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.

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44 thoughts on “Asking Terrence Deacon about Whitehead’s Reformed Platonism

  1. Matt,

    Given this, it looks like our reading group is on. I’ll advertise as well. I think I can get Leon in on it.

      • Thanks so much. Deacon mentions his website , teleodynamics.com and I am finding this to be very helpful:

        http://www.teleodynamics.com/wp-content/PDF/ShannonBoltzmannDarwinPt1.pdf

        Incomplete Nature is a difficult book, but in the ‘ententional’ I imagine much expansion for the depth of panentheistic conceptualizations especially with convergences with Whitehead ( i think Whitehead would like Deacon’s book) and Schelling ( the extrinsic nature of information as formative….how evolution generates novel information…….the divine novel to itself through interpretations that “matter”. God seeing what is created and seeing it is good seems part of the allways present conditioning, even at the level of the powers that hold the structure of electrons to nuclii, or the role of the theoretic boson, its presence or absence, a drop of experience of prima materia. The semiotic is intrinsic to the first event. If Deacon’s efforts are analogous to Bellah in the evolution of spiritual interpretaions, it is mind all the way down, but not the present human mind, but the natural Mind, the divine Mind, which is humbling to attempt to imagine, but is what as humans we do, ententionally, at our scale.

  2. I think that Alfred North Whitehead presents existence of mind independent of existence matter in that existence of mind occurs without time and existence of occurs matter within time, thus existence of mind is not dependent on existence of matter for existence of mind without time cannot emerge from existence of matter within time. I think that Terrence Deacon presents existence of mind dependent of existence of matter in that existence of mind occurs at the emergence of life, thus existence of mind is not independent of existence of matter for existence of mind that occurs at emergence of life is dependent of existence of matter.

  3. In passing, Deacon’s position seems identical to my own: emergent constraints following from initial conditions – as cosmic catalytics generating emergent structural dynamics and resultant “forms”. The possible is what primordially potent (expressive) actualities might do given certain conditions (states of relation or arrangements).

    You write:

    “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.”

    Whitehead’s beliefs about matter and emergence seem to prevent him from understanding how of sentience and imagination and value are evolutionary (contingent) achievements generated from primordial and much more basic sensitivities (potencies) inherent to structure at a microphysical level. So, I agree with Deacon that Whitehead sneaks feeling and sentience in at the beginning without explaining how it is generated. That is my biggest disappointment with WH (and panpsychism) so far. If we sneak in “mind” from the start we can avoid explaining how imagination emerges from matter. WH’s theology of the actual just doesn’t close the explanatory gap.

    I believe there is a way to conceptualize the transition that respects the emergent properties of particular capacities. My term “potency”, like Bennett’s “vibrancy” or Latour’s “agency” can signal the primordial activity that is energy/matter at the deepest scales.

    • I would just be re-iterating our previous conversation if I were to respond. Saying this is all the response I think necessary for now–other than to say that I disagree with the characterizations and presumptions that they make.

      I will say this for my own position. Mind is not “snuck in” from the start, and I am not sure how that is claimed of ANW without equivocating on the term “mind,” though I leave the final analysis to his scholars.

      • ps Jason i have a big post waiting in draft addressing a bunch of stuff you have brought up lately. I will try to post soon…

      • Thank your for your consideration; I think we both benefit much by it. For my part, I always need more practice explaining basic concepts across traditions.

    • Part of why I find Whitehead’s “panprehensionism” to be such an important contribution to metaphysics is that I have not found any way of explaining the “emergence” of feeling, or sentience, or mind out of otherwise dead, insensate stuff. Whitehead is trying to avoid the bifurcation of nature so prevalent in the history of natural science. As Deacon put it himself, not only do we not have a theory for how sentience might emerge from dead matter, we don’t even have an understanding of what such a theory might involve. His work in Incomplete Nature is an attempt to explain the emergence of form, not so much feeling or consciousness.

      As I suggested in the last few lines of the post above, it all comes down to the role of philosophy and what we mean by explanation. Whitehead doesn’t think we can explain feeling by offering some theory about it, since feeling (like value) is simply a fundamental fact about the way things are. The reality of feeling is the condition of the possibility of explanation and so cannot itself be explained.

      Whitehead’s panprehensionism is a direct consequence of his process ontology. There are no bits of dead material existing at an instant in his cosmos. There are durations, aka actual occasions, which, since they exist as temporally thick moments (remembering the past as they anticipate the future) are necessarily experiential. Experience is not the same as “mind,” for Whitehead, but rather the most basic form of temporal existence.

      • Matt you write:

        “Part of why I find Whitehead’s “panprehensionism” to be such an important contribution to metaphysics is that I have not found any way of explaining the “emergence” of feeling, or sentience, or mind out of otherwise dead, insensate stuff.”

        I think that is exactly the problem with most arguments against materialist philosophies. What contemporary materialist would argue that matter-energy is “dead, insensate stuff”?

        I know Levi Bryant and I share the view that all objects and all materials are active systems. In fact, for many of us ‘to be’ is precisely ‘to act’, or to be active, alive and expressive. An ‘object’ is characterized by what it can do, its capacities or powers. Even the most basic materials are assemblages of energetic, moving, vibrating systems. This is what I refer to when I use the term potency. All materials are complex assemblages of potency. Matter is in no way “dead”.

        The interesting issue here is that potent materials can take on emergent properties as they become more complex (through catalytic reactions, amplifications of capacity, complementary powers [i.e., combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize each other's qualities], etc). In this view it is not difficult to image how micro potencies could be organized into macro complexes of sensitive operation. Like WH I share the idea that the cosmos is inherently sensate or potent. But ‘experience’ and sentience are emergent features of compounded and complexified potencies arranged and evolved in particular ways, and not present from the start.

        This could lead me to talk about Merleau-Ponty’s notion of flesh as the describing the elemental sensuality and tangibility of reality, but I’ll leave that for now.

        You write:

        ”As Deacon put it himself, not only do we not have a theory for how sentience might emerge from dead matter, we don’t even have an understanding of what such a theory might involve. His work in Incomplete Nature is an attempt to explain the emergence of form, not so much feeling or consciousness.”

        At the very least I think it will entail giving up the notion that matter is “dead”. In fact nothing in this cosmos is dead. Compositions come and they go, and matter and energy are arranged, implicated and evolve then decomposed and re-implicated. But nowhere do we find completely impotent materials. That is also THE fundamental insight humans need to have in order to enact truly ecological thoughts.

        You write:

        ”Whitehead doesn’t think we can explain feeling by offering some theory about it, since feeling (like value) is simply a fundamental fact about the way things are. The reality of feeling is the condition of the possibility of explanation and so cannot itself be explained.”

        I disagree. I think you are right to imply that the condition for the possibility of explanation is that feeling exists, but this in no way means that we cannot (or should not) explain historically and in detail how rudimentary sensitivities evolved into the capacity for explanation. The fact that we live in a cosmos of active influence and causal potency should not necessary lead us to conclude that those primal vibrancies (cf. string theory) should be characterized as anything like “experience” or sentience or feeling in the original sense of these terms. Sentience and experience are emergent capacities and we should not assume their existence prior to their advent, in the same way a bird’s emergent ability to sing shouldn’t lead us to argue that atoms or individual molecules have an inherent capacity for song.

        You write:

        ”Whitehead’s panprehensionism is a direct consequence of his process ontology. There are no bits of dead material existing at an instant in his cosmos. There are durations, aka actual occasions, which, since they exist as temporally thick moments (remembering the past as they anticipate the future) are necessarily experiential. Experience is not the same as “mind,” for Whitehead, but rather the most basic form of temporal existence.”

        Again, I think one of my main issues with Whitehead is his terminology. I can’t get past the way he anthropomorphizes the cosmos. Even if his ontology is in many respects close to the kind of story I want to tell about reality (e.g., occasions of emergent forms of potency), his discourse seems very misguided. I can’t imagine why we would argue that a hydrogen atom “remembers” or “anticipates”? There has got to be a better, non mentalistic way to describe the interactions between non-sentient complexes? The term “experience” for me must be reserved for entities with the capacity for recursion and some kind of memory. WH seems to build in the role of consciousness from the start as a way to explain its latter elaboration in humans without, in my limited opinion, taking care to address the particularities (onto-specificities) of its emergence. “Mind” emerged from primordial processes not the other way around. And saying that experience is everywhere seems to me the same as saying experience is nowhere. It doesn’t explain.

        Just some thoughts…

      • I’m enjoying these discussions.

        My thought about the above is…so we have no theory of how experience emerges from non-experience. Let’s assume that is true. My question is: stars emerge from things that are not themselves stars, so why is the emergent of a star from the non-star less complex or problematic than the emergence of experience from non-experience?

        I agree with your second paragraph that experience in Whitehead, much like Meillassoux’s laws, are simply factual and not deductive. In this case, experience has no reason for existing, because of it did, then that would mean experience comes from non-experience. But then Whitehead must give up its fundamental or causal universality.

        I’m ambivalent of this because, technically, you say you can’t explain the emergence of experience, but Whitehead doesn’t explain it either: he just makes it an absolutely contingent fact of reality (it must be absolutely contingent because, again, nothing can be the reason or cause for it existing).

      • That wasn’t written that well above. Apologies, it’s still a bit early in the day for me.

        Just one note of clarification: when I said I agree with your second paragraph, I meant that I agree with your interpretation of Whitehead, there.

        And just to clarify further, I am sympathetic to this idea of low level, eternal hum of experience that everything has bu virtue of being real. But I think Meillassoux helps us to realize what we gain and give up in these kinds of moves: we flatten out the problem of the emergence of human experience at the price of a principle of unreason.

      • Thanks for chiming in, Joseph.

        The emergence of new forms, like stars, is an interesting problem, but one that can be solved scientifically. The emergence of experience is different, because experience is in a different ontological category. David Chalmers’ zombie experiment does a good job of explaining why. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

        Experience is not a contingent fact of reality for Whitehead, but an absolutely necessary fact. Without experience, he says, there would be nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.

      • Well said, Matt.

        Even my own redefinition of experience, per Dewey, does not completely solve the problem, and that’s why I plan to read thinkers like Deacon. How does physical/energetic/biological experience become human conscious experience? Personally, I think it plausible because of the phenomenon of matter-energy conversion. The first recognition of that and its place in neurology in the 1830s lead to many rethinking whether determinism or physicalism is true, because energy is not so obviously constrained by macro-physics. I hope Deacon has something to say about that.

        I have difficulty wrapping my mind around Chalmer’s arguments, and I’ve tried a number of times. I just don’t see all the implications that are claimed, which I take to be a limitation of my understanding given the cross-tradition bridge to be crossed, e.g., background assumptions about inferences you are supposed to make, but are only obvious to those in the tradition.

  4. Really? You don’t see how WH might seem to believe that rocks have something like mental experience?

    Standard Definition: “prehension”:
    1. the act of grasping
    2. apprehension by the senses or the mind

    Unless grains of sand have arms to grasp then it seems to me WH was at least implying that they have rudimentary sensual understandings.

    All kinds of semantic contortions would be necessary to buy into that program.

    • Michael,

      People are always throwing rocks at Whitehead. This criticism misses the important point that rocks are not individuals, but unorganized aggregates, and so do not prehend anything as rocks. Only individuals prehend.

    • Michael,

      I think it would be worthwhile for all of us to figure out 1) exactly what it is you disagree with and 2) whether you can come up with an alternative explanation for how Whitehead-friendly interlocutors solve the point of contention.

      The pattern that I continue to see in not just you, but also in a number of anti -Whitehead and/or anti-process thinkers is an admission of a common problem, but a disagreement with how process-thinkers in the American tradition commonly solve the problem. For instance, eternal objects. Logically, something that serves that function is necessary given the general commitments of Whitehead and many process thinkers. I am personally not sure whether I accept Whitehead’s version, but I admit that it solves a pressing problem. If you affirm process but deny eternal objects, you must have an alternative explanation or give up on, e.g., scholastic realism.

      This dynamic was at the heart of my arguments with … certain not present OOO bloggers … before I stopped talking to them. If a person affirms a set of premises, then certain implications follow, and I was convinced that they were either being avoided or not sufficiently addressed, then of course I would not be satisfied with their solutions. Now, between us, do you see the problem that Whitehead addresses? I am not sure you do if you attribute “mind-stuff” to the universe without serious qualifications. If that is you view, than as an interlocutor, I wonder what else there are misunderstandings about.

      I write this is the spirit of open honestly and good-will. To be productive, I think we have to trust each other’s good intentions. I mention this because in my experience, being this direct is frequently taken as a sign of aggression if not an attack.

      • Not sure how to respond to that.

        I seek synthetic explanations with detail and nuance, and that resonate with me in ways that I can use (think with and apply to my work). Period. All scholastic problems only interest me insofar as they act as barriers for explanation and use. And many such “contentions” I find useless and misguided due to being based on more fundamental erroneous assumptions and predicates. I’m a bastard child of late-Wittgenstein you might say.

        You write:

        “For instance, eternal objects. Logically, something that serves that function is necessary given the general commitments of Whitehead and many process thinkers. I am personally not sure whether I accept Whitehead’s version, but I admit that it solves a pressing problem. If you affirm process but deny eternal objects, you must have an alternative explanation or give up on, e.g., scholastic realism.”

        Then I give up on scholastic realism (even though I’m not at all sure what that is). I affirm process and deny eternal objects and believe everything in this reality to be contingent, potent and generated from initial conditions. Structure (assembly) is a matter emergent constraints in dynamic relation.

        You write:

        “If a person affirms a set of premises, then certain implications follow, and I was convinced that they were either being avoided or not sufficiently addressed, then of course I would not be satisfied with their solutions.”

        That is an issue. The problem is I sometimes reject the conventional relations between premises, either for strategic purposes or because I don’t accept foundational assumptions of particular “sets”, or both. Language and theory is much more malleable than is usually assumed. To enact alternative thoughts and actions (modes of being or forms of life) in the world entails a radical orientation to concept generation. Thus, for me, some questions or problems are inherently problematic or maladaptive or limiting so I refuse to follow down their particular rabbit holes (logical entailments). I just refuse to be boxed in by particular discourses.

        “Now, between us, do you see the problem that Whitehead addresses? I am not sure you do if you attribute “mind-stuff” to the universe without serious qualifications. If that is you view, than as an interlocutor, I wonder what else there are misunderstandings about. I write this is the spirit of open honestly and good-will. To be productive, I think we have to trust each other’s good intentions. I mention this because in my experience, being this direct is frequently taken as a sign of aggression if not an attack.”

        I like directness. I even like aggression. One of the best ways to test and expand our intellectual (as well as physical) abilities is through struggle and adaptation. So don’t worry about that.

        I would think it would be clear by now that I reject the notion of mind-stuff. I reject the notion of ‘mind’ an object (noun) or separate domain of action as well. But if you are asking if I believe Whitehead argues for a separate mind-stuff, I do not. The problem with Whitehead as I see it is that he thinks all of reality is operations of a universal mind-stuff. Experience in the broadest sense is an (onto)specific cognitive (in the broadest non-technically embedded sense) capacity with particular operations not a ubiquitous feature of matter and energy. If I misunderstand WH in this regard, then at this point I feel I should just drop it and move on to a thinker I find more productive.

      • Michael,

        You seem to want to be something akin to a Rortian, which has a lot of commonalities with neo-Wittgensteinian positions. But in that case, you would have to either admit that you are engaging in rhetoric for some other purpose, e.g., amelioration, or emphatically deny that you speak anything other than the truth, in which case I would take it as rhetorical posturing. Pseudo-Derridians do this too–spiders on rhetorical webs that shift at every question aimed at them, because the only truth is in the performance and not the words.

        Sad news. Given what you’ve said, it makes me think that further discussion is unlikely to be productive, because you would not want to remain in the academic confines that make the discussion valuable for me.

        I do not like aggression, btw, though I do play aggressive sports. I just don’t have the pathos.

      • Yes, truth in preformative, enacted – but (and here is the important part) only against the background or in the context of material existences. That is, terminology, discourse, theory etc., has a use-reference value in real-world practical contexts (i.e., personal coping, social relation, technical tasking) set out within the conventional limits of a language.

        So if I agree to use the term ‘mind’, for example, how you or someone else defines it we can falsify that term as so defined through observation of empirical realities and then continued conceptual clarification.

        Truth is a performance (enacted), but one in which a myriad of material components must play the key role.

      • Ah. We actually have come to a productive point. I disagree about truth. It’s a productive disagreement, because we now know what is likely generating our conflicts and can navigate it better. I don’t think it would be helpful to play out exactly what the disagreement is, other than to say that I reject Wittgensteinian (or Rortian) visions of truth even if qualified.

      • Fair enough, I gotta let you know, I find our conceptual ‘play’ her very useful. You push me to think harder and attempt more clarity. And for that I thank you.

      • Welcome. Likewise, I thank you for the opportunity to practice being more clear. Thinking the thoughts has never been my problem, but communicating them is something else.

  5. Michael,

    Semantic contortions? Why do you think Whitehead chose such an unusual word? Because it has an extremely unusual denotation in his work. No, rocks do not have “mental experience” in anything akin to human mentality. Again, we move in unproductive circles. You make an aesthetic choice.

    • Michael,
      Value is not “contingent” in Whitehead’s metaphysics. Given how his ontology is set up, it is impossible for there *not to be* value. Just fyi.

      But keep the conversation going, good stuff here.

      • Leon, I know Whitehead doesn’t think so but I do. “Value” is an emergent human interest flowing from the consequential underpinnings of contingent physical existence – that is, from embodied creatures coping and communicating abstractly in a world of deep consequence (causal relations). Values are complex human interests elaborated socially.

        And there already is value in the world so it’s obvious that it is impossible. WH seems to add nothing towards explaining how value came to be however.

      • Are you both not using completely different denotations of “value?” I’m almost certain.

        A electron “values” its electron orbit. Human valuing is not supernatural, and need not be merely contingent. Human valuing can be a complex expression of nature, a complex of biological valuing and social valuing. The latter is more contingent than the former, and the former operates with the force of contingent necessity on the latter, e.g., societies value food…

        This is not to say that I am agree with either Leon or Matt. I don’t think I do, but it’s just a hunch at the moment.

      • I don’t think I would ever agree that electrons have values Jason. This is the problem I have with most accounts of nature; we often describe non-human operations in explicitly human terms. The cpacaity to value something in not the same as the capacity to relate to or beimplicated with something. I find we limit ourselves with our metaphors.

      • Michael,

        Rhetorical statement: stop thinking that humans are not natural.

        All terms are natural terms, as humans are natural. I repurpose the word “value” to show that there is no radical break between the human and non-human. Rather than anthropomorhize the world, I an de-anthropomorphizing our terms. Valuing is not so special; lots of things have chemical bonds.

        If we don’t make this kind of move, then human valuing will always seem as something radically unconnected to nature. It’s hold-over Cartesianism.

      • p.s.

        If there are any tendencies in nature, then in some sense there are “values.” Human values are founded on this. Otherwise, what are they? There are positive reasons for arguing in this way that you do not address–why do you think this kind of argument is being given? (Rhetorical question–I answered it.)

      • Jason, you write:

        Rhetorical statement: stop thinking that humans are not natural.

        All terms are natural terms, as humans are natural. I repurpose the word “value” to show that there is no radical break between the human and non-human. Rather than anthropomorhize the world, I an de-anthropomorphizing our terms. Valuing is not so special; lots of things have chemical bonds.

        If we don’t make this kind of move, then human valuing will always seem as something radically unconnected to nature. It’s hold-over Cartesianism.

        There are positive reasons for arguing in this way that you do not address…

        On the contrary, I think everything is natural (and thus Nature does not exist). That does not in any way excuse us from understanding the differences that make a difference (what I refer to as an assemblage’s onto-specificity, or what Latour might call irreducible composition) between humans-as-natural-systems and non-humans-as-natural-systems. There is a massive and important difference between a refrigerator and a human child. Just as I argue there is a massive and important difference between human valuing and chemical bonding. That each exists on the same ontological plane (what I would call flesh or matter or Nature) says very little about their specific compositional efficacies or ontic capacities. Special is as special does as it were. And to blanket over these differences with anthro-centric terms or language that refers to human specifically operations only leads to confusion (misplaced concreteness as one example) and conflation. That’s a problem.

        Incidentally, that is the great promise of Levi Bryant’s onticology. He is developing a framework that takes immanence (flat ontology) and difference (object-orientation) serious simultaneously.

      • We agree with “I argue there is a massive and important difference between human valuing and chemical bonding.” Yet when I put what nature does and what human nature does in continuity, which is exactly how they exist, you balk because of my aesthetic choices about terms. If I took the time to write les mots en francais, est-ce que tu pense le meme chose [the words in French, would you think the same thing]? Matt or Leon might mean more by the terms, but I do not. Btw, as a Dewey scholar, one of Dewey’s lasting offerings to recent philosophy is the theory of valuation if you want to look that up. It’s where I coming from.

        I don’t see Levi’s onticology as offering anything radically new. It’s an alternative among the OOO-crowd. The most newness I’ve seen is Harman–not that I’ve sampled all the options. Levi process-thinks OOO more than anything else I’ve seen, but the idea of “flatness” can be had in Peirce … or arguably Spinoza … or even the ancient Atomists. If anything, the strongly political nature of his work, its motivations, how it is unfolding in the contemporary milieu, is more novel than the ideas.

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