In response to a terrific post by Nick over at Speculative Heresy, the debate surrounding correlationism has continued to swirl. I tried to post a long comment responding to criticisms by Mikhail and Alexei over there, but for some reason it wouldn’t post, so I’ll post it here. I also worry that Nick might be getting upset by the “thread jack” of his own post, as the issues have diverged markedly from the claims he was there making.

Quoting me, Mikhail responds:

Within a Kantian framework we cannot make sense of the idea of a time belonging to things in themselves, but this is precisely what is required by knowledge statements about times that precede the existence of humans or life.

Actually, as I mentioned several times, this is not a “Kantian framework” – Leibniz already had issues with Newtonian absolute time (and so did, if I understand it, Einstein, but don’t quote me here) – let me ask you this simple non-scientifically phrased question: was there time before the Big Bang?

It is difficult to have this discussion if we do not define our terms. Up to this point I have been assuming that by “absolute time” Mikhail referring to time pertaining to things-in-themselves. He now evokes Newton, yet, subsequent science has refuted Newton’s particular account of time and space. From here on out, I will use the term “absolute time” to refer to time belonging to things-in-themselves rather than time imposed on things by mind. It will be understood that this time is broadly construed and in need of a detailed definition. I take it that it is the responsibility of science to define this time, not philosophers.

read on!

This aside, it seems to me that we cannot place Leibniz and Kant in the same basket. While Leibniz certainly believed that time and space were a sort of illusion, this was for metaphysical reasons entirely different than those of Kant’s. The arguments I’m putting forward are addressed to Kant and subsequent post-Kantian correlationist philosophy, so we should stick to this framework. If these arguments apply to Leibniz as well, so much the worse for Leibniz.

As for the question of whether there was a time before the big bang, that is not a question I can answer from my armchair. That is a question for the scientist to answer through careful research, investigation, and experimentation.

Mikhail goes on to say:

If these are my only choice, I’m going to believe Kant because my eyes are indeed very lying, things look very solid to me when I know that physically speaking a block of granite is as empty as a block of air – you in fact (together with QM) are sneaking in a concept of time, absolute time (as opposed to relative time) without ever explaining where it comes from, it just is, right? because “all evidence – self-explanatory evidence – just points to it” – c’mmon, I’m sure you can do better than that!

Alright, it is good to know this. Mikhail is going with the evidences of his perception as a reliable guide to the nature of reality. That is fine so far as it goes, but there is a good deal of evidence indicating that reality is very little like the world as we experience it. As I said in previous exchanges, I am more than happy to be a correlationist concerning the world of our experience, but I do not take that world as a reliable guide to the nature of the world in itself. Indeed, I think that since Galileo a good deal of scientific work has consisted in finding ways to escape the limitations and distortions created by the way we experience the world in our day to day lives. As for the question of where this time comes from, I’m not even sure I understand that question. Exactly what is Mikhail asking?

Quoting me again, Mikhail goes on to remark:

This is part of the whole anti-correlationist position: that the world as it appears to us in our day to day lives shares very little resemblance to the world as it is in itself.

No offense, and I know you’re sensitive about religion and all, but this sounds to me like a confession of faith rather than a philosophical position – all kinds of objections can be and are continuously raised against this position, yet you keep reciting it as if it is a credo of your anti-correlationist faith.

Not at all. Faith is the belief in something without any evidence or support. My view that the world as it is in-itself is very different than the world of our empirical experience is based on what the experimental evidence indicates, not a blind faith or a simple conviction.

Quoting me, Mikhail goes on to write:

You are suggesting that position x is true because your opponent doesn’t have a solution to a particular issue.

No, I am not – read my objection again, I suggest that it is unfair to assume something that an opponent does not agree with – a particular notion of time – and then, based on this unshared assumption to purport to destroy the opponent’s position – where exactly is my fallacy?

The thing is, I didn’t assume this. Rather, I argued that the theory of evolution is only intelligible if a time belonging to things-in-themselves exists. Mikhail is free, of course, to be skeptical of the theory of evolution, geology, the radioactive decay of isotopes, etc., and then we have a different debate as to why these things should be accepted. Of course, in my view it would be unreasonable to deny these findings and if Mikhail does, in fact, deny these findings then I think he confirms my thesis that correlationists are trying to create a self-enclosed bubble for themselves immune to any criticism or refutation. If that’s the case, let the correlationists have their bubble and do as their please, though given that they’ve chosen to abandon intersubjective standards of discourse, there’s no reason they should be taken seriously if this is the case.

Mikhail writes:

QM does not do it that obviously, but he does introduce the idea of “time of science” without ever considering the implications, without really raising the whole issue of what time is – or maybe I’m missing something?

I agree that the realists have more work to do on just what physical time is, but I don’t think this undermines the essentials of his argument. It is clear minimally this time must belong to things-in-themselves and that’s all he needs to advance his claim. It’s nice to have more philosophical work to do. Meillassoux is simply taking Kant and the phenomenologists at their word with respect to the conditions for scientific investigation and inquiry to the world and asking how it is possible to have a time not indexed by a consciousness, i.e., the time of the arche-fossil.

Alexei, jumping into the fray, writes:

Notice though, that a Kantian doesn’t actually say that the pure form of time is a condition of mind. A Kantian says that the pure intuition of time is a condition of the possibility of experience. Somehow we’ve managed to assimilate ‘conditions of possible experience’ to the ‘conditions of mind’ and — worse — ‘conditions of mind’ have been assimilated to ‘grounds of cognition’. There’s a pretty big difference among these notions here. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a set of very good reasons for distinguishing among conditions for something, grounds for something , and determinations of something. The present discussion seems to level out these differences.

Yes, what Alexei says here about Kant’s position goes without saying or is, I think, agreed upon by everyone involved in this debate. But that is not the issue. The issue is that according to the well supported theories of evolution and neurology, Nature is a, if not the, condition of mind, not the reverse. But the correlationist claims just the opposite: that mind is the condition of Nature, not the reverse. Nature, for the correlationist, is purely a phenomena such that the idea of phenomena giving rise to the conditions (mind) is not intelligible or consistent. If all of these distinctions are being flattened then this is because this flattening is what is required of by our best biological theories concerning the emergence of life and the human. This would be a prime example of a situation where our science requires a significant revision of how certain philosophical problems have been posed, but strangely, oddly, this gets ignored by a certain style of philosophy as if these discoveries make no difference and we can continue talking about the world blithely as if Darwin makes no difference as to how we conceive the nature of mind.

Alexei goes on to write:

It’s also worth pointing out that “Geological Time” isn’t really different from “cosmological time,” or the two very different from “evolutionary time,” or “human time.” It’s all the same “time” — It’s just the interval or period (the metric, which is ultimately a human imposition, a way we make various kinds of shifts coherent to ourselves) that shifts in relation to the “rate of measurable change” that a particular discipline requires. Quite simply put, it’s a matter of perspective, not a question of qualitiatively different ‘times’.

I think that both the realist and the anti-realist can agree that metric time is a human imposition. Whether we use an atomic clock, a watch, a sun-dial, etc., to measure time is largely arbitrary. What is not arbitrary, for the realist, however, is what is measured. Moreover, Kant is not making a claim about metric time– were he making such a claim there’s really be no debate here –but is making a claim about time as such and claiming that time is imposed on the world by mind and does not belong to the things themselves. As Kant writes in the First Critique:

Our assertions accordingly teach the empirical reality of time, i.e., objective validity in regard to all objects that may ever be given to our senses. And since our intuition is always sensible, no object can ever be given to us in experience that would not belong under the condition of time. But, only the contrary, we dispute all claim of time to absolute reality, namely where it would attach to things absolute as a condition or property even without regard to the form of our sensible intuition. Such properties, which pertain to things in themselves, can never be given to us through the senses. In this therefore consists the transcendental idealist of time, according to which it is nothing at all if one abstracts from the subjective conditions of sensible intuition, and cannot be counted as either subsisting or inhering in the objects in themselves (without their relation to our intuition). (A35-36/B52).

This quote, in a nutshell, captures the entire problem or nub of the debate. Those of us on the realist side have been charged with “misreading Kant” or “misinterpreting him”, but all we’ve done is take him at his word. For in order to account for times prior to life and especially humans, we have to posit a time belonging to things themselves. But this is explicitly forbidden by Kant’s position. Claims pertaining to things in themselves cannot but appear dogmatic to the Kantian.

Mikhail writes:

My response was to Levi’s proposal that I choose between Kant and my own eyes – admittedly a half-joking one – which I take to mean something like: choose between philosophical arguments (say about time not being a substance, but a relation) or crude empirical data that apparently speaks for itself.

The phrase “crude empirical data” reveals a whole lot. What is it about these theories and this data that is “crude”? These findings are the results of hundreds of years of human labor, experiment, and investigation, requiring the development of sophisticated models and experiments. I am not sure where Mikhail gets the idea that the realist is committed to the thesis that the “data speaks for itself”. Indeed, Mikhail seems to be conflating the realist position with the position of naive realism where one believes that we can just “look at the world” and know how it is. The realist, by contrast, knows that knowledge is the result of hard labor, cannot be arrived at from the armchair, and requires careful experimentation, model building, technological developments, and the careful gathering of data. The data only begins to “speak” in light of these models and often it shows that these models are mistaken. The data that is being offered here is not the result of some bare datum like an empirical sense-impression, but belongs to highly articulated, well confirmed, and well developed theories about the nature of the world. At any rate, Mikhial’s phrase here at least gives confirmation, writ large, of what the realists have been claiming about the correlationists: that ultimately they are dismissive of science and believe that it can be rejected out of hand. That’s fine, but the anti-realists should be upfront about it. From the realist standpoint the idea that we can simply sit in our armchairs and reflect on the intentional structure of our lived experience, thereby gaining access to the nature of reality is a crude position.

Mikhail writes:

Again, the burden of proof is not on so-called correlationists – Kant has a perfectly fine (you don’t have to like it or agree with it) explanation of how it is possible both to think that time is a form of intuition and that physics actually empirically deals with objects and so on (empirical realism and transcendental idealism) – it is on QM and Levi, yet all I hear is stuff like: How do you account for arche-fossil taking that what science tell us about it indisputable? Ah you cannot, then you are damned to correlationist hell!

In fact Kant does not have such an account. This is the philosophical claim that QM is making.

Finally Mikhail writes:

My problem with that, as I stated many times, is that Levi is a philosopher, not a scientist, which is to say not that he doesn’t have appropriate expertise or anything of that sort, but that he approaches issues from a philosophical perspective of realism etc etc. Yet he throws around scientific data as if it somehow makes the argument in itself – data or examples are still in need of interpretation when it comes to their use in philosophical arguments – I’m not a scientist, I don’t know shit about specific scientific data or methods, but if you translate it into a philosophical argument, I’m all about it. That was my point. As I also commented to Levi, he seems to be seeking solace in Science (intentional capitalization), which is fine with me, but I constantly come off as some obscurantist anti-science weirdo because I dare to question something that is apparently self-evident such as “absolute time” which it is not at all.

Apparently, according to Mikhail, there is some distribution of disciplines where philosophers can simply ignore the findings of the sciences and say whatever they like about consciousness, the nature of the world, the mind, etc., and expect to be taken seriously. Rather, when confronted with the argument from the arche-fossil it sounds to me like Mikhail is sticking his fingers in his ears and singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and saying “na na na na, give a philosophical account!” I am not seeking “solace in Science” as Mikhail would put it (nice speculation about motives here, i.e., red herring), but simply trying to articulate a philosophy that squares with the facts of our world. Mikhail, in his meditations about consciousness, mind, time, etc., is doing the equivalent of insisting on the truth of Aristotlean physics after Galileo.