Asking Terrence Deacon about Whitehead’s Reformed Platonism

A few weeks back, Jason/Immanent Transcendence asked me if I’d like to start a reading group with him this summer for Terrence Deacon‘s new book. A few days later, I found out he’d be lecturing in San Francisco… I was impressed and hope to encourage more of you to join our reading/discussion group!

I’ve transcribed the gist of my short exchange with Deacon below. I would have liked to continue the discussion, but other people in attendance had questions for him. I’ll follow up with what I would have said to him in response below.

Me: “Terry you mentioned formal causality just now… I was hoping to draw you into a discussion about the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I know you engage with him a little bit in your book–

Terrence Deacon: “…negatively, actually, but I have great respect for Whitehead. But in terms of the concepts that I’m after, I’m troubled by him…”

Me: “…you use the notion of thermodynamic ‘constraint’ to try to figure out how what Aristotle called formal causality is possible.”

TD: “Yes.”

Me: “Whitehead writes about ‘eternal objects,’ or ‘forms,’ but tries to reform Plato so that the forms aren’t entering into this world from another world, but that the forms represent what he calls ‘determinate possibilities’ that haven’t yet been actualized. So forms are not physical…

TD: “…and their not in another world…”

Me: “Right.”

TD: “That’s not too far from the notion of emergent constraint that I’m after. Not too far from it.”

Me: “What’s the difference?”

TD: “My point is that in the quasi-Platonic realm, there is maybe a finite set of forms. In an emergent world, there is an infinite set. Its continually constructing constraints producing constraints producing constraints… complication forever. I have my own perspective, which is radically emergent. Its a perspective in which the “ideal forms” are not finite and yet there are limitations on what can happen. We run up against limitations all the time. That aspect of Whitehead–his attempt to save Plato, or to save realism as I would put it in more general philosophical terms–is a noble effort and an effort I am making here as well. I think saving realism is important, rather than abandoning science to a sort of nominalism where there is only stuff, only atoms, or only particles, only isolated events. I think that is a noble task and that he and I are exactly in the same boat. I was influenced by him early on in my career, but became very dissatisfied because I began to think he was sneaking in homunculi at a very, very low level, at the level of subatomic quantum events, that there is some kind of essence of wanting, or of needing… its hard to put my finger on it, but that has always troubled me. Because for me that sneaks the name of the game in at the start. From my perspective, I wanted to build the game from a point of view that there is no sentience and now there is. Theres a reason for that, because the other way doesn’t explain anything. There’s no clear explanation if you sneak feeling in at the start. If you can show how it is generated, then you have an explanation for it. I prefer a radical emergence perspective, which suggests that new value is possible, that new consciousness, new forms, and new ideal types are possible. So Whitehead’s process thinking is agreeable to me, but I see emergence as an open-ended process, while he does not. Now its questionable, I can’t say that I’m a Whitehead expert anymore…”

I’ve yet to read Deacon’s new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter, but based on the lecture I heard him give about it this week, and a quick read of the first chapter, I’m convinced it is important, and even relevant to my dissertation research on Whitehead. Deacon praises Whitehead for defiantly pursuing a realist philosophy despite the tide of nominalism rising all about him during the first half of the 20th century. He nonetheless is “troubled” by at least two aspects of Whitehead’s scheme: 1) his sense that Whitehead’s is a “closed universe” where the number of potential forms available for emergent actualization is finite, and 2) his sense that Whitehead sneaks feeling and sentience in at the beginning without explaining how it is generated.

He admits that his Whitehead isn’t as fresh anymore, and it is difficult to give this issue the treatment I think Deacon knew it probably deserves in a 3 minute answer. I can’t be sure, but I assume that Deacon’s argument against Whitehead’s supposedly closed universe is related to his distaste of Whitehead’s theology. On the face of it, it seems a rather simple mistake by Deacon about the details of Whitehead’s system, since the most general category  is, after all, Creativity. Creativity is that which assures that the universe is never the same twice (p. 31, Process and Reality). Whitehead’s is an open-ended universe in that everything actual–even God–participates in the creative advance. Eternal objects (which are potentials for actuality and cannot themselves act) are an exception, since they are eternal: “There are no novel eternal objects” (p. 22, Process and Reality). However, since there are an infinite set of eternal objects, there can be no definite limit to the number of forms available for actualization. There is a further complication with regard to the relationship between Creativity and Eternity: God. Whitehead’s divine function is a mathematician’s God, not the God of Abraham. Whitehead’s God is a creature of Creativity, but also functions to condition Creativity: “The non-temporal act of all-inclusive unfettered valuation is at once a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity” (p. 31, Process and Reality). God conditions creativity through God’s primordial valuation of the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby grading them according to their relevance. God’s highest value is aesthetic satisfaction; God loves beauty.

Deacon doesn’t seem to have much patience for theology. The idea that God conditions Creativity, shaping it according to some primordial valuation is obviously not attractive to him. He would rather seek an explanation for value that finds it emerging later on in the creative advance, perhaps about the time life emerges. He quotes Nietzsche approvingly, and perhaps there is some Nietzschean sense in which he finds the will to live is the ultimate source of value.

Whitehead wasn’t satisfied with the emergence of value later on up the evolutionary chain as a result of the motion of emotionless dead particles in empty space. For him, value is a cosmological category, not simply a biological category. Or perhaps his “philosophy of organism” makes biology the more general science, with physics becoming a special case of biology. That there is an ordered universe with stars and galaxies already requires an explanation in terms of value, for Whitehead. That life and mind have also emerged in time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” I almost said that this tendency must be “built in” to the universe, but this leads most people to picture a divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. Though I don’t think it helps his case with modern readers, Plato had Timaeus use this image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Were Plato alive today, he may have made a more appropriate rhetorical choice in mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead, in trying to “save Plato” from this myth for a modern, scientific audience, re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present” (p. 32, Process and Reality). God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned of course by the “objective immortality” of its past decisions, and of the past decisions of all the other occasions the occasion in question is currently prehending. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged.

Deacon wants to know how this kind of a universe could be, and believes that Whitehead has broken the rules of the scientific game by simply asserting “feeling” or “value” as fundamental aspects of the universe, rather than explaining them. For Whitehead, however, an “explanation” for “how” value is generated is to be sought no where but in concrete experience itself, in the experience of “feelings derived from the timeless source of all order…which slowly and in quietness operate by love…[which] neither rules, nor is it unmoved” (pgs. 31, 343, Process and Reality). In other words, philosophy is not meant to explain the emergence of what is concrete, but of what is abstract (p. 20, Process and Reality). Value is not an abstraction, but a fact in the world. Its “how” is not to be explained, but to be experienced.