The Creativity of Causality in Bios and Cosmos: a response to Levi Bryant

Levi Bryant has posted a comment in response to me over at plasticbodies. He has also posted a comment directed at Adam and I over at knowledge-ecology. I’d like to respond to some his questions and concerns, which include issues surrounding causality, explanation, God, and Nature.

He first suggests I have conflated two different construals of teleology in an earlier reference to Maturana and Varela‘s work. In an essay I linked prior to his comment, there are several chapters on the history of biology wherein I unpack the development of the concept somewhat extensively. I track the changes in the conception of teleology from the premodern to the modern era. I differentiate the more Platonic doctrine of teleology as “demiurgic design” from the more Aristotelean doctrine of immanent teleology, which was later modernized by Kant into a regulative principle for judging the organization of living systems. In the last paper Varela published before he died, he took up Kant’s project in the Critique of Judgment by attempting to ontologize telos at the individual level (making it constitutive of the reality of organisms, rather than simply a human way of conceptualizing their activity).

I don’t think Varela succeeds in the paper, since he leaves a lot of the philosophical work required to support his account unarticulated, but his references to Whitehead suggest he saw him as an ally in a similar project. Part of the problem with Varela’s account is that, though he claims to ontologize final causality, he really only grounds formal causality in the self-organization of living beings. What Varela refers to in his last paper as “the instauration of a point of view” is what Whitehead calls the “subjective form” of an actual occasion. In order to link the subjectivity of living beings (i.e., their soul, or formal identity) to a final cause, matter of the universe itself has to be subjected to the ideals of a cosmic, everlasting soul: God. Varela never went this far (at least not in writing; he does, however, come close to evoking the “subtle consciousness” of the World-Soul in this video interview toward the end of his life). He reveals that formal and final causality are closely tied in individual organisms, but one has to turn to Whitehead’s work for a fully re-enchanted (though undeniably post-modern) conception of an inherently purposeful Universe. “Re-enchantment” in this context means that Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology includes both the activity of Ideas and the desire for Ends in the process of reality.

Let’s put Whitehead’s panexperialist, panentheist metaphysics to the side for a moment and revisit Varela’s autopoietic account of telos. Bryant writes the following:

Maturana and Varela…understand teleology in cybernetic terms as feedback mechanisms in an organism wherein the organism regulates itself homeostatically within a particular range. While more complex, there’s nothing markedly different here from how the thermostat functions in your house. The temperature at which the thermostat is set is the teleological goal or cause, and the air conditioner turning off and on is the feedback mechanism by which that state is goal is actualized. The goal itself has no causative power. It is just the basin around which actions settle. In organisms, moreover, this teleological dimension is produced through evolution, not design, and is produced out of processes that are not themselves teleological, i.e., there is no goal towards which evolution is striving or tending.

I think Bryant is conflating the difference between the “goal-like” movements of intelligently designed machines and the immanent purposes of autopoietic organisms.  I can’t speak for Maturana, since I haven’t studied the evolution of his thought beyond his early work with Varela. But as his last paper makes clear, Varela came to reject his earlier view that organisms are purposeless systems. Autopoiesis is not simply a description of self-regulation (as in thermostats), but a description of self-production. Organisms are purposeful systems because they are self-organizing systems: they exist for the sake of themselves. Machines are also purposeful systems, but they do not produce themselves, nor do they bring forth their own horizon of experience. The neo-Darwinist paradigm referenced by Bryant, wherein non-teleological processes are purported to generate biological form, seems confused to me. It denies design in nature at the same time that it carries over the design metaphor from artificial selection to natural selection. In this way, nature is said to generate the appearance of design in organisms, while the process of selection itself is claimed to be completely purposeless and non-directed.

Again, I think intelligent design (or any metaphor still rooted in the design paradigm) is being conflated here with organismic production. It is one thing to claim that the process of evolution on the phylogenic level is non-directed and in some sense purposeless (Whitehead would disagree, but let’s stick to Varela for now); it is an entirely separate claim to say that the development and organization of individuals on an ontogenic level is purposeless, or merely teleonomic (“goal-like”). In point of fact (as Evan Thompson, once a student of Varela’s, points out in Mind and Life), the mechanism of natural selection must assume self-organizing biological individuals that can reproduce before it explains anything about the way speciation occurs. Natural selection is not an explanation for autopoietic organisms, since it provides no account of their subjective horizons or their immanent purposes. Natural selection is one mechanism playing a role in what Varela calls “natural drift,” the generational changes in the morphology of species due to shifting environmental conditions.

If not natural selection, what would constitute an explanation of the ideas, meanings, and purposes of organisms? Bryant complains that I am employing God as the explanation for life and everything. I do employ a concept of God when cosmologizing, but not as the singular cause of reality. God is rather the living soul of the world, within which “values arise from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (Process and Reality, p. 88). The world is as much the cause of God as God is the cause of the world. At this point, we must move into a discussion beyond causality in nature: we must consider the nature of causes, explanations, and reasons, as such. Varela, the biologist, becomes less helpful here than Whitehead, the metaphysician and cosmologist.

Bryant writes:

I fail to see what Whitehead’s conception of god adds to our metaphysics. It introduces a number of highly contentious and troubling postulates (that god influences things to produce certain aesthetic contrasts) that can neither be verified in any way and that seem deeply arbitrary. I fail to see what evolutionary and autopoietic theory gains from such an approach.

I think evolutionary and autopoietic theory gain their metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s panentheist cosmology. His work is an attempt to show how the 19-20th century facts of evolution and the 16-17th century theory of mechanistic materialism are incompatible. Contemporary scientific cosmology has discovered (in theory and in fact) that the physical universe itself, like life on earth, is a historical entity. It appears to have been born, and, if current trends continue, it appears that it will die. If philosophy is to articulate the metaphysical principles of reality in the context of an evolutionary cosmology, it cannot refer only to the temporal aspect of the universe, to the diversity of organisms which have emerged in evolutionary history. Philosophy must also consider the ideals of God, the everlasting soul of the universe. The concept of God is not an arbitrary addition to philosophy, unless our philosophy denies all validity to the history of human experience prior to the development of politico-techno-scientific secularity in local pockets of some urban societies, where a neo-liberal capitalist imaginary fosters the emergence of the self-creating individual to whom God becomes a mere hypothesis.

God, from a Whiteheadian perspective, is not an explanation for actual occasions. As Stengers’ writes in Thinking With Whitehead, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). I develop this idea in a response last week to the atheist biologist PZ Myers, who, like Bryant, sees no evidence of God or reason for thinking seriously about religious experience.