171103065Over at Perverse Egalitarianism, Shahar has a brief post up on Mach and realism. Mach, in his The Analysis of Sensations, writes,

It has arisen in the process of immeasurable time without the intentional assistance of man.. It is a product of nature, and preserved by nature. Everything that philosophy has accomplished…is, as compared with it, but an insignificant and ephemeral product of art. The fact is, every thinker, every philosopher, the moment he is forced to abandon his one-sided intellectual occupation…immediately returns to [realism]. Nor is it the purpose of these “introductory” remarks to discredit the standpoint [of realism]. The task which we have set ourselves is simply to show why and for what purpose we hold that standpoint during most of our lives, and why and for what purpose we are…obligated to abandon it.

I think Shahar here draws attention to an important point with respect to the speculative realist movement pertaining to what it is and what it is not. It seems to me that it is important to distinguish between naive realism and other variants of realism. In the passage you cite above, Mach appears to be referring to naive realism. His remark here is not unlike Hume’s famous quip about his skepticism. As a philosopher, he remarked, he is a skeptic, unable to demonstrate the necessity of cause and effect relations, etc. However, the moment he plays billiards (i.e., is no longer doing philosophy), he believes in the absolutely necessity or reality of these cause and effect relations.

read on!

quantumThe naive realist, as I understand it, believes that the objects of our experience exist in-themselves exactly as we experience them, independent of us. Naive realism– which we could call the “spontaneous philosophy” of any non-reflective human being –is based on three key claims: First, the naive realist holds that the objects of our experience have colors, textures, are composed of matter, exist in a particular position in time and space, have flavors, and so on. Second, the naive realist holds that objects would have these properties regardless of whether or not humans perceived them. That is, these properties belong to objects independent of humans. Were no humans to exist, objects would still possess these colors, tastes, textures, etc. Third, the naive realist holds that our perception delivers us adequate knowledge of objects as they are.

ishi36With the possible exception of Graham Harman, and then only in a highly qualified sense, I know of no speculative realist that holds this position. We need not look to the exotic in our science to see why naive realism must be mistaken. From the standpoint of experience, the sun appears to rise and set, and the earth appears to stand still. Clearly perception or experience is not here a reliable guide to reality. Moreover, where tastes and colors are concerned, the taste of my wine changes depending on whether I am healthy or sick. Indeed, I can even change the taste of my wine by cultivating my palate. The cultivated wine drinker and the wine Philistine do not taste the same wine in the same way, but actually experience different qualia. This indicates that while wine might be a necessary condition for the taste of the wine, the flavor of the wine is not in the wine itself. Likewise, we know that one and the same stimuli can produce different color qualia in someone who is color blind, indicating that color is not in the object.

For my own part, and I cannot speak for all realists, I am happy to agree that the world, the real world, is not as we perceive it and that perception is not a reliable guide to the nature of the real. As Elaine of Seinfeld said of the naked male body, our lived phenomenological experience of objects in the world is like a jeep. It is designed not to deliver us to true reality, but rather is designed to get around in the world. In this respect, I am more than happy to advocate the position of correlationism where phenomenological lived experience is concerned. That is, I see the world of mid-level objects– those objects that we deal with in our day to day life like trees, markers, computers, rocks, etc. –as the result of a constitution that shares no or little resemblance to the real. Although I do not accept Kant’s particular version of correlationism for a variety of reasons, I am more than happy to side with Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas in their descriptions of lived experience and the constitutional and genetic conditions for this experience.

The real, as it has so far been disclosed to quantum mechanics, relativity theory, molecular biology, genetics, evolutionary theory, neurology, etc., shares little resemblance to our phenomenological experience. For example, at the quantum level we find not matter, not objects that are strictly localized in time and space, but rather events, processes, energy, and waves that pop in and out of existence, that show remarkable connectivity with particles in vastly different regions of the universe and so on. Moreover, this real is mostly composed of space or void, not densely packed matter. As the physicists like to say, “if you don’t find quantum mechanics weird, then you haven’t understood it.” It simply has no parallel with our common sense experience.

The realist thesis is not that objects are as we experience them, but that when we do manage to grasp or know a bit of the real, our knowledge is not simply something for-us, but has disclosed properties that belong to the thing-itself and which do so regardless of whether or not humans exist. The radioactive decay of carbon atoms is not simply a phenomena that is for-us such that we have no idea whether or not carbon itself really possesses this property, but belongs to carbon atoms themselves, regardless of whether or not humans know it. These are properties of carbon atoms in-themselves, not appearances for humans. Unlike taste, these properties are in the carbon.

Here we encounter the key point that distinguishes the realist from the anti-realist. Beginning with Kant, we are told that we can never know things as they are in themselves but only as they are for-us or as phenomena. I have occasionally been charged with “hating Kant”, but if Kant has been a privileged figure in this discussion then this is because this key thesis reverberates throughout the subsequent history of philosophy. Thus we get a variety of correlationisms that widely depart from Kant’s correlationism. We get, for example, the “semio-correlationism” of Cassirer where it is not categories but signs and symbols that play the key role. We get the correlationism of the post-moderns and post-structuralists where it is signifiers that play this role. We get the correlationism of Foucault where it is power and discourse that plays this role. We get the correlationism of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty where it is intentionality that plays this role. We get the correlationism of Gadamer where it is texts and history that play this role. We get the correlationism of Wittgenstein where it is language that plays this role. In one way or another, all of these positions restrict our knowledge to phenomena and where the debate revolves around what the most primordial correlation is. My arguments are not the result of “hating Kant”– having spent more time than I care to remember on Kant and having written a book that even strove to redeem Kant from a Deleuzian standpoint –but rather from having a genuine philosophical disagreement with correlationism. According to prison rules, you fight the biggest guy in the room to survive your internment. So it is with philosophy too.

The realist thesis– again Harman exempted –is that we do not just know phenomena or how things are for-us such that we must forever remain skeptical as to whether things themselves are this way, but that occasionally we grasp a bit of the real or come to know a bit about things-in-themselves. Likewise, it is not the thesis that we can speculate like Leibniz and conclude through a priori reasoning that this is the best of all possible worlds and that this world must find its ground in a “metaphysical necessity”. The speculative realist has learned the lessons of Hume and Kant well. He agrees that there is a distinction between purely speculative and dogmatic claims and genuine claims of knowledge. He does not endorse the claims of, say, String Theory, until there is experimental evidence to support these claims. He merely claims that our knowledge is not restricted to phenomena such that we must remain skeptical as to whether the world itself is this way.

His motivation for this is not difficult to discern. Our best knowledge, our scientific knowledge, has reached a point where we necessarily fall into paradox or contradiction if we adopt Kant’s restriction to knowledge. Kant was on the cusp of a scientific revolution that he himself did not live to see. Kant could still comfortably live in a world where humanity had not evolved, where life had not emerged from unliving matter, and where, therefore, there was never a time when humans did not exist. Moreover, he still lived in a time where dualism was a comfortable and obvious position, prior to the largely substantiated theory that consciousness emerges from the brain (still only about thirty or forty years old for us). However, from the standpoint of knowledge, both neurology and biology pose a crucial challenge to the Kantian position. As I argued in my posts on Meillassoux (here, here, here, and here), the “arche-fossil” poses a significant challenge to the Kantian thesis because it requires us to make knowledge claims about beings-in-themselves rather than beings-for-us.

Every claim about a time before life and humans presupposes a knowledge of a time prior to correlation, and therefore in excess of the correlationist thesis. The correlationist is thus faced with two alternatives: Either the correlationist can claim that these claims are meaningless, speculative, dogmatic claims and are therefore nonsense, or they can accept that knowledge is able to go beyond givenness to know things-in-themselves. The first thesis entails that the correlationist is equivalent to the Young Earth Creationist and therefore unacceptable. Thus the choice is clear: Accept Darwin and quantum mechanics (which allows us to know the rate of radioactive decay in carbon isotopes or denounce contemporary science as a dogmatic speculative construction).

The situation is similar with respect to neurology. When we discover the neurological grounds of consciousness, it becomes clear that our knowledge of the brain cannot simply be a “correlate” or a “phenomena” because the neurological is a condition for consciousness, not simply a phenomena for consciousness. Husserl famously said that Nature cannot be a condition for consciousness because Nature is the correlate of consciousness, i.e., Nature is the constituted correlate or phenomena of consciousness. As such, Husserl is necessarily a substance dualist. In making this claim, Husserl is merely being logically consistent and revealing the internal logic of correlationism. This is necessarily the outcome of any correlationist position. The idea of something being a condition of consciousness is necessarily incoherent from the standpoint of correlationist thought. The choice, then, is clear: Either we side with neurology and what it has been able to reveal about consciousness through its various investigations, or we adopt an untenable substance dualism and deny all of these findings.

When I reflect on the debate between the anti-realist or the correlationist and the realist, I cannot help but feel that the correlationist begins in the wrong place with his epistemological ruminations. This position is one characterized by abstraction. The correlationist begins from the question of how an individual mind or knower, a subject, can know an object. But in doing so, the correlationist already hopelessly mutilates the question. First, he completely ignores the ontogeny or development of minds, implicitly presupposing the mind of the adult. Thus, as I argued in my recent post on Edelman and Deleuze, he’s led to a sort of transcendental illusions where he treats products or results as a priori conditions for knowledge. Apparently the correlationist has never heard of Piaget. This fallacy is further reflected in treating knowledge in terms of a body of propositions rather than a process.

But more fundamentally, in treating the question of knowledge as a question of the relationship between subjects and objects, the correlationist ignores how science is actually practiced. As a result of this starting point, he ignores the experimental method, the fact that all sorts of technologies or measuring instruments such as super-colliders, telescopes, microscopes, computers, etc., have to be invented to study the world. The significance of these technologies is that they allow to transcend the limitations (and illusions) of our own perceptual systems. Finally, the correlationist, in many instances, ignores the fact that knowledge is not the product of a knower, but is instead a collective effort of many investigators working together over days, months, years, decades, and centuries (for my own part, I think that most knowledge really only began with Galileo with the exception of mathematical knowledge). This assumption of an individual knower striving to know to an object, leads to all sorts of false problems and questions where the question of knowledge necessarily gets posed in terms of perception or sensation as well as cognitive structure. Everything changes when we take into account experimentation, technology, and communities of knowers gradually building up knowledge.