Meillassoux the neo-Cartesian

The invocation of a chasm between the archifossil-wielding, mathesis-brandishing, fideism-scorching scientistic Meillassoux of Après la finitude and the mourning-stricken, immortality-yearning, justice-hoping messianic Meillassoux of “Spectral Dilemma,” as well as the excerpts from L’Inexistence divine published in Harman’s book, is already somewhat of a trope amongst commentators on his work.

Problems of aligning these two branches of Meillassoux’ output might, I suspect, lead people to trim down or root out the parts that appeal the least to their particular inclinations, or even to commit the whole thing to the flames as overgrown and ludicrous, “speculative” in the worst sense. However, before doing so it is worthwhile to stop and consider whether one has been unable to see the tree for the rustling of the leaves: what if these two Meillassouxs are in fact complimentary and necessary aspects of a philosophy whose roots are neither scientistic nor messianic but rather neo-Cartesian?

The affinity of rationalist Meillassoux with Descartes is evident. But at first glance, the role of God in Descartes’ system – as perfect and necessary being, and a guarantor of the possibility of attaining knowledge – is vastly different from the role of the possible God-to-come in Meillassoux’ system. Meillassoux’ virtual God is neither perfect (it is neither omnipotent nor omniscient in the strict sense), nor is it necessary. And it has nothing to do with the possibility of attaining knowledge. Indeed, this is why it seems so incongruent with the argumentation of Après la finitude.

But I believe that underneath these superficial differences lies a more profound continuity. The role of God – for Descartes as well as for Meillassoux – is to serve as a guarantor for the possibility of realizing our essential human nature (and we can note that this human nature is as non-derivable from the mathematical nature of matter for Meillassoux as it is for Descartes). According to Descartes, our essentially thinking nature is realized in the attainment of knowledge, but the possibility of this realization requires the existence of a perfect and thus non-deceiving God. According to Meillassoux, on the other hand, our essential nature is that of hoping, as “desire crossed by thought” (excerpt from 2003 version of L’Inexistence divine, published in Graham Harman’s Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, p. 191), a hoping which is realized in the attainment of justice (a rather Kantian modulation of the conception of human nature, admittedly). But the possibility of this realization requires an entirely different God: not a necessary, perfect, and non-deceiving God, but an inexisting, powerful but imperfect, and innocent God. (Traditional conceptions of God succumb to the problem of evil, cf. “Spectral Dilemma.”) Thus “divine inexistence fulfills, for the first time, a condition of hope for the resurrection of the dead” (ibid., p. 192).

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Further investigation would, I believe, deepen the affinity by showing how in both Descartes and Meillassoux their conception of God as well as of mathematized matter spring from the absolute starting point attained via thinking – the cogito for Descartes, the principle of absolute contingency for Meillassoux. Confirming this hypothesis would require showing how the absolute starting point in both cases clears a path from God to mathematized matter via mind-body dualism.

In Meillassoux’ case, this implies showing how the characteristics of the virtual God can be derived from the fact of the attainment of a concept of the principle of absolute contingency by a conscious material being. The briefest of sketches: Absolute contingency leads to the necessary mathematizability of matter, as gestured towards in Après la finitude. This demonstration of the quantitative essence of matter evinces the radically contingency of the qualitative essence of a human being capable of consciously grasping the principle of absolute contingency (i.e., mind-matter dualism). And from this qualitative essence we can finally derive our conception of the virtual God.

Similarly, the but from the opposite direction, the conception of God had in thinking leads Descartes to a trustworthy epistemology of clear and distinct perceptions, which is utilized to cognize the distinctness of extended matter and thinking self, thus leading to a conception of mathematical extension as the essence of matter.

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That “further investigation” is something I hope to undertake, in further posts, and hopefully in an article to come at some point in the future. Then there’s also the question of assessing the neo-Cartesian approach…. For now, it’s good to be back!

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