Metaphysics and Science, or, the One and the Not-All

Here in the US of A, one of the main battlefronts in the ongoing culture war, as our conservatives put it, is the debate over science and religion. The way this debate ostensibly goes, is both sides think one term is subordinated to the other: conservatives that science is subordinated to religion, liberals the reverse. This seems to be how conservatives frame it at least–or, more precisely, religious conservatives. More libertarian conservatives likely decry the teaching of creationism along with secular liberals. New Age liberals likely see the two as mutually interdependent, and religious liberals unsurprisingly sometimes side with religious conservatives. I think this debate can be reduced to the question of the relation between science and metaphysics. Framed in these terms, we–“radical leftists,” let’s say–take the surprising position (analogous to that) of a religious conservative: science is, in the last instance, subordinate to metaphysics.

More precisely, this means that the intelligibility of scientific findings cannot occur without some kind of metaphysical, or perhaps better, ontological framing. Science occurs, which is to say has a historical (or social, or political, or temporal, or…) sense or meaning only within what Heidegger would call an ontological horizon. The two are, of course, dialectically mediated, or in what amounts to the same, science and metaphysics should be conceived here as an example of Engels’ law of the interpenetration of opposites: in the movement of time, the concrete instances of the occurrence of science bear the irreducible stain of metaphysics, and vice versa. In metaphysical jargon, the two important categories here are the One, and the Lacanian notion of a/the non-all (in the French, pas-tout). On an everyday, which is to say a political level, how we answer the question of the relation between science and metaphysics, how we define and/or utilize the categories of the one and the non-all, determines the meaning of the category of freedom.

“The one” as a philosophical category has two meanings which, on their face, are (perhaps dialectical) opposites: on the one hand, it designates the Universe or Being, and on the other, it designates the smallest possible quantum, which science (or, some would say, History) paradoxically prevents us from calling an atom. (“Atom” comes from the Greek “atomos,” which means indivisible, or more literally, uncuttable, meaning that “subatomic” is one of the weirdest words the weird language of English has ever had the privilege of generating–from the perspective of Democritus, whose ontology is based on the opposition between atoms and the void [of space], quantum subatomic particles are “atoms.”) A New Ager, fond of fractals, would automatically assert that they are the same; in monotheistic, but not necessarily monotheist theologies, the One is of course another name for God. (Some religions, unsurprisingly, don’t have a lot of conceptual stringency on this: how can so many religions wherein God is One develop a notion of sin as distance from the divine?) The non-all, on the other hand, is a conceptual category of Lacan’s that designates a type of totality. An “all” is a totality which is organic, or, whose parts form a consistent order; a “non-all” is a totality which is fundamentally antagonistic, whose parts exist as parts of a larger “whole” through their struggle with each other. What is the relationship between the one and the non-all, then, or rather, is the one an all or a non-all? What does science have to do with all this?

The first point to be made is that, for Lacan, the organic nature of an “all” is an appearance: every “all” has something (or some “one”) which is exempt/excluded from itself. That is to say, the “one” which is excluded from an “all” bears witness to the truth that every “all” is in fact (a) “non-all.” (This point still applies as well for those “alls” which function via the agonistic [not antagonistic; agonistic struggle doesn’t pose the threat of destroying the system it defines except by accident] struggle between two opposites, from dualistic-sexual cosmologies to two-party political systems.) Ultimately, whether we’re talking about the One as the Universe or the one of individual particles, from this perspective they both turn out to be non-all. For the Universe, this doesn’t seem hard to understand: the Universe is not a whole, a vast interconnected system where each part has its place (in the mode of the pantheism most New Agers espouse), but a vast void dotted with suns and rocks which have a tiny chance of growing some mold that might develop what is called consciousness–but what does it mean to say that a particle is “non-all”? In Less Than Nothing, there is a footnote where Žižek rethinks Democritus’s ontology from a Hegelian perspective, where “one should internalize the void, conceiving it as the very core of the identity of the One,” as opposed to in Democritus where “atoms [are conceived] as Ones which can be counted, and the void as external to them, as the empty space surrounding them.” (LTN p. 787, n. 72.) To be clear, Žižek is not talking about our everyday (symbolic) reality, where every thing is discreetly a thing, a totality, a One, but about the level of (quantum) physics, outside of the scope of our self-representation of the world we inhabit. This disconnect between the real of science and the reality of the symbolic order is best captured in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Strictly speaking, the uncertainty principle states that it is not possible to simultaneously measure a particles position and its momentum to an arbitrary degree of accuracy, that to more accurately measure one is to less accurately measure the other. We should draw attention to the opposition between position and momentum, which corresponds to Democritus’s opposition between the void and atoms: position refers to the coordinates by which one’s place in (the void of) space is determined, whereas momentum, it should be noted, is not simply one’s speed but one’s velocity (speed & direction) combined with one’s mass, the concentrated energy which constitutes one’s unity as a particle, as a quantum. The interdependence between position and momentum corresponds with Žižek’s point about how the one is non-all, that the void is the very motor of the one, and insofar as the uncertainty principle seems to imply that particles are always in motion, we can thus agree with Žižek’s Hegelianization of Democritus’s ontology, that “only in this way does movement become immanent to atoms.” (Ibid.)

(Moreover, I believe, this ‘internalization of the void’ is the only way to account for the temporal nature of existence: time is an effect of the incompleteness of being, which lines up with two aspects of Žižek’s ontology: on the one hand, that the Big Bang was an accident (both that being came from nothing and that this “came from” occurred with no deeper necessity–the ultimate necessity, the existence of existence, is itself a contingency, an accident), and on the other, to quote Hegel, that “the dialectic [being] moves from nothing, through nothing, to nothing.” In other words, the notion of time as a cycle, or the reading of existence wherein “every action has a purpose,” etc., contradict existence itself: if being were an all, if Nothing[ness] was not the internal condition and motor for Being, time would not be, being would be static, unchanging, etc.)

As stated at the beginning, our position is that science is determined by metaphysics–how? Science, especially in the age of quantum mechanics where it seems to have succeeded into reducing itself to purely abstract, mathematical formulation, must rely on metaphysics in order to explain itself–thus the ongoing debate over the different interpretations of quantum mechanics. Interestingly, their are two main competing interpretations: the Copenhagen interpretation and the Many-Worlds interpretation. The antagonism between the two can be understood as different ways of dealing with the problem of indeterminacy, of which the uncertainty principle is one aspect (the category of “superposition” is another): how do we, whose symbolic reality is by and large deterministic, existing somewhere in between Newtonian mechanicism and Einsteinian relativity, account for the indeterminacy of quantum particles, of the most basic building blocks of reality? The Copenhagen interpretation is normally presented as rather anthropocentric, with indeterminacy being “nailed down” by the act of human observation, while Many-Worlds is normally presented as simply positing the existence of multiple “timelines” which act out all potential resolutions of indeterminacy at the macro level. Žižek attempts to conceive of the Copenhagen interpretation on a purely relational basis, wherein particles interacting performs the “nailing down” function without necessary recourse to the subject, and rejects Many-Worlds out of hand based on its above, normative description, as being an all-too-easy New Age explanation. The irony is that his more relational conception of Copenhagen lines up quite well with a key category of Many-Worlds, namely “decoherence,” which is the way in which different aspects of a quantum system “decohere” as the system interacts with its surroundings, causing the shift from one state of the system to another. Proponents of Many-Worlds conceive of this decoherence as taking place in a more-than-3D space along the lines of Einstein’s redefinition of time as another dimension of space, but positing that there is more than one dimension of time: if we assume that space as five dimensions, for example, a two contradictory aspects of a quantum system in superposition can be understood as having the same first four coordinates (the 3 coordinates of its position and the coordinate of its place in linear time) but with different fifth coordinates.

But this last remains obscure speculation on my part, without any real scientific basis. Let’s step back to the real question at hand: why is the problem of the one and the non-all also the problem of freedom, the quintessential philosophical problem insofar as it is also the quintessential political problem? In philosophy, freedom is generally conceived of as a problem of space, that is, the question is understood as “is there space for freedom in being?” or as Žižek puts it, “where, in the network of natural causality, is the space for freedom?” (LTN, p. 744.) If one believes that being or the one is an all, the answer to this (barring fancy footwork) is no: if all is one then being operates as a mechanism, with no “room” for the various things being encompasses to “move freely.” The fancy footwork here is of course to argue various reasons for why being has room, which usually leads to the vulgar-Many-Worlds notion of timelines as alternate “tracks” for being to move along, freedom being the living being’s (quasi-magical) ability to shift being from one track to another. The beauty of Žižek’s solution, that being is non-all, is that it dispenses with the need for such footwork: while “there is nothing which is not being” (the non-all version of the claim “being is all” or “being is everything”), at the same time, being is non-all, which means, not that there is something “beyond” being which intervenes in moments of freedom, but that being is not a consistent order (in ancient Greek terms, a cosmos, whose nature as orderly can be seen in its etymological connection with “cosmetics”). Rather, being is a quasi-chaotic milieu which presents/manifests itself as the antagonisms between various forces (such as gravity and electromagnetism), and the appearance of free acts as acts of grace, as divine interventions (a common film technique to convey this breakdown of reality associated with moments of freedom is to slow down the action on screen), is merely a secondary perception in order to account for the contradiction between our everyday experience of reality, on the one hand, as a deterministic mechanism, and on the other, as a space in which “I” make free decisions and have control over “my” actions (i.e. the indeterminacy of being at the quantum level). In other words, “freedom” is the name for the effect, within human being, of the paradox that reality having rules does not mean that these rules form a consistent, coherent structure–there is no “natural” contradiction between reality having rules and reality being inconsistent, incomplete, indeterminate, uncertain, etc. Freedom, then, is not something that needs to be secondarily explained or accounted for from a metaphysical perspective, but the basis of conceptions of being itself: insofar as “freedom” is the human name for how being exists in a state of constant, indeterminate motion, for the way that nothingness is a condition for being, that the void is internal to atoms, etc., it is only on the basis of freedom that being itself is.


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