In response to a discussion unfolding in an earlier post, the always thoughtful Dan remarks:

Levi, you write: “Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form.” I am not even sure I share the terms of this discussion, so it’s hard to think that I will fall into this invariance even though I do not share all your convictions about ontics. “Form” is used here as if it had clarity and certainly the philosophical tradition seems largely in this mode where the arguments become — as here — about its existence or not or the relations between supposed “things” and forms. Since this site valorizes science, it might be worth mentioned that there are — depending on whom you ask — 3, 4, or 5 states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma, helium 2/Einstein/Bose condensate) and only one — a very unlikely one — corresponds to what individuals usually refer to under form. Indeed, some physicist comedians see the solid as just slow liquid. I am NOT contending — before I get help — that form is unavailable in the non-solid BUT that its attributes are more complex, dynamic, and open than most of the models that haunt philosophy. Further, I have followed to some degree your versions of more flexible form notions though they seem to share an intrinsic commitment to abiding integrity/coherence I see as imposed. If — as I believe — form “in nature” is transitional and interactive, permeable and unstable, and these are its usual characteristics, then the emphasis on a choice between form and formlessness is unhelpful.

Nicely put. I agree with all of this save the suggestion that I valorize science. I take science seriously and give it a place as something other than mere social construction. That’s different than privileging it or valorizing it. An interesting moment occurred with the final keynote speaker, Roland Breeur, in Holland on Thursday. He was giving a talk on Sartre, Bergson, and Flaubert on the phenomenon of stupidity. His thesis was that stupidity occurs when the living becomes material and mechanical. For example a cruise ship crashes overseas and the police officer won’t let anyone step on land until they show their passports. Clearly a law has become mechanical in rigid here in a way that is both inappropriate to the circumstances and that is stupid. At the end of his talk I objected to his use of the term materiality to describe this phenomenon. I claimed that it was perfectly appropriate to refer to this way of behaving as mechanism, but that mechanism and matter are not the same thing. In other words, he was working with a 17th century of matter that has been thoroughly abandoned in the last few hundred years as a result of findings in quantum mechanics, complexity theory, chaos theory, and dynamic systems theory. What we have seen, by contrast, in these last hundred years is the way in which matter is both dynamic and creativity (the emergence of life being the most notable example, but there being many other examples besides, viz. chemical clocks). He rather gruffly responded to me that he’s a philosopher and that as a philosopher he is working with a philosophical concept of matter. I asked him whether he believed life evolved from matter and he said yes, but never consciousness because consciousness, following Sartre, is “The Nothing”. I’m not sure what this could possibly mean, nor why I should embrace this idea of The Nothing (though I concede that I need to give an account of it).

At any rate, it seems to me that saying that one can simply ignore these developments in our understanding of matter because “one is doing philosophy” is intellectually dishonest. As a Portuguese architect– Francisco Vasconcelos –put it to me afterwards, this response was a a bit like claiming one can happily continue claiming that the world is flat or that the Earth is at the center of the universe after Copernicus. The point is not that science should trump philosophy, nor that science can replace philosophy. The point is that we can’t simply ignore scientific findings, continuing on as we did before, pleading that we’re working with a “philosophical concept of x”, rather than a scientific one. If science shows us that that philosophical concept of x was thoroughly mistaken, then this calls for us to revise our philosophical concepts. This, I think, is one of the strongest insights of Badiou. Badiou forcefully argues that truths never come from philosophy, but rather always come from elsewhere in other fields of practice and thought: science, art, love, and politics. The task of philosophy is to think these truths and the compossibility of truths. While I don’t follow Badiou completely in this thesis– I think philosophy has its own domain of concept creation following Deleuze –I do think philosophy always unfolds in dialogue with its others. Why continue to treat the concept of matter in terms of passivity, inertia, and brute mechanism when we live in an age that has discovered that it is anything but these things? If the task of philosophy is to think the present and the new truths that have appeared in the present, why not completely abandon this tradition of thinking matter that has been thoroughly refuted? Mechanism and inertia exist, to be sure, but they are the lowest degrees of matter; they are matter in its least energetic and creative state.