A blog about belief


In Philosophy on September 17, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I’ve been reading Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, which Bryant and his publisher have kindly made available for free online ahead of print.  I’m generally sympathetic to the speculative realist movement’s opposition to what they call correlationism, the belief that objects only exist insofar as we think them or posit them through language, but I haven’t yet been won over by any of the widely divergent ontologies that the prominent thinkers who are associated with the movement – Bryant, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, etc. – offer as alternatives.   The argument Bryant adapts from Roy Bhaskar in section 1 is promising:

Bhaskar argues that the condition under which science is possible is the existence of what he calls “intransitive objects” which are real structures that exist independently of our minds and that are often “out of phase” with actual patterns of events. As Bhaskar articulates it,

…the intransitive objects of knowledge are in general invariant to our knowledge of them: they are the real things and structures, mechanisms and processes, events and possibilities of the world; and for the most part they are quite independent of us. They are not unknowable, because as a matter of fact quite a bit is known about them… But neither are they in any way dependent upon our knowledge, let alone perception, of them.

The claim that intransitive objects are invariant to our knowledge of them is not equivalent to the claim that intransitive objects are invariant. Rather, the point is that these objects would do what they do regardless of whether anyone knew about them or perceived them. The claim that intransitive objects can be “out of phase” with actual patterns of events is the claim that these intransitive objects can act or be dormant, thereby not producing certain events that they would produce in other settings or contexts.

Put simply, science cannot be possible unless this claim is true, because the practice of experiment depends on the existence of “hidden or disguised powers of objects” which only become realized as actions or relations under conditions that can be created artificially.  I need to dig deeper to confirm that this argument really works, but it aligns with my intuitions about “what the world must be like for science to be possible”.  However, I am fairly certain that the argument with which Bryant follows this one is wrong.

A second line of argument holds that it is impossible to intelligibly think a world without men because, in the very act of thinking such a world, we are picturing ourselves as present to this world. The thesis here is that every picturing of the world includes ourselves in that picture. However, as Quentin Meillassoux has convincingly argued, such a line of argument leads to the conclusion that the thought of our own death is unintelligible or that we are necessarily immortal. For if it is true that we cannot think the world without thinking our presence to the world, then it follows that even the thought of our own death requires the presence of our thinking, thereby undermining the possibility of dying. As Meillassoux formulates this line of argument, “I can only think of myself as existing, and as existing the way I exist; thus, I cannot but exist, and always exist as I exist now”.

I will not push the point that it is apparently impossible to think the subjective experience of death, because it could still be possible (as it seems to be) to imagine the world after our death.  But I do think that when we imagine this, we must necessarily do it from the perspective of another human subject, if only an assumed one.  If this is true, then it does not, as Bryant seems to think, follow from the conceivability of a world without oneself that it is possible to conceive of a world without any subject at all.  We can think of the state of the world after the extinction of human life, but it seems to me that we can only do so as if from the perspective of, if not necessarily a human, a being with similar sensory apparatus to ours.  This doesn’t mean that Bryant’s conclusion is wrong, but I don’t think an argument from conceivability is the way to get there.


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