Death, the Fall, and Darwin: Badiou Company and the Void, Part 3 of 7

DSC_4253In 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.
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Ref.

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

Comments

  1. In light of evolution, I feel averse to the idea that Adam and Eve in a chronological sense introduced sin into the world. If the modern eight-year-old is capable of sin, it suggests Adam and Eve were the first to reach this level of mental maturity, and would not make them the picturesque capable leaders, King and Queen of the earth, in their lifetimes that LDS theology suggests. In other words, I want an Adam capable of attaining the fullness of the Priesthood, and Adam capable of prophesying whatever would befall upon his posterity. To me this does not make sense if Adam and Eve were the first humans capable of sinning in an emergent sense. But your the biology expert, maybe you can explain to me if this line of thinking is flawed.

  2. Very interesting, thanks for posting. I am new to LDS studies, but find it be much more then I expected. Prompted me to blog as an investigator.

  3. Welcome to the field George!

  4. @SteveP. If it wouldn’t be too bothersome, I really am interested in getting your feedback on my first comment from your expertise on evolution.

  5. Actually, Steve, I’m not following. It’s not in light of evolution that I claim sin entered the world through Adam, evolution and biology has no content about this. It’s from Romans (my second post) and later we’ll see from the Book of Mormon that I make this claim. An evolutionary biologist has no more access to these events than anyone else.

  6. Brian T says:

    I hope Gary Shapiro doesn’t read this series

  7. Yeah, sorry I probably wasn’t clear, and maybe I’m not understanding what you’re saying either. From this “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.” and this “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?” I thought you were saying that although biological beings lived and died, they were not yet capable of sinning until an event occurred, that event being the fall. So if I am understanding you correctly, this theory suggests that Adam and Eve were chronologically the first humans capable of sinning. Is that right?

    If so, maybe I should ask a couple questions rather than assuming anything further – what do you think limited other humans living at the time of Adam and Eve from being capable of sin? Or what traits did Adam and Eve first have that made them capable of sin when others could not?

  8. “if so, maybe I should ask a couple questions rather than assuming anything further – what do you think limited other humans living at the time of Adam and Eve from being capable of sin? Or what traits did Adam and Eve first have that made them capable of sin when others could not?”
    Ah, that’s the crux of it. Those are coming. But I have to set the stage.

  9. Okay thanks. I’ll keep reading then.

  10. I’m interested in this series, Steve, but am struggling with this sentence:
    “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’.”.

    Either it contains multiple typos, or I just really don’t get it. Or both. If appropriate, can you please provide a corrected version?

  11. I look forward to seeing where you’re going with this, SteveP. Also, I wanted to thank you for influencing my worldview as it relates to evolution. As an undergraduate at BYU two years ago, I read one of your blog posts recommending a number of books on evolution – and ended up reading close to a dozen of books on the subject over the summer. Like most LDS, I had been raised believing the traditional version of the creation and the Fall, assuming that Adam and Eve were created as the first human beings and that evolution had nothing to do with that. Reading up on the subject convinced me of just how wrong that assumption was, and how far we as members of the Church have to go in coming “out of obscurity” and in updating our understanding of the Gospel to the modern world.

    Evolution does raise a lot of questions for traditional LDS theology – the questions are numerous. How are we to understand the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? Can we separate a historical Adam and Eve from an allegorical Adam and Eve (seeing as they are historical according to modern revelation)? How does evolution impact our understanding of the creation and Fall as portrayed in the endowment? If we are literally spirit children of heavenly parents and if this sets us apart from (other) animals, is it really fair to say that the “first” spirit children of God had parents who were not spirit children of God? Or is our understanding of being created in God’s image wrong and spiritual creation quite something else from what we’ve imagined? Also, what are we to do about the longevity of the patriarchs from Adam on being seemingly confirmed by modern revelation in the D&C, JST and the Pearl of Great Price? If those verses do not portray a historical reality, are they really revelation from God or are they the mind of Joseph Smith or something in-between? Broader yet, what does evolution teach us about the supposed presence or absence of God in our individual lives as well as in cosmic history? (Faith, God working through interventions/”miracles” in our lives versus God working in a more indirect way, through the Spirit and light of Christ).

    I don’t expect your posts to necessarily answer any of my more specific and scripture-based questions, but I am interested in any perspectives and insights you have to offer and welcome any thoughts you might have on the questions above (especially in coming to terms with modern revelation).

  12. But Eve chose knowledge. Sin and death were a byproduct.

  13. Leonard R. says:

    SteveP – Great stuff.

    I appreciate this so much. As Erik states, Adam and Eve are to me the great “challenge” of evolution vis-a-vis the restored gospel. It was certainly so in the seminary class discussion that I referenced in my comment on your first post of the series. I love the stage you are setting (though I need to re-read the void stuff…) And look forward to the next act.

  14. Aaron, sorry even I forget how jargon laden his work is and if you look at it too long you get a kind of snow blindness that masks how awful the jargon is. What he means is actually the idea that things that exist are very complex and cannot be decomposed in a way that captures all of the relationships that hold things together, but still these complex things can often be considered a single object (count-as-one) that can be considered a kind of whole. The point in this, is that such an object must have a starting point. In set theory all sets are sort of built up from a Null set (his void). This, as we’ll see is what allows novel things to come into being. If you don’t find this useful, focus on the niche theory it’s a little more grounded in the real world than Badiou.

    Erik, nice set of questions. I was thrilled to find someone took reading about evolution seriously, well done! These question are important and that’s why I think taking a stab at them is important. I’m really pleased to hear that you are taking them seriously.

    RW, No real disagreement, but I think we can unpack that a bit further.

    Thanks Leonard!

  15. Is this it?
    “He sees being as such [as] 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), [it] can be [an] element of a set or [ ] as he calls it a ‘count-as-one’.”

    What does it mean to be “multiple in the sense that it is not decomposable”? This seems to imply it is the decomposable nature that bestows the property of “multiple”. Or do you mean “multiple and yet not decomposable”?
    What is the significance of specifying countability? Is “being” decomposable into an uncountable set? Can’t an uncountable set also have a starting point (i.e. the positive reals)? Or is the distinction the possibility of a creation operator rule that takes you from one element to the next? And if there is no such operator generating elements within the set, then how is your void populated?
    Is there such a “count-as-one” object in your beaver example? If so, is it the construction of the dam, or the resulting ecosystem, or something else?
    Finally, what is the utility of linking emergent phenomena to insertion of a void, or new empty set? That makes it sound like a new little universe disconnected from whatever came before, or continues on around it. Maybe you create this new set and then map elements from existing sets into it (and vice-versa), but then what significance is there to the bounds of that new set?

  16. I think what Badiou is saying is difficult (and I hope some Badiou interpreters weigh in), but this is how I read him (and am using him). By a multiple not being decomposable into countable set he is saying that no mere partitioning will capture that thing. Or more formally no mereological sum captures existence. Certainly you could partition me up, say into cells, but I’m multiple in the sense that my cells are not enough to be me in the full sense (a strict reductionist may disagree). I am more than the sum of my parts. He holds this for everything including the coke can on my table.

    I think he would say being can be captured by an uncountable set (as in a bigger infinity than the natural numbers provide), but what that would mean is unclear. He writes as if the power set of {all the parts + all relationships} might be described by an uncountable set. (I actually disagree but I won’t go into it here as this is a family blog after all, but it as to do with simulable systems that aren’t captured by this sort of set theory notation). This is why my void isn’t populated by an operator (in the mathematical sense) but by things.

    By ‘starting,’ I don’t mean the starting count to a ordered set I mean a coming into existence of something novel. And yes it never existed. That doesn’t mean its ancestry can’t be traced by real events, but that thing, like the beaver dam, opens new worlds that did not exist before so in a way it does open a new universe, it’s not disconnected from the old one or closed to the old one, but does make the old universe new its existence.

  17. Phillip Anderson says:

    More is different.

  18. I’ll grant that you might be more than the sum of your parts, though it’s unproven and probably unprovable. But that leeway is only due to the great mystery of life – I see no justification for extending the same to a lifeless galaxy, let alone your coke can.

    Perhaps the Badiouian “Event” relies on the same distinction between living and lifeless, if indeed its existence “must depend on a decision rather than a perception or demonstration”. From the beaver to the Fall, it seems tied up with the mystery of choice, for which the mystery of life is prerequisite. Or is that interpretation too narrow?

    I’m not sure that invoking set theory here, particularly the distinction between countable and uncountable, is much more than a gimmick, but acknowledge that that could well result from me not knowing what I’m talking about.

    In any case, I continue to look forward to seeing where this series leads.

  19. “I don’t want to explore it fully here”
    Oh good. I’ve found nearly every post I read that invokes Badiou to be practically impenetrable. I’m sure it’s brilliant, but feel like these guys, just no comprehension at all.

  20. I was listening to NPR a few weeks and they had a book review of physicists Lee Smolin’s “Time Reborn”. I thought what was interesting and applicable to this discussion is his idea that perhaps “the laws of physics themselves evolve just like species in an ecosystem.” What he’s challenging is the notion that laws themselves haven’t changed — that they somehow have remained unaffected by time. He’s theory asks “what if nothing can escape time”. Talk about seeing the universe as eventful.

    Here’s the link to the NPR book review. http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/05/02/180037757/is-time-real

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