Essay republished in “Center for Ecozoic Studies Musings” wp content uploads 2015 11 CES MUSINGS.CM_.2015 1112.pdf

I forgot to link to this back in July, but Herman Greene, editor of the CES Musings newsletter, republished my essay Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013) in their December 2014 issue.

You can find the PDF of the issue by clicking here. Or you can visit the CES website and view the issue’s articles separately.

Below is Herman’s helpful (and kind!) introduction to my essay:

The following essay would be a stunning accomplishment by a person of any age. It is even more remarkable that it is by Matthew David Segall, a man in his twenties. Matthew undertakes with aplomb the task of making sense of modern science and evolutionary theory in light of Whitehead’s philosophy and also a vision of the ecozoic.  He defines his project as “my own attempt to re-construct the philosophical basis for a viable planetary civilization.”

Matthew gives me hope for the future. I don’t know of a finer young, ecozoic philosopher.

Here is his bio:

Matthew David Segall is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. His dissertation draws primarily upon Alfred North Whitehead, Friedrich Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner, and is focused on the role of imagination in the philosophical integration of scientific theory and religious myth. His undergraduate work was in cognitive science at the University of Central Florida. He is the author of several articles and books, including Physics of the World Soul: The Relevance of A.N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013)“Logos of a Living Earth: Towards a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future” in World Futures, Vol. 68 (2012)“Participatory Psychedelia: Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness” in The Journal of Transpersonal Research (forthcoming, 2014). He also blogs regularly at


Some Concepts in Matthew’s Essay

In order to understand Matthews’ essay, you may helpful find this description of a few background concepts in Whitehead’s philosophy.

Before I go on, if what follows here or in Matthew’s paper seems confusing, just think of the universe as a continually developing piece of jazz music made up of zillions of notes played by creative musicians seeking novelty, rich harmonies and beauty.

Whitehead’s cosmology does not begin with the large scale structures of the universe. Rather it begins with the smallest units of existence, the actual occasions, or drops of experience, of which the universe is composed. In his cosmology, each of these drops of experience comes into being through the influence of factors internal and external. His cosmology is “atomic” in the sense that the universe is composed of minute events that make up all there is, but not in the sense that each atomic event is a substance existing in its own right and having only external relations with other atoms. The existence of each event is its becoming (in Whitehead’s technical language, its “concrescence”). Each event has a subjective-creative aspect.

Events form societies. Societies exist but the events that make them up come into being and then perish. You can think of this like a person’s liver. It seems like an enduring object, but its cells are replaced every 150 days. You can also think of this like pixels on a TV screen. The pixels together make up the pictures (analogous to societies), but the pixels flash on and off. The atomic events, that is to say “actual occasions,” in Whitehead’s scheme are much smaller than cells or pixels, they exist at the tiniest possible scale. Also they don’t just flash on and off, they inherit from past events and project something new forward. Societies have synergistic characteristics not possible in any one event.

In the process of concresence events reach a final form. This form is an expression of an eternal object. Eternal objects are all the ways that things can become actual in the world. They are squares, circles, colors, tones, feelings, and more. Whitehead took the idea of the forms from Plato and then changed them. Whitehead’s eternal objects don’t exist in an abstract world of forms, but rather in actualizing events. An eternal object is anything that can be abstracted from a particular experience and can recur again. For example, redness is in a specific event, but can recur in other events. Whitehead described eternal objects as “pure poten­tials for the specific determination of fact,” and “forms of definiteness.” There are potentials that have not been realized and those possibilities exist by virtue of the ordering of eternal objects in the primordial nature of God. Some have difficulty with Whitehead’s reference to the term God and prefer to think simply of the primordial order of the universe.

In understanding this myself I think of a piano. It has 66 notes, but the notes are not the strings—the strings give rise to the notes. The notes are harmonically related to each other, not because of the strings but because of the nature of the notes themselves. The notes exist as potentials apart from the strings of any piano. They only come into being, however, when the note is played on the strings. Without the harmonic order of the notes (again not something given by the strings), we wouldn’t have the possibilities of the music that we have. There are limitless possibilities for creativity on a piano, but only because there are 66 harmonically related notes (eternal objects) that can be played by the piano player striking the strings.

Thomas Berry points out that science can tell you how many times the strings vibrate, but it can’t hear the music. Both the vibrations of the string and the notes are “real,” but they are real in a different way. The notes and the effects they have are something real in themselves.

In much of modern philosophy, what is real is the vibration of the strings and the music is our subjective reception or interpretation of the vibrations. To think this what is what Whitehead calls the bi-furcation of nature. It separates the world into what is real and the human response which is subjective. Whitehead seeks to understand nature in a way that all that we experience—emotion, thought, beauty, feeling, compassion, are real in nature.

This is what Thomas Berry was about as well. He wrote on pages 32-33 of The Great Work:

To appreciate the numinous aspect of the universe as it is communicated in [the Earth] story, we need to understand that we ourselves activate one of the deepest dimensions of the universe. [That the] special intellectual, emotional, and imaginative capacities [we recognize in ourselves] have existed as dimensions of the universe from its beginning is clear since the universe is ever integral with itself in all its manifestations throughout its vast extension in space and throughout the sequence of its transformations in time. The human is neither an addendum to, nor an intrusion into the universe. We are quintessentially a dimension of the universe.

And if all of the above or what is in Matthew’s paper seems confusing, just think of the universe as a continually developing piece of jazz music made up of zillions of notes played by creative musicians seeking novelty, rich harmonies and beauty. Then keep reading.



Latour building on Whitehead’s critique of substance

In Latour’s words, Whitehead replaced the concept of substance with that of subsistence. I appreciate Latour’s insistence on the need for the creation of institutions that encourage and sustain themselves through transformation. Question is, what would such institutions look like?

Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,

Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.

-William Blake

Read the engaging and wide-ranging post hereThe Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I’ve written a few posts bringing Whitehead into conversation with Nietzsche that unpack my perspective a bit regarding nihilism as a pathological transitional phase.

converted PNM file

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:

I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

Schelling’s Descendental Philosophy (and its Whiteheadian resonances)

Much of the rather fragmentary thoughts to follow were spurred by my reading of Jason Wirth’s wondrous little essay in the HUGE Palgrave Companion to German Idealism (2014), “Nature of Imagination: At the Heart of Schelling’s Thinking.” Based on the subtitle of his newly published book Schelling’s Practice of the Wild: Time, Art, and Imagination (2015), it looks like he continues to unpack many of the themes of this essay there. I would’ve read it already, but I’m hoping it will become more affordable (hardcover is $70 on Amazon).

Schelling has commonly been labeled an “objective idealist” and made historically relevant only as the stepping stone between Fichte’s “subjective” and Hegel’s “absolute idealism.” More recently, his work is being creatively retrieved by a number of thinkers who describe it as running distinctly against the idealistic grain of Fichte’s and Hegel’s philosophizing. These thinkers include Wirth, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ben Woodard, and Bruce Matthews.

Wirth claims in the second sentence of his essay that “one cannot do philosophy only by doing philosophy.” The philosopher, he says, must be in conversation with natural science, art, history, and religion. I agree that philosophy has no object unless it finds itself in dialogue with these other modes of thought, but this does not rule out the possibility that philosophy has a subject all its own. That is to say, philosophy as such has no object other than itself, the subject doing the philosophizing. The subject, the Self, is of course no ordinary thing or object–if it can be so labeled at all. The Self–the protagonist of all idealisms–is described by Fichte as an unconditioned (unbedingte) act rather than an objective fact. It is literally unthingable (un-ding-able), the transcendental ground of all conditioned things.


Schelling does not deny the transcendental approach to philosophy. He only relativizes its claims to the Absolute by articulating a complementary approach that we might call descendental philosophy. Wirth deploys Deleuzo-Guattarian lingo to argue that, for Schelling, “Nature [is] the image of thought as such.” Recall that for D&G, the confrontation with Chaos is the precondition of philosophy. In Schelling, Chaos becomes the “abyss of freedom,” the “dark precursor” of thought, “that which is absolutely mobile…which is continually an Other, which cannot be held on to for a moment” (On The History of Modern Philosophy, 152). For Schelling, then, the prime subject-object of philosophical thought is not the Self, but the incomprehensible groundlessness preceding volitional egoity and objectified physicality alike. This groundlessness, this abyss, is unprethinkable (unvordenklichen). Whitehead referred to it as Creativity. This creative abyss before Self and Nature provides the groundless ground of Reason. The philosopher comes into contact with it in the sensuous world, the realm of aesthesis, hence the early Schelling’s claim that an “aesthetic act” provides the keystone of philosophy and the late Schelling’s defense of what he termed “metaphysical” or “higher empiricism.” According to Schelling, despite the fact that “everything in the sensuous world is grasped in number and measure,” this “does not therefore mean that geometry or arithmetic explain the sensuous world” (HMP, 147). Whitehead similarly argues that “The general principle of empiricism depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason” (Science and the Modern World, 179). The “higher empiricism” Schelling alludes to is not at all the positivistic empiricism of much modern science, wherein through “servile imitation” a reflective mind attempts to represent the forms of Nature as though these forms were “still born,” as Wirth puts it. Schelling’s is not a “high altitude” view of nature as a collection of objects mechanically governed by arbitrarily imposed mathematical laws. Rather, Schelling, like Whitehead, returns the philosopher to his or her concrete aesthetic encounter with Nature (to our prehension of Nature, in Whitehead’s terms). It is here that Nature’s natality, her creativity, shines through the superficial appearance of objective finitude. Our sensory experience, attended to in earnest, reveals itself to be infinite, sublime; it is only after reflective consciousness has manufactured for us a finite, ordered world that this infinity is obscured, covered over. In attempting to descend below the veil of intellectual reflection into the depths of the sensible, the philosopher puts their sanity at risk. According to Wirth, for Schelling “philosophy is the negotiation of madness, reason’s ongoing encounter with what resists reason.” In this way, Schelling reverses the typical orientation of philosophy toward the intelligible. Or at least he affirms that a certain kind of madness lurks within or behind intellect itself, giving it life. Intellect absent all madness would be mere mechanical understanding. Like Whitehead, Schelling is more concerned with keeping thought alive than with repeating stale truths of the merely logical sort (as Whitehead puts it, “in the real world, it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true”).  

Schelling’s approach could also be called an empiricism of imagination. As Wirth says, “Schelling is through and through a thinker of the problem of imagination, of the emergence into image of that which itself has no image.” His aesthetic (un)grounding of philosophy destabilizes the Hegelian notion that philosophy ought to overcome itself by arriving at a finished “system of science.” Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an infinite creative task, not a finished system. Naturphilosophie is not a philosophy about nature but “Nature itself philosophizing” (autophusis philosophia). “None of our spiritual thoughts transcend the earth,” says Schelling. Unlike so much modern philosophy, Schelling puts Nature, rather than Mind, at the center of thought. Where modern philosophy put the human subject at the center, Schelling realized that the true subject of humanity is Nature herself: “Nature is a priori.” The human being is unique among earthly creatures in that it knows reality’s ground is incomprehensible. With this knowledge, we can either use our new found freedom to flee upwards by way of anti-physical idealistic transcendentalism, or we can fall deeper in love with cosmogenesis via a naturephilosophical descendentalism. The former option, freedom without love, quickly devolves into alienation. Idealists like Kant and Fichte tried to overcome this devolution by privileging practical over theoretical philosophy. To save the possibility of love between humans they had to deny the possibility of a loving knowledge of Nature. Schelling moved away from modern technoscience’s conception of knowledge as power in favor of what Goethe termed a “gentle empiricism,” or what might be called a loving knowledge. Rather than recoiling from the abyss of the sensible to a supposedly stable intelligible ground, as critical philosophy does, Schelling dives heart first into its radiant darkness. His is a creative, rather than a critical philosophy. Critical philosophy is not to be rejected, however. It is indispensable for clearing the way, for preparing thought for its encounter with the Real. But Reason alone cannot take us all the way. Schelling is clear on this point: “Without intellectual intuition, no philosophy!” The capacity for this sort of intuition, akin to artistic genius or mystical experience, depends on a certain character trait, Schelling tells us. As such, it cannot be taught to just anyone, as geometry or arithmetic can; it can, however, be developed in those with a heartfelt sense for the “nullity” of all finite knowledge. Because of his tendency to rest philosophical insight on the capacity for genius or mystical sensitivity, Schelling may fall victim to what Hegel referred to as the “Sunday’s Children” problem. Mystical experience (Greek: musterion) is “secret” experience, experience known only silently. As such it is difficult if not impossible to communicate about to those who have not encountered it for themselves. Whitehead similarly likens philosophy to “imaginative art,” implying that it is only a unique personality who can philosophize creatively (just as it takes a certain inborn ability to write inspired poetry or play beautiful music). Despite Hegel’s critique and insistence that philosophy must rest on a universal and easily teachable method (which itself may sway too far in the opposite direction), both Schelling and Whitehead were rigorous thinkers committed to sharing ideas in public. They simply rejected the idea that the creative abyss at the heart of Nature could be finally described or explained. As Merleau-Ponty suggested in his late lecture course on Whitehead, “Nature is always new in each perception,” even while it is “never without a past.” An ever-new Nature cannot be captured once and for all by any verbal statement or logical formula, no matter how dialectically sophisticated. As is said of Isis, Goddess of Nature: “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be, and my veil no mortal has yet uncovered.”

Schelling and Whitehead share an intuition about eternity’s participation in time, and about God’s participation in Nature. “Nothing comes into being in time,” writes Schelling. “Rather, in each thing time comes into being immediately from eternity into the new…The beginning of time is in each thing, and, indeed, each thing is the same as the eternal beginning. Each particular comes into being through this cision through which the world comes into being” (Weltalter, 79). Like Whitehead, Schelling sees each actual entity as inwardly resonant with eternity, or what Whitehead called the primordial nature of God. The primordial nature is the original rhythm or first song sung by the divine poet that still resounds within each temporal being. It is through our intellectual intuition that we can hear this silent song–“silent” because it provides the ground-tone for our entire existence, its humble humming hardly noticeable but for special moments of mystical insight. God is “the poet of the world,” as Whitehead puts it, the cosmic myth-maker or speaker of secrets gently guiding us toward Nature’s hidden meaning. Whitehead’s primordial nature of God is what is most ancient in Nature and what reveals itself in the present as the promise of a future. According to Wirth, “Nature is the life of imagination.” I’m reminded of William Blake’s statement “to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.” Blake also describes imagination as “spiritual sensation,” which might be a helpful way of rendering “intellectual intuition” in English. In Schelling, imagination (Einbildungskraft) is the movement of the infinite into the finite (and back again). 

The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help From Bergson and Whitehead

Above is my talk for the Jean Gebser Society conference held at the California Institute of Integral Studies the weekend of October 16th.

Title: The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help from Bergson and Whitehead

Abstract: Gebser suggests that the world-constituting reality of time first irrupted into Western consciousness with the publication in 1905 of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This was the first indication of an emerging mutation from the three-dimensional, Copernican world of the mental structure into the four-dimensional world of the integral structure. My presentation will critically examine Einstein’s role in this evolutionary initiation by situating his concept of a space-time continuum within its early 20th century context.  While Einstein’s relativity theory played a central role in the 20th century revolution in physics, revisiting the debates he was engaged in with thinkers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead reveal that his perception of time was still obscured by the residue of the mental structure’s spatializing tendency. As Gebser remarked, we are “compelled to become fully conscious of time—the new component—not just as a physical-geometric fourth dimension but in its full complexity” (EPO, 288, 352). During his controversial debate with Bergson in Paris in 1922, Einstein argued that the former’s understanding of time as “creative evolution” was merely the subjective fantasy of an artist, and that, as a hard-nosed scientist, he was concerned only with the real, objective time made manifest by the geometrical reasoning of relativity theory. Bergson, for his part, argued that Einstein had mistaken a particular way of measuring time (i.e., clock-time) for time itself. Whitehead’s meeting with Einstein shortly after this debate with Bergson, though not as public, was no less significant. Whitehead similarly argued that the philosophical implications of Einstein’s brilliant scientific theory must be saved from Einstein’s faulty interpretation. My presentation will review these early 20th century debates about the nature of time in light of Gebser’s prophetic announcement of the birth of a new structure of consciousness. More than a century after Einstein’s theory was published, mainstream scientific cosmology still has not fully integrated the immeasurably creative character of qualitative time. I will argue that Bergson and Whitehead’s largely neglected critiques and reconstructions of relativity theory help show the way towards the concrete realization of Gebser’s integral structure.

Bergson, Henri ; philosophe français (prix Nobel de Littérature 1927) ; Paris 18.10.1859 - 4.1.1941. Photo, v. 1928. Année de l'évènement: 1928 Année de l'oeuvre: 1928 © akg-images

gravity-works-3 whitehead

11th International Whitehead Conference (2017 in the Azores)

spring_tree-e1429150071293The 11th International Whitehead Conference will be hosted by the University of the Azores on Sao Miguel Island.

Google Maps

The conference website is now up. The title of the 2017 conference is Nature in Process: Novel Approaches to Science and Metaphysics. The section headings and descriptions should be available in a few months. I’m told there will be sections on Bergson, James, Sri Aurobindo, integral ecology, and integral economics.

I should be done with my dissertation by July 2017. I’ll probably present a paper extracted from it on Whitehead’s evental ether theory and alternative interpretation of relativity.

response to R. Scott Bakker on transcendental phenomenology and BBT

Anyone who posits some form of efficacy or constraint outside the natural order on the basis of some kind of interpretation of ‘experience’ has the same argumentative burden to discharge: How do you know? What justifies such an extraordinary (supernatural) posit?…What makes the question so pressing now is that their instrument, reflection, has finally found itself on the coroner’s table. -R. Scott Baker

There is nothing “outside” the natural order. In this sense, I am opposed to the transcendentalist’s move to remove Reason or the reflective understanding from physical reality. There is indeed a supernaturalist residue in much transcendental and phenomenological philosophy. This is why my project has always been to theorize “the natural order” as itself always already creative, aesthetic, interpretational, experiential (mine is a naturalized transcendental (Schelling’s “Nature is a priori”)). There is no “other” world from which the causal efficacy of our world derives. With our universe, the cause is internal to the effect, which is another way of saying our universe is primarily organic (with mechanism as a secondary appearance). This is why I follow Whitehead in the endeavor to construct an ontology of organism, wherein: 1) Physics is the study of the evolutionary development of particles, stars, galaxies, and other micro- and macro- organisms-in-ecologies; 2) Biology is the study of the evolutionary development of single cells, plants, and animals in their meso-cosmic ecologies; 3) Philosophy, anthropology, and theology are different aspects of the study of the evolutionary development of languages, myths, and ideas in their noetic ecologies. The organism-environment field becomes the metaphysical metaphor guiding our theorizing, rather than the machine.

Now, when I say “my project has always been to theorize…”, I should qualify that “theory” in the context of an open-ended, evolving cosmos such as ours can never pretend to certainty or finality. Theory is not the construction of a disinterested, reflective ego (at least, no valuable theory is). Theory always remains dependent on the speculative leap of some metaphor or another. Theory is imaginative construction requiring equal doses of aesthetic taste and logical clarity. Our theories are always as much science fiction as they are science fact.

I agree with Bakker than cognition of the real just isn’t possible. But we must distinguish between cognition on the one hand, and sensation, feeling, and intuition on the other. If an intuition of the real is our goal, using the reflective instrument is like shining a flashlight in search of darkness. Reflective cognition is like King Midas, turning everything it touches into noetic gold. It transforms everything not-I into food for itself, digesting the world and defecating whatever it can’t assimilate as waste. It does’t seem to me much of a stretch to say that modernity’s exclusive reliance on reflective cognition is one of the main factors leading to the ecological crisis.

Let me be clear that, while I defend transcendental phenomenology from Bakker’s eliminativist meta-critique, my own philosophical home base is process-relational ontology. I have major issues with transcendental phenomenology as a philosophical resting place. It remains too anthropocentric, too concerned with issues of human access and not attentive enough to solar nucleosynthesis, cellular mitosis, and atmospheric levels of CH4. But still, I just don’t understand how, having grasped the power of transcendental critique–as critique–one could fail to see eliminativist arguments like BBT as anything but dogmatic materialism (materialism has today become the new School Philosophy, though it pretends to be the ultimate critic of all metaphysics). Where I leave transcendentalism behind is in my pursuit of a constructive, cosmologically-rooted philosophy, something the phenomenological approach just cannot provide.


It is clear Bakker has done his philosophical homework. I don’t think it is fair of him to lump everyone into the same transcendentalist clown car, though. Phenomenology was born out of the intense debates between Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, all of whom accused Kant of not having cleared his vision of dogmatist residues. They all recognized the possibility and the fact of neglect, and even of the neglect of neglect. But for these post-Kantians (with the possible exception of Hegel), the transcendental project was an infinite one by definition, meaning there would never be a point when the a priori structures were finally reached and could be clearly and distinctly spelled out once and for all. Fichte grounded the transcendental historically in the ethical development of humankind, describing philosophy as an attempt to asymptotically approach absolute metacognition as an ideal while never in fact being able to reach it. Schelling went further and grounded the transcendental in the creative developmental arc of the cosmos itself. For Schelling (and here he converges with Whitehead), not even God knows the a priori conditions of experiential reality: the divine is just as caught in the chaotic turmoil of historical becoming as any creature is. None of these thinkers, with the possible exception of Fichte when he is sloppy, thought that impersonal natural systems could be cognized in terms of their own 1st person experience.

Here is Schelling mulling over this exact problem, for ex.:

“I could conceive of that being perhaps as something that, initially blind, struggles through every level of becoming toward consciousness, and humanity would then arise precisely at that moment, at that point in which the previously blind nature would reach self-consciousness. But this cannot be, since our self-consciousness is not at all the consciousness of that nature that permeates everything: it is just *our* consciousness and hardly encompasses within itself a science of becoming applicable to all things. This universal becoming remains just as foreign and opaque to us as if it had never had a bearing on us at all. Therefore, if this becoming has achieved any kind of purpose it is achieved only through humanity, but not for humanity; for the consciousness of humanity does not = equal the consciousness of nature” (The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 1841).

In other words, 1st person reflective ego consciousness is largely a sham. It can tell us little if anything about the unconscious natural ground from which it emerges. Of course, Schelling (like Whitehead) argued that the field of experience extends beyond mere 1st person ego consciousness. My argument with Bakker has always been: why reduce the experiential field that is open to us to 1st person ego consciousness? Most of our daily and nightly experience is not egoic! Most of the time we are flowing through other experiential states more akin to animals, plants, and even minerals. So in a sense mine is also a post-human manifesto. We have never been human, if you want.

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.

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.

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 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.