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Saturday, 12 May 2012

Dismantling absolute contingency

I´ve been wondering about whether we can formulate something about contingency along the lines of a principle of irreduction: aucune chose n´est par elle-même contingent ou necessaire. The principle asserts that necessity is always contingent on underlying fixed things: something is physically necessary (or contingent) given the fixed laws of nature, something is deontically contingent - allowed - or necessary - mandatory - given the fixed ethical rules (or laws of the land). Finally, something is logically necessary (or necessary simpliciter) given a fixed logic. The irreducible diversity of ethical rules, the absence of eternal laws of nature and the plurality of logical systems, if accepted, makes necessity relative to those parameters. An aggiornamento of Heraclitus would have that nothing is necessary comes what may. Surely, of couse, if there is no absolute necessity, there is no absolute contingency. We can then say that in a broader, more abstract level, things are up for grabs. But this is just a starting point. Following the analogy with Latour´s irreductibility, one can make something necessary (or contingent) - or mandatory, or allowable, or physically necessary etc - but one then has to pay the price of holding them or letting them loose (in analogy with Latour´s cost of transport). Latour also says (Irréductions, le principe de réalité, c´est les autres, what in his mouth means anything else in the world and we can say: the principle of necessity,
it´s the others. Something is holding something else necessary (or contingent). This is a starting point because then we can ask whether we should assume that whatever makes something necessary is going to be fixed for all the temporal and modal variations that we are concerned. It looks like a decision.

Of course it could be a decision imposed to us. What would impose it to us? Quine´s sphere in the end of the Two Dogmas has a geography of what is to be held fixed imposed by pragmatic considerations. From the metaphysical point of view (and not the correlationist point of view, viz. typically the Kantian point of view that would take impositions from a transcendental structture in the subject - or simply from the way we go on, as Jonathan Lear once put) the imposition has to come from the world. But how can that be?

Meillassoux defends the necessity of contingency. Towards the end of chapter 3 of After Finitude (around page 78 of the English translation) he considers the plurality of logics. He concentrates on paraconsistent logics and tries to make sure that there is a sense of consistency that is preserved in those systems. He wants to make sure that the principle of non-contradiction, associated with his principle of facticity or unreason, is not restricted to classical systems. He goes on talking about real contradictions as opposed to contradictions within the system. Surely, one can make sense of all this by having in mind that paraconsistent logic (or most non-classical logical systems) are importantly dependent on classical logic - classical is the metalogic in which those systems are presented and investigated. However, from the metaphysical or speculative point of view (as opposed now to the merely logical point of view) what could a real contradiction be? Maybe the idea is that there could be contradictions in the world independently of any logical system. It is a bizarre idea. Logics are there to capture general metaphysical structures about how things are. Maybe then he means that we should pick classical logic as the logic of reality. That makes more sense. But then, of course, given all the alternatives - including a conception of reality that preserves a neutrality with respect to the different logics (Kit Fine has studied these alternatives considering perspectives and tense) - one
would need an argument for that. Otherwise, absolute contingency would have to go. But, again, this is just a starting point.


  1. I fully agree with you that the absolutisation of any predicate such as contingency is a covert way of postulating a theory-independent transcendence. In Quine's "seamless web" what is contingent or necessary is a pragmatic and revisable decision (though I would argue - in line with Heidegger, but also with Kuhn and Feyerabend that there is not just one seamless web, but many). Hasty readers criticise this idea of "decision" as voluntaristic idealism, but for Quine (as for the other philosophers I cited) the "subject" does not exist as a unified autonomous fundamental element, so it is a question of a "decision without a deciding subject", what you call a "decision imposed on us".
    My thesis for a long time has been that the the so-called "ontological turn" is often bogus: bad epistemology masking as pseudo-ontology. Your reflections on Meillassoux confirm this point: he is lamentably ignorant of much of recent epistemology and philosophy of science, his vision of the history of philosophy is lacunary, to say the least.
    The problem of the plurality of logics seems to me to be rather an example of the problem of incommensurable leaps in general. Just as quantum theory is obliged to retain and make use of classical language despite denying its ontological presuppositions, paraconsistent logics could be obliged to retain classical logic for pragmatic reasons in many but not necessarily all circumstances. The conformity of our informal meta-language to the ontological presuppositions of our object-language does not seem to me to be an essential pre-requisite, as natural language is notoriously fuzzy in its ontological commitments, which is a good thing as it allows discussion and theory-change despite the formal semantic obstacles that would seem to preclude it.

  2. I agree with you that in a seamless web (and there are many of them) a decision is diffuse, elusive and without a deciding subject. I don´t go all the way to say the ontological turn in bogus. I think there is room for speculation. One can wonder, for example, how different schemes for the world (seamless webs, logics, perspectives) co-exist in something like what
    Souriau called "surexistence" and Kit Fine "überreality". Speculation elucidates how we can think modally without absolute contingency (or necessity).

  3. I have no objection to ontology, but only to certain loud but inane proclamations of "ontology beyond epistemology". What you say about Kit Fine is very interesting and seems convergent with what the late Feyerabend had to say in favour of a realism that would be compatible with pluralism. Do you know Ian Kidd's work? (see in particular:
    I too am interested in the question of how different seamless webs co-exist in "uberreality". If you have any advice on where to begin with Kit Fine I would be very grateful.

  4. Thanks for the pointer to Ian James Kidd. I recommend a paper by Kit Fine called "Tense and Reality" in his collected papers Modality and Tense. It is not hard to find online. There he considers A-ist alternatives to McTaggart´s paradox and introduces the notion of an überreality as part of an attempt
    to make sure that we keep a notion of reality that is neutral
    with respect to the many perspectives.

  5. Thanks, found it. It is here if anyone else is interested:

  6. I approach the notion of absolute contingency from a wholly different perspective, that of exploring what emerges by using the union of complementary opposites notion of Heraclitus, Leibniz, Bohr, et al. But even worse, I use a kook book-style, ala Northrop Frye. That said, perhaps you and/or some of your fans might be entertained and even thoughtfully provoked by what is found via Maybe.

    Regards, Yale