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The Spectral Dilemma and the Instauration of the Divine: Latour contra Meillassoux

Michael Norton


Quentin Meillassoux has argued that lives irremediably ruined by injustice, suffering, and tragedy confront us with an irresolvable dilemma: either God exists to bring justice to the world (but such a God necessarily cannot be absolutely good), or God does not exist and true justice is an impossibility. He proposes to escape this dilemma by introducing the idea of a “virtual” God who does not exist now but who could unpredictably come into existence in the future. According to Meillassoux’s argument, such an event would entail a radical break with the world as we know it; at the same time, Meillassoux avows a thoroughgoing dismissal of any thought that relies on appeals to transcendence. This paper argues that Meillassoux’s notion of the inexistent God betrays his own commitment to immanence, and that Bruno Latour offers a more consistent and more constructive way of understanding the divine on immanent terms.

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1Quentin Meillassoux, in his essay “Spectral Dilemma,” argues that the figure of the “essential spectre” – a life irremediably ruined by injustice, pain, and tragedy – confronts us with an irresolvable dilemma. This dilemma is as follows: either God exists and will restore justice by granting more life (i.e., resurrection) to those unjustly deprived of it (yet such a god must forfeit any claim to absolute goodness, since this god has allowed such injustice to occur in the first place); or else God does not exist, and any real possibility of justice is abandoned [Meillssoux 2008b, p. 266]. Meillassoux proposes to escape this dilemma through his concept of divine “inexistence”: the idea that God does not exist now, but there is no reason that God may not come into existence at some point in the future to grant renewed life to those who have lost it. The inexistent god, according to Meillassoux’s terminology, is “virtual” insofar as its existence is not commensurable with the laws of nature as they now stand. This god’s coming-to-be must then entail a radical break with the world as we know it.

2In addition, Meillassoux argues that the only reasonable philosophical position – with regard to both ontology and ethics – is one that is thoroughly materialist, concerned only with what is immanent and without appeal to any kind of transcendence. Yet his theology (or, as he prefers it, “divinology”) presents us with a god whose existence is predicated on a complete transformation of this world into another world. By contrast, the conception of the divine that emerges throughout the recent work of Bruno Latour is one that is connected (radically so, I would say) to this world, while still providing a tenable alternative to both the metaphysical theism and the cynical atheism that Meillassoux finds unacceptable. In this paper, I will argue that Latour’s understanding of the divine mode of existence (which I will call, to contrast with Meillassoux’s proposal, the “actual” god) answers the challenge of the spectral dilemma more satisfactorily than does Meillassoux’s own virtual god – even and perhaps especially given the requirement of radical immanence.

The Spectral Dilemma

3The occurrence in the world of any suffering whatsoever may present us with seemingly irresolvable difficulties of both the ethical and theological varieties. Meillassoux, though, focuses on the most egregious losses:

premature deaths, odious deaths, the death of a child… Natural or violent deaths, deaths which cannot be come to terms with either by those whom they befall, or by those who survive them. [Meillassoux 2008b, p. 262]

4These are the figures of the “essential spectre,” whose mourning is a task that initially appears as something we cannot ever accomplish. It is in its attempt – the attempt to reconcile the possibility of my coming to terms with the inevitability of my own death with the impossibility of coming to terms with the premature or odious deaths of others – that leads on the one hand to the religious hope in the salvation of these others (as well as myself) by God [Meillassoux 2008b, p. 263]. On the other hand, the atheist denial of such salvation arises from the recognition that God would have allowed such suffering and death in the first place. Given the reality of the suffering symbolized by the essential spectre, at least one of these conclusions – God exists, or God does not exist – seems unavoidable; yet neither seem convincing. Thus, Meillassoux says, the spectral dilemma is “the aporetic alternative of atheism and religion when confronted with the mourning of essential spectres” [Meillassoux 2008b, p. 265].

5The spectral dilemma is, of course, a version of the main problem of traditional theodicy: if there exists a God who is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent creator of this world, why is there suffering? As Meillassoux recognizes, the traditional strategies for solving this problem – both theistic and atheistic ones – tend ultimately to be unsatisfying. However, he also does not think that the dilemma is irresolvable; its solution, according to his argument, lies in finding a third way in addition to what initially appear to be the only possible options (either God exists or God does not exist). Rather than align himself with either the apologetics of a theistic approach or a critically atheistic one, Meillassoux’s response to the problem is to try to distill what he takes to be the strongest points of each traditional side and combine them. With the atheist, he grants that belief in the present existence of God is a non-starter; there is simply no way around the logical contradiction between the simultaneous existence of God and evil. With the theist, though, he agrees that justice for those who have died odious deaths is not only a desirable possibility but in fact an ethical demand. It is on this basis that he introduces the concept of the inexistent God. This god, according to Meillassoux’s terminology, is properly speaking “virtual” insofar as the kind of existence it would imply is not commensurable with the laws of nature as they now stand. The existence of God, and the inauguration of a just world that God’s existence would necessarily entail, is not possible given the character of the world in which we now live [Meillassoux 2008b, p. 268]. However, Meillassoux maintains that this world and its laws are radically contingent, such that the probability or improbability of a fundamental change in the laws themselves cannot be determined. This indeterminability characterizes the virtuality of any true novelty, such as God’s coming to be. It cannot be deemed strictly impossible, but its occurrence would entail a radical break with the world as we know it.

6Despite the radicality of this break, Meillassoux insists that the only possible properly philosophical thought of God must be one that does not conceive of a transcendent being whose nature and existence exceeds what is thinkable by human reason. These requirements stem from his broader philosophical arguments, which outline a position that is so thoroughly materialist and immanentist that Meillassoux sometimes seems to go out of his way to expunge any hint of reference to traditional concepts of transcendence from his account. He also claims that “religion” is precisely that which is concerned above all with ideas of transcendence, and that it is essentially irrational. Therefore, he posits religion as that which is opposed, practically by definition, to the world-oriented reason of philosophy [Meillassoux 2011, p.230; cf. Meillassoux 2008a, p.46]. Thus, Meillassoux characterizes his position as fundamentally an “irreligious” one [Meillassoux 2010, p.444]. Nevertheless, he offers a detailed account of an event of divine being for which philosophical reason allows us to hope, an event that would necessarily (yet unpredictably) inaugurate the worldly advent of justice.

7Adherence to an ostensibly immanent eschatology thus forms the core of Meillassoux’s conception of God. Yet, such a God’s past and current “inexistence,” and the fundamental change in the conditions of the world (from injustice to justice) that Meillassoux argues would accompany this God’s coming into being, means that this God remains something radically other than this world. The salvation event that the arrival of God would bring about would have to be a complete transformation of this world into another world. Meillassoux emphasizes this in his argument that there have been three radical events in the past: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought. Each of these events constituted, in Meillassoux’s terminology, the inauguration of a new world that not only was previously unforeseeable but even the possibility of which was entirely indeterminable within the world which preceded it. While the conditions of a new world reside within the old world, there is never sufficient cause for the advent of a new world. Thus, the sudden advent of the world of justice – the Fourth World in which God exists and the injustices of suffering and odious deaths are abolished – is not a possibility contained in the world we know (the “third World”) even though this world provides the conditions for such an advent, just as the world of matter provided the conditions in which a world containing life could emerge.

8The way in which the conditions for the advent of the world of justice arise in this world is what connects us here and now to the God who does not yet exist – and indeed this is the crucial point that distinguishes Meillassoux’s position from one of simple atheism. Because human beings are thinking beings, we can recognize the injustices of this world and the need for their remedy. We can thus hope for the advent of justice, even as we understand that we cannot bring it about under the current constitution of the world. This hope, then, constitutes the only link between the current world and the virtual God – albeit a necessarily link, Meillassoux argues, faced with the inescapable injustices of our world. “God does not exist,” he states, “and it is necessary to believe in God” [Meillassoux 2011, p.233]. This necessary belief, however, must remain only a belief in the “not yet” or the “perhaps” that characterizes the virtuality of God if it is not to lapse into the religiosity that Meillassoux claims is anathema to speculative philosophy generally and to ethics particularly.

9It is in this limitation on both the nature and the object of belief, coupled with Meillassoux’s repeated insistence on the radical difference between this world and the world of justice, that sheds light on the difficulty of maintaining that Meillassoux’s position is one devoid of reference to the transcendent. Meillassoux presents a sophisticated argument showing how the inexistent God, if such a God were to arrive, would necessarily exist alongside the humans whose lives this God had redeemed – indeed as one of them, giving up any transcendent powers once the advent of justice is complete [Meillassoux 2011, p.224]. Yet, this argument makes it clear that the inexistent God in whom Meillassoux would have us place our hope is not in any way immanent in this world, but only the next one. Indeed, he even goes so far as to claim, via an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, that true immanence cannot even be achieved in this world. He argues that the thought of Eternal Recurrence that Nietzsche presents as nearly impossible to bear for humans is precisely the thought of an unending repetition of our lives, and thus ultimately of our immortality. Therefore, he concludes that “the genuine experience of immanence is therefore not available in our immediate world,” because our immediate world is not somewhere in which we are able to persist eternally. A “genuine immanence” could only be available to us in a world in which we are not limited by our mortality [Meillassoux 2010, p.469]. That is to say, genuine and complete immanence is only possible in the other world of justice, where we are freed from suffering and death.

10It is difficult not to see in this position an artfully disguised recourse to a metaphysical transcendence that turns its back to the factical concerns of this life (no matter how closely Meillassoux wants to associate his concept of hope with a demand for immediate ethical action). This tendency goes hand in hand with the simplistic and largely derogatory understanding of religion that Meillassoux puts forward: his argument implicitly relies on this caricature in order to bring his own philosophical hope of the next world into relief. This hope for the eventual advent of a just world (which can only appear at the arrival of the currently inexistent God) is purely rational and philosophical, because religious hope by contrast is necessarily hope for that which we cannot truly think. If it is the case, however, that religion is not necessarily as irrational as Meillassoux claims it is – if it is not exclusively occupied with thoughts of metaphysics and pure transcendence – then it becomes much harder to claim that his position is not simply a variation on traditional theological themes. Indeed, Adrian Johnston argues on the basis not only of Meillassoux’s explicit divinology but also by way of a critical reading of his broader philosophical arguments in After Finitude and elsewhere, that Meillassoux has not wholly jettisoned elements of religiosity from his position [Johnston 2011]. Johnston criticizes Meillassoux for this infidelity to thoroughgoing materialism, but I want to suggest that the problem that Meillassoux’s position faces is not a lingering religiosity but rather a failure to acknowledge figures of religiosity that evade the caricature of religion he presents. Such figures can offer better ways to think about both factical religious life and the possible modes of existence that belong to the objects of religious devotion, ultimately leading the way toward a hope for the advent of justice within this world.

The Instauration of the Divine

11Bruno Latour proposes an understanding of the divine that is radically connected to this world, one which both offers an effective alternative to the metaphysical theism and the cynical atheism that Meillassoux finds unacceptable and provides a suitably complex and sophisticated account of religious life. Indeed, one of the starkest differences between the two philosophers’ positions has to do with their respective views of religion. As we have seen, Meillassoux holds that religion is concerned with metaphysical beliefs, irrationality, and dependence on the transcendent. Latour, on the other hand, holds that it is precisely not the business of religion to direct our attention to transcendent entities or values. It is in fact science that directs our attention to what is far away, bringing into view distant galaxies and involving us in the daily struggles of microscopic bacteria. Religion is instead concerned with the character of the everyday world, of what is nearby [Latour 2010, p.110]. Religion is that which effects the transformation of that in our present environment to which we are indifferent into that which is most dear, inspiring not the blind zeal of the fanatic but rather the passionate fervor that Meillassoux claims is part and parcel of the hope for justice. In addition, it is important to note that Latour explicitly admits that in his account of religion he uses the term as a practical expedient, recognizing that “there is no essence of the religious, nothing that allows us to designate such diverse forms of life using the same term” [Latour 2013b, p.152]. Meillassoux, on the other hand, betrays no such sensitivity to the diversity of religious life – primarily, it seems, due to the fact that he conceives religion only as a particular epistemological, ontological, and logical (or rather, illogical) position and not as a matter of behavior or existential concern.

12The difference between these two conceptions of religion is thus not simply semantic. It ultimately stems from the two philosophers’ respective ontologies, and it perhaps comes most to the fore in their corresponding concepts of God. One crucial example of this is the fact that Meillassoux sees the irruption of real novelty as having occurred at only three past events and as possible in the future only in the advent of justice that would accompany the virtual God. Latour, however, finds in this world a ceaseless play of creativities that can never be completely reduced to determination by physical laws or even statistical probabilities. The movements of evolution (which include both organic and inorganic forms) occur only on the basis of a disjointure, a “hiatus” between antecedents and consequents [Latour 2009, p.470] that Latour also describes as “mini-transcendences necessary to the subsistence of beings in the process of instauration” [Latour 2013a, p.175]. These “mini-transcendences” are only transcendences in the sense that they enable movement beyond one immediate moment or state of the world to the next; they erupt entirely from and within the world. According to Latour, then, immanence is not opposed to transcendence as such, but rather only to an idea of transcendence for which relation remains a secondary concern. Neither religious nor philosophical thought could meaningfully occupy itself with such an object, yet within the immanent networks of relations there always remain the possibility for the irruption of novel associations and ways of being. It is thus no more necessary to posit a virtual God whose appearance would constitute a radical break with a state of affairs that has remained fundamentally unchanged for millions or billions of years, than it is to posit an Intelligent Designer whose will established this state of affairs in the first place. The same immanent creative forces can account both for the possibility (and actual emergence) of novelty in the past and present and for the possibility of the emergence of a better future, the hope for which would remain reasonable without being constrained by a narrowly defined “rationality.” Indeed, this possibility is not only always given as a possibility, it is also always already being realized in the creativity of beings in the world – a creativity in and as which the actual god can be recognized.

13For Latour, the divine is always already deeply enmeshed in the relationships and activities of beings in this world, here and now. This is not because God or gods come to the world from a transcendent realm in order to become engaged with worldly beings – Latour has no more affection for creationist or interventionist theologies that rely on metaphysical conception of the transcendent than does Meillassoux [Latour 2010, p.44]. Instead, it is because divinity is always first and foremost of the actual world that God is involved with the actual world. To be divine, to exist as an actual god would exist, means to be composed, fabricated, or instaurated. Latour explains why he uses this last word – adopted from Étienne Souriau – by comparing it to the term “constructed”: the two words are nearly synonymous, except that talk of construction leads one to look for a “constructor” by whose willful action something comes into being, in much the same way as a clay pot.

But the opposite move,” Latour argues, “of saying of a work of art that it results from an instauration, is to get oneself ready to see the potter as the one who welcomes, gathers, prepares, explores, and invents the form of the work, just as one discovers or ‘invents’ a treasure. [Latour 2011, p.311]

14Thinking in terms of instauration is applicable, according to both Latour and Souriau, not only to works of art but to all different kinds of beings – to scientific objects, to social collectives, and to divinities.

15Consequently, the Latourian God is no less real or more real than political parties, corporations, dogs, diseases, or matchsticks. According to Latour, the reality of any of these objects depends on their being fabricated according to their particular mode of existence. The divine mode of existence, then, is the one in which a god or gods become actual by virtue of being brought into certain kinds of religious relationships, relationships which will be immanently and creatively transformative. As an example, Latour offers an account of his experience participating in an ethnopsychiatric session at the Georges Devereux Center in Paris [Latour 2010, pp.36ff.]. Such sessions are often conducted with non-European immigrants as the “patients,” though this designation is misleading since family members, doctors, social workers, and researchers can also be present – and all who are present must actively participate in the session. As Latour explains, insofar as divinities are objects endowed with some significance in the world of the “patient,” they also become part of the session. Questions regarding their reality, their existence or non-existence, soon fade away to insignificance. Importantly, this is not a matter of a phenomenological bracketing of belief, and even less of indulging in the beliefs of a psychiatric patient for her own good. As the session proceeds, according to Latour, subjectivity and agency shift away from the individual patient and are transferred not only onto the entire group but, beyond that, onto the divinities whose existence has been simultaneously discovered and constructed, or instaurated. It takes a setting like this one, though, to bring to the fore such a creative event – that is, a setting in which the modern concepts of subjectivity and belief are disassembled or circumvented. “It must be possible to make a place for the divinities again,” Latour writes, “provided that we modify the space in which they might be deployed” [Latour 2010, p.39]. Such a modification is in fact a recognition of possibilities latent in the world in which we already live. Despite what Latour calls the modern work of purification (by which things are distinguished as objects or subjects, facts or fabrications, natural or cultural, etc.), there have never ceased to be endless varieties of hybrid beings manifesting themselves according to several different modes of existence, the divine being simply one of these modes.

16The actuality of God (or gods) is, for Latour, related to the possibility and efficacy of religious practice at the level of factical life. The modern Western notion of “belief,” which attempts to reduce religion to a matter of assent to certain sets of propositions, has in fact done much to cover over such possibility and erode its efficacy [Latour 1999, p.274]. Under the influence of this concept of belief, it is no wonder that Meillassoux is able to push religion aside as metaphysical, irrational, and thus anti-philosophical. However, just as Latour argues that the “natural” and the “social” continue to intermingle despite modern thought’s continued effort to distinguish them, so he holds that divinity remains actual in this world as long as the religious remain immanently engaged with divinity through their practices [Latour 2010, p.6]. Moreover, the practices in question – the diverse forms of practice that can reasonably be called “religious” – take place in the context of particular communities and traditions. It is by way of inheriting and translating traditions that the religious continually renew their communities and actualize their divinities. Not only does Latour claim that the salvation for which the religious hope cannot occur anywhere other than within the “sedimentary strata” of worldly communities; he also maintains that the (re-)constitution of such communities is nothing else than the instauration of the actual god. “There is no G[od],” he writes, “that is not this very labour of revival and evaluation, reform and straying” [Latour 2013b, p.161]. Meillassoux’s God, by contrast, remains virtual (barring the radical advent of justice) and connected to this world only by way of speculative thought. Even if that thought is one of a hope that leads to ethical action, Meillassoux is resolute in his claim that no such action can make it any more (or less) likely that the virtual God will finally become actual [Meillassoux 2011, p.208]. Furthermore, it is at best unclear whether such thought emerges from or is generative of any kind of community. It is evident, though, that Meillassoux sees little value in the factical life of religious communities.


17Meillassoux sets a radical commitment to immanence as a fundamental requirement for any thought worthy of the term – including the concept of God and the hope for a better, more just future. The ethical demand placed on us by the victims of irremediable injustice, he argues, makes this requirement inescapable. Yet, as I have argued, his own position ultimately fails to meet this requirement insofar as it relies on the hope for the transformation of this world into another world in order for its understanding of both justice and God to make sense. It is also important to note that Meillassoux’s argument for the purely philosophical provenance of his concept of the virtual God (and his dismissal of any other) involves the claim that humans, by virtue of our ability to think, sit as it were at the center of the ethical universe. The justice hoped for by Meillassoux is a justice for humans alone, because only humans have access to the universal truths on which rest the demands of ethics.

18Latour, on the other hand, offers an understanding of divine existence according to which God is actual (or at least can be actual) in this world, as long as the practices of an actual religious community are able to instaurate this actuality by renewing their tradition. This practice-oriented understanding of divine instauration – which does not rely on the modern notion of belief – offers a more viable alternative to the (ultimately false) dilemma of metaphysical theism and cynical atheism than Meillassoux’s belief in divine existence. For Latour, in addition, the salvation which the divine instauration makes possible is the salvation of humans and non-humans alike. An actual god, understood according to Latour’s conception, would stand as the figure of the alleviation not only of human suffering but of the suffering of all beings, insofar as the creativity that is part and parcel of the divine instauration resides within and between humans and non-humans alike. In the present era, rife as it is with ecological as well as humanitarian crises, we humans would be remiss not to hope for the salvation of all and not only ourselves.

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Adrian Johnston, “Hume’s Revenge: À Dieu, Meillassoux?” in The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (ed.), Melbourne,, 2011

Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1999

Bruno Latour, “Will Non-humans Be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15, 2009

Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010

Bruno Latour, “Reflections on Étienne Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence,” in The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (ed.), Melbourne,, 2011

Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2013a

Bruno Latour, Rejoicing, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013b

Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, London, Continuum, 2008a

Quentin Meillassoux, “Spectral Dilemma”, Collapse IV, 2008b

Quentin Meillassoux, “The Immanence of the World Beyond,” in The Grandeur of Reason, P. M. Candler and C. Cunningham (ed.), London, SCM, 2010

Quentin Meillassoux, “Divine Inexistence,” in Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2011

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Michael Norton, « The Spectral Dilemma and the Instauration of the Divine: Latour contra Meillassoux »ThéoRèmes [En ligne], 6 | 2014, mis en ligne le 19 juin 2014, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Norton

Department of Philosophy & Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Arkansas at Little Rock

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