Over the past several years I have moved steadily away from any views that see value at the heart of reality, especially natural reality – views that often lead one to some sort of God as the author of these values. I haven’t yet mentioned a recent book that helped crystallize these atheist-ish thoughts for me. That is After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux (may-ah-SOO) – a book that basically kickstarted the Speculative Realist movement.
After Finitude is full of a great many ideas, not all of which I agree with. But I think the most important of Meillassoux’s ideas is what he calls ancestrality. Meillassoux says, “I will call ‘ancestral’ any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species – or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth.” (AF 10) Meillassoux thinks that philosophy since Kant has not done justice to the existence of ancestral reality: too often, we place human (or even other animal) subjects at the centre of our thought, when they are not at the centre of the universe, spatially or (especially) temporally. Kant and his successors put us in a place where “the world is only world insofar as it appears to me as world…” But this, Meillassoux thinks, makes no sense if – as natural history and scientific cosmology tell us – there was a time when there were no subjects.
Such a subject-centred worldview could make sense on the terms of George (Bishop) Berkeley, since for Berkeley there is a subject – God – who predates the existence of the world. But unfortunately for Berkeley, no such God has been found. So Meillassoux does not, to my recollection, bother to talk about him. (These last claims about Berkeley are my interpolations, not Meillassoux’s, though I think he would agree with them.)
Meillassoux helped me crystallize what a non-theistic universe looked like. I agree with ibn Sīnā as MacIntyre describes him, that atheists’ disagreement with theists involves not merely one entity, but the nature of the whole world. And while I have reasons not to call myself an atheist, I do accept the fundamental premise that there is no God. That entails some very important points about how to see the world.
Especially, value is not something out there in the world, especially the natural world. The world outside us is normatively inert. This is what H.P. Lovecraft saw: the universe does not give a crap about us. The existent world is not inherently bad, but it is also not inherently good. It is merely indifferent. This is something we do learn from the conclusions of natural science – and we learned it early. In the 17th century Johannes Kepler had already proclaimed that the idea of an infinite universe – as opposed to one with a fixed, rational centre – “carries with it I don’t know what secret, hidden horror”. He hoped that idea wasn’t true – but it turned out it was. According to Akeel Bilgrami, William Blake raged against Isaac Newton’s theories on similar grounds: they stripped value and meaning from the natural universe. And yet over the centuries we have come to agree that Newton was right about most things.
Meillassoux’s point implies a darker (and very Lovecraftian) point that he does not state explicitly: if subjectivity has a beginning, it also likely has an end. Our era presents us with the horrific threat of a human extinction in the coming centuries or even decades, thanks to climate change, nuclear war and/or emerging diseases. But even if we survive those, eventually the sun will go nova and flare out; if we somehow manage to escape the solar system in a heroic feat of engineering, there will still be the heat death of the universe. Such events are unimaginably far in the future, but at some point, eventually, they mean there will be no more human beings – or other subjects. The universe will go back to the subject-free ancestral reality. And that interferes with another way of finding meaning: through a hoped-for utopia. When Simone Weil says that “to orient oneself toward an absolute good down here, one must place it in the future”: well, it’s really not going to be very absolute, since it faces its own end in the eventual death of the human race.
For all these reasons, for a while I was thinking of my cosmology as one that basically follows Meillassoux. I no longer think that way, though. It was the Kyoto School’s Nishida Kitarō who moved me away from Meillassoux, and next time I’ll discuss how.