POST-TRUTH QUANTUM EPISTEMOLOGY: the case of Steve Fuller

(1) There is no default narrative flow

Over the past fifty years we have seen diverse attempts to incorporate insights and clues present in quantum mechanics into wider philosophical visions and modes of thought. It is not necessary to construct a formal « metaphysics of quantum physics » to belong to this quantum turn.

Contemporary thinkers such as Karen Barad, Slavoj Zizek, or Gilles Deleuze and his epigone François Laruelle prefer a more hermeneutic and heuristic informal approach that draws on quantum physics for some very general principles that need not be limited to physics but that can inspire our whole image of thought to take up new directions.

(NB: despite protestations to the contrary by his followers, Laruelle’s enterprise is clearly a metaphysics on any reasonable non-question-begging sense of the word).

For an interesting overview of a quantum approach to political possibility one can see a very useful article by Steve Fuller: The Posthuman and The Transhuman as Alternative Mappings of the Space of Political Possibility.

Unlike the phantasmagorical elucubrations of François Laruelle and his disciples Fuller’s style is always clear and concise, and his theoretical premises are much closer to Deleuze or to Zizek’s quantum thought.

Fuller is the author of a major work on the philosophical trajectory of Thomas Kuhn: THOMAS KUHN A PHILOSOPHICAL HISTORY FOR OUR TIME (2000), and of a very interesting comparison of Kuhn’s and Popper’s ways of thought: KUHN vs POPPER The struggle for the soul of science (2003). In much of his subsequent work he has been able to use this opposition between Popperian and Kuhnian thought to elucidate many theoretical problems that at first sight have little to do with the original debate between Kuhn and Popper.

In the article cited Fuller retains from quantum physics the idea of a virtual possibility space and its determinate actualisation:

« it envisages reality as a possibility space, in which the the actual world consists in the collapsing of this space into moments, which provide portals to understanding what is possible in both the past and the future ».

He associates Popper’s idea of permanent revolution in the sciences with the notion of probability space, and Kuhn’s normal science punctuated by revolutionary periods with actualised states and their transformations. In a Deleuzian gesture, Fuller distinguishes « contrasting approaches to time »:

In Kuhn’s linear thought, which Fuller associates with « chronos« :

« genealogical succession drives the narrative flow, with revolutions providing temporary ruptures which are quickly repaired to resume the flow »

In contrast Fuller associates Popper’s risk-taking in any and every possible direction with « kairos« , where

« there are recurrent figures who constitute the narrative but no default narrative flow, as the world order is potentially created anew from moment to moment ».

This distinction between chronos and kairos as images of time active in many domains and on many levels of thought is convergent with Deleuze’s treatment of the contrast between Chronos and Aion (Deleuze also uses the concept of kairos to characterise Aion), in particular as it is developed in LOGIC OF SENSE).

Fuller’s short text ranges over quantum physics and metaphysics, causality and free will, epistemology, Newton, Einstein, Orwell, Marxism, Revisionism, self-fulfilling prophecies, the difference between the Old and the New Testament, metaphysical perpetualism and the idea of regular elections.

He then goes on to extend the distinction between the chronic and kairotic approach to the difference between trans-humanism and post-humanism (kairotic) and the more traditional human-centred approaches (chronic), in whose narratives the default subject is Homo Sapiens.

We can retain from this excursion that someone who is unafraid to cross disciplinary boundaries can usefully illuminate and renew our vision of quite different domains and that the « quantum turn » in philosophy is not some new discovery but was already at work in far older disputes concerning the nature of science and of human life in general.

(2) There is no default subject of history

The preceding methodological and meta-ontological considerations lead us to a renewed vision of history in terms of chronos vs kairos. Humanism is, as Fuller indicates, chronos-based, whereas post- and trans-humanism are kairos-based. This means that humanism’s linear successive view of history as a human-centric narrative flow requires a unitary characterisation of the human to maintain coherence and plausibility. The more abstract the criterion of demarcation of the human the better, and a favoured candidate is that of language or logos.

Deconstruction has made it its mission to cast as much doubt as possible on such logo-centrism, but without being able to agree on a positive counter-proposal. This problem of deconstruction results from its abstraction and its tendency towards de-literalisation, both of which amount to a « de-cosmosisation » (to coin an ugly word). It is useless to fight logocentrism on its own, unworlded terrain.

As Steve Fuller points out Renaissance humanism was already trans- and post- humanist, because it countenanced a « cosmic conception of humanity » in which intelligent beings on other planets could be considered human even if their bodies differed radically from ours. Classical humanism, Fuller argues, is Aristotelian in its geocentric grounding of the human in the polis and the family.

According to Fuller Renaissance humanism was already in the process of overcoming the restrictions inherent in the overly grounded category of « human » by returning to a more Platonic vision of the human as characterised by its noetic force, whatever its corporal or material instantiation. This vision allows for a cosmic conception of humanity as a form of intelligence that could be found elsewhere in the cosmos.

Fuller’s analysis is convergent with Bernard Stiegler’s position. Stiegler seeks a median view between Aristotelianism and Platonism with his insistence that there is no noesis without exo-somatisation, which corresponds to Fuller’s notion of the « superorganic » as extensions and/or enhancements of the human, including both social and technological assemblages.

(3): From empirical probability to noetic possibility

An interesting aspect of Fuller’s explication of the difference between the quantum and the classical approach, between kairos and chronos, is that he does not posit an absolute opposition but a polarity that allows for intermediate cases. Thus Kuhn’s innovation was to include within the linear progression of science « quantum » phases of revolution that lead to a bifurcation into a new paradigm.

Another intermediate case is perpetualism that refers to God’s power of bifurcation:

« the choice that God always has to continue or alter the universe from moment to moment »

Fuller finds traces of this view in the idea of self-governance (and the maintenance or the rupture of the social contract) and the democratic principle of regular elections

Given this gradation, Fuller analyses what happens to the concept of possibility as we become less classical and more quantum in many domains:

« I have suggested … that underlying the West’s transition from Aristotle’s grounded view of the human to Plato’s more cosmic vision was a redefnition of the meaning of “possible,” from something empirically probable to something logically conceivable »

The grounded classical view is past-oriented and determinist whereas the quantum view is cosmic, future-oriented, and indeterminist. This quantum sense of the possible, that Fuller attributes to Duns Scotus, leads to the sense of an open universe.

« [It] opened up an alternative lineage for humanity, one that was much more open-ended and encompassing than Aristotle had circumscribed because it traced our descent directly from the divine logos rather than its various materializations »

This means that there is a division in the concept of God, and in the Christian idea that we are made in God’s image. Classical Christians see the world as eternally preordained and unchangeable, determined under  God’s ordinance. Quantum Christians consider that God’s vision of the world is that of a space of possibilities, and that God’s power is not past-based pre-ordination but future-oriented bifurcation:

« The revived Platonic sense of the possible involves imagining that the actual world is literally the realization of something that could have been otherwise—and may be otherwise, given the fullness of time ».

Fuller likes to make provocative statements about Christianity being responsible for the rise of modern science, but it is clear that in his own terms this refers to Christianity’s vision of the quantum God of possibility space and bifurcation. As noetic beings we live in the intermediate space where we can participate in the power of bifurcation, but only intermittently (as Stiegler reminds us).

4) Post-truth is meta-truth

The attempt to take seriously the quantum image of thought and to assume its pluralist consequences raises the spectre of relativism and of our so-called post-truth condition. I say « so-called », because discussions of this phenomenon are often unilluminating  and/or unconvincing due to the absence of rigorous analysis and of clear definitions.

Steve Fuller’s recent work contains just such a rigorous analysis and search for clear definitions. His new book POST-TRUTH Knowledge as a Power Game provides us with a useful synthesis and further working out of many of his ideas on this subject.

Commenting on the OED definition of « post-truth » Steve Fuller remarks: « This definition is clearly pejorative. Indeed, it is a post-truth definition of ‘post-truth’. ». Fuller’s wager is that a non-pejorative concept of « post-truth » can be found.

Fuller further argues that such a non-pejorative conception has been at work sometimes implicitly sometimes explicitly for a very long time, since the origins of philosophy in the struggle over truth between Sophists and Socrates.

Bernard Stiegler argues that we may be entering a « post-truth » episteme (« Trumpocene »), but his argument remains stuck in the pejorative sense of « post-truth ». However, nothing in the notion precludes starting from an open definition of the post-truth episteme and then distinguishing positive and negative tendencies.

Following Machiavelli and Pareto, Fuller distinguishes between tradition and institution-oriented lions and innovation and freelance-oriented foxes. In his analysis both are post truth, only in different ways. Echoing Feyerabend he calls them respectively « inductive » and « counter-inductive ».

These two epistemological types are not mutually exclusive in practice. Both foxy and leonine tendencies can be found in varying proportions in a single individual. However, Bruno Latour is more of a lion, having declared in favour of « strengthening » institutions and Steve Fuller more of a fox in his anti-expert turn and in his defence of « protscience ».

This is in line with more general differences between the two thinkers, both theoretical (as we have seen) and practical. For example, Bruno Latour is in favour of the principle of precaution, whereas Steve Fuller is a proponent of the proactionary principle, and could be styled (may he forgive me this word) an epistemological accelerationist.

For Steve Fuller the lions (consensus, method) emphasise their difference with the foxes (dissensus, non-method as multiple methods), whereas the foxes prefer to highlight their fundamental proximity underneath the lion’s publicity and propaganda to the contrary.

This difference over distance (or not) between the two positions ties into a more general disciplinary methodological trait: lions tend to be demarcationists and specialists, foxes are interdisciplinary and transversal. Once the lions have entrenched their disciplinary matrix the foxes are marginalised. They are defined as losers by the only game in town. The best way they can survive, and perhaps one day prevail, is by becoming « meta- » and showing up the cognitive tradition for what it is, a game, and by seeking to transform the rules.

5) Post-truth, realism, and quantum thought

In my research (as can be found on my blog AGENT SWARM and on my academia.edu page: https://independent.academia.edu/TerenceBlake) I have been analysing the work of contemporary Continental philosophers working in the domain of epistemological and ontological pluralism (Laruelle,  Latour, Zizek, Badiou, Stiegler) as articulating competing « metaphysical research programmes ». I employ this expression in Popper’s sense of general conceptual frameworks combining both speculative and empirically testable elements.

These pluralist metaphyisical research programmes can be analysed, compared, and put into dialogue in terms of an open set of heuristic criteria: degree and nature of pluralism, historicity, non-foundationalism, anti-essentialism, realism, apophaticism, testability. By means of this formal comparison we can better evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each programme, and make positive suggestions as to its improvement.

Steve Fuller’s research programme as it has emerged over a period of thirty years of published work, is an important contribution to that philosophical constellation, and allows for a richer critical discussion of shared and contested theses and concepts. In particular, his discussion of the concept of post-truth is an extremely useful contribution to the contemporary concern over the spread of the relativist idea that all thoughts are equal.

An interesting and important consequence of Steve Fuller’s critique of the one-sidedness of the pejorative definition of « post-truth » is that it must not be confused with relativism. Post-truth is not post-real, and one can have an epistemology that is both post-truth and realist.

A second theme of my research that has emerged in my discussion of Laruelle and Zizek (and also of Latour and Feyerabend) is the possible elaboration of a « quantum » image of thought, in terms of an underlying vision that is separable to some extent from physics and transferable elsewhere (transversality). There is an extended discussion of quantum physics and modal power in his new book POST-TRUTH Knowledge as a Power Game.

This quantum vision must be kept in mind when we discuss Steve Fuller’s defence of the hypothesis of « intelligent design » (or ID), as quantum indeterminism and the ontological incompleteness of the past re-qualify what can be meant by « design ». Similarly we should be wary of conventional notions of intelligence when extrapolated onto the cosmological scale. Intelligent design is not necessarily intelligible design and by becoming more « God-like » we may well be becoming more unknown and unintelligible to ourselves than less.

6) Brexit and Apophatic Theology

Pluralism at its simplest involves comparing rival hypotheses in order to give increased understanding (and I would argue increased content) to each hypothesis.The goal is not just increased understanding but also intellectual exchange and open-ended dialogue (a rarity today).

Steve Fuller’s new book POST-TRUTH Knowledge as a Power Game provides us with an excellent instrument for breaking up the monolithic authoritative voice assumed by rival research programmes such as Bruno Latour’s AIME project, and his own project contains many interesting ideas and useful suggestions in its own right. We need to put forth and discuss multiple hypotheses.

In Fuller’s Augustinian terms our speculative power is part of our nature as imago dei (in the image of God), our fall into authoritarian enforcement stems from peccatum originis (Original Sin), that needs to be constantly corrected. (cf. Steve Fuller, Foreword, THEISTIC EVOLUTION (Moreland et al., Crossroads, 2017).

In this foreword, Fuller highlights the empirical aspect of his thought, tying it to his anti-authoritarian sensibility:

« Moreover, public opinion surveys consistently show that people are pro-science as a mode of inquiry but anti-science as a mode of authority »

This citation expresses very clearly one of the key themes of POST-TRUTH Knowledge as a Power Game and it encapsulates the difference between SteveFuller’s project and Bruno Latour’s AIME. Latour’s modes of existence are modes of inquiry. The problem is that they are also modes of authority, and he gives primacy in the modes and in his own inquiry to the authority of experts.

This pervasive authoritarianism explains why Bruno Latour’s « Inquiry » into modes of existence does not take into account the opinions of laypersons but only that of experts.

A bold imaginative leap in this regard is taken in Chapter One of Fuller’s  POST-TRUTH Knowledge as a Power Game with conjoining of the controversy over intelligent design and the Brexit debate. Given the strong anti-authoritarian aspect of the popular rejection of expert opinion and advice, Fuller’s social epistemology gets a closer grip on the forces at play than Bruno Latour’s AIME.

We must be wary of simply attributing a position to Fuller that we think we understand (e.g. ID equals fundamentalism) on the basis of Fuller’s attempt to give a fair discussion of competing alternatives. Fuller’s discussion is indirect and meta-, not directly partisan, although he has also made known his own views and suggestions.

Fuller’s own version of « intelligent design » is cosmological: suggesting that the universe is structured such as to be potentially intelligible to human understanding either as it is or, more likely, as it will become. It has logically nothing to do with the origins of life or of humanity, and is quite compatible with the orthodox neo-Darwinian account, although it does not require it or ratify it.

Fuller’s view is based on a principle of intelligibility. It is quite close to, but not identical to, Einstein’s « The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility ». My worry here is that Fuller sometimes gives specific content to this « mystery ». However Fuller’s view is far more nuanced than most people realise. His difference with Latour’s AIME project is that Latour creates a separate mode of existence (REL – the mode of existence of religious beings) to protect this mystery from criticism. Fuller, while acknowledging the mystery, treats his own specifications as empirical hypotheses.

7) Postscript: deconstruction and the anti-expert turn

I read Steve Fuller’s book in parallel with Bruno Latour’s abortive (and now-abandoned by him) post-truth AIME project as articulateded in his post-critical ontological treatise AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. I call AIME an abandoned project because there is no real philosophical follow up and re-articulation of its ideas. Latour seems to have used it as a long-winded legitimation for his « political » interventions. The book is a conceptual mess, and his AIME site is an even bigger hyper-textual mess.

The deconstruction of academic postures of certainty and authority began well before its purported philosophical origins, as Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault and Feyerabend emphasised when discussing the origins of their work. The democratisation of this anti-institutional « deconstruction in the real » leads to what Steve Fuller calls the « anti-expert turn ». This is a slightly misleading term, as Fuller is describing and commenting on the turn against according immediate and absolute authority to experts, not the rejection of experts per se.

Paul Feyerabend is an interesting precursor of this anti- cognitive authoritarian turn, as can be seen in his article « Experts in a Free Society« .

Bruno Latour’s AIME project is a reaction against this turn, beginning his book by an appeal to « trust in the institution of science ». From the very beginning I criticised the AIME project as élitist, taking Kuhnian normal science as a model to be generalised to multiple « modes of existence ». I argued that experts reigned supreme in this model and that there was no place for the protest of the lay people. I cited Steve Fuller’s notion of « protscience » and argued that it should be generalised to all of Bruno Latour’s modes. In particular I remarked that the word « protest » was almost entirely absent from the AIME book. We know that Latour gives short shrift to « critique », but the price paid is that of diminished testability.

Interestingly Bruno Latour did not respond directly to my criticism of his project as too Kuhnian, but proceeded to feature the term « protest » on his website as if it had always been a key word (as remarked above, « protest » does not feature in the book). However, in Latour’s acceptation of the word it did not refer to the protest of lay people but to the « protestation of experience », an abstraction observed and legitimated by « experts ».

A significant sign of this cognitive authoritarian undertone is to be found in Latour’s views on the religious mode of existence, where the « protestation of experience » is to be mediated by the religious experts, priests and pastors, not by the faithful.

This rhetorical strategy of neutralising potential criticism by turning a deaf ear and then surreptitiously incorporating a watered down version into one’s own system of thought is itself a post-truth manoeuvre, one that tries to remain undetected.

Further, by separating truth from reference and multiplying the modes of veridiction Latour gives the impression of side-stepping the « post-truth » condition in Steve Fuller’s sense at the very moment that he both confirms it and tries to contain it, by drastically reducing not just testability but dialogue. In contrast, Steve Fuller gives us a notion of post-truth that is not a form of relativism but a type of realism based on testability and democratic exchange.

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