An interview with Jesse Turri at Home Brewed Christianity on Science, Religion, Imagination, and more…

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HERE is the interview. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I remember a wide-ranging conversation on everything from my own intellectual and spiritual development, to the relationship between science and religion, to the role of imagination and psychedelics in the philosophy of nature.

HERE is Jesse Turri’s personal website.

Beyond Materialism and Idealism, a Philosophy of Organism?

Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.

Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.

Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).

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As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.

In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.

This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).

The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy

“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).

So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).

Theoretical Archaeology Conference Abstract

Unfortunately, the track I was to participate in was canceled due to conflicts with another conference. But I wanted to share my abstract since I hope to develop some of these themes in the future. This particular theme (teleology in archaeology) came up as I read Hodder’s great book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationship Between Humans and Things.

Abstract Proposal: XV Nordic TAG 2015

Title: On the Entanglements of Archai and Teloi: Towards a Whiteheadian Philosophy of Archaeology

Author: Matthew David Segall

Panel: Disentangling the Neolithic “Revolution” in Southwest Asia

Abstract: Whitehead defined philosophy as the critique of the abstractions of the special sciences, tasking it with the harmonization of these abstractions with our “more concrete intuitions of the universe” (SMW, 87). As one among the special sciences, archaeology tasks itself with the study of the presence of the past. It examines the traces of the past as they show up in the present. But the past never shows up in concrete experience to make itself available to scientific evaluation except in relation to particular conceptions of the future. In order to harmonize archaeology with our concrete intuitions of the universe, it is necessary to supplement the study of the presence of the past with the study of the absence of the future, i.e., teleology. Teleology is the study of the way the future leads on or lures the present toward its own latent potentialities. It concerns not what is, but what could or even should be. Although usually associated with religious cosmologies, it is clear that modern secular worldviews are no less teleological in orientation. Humans are inescapably future-oriented beings. It follows that archaeologists should take their imagination of the future explicitly into mind while studying the past, since the way humans imagine their future largely determines in advance how they come to interpret their past. My paper draws upon Whitehead’s process-relational “ontology of organism” to argue that ecologizing the philosophical foundations of archaeology requires not simply coming to terms with the agency of nonhuman things, but also situating the study of the past within a universe of things (human and non-) for whom the creative lures of the future are just as influential as the settled facts of the past. My hope is that Whitehead’s heterodox conception of teleology may be of some use to archaeologists.

 

 

Towards an abstract for my presentation at the International Whitehead Conference, “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism”

My track at this year’s International Whitehead Conference is titled “Re-imagining Late Modernity’s Reductive Monism” and is situated within the umbrella section called “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose.” Other participants in my track include Elizabeth Allison, Sean Kelly, Richard Tarnas, and Brian Swimme. I hope to have the schedule and abstracts for everyone’s contributions posted by the end of the month.

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For my part, I want to articulate an alternative to modernization. Following Bruno Latour, I’ll call it ecologization. The tentative title for my talk is:

Panexperientialist Pluralism or Eliminativist Monism?: Towards the Ecologization of Philosophy

A brief summary of what I’d like to cover:

“A philosophic outlook,” writes Whitehead, “is the very foundation of thought and of life…As we think, we live.” It is the assumption of this paper, and this entire conference, that ideas matter. Philosophy is not merely mental entertainment. On the contrary, it is a matter of life and death. As Whitehead argues, the dominant philosophy of every age “moulds our type of civilization” (MoT, 63). Modern philosophy, largely shaped by Descartes’ understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between the free human spirit and an entirely mechanical nature, has been thoroughly critiqued by contemporary environmental philosophers for its ecologically disastrous side-effects. Most serious thinkers no longer consider dualism to be a “living option,” as William James would say. Descartes’ early modern dualism split spirit from matter so thoroughly that it left no room for life. The currently unfolding mass extinction is not at all surprising as the outcome of such a philosophy. To Whitehead’s statement we must add the corollary statement: As we think, we die.

Thanks to Darwin and 160 years of the evolution of Evolutionary theory, it has been made abundantly clear that human beings were not dropped onto this planet from heaven, but instead share a genetic origin with every other species of organism on earth. We also share a destiny: Humans, like many other megafauna, are faced with imminent extinction. We are not, in fact, alienated from Nature. Our fortunes rise and fall with Hers (and She is not at all the unified, ahistorical, steady-state machine we have for several hundred years suspected). Given the severity of our situation, the Whiteheadian philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour has provided us with an ultimatum: either continue the disastrous path of modernization, or change the course of civilization entirely by ecologizing the human endeavor.

Now that dualism has been largely discredited, many proponents of modernization are seeking philosophical justification by defending eliminativist or reductionist forms of materialistic monism. My paper will attempt to bring the ecologically oriented Whiteheadian alternative of panexperientialist pluralism into distinct relief by contrasting it with late modern eliminativist monism. Reductive monism is the confused result of the incoherent Modern Constitution that Latour so thoroughly critiqued and re-constructed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993). In their rush to reductively naturalize everything in theory, eliminativists have neglected the extent to which the techno-scientific practices they worship have in fact only ever succeeded in multiplying the number of nature-society hybrids. The more they claim to have acquired pure knowledge of the human brain (cleansed of any contamination by culture or the dreaded psychology of common folks), the more these hybrids proliferate. This eliminativist attempt at (what Whitehead would call) a heroic feat of “explaining away” is itself little more than a form of political posturing, an attempt to crown oneself the victor of the progressive march toward a finally, truly Modern world. If anyone is confused, it is the eliminativists, since at least all the poor common people with their unscientific and pre-theoretical folk psychology escape the embarrassment of the blatant contradictions between theory and practice that plague the former. If our civilization is to have a future, it cannot be achieved by such polemical grandstanding. We need a more diplomatic method, which is precisely what an ecological and pluralistic ontology makes way for.

We can begin to ecologize our civilization by first ecologizing our philosophy. Ancient and modern philosophies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological philosophy acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to interpenetrate. An ecological philosophy is a pluralistic and historical philosophy. Historical because there is nothing—no creature and no relationship—that did not come to be in the course of evolutionary time. Historical becoming is not reserved for human society alone. Humanity is itself just the most recent chapter in a multi-billion year geostorical cascade of complex and compounding effects. Pluralistic because our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarms of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged organisms enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. In Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. In other words, ecology replaces physics as the foundational science. Value-experience replaces valueless matter as the most basic ontological category.

Much of what I want to say about Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative to eliminativist materialism will be filtered through Bruno Latour’s ontological pluralism, as spelled out in We Have Never Been Modern and more recently in An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2012). I reviewed a chapter from this book (the chapter on materialism) as part of a co-investigation with other scholars here: https://aimegroup.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/chapter-4-learning-to-make-room-introducing-the-beings-of-reproduction-instituting-a-whole-new-diplomacy/ For those of you new to Latour, some of the jargon may be difficult to follow. Grant Maxwell and I exchanged a few blog posts comparing Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind with Latour’s earlier book We Have Never Been Modern. The exchange might provide a helpful introduction to Latour’s ideas if you want to dig deeper: http://footnotes2plato.com/2013/03/10/reflections-on-latour-tarnas-and-the-misenchantment-of-the-world/ 

Evolutionary Panpsychism v. Eliminative Materialism: Towards an Anthrodecentric Philosophy of Nature

A talk I gave at my graduate program’s retreat at Esalen a few weeks ago.

Part 1:

Part 2:

A comment by media theorist and professor of communication Corey Anton about what I say around the 3 minute mark of part 2 about the death/rebirth mystery of cosmogenesis:

Corey Anton:
Hi Matt, Thanks again.
A question for me comes at about 3:25 [of part 2]. Will the whole universe “die” and/or be reborn? What, exactly, would that mean? How would that be similar or not similar to human death? Does the cosmos have any “sense” of its finitude? I mean, humans can know that they will die, and that seems to be a main condition for certain kinds of meaningfulness–an articulation of the whole of their lives. Are you suggesting something like reincarnation for either individuals or the cosmos itself? Would you find intelligible some kind of notion of postmortem memories or postmortem experience, for either individual or cosmos? It seems quite slippery at the human level because my own death then appears not as the ending of my life but as a movement to a different mode of life for me in some form (assuming, of course, that the universe itself is not dying simultaneously) but, also, at the cosmos level, when “the cosmos ‘dies,'” does it have postmortem ‘experience’? Is there any ground prior to, or outside of, some kind of “experience”?

0ThouArtThat0 (me):
Corey, The universe does have a sense of its (in)finitude. This is not the same as having human consciousness of finitude. Symbolic consciousness is not just sense, but the sense of sense. I do the cute thing with the parentheses there because sensing finitude immediately implies that finitude has been and continues to be operated upon by infinitude. Neither we nor the universe are simply finite. To be a dying being is not simply to be a finite being. Our being-toward-death is precisely our infinitude, our openness to what waits beyond, to the imponderable future full of infinite possibilities. We and the rest of the universe are undergoing what Whitehead called a “creative advance into novelty.” Contrary to the materialist sermonizers, there is no inevitable state of entropic equilibrium awaiting us at the end of time because time is unending. Time is a moving image of eternity as Plato said. Pure difference, absolute disequilibrium, reigns. The death of the body is the birth of the soul and the death of the soul is the birth of the body. Really, we are never one or the other (a soul or a body), but always caught somewhere in-between, in-between incarnational embrace of waking life and withdrawal toward dreamy death. We breathe. All things breathe together. Life is not the opposite of death but includes it.

Looking ahead to IWC2015 – Religion in the Making: On the Possibility of a 2nd Axial Age

Regular readers of my blog probably already know about the 2015 International Whitehead Conference next summer in Claremont, CA. It is being called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization.” I am organizing a track on late modernity’s reductive monism. In this track, I’ll be presenting a paper laying out what may be the most pressing problem faced by philosophers living in our increasingly anthrodecentralized epoch: the crossroads between evolutionary panpsychism (or process-relational panexperientialism, in Whiteheadese) and eliminative materialism. This crossroads is a decisive crisis for the modern mind’s self- and world-understanding. Some are calling the present (or just past?) epoch the Anthropocene, which began as early as 8,000 years ago and ended around 1945 (about when the atom bomb and LSD were first detonated before or behind human eyes), at least according to Tim Morton. In naming the period after ourselves, we are also sentencing our species to extinction, placing a period at the end of our existence, noting that humanity, too, will one day be but fossilized bones buried in rock strata. If we ever were “human” (in the sense of being more than animal, supernatural, etc.), we are not so anymore. Perhaps our primal and ancient souls were already participants in a wider cosmic drama. In the modern period, there is no doubt that our socioeconomic system has become inextricably bound up with the dynamics of the entire earth ecosystem. Human and earth have become partners in life and in death. There is no turning back now.

“It may be,” says Whitehead,

“that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop” (Science and the Modern World, 181).

Also presenting in my track will be cosmologist Brian Swimme and philosopher Richard Tarnas. This semester (Fall 2014) they are teaching a course at CIIS called “Radical Mythospeculation: Cosmic Evolution and Deep History.” Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial is providing much of the intellectual backdrop. Swimme has written (with Thomas Berry) about the 13.8 billion year evolutionary journey of universe, while Tarnas has written about the 2500 year history of the Western world (from ancient Greece and Israel to postmodernity). In the course they aim synthesize their approaches with Bellah’s while speculating about the emergence of a 2nd Axial Age. Also presenting in my track is Sean Kelly (author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era), who will present on the emergence of a Gaian planetary consciousness in the wake of modernity.

I’ll also be presenting in another track at the International Whitehead Conference called “Unprecedented Evolution: Human Continuities and Discontinuities with Animal Life.” My paper in this track will seek a synthesis between Whitehead’s philosophy of religion (especially as laid out in Religion in the Making) and Robert Bellah’s sociology of religion (especially as presented in his last book, Religion in Human Evolution).

My main goal with this paper is to convincingly portray human religious activity today and in the past as a fact not only relevant to but illustrative of the nature of the universe. In one sense, I want to explain religion as a natural phenomenon by linking it to play and ritual, behaviors seen throughout the animal kingdom. But unlike Dennett (who used this line as the subtitle to Breaking the Spell), I am not seeking to explain it away by describing its evolutionary genesis out of the earth. Rather, I want to take human religious experience seriously as part of the data that must be included in any adequate account of the cosmos. What must our universe be like such that human religious expression is possible? From Whitehead’s perspective, religious experience is not to be explained away or reduced, but “considered as a fact.” Religious experience “consists of a certain widespread, direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (RitM, 74). Religion, then, is not just man-made make-believe. Its imaginations can have cosmic origins.

Shaviro on Harman and Whitehead: Process- vs. Object-Oriented Philosophies

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Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant 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 in our organism and nervous system. “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 presubjective 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. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).

As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). 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 to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).

The prehensional basis of all object-relations implies that “detached, self-contained local existence” (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since in each act of prehension “the environment enters into the nature of” the prehending thing. This is not to say that things have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a thing or actual entity is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual entities do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions. It is regarding the issue of the interrelation of all things that Whitehead and Harman begin to part ways. While Whitehead defends an image of the universe as a creatively evolving nexus of interpenetrating events, Harman paints the picture of “a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums” (GM, 76). Shaviro neatly sums up the disagreement: “Whitehead opposes correlationism [and anthropocentrism] by proposing  a much broader–indeed universally promiscuous–sense of relations among entities,” while “Harman opposes correlationism by deprivileging relations in general” (tUoT, 30).

Harman rejects Whitehead’s relationalism for two reasons: 1) he worries it reduces ontology to “a house of mirrors” wherein, because a thing just is a unification of its prehensions of other things, there is never finally any there there beneath its internal reflections of others; and 2) he claims that an ontology based exclusively on internal relations, wherein entities are said to hold nothing in reserve beyond their present prehensional relation to the universe, cannot account for change or novelty. In such a universe, there would be “no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed,” as Levi Bryant puts it (The Democracy of Objects, 209). As Shaviro is quick to point out, however, Whitehead was well aware of this potential objection (see page 35 of PR, for example), which is exactly why he amended his ontology sometime between his final editing of Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929) so that becoming was understood to be atomic rather than continuous. A fair reading of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical scheme should acknowledge (despite a few inconsistent statements here and there) that his goal was to strike some balance between internal and external relations, precisely for the reasons put forward by Harman and Bryant.

In response to Harman’s first worry regarding an infinite regress of prehensions, I’d call his bluff and say that a truly aesthetic ontology (which he also claims to be seeking) would leave us with just such an infinite regress of appearances. A thing’s “style” or “allure” doesn’t need to be understood as emanating from some substantial core or fixed essence; we can also understand a thing’s “style” as Whitehead does in terms of the “enduring characteristic” realized by a historical route of actual occasions. There is nothing hidden from view by such outward qualities other than the occasion in question’s moment-to-moment subjective enjoyment of these characteristics. Which brings us to Harman’s second (I believe unfounded) worry about relational reductionism. Whitehead’s dipolar account of the process of experiential realization includes both a public moment of display and a private moment of withdrawal. Every drop of experience begins by taking up the “objectively immortal” data of its past. It then unifies this data into its own singular and private perspective on the world. It is this moment of privacy that most closely resembles Harman’s doctrine of withdrawal. The occasion in question is in this moment entirely independent of its relations. But as soon as this private, never before experienced perspective on reality is realized, it perishes into objective immortality, becoming publicly available for the next occasion of experience to inherit as it moves toward its own novel concrescent realization. “The many become one, and are increased by one.” Whitehead is able to make sense of change and novelty while at the same time preserving a non-reductive account of internal relations. It seems to me that Harman’s insistence on the irrelevance of evolutionary time for ontology is part of the reason he is unable to make sense of Whitehead’s attempted compromise (“The ontological structure of the world does not evolve…which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure” [GM, 24]). In effect, Whitehead’s entire process ontology can be understood as an imaginative generalization of evolutionary theory.

This difference regarding the metaphysical status of evolutionary time represents a deep divide between Whitehead’s and Harman’s otherwise similar ontologies. Shaviro, following Stengers (who was following Deleuze), reminds us that “the concepts a philosopher produces depend on the problems to which he or she is responding” (tUoT, 33). It seems as though the deep divide between Harman’s ontology of vacuum sealed objects and Whitehead’s ontology of interrelated organisms comes down to a question of taste. There is no going behind aesthetic taste to find some more rational justification to prefer one account over the other. As Fichte put it in his Wissenshaftslehre (although in the context of morality and not aesthetics), the kind of philosophy one adopts ultimately depends on the kind of person one is. Harman’s personal problem is to account for how relation is possible in a universe of vacuous actualities, while Whitehead’s was to account for how individuality is possible in a universe of interpenetrating actualities.

In the spirit of attaining to some wider point of view inclusive of both perspectives, Shaviro sums up the situation thusly:

“Harman’s difference from Whitehead, and his creative contribution to speculative philosophy, consists in the ‘translation’ of the deep problems of essence and change from one realm (that of relations) to another (that of substances). These two realms, oddly enough, seem interchangeable–at least in an overall anticorrelationist framework. Given that ‘there is no such thing as transport without transformation,’ the only remaining question is what sort of difference Harman’s transformation of ontology makes” (tUoT, 41).

Given the state of our present world, wherein “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them…where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales,” Whitehead’s problematic appears more and more relevant to our actual condition (tUoT, 33, 42).

Panpsychism and Speculative Realism: Reviewing Shaviro’s “The Universe of Things”


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“The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially consists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contradictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.” -Alfred North Whitehead, September 10, 1941

It is in this spirit that I believe Shaviro wrote The Universe of Things. Although his name is not in the title, Whitehead is the protagonist of Shaviro’s short book, subtitled On Speculative Realism. Shaviro successfully develops Whitehead’s scheme as an alternative to the other strands of speculative realism. He starkly contrasts Whitehead’s scheme with the eliminativism of Brassier and the mathematism of Meillassoux, but devotes by far the most attention to the differences between Whitehead’s Organism-Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. I learned a lot from these comparisons. One thing I’d really liked to have seen is a more sustained treatment of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Schellingian powers ontology. Whitehead and Schelling make for an intensely interesting comparison. Of the 4 original speculative realists, Grant’s vitalist variety of SR always struck me as the most intuitively compelling. Harman’s object ontology hit me as more of an intellectual shock that I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from yet.

Despite the lack of engagement with Grant/Schelling, what Shaviro convincingly illustrates is the way Whitehead’s philosophy of organism anticipates the most important of speculative realism’s main concerns, in particular SR’s desire to overcome “the anthropocentrism that has for so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality” (1). Call it “correlationism” or “the philosophy of access”: the assumption of almost all philosophy since at least Kant is that the only reality of any consequence is human reality, reality as it appears or submits to human theories and practices.

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

In order to overcome the pervasive anthropocentrism of so much modern philosophy, Shaviro argues we would be better served by erring on the side of anthropomorphism. I agree, but with important qualifications. Even if human experience is a special instance of a more general feature of nature, we still need to perform a kind of alchemical distillation of human consciousness in order to determine exactly what is special and what is generic about our experience. What is unique to our way of aesthetically translating the universe, and what is universal? In Whitehead’s estimation, when we perform such a distillation, it quickly becomes clear that not all experience is conscious. There are all sorts of non-conscious experiences causally contributing to our conscious personalities. There are also all sorts of non-conscious experiences occurring beyond and below the reach of human access. As Harman reminds us, “the life of gravel and sandpaper is every bit as troubled by inner ambiguities as human existence ever was” (GM, 257). Both Whitehead and Harman agree on the need to decenter the human. Further, they both agree philosophy must overcome what cultural historian Richard Tarnas describes as “the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind,” namely, “the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” (Cosmos and Psyche, 41). 

Harman actually denies that he is a panpsychist, since he doesn’t want to install the special features of human cognition into the heart of being. If this is what panpsychism entails, then Whitehead is not a panpsychist, either. David Ray Griffin coined the term “panexperientialism” to better describe Whitehead’s ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative” (GM, 244). Just as Whitehead reminds us that, while all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious, Harman states that “all consciousness is allure, but not all allure is conscious” (GM, 245). Whether we call their approaches panpsychist, panexperientialist, or panallurist, it’s obvious that both Whitehead and Harman reject the modern dichotomy between the “conscious images” of minds and the “causal impacts” of matter. According to Harman, images live in the gaps between everything, even particles of supposedly inanimate dust. He enigmatically suggests that we are most closely bound up with the rhythms of being when we are overcome by laughter or worship (243). While I’m not entirely sure what he means, I’m hoping this statement primes my readers to more open-mindedly consider the panexperientialist notion that perhaps the human body can be understood as a sort of monotheistic religion, the god-serving ritual of molecules and cells.

All the components of our body dance in harmony according to the ancient rhythms inherited from their evolutionary forebears, working together to construct and reconstruct the hierarchical structure of our organism. As individual components they have no idea they are participating in creating and maintaining the body of a hidden and unspeakable god. If the cells and molecules of our bodies are so clearly alive, what are we to make of the wider so-called “inanimate” or “inorganic” world?

“The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. Every instability of any part of it–be it chemical, physical, or molar–imposes an activity of readjustment throughout the whole organism. In the course of such physical activities, human experience has its origin. The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism. The actualities of nature…must be explanatory of this fact…Such experience seems to be more particularly related to the activities of the brain. But…we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain” (Adventures of Ideas, 289-290).

Panpsychism (or whatever we want to call it), though it has a long pedigree as “a recurring underground motif” in Western philosophy (from the presocratics, to Spinoza and Leibniz, to William James and Whitehead), is only just recently beginning to be taken seriously again. Still, the notion of inherently experiential material strikes many as absurd. Colin McGinn, for example, refers to the idea as “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” He goes on to ask “isn’t there something vaguely hippyish, i.e., stoned, about the doctrine?” (Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, 93). On Shaviro’s reading, it is not panpsychism that provides us with comfort in the face of an otherwise meaningless and inhuman universe; on the contrary, the comforting modern myth is the anthropocentric idea that all intelligence and purposefulness is safely locked up within the human skull. It gives us a false sense of control over our environments, as though the nonhuman world were just a bunch of dead objects whose blind motion strictly obeys the clear and distinct laws discovered by science. The panpsychist re-enchantment of nature is actually a rather terrifying prospect from the perspective of our hyper-alienated, still all too Cartesian late modern consciousness.

I’ll continue with my review of Shaviro’s book in subsequent posts. Still to be discussed is Shaviro’s rebuttal of Harman’s claim that Whitehead is a relational reductionist. I’ve been arguing against Harman’s reading for years (see here). For many Whiteheadians, the whole issue was settled back in 2010 at the “Metaphysics and Things” conference in Claremont, CA (click here for Shaviro’s brief review and links to other accounts of he and Harman’s exchange at the conference). I’m not sure if Harman remembers, but a few of us from CIIS ran into him at a cafe across the street from the lecture hall just prior to Isabelle Stengers’ keynote. I’d already heard of his OOO by that point, but didn’t catch his name at the time and so only realized it was him after the fact. In any event, despite being gently but consistently scolded by Shaviro, Roland Faber, and other Whiteheadians for his misreading, Harman continues to caricature Whitehead’s process atomism in what I can only believe is an exaggerated attempt to differentiate and so win attention for his own philosophical scheme. There’s nothing abnormal about this tactic in the history of philosophy (I often say, only half facetiously, that the history of philosophy is a long series of caricatures). And the good spiritedness of this particular debate makes it a really great opportunity to flesh out the implications of Whitehead’s ontology. It provides a great example of how disagreement can be conceptually fruitful without degenerating into polemic. As I hope to show in a subsequent post, Harman’s key concept of “withdrawal” provides important insights about causal relation. But I also think Whitehead’s account of an occasion’s momentary privacy gives us what Harman wants without having to affirm the incoherent notion of “vacuous actualities.” Stay tuned…

Speculative Realism, Dead or Alive.

Steven Shaviro’s new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism arrived on my doorstep a few days ago courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. I’m going to provide a bit of context in this post before diving into a review of the text in subsequent posts.

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The press release U of M included in the package describes the book as “an up-to-the-moment critique of a recent turn in philosophical thought.” “Up-to-the-moment” it is not, since Shaviro has been testing much of the book’s content on his blog and at conferences since at least 2010. There will always be an important place for books in academic philosophy, but the principle procedural lesson of Speculative Realism (leaving aside its conceptual contributions for now) is that blogs must be an essential ingredient in any future academic philosophy hopes to carve out for itself. I strike out “academic” here because it is as yet unclear to me whether philosophy has much of a future in academia. If it is to survive the rise of the neoliberal university, philosophy may have to migrate into media ecologies more suited to free ranging public discourse and genuine learning (learning as an end in itself rather than preparation for the industrial workforce). Sometimes I think the blogosphere is able to provide this. Other times, not so much. Back in 2011, Ray Brassier (ironically the originator of the movement’s name and organizer of its first conference back in 2007) dismissed Speculative Realism as nothing more than “an online orgy of stupidity” cooked up to exploit impressionable graduate students. Since then, several dozen books have been published on the subject, including six titles in the past few weeks alone by Peter Gratton, Tom Sparrow, Peter Wolfendale, Dylan Trigg, Markus Gabriel, and Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey (eds.). If we include the last 6 or 7 months, there have also been publications by Levi Bryant and Tristan Garcia. Obviously, there is more to SR than the late night blog musings of a few overzealous graduate students. In Brassier’s defense, however, it is equally obvious that much of the recent activity in the SR blogosphere has been a total waste of bandwidth. It’s a lot of posturing and very little if any philosophizing.

Much of the controversy of late has centered around Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, which violently attacks the philosophy of Graham Harman. I haven’t and won’t read the 400-page tome, but word on the street is Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as a symptom of some sort of philosophical pathology (it seems the disease infects both admirers and despisers of OOO—why else would Wolfendale write 400-pages on it?).  Brassier makes a cameo appearance in the book’s afterward only to once again announce the nonexistence of the SR movement. Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of (in Harman’s words) “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma” to popularize his philosophy.

“I’m not aware of having any such power,” continues Harman, “nor am I aware of having ruthlessly crushed a thousand-flowers-blooming SR blogosphere, as Wolfendale bizarrely contends.”

In preparation for my review of Shaviro’s book, which engages with Harman more intimately than any other SR thinker, I recently re-read the last chapter of his early book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005). His style really is infectious. And because of the aesthetic roots of his ontology, it is not at all incidental to his arguments. “A style,” according to Harman, “is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception” (55). There is nothing naked about his prose. Reading him is perhaps best described as a psychedelic experience.

Like Shaviro, I have certain conceptual qualms with Harman’s substance ontology, as well as with what I believe to be his misreading of Whitehead’s process ontology. But I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit in which he engages philosophy. His call for less critique and more invention couldn’t come at a more crucial juncture in the history of ideas and the evolution of (post)human consciousness. Echoing other speculative thinkers like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, he calls for turn toward a more constructive and less anthropocentric mode of thinking: “We seek a form of invention no different in kind from the blossoming of cherry trees or the compression of carbon into diamond” (241). He warns us that “progress [in metaphysics] is constantly threatened with relapse into critique, that most deeply rooted intellectual habit of our time”(237-8), and contrasts critique with curiosity and the capacity for surprise, even going so far as to equate the latter with wisdom itself: “Wisdom means the ability to be surprised because only this ability shows sufficient integrity to listen to the voice of the world instead of our own prejudice about the world, a goal that eludes even the wisest of humans a good deal of the time” (239).

It is in this same spirit that Whitehead endeavored to philosophize, and in “rediscovering” him (as U of M’s press release puts it), Shaviro carries this spirit forward in a constructive way. Harman thanks Shaviro on the back cover for avoiding prose full of “rancor and backstabbing ambition” and praises him as “the most dignified and helpful of Speculative Realism’s critics.” I’ve also often found his work helpful. Particularly helpful was his earlier book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics (2009), which was basically my introduction to Deleuze. Also key for my understanding of the stakes of speculative thinking has been his insistence upon the philosophical fork in the road between panpsychism and eliminativism (an issue he takes up again in The Universe of Things). 

I’ll begin my review of Shaviro’s new book in subsequent posts over the next several days…

Towards an Ecological Metaphysics

Leon Niemoczynski (here) and Adam Robbert (here) have been having a productive back and forth regarding the prospect of an ecological metaphysics. Speculative Realism is not far afield of their conversation, with subslogans like “dark vitalism,” “new materialism,” and “bleak theology,” and key influences like Plato, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, all hovering in the background. They gave Whitehead’s scheme in particular the most attention as perhaps the best equipped to prepare philosophy for its ongoing ecologization. I’d agree, which is why I wrote Physics of the World-Soul about Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology. In that essay I try to replace the materialist ontology of modern science with the ecological ontology underlying Whitehead’s evolutionary panentheism. In other words, I attempt to show how Whitehead’s cosmological scheme allows for the replacement of physics with ecology as the most philosophically fundamental science, as the most ontologically basic reality. In an ecological rather than a materialist science, for example,

physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. (from p. 3)

As Leon put it, an ecological ontology suggests that what finally exists are creatures and relationships. Nature is not a finished Whole, nor is it made up of finished parts. Nature is incomplete (as Terry Deacon would say), which is to say that it is not a static set of particles, not a law-abiding order/cosmos, but an open-ended and radically inter-related cosmogenesis. Its wholeness is always yet to be achieved, an ideal and not a reality. A more metaphysically precise account of this incompleteness would suggest that there is more to the universe than what is already actualized: potentiality is also ingredient in the Real, playing a role in how each creature experiences the present and in what each creature decides to do next.

Ancient and modern ontologies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological ontology acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to evolve. Ecology is a pluralistic and historical science. There is nothing–no creature and no relationship–that did not come to be. Our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarming masses of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged actors enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. These actors not only co-create one another, they co-create the various arenas of space and time “in” which their relations play out. The preposition “in” is employed here only in a grammatical and not in an ontological sense. Space-time is not a pre-existent, universally distributed container within which externally related creatures are simply located; rather, there are various more or less overlapping space-times brought forth by relations between a variety of internally related creatures. The interwoven textures of our pluriverse’s space-times do not precede their respective creaturely relations. Each specific form of relation between each species of creature constitutes a unique spatiotemporal context. Space-times are woven out of relationships.

Another way of getting at this gestalt shift concerning the emergent plurality of space-times (creatures are not “in” space-time, but enactively provide it) is to turn to Adam’s definition of an ecological ontology as implying a breakdown between structure and content, between the transcendental and the empirical, or again, between appearance and reality. If I understand him correctly, it is not that the distinction is canceled, but rather that it must be historicized. We might say, then, that the a priori conditions providing the possibility of human knowledge brought into focus by Kant, while they may seem universal and necessary for individuals, are in fact evolutionarily emergent at the species level and so remain contingent features of our consciousness open to cultural and/or biotechnological transformation. It is not just human forms of intuition of space-time that can alter over time, but also non-human forms of prehension, like that belonging to the members of the ecology of electromagnetic creatures which, according to Whitehead, provide the widest or most general context of systematic inter-relationship in our cosmic epoch. “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?”

…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim
future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged. (Modes of Thought, 57).

I want to hold out for the possibility of the ecologization of philosophy, rather than suggesting that the present crisis signals the death of philosophy, or its culmination in technoscientific materialism. Many pre-eminent thinkers have argued that philosophy has failed and needs to be replaced with something else (Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, the Heideggerian task of thinking Being’s openness, Deleuze’s plane of immanence, Laruelle’s non-philosophy, …). I’d argue otherwise, not so much against the clear genius of these conceptual personae, but against the idea that somehow what they accomplished wasn’t just a renewal of philosophy. Philosophy should be defined by its ability to live the question rather than to solve it, to participate in truth as a quest undertaken in love). Philosophy doesn’t need to be brought to an end by ecology. It can be saved by it, resuscitated, if only it is willing to swallow the speculative pill curing it of the correlationist anthropocentrisms weighing down ancient and modern philosophy alike. If there is to be a future ecozoic civilization, it will require an ecological philosophy.

John Cobb, Jr. gives his own argument for Whitehead’s relevance last year in Claremont:

John Cobb, Jr: Whitehead as the ecological alternative to Scientific Materialism

Scientists like to contrast themselves with others by their faithfulness to evidence.  Sadly, they resist evidence that does not fit their pre-commitments.  Aristotelian scientists at the papal court refused to look through the telescope because they would see what did not fit their philosophical convictions about the heavenly bodies.  Modern scientists have all along ignored a great deal of evidence about mental activities that does not fit their materialist presuppositions…The refusal to re-examine metaphysical presuppositions based on the exclusion of metaphysical reflection cannot be sustained indefinitely when so much of the findings of science, from quantum theory to neuroscience, contradicts these presuppositions.

The major defense of moving ahead with assumptions that do not fit either our most basic experience or the evidence produced by empirical investigations is to point to the great and unquestioned achievements of this science.  It is argued that as long as it advances knowledge, now even at an accelerating rate, metaphysical quibbles should be ignored.  Regrettably, however, scientific advances are now contributing far more to making the planet uninhabitable than to guiding us into a secure future.  Unless science subordinates itself to the quest for wisdom, it must accept continuing responsibility for destroying the civilization it claims to advance.  The present situation is unstable.  It is time, and long past time, to give up the commitment to seventeenth-century metaphysics.

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Fortunately, at the margins, some thinkers have long argued for a transformation of our understanding of nature and of our way of studying it.  If we are part of nature, then nature has an inside as well as an outside.  Evolutionary thinking does not support the idea that this inside came into being for the first time with the first human.  Humans are living psychophysical beings who gradually became a distinct species with extraordinary capacities.  The nature of which we are a part contains many other species of living psychophysical beings.  To be a chimpanzee is certainly different from being a human being, but there is assuredly much similarity as well.  That similarity is considerably reduced in relation to a mouse, but it is far from gone.  It is not wholly gone in relation to a unicellular organism.

Whitehead was one of those who undertook to re-think nature.  He taught that even the most elementary actual entities are “organisms.”  Strictly, for him, this does not mean that they are “alive,” but it does mean that they are more like living things than like what is imagined as a lump of matter.  They receive from the past and are themselves acts of self-constitution that affect the future.  They are affected by their environments and are what they are only as participants in fields of activity.  He gave lectures on “Nature Lifeless” and “Nature Alive” in which he contrasted his own view with the one that continues to this day to dominate the scientific community.

The alienation from nature generated by the dualism of the human and the natural was only exacerbated by the inclusion of human beings in mechanical nature.  Human beings cannot really understand themselves as machines, even though this is implied by the theories that dominate the modern university.  Seeing our own actions as part of the world machine only deepens our alienation.

When we move instead to see how much of what we have prized as unique about ourselves is shared with our fellow creatures, the result is quite the opposite.  We belong to nature.  Our exploitation of other creatures for our supposed benefit no longer seems self-evidently right and wise.  We cannot cease to use others.  They all use one another.  As Whitehead writes: “All life is robbery.”  However, he adds, “But the robber requires justification.”  As participants in nature we must reflect about the tragic necessity of using others for our own well-being.  The indifferent exploitation justified by the Cartesian worldview cannot continue.

-John Cobb, Jr.

http://www.ctr4process.org/whitehead2015/philosopher-of-eco-civ/

The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

-Alfred North Whitehead

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Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.

In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.

Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.

I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?).  Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).

In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).

Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.