limited set of canonical technological themes and tendencies.

We still have not seen what sort of technological changes the ongoing development of the life sciences can produce. Octavia Butler in her XENOGENESIS TRILOGY describes an alien species whose technology is based on genetics rather than machines. I think this is a good anticipation for what is in store for us in the future, and that the sequencing of the human genome heralds a new beginning rather than an end.

Cyberpunk was a preliminary attempt inside science fiction to extrapolate from the digital and biological technologies, but it is by no means the last word here. Kim Stanley Robinson’s AURORA unites these two sources of inspiration in a very different way, allying them to another rising field of applied sciences derived from climatology.

I think that the two arguments of the “end” of science and of the “deceleration of technological progress are not totally wrong, something is ending. However, they do not adequately diagnose and describe the change. What is coming to an end is an overarching “meta-paradigm”, or episteme (in Foucault’s sense), regulating the various scientific and technological paradigms to which we have been habituated.

History (and thus also society) is coming to be seen as much less homogeneous and more complex than previously imagined. This complexification of our vision of history includes technological and scientific history. It involves also a complexification of our philosophical vision, as we move even further from Platonic transcendence in theory and practice, without giving in to relativist hyper-tolerance.

4) PROBLEM-SOLVING AND THE MARTIAN

Ridley Scott’s latest film THE MARTIAN is a realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by one man, Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars, and of his struggle to survive, to obtain help, and to return home safely to Earth. It is based on the novel THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, a computer scientist, which he self-published in 2011 and that quickly became a best-seller. Both book and film could be called a science fiction robinsonade.

The film is quite enjoyable and emotionally engaging, with some very moving moments. Despite the dramatic tension the overall mood is positive: resolution, confidence, satisfaction at overcoming obstacles and getting things done, optimism, human warmth and solidarity. Watney does not give in to despair or depression or even to doubt. Indeed he does not seem to have much inner life at all: no memories, a little humour, a moderate sense of wonder at the alien beauty of Mars and at the uniqueness of his position, perhaps a little melancholy. But he does not dwell on his predicament nor reflect on the larger context that put him into it.

The story is an ode to the joy of problem-solving, but it gives a reductive image of problem-solving and of science. Watney does not really as he claims “science the shit out of it”, but rather “engineer the shit out of it”. That is to say, the scientific concepts that he employs to survive and to return home in one piece are at the level of comprehensibility of junior high school maths and science.

We are happy to follow the calculations about food and mileage and astrodynamics, without going into the details. There are some numbers, but the science we are exposed too is more qualitative than quantitative, aimed at giving us the “feel” of what is involved. The film positively invites us to ask how realistic the science is, and most of the reviews concentrate on this aspect. The answer is that the film is quite realistic except for a few points (e.g. the “windstorm” at the beginning, moving about in the reduced gravity on Mars). The film is entertainment, not a documentary, but it does have pedagogical value.

If science fiction is defined as the “literature of cognitive estrangement”, then the estrangement involved in THE MARTIAN is minimal. Despite the story’s show-casing of “scientific” problem-solving, the whole plot is based rather on magical thinking. Magically everything that is needed to keep Watney alive and to bring him back to Earth is already in place or becomes available with a little effort, and real tragedy is avoided. Magically, political and economic barriers fall, and planet-wide solidarity is achieved around the imperative of bringing Watney back home.

The message seems to be the rather reassuring one that if only scientists, geeks, and engineers could be freed from the undue constraints of politics, administration, public relations (dystopia) and financing, then everything would be all right and nothing would be impossible (utopia).

The protagonist Mark Watney is not really transformed by his unique experience on Mars, and does not become a “Martian” at all, but remains very much an Earthling, happy to transmit his knowledge and experience to future astronauts, and to promote business as usual for NASA.

The philosopher of science Karl Popper affirms that “all life is problem-solving”, but maintains that the problems have to be created just as much as the solutions. In the story of THE MARTIAN problem-solving is trivialised into puzzle-solving, and the puzzles exist within a set of givens imposed from without. For Popper, science exists when the problem-solving is no longer a matter of mere survival, where error-elimination means death. Science involves the speculative proposal and elaboration of hypotheses that are then subjected to tests to eliminate errors without eliminating the scientists.

The story thus comports an ideological reduction of science to puzzle-solving (no speculation here) and of the human to the almost animal individual concerned with survival and enjoyment. Watney does not come to problematise his mission and its economic and political basis, and his vision remains contracted, limited to basic science and 70s pop culture.

Badiou describes the dominant ideology as a composite of hedonism (the search for happiness defined as pleasure), bio-materialism (the primacy given to the rights of life), democratic materialism (relativist tolerance), and a-tonality (the avoidance of intense affects). All that exists is individuals and language-games, regimented by a sort of fuzzy feel-good and do-good ethics, but speculative transformations are invalidated. The laws of nature may be inflexible (the “cold equations” effect) but any geek is willing to buck authority to do what is right (cognitive democracy).

THE MARTIAN is part of a line of science fiction that emphasises the difficulties involved in leaving our natural habitat, the Earth, and that tries to give a realistic picture of what being confronted with those obstacles involves. Recent works in this spirit are the films GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR, and the novel AURORA by Kim Stanley Robinson. The most famous ancestor to this sort of “hard-headed” science fiction is Tom Godwin’s classic short story THE COLD EQUATIONS.

The similarity of THE MARTIAN to Robinson’s AURORA also lies in the pessimistic knowledge that the “math” is against us. Space is a hostile environment and allows no bargaining: one slip and we’re dead. However, AURORA comes to the modest conclusion that we must respect our limits, and that there are some problems that the engineering approach cannot resolve. THE MARTIAN ends with the pursuit of the Ares missions and Watney’s lesson in solving problems one after another.

The difference between them is that THE MARTIAN is one-dimensional whereas the approach in AURORA, for all its faults (see my review and musings), is multi-dimensional. AURORA is SF that is not just Science Fiction but Speculative Fiction as well, and problematisation is a significant part of its process and import. Robinson ultimately sees the engineering mentality, if left unchecked, as part of the problem, in danger of making life on Earth unendurable. AURORA ends up calling for a more ecologically aware and responsible engineering approach. We get a glimpse of such a consciousness in Watney’s tenderness for the lone little green shoot growing in the ground in front of his bench, echoing the first growth in his garden on Mars.

A final perplexity remains. One may wonder how to reconcile Ridley Scott as the author of the metaphysical noir masterpiece BLADE RUNNER with the director of THE MARTIAN. I think it is a mistake to see Mark Watney as a spokesman for Ridley Scott’s vision, but the signs of distancing are sparse. Andy Weir is a software engineer (and novelist) but Ridley Scott is, or was, a visionary cineast.

Perhaps Ridley Scott is himself the “Martian” and the very flatness of the characters reflect a Martian anthropologist’s vision of the geek engineer mentality. Scott is not denouncing, nor even making fun of, this culture, but merely providing us with an affectionate portrait of this sub-culture which is taking on ever greater importance. These are the sort of people who love science fiction and fantasy, who enjoy films like BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN, and have made them such a success. There is a tautology here: Ridley Scott has made a film about the sort of people who are likely to appreciate the film, to both enjoy watching it and enjoy pointing out its mistakes and improbabilities.

5) ANATHEM AS PHILO-FICTION

Initially, I was tempted to say that Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM is the anti-MARTIAN, but this is too dualist, setting up a narrow-minded binary opposition (considering that ANATHEM itself contains sequences of orbital dynamics, as in THE MARTIAN). So I think that we could talk rather in terms of a continuum, taking science fiction as the literature of “cognitive estrangement” (Darko Suvin) or as “degrees of subjunctivity” (Samuel Delany).

From this perspective, THE MARTIAN puts the emphasis on the cognition rather than on the estrangement, and is undoubtedly hard sf. ANATHEM puts the emphasis on the estrangement, and is better described as science fantasy. However, science itself comports its own factor of estrangement, especially in the mathematics and physics of the last one hundred years.

The science mobilised by THE MARTIAN does not go beyond notions of common sense and of junior high school maths and science, with no philosophical dimension. The science of ANATHEM is the more estranging science of quantum theory and the multiple worlds interpretation, and it appeals to the philosophical lineage of Plato-Leibniz-Kant-Husserl combined with more modern philosophy of science and maths.

ANATHEM is the more self-referential novel, and explicitly takes into account degrees of estrangment in its idea of multiple hylaean theoric worlds and multiple cosmoi, so we have (please forgive the jargon) both lateral and vertical forms of estrangement.

ANATHEM considered as science fantasy is situated somewhere between LORD OF THE RINGS and THE SILMARILION. Most fantasies, whatever their magical system, function with the laws of classical physics (and mathematics) for the non-magical parts of their world’s laws. Tolkien’s dragons may breathe fire and have magical power, but in their flying they obey classical aerodynamics, as do the Eagles. Stephenson has realised the “fantasy” potential in modern post-classical physics and philosophy of mathematics, and has harnessed that to create a world whose underpinnings are stranger-than-fantasy.

However, ANATHEM is much more than a science fiction or science fantasy novel, it is perhaps the most accomplshed example of what non-philosopher François Laruelle has advocated under the name of “philo-fiction”. Philosophically speaking, ANATHEM, like Laruelle’s own NON STANDARD PHILOSOPHY, is to be situated somewhere between Badiou’s LOGICS OF WORLDS and Deleuze and Guattari’s A THOUSAND PLATEAUS.

All four embody ways to implement the project of immanentising Plato. For Badiou mathematics is a scale model of achieving happiness outside neoliberal narcissism, hedonism, and relativism. By his own admission he is making a metaphorical, or qualitative, use of the matheme, as Laruelle does of the quantum.

In ANATHEM the world of Platonic ideas is given a science fiction treatment, immanentised (as in Badiou and Deleuze), but also pluralised. ANATHEM provides us with a vista not only of multiple empirical causal worlds, but also of multiple noetic Platonic worlds. It comes closest to those who advocate “loosening up” or pluralising Badiou by giving category theory primacy over set theory, although it follows also the path of the quantum described by Laruelle.

I have been trying to see ANATHEM in terms of a more general tendency that includes philosophy, physics, and science fiction. Given that our global paradigm or image of thought is no longer monism (Platonism) how can we avoid falling into the multiplication of meaningless language games (relativism)? The multiplication of worlds at the object-level mirrors the multiplication of formalisms and of language games at the meta-level. How can we accomodate both the plasticity of the real, which allows for multiple interpretations and ways of life, with its resistance, that selects out only a few possibilities as valid and viable? In the novel, the disputes between syntactics and semantics, between theors and rhetors, and also between Protans and Procians, reflect this dilemma.

Stephenson makes use of the collapse of the wave packet in quantum physics to explain how the brain as a quantum computer can choose between different Narratives and select the best outcome. This is both a physical phenomenon and an allegory in physical terms of this more general problem. I am trying to take a step back from the physical speculations that that Stephenson himself has indicated are the source of the cosmology in the book. Many critics think that fundamental physics and cosmology have become too speculative, almost abandoning any empirical confrontation with experiment. I think this is a mistaken criticism, as very often in science the speculation comes first.

It was a stroke of genius for Stephenson to make the Platonic world of ideas into one of a plurality of worlds. The idea is all at once strange, brilliant, and hilarious. Yet there is a second idea associated with this, namely that there is not just one Platonic world, but many, each with their own asssociated sub-worlds and sub-sub-worlds, and so on. This second idea, called “Complex Protism” in the novel, is developped in the third Calca, at the end of the book. Here, the simple line between two points: the world of Forms and our world is replaced by a network with multiple nodes, and the mode of existence of abstract ideas is given a quasi-materialist basis.

I would use the term “science fantasy” to describe the genre of the novel. This does not mean that the cognitive scaffolding is less scientific than in classical science fiction. I want to indicate the world-making ambition of the book, and its resemblance to the genre of Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and its sequels. The fantasy element is the impressive world-building, including the different but parallel history of mathematics and philosophy, and the invention of different languages. The story not only does not take place on Earth, but not even in our cosmos.

If we are climbing a noetic ladder of increasing genericity and sublimation, I would put the quantum science of multiple worlds first, then their philosophical exploration, and then their literary (science fictional) deployment. The allegory of a pluralist-but-not-relativist image of thought resonates back and forth between these three levels.

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4 Responses to IMMANENTISE PLATO: On Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM

  1. What stays in my mind in your comment is not only the cavern but also the meeting. There are people , different people who “carry” these different worlds and they meet (in a variety of ways). The cavern is dark but may be illumined. In another way the everyday world is bright but sometimes we feel this “brightness” is like a cavern that keeps us from seeing beyond (which we expect to be dark like outer space and yet luminus in another sense)
    And a poem by a poet I like a lot as a present
    http://www.babelmatrix.org/works/el/Szeferisz,_Jorgosz-1900/%CE%9A%CE%AF%CF%87%CE%BB%CE%B7_%CE%93%E1%BF%BD_-_%CE%A4%E1%BD%B8_%CF%86%E1%BF%B6%CF%82/en

    Like

  2. Pingback: UNDER THE NETWORK THE SWARM | AGENT SWARM

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