In his 2006’s book, After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux, a French Philosopher, proposed a position called Speculative Materialism (SM), a position that later is highly appreciated, despite the criticism, by many both continental and analytic thinkers, including Graham Harman (Harman, 2011a, 2011b), owing to the tenability of the account to develop. What makes this position unique is not its central tenet that an independence world is possible and cogent; realism is utterly ubiquitous in modern philosophy; rather, apart from its vivid display of arguments, it is its endorsement of the principle of unreason and hyper-chaos by abjuring principle of sufficient reason, and elucidation of a dilemma called ancestrality or arche-fossil that immensely figure in its popularity. While the former works to show that an independent but significant realm is not only possible but also fundamental and chaotic, the latter demonstrates that either/or option, namely either upholding their position or making science unreliable, is the only possibility that non-SM has. Meillssoux’s claims were novel and controversial at its birth, and that is the reason Meillassoux grew to be one of the new potential fields of research of many philosophy practitioners.
Today, more than ten years have passed since the publication of After Finitude, and numerous responses have been published. A vital question should be asked, particularly for SM’s advocates or anyone who is planning on studying SM intensively: Are the notions proposed by Quentin Meillassoux, notably hyper-chaos and ancestrality, still defensible? This question is essential since, by answering this question, not only potential readers can grasp the current condition of Meillassoux potency, but also how worth is SM to carry on. To answer this question, two responses written by Wiltsche (Wiltsche, 2017) and Ardoline (Ardoline, 2018) are recommended and worth considering. Compared to other responses towards Speculative Realism, those works are two of many analyses that successfully pointed out the very internal problems of the foundation of two notions of Speculative Realism mentioned. Therefore, without undermining the significance of other strong criticism, such as in works of Livingston (Livingston, 2013) and responses collected in The Speculative Turn (2011), the future of Speculative Realism relies much on whether Meillassoux and the advocates can exonerate themselves from the objections of Wiltsche and Ardoline.
Let’s start from Wiltsche’s critique toward the dilemma of ancestrality. Ancestrality is a semantic-like problem that consists of statements that indicate a time before the existence of humankind, such as a statement about a fact taking place in Jurassic Time or the Big Bang era. It aims to uncover the disadvantage of correlationism, or any idealist philosophy, that puts mind or subject significant in casting not only our understanding of the world but the world itself. Phenomenology and empiricism are examples of correlationism. For them, everything that is not mediated by the element of the subject, ranging from consciousness to sense, is groundless. However, different from idealists, a correlationist does not say that the mind creates the world and nothing outside the subject; instead, it says that we cannot say anything about something outside the mind, as well as the existence or inexistence.
Consequently, for a correlationist, a statement that says, “the big bang happened 13,8 billion years ago” should be assumptively read, “the big bang happened 13,8 billion years ago (for us).” The appendage “for us” is vital since it protects them from being critical to naïve realism without falling to idealism. Although they decline any bold statement of the reference, they still think that, by means of adumbration and counterfactual statements, the scientific descriptions are still valid, as those philosophical stances see the validity of a putative and unobservable entity, such as black hole and quark.
That being said, for Meillassoux, that is precisely the problem of correlationism. The real meaning of arche-fossil is straightforward that an event happened at the time mentioned and not otherwise. Adumbration and counterfactual statements cannot work here since those measures need a perspective that takes place at the time mentioned to be possible. Still, that very perspective is what is ruled out by the transcendental condition posited by correlationist. Therefore, correlationist only has two options left, a dilemma, leaving their correlationism and grasp the real meaning of arche-fossil or keeping their correlationism intact and assume that scientific description is reference-less, and, thus, has no sense. This attack is pretty strong, and without closer examination, correlationist prefer to choose the second choice (e.g., Polimpung, 2017). Together with hyperchaos, this strategy becomes the principal elements making up SM.
Wiltsche, nevertheless, sees a problem in Meillassoux’s objection of the counterfactual statement. This is because scientists do not need to be instantiated in a specific past to make a counterfactual statement about arche-fossil. They only need to be instantiated within a particular location to track the information that is delivered through light, and since distance in a location has never been an issue for correlationist, correlationist does not need to fall in consequence of the dilemma of ancestrality. With this basic fact of physics, that a physicist can track any fact regarding the past as long as they have a proper location, the only arche-fossil that cannot be counterfactualized in terms of transcendental constraint upheld by correlationism is the arche-fossil before the universe itself, which, scientifically and conceptually speaking, is implausible. Arche-fossil then becomes futile before this understanding since the only not “for us” in this case is the realm outside the sphere of scientific investigation. In light of this, correlationism does not face any aporia with arche-fossil, and if correlationism does not get into trouble, how SM can defend themselves?
Meanwhile, different from arche-fossil objection, hyperchaos has long been accepted problematic and unintuitive. Although some thinker problematizes this notion, such as Hallward (2011) and Johnston(2011), they do not specify the actual consequence of hyperchaos and Meillassoux realism. Ardoline carried out the role by imagining what might happen to independent facts found by science if hyperchaos accepted. Therefore, it is a little bit different from the Wiltsche critique that is reasonably internal.
Hyperchaos is a condition arising out of the ontological radicalization of Hume’s problem of induction. Hume itself never made it into an ontological question. For Hume, the universal nature of causation and laws statement is problematic for what we know is logic and experience. In contrast, those tools, in addition to not being capable in ascertaining the universality and stability of law, also do not prohibit an unexpected and unreasonable change. Hume argues that the safest claim to be made of strength is constant conjunction, and rather than conceiving law statement as real, understanding that it is a tool for grasping reality is a better option. While Hume stops there (in the epistemological claim), Meillassoux sees that ontologically the safest claim to be made of stability is that, as long as it is noncontradiction, no reason is possible to appoint any necessity except the virtuality of the world to change, contingency. It leads Meillassoux to reject the principle of sufficient reason.
Ardoline, nevertheless, does not problematize the Meillassoux’s maneuver in replacing the principle of reason with unreason. The problem, the way Ardoline sees it, is in the effect of hyperchaos itself and its relation with arche-fossil. If the world has a capability of changing, there are then three possibilities, which is not desirable for scientific practice: 1) the change alters the future but not the past, 2) the change alters the past along with the future, and 3) the same as 2 but scientists understanding of the past does not change. While the first one leaves the scientist with an inaccurate description of the past, the second with an undiscoverable past, the third face puts scientists with two incomparable past. Whatever possibility that happens, commitment to hyperchaos impinges on SM’s dependence on ancestrality to prove the existence of the mind-independence world. Therefore, this critique shows that not only scientific practice might be more uncomfortable, which is practical, but also makes the reliability of scientific descriptions questionable. If the dependable statement of the past is doubtful, how SM can rely on that the arche-fossil?
The argument above shows two things. First, SM needs a new argument against the critique of Wiltsche. Without that, SM might not find any practical realm that can be claimed independence. It is different from unobservable entities that are usually argued by normal scientific realism, for Speculative Materialism, quarks, is within the scope of correlationism. Indeed, that is the reason Meillassoux chooses unobservability in time distance so that it could avoid a long debate in the discussion regarding independence. Without that realm, the independence of the arche fossil cannot provide a dilemma to correlationism. Second, SM needs to argue that even though the world might change because of its virtual power, it will still have the past that can be referred. It is crucial since if it is not, there is a possibility that the hyperchaos eliminates the real past and, with its power, makes a world as if it has existed for billion years. This image of the past is similar to a doctrine that sometimes God tests their followers by showing the world that is not suitable to the Bible. Meillassoux may neglect this possibility as ridicule, yet because the past, again, plays a significant role in Meillassoux’s notion of independence, he should vindicate his assumption of the past as not only independence but also real.
Against that background, are SM still tenable? If SM still proceeds its old way, the answer is not so much. To invigorate its position, SM needs to inoculate its project with the question of the past. Therefore, the question is: “how hyperchaos, despite its power, not to change the past.” Because only in that realm, the SM can differentiate themselves from other forms of realism and find their independence. Another question that needs to be asked is the formulation of ancestrality. SM should open a new room in which scientific description can refer to but outside the scope of correlationism perspective. Admittedly, this quest is demanding because the reliance on time is arguably the last dimension that SM can exploit to make this position immune to the circle of correlationism.
However, although ancestrality seems not too promising, the principle of unreason appears untouched. The objection mentioned above is about its tenability to the past and not about the plausibility nor its independence. Even if ancestrality is wrong, SM can still be recognized because it radicalizes the Humean problem. Why a thing needs to be stable and not otherwise is the primary reason for which SM is still worth to discuss, despite its strangeness, and the challenge of many causal trope realist that believes that what glues the world is causal property.
Ardoline, M. J. (2018). What Laws? Which Past?: Meillassoux’s Hyper-Chaos and the Epistemological Limitations of Retro-Causation. Open Philosophy, 1(1), 235–244.
Hallward, P. (2011). Anything is Possible: A Reading of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude. In B. Levi, S. Nick, & G. Harman (Eds.), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (pp. 130–141).
Harman, G. (2011a). Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making. Edinburgh University Press.
Harman, G. (2011b). The speculative turn: Continental materialism and realism. re. press.
Johnston, A. (2011). Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux? In B. Levi, S. Nick, & G. Harman (Eds.), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (pp. 92–113).
Livingston, P. (2013). Realism and the Infinite. Speculations, iv, 99–107.
Wiltsche, H. A. (2017). Science, Realism, and Correlationism. A Phenomenological Critique of Meillassoux’Argument from Ancestrality. European Journal of Philosophy, 25(3), 808–832.