Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Science, Philosophy, and the Return of Time: Reflections on Speculative Thought

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Science, Philosophy, and the Return of Time: Reflections on Speculative Thought

Article excerpt


The new millennium has been marked by a return to systematic ambition in philosophy. As is well known, the latter half of the 20th century was marked by the development of numerous skeptical philosophies, (1) both in the continental and analytical traditions. (2) However, a growing number of serious thinkers (3) chose to eschew the skepticism of postmodern democratic materialism and once more engage in rigorous system building and metaphysical speculation. Intriguingly, many of these thinkers have bucked continental philosophy's traditional focus on the humanities as a source of inspiration, and begun to take seriously the questions posed by developments in the sciences and mathematics. (4)

My paper is conceived as a critical contribution to this growing literature, intended to clarify certain problematic controversies in the philosophy of nature. In particular, I will analyze the proposal Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin, (5) who have developed the most systematic philosophy of nature in some time, and who draw heavily on physics as a source of philosophical inspiration.

While there is much to admire in their philosophy of nature, this paper will argue that Unger and Smolin's have not developed an entirely successful philosophy of nature. I believe that the reason their project is not entirely successful lies in how Unger and Smolin interpret mathematics, especially the infinite. Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin rightly demand that a philosophy of nature make empirically testable claims which can be checked against referents in the physical sciences. It is only through such a genuinely scientific process that a continental ontology can assume the rigour and plausibility required to warrant widespread acceptance. However, I argue that Unger and Smolin are too quick to turn to a heuristic account of the infinite, and indeed mathematics as a whole. Their project advances too fundamentally anti-Platonic an agenda. They do not recognize how a rigorous mathematical concept of the infinite is necessary if we are to understand complex phenomena such as consciousness and if we are to think through philosophically perplexing features of nature. (6)

In the concluding sections, I will briefly offer some constructive remarks about how these limitations in Smolin and Unger's project can be overcome. Specifically, I will argue that the early Schelling offers (7) many philosophical resources to develop a modern and robust philosophy of nature. (8) I will therefore conclude this paper with a few preparatory remarks towards adopting a Schellingian approach to the philosophy of nature; albeit one that deviates from Schelling in several important respects.

Part I


In this section I will outline the proposal of Roberto Unger and Lee Smolin as presented in their opus--The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy. For the sake of edification, I will occasionally refer to their other published works. But the primary focus will always be on their most recent text, as it presents the mature articulation of their overall proposal.

Given the unprecedented nature of such an intense collaboration between a founding figure of the critical legal studies movement and a renowned physicist, it is worth briefly noting some autobiographical and intellectual parallels between the two authors. Roberto Unger began his career as an especially sharp critic of liberal legalism (9), before moving on to engage questions in social theory, (10) psychology, (11) philosophy, (12) politics, (13) and even religion. In between he has also been active politically, as Minister of Strategic Affairs in Brazil between 2007-2009 and again starting in 2015. Lee Smolin received his PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard in 1979 and now works at the Perimeter Institute at the University of Waterloo and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. …

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