Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead by Seth Segall

Check out this interesting post by my cousin, Seth Segall, over at the Existential Buddhist. The topics Seth discusses include whether consciousness is emergent from or intrinsic to the physical world, the place of values (human or otherwise) in the universe, and the variety of God concepts available to those willing to philosophize about such matters. Seth also compares the ideas of the 13th century Zen Buddhist monk Dogen, the 17th century Jewish philosopher Spinoza, and the 20th century mathematician and cosmologist A.N. Whitehead.


Seth writes:

I could never believe in a supernatural, anthropomorphic God, an omniscient autocrat standing outside of creation, judging it, and miraculously intervening in accordance with our prayers and petitions—in other worlds, the kind of God that Whitehead describes as having the attributes of “a Caesar.” “God talk” doesn’t interest me or turn me on. As I’ve mentioned in another post, when I hear “God” mentioned in a Dharma talk, my mind wanders off.  But how different — really — are Spinoza’s and Whitehead’s naturalistic, creative, immanent Gods from Dogen’s understanding of the dharmakaya? How different is Whitehead’s God who experiences the experiences of the world and nudges us towards love and beauty from Dogen’s compassionate Avalokitesvara who hears the cries of the world and awakens us to wisdom beyond wisdom? Even if one dispenses with Gods and Buddhas, if mentality, morality and aesthetics can be features of reality right down to the bone, why can’t reality also include some non-supernatural “spiritual” dimension as well? Some beneficial principle that encourages us and the world towards greater love and compassion, beauty and understanding, and our own best selves? I’m not convinced, like Whitehead and Spinoza, that God is either necessary or tenable, but I’m more open to consider it than I once was. That’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist; it’s what keeps me from joining the secularist camp.

I appreciate Seth’s pragmatic (in the Jamesian sense) approach to these questions. I do not pretend to any metaphysical certainty about the existence of the Whiteheadian or any other God. From my perspective, we inhabit a cosmos that is always on the edge of chaos with nothing guaranteeing continued peace, goodness, or beauty. I do believe these ideals are realized in the ongoing genesis of this universe to a degree far greater than mere chance, but I cannot go so far as to claim they are metaphysical necessities. I think the process-relational God articulated by Whitehead allows us to recognize the realization of these ideals as somewhere in-between utterly contingent and totally necessary. They are potentials freely realized by the creatures of this cosmos because of their intrinsic desirability. Nothing is to stop any particular being in some particular circumstance from desiring otherwise. On the other hand, Whitehead makes it clear that we cannot speak of a “cosmic order” without already assuming the realization of an ideal of beauty. For Whitehead, all order is aesthetic order. In other words, no beauty, no cosmos. So the fact that there is a cosmos at all is already evidence enough that the scales are tipped toward harmony.

Towards an Aesthetic Ontology: Beauty, Sublimity, and Infinity

“Two things fill the mind with ever-renewing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind is drawn to think of them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” So says Kant in the preface to his Critique of Pure Reason. He goes on to explain that neither the sky above him nor the freedom within him should be considered mere conjectures. Neither is beyond the horizon of conscious experience. We sense the celestial lights above through our eyes, and we sense the moral freedom within through our heart, the innermost source of our self-hood. Kant continues: “The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to the conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”


I started thinking about Kant’s accounts of beauty, sublimity, and morality after reading Levi Bryant’s recent post on beauty as an absolute value. An absolute value, in Bryant’s sense, is a value that we hold for its own sake as an end in itself. He discusses beauty as one example of such a value and wonders what role it might play in resisting the instrumentalizing tendency of neoliberal capitalism, whereby every aspect of life comes to be valued only in terms of its usefulness or profitability. Bryant suggests that the earlier theological understanding of beauty (i.e., beauty as an index of a divine Creator) must be replaced by an immanent, naturalistic account. He writes:

The question then becomes that of why we find the beautiful beautiful, of why we encounter the beautiful at all.  This is not a question– at least at first –of what we find beautiful.  In other words, it is not a question where discussions of harmony, pattern, and proportion would be appropriate answers.  Again, the question here is not what is beautiful, but why such things would be beautiful to us at all.  What is the ground of the ability to have, as Kant put it, “disinterested pleasure” or the ability to find things beautiful?

To phrase the question in Kantian terms opens the door to a sort of transcendental compromise between earlier dogmatic accounts of beauty as the work of a transcendent Creator and later materialist accounts in terms of evolutionary survival value. It is clear enough to me (and of course to Bryant) that a transcendent Creator offers us little in the way of a rational explanation for beauty. It is just as clear that an account of beauty in terms of its survival value won’t do, either, and for precisely the reasons that Bryant articulates: such an explanation must first translate beauty into instrumental terms as a means to the end of survival. Darwinian accounts of sexual selection help us understand part of the reason male peacock feathers are so ornate, but the underlying causal efficacy of an organism’s perception of and response to beauty remains an unexplained explainer. A further problem is that many interpretations of naturalism forbid the idea of organismic agency or purposiveness, making the perception of beauty underlying sexual selection an even bigger mystery.

There are other interpretations of naturalism, of course. From a Whiteheadian point of view, wherein beauty is the very teleology of the universe, the locus and valence of mystery are shifted elsewhere. Mystery is no longer a problem to be explained, but a reality to be experienced (to paraphrase Frank Herbert). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic ontology, which is to say that aesthetic achievement is the very essence of reality. All order is aesthetic order. To “understand” this order means nothing more or less than to experience its beauty.

Returning to Kant’s famous statement about the starry heavens above and the moral law within, I think we can validate the physical feeling he is attempting to express even if we are forced to reject the metaphysical conclusions he draws from it. If human beings have any moral freedom and worth, it must be the freedom and worth we share with animals. For we are animals. Accepting our creatureliness and our dependence on the ecological networks of Earth doesn’t require that we deny our participation in the infinite. It is our intuition of the infinite, both outside and within ourselves, that generates beauty. Instead of, like Kant, sharply dividing animal aesthesis from moral or spiritual noesis, we can recognize the sublime heights of the heavens and the sublime depths of the heart as equally aesthetic in nature.

Beauty, then, is an end in itself precisely because of its infinite sources. We cannot reach beyond or behind its inner and outer appearances. In this sense, this is an immanent account of beauty. When we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite progression of appearances. When the intellect tries to grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of reality. Only the imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic progression of beauty.

I realize I am disrespecting the differences Kant sought to establish in his Critique of Judgment between the beautiful and the sublime. But part of what an aesthetic ontology requires is that the sublime be de-Kantianized. Kant took the aesthetic “too muchness” of encounters with the sublime (like the starry night) and tried to redeploy them as evidence of humanity’s moral superiority over nature. He comes so close to decentering the human in the face of the sublime depths of the cosmos, and then backs away into artificial moralizing. There is so much more that could be said about all this, but for now I can only muster an ellipsis (and a link some thoughts of mine from several years ago about the links between ethics and aesthetics)…

Time Eats Itself, by Henri Bergson

time gnaws

from Creative Evolution (Ch. 1, pgs. 4-6):

“…as regards the psychical life unfolding beneath the symbols which conceal it, we readily perceive that time is just the stuff it is made of.

There is, moreover, no stuff more resistant nor more substantial. For our duration is not merely one instant replacing another; if it were, there would never be anything but the present–no prolonging of the past into the actual, no evolution, no concrete duration. Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances. And as the past grows without ceasing, so also there is no limit to its preservation. Memory, as we have tried to prove, is not a faculty of putting away recollections in a drawer, or of inscribing them in a register. There is no register, no drawer; there is not even, properly speaking, a faculty, for a faculty works intermittently, when it will or when it can, whilst the piling up of the past upon the past goes on without relaxation. In reality, the past is preserved by itself, automatically. In its entirety, probably, it follows us at every instant; all that we have felt, thought and willed from our earliest infancy is there, leaning over the present which is about to join it, pressing against the portals of consciousness that would fain leave it outside. The cerebral mechanism is arranged just so as to drive back into the unconscious almost the whole of this past, and to admit beyond the threshold only that which can cast light on the present situation or further the action now being prepared-in short, only that which can give useful work. At the most, a few superfluous recollections may succeed in smuggling themselves through the half-open door. These memories, messengers from the unconscious, remind us of what we are dragging behind us unawares. But, even though we may have no distinct idea of it, we feel vaguely that our past remains present to us. What are we, in fact, what is our character, if not the condensation of the history that we have lived from our birth-nay, even before our birth, since we bring with us prenatal dispositions? Doubtless we think with only a small part of our past, but it is with our entire past, including the original bent of our soul, that we desire, will and act. Our past, then, as a whole, is made manifest to us in its impulse; it is felt in the form of tendency, although a small part of it only is known in the form of idea.

From this survival of the past it follows that consciousness cannot go through the same state twice. The circumstances may still be the same, but they will act no longer on the same person, since they find him at a new moment of his history. Our personality, which is being built up each instant with its accumulated experience, changes without ceasing. By changing, it prevents any state, although superficially identical with another, from ever repeating it in its very depth. That is why our duration is irreversible. We could not live over again a single moment, for we should have to begin by effacing the memory of all that had followed. Even could we erase this memory from our intellect, we could not from our will.”

Religion, Ecology, Race, and Cultural Evolution

“Today we cannot ignore that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach and should integrate justice in discussions on the environment to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” -Pope Francis (n.49)

Pope Francis released his encyclical last week. The English translation is HERE.

I have only skimmed it thus far myself, but I am encouraged by the reviews I have read. Especially that by the liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, whose work connecting ecology and social justice is among the major spiritual inspirations behind the encyclical. The impact of this document on public policy remains to be seen, but the Pope explicitly intends it to speak to all Earth’s people, not just Catholics.

Conservative politicians are predictably beside themselves. Their common refrain seems to be to tell the Pope to stick to religion and stay out of politics. As I said in a post two weeks ago, perhaps these climate change denying politicians should stay out of science. But of course, part of what the ecological crisis is revealing to us is the way everything–from politics, to religion, to science–is connected. The Earth does not respect our artificial boundaries and all too human constructs. We’ve entered the Anthropocene, which means the old dichotomy between free human subjects and inert natural objects is entirely obsolete: If anything, it is humans who have become inert, unable to act to avoid the worst of the coming ecological catastrophe, while nature–or better, Gaia–is the new dominant actor on the scene, no longer content to remain the static background of human history. The Pope is rightly linking economics, morality, and ecology. There are other issues that need to be addressed, of course (i.e., SEX–more on that in a second), but under Francis’s leadership the Church is way ahead of state governments on this. Politicians need to catch up.


Other theistically-minded critics are upset by the fact that one of the Pope’s main advisers, Hans Schellnhuber, is a Gaia theorist. About Gaia theory, The Stream’s William Briggs sarcastically writes:

“This is what we might call ‘scientific pantheism,’ a kind that appeals to atheistic scientists. It is an updated version of the pagan belief that the universe itself is God, that the Earth is at least semi-divine—a real Brother Sun and Sister Water! Mother Earth is immanent in creation and not transcendent, like the Christian God.”

Ah yes, the dreaded paganism. It is strange to me that so many Christians seem to neglect the little detail of Christ’s incarnation. Trinitarian theology is not as clear on the issue of transcendence as Briggs makes it seem. And let’s be honest, if Christians continue to insist on the other-worldliness of their God, then their religion will wither away even faster than the ecosystems of this planet. A totally transcendent God is utterly irrelevant to human life on Earth. Who cares about a God unmoved and unaffected by human and earthly concerns? Only death-denying patriarchal authoritarians. This is not to say that some forms of transcendence do not carry liberatory potentials, but I would argue transcendence needs to be held in polar tension with immanence to remain relevant (e.g.,panentheism). The geologian Thomas Berry coined the term “incendence,” which beautifully captures the necessary polarity.

Briggs is also worried about what he views as Schellnhuber’s misanthropic statement that the carrying capacity of Earth is around 1 billion people. There is something important in this criticism, since many “environmentalists” who take a more or less “protectionist” approach seem to imply that humans are some kind of eco-disease who would do best to just withdraw from nature as much as possible, to let it do its wild thing without our unnatural interference. This sort of dualism only re-enforces the problem, in my opinion. Anthropologists have thoroughly deconstructed the idea of “wildnerness” by pointing out that indigenous populations have always been intimately involved in caring for their local ecologies. Restoration ecologists have also made it clear that humans can constructively participate in the flourishing of life on this planet, if only we shift our anthropocentric values so they are inclusive of the intrinsic values of all organisms and habitats.

Finally, Briggs dismisses Schellnhuber’s claim that educating women would help reduce population. The evidence on this question is so unambiguously on Schellnhuber’s side that I’m at a loss as to who Briggs thinks he is kidding. Then I realized he is associated with the Heartland Institute. So much for fidelity to the facts. Or perhaps he is himself Catholic, which would also explain his ideological resistance to sex education.

As I mentioned parenthetically above, the Church’s stance on sexuality remains highly problematic. By continuing to enforce patriarchal norms, the Church is perpetuating an injustice to women and LGBTQ (etc.) communities. I can only hope that the Pope’s Earth-positive message will carry over in time to sex-positivity and gender equality, as well. The Pope is willing to listen to Gaian scientists about climate change and mass extinction but still looks to the Old Testament for his understanding of healthy human sexual relationships? Society’s views on sex continue to change faster than the LGBTQ (…) acronym can keep up. Pope Francis rightly critiques the “rampant individualism” and “self-centered culture of instand gratification” that dominates our postmodern world (Par. 162),  and it is true that in such a context, the sacredness of sexuality is often ignored or debased. But for an institution still so mired in its own sex abuse scandals to pretend to speak with such moral authority about the singular legitimacy of heterosexual marriage as the only container for human sexuality is embarrassing, to say the least. Contemporary human societies are undoubtedly struggling to find new ways to raise and care for children, but instead of condemning so many people to hell, the Church could do a better job supporting anyone, gay or straight, for whom love is the guiding factor in the formation of families. And further, those who wish to express their love without increasing the human population should also be able to avoid the Church’s condemnation, since it is ecologically obvious that we’ve reached and probably surpassed the carrying capacity of this planet. If the Pope is serious about rejecting humanity’s absolute dominion over the planet, he must come to understand this.

For an alternative perspective on the role of sex in society, check out primatologist Isabel Behncke’s short presentation about bonobo sexuality. The connections she draws between play and ritual resonate strongly with what I tried to articulate in the paper I delivered at the recent International Whitehead Conference on religion in human and cosmic evolution.

Again, moving toward an ecological civilization is going to take more than just a sustainable and green economy. It is going to take a massive transformation of every aspect of our modern human lives, including how we relate sexually. Conservatives are clearly terrified of such changes, but the power of their ideology pales in comparison to the power of evolutionary creativity. We are primates and our behavior is evolving on every level, or at least needs to if we hope to adapt to a shifting environment.

RB218591_p12_Br, 2/26/10, 11:39 AM,  8C, 4936x7114 (1370+1821), 100%, Custom,  1/25 s, R76.0, G60.1, B69.8

One final word about the terrible shooting in Charleston that stole the headline from the Pope’s encyclical last week. Responding to racism must be part of any integral ecological movement. The Civil War started, as much for economic, as for political and moral reasons. The North was industrializing, while the South remained tied to slave labor and dependent upon the agricultural exports, especially cotton, that their slaves produced. Black slaves helped get this country on its feet economically, mediating between Whites and the natural world. As machines began to take over this mediating role, the moral absurdity of slavery became more and more apparent to those in the North. The ecological and moral consequences of industrialization are only now becoming obvious. This is far more complex than I can articulate fully here, but there is clearly a connection between the White fear of the natural world, the need for mediation (whether by slaves, machines, or something else) to protect us from it, and the ecological crisis. The Union won the war and ended black slavery only to enforce the enslavement of the regenerative processes of Earth to the new machine overlords of techno-capitalism. Healing from the residual racism still blighting our country’s collective psyche seems to me to be a far deeper issue than just being nicer to one another. There are deeper wounds at play here . . . .

Thoughts? The connections I’m drawing are obviously still in their larval phase. I am hoping to start a dialogue to shed light on it all.

Pope Francis and Integral Ecology

Matthew David Segall:

Check out Sam Mickey’s post on the Pope’s integral encyclical. Sam includes several excerpts for those who don’t have the time to read the entire document.

Originally posted on Becoming Integral:

The new encyclical by Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On the Care of our Common Home, contains many references to “integral ecology,” including an entire chapter by that title.

It’s relatively clear that Francis is working with the integral ecology proposed by the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, who draws on the general ecology of Félix Guattari and the integral ecology proposed by the cultural historian Thomas Berry. Regarding Boff’s influence, consider the Pope’s allusion to Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor“Today, however, we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (# 49). The Pope’s sense of integral ecology is also clearly influenced by the ecological sensibility of St. Francis of…

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Space and Time in an Ontology of Organism


I’m thoroughly enjoying Jimena Canales social, scientific, and philosophical history of the Einstein-Bergson debate in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time. There are quite a few pages on Whitehead’s alternative rendering of relativity theory. There is one place (198-99) where Canales, while commenting on George Herbert Mead’s criticism of Whitehead, offers what to me reads like a distortion of Whitehead’s concept of eternal objects. It could be that Whitehead only worked out a more coherent understanding of eternal objects in Process and Reality as a result of his early exchange with Mead at Harvard in September of 1926.

IMG_6365I’ve often wondered if it makes more sense to replace Whitehead’s phrase “eternal object” with the poet Charles Olson’s suggestion of “eternal event.” The poet’s phrase may actually convey Whitehead’s concept better than Whitehead’s way of wording it. Perhaps Whitehead’s original intent was to put eternal objects in irrevocable tension with occasional subjects, such that experience always presupposed participation in both. Every event or occasion is eternally temporal, a differential repetition or concrescence of Creative Process into creaturely product.

Earlier today, Justin commented under my essay on Whitehead’s cosmological scheme titled Physics of the World-Soul. He took issue with Whiteheadian jargon and with what he thought was the “straw man” version of Einstein I spent several paragraphs critiquing. These are both valid concerns. I’d argue that the former concern is true of every significant thinker. Personally, if I don’t find a philosopher’s prose difficult to understand at first pass, I quickly become bored with the ideas. Sure, Burt Russell is often clearer and more straightforward than the “muddleheaded” Whitehead. But Russell’s demand that the depths of the world reveal themselves to him in clear and distinct ideas may in fact do violence to the chaotic heteronomy of those depths. New ideas cannot always be expressed in old words. The latter concern is something I hope to respond to more fully after I finish Canales’ book. The wider question of the relationship between space, time, and experience in an ontology of organism is one I hope to expand upon in my dissertation.

Pope Francis an Integral Ecologist?

Next week, Pope Francis will release an encyclical on the role of Catholics in the ecological crisis.  According to John Grimm (Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University), “Francis will likely bring together issues of social justice and economic inequity into relationship with our growing understanding of global climate change and environmental trauma.”


By drawing connections between ecology and social justice, the Pope will be offering an explicitly “integral” approach to ecology. “Integral ecology” is a perspective developed by Thomas Berry, Leonardo Boff, and more recently, by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and Michael Zimmerman in their book by the same name.

Prof. Sean Kelly at CIIS has also been working to further flesh out the integral perspective on ecology. Sean, Adam Robbert, and Sam Mickey have a co-edited volume coming out soon with SUNY called The Varieties of Integral Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era that is sure to help move the conversation forward.

Of course, not everyone is excited about the Pope’s upcoming encyclical. Congressman and climate change denier James Inhofe (who, in a dark irony that speaks volumes about everything that is wrong with our dysfunctional government, is also the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee) has told the Pope to stay out of the climate change discussion. With all due respect, Mr. Inhofe (and you aren’t due much), I’d appreciate it if you would stop butting into the scientific consensus on this issue with your fossil fuel fueled opinions.

There are 1.2 billion Catholics on this planet. I think ecologizing our civilization will surely require re-interpreting and mobilizing the Christian religion on behalf of the Earth. The resources for doing so are there in the tradition, even if somewhat buried and in need of remembering. I wrote an essay on Christian ecosophy a few years go in an effort to do some of this work of anemnesis.

[Update 6/15] An Italian newspaper has published a leaked draft of the encyclical. According to The Guardian:

At the start of the draft essay, the pope wrote, the Earth “is protesting for the wrong that we are doing to her, because of the irresponsible use and abuse of the goods that God has placed on her. We have grown up thinking that we were her owners and dominators, authorised to loot her. The violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin, is also manifest in the symptoms of illness that we see in the Earth, the water, the air and in living things.”

He immediately makes clear, moreover, that unlike previous encyclicals, this one is directed to everyone, regardless of religion. “Faced with the global deterioration of the environment, I want to address every person who inhabits this planet,” the pope wrote. “In this encyclical, I especially propose to enter into discussion with everyone regarding our common home.”

There is also a new trailer:

Philosophy in a Time of Emergency

Over the last month, half the global population of saiga antelope dropped dead in northern Kazakstan. This is what mass extinction looks like.

antelope-dead-phys-org-62015 Sudden-mass-deaths-of-rare-Saiga-antelopes-in-Kazakhstan-raise-concern

I read about the antelope die off this morning, just after reading Adam/Knowledge-Ecology‘s and Craig Hickman/darkecologies‘ posts about Whitehead’s call for Cosmology to replace Critique. I do believe the two, Whitehead’s call and mass extinction, are related. The latter makes it clear that the world is not simply the transcendental projection of the human subject. It also makes it clear that human thinking nonetheless has a real effect on how the world is constituted. We have entered the Anthropocene, meaning (among other things) that a certain form of thinking has brought about a mass extinction on planet Earth. 

Video of my presentations at the 10th International Whitehead Conference on Friday (6/5) and Saturday (6/6)

Conference website.

Friday, June 5th at 4:45pm:
Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

Saturday June 6th at 2:30pm:
Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

I have a lot to say about some of the questions that came up during the discussion (~58 minutes into the video), especially the issues that Terrence Deacon and Stu Kauffman brought up about life’s pervasiveness in the universe and whether “play” might exist in the non-biological world. I’ll be posting about these questions in the next few days…

[Update 6/11: Stu K. and I had breakfast the day after my talk to discuss the idea of a “physics of play.” Such a physics becomes possible given the panexperientialist basis of Whitehead’s ontology. I’m hoping we can co-author a paper on this… Stay tuned.]

Pluralistic Panpsychism and Mystical Experience: a response to Kastrup (part 2 of 2)

[This is part 2 of my response to Bernardo Kastrup; part 1 is here].

Kastrup is confused by what I said in my original response to him regarding the room that ontological pluralism leaves for both the extraordinary experience of unity and the ordinary experience of plurality.

Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified.

My claim here is pretty straightforward: everyday experience is multifaceted, while mystical experience is unitive. I’m not denying the testimony of mystics as to the unity of reality. Ontological pluralism grants the possibility of such unity. It just also incorporates the obvious fact of commonsense experience, as well. Mystical experiences are extraordinary precisely because they don’t happen all the time. So rather than ignore the plurality of the everyday experiences we spend almost every waking and dreaming moment of our lives in, I want to acknowledge that they, too, have ontological significance.

I’ll quote William James from the essay I mentioned in my original post, A Pluralistic Universe (available online in its entirety). As I said then, I think his arguments against monistic idealism are pretty convincing. They convinced me of the merits of pluralism, at least:

The sum of it all is that the absolute is not forced on our belief by logic, that it involves features of irrationality peculiar to itself, and that a thinker to whom it does not come as an ‘immediate certainty’…is in no way bound to treat it as anything but an emotionally rather sublime hypothesis. As such, it might, with all its defects, be, on account of its peace-conferring power and its formal grandeur, more rational than anything else in the field. But meanwhile the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. (lecture 3)

The cosmic unity intimated by mystics may indeed be the case. All the ontological pluralist argues is that this unity is not necessarily the case, that is, is not the end of the story metaphysically speaking. If we say it is the end of the story, we negate everyday experience, explaining it away as mere appearance. This, to my mind, is the worst kind of reductionism, in that it denies what is most obvious to our experience in favor of some hidden truth accessible only to a special few.

In light of the elitism implied by monistic idealism, a final word on the relationship between politics and metaphysics is in order. Kastrup worries that I conflate two entirely different categories when I say that a monistic ontology carries with it the risk of a totalitarian politics. “Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is?” Kastrup asks. “Personally,” he continues, “I am interested in what is true, not what I’d prefer to be true.” I’d reverse his statement and point out that the way a society comes to terms with what reality is undoubtedly influences they way they compose a common world together (the composition of a common world is my definition of politics). I am not suggesting some sort of relativism wherein reality is decided by an opinion poll. But can anyone really deny the way metaphysical beliefs (consciously stated or not) correspond to the shape a society takes?

I unpack my thoughts on the relationship between politics and ontology in the videos below:

Pluralistic Panpsychism v. Monistic Idealism: another response to Kastrup (part 1 of 2)

Kastrup has responded to my post a few days ago. The topic? Panpsychism.

In any back and forth discussion like this, it is important to acknowledge that each of us has evidently written a great deal articulating our perspectives. Other than his brief essay on the threat of panpsychism, I have not read any of Kastrup’s work, nor do I believe he has read any of mine, aside from my even briefer response to him. So what we are going to be able to accomplish in these all too short responses to one another will, I’m afraid, be minimal. Certainly I do not expect to persuade him to give up his monistic idealism. My main motivation in responding is not to indisputably refute him, or to fully articulate my own pluralist ontology. Rather, I only hope to gesture toward the answers to the questions he raises by offering a somewhat more technical introduction to Whitehead’s panpsychism, by linking to longer essays on the subject, and other times by admitting I need to devote more thought to an issue. As a process philosopher, I seek wisdom with the understanding that I will never possess it. Truth is always in-the-making. Similarly, any relationship of knowing we attempt to enter into with Truth must remain open-ended. If reality itself is process, then we must remain always open to novelty and surprise in all our philosophizing, never claiming to have arrived at some final systematic grasp of it. Striving for systematicity is one thing: it helps us clarify our thinking and avoid contradiction; but let us never suppose our favored System has wrapped up and solved all metaphysical problems. Reality is too multifarious and creative for that. I suspect Kastrup has a drastically divergent methodological point of view, which I welcome him to share. I just thought I should be upfront about my own approach before responding to his specific criticisms. The above are among the most important premises I enter into the philosophical arena with.

Kastrup begins by admitting that yes, his definition of panpsychism comes largely from the work of Chalmers and Strawson. He faults me for misdirecting my criticisms at him when I should have been directing them at these two popular proponents of “panpsychism.” I must grant him this point. In fact, I have criticized Chalmers and Strawson in a post linked in my first response. I believe Kastrup is correct that when most scientists and philosophers hear the term “panpsychism,” they think of the variety articulated by these contemporary thinkers, rather than the process-relational variety articulated by Whitehead. This is unfortunate, since I don’t know of any other broadly “panpsychist” philosopher with such a well-developed metaphysical scheme (aside, perhaps, from Leibniz). But let’s not play name games here. There is no “correct” definition of panpsychism, there are only the various definitions particular philosophers construct to assist their positive or negative portrayals of a more or less vague school of thought. “Idealism” is no less vague because various a term.

So the task, then, is to carefully define exactly what Whitehead’s particular form of panpsychism entails. I’ve spent the last five or six years trying to do that on this blog and in several book length essays, most recently Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013) [PDF version here]. Kastrup is understandably left with many questions after my brief account of how, in the process-relational scheme, both plurality and unity can co-exist as ultimate metaphysical realities. So I’ll try again, this time with a bit more detail from Whitehead’s scheme. I’ll introduce three technical terms (Concrescence, Transition, and Prehension) that may at first sound even more baffling than what I’ve already said. But my intention here is to avoid the “vague handwaving” I was accused of by Kastrup and instead offer a technical account of the categorical structure of pluralistic panpsychism. Take what follows not as a definitive explanation for anything, but as an invitation to step deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysical imagination.

Whitehead differentiates the process of reality into two kinds (quotes from Process and Reality, 210):

1) Concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and

2) Transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe).

The continuity of the universe (it’s wholeness and unity) is preserved by the process of Transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions (their particularity and uniqueness) is preserved by the process of Concrescence. Unlike Transition, Concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds.” Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between Concrescence and Transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time and energy. 20th century physics was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe has a single continuous time flow. Whitehead’s is not a materialistic atomism, wherein reality is made up of bits of inert matter. His atoms are creatively emergent and interrelated actual occasions of experience.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic (or elsewhere referred to as “epochal”) discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The creative advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation. If everything, every drop of experience, was just one puddle of unity, nothing new could ever disrupt the sea of sameness. Creative emergence is part of our universe, but I don’t see how monistic philosophies leave any room for it.

I need to further unpack Whitehead’s concept of Prehension. Prehension is meant to integrate both causal and perceptual relations. He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought by scientific materialists to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension is Whitehead’s aesthetic account of causation, an account that subverts the false dichotomy between appearance and reality (or mind and matter) typical of materialism and idealism alike. It is appearance all the way down, if you like; or, if you prefer, reality is made of its appearances to itself.

The prehensional basis of all relations between “particles of psyche”/”drops of experience”/”actual occasion” implies that detached, self-contained existence (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since every prehension grants the environment entrance into the nature of the prehending particle of psyche. This is not to say that particles of “mind dust” (to use yet another, this time Jamesian, metaphor) have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a drop of experience or actual occasion is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual occasions do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions.

Forgive me for introducing yet more technical terms, but on Whitehead’s reading, without a concept of “prehension,” materialist and idealist philosophers alike have privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification. Perception in the mode of “causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present.

Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the pre-subjective because subject-generating capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming.

In this novel metaphysical context, the tired dichotomy between appearance and reality is no longer relevant or all that interesting. Whitehead’s process-relational approach to metaphysics is what we’re left with after “the twilight of the idols,” after “the True World has become a fable” (Nietzsche). (For more on the Whitehead/Nietzsche link, read part 1 and part 2 of my comparison).

If the nature of reality is processual and relational, then a diplomatic approach to truth is the only adequate way to respond to it. With every encounter with other psyches, we make the truth anew. Reality doesn’t just sit there waiting for the most clear-headed intellect to uncover. Reality is participatory and co-created, not just by human minds, but by minds of all shapes and sizes. Better to refer to it as a pluralistic creality than monistic reality.

There’s certainly more to be said, and I hope Kastrup and I (and whoever else wants to join in) can continue to unpack all of this. As I said in my first response to him, I find this a far more enlightening and helpful debate than that between materialism and everything else. In part 2, I’ll try to tackle the issue of mystical experiences of absolute unity.

Schedule for our track at next week’s Whitehead/Ecological Civilization Conference


Click here for the conference program

Section III: Alienation from Nature, How it Arose
Track 3: Late Modernity and Its Re-Imagining (Lebus Hall, 201)

Friday, June 5
2:00 PM – 2:45 PM
Track Session #1a – Tam Hunt “Absent-minded science and the ‘deep science’ antidote”

2:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Session #1b – Christian de Quincey “A Radical Science of Consciousness”

4:00 PM – 4:45 PM
Track Session #2a – Aaron Weiss “Reduction, Process, and Praxis: Cross-Cultural Reflections on a Global Problem”

4:45 PM –  5:30 PM
Track Sessions #2b – Matt Segall “Whitehead’s Nonmodern Ontology: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse”

Saturday, June 6
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM
Track Session #3a – Adam Robert “Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge”

11:45 AM – 12:30 PM
Track Session #3b –   Jonathan Davis “Experience, Meaning, and Revelation: Actual Occasion as Theophany”
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Sessions #4 – Matt Segall to speak in Sec. 4, Track 6 on “Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision” (Mason Hall, 006)*

4:00 PM – 5:30 PM
Track Sessions #5 – Matt Segall to speak on panel  in Sec. 9, Track 4 track on “Weiss’s theory of NDEs and Whitehead” (Hahn Hall, 214)*

2:00 PM – 2:45 PM
Track Sessions #4a – Grant Maxwell “A Variety of General Truths about the Universe: Toward an Integrative Method”

2:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Sessions #4b – Josefina Burgos “From Goethe to Whitehead: A Path Toward Holistic, Ecological Monism”

4:00 PM – 4:45 PM
Track Sessions #5a – Sheri Ritchlin “Living Philosophy: The Organic Cosmos of Confucius and Whitehead”

4:45 PM – 5:30 PM
Track Sessions #5b – Elizabeth Allison “Learning from the Mountain Elders: Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a Challenge to Modernist Reductionism”

Sunday, June 7
11:00 AM – 11:45 PM
Track Sessions #6a – Sean Kelly “Towards a Gaian Planetary Consciousness after Modernity”

11:45 AM – 12:30 PM
Track Sessions #6b  – David Steinrueck “Divine In/existence: Dynamic Ethics for Planetary Transformation”

2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Sessions #7 – Brian Thomas Swimme & Richard Tarnas “Radical Mythospeculation: World Soul in a Post-Einsteinian Universe, Deep History, and a Second Axial Age”

4:00 PM – 4:45 PM
Track Sessions #8a – Becca Tarnas “Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology”

4:45 PM – 5:30 PM
Track Sessions #8b –  Wrap-up/track summary Panel discussion


*Note that these two talks are not in my track. I’ll have to leave my track on Saturday afternoon for two speaking engagements in other tracks. It’s going to be a crazy weekend, with something like 80 tracks running simultaneously.