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Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities


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Towards a Materialist Theology


Slavoj iek
a a

Department of Philosophy , University of Ljubljana , Ljubljana, Slovenia E-mail: Published online: 14 Jun 2007.

To cite this article: Slavoj iek (2007) Towards a Materialist Theology, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 12:1, 19-26 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09697250701309528

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ANGEL AK I
journal of the theoretical humanities volume 12 number 1 april 2007

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n September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI caused uproar in Muslim circles when he quoted the infamous lines of a fourteenth-century Byzantine Emperor: Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find only evil and inhumanity, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached. Some commentators defended the Popes remarks as the beginning of a serious theological dialogue between Christianity and Islam; along these lines, Jeff Israely praised the Popes razorsharp intellect for shifting

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the terms of a debate that has been dominated by either feel-good truisms, victimization complexes or hateful confrontation. He sought instead to delineate what he sees as a fundamental difference between Christianitys view that God is intrinsically linked to reason (the Greek concept of Logos) and Islams view that God is absolutely transcendent. Benedict said Islam teaches that Gods will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. The risk he sees implicit in this concept of the divine is that the irrationality of violence might thereby appear to be justified to someone who believes it is Gods will. The essential question, he said, is this: Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts Gods nature . . . always and intrinsically true?1

TOWARDS A MATERIALIST THEOLOGY

In the same move, the Pope also condemned the Western godless secularism in which the divine gift of reason has been warped into an absolutist doctrine. The conclusion is clear: reason and faith must come together in a new way, discovering their shared ground in the divine Logos, and it is to this great Logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.2

Whenever someone proposes such a simplistic Aristotelian middle-of-the-road solution of avoiding the two extremes, everyone acquainted with the Stalinist notion of the party line as the proper path between the rightist deviation (in the Popes case: Muslim irrationalism) and the leftist deviation (godless secularism) should react with great suspicion there are two things at least to add. First, the Popes remarks which provoked outrage among Muslims should be read together with his remarks, a week earlier, on the irrationality of Darwinism. The Pope removed Father George Coyne from his position as director of the Vatican Observatory after the American Jesuit priest repeatedly contradicted the Popes endorsement of intelligent design theory,

ISSN 0969-725X print/ISSN1469-2899 online/07/010019^ 8 2007 Taylor & Francis and the Editors of Angelaki DOI: 10.1080/09697250701309528

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which essentially backs the Adam and Eve idea of creation. The Pope favors intelligent design, which says God directs the process of evolution, over Charles Darwins original theory, which holds that species evolve through the random, unplanned processes of genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest. Father Coyne, on the contrary, is an outspoken supporter of Darwins theory, arguing that it is compatible with Christianity. The Pope wrote in Truth and Tolerance:
The question is whether reality originated on the basis of chance and necessity and, thus, from what is irrational; that is, whether reason, being a chance by-product of irrationality and floating in an ocean of irrationality, is ultimately just as meaningless; or whether the principle that represents the fundamental conviction of Christian faith and of its philosophy remains true In principio erat Verbum at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason. Now as then, Christian faith represents the choice in favor of the priority of reason and of rationality.

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just is as it is, only if it is secretly sustained by an arbitrary divine will. This is why Descartes is the founding figure of modern science precisely when he made even the most elementary mathematical facts like 2 2 4 dependent on the arbitrary divine will: 2 2 4 because God willed it so, with no hidden obscure chain of reasons behind it. Even in mathematics, this unconditional voluntarism is discernible in its axiomatic character: one begins by arbitrarily positing a series of axioms, out of which then everything else is supposed to follow.) Second qualification: but is Islam really so irrational, does it really celebrate a totally transcendent/irrational God above reason? In the same issue of Time magazine in which Israely published his praise of the Pope, there is an interesting interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who advocates exactly the same unity of reason (logic) and spirituality. To the question as to what he would tell Bush in the public debate between the two that he proposed, Ahmadinejad replied:
I would ask him, Are rationalism, spirituality and humanitarianism and logic are they bad things for human beings? Why more conflict? Why should we go for hostilities? Why should we develop weapons of mass destruction? Everybody can love one another . . . I have said we can run the world through logic . . . Problems cannot be solved through bombs. Bombs are of little use today. We need logic.3

This, then, is the first qualification one must add: the reason of which the Pope speaks is a Reason for which Darwins theory of evolution (and, ultimately, modern science itself, for which the assertion of the contingency of the universe, the break with the Aristotelian teleology, is a constitutive axiom) is irrational. The reason of which the Pope speaks is the pre-modern teleological Reason, the view of the universe as a harmonious Whole in which everything serves a higher purpose. (Which is why, paradoxically, the Popes remarks obfuscate the key role of Christian theology in the birth of modern science: what paved the way for modern science was precisely the voluntarist idea elaborated, among others, by Duns Scotus and Descartes, that God is not bound by any eternal rational truths. That is to say, while the illusory perception of the scientific discourse is that it is a discourse of pure description of facticity, the paradox resides in the coincidence of bare facticity and radical voluntarism: facticity can be sustained as meaningless, as something that

And, effectively, from the perspective of Islam, it is Christianity as the religion of Love which is not rational enough: its focus on love makes God all too human, biased, in the figure of Christ who intervenes in creation as an engaged and combative figure, allowing his passion to overrun the logic of the creator and master of the universe. The Muslim God, on the contrary, is the true God of Reason; he is wholly transcendent not in the sense of frivolous irrationality, but in the sense of the supreme Creator who knows and directs everything and has thus no need to get involved in earthly accidents with partial passion. Mohammad Bouyeri, the Islamist who killed the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, wrote in his

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letter to Hirshi Ali, stuck by a knife into van Goghs body:
You, as unbelieving fundamentalist, of course dont believe that there is a Higher Power who runs the universe. You dont believe in your heart, with which you repudiate the truth, that you must knock and ask this Higher Power for permission. You dont believe that your tongue with which you repudiate the Direction of this Higher Power is subservient to His laws.4

nonsense about miracles . . . This was Chestertons basic insight and conviction: that the irrationalism of the late nineteenth century was the necessary consequence of the Enlightenment rationalist attack on religion:
The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defenses erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all the authority of a man to think . . . In so far as religion is gone, reason is going.7

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This idea, according to which our very acts of opposing God are directed by God, is unthinkable in Christianity. No wonder, then, that Islam finds it much easier to accept the (for our common sense) paradoxical results of modern physics: the notion of an all-encompassing rational order which runs against our common sense. The underlying logic of Islam is that of a rationality that can be weird, but allows for no exception, while the underlying logic of Christianity is that of an irrational exception (unfathomable divine mystery) which sustains our rationality or, as G.K. Chesterton put it, the Christian doctrine not only discovered the law, but it foresaw the exceptions:5 it is only the exception which allows us to perceive the miracle of the universal rule. And, for Chesterton, the same goes for our rational understanding of the universe:
The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid . . . The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility.6

Here, however, we encounter Chestertons fateful limitation, a limitation which he himself overcame when, in his wonderful text on the Book of Job, he shows why God has to rebuke his own defenders, the mechanical and supercilious comforters of Job:
The mechanical optimist endeavors to justify the universe avowedly upon the ground that it is a rational and consecutive pattern. He points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. That is the one point, if I may put it so, on which God, in return, is explicit to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything. Hath the rain a father? . . . Out of whose womb came the ice? (38.28f.). He goes farther, and insists on the positive and palpable unreason of things; Hast thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is, and upon the wilderness wherein there is no man? (38.26) . . . To startle man, God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking

Chestertons aim is thus to save reason through sticking to its founding exception: deprived of it, reason degenerates into a blind self-destructive skepticism; in short: into total irrationalism or, as Chesterton liked to repeat: if you do not believe in God, you will soon be ready to believe anything, including the most superstitious

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in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made.8

God is here no longer the miraculous exception which guarantees the normality of the universe, the unexplainable X who enables us to explain everything else; he is, on the contrary, himself overwhelmed by the overbrimming miracle of his Creation. Upon a closer look, there is nothing normal in our universe everything, every small thing that is, is a miraculous exception; viewed from a proper perspective, every normal thing is a monstrosity. We should not take horses as normal and the unicorn as a miraculous exception even a horse, the most ordinary thing in the world, is a shattering miracle. This blasphemous God is the God of modern science, since modern science is sustained precisely by such an attitude of wondering at the most obvious. In short, modern science is on the side of believing in anything: is one of the lessons of the theory of relativity and quantum physics not that modern science undermines our most elementary natural attitudes and compels us to believe (accept) the most nonsensical things? To clarify this conundrum, Lacans logic of the non-All can be of some help again.9 Chesterton obviously relies on the masculine side of universality and its constitutive exception: everything obeys natural causality with the exception of God, the central Mystery. The logic of modern science is, on the contrary, feminine: first, it is materialist, accepting the axiom that nothing escapes natural causality which can be accounted for by rational explanation; however, the other side of this materialist axiom is that not all is rational, obeying natural laws not in the sense that there is something irrational, something that escapes rational causality, but in the sense that it is the totality of rational causal order itself which is inconsistent, irrational, non-all. Only this non-All guarantees the proper opening of the scientific discourse to surprises, to the intrusions of the unthinkable: who, in the nineteenth century, could have imagined things like relativity theory or quantum physics?

The Catholic Church was therefore, as a rule, always on the side of the common-sense realism and universal natural explanation, from Chesterton to Pope John Paul II who endorsed both evolutionism with the exception of the unique moment when God imparts to humans the immortal soul and contemporary cosmology with the exception of the unfathomable singularity Big Bang, the point at which natural laws are suspended (this is why he implored scientists to leave alone the mystery of the Big Bang). No wonder that many neo-Thomists noted a weird similarity between their own ontology and the ontology of dialectical materialism, both defending a version of na ve realism (objects that we perceive really exist out there independently of our perception).10 This is why both Catholicism and dialectical materialism had such problems with the open ontology of quantum mechanics. That is to say, how are we to interpret its so-called principle of uncertainty which prohibits us from attaining full knowledge of particles at the quantum level (to determine the velocity and the position of a particle)? For Einstein, this principle of uncertainty proves that quantum physics does not provide a full description of reality, that there must be some unknown features missed by its conceptual apparatus. Heisenberg, Bohr, and others, on the contrary, insisted that this incompleteness of our knowledge of quantum reality points towards a strange incompleteness of quantum reality itself, a claim which leads to a breathtakingly weird ontology. When we want to simulate reality within an artificial (virtual, digital) medium, we do not have to go to the end: we just have to reproduce features which make the image realistic from the spectators point of view. For example, if there is a house in the background, we do not have to construct a program of the houses entire interior, since we expect that the participant will not want to enter the house; or, the construction of a virtual person in this space can be limited to his exterior no need to bother with inner organs, bones, etc. We just need to install a program that will promptly fill in this gap if the participants activity

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necessitates it (for example, if he cuts deep into the virtual persons body with a knife). It is like when we scroll down a long piece of text on a computer screen: earlier and later pages do not pre-exist our viewing them; in the same way, when we simulate a virtual universe, the microscopic structure of objects can be left blank, and if stars on the horizon appear hazy we need not bother to construct the way they would appear on closer inspection, since no one will go up there to take such a look at them. The truly interesting idea here is that the quantum indeterminacy which we encounter when we inquire into the tiniest components of our universe can read in exactly the same way, as a feature of the limited resolution of our simulated world, i.e., as the sign of the ontological incompleteness of (what we experience as) reality itself. That is to say, let us imagine a God who is creating the world for us, its human inhabitants, to dwell in his task
could be made easier by furnishing it only with those parts that its inhabitants need to know about. For example, the microscopic structure of the Earths interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required. If the most distant stars are hazy, no one is ever going to get close enough to them to notice that something is amiss.11

The idea is that God who created programmed our universe was too lazy (or, rather, he underestimated our human intelligence): he thought that we, humans, will not succeed in probing into the structure of nature beyond the level of atoms, so he programmed the Matrix of our universe only to the level of its atomic structure beyond it, he simply left things fuzzy, like a house whose interior is not programmed in a PC game.12 Is, however, the theologico-digital way the only way to read this paradox? We can read it as a sign that we already live in a simulated universe, but also as a signal of the ontological incompleteness of reality itself. In the first case, the ontological incompleteness is transposed into an epistemological one, i.e., the

incompleteness is perceived as the effect of the fact that another (secret, but fully real) agency constructed our reality as a simulated universe. The truly difficult thing is to accept the second choice, the ontological incompleteness of reality itself. That is to say, what immediately arises is a massive common-sense reproach: but how can this ontological incompleteness hold for reality itself? Is not reality defined by its ontological completeness?13 If reality really exists out there, it has to be complete all the way down, otherwise we are dealing with a fiction which just hangs in the air, like appearances that are not appearances of a substantial Something. Here, precisely, quantum physics enters, offering a model of how to think (or imagine, at least) such open ontology. Alain Badiou formulated this same idea in his notion of pure multiplicity as the ultimate ontological category: reality is the multiplicity of multiplicities which cannot be generated or constituted from (or reduced to) some form of Ones as its elementary (atomic) constituents. Multiplicities are not multiplications of One, they are irreducible multiplicities, which is why their opposite is not One but Zero, the ontological void: no matter how far we progress in our analysis of multiplicities, we never reach the zero-level of its simple constituents the only background of multiplicities is thus Zero, the void.14 Therein resides Badious ontological breakthrough: the primordial opposition is not that of One and Zero, but that of Zero and multiplicities, and the One emerges later. To put it even more radically, since only Ones fully really exist, multiplicities and Zero are the same thing (not one and the same thing): Zero is multiplicities without Ones which would guarantee their ontological consistency. This ontological openness allows us to approach in a new way Kants second antinomy of pure reason whose thesis is: Every composite substance in the world consists of simple parts; and there exists nothing that is not either itself simple, or composed of simple parts.15 Here is Kants proof:
For, grant that composite substances do not consist of simple parts; in this case, if all combination or composition were annihilated

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in thought, no composite part, and (as, by the supposition, there do not exist simple parts) no simple part would exist. Consequently, no substance; consequently, nothing would exist. Either, then, it is impossible to annihilate composition in thought; or, after such annihilation, there must remain something that subsists without composition, that is, something that is simple. But in the former case the composite could not itself consist of substances, because with substances composition is merely a contingent relation, apart from which they must still exist as self-subsistent beings. Now, as this case contradicts the supposition, the second must contain the truth that the substantial composite in the world consists of simple parts. It follows, as an immediate inference, that the things in the world are all, without exception, simple beings that composition is merely an external condition pertaining to them and that, although we never can separate and isolate the elementary substances from the state of composition, reason must cogitate these as the primary subjects of all composition, and consequently, as prior thereto and as simple substances.16

What, however, if we accept the conclusion that, ultimately, nothing exists? Such a move, although rejected by Kant as obvious nonsense, is not as un-Kantian as it may appear: it is here that one should apply yet again the Kantian distinction between negative and infinite judgment. The statement material reality is all there is can be negated in two ways: in the form of material reality isnt all there is and material reality is non-all. The first negation (of a predicate) leads to the standard metaphysics: material reality isnt everything, there is another, higher, spiritual reality . . . As such, this negation is, in accordance with Lacans formulas of sexuation, inherent to the positive statement material reality is all there is: as its constitutive exception, it grounds its universality. If, however, we assert a non-predicate and say material reality is non-all, this merely asserts the nonAll of reality without implying any exception paradoxically, one should thus claim that material reality is non-all, not material

reality is all there is, is the true formula of materialism. Does this ontological fuzziness of reality also not allow us a new approach to modernism in painting? Are the stains which blur the transparency of a realist representation, which impose themselves as stains, not precisely the indications that the contours of constituted reality are blurred, that we are approaching the preontological level of fuzzy proto-reality? Therein resides the crucial shift a viewer has to accomplish: stains are not obstacles that prevent our direct access to represented reality, they are, on the contrary, more real than reality, something that undermines from within the ontological consistency of reality or, to put it in old-fashioned philosophical terms, their status is not epistemological but ontological. Perhaps one should also address along these lines the standard problem of how to unite the causal description of an event with its reading as a free human act: where, in the network of natural necessity, is the space for freedom? Is the teleological causality of motivation (I did something because I aimed to achieve some goal) just an epiphenomenon, a mental translation of a process which can (also) be fully described at a purely physical level of natural determinism, or does such a teleological causation effectively possess a power of its own and fill in the gap in direct physical causality? The underlying premise here is that the causality of natural necessity reaches all the way down is, however, the level of totally deterministic behavior of elements really the zero-level of the ontological structure of reality? What about the lesson of quantum physics, according to which there is, beneath the solid material reality, the level of quantum waves where determinism breaks down? In this way, one could claim that the indeterminacy discovered by quantum physics opens up the space within which the higher level teleological causality can determine the lower level material events, without relying on any spiritualist notions of the power of our minds magically suspending natural causality.

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Apropos the fear that the brain sciences will demonstrate how we, humans, are in reality merely neuro-biological mechanisms, how there is nobody home beneath the surface of our phenomenal (self-)experience, one should fully assume this fear and avoid the primordial idealist lure which pushes us to substantialize our consciousness in some determinate component of reality (the trap to which David Chalmers succumbed in an exemplary way). Effectively there is nothing behind, since consciousness is entirely phenomenal: the moment one puts in brackets the phenomenal level of (self-)awareness and limits oneself to reality, consciousness by definition disappears. It is as if one were to take a close look at a rainbow in order to locate some mysterious X in reality that corresponds to a rainbow in itself . . . Consciousness thus confronts us with the hard task of grasping the effectiveness, the (quasi-)causal power, of the appearance as such. The only true alternative to this ontological fuzziness is the no less paradoxical idea that, at some point, the endless progress of dividing reality into its components reaches its end when the division is no longer the division into 2 (or more) parts/somethings, but the division into a part (something) and nothing. This would have been the proof that we have reached the most elementary constituent of reality: when something can only be further divided into a something and a nothing. Do these two options not refer again to Lacans formulas of sexuation, so that the irreducible-multiplicity option is feminine and the division of the last term into something and nothing is masculine? Furthermore, is it not that, if we can reach the point of last division (and thus the ultimate One, the last constituent of reality), then there is no creation proper, nothing really new emerges, merely the (re)combinations of existing elements, while the feminine fuzziness of reality opens up the space for creation proper? The underlying problem here is: how do we pass from multitudethat-is-Zero to the emergence of One? Is it that One is a multiple which stands for nothing, i.e., is it that Ones exist only at the level of re-presentation? One can argue that atheism is truly thinkable only within monotheism: it is this reduction of many (gods) to one (god) that enables us to confront directly 1 and 0, i.e., to erase 1 and thus obtain 0.17 This fact was often noted, but it was as a rule taken as a proof that atheism cannot stand on its own legs, that it can only vegetate in the shadow of Christian monotheism:
Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians god is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies. If atheism has a future, it can only be in a Christian revival; but in fact Christianity and atheism are declining together.18

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What, however, if we turn this argument around: what if the affinity between monotheism and atheism demonstrates not that atheism depends on monotheism, but that monotheism itself prefigures atheism within the field of religion its God is from the very (Jewish) beginning a dead one, in clear contrast with the pagan gods who irradiate cosmic vitality. Insofar as the truly materialist axiom is the assertion of primordial multiplicity, the One which precedes this multiplicity can only be Zero itself. No wonder, then, that only in Christianity as the only truly consequent monotheism god himself turns momentarily into an atheist. What, then, is the proper atheist stance? Not a continuous desperate struggle against theism, of course but also not a simple indifference to belief. That is to say, what if, in a kind of negation of negation, true atheism should return to belief (faith?), asserting it without reference to god ? Only atheists can truly believe, the only true belief is the belief without any support in the authority of some presupposed figure of big Other. One can also conceive these three positions (theism, and negative and positive atheism) along the lines of the Kantian triad of positive, negative, and infinite judgment: while the positive statement I believe in god can be negated as I dont believe in god, one can also imagine a kind of infinite negation, not so

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much I believe in un-god (which would be closer to negative theology), but, rather, something like unbelief, the pure form of belief deprived of its substantialization the unbelief is still the form of belief, like the undead who, as the living dead, remain dead.
resides in the assertion that the finite (determinate, positive-substantial) reality is in itself void, inconsistent, self-sublating. However, from this, it does not follow that this reality is just a shadow, a secondary reflection, etc., of some higher reality: there is nothing but this reality, and the suprasensible is appearance qua appearance, i.e., the very movement of the self-sublation of this reality. So we really pass from nothing through nothing to nothing: the starting point, immediate reality, deploys its nothingness, it cancels itself, negates itself, but there is nothing beyond it . . . This is why Hegel cannot be situated with regard to the opposition between transcendence and immanence: his position is that of the absoluteimmanence of transcendence. In other words, his position can be grasped only in a temporal shift: first, one asserts transcendence (in an apophatic way) ^ immanent/immediate positive reality is not all, it has to be negated/overcome, it points beyond itself; then, this overcoming is posited as thoroughly immanent: what is beyond immediate reality is not another higher reality, but the movement of its negation as such. 14 See Alain Badiou, Being and Event (London: Continuum, 2006). 15 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London: Everyman,1988) 264. 16 Ibid. 264 ^ 65. 17 I owe this insight to Stathis Gourgouris, Columbia University. 18 John Gray, Straw Dogs (London: Granta, 2003) 126 ^27 .

notes
1 Jeff Israely, The Pontiff has a Point, Time 25 Sept. 2006: 33. 2 Ibid.

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3 We Do Not Need Attacks, Time 25 Sept. 2006: 24 ^25. 4 Available at 5http://www.militantislammonitor. org/article/id/3204 . 5 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: Lane, 1909) 105. 6 Ibid. 33. 7 Ibid. 39. 8 G.K. Chesterton,Introduction to Book of Job in Orthodoxy 137 9 For the logic of non-All, see Jacques Lacan, Seminar, Book XX: Encore (New Y ork: Norton, 1998). 10 Here, even a towering figure like Lenin was not a materialist: as it was already observed by his critics, when, in his Materialism and Empiriocriticism, he proposes as a minimal definition of materialism the assertion of external objective reality that exists independently of our minds, leaving open (as relying on scientific progress, not on philosophy) any further determination of this reality. Is, however, according to this criterion, Platos idealism not materialist, since ideas definitely exist independently of our minds? It is clear that, for Lenin, the consciousness which reflects external reality is the Exception. 11 See Nicholas Fearn, Philosophy: The Latest Answers to the Oldest Questions (London: Atlantic Books, 2005) 77 . 12 Ibid. 77^78. 13 The opposition to this notion of ontological completeness defines Hegels Idealism: its core

iz Slavoj Z ek Department of Philosophy University of Ljubljana Ljubljana Slovenia E-mail: slavoj.zizek@guest.arnes.si