Over at Speculative Heresy, I think we get to the core of the issue in the debate between realism and anti-realism, as well as how philosophical debates should be conducted. Responding to Mikhail, Nick gives a succinct summary of Meillassoux’s argument, writing:

I think we may be talking past each other to some degree, but let me try to clarify what I’m saying.

To be clear, ‘absolute time’ is not referring to Newtonian time. Einstein empirically discredited that (and Kant and Leibniz, as you note, philosophically discredited it). Absolute time, as Meillassoux uses it, is just a short hand for a time outside of the correlationist time (again, I’ll take Kant and Husserl as being the archetypes of this view).

Now when I say that absolute time is a fundamental assumption of cosmology, evolution, etc., I mean that these sciences are speaking of a time before the very possibility of correlationist time. To deny that an absolute time outside of correlationist time exists, is to deny that these sciences are speaking about anything. They literally make no sense if we assume time (and really, existence) burst onto the scene with the emergence of thought. But to argue that absolute time exists is only to accept a very minimal definition of it – that correlationism emerged within something larger. What that something is, is undetermined so far and a problem for future work. But that it is, seems indisputable to me. (And I believe Hawking’s quote says no more and no less than that, as well.) But maybe this is another manifestation of our differend, since I take these empirical sciences to clearly show the existence of an absolute time, whereas you are more focused on the philosophical conundrums?

The problem for correlationism then, as Levi succinctly points out in his post, is that correlationism sees the mind as condition for Nature, whereas the existence of absolute time shows Nature to be the condition for mind. (Although I’d need to read Kant’s later work to see how the Opus Postumum fits into this schema. I do have Forster’s book, on your recommendation, which I should really crack open.)

As for Hawking’s quote, I think he’d need to respond to the idea of structural realism. No one is denying that theories are used to give us knowledge about reality. What the instrumentalist says is that these theories are only pragmatic and have no truth-value, whereas the structural realist will say that this is incapable of explaining the predictive success of science.

To this, Mikhail responds, remarking that:

Nick, I think I understand your position but the problem with Meillassoux’s argument succinctly is this: while it looks as though he is critiquing correlationism from “inside” by showing how it cannot account for something like arche-fossil, he in fact is critiquing correlationism from outside perspective by imposing the meaning of time on correlationism that it would not accept. As I tried to show, his refutation of correlationism rests on the assumption that correlationism does not share, i.e. that time is something that is a property of mind-independent world.

Before proceeding to parse Mikhail’s actual argument, such as it is, let’s pause to note something. Mikhail criticizes Meillassoux for critiquing correlationism from the outside. I may be mistaken in my understanding of what Mikhail is suggesting here, but I think this is a revealing moment in his understanding of philosophical methodology and what it means to critique another position. If I am reading Mikhail faithfully, for him the only legitimate critique of a philosophical position would be an immanent critique. From the standpoint of immanent critique, you work within the constraints of whatever philosophical system you happen to be working with, bringing nothing external to bear on the position. A famous example of immanent critique would be nearly any movement in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. When Hegel critiques, for example, sense-certainty in the opening of the Phenomenology, he doesn’t bring anything from outside the claims of sense-certainty to show that this position is inadequate, but rather shows how the very claims of sense-certainty itself fail to say what it purports to say, thereby generating an internal contradiction with itself. Very different examples and procedures of immanent critique can be found in the works of Derrida or in the works of hermeneuticians such as Gadamer. In all of these cases the procedure is to restrict oneself to the text and the claims of the text in analyzing the text. All of us trained in the tradition of Continental philosophy more or less were trained in this tradition of critique and hermeneutics. In far less sophisticated terms than those of Hegel, Derrida, or Gadamer, this would be the standard pedagogical practice where the professor forbids the student from rejecting the claims of Aristotle’s Physics by bringing the discoveries of contemporary physics to bear. Here the reasonable pedagogical aim is for the student to understand Aristotle in his own terms, to attend to Aristotle’s own arguments, and to develop “close reading” skills (as Adrian Peperzak always used to say to us) rather than dismissing texts from the history of philosophy outright. From this pedagogical perspective, the only legitimate critique of a philosopher’s position in a student essay would be the demonstration of an internal contradiction in that position or the failure to take account of something crucial or fundamental with respect to our experience.

While I believe this pedagogical approach is laudable in its aim of cultivating close reading skills, developing an attentiveness to text, and promoting a respect for the history of philosophy, I also think that in textually oriented philosophy programs has had the negative and unintended side effect of developing philosophy students that see this mode of textual approach as the way that philosophy as such should be conducted. That is, rather than a question of determining the truth with respect to these questions, philosophy almost entirely becomes an engagement with texts from the history of philosophy and often texts from a highly specific canon. I also think it is worthwhile to ask why this approach to philosophy has largely been embraced by private liberal arts religious schools, rather than state schools (there are, of course, notable exceptions such as Suny Stonebrook, Memphis, and Penn State). The question here, however, would be that of why Continental philosophy, with its text based approach, has found such a welcome home in private religious schools. I don’t have the answer to this question but I do have some suspicions.

read on!

Now, Mikhail contends that Meillassoux is guilty of bringing something external to bear on Kant’s position. As Mikhail puts it, “as I tried to show, his refutation of correlationism rests on the assumption that correlationism does not share, i.e. that time is something that is a property of mind-independent world.” At the outset, I find this claim to be curious. No one is debating whether or not time, for Kant is a “property of mind-independent world.” Everyone who has ever read Kant is agreed that time is not a property of mind-independent world. The question is whether or not Kant’s thesis is true. This is properly where philosophical discussion emerges. While certainly the hermeneutically informed philosopher is reasonable in claiming that we must first have an understanding of a text or philosophical position before we can critique that position, understanding texts is not the final word where texts are concerned. Were this not the case, Kant would be guilty of bringing “external considerations to bear” in his criticisms of Hume.

Mikhail goes on to write:

Now I think you are buying Meillassoux’s argument about “time before time” too easily. There’s no two types of time – “absolute time” and “time of correlation” – it is either one or the other, that’s the point. If you think time is something that is characteristic of things-in-themselves and human subjects only recognize this time and learn to measure it, then there’s no “correlationist time” – if you think that time is a relation that the mind establishes (to put it simply) between objects or events (this comes before that etc etc) the same way space is a relation, then there is no other kind of time, period. I don’t think it disproves anything about cosmology or geology, as Alexei mentioned already, that time can very well be understood in terms of “correlationist time” – Now the question whether time existed before human givenness, as Meillassoux puts it, only makes sense if you already rejected “correlationist time” – that is before you are even making your argument against correlationism, you’ve already discarded its major premise. That’s all I was trying to show.

A couple of points are worth noting here. First, I am unclear as to why Mikhail is convinced that there cannot be two types of time or why it has to be one or the other. It seems to me, at least, that it is completely possible for there to be time experienced by humans as described by phenomenologists like Husserl and Heidegger, and time as it belongs to the natural world. Certainly the sun did not cease appearing to rise and set once Copernicus discovered, in fact, that the earth revolves the sun and certainly there is no reason to suppose that time will cease to appear as it does to humans should there also be a natural time that is a property of things-in-themselves. The two positions are not inherently mutually exclusive.

Now, Mikhail claims that Meillassoux’s argument only makes sense if we’ve already rejected “correlationist time”, but it seems to me that this is a distortion of Meillassoux’s actual argument. Meillassoux’s line of argument can be summed up by quoting a single passage from After Finitude. Meillassoux writes, “…why is this [correlationist] interpretation of ancestrality obviously insupportable? Well, to understand why, all we have to do is ask the correlationist the following question: what is it that happened 4.56 billion years ago? Did the accretion of the earth happen, yes or no?” (16). For those interested in a thorough discussion of Meillassoux’s argument and his response to counter-arguments, you can refer to my posts here, here, here, and here.

So what is it, Mikhail? Did the world accrete 4.56 billion years ago or not? If one answers “yes”, then you have one of two options. You can show how, within the framework of correlationism, this knowledge is possible. I have not yet seen such an account. The realist argues, contra the correlationist, that the correlationist cannot account for knowledge claims such as this. The reason is very simple. As Kant himself claims, time is not a mind-independent property of things-in-themselves. We’re all agreed that this is what Kant claims. If you disagree, I invite you to simply consult what Kant says in the Critique of Pure Reason A35-36/B52. The whole problem is that knowledge claims about the accretion of the earth 4.56 billion years necessarily pertain to things-in-themselves because they are claims about the world prior to the advent of consciousness. From the correlationist perspective, these claims should therefore be meaningless. Yet they are not meaningless.. This entails that the other possibility is for the correlationist to renounce correlationism, go back to the drawing board, and adopt a realist position. Consequently, if you answer yes, you have one of two options: either give a correlationist account of these knowledge claims or renounce correlationism and adopt realism. Perhaps Meillassoux is bringing something “external to correlationism” to bear (namely the arche-fossil, which, note, is not the same as the fossil… read the first post linked to above), but in doing this Meillassoux is not doing anything philosophically illegitimate, but is merely evoking a readily recognized element of our knowledge– that the earth accreted 4.56 billion years ago –and asking how the correlationist can handle this bit of knowledge within their framework. His claim is that they cannot, but he could be mistaken.

The other option is for the correlationist to bite the bullet and simply affirm that knowledge claims about a world prior to the existence of life and humans are meaningless and are not knowledge at all. This, for example, seems to be the route that Husserl took. As Husserl consistently argued, following the letter of the correlationist logic, Nature cannot be a condition for Consciousness because Consciousness is the condition for Nature. Consequently, from the Husserlian standpoint, any talk of a world prior to humans or consciousness (Husserl would argue that consciousness cannot be equated with humans, taking the thesis even further to its logical conclusion) cannot but be nonsense on stilts. If one takes this route, we have a genuine “differend” in Lyotard’s sense of the term, where we have a dispute between two opposed positions that can, under no circumstances, be brought into accord with one another.

At any rate, these are the options. It is not that Meillassoux is assuming from the outset what he sets out to prove. Rather, he very straightforwardly presents his argument and why he believes arche-fossils are at odds with correlationist thought. The ball is in the correlationist court from there. One further point. Alexei jumps in and writes:

Just a couple of things, which may be totally insignificant.

RE “the time of science.” As Far as I know ‘time’ isn’t an ontological entity for the sciences either (I tried to make this point above, but clearly didn’t succeed). Time = metric/mathematical dimension in virtue of which rates of change/movement can be calculated. Although theoretically ‘primitive’ (i.e. unanalysable), it’s not an object, or structure. Time isn’t a property of anything — nor is space for that matter (See the notions of block time and Spacetime for instance — more here). I take it that this is Mikhail’s point, really. If you don’t have theoretical objects that can undergo certain kinds of transformations, you don’t have time (hence why the big bang has come up again). So honestly, much of this argument seems to be based on a distortion of how the sciences actually handle time. It’s never treated as a property, but as a dimension (which means, it’s not something objects have). Ultimately, what’s important is that time and space are a priori — independent of experience, necessary, and non-conceptual — so they are by definition independent of facticity.

Less philosophically put, the Math comes before the observation, and actually determines what it is we’re looking for, what can be observed, and what follows form it. why isn’t that enough? I mean, this is actually one of those moments where we should actually look at what scientific researchers do with time, rather than speculating about what time is independent of us humans.

While I am all for looking at how scientists actually talk about the world and what scientists actually do, I think Alexei here conflates the metrics we use to measure the world with what is measured. As I argued in my previous post, these metrics are arbitrary, but it does not follow from that that what we measure is itself a human construction. Based on my own forays into physics– and I could be mistaken here –my impression is that physicists have sided with Lucretius on this issue. That is, the position of physicists is that time and space are products of entities and therefore properties of entities, rather than the thesis that time and space are containers of entities.