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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Being up for grabs – On the elusive nature of contingency

This is what I´ll be presenting in Beirut, AUB

Up for grabs

When Hume exorcised necessary connections from the prevalent images of the world, the message most people drew was that there would no longer be any business for metaphysics. What is left for metaphysics if nothing is necessary? Indeed, Kant´s response was that the whole idea of metaphysics would need a complete revamp. If we cannot find necessary connections in the world, we ought to look for them someplace else. But another avenue was laid open by Hume´s attacks on (physical and metaphysical) necessity. How would the world be, goes this alternative avenue, if there is no necessary connections between any of each elements? And, further, how would the world be if there is no necessity keeping each element what it is - that is, no necessity holding together a substance while its attributes change over time or over different possible worlds? The absence of necessary connection opens up a whole different class of questions to be addressed. They keep metaphysics alive.

If an element is not connected to any other by a necessary link, and it is not preserved by necessity of any change, it is in a state of thorough availability. It is entirely at the other element´s disposal. Maybe some of these elements are disposed towards something – maybe they carry dispositions. But if there is no necessary connections, those dispositions are themselves open to change – they are themselves at the world´s disposal. Nothing ties necessarily anything to its (current, actual) dispositions. Being at the world´s disposal is a condition worth of (metaphysical) attention. Being available is to relate only externally to the rest of the world – and, it seems, there is nothing to be known a priori or to be stated analytically about what is available. In fact, being available is to respond to no plan, to no design, to no pre-established order of things. It is to be up for grabs.

Being at the world disposal – or being up for grabs – is therefore to be left to the world´s devices. It is clearly not to be autonomous as there is no internal relation (no relation carrying any type of necessity) keeping anything distinct from anything else. To be sure, there are powerful external relations that keep things at bay (or rather, at a certain bay). Regularities could be the product of alliances – in the sense of some sort of external relations – between different elements of the world. But without necessary connections, whatever keeps something at bay is ultimately up for grabs. Things left available may look as if they were forsaken, they were placed there for no reason and abandoned in the world – this is the idea behind Heidegger´s Verlassenheit. To be left unsecured, like something that was thrown away and has nothing holding it. It is being in the Offene – the Open – that Rilke often refers to in his poems. Nothing is specially protected from anything else as things are open to interventions coming from all parts. Nothing is specially secured or protected – there are no ontological locks safeguarding principles, or substances, or priorities. A consequence of the Open is that there is no fixed priorities – for instance, no priority of the substances over the attributes, no priority of the whole over its parts. It is what is labeled by Jonathan Schaffer a priority nihilism: nothing is (metaphysically) prior and therefore nothing has an inborn upper hand. It is also something akin to what Manuel DeLanda calls a flat ontology: the elements of the world differ in spacio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. The absence of necessary connection leads to an open world where no priorities and no difference in ontological status shape a structured landscape. The open world is a world that weaves itself.

This state of openness invokes an idea of dependence. If something is at the rest of the world´s disposal, it is in a sense abandoned in the world lacking any security but also it is at the rest of the world´s hands. It is open to the rest of the world – thrown there. It is contingent. The metaphysics that could be inaugurated by Hume´s rejection of necessary connections is the metaphysics of contingency. It is a contemporary endeavor, and a difficult one. When something is contingent – out in the open – it is under some dependence on whatever else happens. It is up for grabs. We also say something is contingent on something else. Whatever is necessary is in a sense autonomous, it is independent and notice that it is in this sense that we say that something is mind (or language, or thought)-dependent. There is a gradation here: if something is merely mind-independent it is not contingent on the workings of the mind (for instance not contingent on conceptual articulations) while being possibly contingent on something else (a storm is contingent on the movement of the clouds etc.). If something is not contingent on anything (take your pick of necessary items, substances, natural laws, or some logical principles) then it is independent of everything. It is necessary. In a metaphysics freed of necessary connections, everything is contingent on something. It is therefore contingent because it is not independent of anything else, because it is left open to risk. Left where? Left to the world´s devices where everything else is left. There is a space where all elements are left to be contingent (on each other). The spatio-temporal scale of a flat ontology which appeals to a surface where everything is: a flat surface. This is the space of contingency. Whatever there is, it is in this surface where things are exposed to each other. It is a space where whatever there is gets instantiated – being outside this plane is to be outside the realm of what is contingent (on something else).

This space is related to several interesting concepts in the metaphysics of contingency. It is like the plan d´égalité crafted by Tristan Garcia to place the n´importe quoi that is somehow present in all things. This plan is the surface where all things are in the same footing. It is related to the plan d´immanence conceived by Deleuze and Guattari as the plane where all plans (all organizations) meet each other, where contact is unavoidable and leaves its marks. The plan is space where every project is implemented – it is like a street, you have to go through it in order to get anything done. In the plan, things are in open air, they are exposed to the elements. The space of contingency is the place where contact takes place and this is how contingency has to do with dependence: what is contingent depends on what else is there in the space. The space is also some sort of crossroad where things meet up. In Souriau´s existential pluralism, there are different modes of existence that have their own way to exist (things exist as things, phenomena exist as phenomena etc.). But these different modes meet in a crossroad of existences that he calls surexistence. This is where they affect each other. This is the space where elements of the world bump into each other and while doing that they create a niche of contingencies, a network of external relations. The different contingent elements of the world co-exist in this space – in this surface of dependence. The place where things stand up for grabs.

Three contemporary takes on contingency

I will now examine the notion of contingency by considering three contemporary ways to make sense of it. These three ways are not often thought as compatible with each other and yet they capture elements of what contingency is supposed to be. Further, their drawbacks point at the elusive nature of contingency – how it is not easily understood under simpler or more manageable notions.

The first of these ways of considering it comes from the so-called philosophy of process. The idea can be understood as an exploration of the possibilities that open up when we turn the monadology of Leibniz inside out. Leibniz´s monads were tied together by internal relations and there was nothing but necessary connections between the infinite substances. There was no area of the world freed from the expression of monads and, in order to express itself, a monad always interferes in the jurisdiction of another monad. Whatever takes place is a product of the interactions between monads – even though these interactions are pre-established in built-in in each monad once they relate only internally to the rest of the world. Gabriel Tarde replaced those internal relations between monads by social ties articulated around the intentional (built-in) structure of each monad. Whitehead replaced substances by actual entities by exorcising the idea that, say, some features of a monad are permanently connected to it. These actual entities are not either destined or disposed to last over time. There are no substances that remain while their attributes change but rather actual entities that in interaction with their contemporaries become something else. In all those cases, whatever there is in the world comes exclusively from those infinitely many entities – substances in internal relations in the case of Leibniz, actual entities up for grabs by their contemporaries in the case of Whitehead. The space where these entities become something else is related to what Whitehead calls the extensive continuum. The continuum is how the rest of the world appears to an actual entity – what in Leibniz refers as the confused representation of most of the world by each monad. It is a perceived, subjective space but it is common to all actual entities that see this space as a continuum of what is up for grabs for each of them. The extensive continuum is the perceived solidarity between all things. All things are there up for grab and, in this case even more literally, each entity can grab something through acts of prehension. A prehension is not a relation (clearly it is not an internal relation) but it is how an actual entity establishes a bit of the world as something-for-it. Each actual entity is capable of acts of prehension that take bits of the continuum as elements for interaction. The actual entity then interacts with these bits: a bit becomes food-for-a-tick, another one becomes a bed-for-a-river etc. Processes of interaction produce all that there is, but these processes depend crucially on contact, on what is closer and happens to be available. Whatever is at the world disposal is an ingredient for a process of composing something else. Being contingent on the world, it seems, involves some sort of dependence towards whatever takes place in the space of contingencies.

I think that an important notion for a process philosophy is the one Souriau called instauration. Nothing can come about without being instituted by something else and, further, instaurer is never a single act, nothing is instauré once and for all. I like translating this concept as sponsoring. Everything needs a sponsor, not only to start out but also to carry on. Without sponsors, anything ceases to exist. So we say that a river needs the sponsoring of its banks, of its bed, of its flora, of the oxygen in the planet, etc and indirectly of all the other agents in the world. In process philosophy, to say that there are no necessary connections means to say that nothing is sponsored by no sponsor. That is, nothing holds unless something is making sure it is held. Latour understands sponsoring in terms of networks of agents (and actants) and alliances. Alliances are constantly tested for strength and there is no way to establish whether an entity is going to remain an entity after the tests or it is going to prove to be a network (of further entities). Latour also introduces an interesting element to think about contingency: his principle of irreduction. It states that nothing is in itself reducible or irreducible to anything else. Everything, therefore, stands hanging in a space where nothing is in itself tied or untied to anything else. Reduction (or irreduction) of A to B has to be done by a process, the cost of transport between A and B, Latour says, has to be covered. Exorcising reduction (and irreduction) is a way to go about a world without necessary connections – nothing boils down to anything necessarily, if a reduction is available, it is provided (or sponsored) by something else. All reductions (and irreductions) are contingent on something.

My own variety of process philosophy is what I call ontology of fragments (or of compositions). The idea is that there are entities in the world – they could be called monads – that harbor three different modes of existence: they exist as fragments for composition, they exist as compositions themselves and they exist as composers. There are no ultimate fragments that compose the world; something is a fragment because it is treated as a fragment. It is, therefore, a gunky ontology, in the terms of Schaffer: everything has parts. But notice that it is also a junky ontology: everything is a part. There is no whole that encompasses everything and we deal with no more than assemblages (or hunks). As compositions, everything can be dismantled and recomposed as soon as the sponsors change their ways. The compositions are composed by alliances of sponsors that keep these compositions together. These compositions – which are also fragments – have also a capacity to sponsor, they are composers. Composition introduces an element of perspective: things are seen as available to a composer and, of course, a fragment can be part of different compositions by different composers. This multiplicity of perspectives is not pre-established and therefore the reality of a fragment – or a composition – cannot be independent of these perspectives. Kit Fine, in an interesting work on tense and reality, introduced the idea of über-reality. It is thought as not relative to any perspective but, at the same time, as not coherent. The reality of fragments (and compositions, and composers) is a über-reality. The notion is also related to the space of contingencies: there is nothing there but pure availability to the different composers that by holding a perspective sponsor something. Composers therefore introduce something in the world – there are no ready-made compositions, any composition refers to a composer. In general, process philosophy thinks of contingency in terms of being available to be treated as something by something else. In other words, contingency is dependence: nothing is independent of anything else.

The second contemporary way to make sense of contingency is the idea of unreason or absence of sufficient reason. Meillassoux, a defender of the principle of unreason that he also labels the principle of facticity, diagnoses that philosophy has been trapped by the idea that there is no way out of the correlation between a subject and the world. Correlationism is the idea that we cannot access anything beyond such correlation (in its strongest forms, there is no way to think beyond such correlation). He also starts out from Hume´s criticisms of necessary connections to advocate that a world without them is a world devoid of any form of sufficient reason for anything. Kant´s reaction to Hume – that he understands as a Ptolemaic counterrevolution rather than a Copernican revolution – was to recoil to an environment of correlations. These correlations display a primacy over anything else we can access – and therefore taint every access – and a facticity as they are present simply as a matter of fact answering to no necessity. Meillassoux tries to learn the Humean lesson that there are no necessary connections while being aware of the attractions of correlationism. There should be a way, he reckons, to avoid correlationism while doing justice to its basic tenets – in particular that correlations enjoy a facticity. On this basis, he rejects what he understands as instances of a metaphysics of subjectivity that take correlations as part of the necessary furniture of the world. He thinks process philosophy betrays contingency by making correlation (and subjectivity) absolute – and therefore allowing in some sort of necessary connection. The structure of the correlation is necessarily present in any entity. The charge is that subjectivity is made absolute – and correlations are therefore no longer factual. So if everything is something for something, to be is to be in a correlation. The metaphysics of subjectivity – for example in the form of process philosophy – carries a too heavy necessity baggage (maybe we can say it carries a too heavy necessaire). Meillassoux proposes rather that we take facticity itself as being absolute – including the facticity of the correlation. Everything is necessarily up for grabs. Then, the only necessity is the necessity of contingency. The lack of necessity of all things is the absolute one needs to get a metaphysics of contingency off the ground. It is also a principle reason can defend, the principle of insufficient reason.

My own variety of metaphysics based on the principle of insufficient reason is what I call ontology of doubts. The idea is that there are primarily not facts of the matter that could be seized but rather the world is in a state of epokhé, of suspension of judgment. If up for grabs means availability, we can understand that as a lack of ties, so rather than appealing to unhinged facts, we can talk about the world as constituted by doubts. In an ontology of doubts, the world itself is primarily composed not of fatcs (or determinations of any sort) but rather of doubts – doubts are not a product of an ignorance, or of not having sufficient reason to determine something but rather an access to the insufficient reason in things. Ours is a hesitant world and nothing like the experience of doubting to capture its main features. Reversing the traditional image,  to be certain is a failure to see the hesitation of the world – to say that things are thus and so is to fail to see that they stand in a constant state of doubts, where nothing is
established once and for all and independently of anything else. Doubts capture the idea of dependence that is part of contingency – the idea of availability. Doubts can be thoroughly spread – I start doubting whether there is a dagger in front of me and then I move on to doubt whether there is such a thing as a place in front of me where the dagger could be and so on. The ontology of doubts reads the skeptical literature as being about the world – and not about our access to it. Surely, doubts are not blowing in the wind, and so any ontology of doubts has to make room for something like what Wittgenstein in On Certainty called hinge propositions. Hinge propositions are what sustain doubts – something has to be certain for something else to be doubted otherwise the doubt itself loses its ground (its topic, its focus). But hinge propositions are not fixed once and for all, they vary as different circumstances require different things to be held fast to. Ontologies of doubt have nature as itself doubting and holding fast to contents – the structure of nature is not that of a landscape of determinations to be uncovered but rather that of a polemics where things are kept fixed so that others can be put in doubt. It is through polemics that an ontology of doubts ultimately accommodates the relation between contingency and dependence.

The third and last contemporary way to make sense of contingency that I will mention is a renewed appeal to natural history and to the tectonics of dependence. In a flat ontology, this is the idea, layers of contingent events accumulate one on top of the other and while they are not necessary or irreversible, they somehow play a role on whatever else takes place. The appeal to natural history goes back to Schelling´s Naturphilosophie. Schelling had that history has no laws – no regularity backed by any sort of necessity – and therefore it is the place of the undetermined. He thought nature is itself the home of the undetermined and cannot be approached without taking into consideration its layers. It is like a floor, it grounds but at the same time it keeps track of what it has grounded. We can look at the current living species in the planet to trace back past nature, not the past of the current existing entities but rather the history of their ontogenesis. Hamilton Grant brings up Schelling´s conception of nature to ground an account of contingency in layers. Nature is itself the principle of sufficient reason. Here the emphasis is not on the (actual) entities that are somehow exposed to availability – being denizens in a space of contingency – but rather on how these entities come about in the history of nature. There is no reason to be found anywhere but in nature and its history. Nature is subject to a tectonics where each layer depends on the previous one. Instead of claiming that there is no sufficient reason (and the world is composed of mere facts – or mere doubts), this line would rather claim that there is no reason beyond natural history. Things look contingent – or available, or up for grabs – only in contrast with necessity and a full exorcism of necessary connections would be attained by feeling completely at home in the realm of layered contingencies – nature.

My own variety of metaphysics that appeals to natural history to make sense of contingency is what I call ontology of urges. The idea is that the world in its history is guided not by necessities – and necessary connections – but rather by urges. Urges are like quakes in that they reshape everything and while they do that everything else has to revolve around them. They come and somehow take over: urge rules. The space of contingency has its flat surface subject to a tectonics moved by waves of catastrophic impulses and subsequent accommodation. An urge is appears abruptly even though it could have been prepared over time and, as urgent, it is irresistible and finds itself space like an explosion. It is like Badiou´s event: an element external to the accommodated ontology that comes about and reshapes everything. So we can distinguish between urges and the accommodation process that follows (maybe part of it is to avoid the explosion to take place, but this itself has a cost). Urges are not beyond nature, rather they compose it. There is no place to look for reasons but in urges and in the accommodation that they required. Contingency here is to be compared with contingency plans. Things forsaken to the world´s own devices are always in a volcanism that place them dealing with the movements of the surface. What is contingent is what is reshaped whenever the surface trembles.

Coda on universal logic: worlds and galaxies

I´ll conclude with some few words related to universal logic. One way to approach a reflection on contingency is to consider what Alexandre and I have been calling a galaxy theory.

The ultimate refuge of necessity has been logical necessity. This is what Hume himself didn´t address as it seemed to him to be tied up with the somehow unavoidable workings of reason. Now it is usual to appeal to possible worlds to consider modal issues is framed by the very distinction between those words and the ones deemed impossible. Indeed, philosophers often consider something as being metaphysically true if it is true in all possible worlds – and conversely something is proved false if we can point at a possible world where it is not the case (take, for example, the argument against pluralism that claims that a gunky world is possible). But any appeal to possible worlds (in contrast with impossible ones) assumes there is a line drawn between possible and impossible worlds. This line has to be drawn by a logic and as there is a plurality of them around. In fact, we show that, for each logic, there is a corresponding antilogic that can prove anything that the logic cannot and cannot prove anything that the logic proves. Such a plurality poses the question of what logic to choose and the choice for classical logic, although entrenched, could seem as carrying a dose of chauvinism. At the face of it, though, it could seem that it is an unavoidable dose as one needs to pick one of multiple logic and unless there is a good reason in favor of any nonclassical logic, there could sound as there is nothing terrible with picking the most entrenched alternative.

Now universal logic changes the scene in an important way. Instead of presenting a logic, it endeavors to build frameworks to examine a plurality of logics at the same time. When we consider that plurality, it becomes evident that the line between possible and impossible worlds shifts. Surely, if something is contingent if it is true in some but not all possible worlds, different things are contingent in different logics. We define a galaxy as a class of worlds – and the galaxy of a logic is formed by the worlds made possible in it. It is straightforward to generalize a result for modal logics and establish that a logic can be given by presenting a galaxy. As there is a plurality of logics, there is a plurality of galaxies. Contingency – as necessity – can only be understood within the boundaries of a galaxy. To study contingency, therefore, one needs to consider relations between galaxies – or the topology of galaxies. In any case, contingency looks far from being a retiring home for metaphysics, it is rather a troublesome (jump-)starting point.

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