In his book Being and Event, Badiou construes ontology to be based upon set theoretic elements, principally the void, the empty set which provides a foundation for all subsequent set manipulations. He focuses especially on the ‘belongs to’ operator, and the notion of set itself—a collection of elements. He sees being as such is multiple in the sense that it is not decomposable into a countable set (you can’t map a being into one-one relationship with the natural numbers), they can be element of a set or or as he calls it a ‘count-as-one’. His thought is rich and complex and I don’t want to explore it fully here, but I do want to tap into his notion of an event.
An event is a foundational strike into a situation that fundamentally shifts what is possible in terms of how that situation can now unfold through time. Through an event novelty is injected into the situation, but how?
Peter Hallward gives us a nice interruption:
“What is an event? For Badiou, first and foremost, an event is “purely haphazard [hasardeux], and cannot be inferred from the situation “An event is the world, in however ideal a manner, that the event holds its inexhaustible reserve, its silent (or indiscernible) excess, but from its being unattached to it, its being separate, lacunary.” In this Badiou follows in Paul’s footsteps: an event comes from beyond, undeserved, unjustified, and unjustifiable. From within the situation, the occurrence of an event always resembles an instance of grace, a kind of “laicized grace.” It is thus futile to wait for, let alone try to anticipate, an event, “for it is of the essence of the event not to be preceded by any sign, and to surprise us by its grace.” We must instead accept that “everything begins in confusion and obscurity”: the emergence of clarity is always the result of an active and never-ending clarification.” Peter Hallward. Badiou: A Subject To Truth (p. 115). Kindle Edition.
In short this Badiouian ‘Event’ place a void into the situation from which new elements can arise and restructure the situation. This would seem to be a good description of the Fall. Hallward adds,
“the void will be indicated only by something that violates a situation’s normal way of counting or recognizing its elements, and the actual existence of this something [this event] in the situation must depend on a decision rather than a perception or demonstration.” Peter Hallward. Badiou: A Subject To Truth (p. 91). Kindle Edition.
Note the void’s dependency on decision for Badiau. The decision in the Fall is Adam’s and Eve’s choice to enter the world of sin and death. To, through the introduction of the void, the empty set or perhaps better the emptying set, Adam opens the world to possibility. As Badiou says of grace. In this reading the Fall is necessary to unleash into the situation something from which emergence can begin its work. A part of this emergence being Christ’s grace as revealed in the atonement. Here Adam and Eve do not live in a world that has no physical death, but rather one in which sin is impossible. Why might that be? Could it be that this state of innocence (2 Nephi 2:23) is not referring to a childlike naivety, but rather conditions where agency in its fullest sense could not be exercised by biological beings? Christ’s resurrection will lock this in and make it a continuing biological attribute, but Eve’s choice allows sin into the world. Or as Paul calls sin, death.
In ecology this is analogous to Niche construction theory. Niche construction theory was developed in the early 80s, and while growing in influence, is still a nascent field. While a complete accounting of the main features of this theory is beyond the scope of this conference talk, the basic idea is easy to grasp. Life evolves in contexts, i.e. the struggle for life is always embedded in an environment. It is clear that this environment is not static and is in constant flux, but while we often note that, we fail to acknowledge that what is causing and substantiating that flux is life itself, creating a constant back and forth between organisms and the environment they inhabit. This not only changes the habitat for the biotic creature that initially found themselves in the environment in question, but creates new opportunities of survival and for evolutionary change.
The American Beaver is an oft-sited example of niche construction. These North American animals build large dams, that block streams that change the environment significantly. They cut down trees to make their damns and lodges, move these, creating a pond, which can in tern create wetlands, provide habitat for fish and birds, and restructure completely the ecological community that would be present if beavers had never lived there. However, their presence these changes provides new energy flows that can allow new levels of complexity and opportunities for evolutionary directions to obtain. The beaver is interesting because Dawkins uses it as an example of the extended phenotype for his gene centered view of evolutionary change. But that misses the changes that feed back and forth from the ecological changes that the beaver makes, and which changes the nature of the environment, which in turn changes the selective regime in which evolution takes place. Dawkins assumes a static landscape that misses so much of how life structures and restructures itself. Niche Construction Theory suggests that the landscape is in constant flux, and that life unfolds generously, from more to more. In the evolution of ecology it can be truly said, “For to every one who has, will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Matt 25:29 RSV
Niche construction is necessary part for understanding how life unfolds. That it is missing in current reductive thought becomes very apparent in the models that are used to construct evolutionary explanations and predictions. A good example is the failures of the ‘Climbing Mt. Improbable’ models that have been used to model evolutionary change. As philosophers of science have noted, all of these models have in some sense failed to capture the fact that life has grown in complexity over the evolutionary time scales over which life has progressed. In a recent paper in Biology and Philosophy, Korb and Dorin (2011) argue that models have failed to reproduce this increase in complexity that is obvious in the directional arrow of complexity—things move from lesser to greater complexity. Most models of evolutionary processes have missed the obvious trend in increasing complexity so apparent in the fossil record. They argue further that this is because niche construction theory has been ignored and that using the static landscape models that have been used in the past evolutionary models that increase in complexity and organization are impossible. They argue that to capture this, only simulation models are adequate for the task, and need to target what life actually does, which is change the selective landscape in which it evolves, thus providing increases in complexity. The metaphor that Dawkins uses of climbing Mt. Improbable then fails, because it is a moving target. Life changes the nature of the landscape. I will come back to this momentarily.
This suggests that life is constantly reinventing itself, changing, becoming more than it was, unfolding in new and creative directions. In short, life is emergent. And this is clear from the ways that life as emerged from the empirical evidence. Life created an oxygen atmosphere, which allowed for more complex autotrophs like fungi and plants creating more niches, motile animals evolved, more niches opened, plants invaded bare and lifeless landmasses, which in turn provided more niches. The transformation of life on earth as been the story of increasing complexity, opening and creation of new niches, advances in sociality and cooperation and coevolution. A wildly emergent universe full of genuine surprises. Badiouean voids are constantly inserted into the world allowing new ways to fill it up.
Next time we’ll dissect this idea of emergence a little more.
Peter Hallward. Badiou: A Subject To Truth (p. 115). Kindle Edition.
Kevin B. Korb, Alan Dorin, 2011.Evolution unbound: releasing the arrow of complexity. Biology & Philosophy 26, Issue 3, pp 317-338