The Universe in a Nutshell: A Simple Guide to Speculative Realism*


Why do things happen in a predictable way?

Back in the Eighteenth Century, David Hume asked that simple question. In other words, why do some events necessarily follow other events? For example, if you were to hit a billiard ball why wouldn’t it just float into the sky? This is what philosophers call ‘causal necessity’. Causation is important to philosophers and scientists because it is what seems to bind the world together. Think of it as a kind of cosmic glue. If we could not predict how things will behave, if the world had no basic order to it and was an unpredictable chaos, we simply couldn’t exist. The common sense necessary to survive takes causation for granted.

While most philosophers before Hume took a dogmatic approach to the answer: i.e. that nature’s laws are decreed by God, Hume took a skeptical approach: he pointed out the simple fact that the causal connections between things are unobservable; much like the existence of God himself. We think we see event A causing event B, but in fact we have only seen event A and event B – the connection that links the events lacks any observable properties. Hume’s answer is simply that we’ll never know a cause per se (since it doesn’t have any kind of manifestation), we can only intuit causes based on experience: we are sure water will boil at 100 degrees Celsius, an apple will fall out of a tree, the sun will rise in the morning, but there is no evidence available to our senses that these things will happen every time.

So then we have a “dogmatic” answer to this question: nature has laws decreed by God. And a “skeptical” answer by Hume: there’s no logical proof that one event follows another, there is only a guess as to what will happen.

Immanuel Kant read Hume and was disturbed by the logically sound skepticism, so much so he spent twelve years thinking about it. In response to Hume, Kant developed an explanation for causal necessity that had all the plausible secular systematic rigor that he became famous for imposing on the world. Kant located the consistency of the world – the causal predictability – in our mind itself. Our senses, Kant plausibly and systematically argued, mediate the world outside and therefore impose order on it. He goes as far as saying that time and space are themselves subjective and located in the mind, not out there in the universe.

The world is neither out there (as “realists” would argue) and neither is it only in the mind (as “rationalists” argue) since both are necessary to be present for Kant’s subjective experience (what is called “transcendental idealism”). We know the world through a synthesis of both world and mind.

This was the best explanation for causal necessity and was so for a very long time. Kant’s explanation of the world as mediated through (and ordered by) mind has underpinned philosophical and scientific assumptions in the several hundred years since he published the Critique of Pure Reason.

Now, the issue here is that Kant is dangerously mixing two categories: There is no world without mind and no mind without world. This is now known as “correlationism”, i.e we only have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either of them separately. As soon as you take Kant’s elegant solution to its logical conclusion, you find that it’s a little absurd. We know, for example, that there was a world before thinking even existed: paleontologists dig up specimens of a pre-human age all the time. Kant’s system for explaining causation – that experience is a synthesis of mind and world – cannot account for the world before the human mind came into being.

But, while we can logically disprove a system that has formed the basis of much philosophical and scientific thought for hundreds of years, we’ve come no closer to positively ‘proving’ that there’s a reality outside of human experience. While we can logically assume that there is a reality that is independent of human thought, we can only speculate as to what it is like. Hence the term: Speculative Realism.

In what ways could we speculate? Well, for one thing we can enquire more meaningfully into the nature of things directly, rather than seeing things as merely representations for us, we can see things as things in-themselves. The world outside experience is not an unknowable chaos, or even a singular nothingness as Arthur Schopenhauer would argue (he called it the noumenal world), but a collection of objects which relate to one another. Objects can have qualities independent of the human senses.

The philosopher Graham Harman reading Heidegger, for example, distinguishes objects by the way they exist for whatever may interact with them. For example, there is Tower Bridge as a tourist attraction, Tower Bridge as a road over the River Thames, Tower Bridge as an object of aesthetic beauty, Tower Bridge as an example of Victorian Gothic architecture. What is important is the “as” in all these relations, there is an “as” that is inexhaustible, a mysterious something that is there. That we can even know with a lot of confidence that that something is there, that it exists independent of thought and that it is set apart from other somethings, forms the basis of a new departure in our understanding of the world.

Further reading: The story here is heavily indebted to Quentin Meilliassoux’s After Finitude, a brilliant and short book. Another great book on the subject is Graham Harman’s Towards Speculative Realism.

*the philosopher Ray Brassier has objected to the “stupidity” of impressionable graduate students with blogs who talk too much about a “speculative realist” movement. This willfully stupid post was written because I’ve never found a simple less-than-1000-words explanation of the turn back to realism in continental philosophy and should in no way be seen as part of a debate or anything like that. In any case, it’s better to be willfully stupid than willfully obscure. “Speculative Realism” should be taken by the definition of Graham Harman: “All it takes to be a Speculative Realist is to be opposed to “correlationism””.

4 thoughts on “The Universe in a Nutshell: A Simple Guide to Speculative Realism*

    1. What an object is a matter of debate among Speculative Realists: is a unicorn an object? Is the king of France an object? Is a rainbow an object? It’s beyond the scope of this simple guide to go there, frankly. It seems for Graham Harman an object is negatively, not positively, defined: something that withdraws from all theoretical and practical contact, something with always and forever more to it than can be expounded upon or felt by anything else.

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