Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

What follows is an early draft of a presentation I’ll give at the International Whitehead Conference in June. Comments (constructive or critical) are welcome. [update on 5/20/2015: I’ve erased the earlier draft and replaced it with a later draft]

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Abstract: This talk compares several approaches to the emergence of religion in human evolution. I contrast Robert Bellah’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts to Daniel Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritualized play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals)  is a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. I then argue that the history of human religious expression should count as data requiring interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” religious expression stem from an incoherent bifurcated image of nature, wherein dead matter is given explanatory priority over life and consciousness, which are relegated to the status of improbable epiphenomena. This approach, which ends up claiming that the emergence of human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident, provides the exact opposite of a proper scientific account. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible for the project of “naturalizing religion” to proceed in a non-reductionistic way. The guiding research question is no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?” 

My talk today will explore the evolutionary origins of human religion. As many post-colonial anthropologists have pointed out, “religion” is a highly contested term that cannot be unproblematically deployed as a transhistorical, universalist catch-all category. Although I’ve chosen to use the word, I agree with this problematization of a priori definitions of religion, which all too often blur our perception of the multifaceted richness of human spiritual expression by forcing it to submit to the discursive categories of modern scientific and sociological methodologies. I include the term “spirituality” here to indicate that by “religion” I don’t just mean a set of clearly articualted dogmas in which one believes with certainty, but a creative and experientially grounded orientation to the mystery of being alive. Whatever religion, and the spirituality at its core, are, they are more than can be captured by a fixed definition. They are interrelated dimensions of an ongoing cosmologically embedded activity, not simply a set of verbally professed beliefs. Like Augustine said of time, when it comes to religion and spirituality, “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.” Instead of trying to explain religion by reducing it to the favored terms of modern biology, psychology, sociology, the aim of this talk is to let it reveal itself by situating it within the long evolutionary account offered by Robert Bellah and the alternative cosmological scheme provided by Alfred North Whitehead.

Inquiring into the origins of religion—and connecting those origins to the evolutionary emergence of our species—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or objective way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. Inquiring into its nature will never be a dispassionate affair decidable by mathematical proof or experimental refutation. At the same time, human religious concerns and values are themselves matters of fact that have arisen and continue to arise in the course of cosmic evolution. As such, they require interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme.

Even the most sober-minded, materialistic scientists, whenever they offer evolutionary accounts of the origins our species, or of our universe, inevitably become myth-makers. Bellah makes this quite clear when, in the early chapters of his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution, he examines the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched the philosopher and author of The Atheists Guide to Reality (2011) Alex Rosenberg during a recent conference presentation introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).

In contrast to these scientistic thinkers engaged in what Whitehead referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away,” my own approach, building on Whitehead and Bellah, is motivated by the search for some sort of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious mythopoiea. I hope to show that the forced choice between religion and science is a false one, and that the emergence of an ecological civilization will depend upon our ability to construct a cosmological outlook that does justice to both scientific facts and religious values, and that recognizes the various ways facts and values overlap.

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Perhaps the most well-known attempt to “explain away” the phenomenon of religion is the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell (2006). He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins’ well-known and largely discredited meme theory, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the neo-Darwinian perspective, are not granted evolutionary agency, but are reduced to lumbering robots accidentally shaped by a multigenerational battle to the death with a harsh environment. So-called religious “memes” are said to spread and survive today not because people find them deeply meaningful and potentially transformative but because they have succeeded in their “competition for rehearsal space in the brain” by getting copies of themselves made. Their transmission from brain to brain, and from generation to generation, has been, as Dennett puts it, “transmission without comprehension.”[1] Now that humans have woken up to  the all-comprehending light of scientific rationality, and have come to know the universe as nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out any usefulness it may once have had and must be gotten rid of. Maybe it served our species initially as a sort of “morality prosthesis” or “nurse crop” for civilization, to use Dennett’s words again. But we are grown ups now and need to accept that existence—that of humanity and of the cosmos itself—ultimately comes to nothing. Nihil. Or so the modern scientific materialist story goes.

To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. He admits that the memetic theory he puts forward is probably wrong, but at least, he says, it gives others something to fix. Fair enough. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am sympathetic to the call for a naturalization of religion, for a scientific study of it as a phenomenon emergent from and continuous with its wider biological and cosmological contexts. But of course, it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.”

The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that Dennett’s approach to the evolutionary emergence of religion presupposes what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protests against: the bifurcation of nature.[2] For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. All seemingly intrinsic value is then explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material across the generations.

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The contrast between such reductionistic biological accounts of religion and Bellah’s and Whitehead’s more cosmological approaches could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience (a major influence on Whitehead), only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more reductionistic purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious expression must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, the cosmological.

“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).

So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine flowering of the universe we find ourselves living within: not as accidental, but as essential. Human religious experience, in other words, should count as part of the legitimate data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. To treat religion naturalistically, we need not explain it away as epiphenomenal. We can instead inquire into the cosmic conditions of its possibility. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).

Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in reality a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.

“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning.

“In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which I should point out Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also identify “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms or centers of agency? Alongside efficient causality, formal and final causality are also evident in the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny a cosmic ground to agency, purposiveness, and value, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny it in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of [humans] to the universe in which they find themselves” (Religion in the Making, 31). Following Whitehead’s reversal of the usual logic of evolutionary explanation, we can recognize the emergence of religion in human beings as evidence that something more than blind chance and inexplicably imposed physical necessity is at work—or, as we’ll see—at play in the evolution of our universe.

Bellah, like Whitehead, grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, to eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings. In contrast to Dennett’s mechanical, gene-centric view, Bellah’s is certainly an organism-oriented understanding of biology. But it is not yet a full-fledged ontology of organism like Whitehead’s. More on this later.

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Although he of course recognizes important distinctions that make humans unique among other members of the animal kingdom, even reproducing Terence Deacon’s statement that our species represents an entirely new phylum, Bellah nonetheless dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for us, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in the childhood phase longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. Bellah cites numerous ethologists who describe the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention (in a word, empathy) are the precondition for any form of sociality.

Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of mammalian play. The source of the complexification was the ramping up of empathic sociality among humans, eventuating in what Bellah (quoting Sarah Hrdy) calls “emotional modernity” (85). Homo sapien minds, due to their tendency to play ever-more intimately, have become uniquely vulnerable to possession by the power of symbolism—the power of words and images to bind us to certain political and cosmological worlds, worlds we literally create through the ritual enactment of myth. This power of symbolic binding transforms ritual play into religion. It is important in this context to admit, as Whitehead reminds us, that “we should not be obsessed by the idea of [religion’s] necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion.”[3] Despite the fact that religious symbolic consciousness was born out of our unprecedented capacity for social intimacy, once it has emerged, it has the power to detach us from one another just as readily, generating the worst kind of in-group/out-group discrimination, and, as has become more apparent in the modern, industrial era, symbolic consciousness also has the power to produce civilizational myths that are entirely detached from the ecological context of the living planet that sustains us.

What is clear is that religion grows out of the soil of collective ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in: it is something you are and do. The essential thing about religious life is not mindless, ranting about dogmatic creeds, but sincerity in its engagement with symbolic forms of ritual play. A religious symbol “[has] the effect of transforming character when [it is] sincerely held and vividly apprehended,” according to Whitehead.[4] Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the plants and animals on the earth and the shinning orbs in the sky. The human being’s religious impulse, growing out of ritual play, is to “recreate” the harmonies of these cosmic beings in symbolic form, to refashion them into myths for the guidance of our civilized societies.

Bellah’s argument draws extensively on the cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938), from which I quote at length: “Archaic society…plays as the child or animal plays…Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it…Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play…[humanity’s] consciousness that it is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).

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Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. Further, because of the important role of play in the evolution of our species, and because it depends on shared attention/intention and basic ethical relations, it provides clear evidence contrary to Dennett’s view that organisms are just mimicry machines. “In acknowledging play,” says Huizinga, “you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter.”

“Even in the animal world,” he continues, “[play] bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable…when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings…” (Homo Ludens, 4).

Huizinga here almost slips into Whitehead’s fallacy of bifurcation by reifying the difference between mind and matter. Elsewhere he asks “would it be too absurd to assign a place [to play] outside the purely physiological?” I’d say yes, it would be absurd, or at least incoherent, to suppose the playfulness of mind-bearing organisms somehow exists separately from their physiological make-up. The physiological need not be equated with the mechanical.

Even though I’m critical of Huizinga’s slippage toward bifurcation due to his tendency to reify culture and mind as entirely “outside” of and set apart from mere “nature,” I still acknowledge and gladly inherit from him his other, underemphasized but no less profound intuition, that the efficacious reality of play in human and nonhuman lifeforms entails that we inhabit a sensitive and playful universe, not a dull, deaf, and dumb one. As we’ll see in a moment, I have similarly mixed feelings about the residue of bifurcation in Bellah’s more phenomenological approach to religion.

We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead also knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival: it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better.”[5]  If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to million year old minerals, life is deficient in survival value.

Whitehead, like Bellah and Huizinga, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play.[6] Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religion’s evolutionary emergence:

Whitehead: ritual play<>emotional evocation<>mythical belief<>rationalization

Bellah (drawing on Merlin Donald’s work on the evolution of human cognitive capacity): mimetic/ritual<>mythic<>theoretic

Both acknowledge that ritual is widespread among mammals. Early humans were no different, but because of their increasing emotional and cognitive sensitivity, began to recognize that certain emotional states, enjoyable for their own sake apart from the needs of biological survival, could be reliably reproduced through collective ritual enactment. Only later, once the capacity for symbolism had emerged, were mythic beliefs articulated in an attempt to account for the purpose of ritual practices and their attendant emotional quality. Myths then contributed through a kind of feedback loop to the intensification of the emotional qualities. Notice that the arrows in the diagram point both ways, which is meant to prevent us from thinking that the emergence of a new stage means the prior stage is forgotten or transcended. Early stages are still present with and necessary for the expression of later stages. This is true even with the final stage of rational, philosophical, or theoretical reflection upon religious rituals and myths. Religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about who one is and what one does. The fundamentalisms of our late modern age, whether atheist or creationist, tend to neglect the ritual and mythical dimensions of religious life. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the cognitive components of belief systems, which are often only the dead products excreted by a more primary, living process of cosmic participation.

Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of “work” or mere survival. Bellah’s understanding of religious experience as one among a variety of cultural realities (differing from that of science, aesthetics, politics, and so on) is drawn largely from the phenomenological approach of Clifford Geertz and Alfred Schutz. While I think this sort of approach provides a helpful critique of and alternative to more scientistic explanations, allowing us to examine religion on its own terms, because it leaves the question of the cosmological basis of religious experience unanswered if not also unasked, I believe a Whiteheadian supplement is necessary. Taking a phenomenological look at religious experience by bracketing other cultural enactments of reality risks leaving the bifurcation of nature from culture intact. Whitehead allows us to grant the validity of multiple cultural realities while also acknowledging human culture’s continuity with the rest of the cosmos. This will become clearer as I conclude this talk, but for now let’s stick with Bellah’s account of ritual play (and the religious experiences it is associated with) as transcending the everyday world of work.

The idea is not to transcend work entirely,  which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it generates, is at the historical origin and remains the existential core of our cultural lives?

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Göbekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1990s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard, technocentric account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. The existence of Göbekli Tepe suggests, instead, that these cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural mode of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society” (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued). The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

This understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary civilization, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. The contemporary world’s obsession with sports may seem like an exception, but I’d argue they are usually engaged in, not as ends in themselves, but as means for social prestige or to fulfill moral expectations of success. The question remains: Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the renewal of cycles of cosmic creativity?

Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead, inanimate collection of objects?

Maybe.

That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the incoherence of modern science’s bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask:

“What is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?”

This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.

Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist like Weinberg, Monod, or Rosenberg. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber (thereby potentially helping him overcome the residue of bifurcation resulting from his reliance on Geertz and Schutz’ more cultural approaches). Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”).

Building on Buber, Bellah argues that it is not at all surprising that for a “supersocial” species like us, an “I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trump the I-It relation.” He continues: “To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).

Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. This is very different from Dennett’s I-It approach, which is predicated upon the idea that the best way to study the evolution of religion is to imagine we are aliens from another planet trying to gain a view of it “from the outside,” as it were. To approach human religion from such an alienated perspective is to seriously handicap the pursuit of a naturalistic account of its evolutionary emergence. If we want an account of religion’s emergence that is immanent to cosmogenesis and avoids the undue imposition of other-worldly transcendence, then we’re going to need to study religious experience from the inside out.

“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting.”[7]

Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts, or rather, to include these values as among the facts. “We have no right,” says Whitehead, “to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.”[8] For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, to be a fact, for Whitehead, means to experientially enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman organisms, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”[9]

Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to move beyond the modern bifurcation separating nature from culture, fact from value, and mechanism from meaning. Moving beyond the bifurcation of nature to grasp the cosmological significance of religion, and the religious significance of cosmology, will require re-evaluating metaphysical assumptions that have been woven into the very fabric of the scientific worldview for hundreds of years. The originators of this worldview, the original myth-makers responsible for initiating the Scientific Revolution, conceived the universe as a machine and imagined God as its transcendent designer. Though they differ in the details, this was the imaginative background informing the thoughts of Newton, Descartes, and Kant. Nowadays, scientific materialists no longer have any need for the “God hypothesis,” but the imaginative background informing their ideas remains the same. The universe is still to be understood by analogy to a machine, only now it has become a purposeless machine. Understanding this cosmic machine requires purifying our perspective of any hint of emotion, value, or appreciation, since these merely subjective qualities can only contaminate an impartial view of reality. Whitehead ontology of organism provides us with an alternative.

“The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded,” he says in the final pages of Religion in the Making, “finds the foundations of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant [and many contemporary scientific materialists]—in the cognitive and conceptual experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order…The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” (91-92).

To draw this talk to a close, I want to draw a parallel between Whitehead’s aesthetic ontology to Huizinga’s understanding of play. Huizinga locates play within the field of aesthetics, and suggests that playing is inherently creative of order. “Play,” he says, “has a tendency to be beautiful.”[10] Huizinga goes on, in Whiteheadian fashion, to describe ritual  acts of play as cosmic happenings, as continuous with natural processes.

Would it be too absurd, following Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in favor of an aesthetic ontology, to assign a place [to play] within the evolution of the universe itself? Might we come to understand the whole of the cosmos at every level of its self-organization as an expression of divine play? Might Blake have been right, that “energy is eternal delight”? Instead of God the disincarnate transcendent designer of a clock-work universe, or a meaningless machine-world running down toward heat death, might we interpret the scientific evidence otherwise? Might it be, as Whitehead suggests, that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God” (140, 143)?   For those with an allergy to the G word, we should remember that Whitehead’s philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.”[11] The ultimate religious theme in Whitehead’s cosmology is this divine Eros, the counter-agency that saves the world from decay into irrelevance by luring organisms toward more creative forms of organization. Whitehead’s God is not a big boss in the sky who designs and determines everything, but the poet of the world, who through aesthetic sensitivity beckons all beings toward the highest beauty that is possible for them, given the limitations of their finite situation. Beauty is the teleology of the universe. This, at least, is Whitehead’s alternative cosmological interpretation of the facts and values of the history of human religious expression. Whether or not we seize this alternative vision will determine the future of our civilization, if indeed it is to have one.
Further resources:
On the ideological sources of the selfish gene approach to biological evolution:
Bruno Latour. “How to make sure Gaia is not a God of Totality, with special attention to

Toby Tyrrell’s book On Gaia.” Written for the Rio de Janeiro meeting “The Thousand Names of Gaia,” September 2014.

On the geochemical inevitability of the emergence of life on earth (life is no accident):

James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith. “The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons.” American Scientist (Volume 97), 2009.

On the importance of love in biological evolution:

Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller. Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Imprint Academic, 2009.

[1] 2010 talk at Sante Fe Institute

[2] see The Concept of Nature

[3] Religion in the Making, 3.

[4] Religion in the Making, 5.

[5] Religion in the Making, 8.

[6] Religion in the Making, 10.

[7] Religion in the Making, 128.

[8] Modes of Thought, 111.

[9] Process and Reality, 167.

[10] Homo Ludens, 15.

[11] Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343

War of the Worlds: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

Notes for an upcoming talk…

What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is,” for example, implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?

Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one.  The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we  can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. It is certain that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are effectual—they are agents, they are participants in the make up of reality. 

So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One, singular. But what if there is not one reality, but many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we are but a part.

One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality—for now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. Better to speak of a network of naturing natures than an already complete all-encompassing Nature. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) growing beyond the childhood phase, struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of the earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.

My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

My presentation will introduce a few of the consequences that follow from a genuinely pluralistic understanding of reality. I will offer a metaphysical thesis about multiple worlds, multiple natures. Not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. I want to argue that reality itself is made of perspectives, that there is no underlying unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer. Instead of a monistic or dualistic substance ontology, I will put forward a pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology.

Flock-of-Starlings-over-Scotland

Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for my talk), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, we are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Our Science and our Reason, so the story goes, granted us access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections.  Buried, that is, until we came along. We sent our anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference: some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, tolerance no longer seems possible. We Westerners can no longer take seriously our attempts to force feed our enlightened free market democracy to the Muslim world. We no longer believe that, if only they would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. We no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our type of faces on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are irreconcilable, but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” our “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all these special activities which were supposed to make us superior by giving us access to a higher truth—we know now that they are no less constructed than what the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency. The question is, what is emerging?

Latour again: “Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)

What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but tolerance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, my very identity as a self constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”

Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and understanding of science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is bathed in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged from eternity; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of beings which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.

Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.

Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Over lord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through the each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.

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

AlexGreyPsychedelicPaintingArtGalleryMars1LSDBicycleDay

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).

drustan_s_nebula_ws_by_casperium_1920x12001.jpg

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: