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

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

Part 1:

Part 2:

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

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

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

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

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

“It may be,” says Whitehead,

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

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

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

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

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

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Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).

As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculative Realism, Dead or Alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards an Ecological Metaphysics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-John Cobb, Jr.

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

The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

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

-Alfred North Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s post-nihilist pluralistic process philosophies (part 2)

Since my post a few days ago (“The ‘innocence of becoming': Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism“), I’ve re-read chapter 4 of William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (2013). Here is his summation of that chapter, which compared Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s process philosophies:

“It must be emphasized that the positive spirituality Whitehead pours into his speculative philosophy is at least as affirmative as that of Nietzsche, and more consistently so. These two process philosophers are thus worthy protagonists from whom others can draw sustenance: they advance contending, overlapping cosmic creeds that speak to today; they address the spiritual quality through which a creed is lived in relation to others; and they throw up for grabs a set of established, complementary assumptions during a period when many constituencies both feel and suppress doubts about those assurances. Each, at his best, argues with the carriers of other creeds while inviting their proponents to fold positive spiritualities into their creedal relations…Nietzsche and Whitehead articulate the planetary and cosmic dimensions in diverse concepts and affective tones that also touch, though neither may have anticipated how densely planetary processes with differing degrees of self-organizing power are entangled today with local, regional, and global issues. Each expresses, in his inimical way, a spirit of deep attachment to a cosmos of dispersed, conditioned processes; each, if he were to confront the contemporary condition, might appreciate the potential contribution an ethos of existential gratitude forged across territories, constituencies, and existential creeds could make to addressing the fragility of things. Or so I project into the magisterial Whitehead and the agnostic Nietzsche. The task, merely launched here, is to draw selective sustenance from each to think our place in the cosmos, to come to terms with the fragility of things at local, regional, global, and planetary sites, and to fend off the existential resentment that threatens to become severe under late modern conditions” (176-178).

As you can see, Connolly counts Whitehead and Nietzsche as allies in his push for a pluralist ontopolitics. Even so, he levels several potentially devastating critiques. I wanted to focus on his attempt to “qualify” two of Whitehead’s most enigmatic categories: “God” and “eternal objects.” Donald Crosby also critiques these concepts in his own comparison of Nietzsche and Whitehead. Many browsers of Whitehead’s writings praise him for his concepts of “Creativity,” “prehension,” “actual occasion,” and “concrescence,” but want nothing whatsoever to do with what they perceive to be his gratuitous theological constructions, most infamously his dipolar creaturely “God” and his indeterminate and existentially deficient but always and everywhere “ingressing” “eternal objects.” Some scientific materialists have suggested that, if Whitehead’s conceptual scheme cannot survive the removal of its theological components, then it must be buried in the graveyard of history’s bold but mistaken philosophical systems. If Whitehead’s universe is really god-infused, the materialists say, then his speculative adventure in cosmology is for that reason also made irretrievably irrelevant for any modern, scientific, rational investigations of nature.

The problem with this assessment of Whitehead’s scheme, as I understand it, is that the story of modern scientific rationality and its technological mastery over matter has itself already been made irretrievably irrelevant by the planetary scale of the ecological crisis it helped to bring about. Nature is not at all like what the moderns thought she was. Her mechanical “laws” turn out to be more like organic tendencies–tendencies whose stability we, as living earthlings, are beginning to have the power (conscious or otherwise) to alter at genetic and geological scales. The supposedly secularized concept of Nature invented by Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Galileo proved to be utterly unprepared for the thermodynamic, electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, and complexity revolutions of 19th and 20th century science. Nature can no longer be depoliticized, denuded of all subjective quality, moral and aesthetic value, and creative potency. Nature is more like a goddess than a machine.

Whitehead’s theology cannot be separated from his ontology. Or at the very least, Whitehead begs us to take seriously his philosophical commitment to avoiding granting God any unique magical powers not native to every other entity in the universe. God is not a separate type of entity, but a conditioned creature like every other actual entity. But at the same time, Whitehead insist on the necessity of God’s “unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” in order to secure the possibility of the ingression of relevant novelty into the experience of finite actual occasions:

“Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question. For effective relevance requires agency of comparison, and agency of comparison belongs exclusively to actual occasions” (Process and Reality, 31).

God’s primordial nature may in certain of Whitehead’s expressions seem “eternally fixed,” as Crosby complains (68). But when read in imaginative conjunction with what Whitehead has to say about God’s consequent nature, with the way God is itself conditioned by the creative advance of the actual universe, this fixity quickly dissolves into something that looks a lot like Nietzsche’s universe of “multiple interacting force fields ungoverned by an overriding center” (as described by Connolly in TFT, 168). Whitehead’s own variety of perspectival panexperientialism is more Hesiodian than Connolly acknowledges when he contrasts Nietzsche’s strong attraction to “the contending gods of Hesiod” with the magisterial Whitehead’s supposed preference for the settled order of eternal unity. “In Greek thought, either poetic or philosophic,” Whitehead writes, “the separation between physis and divinity had not that absolute character which it has for us who have inherited the Semitic Jehovah” (PR, 94). Whitehead praises Plato’s proto-evolutionary cosmological insight into what the ancient Greeks referred to as “subordinate deities who are the animating principles for [certain] departments of nature” (PR, 94). Whitehead’s scheme follows the Timaeus in describing

“the creation of the world [as] the incoming of a type of order establishing a cosmic epoch. It is not the beginning of matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of social order” (PR, 96).

The order of the universe is historically emergent and socially embedded, not an ex nihilo emanation out of the Eternal One. It is “incoming,” but not from somewhere else, some distant Eternal Realm separate from and prior to the creative advance of the actual universe. Eternal objects on their own (as pure potentials) are “deficient in actuality,” such that it is only ever as a result of the decision of some actual occasion that they have an effect on anything. New order is “incoming” only relative to the cosmic epoch which preceded it.

Connolly worries that Whitehead’s concept of God as a “[conveyer] of new levels of complexity into the future” ignores the fragility of human civilization and indeed the inescapable eventual demise of life on earth (TFT, 175). It is not clear to me that Whitehead’s categorical scheme requires the preservation of the complexity aroused by any particular cosmic epoch’s primordially evaluated potential. My sense is that each cosmic epoch has its own emergent divinity, or world-soul. Perhaps features of the order of past epochs are inherited by incoming world-souls; perhaps everything is lost in the apocalyptic transition form one epoch to the next. Whitehead’s scheme leaves this particular question open, it seems to me. Catastrophic dissociation is just as possible as enduring organization in Whitehead’s processual pluriverse.

Connolly is also concerned that Whitehead’s “doctrine of eternal objects reduces the scope of possible creativity in the world” (163). Terrence Deacon expressed a similar concern to me. On my reading, Whitehead introduces the concept of eternal objects specifically to make the experience of relevant novelty possible. Far from reducing the ingression of novelty into the universe, an actual occasion’s experience of pure potentiality provides the necessary condition for such creative ingression. If prehensions were simply physical (that is, related to past actual occasions), nothing new could ever happen. Nature would remain utterly repetitive. Further, without granting the reality of potenials alongside actualities, there would be no way to distinguish the future from the past. Time would be reversible and homogeneous, not creative. The creative evolution of the universe is made possible by the creative decisions of actual occasions who can conceptually prehend the physical past in some more or less significant way as other than it was. If physical prehensions relate to the settled facts of the past, conceptual prehensions relate to the formal possibilities of the future left open by these facts. As Heisenberg expressed it, the question is (as quoted by Connolly, p. 153), how does “a unique actuality evolve from a matrix of coexistent potenia?” Whitehead’s answer is that each actual occasion, via the process of concrescence, makes definite (or concrete) what had been indeterminate (or abstract), adding another fact of realized value to the ongoing evolution of this cosmic epoch.

 

As Connolly puts it, both Whitehead and Nietzsche call us to “stretch human capacities by artistic and experimental means so as to respond more sensitively to other force fields” (161). Whether or not the aesthetics of their respective process ontologies can finally be made to cohere remains an open question for me. It seems at this point that Nietzsche’s preference for an “eternal return” of the same runs up against the more open-ended creativity enshrined in Whitehead’s scheme: “No thinker thinks twice” (PR, 29).

As I discussed in my first post, Nietzsche is suspicious of the concept of teleology; but Whitehead’s reformed concept of final causation links it to Nietzsche’s own favorite concept: power. For Whitehead, the concept of power entails both efficient and final causation, where its efficient aspect provides the objective “ground of obligation” inherited by new actual occasions, and its final aspect is the “internal principle of unrest” (PR, 29) expressed by the concrescence of each occasion. Actual occasions do not wield power like a subjective capacity, designing their behavior as if from beyond it. Power is not the capacity of a subject, but the capacity resultant in a subject. Whitehead completely abandons “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change.” Instead, “an actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences” (PR, 29). In this sense, Whitehead’s re-formed teleology is immanent, self-organizing, and self-implicating. It retains nothing of old concept of teleology related to transcendently imposed design, where the Creator stands clearly and distinctly apart from its creation.

The “innocence of becoming”: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism

It is remarkable how similar Nietzsche’s musings on perspectivism are to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. I was reminded of their congruence while re-reading excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (published in Mark Taylor’s Deconstruction in Context). Of course, one might read Whitehead’s somewhat Platonic cosmological scheme (which includes reformed conceptions of teleology, god, eternal objects, and so on) as directly opposed to Nietzsche’s purely immanent approach. In this post, I want to suggest that Whitehead’s process-relational cosmology at least indicates one way forward toward a post-nihilistic theory and practice.

Metamorphosis

Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is a “psychological state” characterized by the feeling of “being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long” with the belief that the event we call “the universe” is about something, that “something is to be achieved through the process–and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing” (DiC, 192). Nietzsche’s first target in dismissing the supposed aim or telos of cosmic evolution seems to be the notion, long cherished by philosophers and theologians alike, that humanity is at the center of things and/or is the end toward which all things move. His second target is the human desire to achieve a “unity” of knowledge based in some supposed ontological monism: “underneath all becoming there is no grand unity” (DiC, 193). Finally, his third target is the metaphysical belief in a “true world.” Instead of the ancient philosophical dichotomy between the one true reality of Being and the many false appearances of becoming, Nietzsche desires to affirm “the reality of becoming as the only reality.” Unfortunately, despite his desire to affirm such an aimless, pluralistic, processual reality, Nietzsche finds himself stuck in a sort of nihilistic stasis: “one…cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.”

“Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage,” writes Nietzsche. “What is pathological,” he continues, “is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all” (DiC, 194). In other words, once the three traditional categories of Reason–Aim, Unity, Being–have been shown not to apply to the actual universe, but only to a fictitious universe invented by our psychological need for existential security, there remains the constructive task of re-evaluating the universe according to more adequate categories. “Adequate” not according to the standards of abstract Reason, which serve only to construe reality as though human consciousness was “the meaning and measure of the value of things,” but rather categories adequate to the standard of life itself, namely, the will to power.

“In order for a particular species to maintain itself and increase its power, its conception of reality must comprehend enough of the calculable and constant for it to base a scheme of behavior on it. The utility of preservation–not some abstract-theoretical need not to be deceived–stands as the motive behind the development of the organs of knowledge–they develop in such a way that their observations suffice for our preservation. In other words: the measure of the desire for knowledge depends upon the measure to which the will to power grows in a species: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service” (197-198).

Nietzsche’s interpretation of the human intellect is nearly identical to the evolutionary epistemology articulated by Bergson and James, perhaps Whitehead’s two most important philosophical influences. This view of the intellect as a pragmatic survival mechanism rather than a revealer of objective truth demands a total re-imagination of philosophy’s methods and goals. For Bergson, it meant abandoning intellect (at least for the purposes of philosophy) and developing a new organ of perception: philosophical intuition. For James, it meant construing philosophy “as more a matter of passionate vision than of logic…logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards” (A Pluralistic Universe, 710). For Whitehead, it meant analogizing philosophy to “imaginative art” (Modes of Thought, 117). Whitehead continues, in a rather Nietzschean vein: “The degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content” (MoT, 123). Philosophy’s role, then, as a critic of abstractions, is to prevent “the abstractive experience” achieved by rational consciousness from “destroying its own massive basis for survival.” In Nietzsche’s terms, a post-nihilist philosophy must continually remind us that the concept “leaf” is but a passing puff of air compared with “the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth,” that is, the encounter with actual leaves, no two of which are ever the same (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, excerpted in DiC, 218-219).

For Nietzsche, as for Whitehead, the classical concept of “Substance,” that most abstract and stable of eternal ideas, is to be replaced with the processual concept of Power. “The essence of power,” writes Whitehead,

“is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake…It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation” (MoT, 119).

But wait… Doesn’t this new concept of power sneak teleology back into our conception of the universe? Isn’t this just a regressive slide back into a pre-nihilistic psychology, rather than its overcoming? Here is where Nietzsche’s perspectivism comes into play. While he denies some overarching Meaning underlying all cosmic existence, Nietzsche does not deny meaning outright. Rather, he pluralizes it: the universe “has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings” (DiC, 198). In other words, Whitehead’s rendering of the concept of power as not simply an efficient, but also a final cause, is not the imposition of a Single Destination toward which all creatures are heading. Rather, each and every individual creature is free to create its own meaning: “…every creature different from us senses different qualities and consequently lives in a different world from that in which we live,” writes Nietzsche (DiC, 207). Do not misinterpret this pluralism of perspectives, this ontology of multiple meaning-makers, as the rather banal thesis that there are many perspectives on some underlying reality, material, ideal, or otherwise. This is not the empty sort of pluralism where a single reality is allowed to appear in many guises. “As if a world would still remain over after one deducted the perspectives!” No, this is full blown ontological pluralism:

“Every center of force adopts a perspective on the entire remainder, i.e., its own particular valuation, mode of action, and mode of resistance…There is no other mode of action whatever; and the ‘world’ is only a word for the totality of these actions. Reality consists precisely in this particular action and reaction of every individual part toward the whole … Appearance is an arranged and simplified world, at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true of us; that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it: proof of its truth for us–the world, apart from our condition of living in it, the world that we have not reduced to our being, our logic and psychological prejudices, does not exist as a world ‘in itself'; it is essentially a world of relationships; under certain conditions it has a differing aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point; it presses upon every point, every point resists it…” (DiC, 207-208).

Nietzsche could very easily have been describing Whitehead’s ontology here. Of course, there remains the issue of working Whitehead’s conceptions of “God” and “eternal objects” into Nietzsche’s scheme. Can this be coherently accomplished? Whitehead’s God is meant as a secular replacement for the supernaturalist images of the past, a God who suffers with the world rather than a God who creates it from a transcendent beyond. In this sense, I think Whitehead and Nietzsche can in fact be reconciled with one another. I’ll have more to say on this point in subsequent posts…

Further reading: “Two Perspectives on Metaphysical Perspectivism: Nietzsche and Whitehead” by Donald Crosby. 

My dissertation as a Detective Novel and a work of Science Fiction

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy: Towards a Physics of the World-Soul/an Ontology of Organism 

My dissertation examines the cognitive role of imagination in modern philosophies of nature since Descartes, focusing in particular on the nature philosophies of Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead. I argue that the cognitive organ of etheric imagination grants the nature philosopher epistemic access to a process ontology of organism. Once this etheric organ of perception has flowered, the physical world of isolated objects in empty space apprehended by the reflective intellect is recognized to be merely the outer layer or final fruit (Natura naturata) of a living process that creatively forms itself again and again from the inside out (Natura naturans). 

I will follow Deleuze in construing the work of philosophical writing as part detective novel, part science fiction (Difference and Repetition, xx):

“By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where…they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of a certain ‘cruelty.’ They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come form themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere. This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter…Only an empiricist could say concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates.’” 

The detective novel part of my dissertation pursues an empirical encounter with what seems to be the most profoundly mysterious concept to have emerged in the history of philosophy: imagination. Its pro-fundity, or groundlessness, has repeatedly unsettled the major conceptual personas of philosophical history. Though there are notable exceptions (e.g., Schelling, Steiner, Whitehead), modern philosophers have tended to restrain the otherwise unruly force of imagination so as to prevent it from clouding their measured pursuit of clear and distinct truth. My dissertation treats the history of modern philosophy as a crime scene. In effect, modern philosophy since Descartes has committed “imagicide” by severing the erotic arteries assuring the rhythmic circulation between spirit and matter. The philosophical murder of imagination left modern philosophy in an impossible situation: if mind is entirely distinct and separate from nature, soul separate from corpse, I from not-I, etc., how can philosophers pretend to love Wisdom? If no synthesis can be woven between the ideal web of concepts “in here” and our percepts of real things “out there”—if the blood clot preventing the concrescence of thought and sense cannot be dissolved—then there is no love and no Wisdom to be had. Without the subtle mediations of imagination there is only confusion, which takes the form either of an exaggerated idealism (where nature becomes a mere shadow to be sublated) or a mistaken materialism (a materialism in name only that does not recognize itself as an idealistic dualism). These confusions are a result of the bifurcation of nature Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology sought to alleviate between the world of inner experience (“the dream”) and the world of physical theory (“the conjecture”). 

I aim to philosophically encounter the force of imagination not by unduly restraining it, but on the contrary, by amplifying its cognitive potentials. I do so by taking methodological and theoretical cues from Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead.

The science fiction part involves an investigation into the ontological significance of the etheric dimension of nature. Framing my investigation are Steiner’s esoteric ether of formative forces, Schelling’s polarized ether of universal organization, and Whitehead’s mathematical ether of creative events. These ether theories are not “scientific” in the standard sense of being rooted in some experimental protocol. Fortunately, making concepts scientifically operational is not the philosopher’s role. And anyway, the ether theories articulated by Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead were not meant to compete with scientific evidence, but to philosophically interpret it. The concept of an etheric dimension of nature is not a hypothesis concerning a supposedly mind-independent reality that might be experimentally falsified; it is, rather, the empirico-transcendental condition for any scientific knowledge of nature at all (a condition of real, not possible experience, following Deleuze [Difference and Repetition, 285]). The major philosophical goal of my research on imagination and the etheric dimension of nature that it reveals is to assemble the evidences of the special sciences into a “likely story” or mythospeculative cosmology supportive of a non-modern ecological civilization. 

Distilling my dissertation topic—>Etheric Imagination in an Ontology of Organism: Towards a Planetary Philosophy

First, a few orientating quotations from the thinkers I will be boiling together in the alchemical vessel of my dissertation.

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“…if we had the choice between empiricism and the all-oppressing necessity of thought of a rationalism which had been driven to the highest point, no free spirit would be able to object to deciding in favor of empiricism. Empiricism itself, then, allows a higher way of looking at things, or can be grasped from a higher perspective than the received, or, at least since Kant, the usual concept grasps it, which expels everything intelligible not only beyond the concepts of the understanding, but originally and first of all beyond all experience. Hence the now usual explanation that empiricism denies everything supernatural, but this is not the case. Because it is empiricism, it does not necessarily for that reason deny the supernatural, neither does it assume the legal and moral laws and the content of religion as something merely contingent, namely in the sense that it reduces everything to mere feelings, which themselves would only be the product of education and habit, as Hume admittedly did, who, by the way, asserted the same thing in relation to the sort of necessity with which we link cause and effect in our thoughts. There is even a higher and a lower concept of empiricism. For if the highest goal, which philosophy can, by general consent even of those who up to now think differently, certainly reach, is precisely to grasp the world as freely produced and created, then philosophy, with regard to the main thing it can achieve, or precisely by reaching its highest goal, would be a science of experience; I do not mean in the formal sense, but I do mean in the material sense, that what is highest for it would itself be something experiential in nature. If up to now, then, that national difference with regard to philosophy really exists, then this rift initially only shows that the philosophy in which humankind could recognize itself, the truly universal philosophy, does not yet exist. The truly universal philosophy cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy, even if it is perhaps on the way to it…It would be wrong, really wrong, then, to want to call back those other [French and English speaking] nations from the doctrine of empiricism which they pursue to such great advantage in other areas; for them this would indeed be a retrograde movement. It is not up to them, it is up to us Germans, who, since the existence of Naturphilosophie, have emerged from the sad alternative of a metaphysics which floats in the air, lacking any foundation (that they rightly make fun of) and an infertile, arid psychology–it is up to us, I say, to develop the system, which we may hope to grasp and to reach, the positive system whose principle, precisely because of its absolute positivity cannot itself be knowable a priori any more, but only a posteriori, to the point where it will flow together with that empiricism which has been expanded and purified to the same extent” -F. W. J. Schelling, last lines from On the History of Modern Philosophy (~1833).

 

whitehead“A self-satisfied rationalism is in effect a form of anti-rationalism. It means an arbitrary halt at a particular set of abstractions.” -A. N. Whitehead, from Science and the Modern World, p. 201. 

 

“Our bodily  experience is the basis of existence. How is it to be characterized? In the first place, it is not primarily an experience of sense data, in the clear and distinct sense of that term. The internal functioning of a healthy body provides singularly few sense data, primarily associated with itself. When such sense data appear, we send fro a doctor. They are mostly aches and pains. And yet our feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience. It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it. No one ever says, Here am I, and I have brought my body with me. In what does this intimacy of relationship consist? The body is the basis of our emotional and purposive experience. It determines the way in which we react to the clear sensa. It determines the fact that we enjoy sensa. But the eye strain in sight is not the eye sight. We see with our eyes; we do not see our eyes. The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…So long as nature was conceived in terms of the passive, instantaneous existence of bits of matter, according to Newton or Democritus, a difficulty arises. For there is an essential distinction between matter at an instant and the agitations of experience. But this conception of matter has not been swept away. Analogous notions of activity, and of forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience. This conclusion must not be distorted. The fallacious notion of passive matter has by a reaction led to a distorted account of human experience. Human nature has been described in terms of its vivid accidents, and not its existential essence. The description of its essence must apply to the unborn child, to the baby in its cradle, to the state of sleep, and to that vast background of feeling hardly touched by consciousness. Clear, conscious discrimination is an accident of human existence. It makes us human. But it does not make us exist. It is of the essence of our humanity. But it is an accident of our existence. What is our primary experience which lies below and gives its meaning to our conscious analysis of qualitative detail? In our analysis of detail we are presupposing a background which supplies a meaning. These vivid accidents accentuate something which is already there. We require to describe that factor in our experience which, being a matter of course, does not enter prominently into conversation. There is no need to mention it. For this reason language is very ineffective for the exposition of metaphysics. Our enjoyment of actuality is a realization of worth, good or bad. It is a value experience. Its basic expression is–Have a care, here is something that matters! Yes–that is the best phrase–the primary glimmering of consciousness reveals, something that matters. This experience provokes attention, dim and, all but, subconscious. Attention yields a three-fold character in the “Something that matters.” “Totality,” “Externality,” and “Internality” are the primary characterizations of “that which matters.” They are not to be conceived as clear, analytic concepts. Experience awakes with these dim presuppositions to guide its rising clarity of detailed analysis. They are presuppositions in the sense of expressing the sort of obviousness which experience exhibits. There is the totality of actual fact; there is the externality of many facts; there is the internality of this experiencing which lies within the totality. These three divisions are on a level. No one in any sense precedes the other. There is the whole fact containing within itself my fact and the other facts. Also the dim meaning of fact–or actuality–is intrinsic importance for itself, for the others, and for the whole. Of course all our terms of speech are too special, and refer too explicitly to higher stages of experience. For this reason, philosophy is analogous to imaginative art. It suggests meaning beyond its mere statements. On the whole, elaborate phrases enshrine the more primitive meanings.” -A. N. Whitehead, Modes of Thought, p. 114-118

 

“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.

Another way of phrasing this theory which I am arguing against is to bifurcate nature into two divisions,

namely into the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness. The nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent nature. The meeting point of these two natures is the mind, the causal nature being influent and the apparent nature being effluent.” -A. N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, ch. 2.

 

Rudolf-Steiner4“Our earth today has a quite particular configuration and form. Let us go back in the evolution of the earth. It once had a completely different form. Let us immerse ourselves…still further back: we come there to ever higher temperatures, in which metals were able to flow all around as water runs along today. All the metals have become these veins in the earth because they first flowed along in streams. Just as lead is hard today and quicksilver is fluid, so lead was at one time fluid and quicksilver will one day become a solid metal. Thus the earth is changeable, but man has always participated in these various evolutions. In the ages of which we have spoken, physical man as yet was not in existence. But the etheric body and astral body were there; they could live in the higher temperatures of that time. The sheaths gradually began to form with the cooling process, enveloping man. While something new was always being formed in man during the earth’s evolution, something correspondingly new had also been formed outside in nature. The rudiments of the human eye had first arisen in the Sun evolution. First the etheric body formed itself and this again formed the human physical eye. As a piece of ice freezes out of water, so are the physical organs formed out of the finer etheric body. The physical organs were formed within man while outside the earth became solid. In every age the formation of a human organ took place parallel with the formation of a particular configuration outside in nature…One only understands man when one can recognize the connections between the human being and the forces of nature. ” -Rudolf Steiner

 

My aim in this dissertation is to draw indications from each of these thinkers in an attempt to articulate an alternative ontology unhampered by the bifurcation of nature plaguing modern thought. Modernity need not be rejected; rather, an alternative form of modernity is possible, rooted not in Kantian skepticism or Hegelian idealism, but in Schellingian naturalism and Whiteheadian radical empiricism. Drawing on Steiner and the Western esoteric tradition, I will argue that the Kantian limits placed on human understanding and experience can be overcome through the cultivation of new organs of perception. The ontological insights of a process-relational ontology of organism are achieved through the higher speculative empiricism of the etheric imagination. Etheric imagination grants the process philosopher perceptual access to the formative forces unfolding organized beings from the inside out. Etheric imagination is in this sense not in the business of fantasy or make believe, but is an organ of genuine conceptual and perceptual import in tune with natural processes that unfold below the level of ordinary rational waking consciousness. The mechanical ontology underlying scientific materialism stems from misplaced concreteness, whereby abstract models of physical activity are made to fill in for the experienced reality of said activity. Such a scientific materialism, though it claims to be empirical, is really a confused idealism, in that it dismisses experiential reality as a mere dream, replacing it with an explanation based on the conjectured mechanical processes lying beneath experience that somehow cause it.

Along with Schelling, Steiner, and Whitehead, I plan to draw on several other thinkers, including Gilles Deleuze , John Sallis, Bruno Latour, and Michael Marder.

Rough breakdown of dissertation

1. Historical Outline on emergence of bifurcated image of nature in modern philosophy beginning with Descartes (through Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, Kant, Fichte, Hegel). Argue for alternative modernity building on Bruno, Cusa, and other esoteric thinkers discussed by Steiner in Mystics After Modernism.

2. Epistemology of etheric imagination as an esoteric organ of perception. Build on phenomenology, enactivism, and participatory theory as epistemic first steps toward an ecological ontology, or ontology of organism.

3. Ontology of organism reveals the plant-like (or etheric) texture of experiential reality. Build on Marder’s vegetal metaphysics, Whitehead’s panexperientialism, and Sallis’ elemental phenomenology of earth and sky.

4. Cosmological significance of etheric forces underlying physical phenomena. Unpack Schelling’s, Steiner’s, and Whitehead’s ether theories.

 

The Pluralism Wars Return: Towards a Diplomatic Ontology of Organism

I was wondering how long the cease fire would last… The pluralism wars flared up again this afternoon over on FaceBook (this link may not work for everyone). Misunderstandings abound, or so it seems to me. My position–which is greatly indebted to thinkers like James and Whitehead, and more recently, Bruno Latour–is that of ontological pluralism. What is finally real in such an ontology has nothing to do with a mind-independent objective nature; rather, what is real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms.

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Ontological pluralism is not equivalent to the rather banal thesis that human individuals and collectives have different world views. Of course they do. Call this “world view pluralism” or “multiculturalism.” Many of us don’t like it, but it doesn’t matter: it’s still a plain fact about the sociopolitical environs modern people inhabit. The idea here is that human subjectivity provides for a whole multitude of cultural, psychological, and/or symbolic ways of relating to the world. The Modern constitution has it that each way of relating to reality should be tolerated, even respected, but on the other hand we are also all obliged to agree that there is finally just one pre-existent true reality out there somewhere. This is the incoherence of Modernity’s bifurcation of nature. Depending on whether we’re dealing with a theistic or scientistic fundamentalist, this “one true reality” could be a natural world made of matter that Science/Reason is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing, or a supernatural world made of spirit that Religion/Revelation is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing. This all too Modern settlement is rooted in the bifurcation of nature that Whitehead spent the last 25 years of his life protesting against:

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. -The Concept of Nature, p. 31

 

Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our subjective experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the objective cause of that experience (the conjecture). Latour recently delivered a lecture to an audience of anthropologists that continued Whitehead’s protestation against bifurcation: “What Is the Recommended Dose of Ontological Pluralism for a Safe Anthropological Diplomacy?” It is worth a listen… 

Latour and Whitehead both protest against scientific materialism, but they don’t do so as beautiful souls trying to defend the subjective meanings of consciousness from reduction to the materiality of the nature known to science. As Latour makes clear in the lecture above, his project is an attempt to account for the variety of materials known to the sciences more adequately. Similarly, Whitehead was driven into metaphysics precisely because of his deep appreciation for and desire to defend the scientific process. He was as shocked as everyone else who lived through the demolition of classical physics in the early part of the 20th century. He realized that a quantum, relativistic physics, to continue being rational and offering elucidating descriptions of reality, was going to need new metaphysical justification. His process-relational ontology (aka, ontology of organism) takes materiality very seriously, but it no longer considers “matter” to be the objective half of a bifurcated universe. Rather, enduring materials are understood to be always already hybrid subject-objects. Everything physical is understood to be mixed up with everything conceptual and affective. The universe is awash in flows of feeling, flows composed not just of actualized histories and present appreciations, but of anticipated future trajectories. Energy carries physical as well as emotional force.

All that said, what, then, is ontological pluralism? Unlike the banal form of pluralist multiculturalism that everyone already accepts, ontological pluralism is the more radical thesis that no unified underlying material reality exists that might referee the plurality of organismic (human and nonhuman) value-experiences that contest, cooperate, or metamorphose with one another in order to secure their continued existence. The universe is an evolving ecosystem of organisms. It is eros and eris all the way down, equal parts symbiogenic orgy and struggle for existence from top to bottom. Whitehead (Science and the Modern World) offers a concrete example of how this plays out in the physical world:

“Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.”

In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history.

The sciences are generally quite good at producing objectivity, but they do so by forging robust alliances with a multitude of still evolving agencies, not by laying bare the supposed material substratum of all things. As a result, their knowledges and their truths, are always in-the-making (just as the cosmic ecology itself is always in-the-making). Science is a process of inquiry, not a storehouse of produced knowledge.

Latour’s ontological diplomacy is an effort to avoid marshaling “Scientific Facts” as though they might bring a final end to all contestation. Such facts will remain as important as ever even in a non-modern ecological epoch. They deserve to be defended. But the question is, just how is the scientific process best defended from its relativist critics? By claiming that it somehow transcends culture, politics, society, practice, embodiment, subjectivity, etc., and speaks unambiguously on behalf of an objective and pre-existent “Nature”? No, I don’t think this does the reality of the often anarchic and surprising scientific process justice. Latour shows how if such a defense of science via purification were successful, it would only succeed in rendering science entirely unequipped to produce any of the knowledge we’ve come to expect of it.

I’m no relativist, though I am a relationalist. We have plenty of tools to determine which facts are more secure and which more fragile. The clearest evidence we can produce of a well-constructed fact is to trace the network of relationships it has been able to forge between the agencies constituting it. The more tightly and widely networked, the more serious we ought to take it as a fact. So for example, when it comes to the issue of climate change, I’m way more inclined to trust the worldwide scientific community of climatologists–with their well-funded labs, peer-reviewed journals, satellites, thermometers, weather balloons, etc.–than I am a PR rep from the oil industry or the Heritage Foundation. Unfortunately, the PR industry has its own way of forging networks that work tirelessly to undermine the public’s trust in the scientific process. Here, we can and should distinguish between the political and the scientific mode of existence: the Heritage Foundation thinks it is doing climatology, but really it is doing politics. Its networks are not productive of experts, but rather of ideologues. Not that there is anything wrong with politics! The point is just that a more diplomatic effort to sort out these ontological confusions might help us do politics and science more effectively amid the plurality of fragile things composing this open-ended universe.

Ontological pluralism, then, is the thesis that reality is multiple and open-ended (not just that humans have a multitude of world views). It’s not just that our scientific knowledge of the universe is incomplete, its that the universe itself is incomplete. Ontological pluralism does not entail that we ought not to disagree with human collectives whose values differ from our own. We can and must enter into such disagreements! We cannot rely on some transcendent Scientific God’s eye view to settle our scruples for us. Instead, we should weigh the merits of different human values and world views on less otherworldly (ethical and aesthetic) grounds.

For the pluralism of an ontology of organism like that I’ve tried to articulate, the question about whose subjective symbolic or cultural or psychological world view is true and whose is mistaken just doesn’t arise. It is a dumb question once you’ve accepted the conceptual consequences of this path for thinking. If what is finally real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms, then the question isn’t “whose view is correct?” (“correct” in the scientific sense of objectively true regarding an external material world), but whose view is more powerful? Being is power, as Whitehead said, following Plato in The Sophist. 

Ontological pluralism is not a thesis about the relativity or objectivity of truth. It concerns the truth of relativity–the truth suggested by post-classical physics, systems biology, and post-colonial anthropology–that the universe is full of agencies at all levels (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, …) and is ontologically incomplete/open-ended/processual. 

The “…” is important for process-oriented pluralists. It signifies that which cannot finally be signified. Call it “Creativity” if you think that’s less cagey.