On dreams

13 10 2010

Or, Cartesianism in art and drama

The philosopher who stands for one of the extremes of “madness” is Nicholas Malebranche, his “occasionalism”. Malebranche, a disciple of Descartes, drops Descartes’s ridiculous reference to the pineal gland in order to explain the coordination between the material and the spiritual substance, i.e. body and soul; how, then, are we to explain their coordination, if there is no contact between the two, no point at which a soul can act causally on a body or vice versa? Since the two causal networks (that of ideas in my mind and that of bodily interconnections) are totally independent, the only solution is that a third, true Substance (God) continuously coordinates and mediates between the two, sustaining the semblance of continuity: when I think about raising my hand and my hand effectively raises, my thought causes the raising of my hand not directly but only “occasionally” – upon noticing my thought directed at raising my hand, God sets in motion the other, material, causal chain which leads to my hand effectively being raised. If we replace “God” with the big Other, the symbolic order, we can see the closeness of occasionalism to Lacan’s position: as Lacan put it in his polemics against Aristoteles in Television, the relationship between soul and body is never direct, since the big Other always interposes itself between the two. Occasionalism is thus essentially a name for the “arbitrary of the signifier”, for the gap that separates the network of ideas from the network of bodily (real) causality, for the fact that it is the big Other which accounts for the coordination of the two networks, so that, when my body bites an apple, my soul experiences a pleasurable sensation. This same gap is targeted by the ancient Aztec priest who organizes human sacrifices to ensure that the sun will rise again: the human sacrifice is here an appeal to God to sustain the coordination between the two series, the bodily necessity and the concatenation of symbolic events. “Irrational” as the Aztec priest’s sacrificing may appear, its underlying premise is far more insightful than our commonplace intuition according to which the coordination between body and soul is direct, i.e. it is “natural” for me to have a pleasurable sensation when I bite an apple since this sensation is caused directly by the apple: what gets lost is the intermediary role of the big Other in guaranteeing the coordination between reality and our mental experience of it. And is it not the same with our immersion into Virtual Reality? When I raise my hand in order to push an object in the virtual space, this object effectively moves – my illusion, of course, is that it was the movement of my hand which directly caused the dislocation of the object, i.e. in my immersion, I overlook the intricate mechanism of computerized coordination, homologous to the role of God guaranteeing the coordination between the two series in occasionalism…

What, then, is the Matrix? Simply the Lacanian “big Other,” the virtual symbolic order, the network that structures reality for us. This dimension of the “big Other” is that of the constitutive alienation of the subject in the symbolic order: the big Other pulls the strings, the subject doesn’t speak, he “is spoken” by the symbolic structure. In short, this “big Other” is the name for the social Substance, for all that on account of which the subject never fully dominates the effects of his acts, i.e. on account of which the final outcome of his activity is always something else with regard to what he aimed at or anticipated. However, it is here crucial to note that, in the key chapters of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Lacan struggles to delineate the operation that follows alienation and is in a sense its counterpoint, that of separation: alienation IN the big Other is followed by the separation FROM the big Other. Separation takes place when the subject takes note of how the big Other is in itself inconsistent, purely virtual, “barred,” deprived of the Thing – and fantasy is an attempt to fill out this lack of the Other, not of the subject, i.e. to (re)constitute the consistency of the big Other. For that reason, fantasy and paranoia are inherently linked: paranoia is at its most elementary a belief into an “Other of the Other”, into another Other who, hidden behind the Other of the explicit social texture, programs (what appears to us as) the unforeseen effects of social life and thus guarantees its consistency: beneath the chaos of market, the degradation of morals, etc., there is the purposeful strategy of the Jewish plot… This paranoiac stance acquired a further boost with today’s digitalization of our daily lives: when our entire (social) existence is progressively externalized-materialized in the big Other of the computer network, it is easy to imagine an evil programmer erasing our digital identity and thus depriving us of our social existence, turning us into non-persons.

-Slavoj Zizek, found here



3 responses

13 10 2010
The Singular Observer

A Sinner – I like your comment here. I myself, having done only one year of undergraduate Physics, but 3 of Maths and one of Applied Maths, like to think of these matters as a recursive equation (ie a dynamical system), in which an equation referring to itself can react completely unpredictably once the given constants cross a certain threshold – thus, chaos. But such mathematical chaos is akin to quantum mechanics, in that there is a probabilistic prediction where the next iteration will go – but no certainty. Thus cartesianism fails, because in matters of epistemology, we are inherently part of the equation. A lot of fun to be had though, for sure.

13 10 2010

Fascinating post and reply. As to the original post, I’ll have to re-read it a few times since I’m not completely clear on all of it at this point. Zizek can be hard to follow at times.

As to quantum physics, A. Sinner, I thought of that, too, but in a different context. When particles are quantum-entangled (see the EPR experiment, Bell’s Theorem, etc.), an observation of the state of one instantly sets the state of the other no matter how far away the other is. Einstein disliked this, calling it “spooky action at a distance”, but it’s been pretty well established that this is indeed the case. How this is interpreted varies (as with most interpretations of quantum mechanics), but some argue that the states of the entangled particles aren’t really discrete phenomena, but manifestations of a deeper underlying unity not limited by what we perceive as time and space.

Thus if action at a distance with no discernible connector or intermediary is possible in the most rigorous of physics, I don’t see why spirit-matter interaction is problematic. As with quantum physics we may not fully understand it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Arturo, I wonder if this is also similar to the Neoplatonic view. The idea is that man is the microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Thus Neoplatonic theurgy and later Hermetic ritual was thought to work not because a particular rite “caused” something to happen, but because a proper alignment of intrinsically interconnected phenomena was brought about where the microcosm and the macrocosm lined up, “producing” an effect.

E.g. a horoscope didn’t work because the alignment of the stars “caused” a person to be born such or to have such-and-such a life; rather, the configuration of the stars and the characteristics of an individual are reflections of each other, micro- and macrocosm, and the astrologer is merely perceiving the deeper pattern underlying both.

Thus (while I’m not promoting astrology!) it seems to me that the Neoplatonic view is not far from the quantum physical view as to the interconnectedness of phenomena in the universe.

Btw, I’m relatively new to this blog, which I found via Rod Dreher’s temporarily inactive blog over at Big Questions Online, and I have found Reditus to be a great, fascinating blog. I don’t know if you may have mentioned this in the past (I’ve not worked my way through all the old posts yet), but given your interest in Neoplatoinism, Ficino, and such, I wonder if you’ve read John Crowley’s Aegypt cycle of novels, which are strongly Platonic-Hermetic worldview. If so, what did you think?

13 10 2010
A Sinner

Occasionalism seems to lead inevitably to a denial of free will, then.

When first contemplating these questions, I became an occasionalist (though I didn’t know the word or that it was already a pre-existent philosophy), basically to safeguard the reality of the spiritual soul and subjective consciousness of qualia as utterly separate from matter. How would our purely spiritual choices affect the body? Especially when the body can fail to properly enact them (you can get paralyzed, have a seizure suddenly, etc; in other words, Providence is still in ultimate control of the body). So, I concluded, God must just make them line up (most of the time, at least). The connection from the senses “up” to the soul might be “natural” as a sort of epiphenomenon…but to go back “down” seemed to require a direct mediation of some sort.

Eventually I realized that if we admit this then, yes, it’s just like a puppet-master running everything, a virtual reality, where we just passively observe and press the button at certain points in the focus group, but without real agency over anything.

I think quantum mechanics has pretty much solved all this though. The universe is probabilistic, there is no deterministic way to predict which way a given particle will “choose.” Some atheistic scientists fantasize that a new universe, a new reality, with a new history splits off at every such “choice” so that all possible universes “exist.” I think this makes the notion of “existence” trivial, as it is defined in terms of what can effect consciousness, either God’s or ours. A universe impossible for us to ever experience does not exist to us, unless we do posit the mediation of a God as the final “standard” of what exists and what doesn’t. But this brings us back to something similar to the very concept of the Matrix as discussed above, doesn’t it.

Except, not necessarily pulling ALL the strings. Quantum probabilism provides a clear mechanism or “wedge in the door” for both Divine Providence (ie, God makes that “choice” for the external particles, and that’s how He controls history) and also for Free Will and the soul-body connection (ie, God has given us the power to make that “choice” for the particles in our own brain). Yet still, there is a mediation, of course, as that power is only delegated (and could, theoretically, be taken away or disrupted in certain cases, at least on the physical side of things).

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