Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Dennett, Whitehead, and Bellah

What follows is an early draft of a presentation I’ll give at the International Whitehead Conference in June. Comments (constructive or critical) are welcome.


I should like to be able to speak to you, as a philosophical cosmologist, about the origins of human spirituality and religion. But because I am speaking to you from within a particular social context and historical era, and because I like all persons have my own unique way of relating to and evaluating the religious problematic, there is no point in pretending that I can impartially access and lay bare the plain facts of the matter. To inquire into the origins of our species—and to connect those origins to the emergence of religious behavior—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or merely academic way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. It provides us with the narratives that give meaning to our existence, that tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. At the same time, religious values are matters of fact arising in the universe of human experience that require interpretation within an adequate cosmological scheme.


Even the most sober-minded materialistic scientists slip into the narrative or mythic mode when they inquire into human origins. The evolutionary form of explanation is especially prone to slip into this mode, since its narrative element is so strong. Evolutionary theory is historical through and through, and to erase the element of story in it would be to rob the theory of all its explanatory power. To understand why a leaf insect looks the way it does today, we need to tell a story about its past, a past none of us was there to observe. It is a strange irony that so many materialists believe evolutionary theory spells the end of religion—that finally, thanks to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the apparent design of living organisms can be explained mechanistically, purposelessly, without any hint of teleology. Materialist science is thereby said to have provided an explanation for what for too long remained the purview of natural theology: Charles Darwin superseded William Paley.  As we’ll see, this irony is magnified when the phenomenon of religion is itself subjected to an evolutionary explanation.

In this talk, I will compare several evolutionary accounts of the emergence of religion, including that of Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell (2006), Robert Bellah in Religion in Human Evolution (2011), and Whitehead in Religion in the Making (1926). The latter two thinkers, Bellah and Whitehead, explicitly avoid reductionistic accounts—what Whitehead famously referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away”—and instead seek some form of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious myth-making. Dennett, on the other hand, is an unapologetic reductionist. He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins meme theory that analogizes natural and cultural evolution, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. With materialists like Dennett, though the form of evolutionary explanation remains narrativistic, its content has been purified of meaning. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the reductive neo-Darwinian perspective, are not evolutionary actors, but lumbering machines passively shaped by their environment. Religious memes spread not because they were found deeply meaningful to primal peoples but because they proved advantageous to survival and propagation for one reason or another. Now that we have science and know the universe is nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out its usefulness. Or so the story goes.


To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am largely in agreement with him on this point. But of course it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.” Dennett offers several potential candidates for what he deems to be a naturalistic explanation of religion, including the idea that humans have evolved some sort of God module or “intentional stance detector” in our brains predisposing us to attribute agency to everything around us, up to and including the universe as a whole. Belief in some sort of cosmic agency, says Dennett, functions to comfort us in the face of death, to bind us together into societies of shared meaning, and to provide simple cultural explanations for complex natural phenomena.

The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that all of Dennett’s explanations for the evolutionary emergence of religion presuppose what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protested against: the bifurcation of nature (see The Concept of Nature). For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanisms of natural and sexual selection. So all seemingly intrinsic value must be explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material.

The contrast between Dennett’s reductionistic biological account of religion and Bellah and Whitehead’s more cosmological approach could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises  William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience, only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more scientific purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious behavior must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, cosmology.


“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).

So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine part of the universe we in fact find ourselves living within. Human religious experience, in other words, counts as part of the data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).

Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in fact a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning. “In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also emphasize “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms? Alongside efficient causality, final causality is also evident as the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny the cosmic extent of purposiveness, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny purposiveness in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe.


“Many a scientist,” writes Whitehead, “has patiently designed experiments for the purpose of substantiating his belief that animal operations are motivated by no purposes. He has perhaps spent his spare time in writing articles to prove that human beings are as other animals so that ‘purpose’ is a category irrelevant for the explanation of their bodily activities, his own activities included. Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study” (The Function of Reason, 16).

“It is the accepted doctrine of physical science,” he says elsewhere, “that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (Process and Reality, 119).

Some of you may find it difficult to attribute purposiveness to nonliving systems. More of you are probably willing to attribute it at least to living systems. Despite the ultra-reductionism of neo-Darwinist accounts of evolution, organisms are very clearly participants in their own evolution. They are not the passive recipients of environmental conditions, but have from the beginning been working to reshape their environments in service to their own needs. Organisms do also adapt to their environments, and so Darwin’s theory is not false (natural selection is, Whitehead says, “one of the great generalizations of science” [The Function of Reason, 6]). But the Darwinian mechanism is all too often given more explanatory weight than it can hold, becoming nothing more than an empty “liturgical refrain…chanted over the fossils of vanished species” (ibid.), as Whitehead sarcastically claims. He continues: “If the mere fact of dying out be sufficient proof of maladjustment to the environment, the explanation is reduced to a tautology” (ibid.): “This species survives today because it survived in the past.” We should not forget that we seldom know “the definite character of the struggle which occasioned the disappearance,” and that it is just as if not more true to say that “animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves” (ibid., 7).

Bellah similarly grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, then eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings.

At the end of the long section on cosmic and biotic history, just before beginning the section on the human species, Bellah says the following: “We did not come from nowhere. We are embedded in a very deep biological and cosmological history. This history does not determine us, because organisms from the very beginning, and increasingly with each new capacity, have influenced their own fate [“facilitated variation”]. But our remarkable freedom, which I am happy to affirm, is embedded in a cosmological and biological matrix that influences everything we do. It is a science fiction fantasy that we, or mechanisms that we create, can simply jump our of this history into pure self-determination. We live in a world that includes our own minds and bodies, and we need to respect the world we live in. Remembering all these things, we can now consider how we are different, really different, from all other creatures” (83).

Bellah dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for humans, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in childhood longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake, as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. “Play,” says Bellah, “emerged in the evolution of mammals as a sphere sheltered to some degree from selectionist pressures, having its end internal to its practice, however much it may have proved adaptive in secondary and tertiary forms” (112). Bellah cites numerous ethologists who described the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention—in a word, empathy—is the precondition for any form of sociality.


Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of play, and that once our symbolic capacities developed sufficiently, these ritualized activities took on religious significance. Religion, then, grows out of the implications of ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in; it is something you do. Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the actual earth and sky. These rituals no doubt helped to establish social solidarity and group identity, but these functions cannot be offered a causal explanations for the evolution of religion. The exact opposite is the case: social solidarity is better understood as an effect of ritual play, not its cause.

Bellah’s book draws extensively on the work of Johan Huizinga, who I will quote at length: “Archaic society, we would say, plays as the child or animal plays. Such playing contains at the outset all the elements proper to play: order, tension, movement, change, solemnity, rhythm, rapture. Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it, namely what we call ‘life’ or ‘nature.’ Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play, itself an independent entity which is senseless and irrational, man’s consciousness that he is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression. Gradually the significance of a sacred act permeates the playing. Ritual grafts itself upon it; but the primary thing is and remains play” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).

Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead well knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival; it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better” (Religion in the Making, 8). If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to minerals, life is deficient in survival value.

Whitehead, like Bellah, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play (see Religion in the Making, 10). Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religious evolution (ritual—>emotion–>myth/belief–>rationalization for Whitehead; mimetic–>mythic–>theoretic for Bellah), the details of which I don’t have time to get into in this talk. What is important for both of them is the fact that religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about what one does.

Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely,  which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realties that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it provides, is at the existential core of our cultural lives?

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Gobekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1960s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.” The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.


It would be inappropriate to go into it in this talk, but this understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary society, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the cycles of cosmic creativity?

To end, let me return to where I began this talk by admitting that my account of religion in human and cosmic evolution cannot pretend to objectivity or impartiality. Religion, as both Whitehead and Bellah knew, is a profoundly personal matter. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of men to the universe in which they find themselves” (31). Science, too, when it tries to tell the story of the universe (in other words when it cosmologizes), inevitably becomes religious. Bellah makes this quite clear when he psychoanalyzes the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched Alex Rosenberg during a recent cosmology and theology conference introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express.  Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48). 

Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead inanimate collection of objects? Maybe. That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover. 

Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist, like Dennett and the other materialists I’ve mentioned. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber. Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”). Building on Buber, Bellah writes: “In a species that has come to be what it is primarily because it is social, even, as some have said, supersocial, it is not surprising that the I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trumpet the I-It relation. To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).

Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. We can even adopt such an I-You relation to ourselves, as Terrence Deacon describes when he says that “Human consciousness is not only an emergent phenomenon, it epitomizes the logic of emergence in its very form…To be human is to know what it feels like to be evolution happening” (quoted in Religion in Human Evolution, 101).

“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting” (Religion in the Making, 128).

Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts. For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, for Whitehead, means to subjectively enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman subjectivities, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (Process and Reality, 167).

War of the Worlds: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

Notes for an upcoming talk…

What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is,” for example, implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?

Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one.  The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we  can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. It is certain that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are effectual—they are agents, they are participants in the make up of reality. 

So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One, singular. But what if there is not one reality, but many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we are but a part.

One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality—for now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. Better to speak of a network of naturing natures than an already complete all-encompassing Nature. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) growing beyond the childhood phase, struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of the earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.

My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

My presentation will introduce a few of the consequences that follow from a genuinely pluralistic understanding of reality. I will offer a metaphysical thesis about multiple worlds, multiple natures. Not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. I want to argue that reality itself is made of perspectives, that there is no underlying unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer. Instead of a monistic or dualistic substance ontology, I will put forward a pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology.


Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for my talk), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, we are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Our Science and our Reason, so the story goes, granted us access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections.  Buried, that is, until we came along. We sent our anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference: some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, tolerance no longer seems possible. We Westerners can no longer take seriously our attempts to force feed our enlightened free market democracy to the Muslim world. We no longer believe that, if only they would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. We no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our type of faces on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are irreconcilable, but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” our “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all these special activities which were supposed to make us superior by giving us access to a higher truth—we know now that they are no less constructed than what the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency. The question is, what is emerging?

Latour again: “Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)

What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but tolerance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, my very identity as a self constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”

Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and understanding of science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is bathed in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged from eternity; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of beings which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.

Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.

Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Over lord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through the each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.

ERIE Talk: The Extended Mind Thesis and the Ecologization of Consciousness


A talk I gave for ERIE at CIIS a few months ago building on (an admittedly loose interpretation of) Andy Clark’s extended mind thesis and Richard Doyle’s ideas about the role of psychedelics in human evolution:

Morning Meditation: Souls are like Stars

Notes for a meditation session I am to lead this morning:

Typically, Buddhist-inspired forms of meditation invite us to observe the emptiness of all forms, whether those forms are objects in the world around us or we ourselves as subjects, as souls. Nothing abides, all forms are passing away, or changing into other forms as the old dissolve. Panta rhei, as Heraclitus put it: everything flows, everything streams. But what if, instead of trying to identify, paradoxically, with being nobody or being soulless, we see instead that the soul is not a being at all, but a becoming? What would it mean, then, not to be soul, but to become soul?

The ancient analogy likening souls to stars can help us here. Souls are like stars. Stars are not things, they are transformative happenings, alchemical events, streams of activity. Every second our Sun transforms 9 billion pounds of itself into light. In the half hour we spend together this morning, it will have burned up 15 trillion pounds of itself, releasing that mass as energy that streams to Earth to feed and sustain all life. 15 trillion pounds is equivalent to about 7 ½ thousand Golden Gate Bridges (the bridge weighs about 800,000 tons).


Souls are like stars. Consider this analogy in light of Emerson’s statement from his essay “Over-Soul”:

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.”

I invite you in our meditation this morning to consider your soul, not as a fixed identity that sets you apart from me, but as a streaming influence constantly transforming what is within you into something to be shared with others. The soul is what shines between us, what allows us to commune with each other. It is an outward flowing light, and an inward sensitivity to the light of others streaming in. Let’s become souls by becoming like stars; let’s let the light shine through us.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson on 60 Minutes. little dot, Tyson tells us, is Earth, as photographed from Saturn by the Cassini spacecraft. But an earlier photograph was even more world-shattering, that taken of “earthrise” on the Moon by astronaut William Anders.

1920px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseThis image, says Tyson, gave birth to the cosmic perspective in the collective imagination. He traces the origins of the ecological movement to the emotional and metaphysical impact of this photo. “We thought we were exploring the Moon, but we ended up discovering the Earth.”

Tyson continues to elevate our mood to the contemplation of the power of All, the Universe, by quoting Galileo: “The Sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” He becomes Space-time’s poet-seer when he says “the end of space is the beginning of time.”

It is only towards the very end of the interview that I start to feel resistance to what Tyson has to say about cosmology, i.e., the scientific and philosophical pursuit of the order of the universe. He describes human beings as “voyeurs” who merely “eavesdrop” on the cosmos. I don’t think his conception of consciousness is at all adequate. Human consciousness is never merely “looking on” at a universe “going on” without it. It is rather that consciousness is part of the goings on of the universe; consciousness is what we do, it is not an unchanging substance or a passive witness. We are participants, not onlookers. We don’t observe from outside like aliens, we are at home here, we can feel and know the universe from within the universe, because we are the universe feeling and knowing. I imagine Tyson would agree with me so far as it goes. But I think the old conception of a scientist or astrophysicst as someone who stands back and observes, trying to erase all influence their own activity might have on the activity they are experimenting upon, is no longer tenable. We need a better way of conceiving what scientists are doing when they produce knowledge of the cosmos. This knowledge cannot be other than the cosmos. It must be integral to it.

Archetypal Astrological Counseling

Matthew David Segall:

My fiance Becca Tarnas just launched the website for her archetypal cosmology consultation practice. Her approach to psyche-cosmos correlations could be understood as an extension of depth psychology beyond just the personal and (human) collective unconscious into the interplanetary unconscious. It is a form of psychoplanetary therapy. Check it out.

Originally posted on Becca Psyche Tarnas:

Archetypal Astrology Counseling Website

“The stars are like letters which inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky . . . . Everything in the world is full of signs. . . . All events are coordinated. . . . All things depend on each other; as has been said, ‘Everything breathes together.’”
– Plotinus

I am excited to announce my archetypal astrology counseling practice, and the launch of my website The archetypal perspective has been a continual presence throughout my life, and I have been working intensively with astrology since 2011. The form of astrology I practice is known as Archetypal Cosmology and focuses primarily on the geometrical relationships between the planetary bodies of our solar system. I offer astrological consultations that explore both the natal chart—the position of the planets at the moment of one’s birth—as well as personal transits—the relationships formed between the continuous movements of the planets and the natal chart. If you…

View original 32 more words

An interview with Jesse Turri at Home Brewed Christianity on Science, Religion, Imagination, and more…


HERE is the interview. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I remember a wide-ranging conversation on everything from my own intellectual and spiritual development, to the relationship between science and religion, to the role of imagination and psychedelics in the philosophy of nature.

HERE is Jesse Turri’s personal website.

Imagination is the Soul’s Temple: Reflections on Play and Ritual

Matthew David Segall:

Jesse Turri recently interviewed me for, and had some follow up thoughts to our conversation about ritual as play.

Originally posted on le fait de déplier:

Poolside“Ritual for me is a kind of like serious play. It’s play that you take seriously. As play, though, it doesn’t have an end outside of itself. It’s not like work or labor then in that sense, where you might be doing something now that may be grueling and difficult in order to produce a finished product…with play its about what’s happening in the act of doing it. I think ritual should be understood in the same way. And I think in our modern context, those people that still do participate in religious ritual think of it as a kind of work where you’re trying to prove yourself as a dedicated member of this or that religion, you’re trying to look good in God’s eyes, or whatever, and by approaching ritual in that way you’re blocking what actually functions as sort of the saving grace that one is trying produce…

View original 1,013 more words

Beyond Materialism and Idealism, a Philosophy of Organism?

Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.

Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.

Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).


As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.

In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.

This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).

The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy

“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).

So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).

Theoretical Archaeology Conference Abstract

Unfortunately, the track I was to participate in was canceled due to conflicts with another conference. But I wanted to share my abstract since I hope to develop some of these themes in the future. This particular theme (teleology in archaeology) came up as I read Hodder’s great book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationship Between Humans and Things.

Abstract Proposal: XV Nordic TAG 2015

Title: On the Entanglements of Archai and Teloi: Towards a Whiteheadian Philosophy of Archaeology

Author: Matthew David Segall

Panel: Disentangling the Neolithic “Revolution” in Southwest Asia

Abstract: Whitehead defined philosophy as the critique of the abstractions of the special sciences, tasking it with the harmonization of these abstractions with our “more concrete intuitions of the universe” (SMW, 87). As one among the special sciences, archaeology tasks itself with the study of the presence of the past. It examines the traces of the past as they show up in the present. But the past never shows up in concrete experience to make itself available to scientific evaluation except in relation to particular conceptions of the future. In order to harmonize archaeology with our concrete intuitions of the universe, it is necessary to supplement the study of the presence of the past with the study of the absence of the future, i.e., teleology. Teleology is the study of the way the future leads on or lures the present toward its own latent potentialities. It concerns not what is, but what could or even should be. Although usually associated with religious cosmologies, it is clear that modern secular worldviews are no less teleological in orientation. Humans are inescapably future-oriented beings. It follows that archaeologists should take their imagination of the future explicitly into mind while studying the past, since the way humans imagine their future largely determines in advance how they come to interpret their past. My paper draws upon Whitehead’s process-relational “ontology of organism” to argue that ecologizing the philosophical foundations of archaeology requires not simply coming to terms with the agency of nonhuman things, but also situating the study of the past within a universe of things (human and non-) for whom the creative lures of the future are just as influential as the settled facts of the past. My hope is that Whitehead’s heterodox conception of teleology may be of some use to archaeologists.



Towards an abstract for my presentation at the International Whitehead Conference, “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism”

My track at this year’s International Whitehead Conference is titled “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism” and is situated within the umbrella section called “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose.” Other participants in my track include Elizabeth Allison, Sean Kelly, Richard Tarnas, and Brian Swimme. I hope to have the schedule and abstracts for everyone’s contributions posted by the end of the month.


For my part, I want to articulate an alternative to modernization. Following Bruno Latour, I’ll call it ecologization. The tentative title for my talk is:

Panexperientialist Pluralism or Eliminativist Monism?: Towards the Ecologization of Philosophy

A brief summary of what I’d like to cover:

“A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” It is the assumption of this paper, and this entire conference, that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (MoT, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of such a philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die.

Thanks to Darwin and 160 years of the evolution of Evolutionary theory, it has been made abundantly clear that human beings were not dropped onto this planet from heaven, but instead share a genetic origin with every other species of organism on earth. We also share a destiny: Humans, like many other megafauna, are faced with imminent extinction. We are not, in fact, alienated from Nature. Our fortunes rise and fall with Hers (and She is not at all the unified, ahistorical, steady-state machine we have for several hundred years suspected). Given the severity of our situation, the Whiteheadian philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour has provided us with an ultimatum: either continue the disastrous path of modernization, or change the course of civilization entirely by ecologizing the human endeavor.

Now that dualism has been largely discredited, many proponents of modernization are seeking philosophical justification by defending eliminativist or reductionist forms of materialistic monism. My paper will attempt to bring the ecologically oriented Whiteheadian alternative of panexperientialist pluralism into distinct relief by contrasting it with late modern eliminativist monism. Reductive monism is the confused result of the incoherent Modern Constitution that Latour so thoroughly critiqued and re-constructed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). In their rush to reductively naturalize everything in theory, eliminativists have neglected the extent to which the techno-scientific practices they worship have in fact only ever succeeded in multiplying the number of nature-society hybrids. The more they claim to have acquired pure knowledge of the human brain (cleansed of any contamination by culture or the dreaded psychology of common folks), the more these hybrids proliferate. This eliminativist attempt at (what Whitehead would call) a heroic feat of “explaining away” is itself little more than a form of political posturing, an attempt to crown oneself the victor of the progressive march toward a finally, truly Modern world. If anyone is confused, it is the eliminativists, since at least all the poor common people with their unscientific and pre-theoretical folk psychology escape the embarrassment of the blatant contradictions between theory and practice that plague the former. If our civilization is to have a future, it cannot be achieved by such polemical grandstanding. We need a more diplomatic method, which is precisely what an ecological and pluralistic ontology makes way for.

We can begin to ecologize our civilization by first ecologizing our philosophy. Ancient and modern philosophies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological philosophy acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to interpenetrate. An ecological philosophy is a pluralistic and historical philosophy. Historical because there is nothing—no creature and no relationship—that did not come to be in the course of evolutionary time. Historical becoming is not reserved for human society alone. Humanity is itself just the most recent chapter in a multi-billion year geostorical cascade of complex and compounding effects. Pluralistic because our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarms of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged organisms enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. In Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science. Value-experience replaces valueless matter as the most basic ontological category.

Much of what I want to say about Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative to eliminativist materialism will be filtered through Bruno Latour’s ontological pluralism, as spelled out in We Have Never Been Modern and more recently in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2012). I reviewed a chapter from this book (the chapter on materialism) as part of a co-investigation with other scholars here: For those of you new to Latour, some of the jargon may be difficult to follow. Grant Maxwell and I exchanged a few blog posts comparing Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind with Latour’s earlier book We Have Never Been Modern. The exchange might provide a helpful introduction to Latour’s ideas if you want to dig deeper: 

Bruno Latour and Rowan Williams on Religion and Ecology

A very wide-ranging and far-reaching conversation. Economics, the “ownership theory” made and sold to students at the London School of Economics and many other Universities around the neoliberal globe, is put on trial by both Latour and Williams. Latour goes so far as to stick a poison label on it.

About 10 minutes in, Williams’ discussion of the two kinds of knowledge reminded me of Whitehead’s line from The Concept of Nature about the bifurcation of nature (the line Latour is always quoting):

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Entheogens and Cosmos, the sequel [a lecture for ERIE @ CIIS this Sunday on psychedelics and the extended mind thesis]

The Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education student group at the California Institute of Integral Studies has invited me to speak again about the philosophical, cosmological, and psychological significance of psychedelics. In case you missed it, here is my first talk for ERIE back in September called “The Psychedelic Eucharist–toward a pharmacological philosophy of religion”:

I attempted to link Plato and Socrates’ invention of philosophy to the psychedelic mystery cult at Eleusis, and interpreted Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as the mythic expression, not of a dualistic idealism that separates appearance from reality (what is usually called “Platonism”), but of a non-dual ontology of creative aesthesis.

My second talk for ERIE this Sunday (Jan. 25, 2015 at CIIS) will begin with a reflection upon the relationship between the work of speculative science writer of Richard Doyle on the co-evolution of psychedelic plants and human brains (see Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Nöosphere) and cognitive scientist Andy Clark (originator of the “Extended Mind Thesis” with philosopher David Chalmers) on the way computer technology augments and alters human consciousness.


Clark wrote a piece back in 2010 for the NYT philosophy column “The Stone” called “Out of Our Brains” that is well worth a read. It is easy to become so transfixed by the way our consciousness is embedded within and potentially enhanced by an increasingly ego-pandering (and potentially self-destructive) technological media environment that we entirely forget about all the psychophysiological contributions made by the far more ancient biological and astrological environments from out of which we and our toys emerged. “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious,” as Whitehead says. What is obvious is that the technoindustrial economy is situated within the dymanics of the Earth system as a whole, that all of our machines and media are ultimately subject to the cosmological energy flows coursing through our planet as it wanders around the Sun.

As Clark says, the novelties of late capitalism, like smartphones and laptops, do certainly extend and augment our our cognition. But ecological and cosmological modes of mind extension pre-date and override these more recent cognitive constructs. Our late modern consciousness may have become largely technologized, but to the extent that we remain grounded on this Earth beneath that Sky, our cognitive bills must still be paid not simply in the currency of skull-bound neurons or handheld smartphones, but in that of the ecodelic chemicals and archetypal energies we share with the other organisms in our local, planetary, and interplanetary ecologies.