evolution11In response to my post expressing enthusiasm for Brassier’s hymn to science, Jerry the Anthropologists has expressed some criticisms of what he takes Ray to be claiming. Jerry writes,

He [Brassier] writes “to attain an adequate conceptual grasp…it is necessary to achieve a complete theoretical suspension.” I take your reading to be very charitable, or probably just a great deal clearer understanding of scientists and their activities. At the same time I don’t think what he’s saying (and I read him in a way I think is pretty literal) is possible. I think what we’re learning from the neurologists like Edelman runs entirely counter to his view; the workings of our nervous systems do not allow for the suspension of the image of the world. Further what I know of Copernicus and Darwin would be consistent with the operations and processes of intuition given certain connundrums, in Copernicus’s case about the movements of the planets and the increasing difficulties making an accurate calculation for Easter and in Darwin’s case of variation within and between species in a circumstance of ongoing struggle over great long periods of time. In both these cases I sense greater attention to the image of the world not lesser attention. I gather that he’s so seduced by the existence of the world that he wishes to avoid the very realities that we work with images of that world, constantly changing images but images nonetheless because of the ways in which our nervous systems work. Thus science may pose a challenge to certain systems of common sense and to certain folk metaphysics but not to others and further the activities of science generate other systems of common sense and metaphysics.

It seems to me that Jerry is making two distinct claims in this post. First, Jerry is claiming that the desire for a complete theoretical suspension is untenable. Second, he is advancing the correlationist claim that all of our access to the world is mediated through our relationship to the lived phenomenological world of day to day experience or what Heidegger called the world of “everydayness”. I am grateful to my great, gray lion maned friend (and still embarrassed by getting completely blitzed when I last enjoyed dinner last at his fine table) for these criticisms, so I’ll take this opportunity to expand a bit on just what I find attractive and refreshing in these ten pages of Brassier’s Alien Theory.

read on!

If Brassier were suggesting the complete suspension of all theory, I would agree with Jerry’s claim that his position is absurd. However, I don’t think this is what Brassier is claiming. Quoting the entire passage, Brassier writes:

If superstring theory is of profound philosophical significance it is because it achieves a univocally consistent physical monism by revealing all scalar incommensurability across the material universe, such as that which apparently separates the realm of quarks and neutrinos from that of galaxies and nebulae, to be the result of a four-dimensional abstraction; a perspectival ‘illusion’ engendered by assumptions about physical space that are ultimately rooted in the limited parameters of phenomenological perception. As a result, the consequences of superstring physics as far as the phenomenological parameters of mammalian perception are concerned are perhaps even more damning than those associated with traditional physical ‘reductionism’. For the implication is that in order to attain an adequate conceptual grasp of the unitary nature of physical reality, it is necessary to achieve a complete theoretical suspension of the image of the world derived from perceptual intuition. In other
words, physical theory has to effect a rigorously mathematical circumvention of those imaginative limitations inherent in the physiologically rooted cognitive apparatus with which an aleatory evolutionary history has saddled us. Thus, the chief obstacle standing in the way of a proper scientific understanding of the physical world would seem to be that of our species’ inbuilt tendency to process information via epistemic mechanisms which invariably involve an operation of subtraction from the imperceptible physical whole. Phenomenology remains a function of physiology. Perhaps not least among the many startling philosophical consequences of superstring theory is the way in which it seems to provide a rigorously physicalist vindication of Plato: phenomenological perception would seem to be akin to that of the prisoner in the cave who mistakes flickering shadows for ‘the things themselves’.

superstringsWhen the passage is read in full, it becomes clear that Brassier is not making the claim that science accomplishes a complete theoretical suspension tout court, but is instead making a claim about superstring theory in relation to ordinary lived perception of day to day life. Superstring theory is, of course, a theory (in the proper scientific sense, not the dishonest sense touted by creationists). If, as Brassier argues, superstring theory requires a complete theoretical suspension of ordinary perception, then this is because the eleven dimensional spaces, coupled with the unimaginably small and large scales to which this theory is addressed, are beyond the scope of any lived human experience. Where human perceptual experience is characterized by objects at a mid-level of scale in four-dimensional space-time, the objects of superstring theory are greater and lesser than the scope of anything humans can perceive. If they do exist, moreover, they exist in a sort of space (eleven dimensional space) that simply can’t be perceived or lived by human beings. Finally, these objects behave in ways quite different than the way objects of mid-level experience behave. Consequently, as I read Brassier, the point is that if we are to understand something like superstring theory we have to suspend our way of relating to the world and follow the mathematics. The objects of superstring theory are thinkable without being experienceable. Were we to treat the structure of lived experience as the criteria by which objects are intelligible and real, we could only conclude that scientific theories like those found in superstring theory are completely incoherent. Brassier’s point is that ordinary lived experience should not be treated as the sine qua non of what counts as real and knowable.

This brings me to the point about correlationism. Jerry makes the point that sciences like neurology cannot dispense with our ordinary image of the world, and that Darwin and Copernicus relied on certain discrepancies in the world to arrive at their conclusions. Consequently, if I understand Jerry correctly, he is making the claim that our image of the world functions as a core condition for science. This would be an example of the correlationist position. As Quentin Meillassoux so nicely summarizes it,

By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other…

Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another. Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object ‘in itself’, in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. (After Finitude, 5)

Elsewhere Meillassoux gives this definition more meat, writing that,

By the term ‘correlation’, I also wanted to exhibit the essential argument of these ‘philosophies of access’, as Harman calls them; and– I insist on this point –the exceptional strength of this argumentation, apparently and desparately implacable. Correlationism rests on an argument as simple as it is powerful, and which can be formulated in the following way: No X without givenness of X, and no theory about X without positing of X. If you speak about something, you speak about something that is given to you, and posited by you. Consequently, the sentence: ‘X is’, means: ‘X is the correlate of thinking’ in a Cartesian sense. That is: X is the correlate of an affection, or a perception, or a conception, or of any subjective act. To be is to be a correlate, a term of a correlation. And in particular, when you claim to think any X, you must posit this X, which cannot then be separated from this special act of positing or conception. That is why it is impossible to conceive an absolute X, i.e., an X which would be essentially separate from a subject. We can’t know what the reality of the object in itself is because we can’t distinguish between properties which are supposed to belong to the object and properties belonging to the subjective access to the object. (Collapse III, 409)

2294885420_ed91b173c5Meillassoux’s gloss here is nice as it gives, in schematic form, the structures shared by all variants of correlationism. Thus, for example, the Foucault of The Order of Things and History of Madness, and the Heidegger of Being and Time develop extremely different philosophies, but they both advance a variant of this argument. Foucault argues that the objects of the human sciences are given by historically specific epistemes and that therefore these objects are products of these epistemes, i.e., they don’t have a reality independent of their historically specific episteme as they can only be given in and through this episteme.

Similarly, the Heidegger of Being and Time argues that objects are only disclosed in and through our being-in-the-world. This being-in-the-world is a world where determinations of space such as the near and the far are a function of my concernful engagement with the world, not metric distances. For example, the computer screen before me is near as it is that towards which I am concernfully directed, while the desk upon which the screen sits is far (despite being metrically closer) as it recedes into the background of concernful engagements. Graham is close to me despite being in Cairo because of my engagement with him and his work, whereas my cousin is far (despite being geographically closer) as we seldom speak to one another. Similarly, the earth of my being in the world stands still and is the ground of all my engagements with entities, and the objects populating this world belong to a system of relations of significance or meaning pertaining to how I project a future ahead of myself. Heidegger’s point is that objects are only ever disclosed in relation to this horizon of being-in-the-world that functions as an Urdoxa by being the ultimate ground of any and all beliefs I might have. Because all my relations to myself and objects are premised on this horizon or Urdoxa, I cannot say, the argument runs, what objects might be independent of this horizon. I can only ever speak of objects as they are for me.

Now, it seems to me that when Jerry evokes the necessity of our image of the world– understood, I presume, in proper phenomenological terms –he is evoking a variant of correlationism. However, from the standpoint of objects of science it seems to me that there are flaws in this argument. Take Jerry’s example of Copernicus. I’ll set aside his point about the proper calculation of Easter as I think that is a distinct issue about why someone might undertake a particular path of research. I fully agree that part of what motivated Copernicus was inconsistencies in planetary motion as predicted by Ptolemy’s physics. However, it seems to me that this somewhat misses the point. From the standpoint of lived phenomenological perception or the image of the world, the movement of the planets as unfolded by Copernicus is incoherent. From the standpoint of my lived phenomenological perception, the earth stands still, the sun, moon, planets rise, set, and move across the sky. Were Urdoxa treated as the framework within which claims are intelligible or unintellible, we would have to dismiss Copernicus as absurd. Likewise in the case of Darwin. No one– at least until recently at the Michigan State University –observes evolution taking place, but rather we only ever perceive chickens producing chickens. The time scales far exceed that of human lived time and therefore require a leap out of the manner in which our intuition is structured.

neuronsThe case of neurology is, I think, a bit more difficult. Presumably, as Jerry argues, one of the things that the neuroscientist will wish to explain is the neurological base of this phenomenological lived experience. If we begin from the premise that one form of science seeks to discover the causal mechanisms or agencies that underlie phenomena or effects, then the phenomenon in question for the neurologist will be this lived experience or image of the world. As a result, this image of the world cannot be dispensed with without neurology becoming unintelligible. However, even here we find stark departures from our image of the world. For example, I experience myself as a centralized agency making decisions and choices based on a transparency to myself. Yet neurology reveals that in fact “I” am a non-linear network of neurons without transparency, unity, or center. Likewise, these scientists reveal that the reasons we give for doing things are often wildly at odds with the mechanisms behind these things. Thus, for example, recent research suggests that scent plays a significant role in attraction. A woman’s attraction to a man, under this model, might have less to do with the reasons she might cite for this attraction, and a lot to do with the fact that he differs significantly from her with respect to one hundred genes that preside over fighting disease. This is not, of course, to suggest that this is the only factor defining attraction– certainly all the romance that takes place via the internet would stand as evidence against this –but it does indicate that the mechanisms involved in are behavior are often deeply different than the ones we consciously register to ourselves.

I fully agree with Jerry’s thesis that in order for these entities of science to be registered and theorized there must be some difference that makes a difference. In the case of Copernicus this difference was inconsistencies in planetary motion. In Darwin’s case these differences were similarities among distinct species on different islands. If the research about scent is to be believed, these differences involved women smelling a variety of different male sweaty t-shirts, ranking their attractiveness (in an additional twist they only found the scent alluring during their window of ovulation) and correlating this scent against genomes. Registering differences, I think, is what science is all about… It is the reason we’re building that massive Haldron super-collider. In certain respects– and I steal this example from Latour –registering difference is not unlike what happens when we go to a wine tasting led by an expert wine taster (I must be thinking of this example because of dinner a couple weeks ago). We begin with an uneducated palate, but by the end of the evening we are able to detect all sorts of differences that we were insensitive to before. However, the claim that we must detect differences is entirely different than the claim that all entities postulated by science are structured according to the constraints of lived phenomenological intuition. These differences, rather, are launching points that allow us to break with the structure of intuition. I think this is the greatness of science: It allows for a break or rupture with the Urdoxa or horizon structuring our ordinary, lived, every day experience.

Setting all these issues aside, my appreciation for these ten pages in Brassier lies not so much in accepting his thesis about materialism, but more in the direction of how he takes science seriously and as a matter of genuinely philosophical provocation. This might be difficult for someone outside of Continental philosophy to appreciate it, because they do not encounter the anti-science stance of science in the same way. A causal perusal of phenomenological texts reveals that discussions of science are almost entirely absent (there are exceptions, but they are not the rule). When science is discussed it is discussed in disdainful, superior, snide, and dismissive terms, as if it lacks dignity and is not worthy of thought. Indeed, one gets the sense that the correlationists secretly think that these things don’t exist at all as they are so deeply at odds with Urdoxa or the structure of ordinary lived experience. Thus, as quoted in the Husserl passage of my original post, the correlationist will argue that nature cannot be a condition for the existence of consciousness because nature is a correlate of consciousness. So much for neurology and, more broadly, biological science. In short, this strategy functions as a policing mechanism designed to forestall the potentially traumatic findings of those sciences that dethrone our centrality or special place in the world.