Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Nothing Lasts, but...

Entangled photons

...I'm still not convinced that impermanence implies radical atheism. I keep returning to the possibility, which Hägglund simply doesn't consider, that there is a god, and that she is mortal, and that she created the Universe, or that she is the Universe. Such a god would exist as much as a pear or a floating iceberg exists—not that much, according to this view, but existence nevertheless. (Unless Hägglund is actually claiming that nothing really exists, a form of nihilism or idealism. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be happy with that.)

I don't myself worship a god, but that doesn't mean that one exists or not.
A mortal god would fulfill Hägglund's requirement that everything be impermanent (unless of course Hägglund's requirement is really that nothing exist at all, nihilism or idealism, see above). Why this possibility is ruled out of court, I don't know.

Unless Hägglund is indeed operating under the aegis of an implicit ontology. But that like most deconstructors he is nervous to say “metaphysics” since he thinks that's the dirtiest word in the English language.
I know, I've been a fully fledged one until very recently, and unlike some OOO-ists I am reluctant to shake its dust from my feet entirely; I am on the editorial board of a major deconstruction journal, knew Derrida, etc.

This skittishness isn't in sync with what Hägglund is (happily) doing—the reason why he's refreshed deconstruction. He's not just providing a “logical infrastructure” (as he puts it): he's making testable claims about real things such as icebergs and gypsy moths. If he isn't, then no problem—I can feel one way about impermanence, he can feel another. Hägglund isn't an idealist for instance, since this would seriously dent the problem with impermanence. If everything is a mind projection, I can just project differently and the problem goes away.

An unfortunate side-effect of the skittishness to get metaphysical is that the net effect of one's argument defaults to the ruling ontology of the day, materialist mechanism: a
biological form of ontology that thinks matter as little shiny ping pong ball type objects. It's also reductionism or, in Harman's terms, undermining. Medium sized objects like orangutans and lemon peel are less real than (“asymmetrically dependent on”) tiny objects such as carbon atoms. Hägglund is quite explicit about that part.

But the last century of physics holds a different ontology, namely, matter and energy form an indestructible whole. Significantly large parts of the Universe have no time in them whatsoever, for instance the middles of black holes and everything (perhaps) below a certain size, nearer to the Planck length (Petr Horava). Photons are not mortal, and thus not subject to the trace structure
the differential forces that render temporality non-identical, according to Hägglund.

Entangled particles (and this can now be done with fullerenes, which are pretty massive compared with photons) are not separated as far as information flow between them goes, yet they can be separated to arbitrarily far distances, and information flow between them appears to be instantaneous or many times the speed of light (thus seeming to affect entities in the past). Entanglement has also been observed in lifeforms, for instance in photosynthesis and in bird navigation (which relies on a quantum magnet in the eye). Parts of the materiality of lifeforms, then, are not subject to the trace structure

There is a big problem with cleaving to mechanism if you think that your view of time is deconstructive, that is, if you think that time really is non-identical with itself in some profound way that makes it different from a “linear” sequence of moments (1, 2, 3, 4...). For mechanism deeply depends on separable instants that are vacuum sealed from one another and subject to some law of regularity. Even if you claim your temporality is non-linear, that means that you can still make predictions about the future. It means that there is a future, furthermore: a future that is distinct in some sense from the present, and from a past that is also distinct. If you then add that matter comes before life, you have a perfectly “linear” sequence, that moves from past to present to future in an inexorable one-way flow.

Now I myself am not claiming that linearity is a bad thing or a good thing. But Hägglund and some supporters are claiming that linearity is a bad thing. This claim is inconsistent with the consequences of their view of time.

From this we can only conclude that

1) Even though it's damaging to his deconstructive temporality, Hägglund simply prefers reductionist mechanist materialism to other options, despite evidence from particle physics and cosmology that the Universe is only like that at macro scales.


2) The trace structure is a way of talking about or experiencing the world, not a deep fact about it (protestations notwithstanding).

A fully deconstructive view of time would be far more comfortable with relativity and quantum theory, which are non-mechanistic and non-reductionist theories of matter. The trouble is, such a view would consider mortality a mere epiphenomenon.

You have already read my doubts as to whether the trace structure really is all that different from a trivially true notion of time as moments passing, and whether a critique of “linear time” is very different from analyses of time by Zeno, Aristotle, Hegel and others who subject the notion of separable instants to critical scrutiny. Leaving that aside, I'm afraid I can't accept radical atheist temporality as a deep fact about the world for the reasons given above.


slatted light said...

Gah! I just wrote a long reply to this and Blogger ate it. It essentially said this was awesome. And its other main point was to say an impermanent God (or, one which is mortal but ominpotent relative to ourselves, which, for instance, retranslates Harman's occasionalism back into its original format: the object that held within it all objects and was within all objects - so as to account for the vicarious causation in each contact or moment) is an intriguing notion because it could not be infallible beyond its sphere of sovereignty, but would find itself fallible before ontology, that which would be outside it. Ontology preceding God. A truly weird notion and an even more radical atheism, really. The alternative is, of course, the more maximalist (and kind of more commonsensical notion) that God is not impermanent but an object larger than time and mortality too. Like where you say: "Photons are not mortal, and thus not subject to the trace structure—the differential forces that render temporality non-identical, according to Hägglund." Or your follow-up paragraph on entangled particles. You might even find that evidence of God: a photonic and entangled particular object. But if God is held to create the Universe, God creates the trace structure in it. Which is to say, the trace is a kind of non-being God is not: not God present in every moment but the subtraction of God in the mortality of every moment. Which would also be a fascinating kind of atheism really.

I also wanted to say sorry again for the other day. I've felt bad about it and I hope there isn't any lingering ill will. I was thinking about linearity and it occurred to me that you're right to say being against linearity means little if, by linearity, you mean "consisting of lines". But I'd venture Hägglund means that linearity operates as measurement in one dimension only (like a line) and the trace-structure implies not only a multi-dimensionality but unpredictability as the multilinear aspect of any moment of time. So it disturbs the axiom of the straight line being the shortest distance between two points: the trace is that which makes any moment of time purely unpredictable in meaning or consequence or timeliness or effect. Of course, what is interesting to consider, however, is the notion of a time that is so unpredictable - or autoimmune - it could itself end, that it is scaled in to the contigency of that which is outside itself (as you mention: photons, black holes, entangled particles, photosynthesis - not just discrete and seperable elements of the Universe that exceed time but also within the sphere of time itself, though at a different scale inside it: in a way, time-atheist).

Earthwizard said...

Haha! Had to respond on this one with:

Tim Morton: Vaya-dhamma sankhara; “All created things are impermanent.”