Hägglund and Meillassoux on Time

Martin Hägglund’s critique of Meillassoux has come up now and again (for instance here), and I just now listened to his presentation at the 21st Century Materialism conference. (the talk can be downloaded here).

Their main point of contention is their views on time, and I think Hägglund has drawn the shortest straw. He argues that temporal succession is a presupposition of contingency, and I think that he is wrong – Meillassoux cannot, should not, and does not need to invoke temporal succession as an absolute, as a condition of absolute contingency.

Hägglund argues that his temporal logic gives a more plausible account of the emergence of life than Meillassoux’ eruption of the new for no reason. I in fact agree. There is no good reason, as far as I can see, for Meillassoux to invoke absolute contingency as the source of the emergence of life. That seems (I have not read Meillassoux’ actual statements about it) to be a terrible argument. But it is confusing for Hägglund to bring this into the discussion about time and the necessity of succession. For however unfortunate this particular argument from Meillassoux is, one easily sees the advantage of Meillassoux’ conception of time by turning to another example: from the emergence of life to the emergence of the universe.

What Meillassoux gives us is a framework where physical time is a function of physical laws. The physical laws of our universe may be laws that provide us with a time of temporal succession, with an arrow of time, or so on, or they may not. The jury is still out, as far as contemporary physics is concerned. In any case, the absolute time, the “mad time” of Meillassoux, is the time assuring that the physical laws might change for no reason, and physical time with them. And the following should be correct, if I have understood any contemporary physics at all: If the laws of nature as such were to change, not only the present and the future but also the past would change. And it seems possible that the laws of nature might change (of course, Meillassoux claims to have demonstrated that it is absolutely possible). So Meillassoux’ absolute, chaotic time is “not governed by physical laws because it is the laws themselves which are governed by a mad time” (Time without Becoming, p. 10). Hägglund calls this to “posit an instance that has power over time”, and if by time he means physical time then he is of course correct. But that seems quite reasonable to me.

Hägglund’s framework where temporal succession is absolutely necessary, on the other hand, I am not able to make sense of at all. Does Hägglund want us to rule out a priori the possibility that the beginning of the universe was a contingent event that took place outside of temporal succession? Moreover, it is becoming increasingly common for physicists to suggest that our future understanding of the physical universe will not even include space and time in the theory (e.g., Julian Barbour). Must Hägglund say that the physicists are wrong a priori if they claim that irreversible succession has no place in our best theories of the physical universe? Will he not, then, force us into an equally untenable picture as the one upheld by correlationism, where the unaccountable phenomena are not archi-fossils but atemporal or weirdly temporal accounts of the physical universe?

I have not read Radical Atheism, so I do not really know the details of Hägglund’s theory of temporality. But from the talk, it sounds like the temporal succession involved is something like a total ordering of moments. Which I simply cannot bring myself to believe as an a priori principle.

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One Response to Hägglund and Meillassoux on Time

  1. Pingback: What is Time? | Transcissions

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