Speculative realism’s crisis is artificial

Commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Dance and Circus (DOCH) on 19 May 2011, #6, Stockholm, Sweden. The video is here.

Mackay’s lecture is a mindboggling attempt to separate out strands of human consciousness into objective and subjective states of thinking and being which I ultimately reject, but which nevertheless engages me deeply on several levels, including the notion of truth, objectivity, nihilism and deviance.

A disclaimer of sorts

So that I don’t have to perpetually qualify my subjectivity, I come to this lecture with strong Enlightenment views on rationality, and equally strong atheist existentialist views along Sartrean lines, but influenced a little more than he by a Germanic stream of philosophy he may have rejected simply because his work was adjacent to the brutality of WWII and a universal antipathy to all things Germanic at that time.

In particular, I have some sympathy for the melodramatic romanticism of Martin Heidegger’s conception of ‘being in the world’ or ‘das Dasein’, with its heroic posture of projecting our essences forward in time to literally manufacture the future today. I also regard Nietzsche’s intimations about the imposition of the will onto the physical universe as foundational to my thinking about essence; again, this conception is clouded today by its somewhat unfair and not inevitable association with the Nazis.

Mackay’s introduction and scientific nihilism

The more I listened to Mackay, the more I was struck, personally, by the most immediate connection between particle physics and quantum mechanics in the sciences, and the aesthetic, philosophical attempt to grapple with an unknowable physical universe, or rather, a physical universe not mediated by human understanding — an endeavour that bedazzles my mind, in a way analogous to Mackay’s descriptions of how speculative realism attempts to grapple with the same concept.

To make this a little less abstract, consider relatively recent findings that not only is the external macro-universe moving apart in all directions at an increasing rate, but also the very same thing is happening at the quantum level, with sub-atomic particles — the micro-universe — gradually losing their bindings and moving further and further apart. An Entropic principle that suggests the, to us, absurd notion of all matter eventually ceasing to have the corporeal forms we take for granted and being ‘dissolved’ or ‘disaggregated’ into a kind of dispersed ‘vapour’ of particles with less and less energy to cause the motion that creates any form at all.
If that is not nihilism realised in its most absolute form, what else could it possibly be! And in that absolute form, it is the end of space time, and therefore the limit at which human reasoning has any relevance.

The concept of a reality not perceived by us as something external to us is also a preoccupation in particle physics, with different hypotheses proposing that parts of the universe are not governed by the same rules of space time as those that allow us to perceive what we perceive, and which are therefore completely impenetrable to us. Opaque is not quite sufficient description, because that suggests only a cognitive barrier rather than the complete impossibility of apprehending things at all if they do not exist in space time, or, more specifically, the Einsteinian, Hawkingian, Penrosian space time we can actually comprehend (sort of).

In that conception of the universe, an almost aesthetic consideration is the anthropic principle, discussed in Hawking’s seminal A Brief History of Time:

There are two versions of the anthropic principle, the weak and the strong. The weak anthropic principle states that in a universe that is large or infinite in space and/or time, the conditions necessary for the development of intelligent life will be met only in certain regions that are limited in space and time. The intelligent beings in these regions should therefore not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence. It is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty.

One example of the use of the weak anthropic principle is to “explain” why the big bang occurred about ten thousand million years ago – it takes about that long for intelligent beings to evolve. As explained above, an early generation of stars first had to form. These stars converted some of the original hydrogen and helium into elements like carbon and oxygen, out of which we are made. The stars then exploded as supernovas, and their debris went to form other stars and planets, among them those of our Solar System, which is about five thousand million years old. The first one or two thousand million years of the earth’s existence were too hot for the development of anything complicated. The remaining three thousand million years or so have been taken up by the slow process of biological evolution, which has led from the simplest organisms to beings who are capable of measuring time back to the big bang.

Few people would quarrel with the validity or utility of the weak anthropic principle. Some, however, go much further and propose a strong version of the principle. According to this theory, there are either many different universes or many different regions of a single universe, each with its own initial configuration and, perhaps, with its own set of laws of science. In most of these universes the conditions would not be right for the development of complicated organisms; only in the few universes that are like ours would intelligent beings develop and ask the question, “Why is the universe the way we see it?” The answer is then simple: if it had been different, we would not be here!

Hawking, Stephen, (1988). A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. London: Bantam, pp 130-131.

That passage addresses at least two concerns expressed by Mackay. First, the supernova four billion years ago may not tell us about our purpose now, but might be seen as being part of an evolution without which we could not have been. So the supernova’s purpose was to generate some more complex matter than helium and hydrogen, which could then go on to form another star, whose eventual explosion would generate even more complex elements. The end product, or purpose, might be seen as us — organic, sentient, reasoning life contemplating itself, the universe, and the hypotheses about which you are now reading.

The second point is that the intelligible universe can be seen to have developed as it did precisely so that the conditions for our existence became possible, not as a conscious process, but as one of probability and inevitability, the way quarks and even smaller particles appear to exist and not exist, at the same time as existing in one place in space time, or maybe two places, at the same instant. An impossible notion under rules of conventional experience or logic, but no longer really a strange proposition.

The consequence for speculative realism is the contemplation of a conscious universe reflecting on itself. The act of human cogito ergo sum is in fact the universe recognising itself in that cogito.

For me, this conception somewhat banishes the alienation of human consciousness from things it cannot comprehend, because it seems to me the incomprehensible is only a postponement of recognition or comprehension, not an absolute barrier, and it also appears that the notion of a material reality outside the conscience of the universe is absurd, even if that implies human consciousness is only one part of the universe’s self-awareness (the implication that there are other points of organic self-awareness elsewhere in the universe).

Nihilism fits into this conception only as another stage or aspect in an overall structuralist contemplation of materialist physics, such as the supernova event.

Manifest image as artificial problem

So, in my conception of the universe, using the ‘instrumentality’ of science (labelled thus by Mackay paraphrasing Adorno), I nevertheless see the distinction between the natural sense of myself that Mackay refers to as manifest image, the attempt by philosophy to attain ‘truth’, and the attempt by science to explain the mechanics, as an artificial distinction. I see the essence of being human precisely as the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory concepts such as a naïve ‘natural’ perception of being, an abstract regard for my own thinking, and a taxonomic, morphological venture to explain the mechanical functioning of things.

My premise here is that after the recognition of myself as a conscious being, and the realisation of the absence of deterministic causality for human purposes (atheism and scepticism about all secular faiths), I recognise the freedom to not act and become objectified as someone else’s lever to move, or to impose my own will on the universe, by acting for my own purposes in the world around me. The Nietzschean will imposed on the universe.

It is at that point that I can choose to accept the crisis that Mackay suggests seeks expression in speculative realism, or I can choose to reject crisis and absorb the apparently contradictory streams of contextualising the universe as parts of a whole, or elements of a synthesis. This is what I choose to do.

In relation to this choice, I was amused by Mackay’s anecdote of questioning particle physicists and cosmologist to find out what impact their work had on their daily lives, and being told ‘none’. I don’t feel about my limited scientific knowledge that way at all. I’m not paralysed by it every time I want to open my fridge to get some food, etc, but my appreciation of interconnected ideas and disciplines may allow me to contemplate the aesthetic idea of, for example, a fridge made of Slate tiles held together by an electromagnetic field, an idea of no intrinsic value other than the exercise of speculation and contemplation in itself. My thesis on this apparently useless speculation is that it nevertheless exercises faculty for abstract thought that may be of use to me in diverse endeavours, such as writing fiction, appreciating art and architecture, or even seducing a woman. All I need in order to make use of apparently contradictory, conflicting ideas is to exercise my imagination, free of the angst about alienation that Mackay proposes as foundational to speculative realism.

Truth, instrumentality, and nihilism

Although it appears obvious to me how I rejected the concept of truth, and incorporated the ideas of instrumentality and nihilism in my approach already, it may not be so obvious to a reader, and Mackay mentions these concepts repeatedly enough to warrant revisiting them.

Specifically, Mackay refers to philosophy as a search for ‘truth’ as something separate from, and alienating to, a conception of self through the manifest image. Arriving at that proposition from an egocentric, atheist existentialism, my response is that once I have rejected the absolute, immutable, objective and deterministic notion of god, those concepts of absolutism, immutability, and necessary determinism are also banished. There remain no a priori reasons, purposes or commandments. Everything becomes a negotiable feature of self-in-social-circumstance (the Heideggerian ‘Dasein’). The corollary is that all social constructs, including democracy, capitalism, law, and ideologies (theological and secular) become no more than instruments; they are not some purpose or higher goal in themselves. They are contrivances or tools to serve me and my social compatriots, not the other way around.

In that way, I may feel alienated by a degree of powerlessness to change these instruments when I feel they don’t serve me as they should, but that alienation is merely a decision not to act towards a change. It is not a barrier, even if the stakes are high and could demand the risk of my life, limb, and property. I’m not saying that inaction cannot be an authentic choice, just that there is no necessity for the alienation and angst described by Mackay.

Moving on to scientific ‘truth’, it may be that scientific instrumentality demands absolute logical propositions, but that absoluteness is always mediated by the nature of the scientific instrumentality, or artifice, or methodology (I use these words interchangeably because I am aiming for an intersection between all three), which is always that it aims at hypothesis, which is infinitely open to question, and ‘true’ only so long as it is not disproven. To the extent that there is always a chance of disproof, there is no absolute truth or certainty in science any more than there is in any humanly manufactured determinism.

Mackay presents the idea of nihilism as an almost romantic ideal. The psychology of sacrificing something of self in order to preserve the remainder. I regard that as an authentic choice, even if its practice, in the case of schizophrenics, anarchists, vandals, and some others, is regarded as deviant in the context of ‘otherness’. My own preference, though, is to look on nihilism as entirely contextual. There is a degree of nihilism required to, say, strip down an engine to rebuild it, or to re-engineer a work-flow or manufacturing process. I see this context of nihilism as essentially creative, not destructive.

The problem with that conception is an ethical and aesthetic one. If I can argue thus for engines and processes, what about nuclear holocaust? And lo, I can! The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Shoahs become transformed by that logic as the inception of a new beginning, cleansed of Imperial Japanese military will. It is nevertheless neither beyond human will, nor to be accounted for beyond human judgement; there is no higher authority to which to appeal. It is a choice with all the terrible consequences and awful struggle with conscience that comes with choosing.


Speculative realism is a fatalistic, aesthetic exploration that may well have brilliant application in artistic endeavours, but only passing relevance to me as a creature of eclectic tastes and capabilities.

I cannot take its deterministic compartmentalisation of what is, and what is not, naturally human seriously, but I can’t quite reject its premises because these are actually questions I do ask myself to reach my syntheses every time I feel compelled to reformulate a judgement or opinion.

A passing aside

All other things aside, I was taken with Mackay’s description of nihilism as a black leather jacket transformed into boring middle aged men writing about Nietzsche. Ecce homo. From British proto- punk to middle-aged colonial blatherer! I hope this isn’t the kind of inevitable end product of contemplating the abyss and thereby arriving at the bloated, ageing, and atrophying product of annihilated idealism and youth that looks back at me when I stare into the mirror (the real abyss).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.