“Picking Holes in the Concept of Natural Selection” by Evan Thompson

The philosopher Evan Thompson (author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind) recently reviewed two books on the philosophy of biology: Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. Check it out HERE.

Thompson expresses doubts about these authors’ argumentative strategies and laments their neglect of the latest literature in theoretical biology (much of which points to natural selection being just one in a number of other causal factors in evolution). But he seems to agree with them that an adequate evolutionary theory must include some account of natural or immanent teleology if it hopes to explain the emergence of life and consciousness from physical processes. In other words, Thompson agrees with these thinkers that reductive materialistic accounts of life and consciousness fall short of explanatory adequacy.

Thompson writes:

A number of theorists have argued that certain types of self-organizing systems exhibit a kind of natural teleology in the sense of a directedness arising from being self-producing and self-maintaining (Juarrero 1999, Thompson E 2007, Deacon 2012). This kind of directedness does not involve teleological laws beyond or outside of the laws of physics, unlike the natural teleology that Nagel proposes but does not develop fully. Moreover, such self-producing and self-maintaining systems arguably exhibit protomental characteristics and thereby provide a bridge from the physical order to the orders of life and the mind.

Here is my earlier review of Nagel’s book, in particular his mentions of Schelling and Whitehead.

Thinking on a Walk in the Woods: The Ideality of Matter and the Materiality of Ideas

Something of a response to Levi Bryant/LarvalSubjects on “hylephobia.”

See also this post on the Astrality of Materiality.

Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan's next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).

 

Is Physicalism Enough? Can Consciousness be Naturalized? – Owen Flanagan in dialogue with Evan Thompson

Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…

Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.

Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.

Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.

Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.

1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.

Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.

2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?

We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.

3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.

4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.

As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”

I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…

Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…

….

In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.

In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.

Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).

 

Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory”

Discussion has continued beneath my last post about Bakker. Below are a few of my comments there:

rsbakkar writes:

I advert to common idiom when discussing theoretical incompetence, but it certainly doesn’t turn on any commitment to representationalism – even less correspondance! The fact is, people regularly get things wrong in what appear to be systematically self-serving ways. You don’t need to subscribe to assertion conditions or truth conditions or anything speculative to commit to this.

People generally get things “wrong” in what respect? How are you defining “wrong” here? Upon what scientific criteria do we determine “right” from “wrong”? I assume you mean to speak of “falsity” and “truth,” rather than right and wrong? Even so, the scientific enterprise is not a scantron test where we bubble in T or F after each experiment. Experimental facts are always underdetermined by the theory framing them, which means there is always some degree of extra-scientific hermeneutic, aesthetic, or intuitive selection going on to determine which theory is “best.” For example, even given all empirically verified neuroscientific evidence to date of a brain-mind correlation, brain-based reductionist accounts of what we call “consciousness” represent only one possible causal explanation: it remains entirely possible that the brain functions more like a radio antenna and that the causes of “consciousness” are non-locally distributed beyond the skull (see my reflections on cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger and cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, for example). If the scientific enterprise were simply a matter of confirmation or falsification (either a theory is true or it is false) then there’d be very few if any viable scientific theories. That most of our theories fail to account for all the evidence (or if they do, fail to definitively disqualify competing theories which also account for the evidence) suggests either that humans are theoretically incompetent, or that nature/matter is more complex than our mechanistic models generally allow.

rsbakkar writes:

The life sciences are mechanistic, so if subjective experience can be explained without some kind of ‘spooky emergence,’ as I fear it can, then all intentional philosophy, be it pragmatic or otherwise, is in for quite a bit of pain.

I’d dispute the statement that the life sciences are mechanistic, depending on what you mean by the machine metaphor. There are major unresolved controversies within the life sciences concerning the status of life, whether mechanism can really account for the self-organizing, biosemiotic, and phenomenological dimensions of even a single living cell (See the cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela’s 2002 paper “Life After Kant,” or his colleague cognitive scientist Evan Thompson’s book Mind in Life, for good run downs concerning this controversy). There is no reason to conceive of “emergence” as spooky. This way of thinking about the place of wholes in nature is terribly misleading. There’s no reason to make emergence seem supernatural now that science has the conceptual tools to deal with complexity, chaos, non-equilibrium systems, etc (see Terry Deacon’s recent book Incomplete Nature for the cutting edge attempt to account for intentionality in a non-reductive way).

Where I entirely agree with you is that classical philosophical “metacognition” is over-matched by the complexity of the experiential universe. I don’t take much stock in theories like supervenience, functionalism, or anomalous monism for this reason. They are too abstract and cogni-centric and pay too little attention to the complex textures of lived, embodied reality, textures that unfold at or below the threshold of what usually gets called “consciousness.” I turn instead to philosophers like James and Whitehead who sought to correct for the rationalist biases of so much Western philosophy by turning philosophy’s attention to an investigation of feeling and bodily reference, pushing back against the pretensions of disembodied thought and transcendental deduction.

 

 

[Rough Draft] “The Re-Emergence of Schelling” – Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences

For a PDF of the entire essay, click The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.

Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences 

Schelling’s almost complete absence in Anglophone natural philosophy for more than 150 years (aside from his powerful effects on Coleridge,168 Peirce,169 and Emerson,170 and through the intermediary of Naturphilosoph Alexander von Humboldt, his influence on Darwin171) cannot be accounted for based solely on the popular reception of Hegel’s philosophical caricature of intellectual intuition as “the night in which all cows are black.” The more probable reason for his absence, as Bowie suggests, is that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie “was effectively killed off…as part of the overt praxis of the natural sciences” beginning in the 1840s as these sciences “[began] to fall under the spell of materialism and positivism.”172 Prior to the current resurgence in interest, historians of science tended to dismiss Naturphilosophie as a “strange and nearly impenetrable offshoot of the Romantic movement,” an offshoot that is “safely ignored.”173 So long as postkantian positivism (of the sort that refuses to make organism rather than mechanism constitutive of nature) holds sway over the scientific imagination, Schelling’s thought will continue to languish on the fringes of philosophical activity. Fortunately, “the dangers of a scientistic approach to nature” are becoming increasingly well recognized,174 and alternative histories are being told that challenge the standard Enlightenment account of the dominance of mechanistic physics and biology.175 The fundamental incoherence of the postkantian positivist approach is such that, despite itself resting upon an implicitly postulated speculative dualism between mind and matter, it at the same time denies that there can be any scientific validity to philosophical speculation. “It is only then,” says Arran Gare,

when the original practical engagement as an active force within the world is forgotten, that the illusions of dualism…appear.176

Many natural scientists unpracticed in the methods of philosophy are quick to dismiss Schelling’s speculative physics for what they perceive to be a lack of respect for the empirical facts. Several scholars, including Gare,177 Robert Richards,178 Joseph Esposito,179 Frederick Beiser,180 and Iain Hamilton Grant181 have convincingly argued that Schelling painstakingly studied and significantly contributed to the natural sciences of his day. Richards characterizes Schelling’s natural philosophical works not as the wild frenzy of mystical analogizing that its positivist critics saw, but as “[groaning] with the weight of citations of the most recent, up-to-date experimental work in the sciences.”182 Grant, while he acknowledges Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a precursor of the new natural sciences of self-organization and complexity, warns us not to

positivistically reduce [Schelling’s] philosophical interventions into nature to a theoretical resource to be raided as and when the natural sciences deem it necessary.183

Keeping Grant’s desire to protect Naturphilosophie from such a positivistic reduction in mind, it is nonetheless interesting to note that Schelling shared the “aether hypothesis” with most of his scientific contemporaries.184 The aether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetism until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.185 The quantum revolution of the early 20th century, with its hypothesis of a non-local field or immaterial quantum vacuum underlying the extended universe, began to raise doubts about Einstein’s dismissal.186 After the recent tentative discovery of the related notion of a Higgs field, it would appear that “a new aether” is front and center again in physical science.187 Where this discovery will lead contemporary physicists remains to be seen, but for Schelling, the elastic properties of the aether were identified with the original duplicity of forces animating the common soul of nature, or World-Soul.188

The two conflicting forces conceived at the same time in conflict and unity, lead to the idea of an organizing principle, forming the world into a system. Perhaps the ancients wished to intimate this with the world-soul.189

In the context of the aether hypothesis, it is important to remember that the main intent of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was not merely the “application of abstract principles to an already existing empirical science”:

My object, rather, is first to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically, and my philosophy is itself nothing else than natural science. It is true that chemistry teaches us to read the letters, physics the syllables, mathematics Nature; but it ought not to be forgotten that it remains for philosophy to interpret what is read.190

In other words, Schelling’s aim was never to produce hypothetical models of how the hidden mechanisms of phenomenal nature may or may not work. His philosophy of nature is an attempt to re-imagine the metaphysical foundations of natural science, such that the theorizing subject, as part of nature, is understood to be an active factor in the organic construction of the objective facts. For Schelling, the aether was less a scientific hypothesis than it was an organizational principle justifying scientific activity in the first place, since, following the ancient epistemic principle that “like is known by like” (Plato’s “syggeneity”), it granted the human soul participatory knowledge of the invisible substructure of the universe.191 Or, as Schelling put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”192

When Schelling says that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature,”193 it should not be collapsed into the prima facie quite similar statement by Kant, that “He who would know the world must first manufacture it–in his own self, indeed.”194 Kant’s approach to the study of nature is grounded in subjective voluntarism, wherein the philosopher fabricates “nature” as his own object according to the transcendentally deduced categories delimiting his experience.195 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, on the contrary, re-interprets the epistemic position of the natural scientist: where the postkantian scientist can only grasp himself as thinking about nature from beyond nature, Schelling’s scientific method involves awakening to oneself as “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia)”196 As Grant describes it, “What thinks in me is what is outside me.”197 If the Naturphilosoph is able to think as nature, she becomes “a new species equipped with new organs of thought.”198 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to know nature unconditionally, i.e., not as the sum total of its created products, but as the creative activity giving rise to them.199 The question is no longer, as it was for Kant, “how do I make finite nature appear?”, but “what is the essence of nature’s infinite activity?”

Schelling’s philosophy of unthinged (Unbedingten) nature is the necessary counter postulate to Fichte’s absolutely free ego, the next logical turn on the dialectical wheel that makes known the presence of an unthought background, a dark abyss (Ungrund) before which the conscious ego can at first only mumble as it meets its long forgotten maker. Schelling’s discovery is that absolute spirit and absolute nature dependently co-arise as the polarized personalities of a natural divinity. The finite human ego is not a priori; rather Absolute nature is prioritized,200 since

Everything that surrounds us refers back to an incredibly deep past. The Earth itself and its mass of images must be ascribed an indeterminably greater age than the species of plants and animals, and these in turn greater than the race of men.201

“Philosophy,” according to Schelling, “is nothing other than a natural history of our mind.”202 The philosopher of nature “treats nature as the transcendental philosopher treats the self”203 by coming to see how

the activity whereby the objective world is produced is originally identical with that which is expressed in volition.204

Schelling’s is akin to an enactive, rather than representational account of scientific cognition. According to Evan Thompson, from an enactive perspective,

a natural cognitive agent–an organism, animal, or person–does not…operate on the basis of internal representations in the subjectivist/objectivist sense. Instead of internally representing an external world in some Cartesian sense, [it] enact[s] an environment inseparable from [its] own structure and actions.205

Schelling’s enactive account of natural science thereby recursively grounds the production of scientific knowledge in the living bodies, funded laboratories, invented technologies, and specialized communities through which it emerges. What science knows is not a passively reflected copy of objective nature as it appears before an aloof subject; rather, the scientist’s experiential facts co-emerge with his experimental acts:

Every experiment is a question put to Nature, to which it is compelled to give a reply. But every question contains an implicit a priori judgment; every experiment that is an experiment is a prophecy.206

That every experimental design contains implicit a priori synthetic judgments (e.g., “every event has a cause,” “nature is an organized system”) is not to say that Schelling believed the natural scientist should try to deduce the structure of nature from a priori principles alone. He maintained that we know nothing except through and by means of experience,207 and therefore that synthetic a priori knowledge, though dialectically constructed, is subject to experimental falsification, theoretical revision, and replacement.208 Whereas for Kant, there exists an unreconcilable opposition between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, for Schelling, acts of cognition and facts of experience recursively condition one another in the endlessly spiraling pursuit of the unconditioned.209

Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is more relevant to contemporary natural science’s vision of a creative cosmos than ever before. The classical mechanistic, entropic paradigm is being replaced by the new sciences of self-organization, which depict the universe as a progressive unfolding of kaleidoscopic activity; given this new context, Schelling’s dynamic evolutionary philosophy of nature can go a long way toward philosophically generating the underlying organizing principles “needed to supplement the laws of physics.”210 Contemporary natural science demands a firmer foundation for its theoretical and empirical discoveries than that given it by 17th century Cartesian metaphysics. Paradoxically, Schelling’s contribution to a more adequate metaphysical foundation for science involves destroying the long held belief that reality has any necessary foundation at all. Schelling’s is a process metaphysics that grounds the visible universe in infinite freedom and creativity.211

Unlike the mechanistic paradigm, which assumes the necessary existence of inert corporeal matter and so cannot explain how creative activity and the emergence of organized form are possible,212 for Schelling, such creative organization is the driving force of nature, inert matter being one of its later products. The source and common medium of nature’s creative activity according to Schelling is universal “sensibility,” making his Naturphilosophie a variety of panexperientialism.213 The ability to feel is what makes all apparently mechanical motion possible, since without such a universal experiential aether, no force could be felt and so exchanged between or across material bodies.214

By making sensibility the ultimate condition of nature’s dynamic organization, Schelling reverses the Kantian and Newtonian prioritization of external relations (i.e., linear mechanism, where causes are always external to effects) and instead understands nature as a holistic system of internal relations (i.e., reciprocal organism, where cause and effect are circular).215 The former externalist approach is unable to account for the origin of motion and activity in nature, since it deals only with secondary mechanical effects.216 Schelling’s dynamical approach does not assume the existence of corporeal bodies that exchange mechanical forces, but describes the construction of these bodies as a side-effect the originally infinite activity of nature’s fundamental forces of organization.217 Viewed from the height of nature’s fundamental organization, according to Schelling,

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.218

What needs explaining from the perspective of Schelling’s self-organizing aether is not creative activity, but the appearance of inhibition, habit, and permanence.219 Schelling accounts for inhibitions in the cosmic flow by positing an “original duplicity in nature” as two infinitely active forces striving in opposition to one another.220 Nature is, in itself, infinite, and so only it can inhibit itself. Were there no such polarized self-inhibition in nature, space would have immediately expanded into emptiness and all time would have passed in the flash of an instantaneous point.221 The natural products of gradual cosmic evolution–whether atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, cells, animals, or humans–are the visible expressions of a determinate proportion of these polarized forces, each one a temporary configuration of nature’s infinite process of formation.222 That is, each product is really a recapitulation of one and the same archetypal organism, only inhibited at a different stage of development and made to appear as a finite approximation of the infinite original.223 Nature’s rich variety of organic products only appear to be finite entities, when in reality, they contain within themselves, as though in a mirror image, the infinite whole of living nature’s creative activity:

…a stream flows in a straight line forward as long as it encounters no resistance. Where there is resistance–a whirlpool forms. Every original product of nature is such a whirlpool, every organism. The whirlpool is not something immobilized, it is rather something constantly transforming–but reproduced anew at each moment. Thus no product in nature is fixed, but it is reproduced at each instant through the force of nature entire.224

Schelling’s attempt to ground the emergence of the physical universe in an unstable abyss (Abgrund) of dynamic forces and to re-conceive nature in terms of becoming rather than being makes it a philosophical precursor to Ilya Prigogine’s work on the physics of non-equilibrium processes.225 Prigogine’s Nobel Prize winning discoveries lead him to announce the birth of a new science,

a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend present at all levels of nature.226

Like Prigogine, who called for “the end of certainty” and of the Cartesian/Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, Schelling sought to give an account of the physical universe that does not irrevocably separate the human observer from the nature observed. Scientific objectivity, as a merely reflective method, can prove useful; but there is no coherent metaphysical justification for treating the subject-object split as a reality. “I absolutely do not acknowledge two different worlds,” says Schelling,

but rather insist on only one and the same, in which everything, even what common consciousness opposes as nature and mind, is comprehended.227

The natural scientific consequence of insisting on a polar unity between subject and object is that nature can no longer be conceived of as a heap of objects or a giant machine, but becomes rather a universal organism in whose life all finite creatures participate.228 Cartesian science, which searched for objective matters of fact independent of the values of life and society, comes to be replaced by cosmopolitical science, which foregrounds what the Whiteheadian philosopher Bruno Latour has called “matters of concern.”229 Such a replacement re-knits the frayed edges of cosmos and anthropos back together, allowing for the composition of a new planetary constitution more inclusive of the diverse community of species that call earth home. In the next section, the anthropological and political consequences of re-situating the human being within such a universe are unpacked.

Footnotes

168 According to Owen Barfield, “…as the law now stands, Schelling could have sued Coleridge in respect of one or two pages in the Biographia Literaria.” Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 6.

169 When asked about his influences by William James, Peirce pointed to “all stages of Schelling, but especially his Naturphilosophie.” See 2n2 above.

170 Emerson referred to Schelling as a “hero.” See 14n58 above.

171 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 134, 514.

172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.

173 Timothy Lenoir, “Generational Factors in the Origin of Romantische Naturphilosophie,” Journal of the History of Biology, 57; Barry Gower, “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 320; Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 67.

174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.

175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

176 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 58.

177 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics.”

178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.

179 Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature.

180 Beiser, German Idealism.

181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.

182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.

183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.

184 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.

185 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.

186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.

187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.

188 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384.

189 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 74.

190 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 5.

191 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 126-127, 169.

192 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.

193 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Keith Peterson, 14.

194 Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Eckhart Förster, 240.

195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.

196 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 11:258.

197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.

198 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, 57.

199 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.

200 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.

201 Schelling, Die Weltalter: Fragmente, in den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813, ed. Manfred Schröter, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11-12.

202 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Harris and Heath, 30.

203 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.

204 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath, 11-12.

205 Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, 59.

206 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 197.

207 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.

208 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 45.

209 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 20-21.

210 Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 2-5, 203.

211 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 28.

212 Usually, the emergence of life and consciousness are explained by mechanists as random chance occurrences–the opposite of a theoretical explanation, since they are said to emerge for no reason.

213 “Panexperientialism” is a term coined by Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin to refer to any philosophy of nature that affirms that every actual occasion in the universe enjoys some level of experience; see Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, 99.

214 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 137.

215 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 52.

216 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 195-196.

217 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 196.

218 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

219 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17.

220 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 11.

221 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17, 187.

222 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 35, 159.

223 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 48-50.

224 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 18.

225 See Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 175; Late in his life, Prigogine collaborated with the Whiteheadian philosopher Isabel Stengers regarding the philosophical implications of his work.

226 Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, 7.

227 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 4/102.

228 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 138.

229 Adrian Wilding, “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology,’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6: 2010, 19.; http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/148/278 (retrieved 8/7/2012). Wilding argues that many of Latour’s contributions were prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.

Deacon’s Incomplete Nature (con’t.)

A week and a half ago, Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted the first volley of our summer reading group on chapter zero of Terence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). In that chapter, Deacon introduced the key conceptual locus of the book, what he calls the absential features of living and psychic systems: “phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence” (p. 3). The research programs of scientific materialism (neodarwinian biology, evolutionary psychology, neuro-eliminativism, etc.), he says, leave out the absential features of living and psychic systems, and so cannot account for the constitutive purposiveness and/or consciousness of these systems. Deacon is proposing to take the first steps toward a science capable of accounting for the absent elements of natural systems, elements I think it is safe to think of along the lines of Whitehead’s eternal objects (though Deacon doesn’t agree with me–I expand upon this already in conversation with Deacon HERE and in response to Jason HERE).

Since reading the first few chapters of Deacon’s book, I’ve come across several very critical reviews published in prominent places: HERE is Colin McGinn in the NY Review of Books getting Deacon back for ruining his vacation; HERE is Tom Bartlett nearly accusing him of plagiarism; HERE is Evan Thompson‘s slightly less damning review, but even he can’t help but finger-wave at Deacon for failing to even cite texts that clearly influenced him (like Thompson’s own Mind in Life (2007)), and for exaggerating the differences between his and Varela‘s solutions to the same problems. Deacon dismisses Varela’s (and Maturana’s) autopoietic philosophy of biology early on in chapter zero:

“in their effort to make the autonomous observer-self a fundamental element of the natural sciences, the origin of this self-creative dynamic is merely taken for granted, taken as a fundamental axiom” (p. 6).

Deacon cites Maturana and Varela’s work from 1980, and later (p. 311) cites Varela in 1992, which makes me wonder why he didn’t consider Varela’s work during the last 10 years of his life. The last paper he wrote (with Andreas Weber) before his death, “Life After Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuals” (2002), goes a long way toward offering a solution to the same problems Deacon is exploring in his book. I think part of the problem here is that Varela, especially in his later work, is trying to uncover the ontological ground of nature, which is to say he is philosophizing, while Deacon refuses to accept a philosophical answer to the philosophical questions he is asking. He wants to find a way for natural science to answer it, since otherwise, the answer can only be “taken for granted…as a fundamental axiom,” as he puts it. Deacon will dismiss Whitehead’s cosmology for similar reasons by saying Whitehead sneaks mind and ententionality in at the beginning without explaining it. He “takes it for granted.” This strikes me as a refusal on Deacon’s part to think behind Descartes’ bifurcation of nature into thinking and extension. He fails to phenomenologically bracket the natural attitude in the way that Varela, Thompson, and Whitehead in his own way, are able to. They are just better philosophers, to put it bluntly. Natural science alone isn’t enough to think beyond substance dualism; it can’t possibly!, since natural science, as a mode of thought, is in fact founded upon a Cartesian ontology. As far as I can tell so far, Deacon seems to want an explanation in terms of extension alone, such that absential phenomena can be said to emerge out of a nature that remains essentially external. If we’re going to really do philosophy, which is to say, if we’re not going to shy away from the obscurities of ontology and the dark powers of cosmology, then we need to think our way behind the Cartesian construct of dead external “nature” observed by a physically absent intelligence. He claims to want to find a way to bring purpose and consciousness back into the scientific world-picture, but can Deacon really do this precisely by removing them from a now incomplete nature?

It remains to be seen…

As Jason already admitted, it is tough to continue plowing through 400 more pages of Deacon’s book having now plainly seen the problems pointed out by his reviewers. But I’m still willing to keep reading: at page 90, I remain interested to see where Deacon is headed. I’d like to understand the details of his argument regarding the emergence of life. If a few more chapters in it turns out that the writing becomes as torturous as McGinn alleges (“Deacon’s prose style can only be described as abominable”), or if it seems he is only repeating Varela and Thompson, then I might call it quits.

As I’ve agreed to do, let me turn now to a brief summary of chapter 2, titled “Homunculi.” A homunculi, as defined by Deacon, is

“a form of explanation that pretends to be offering a mechanistic account of some living or mental phenomenon, but instead only appeals to another cryptically equivalent process at some lower level” (p. 47).

Deacon goes on to discuss the explanatory use of homunculi in pseudo-scientific theories like preformationism and vitalism; but he also shows how even contemporary neuroscientists purporting to be reductionistic still ultimately rely upon homuncular rhetoric to frame their theories (see p. 52-53). Deacon admits that it is extremely difficult to explain anything living or ensouled without slipping in a “man-analogue,” or homunculus, at some lower level in order to get the ententional work done. Scientists should admit when they do this, says Deacon. Some do, offering explanatory “promissory notes” where particular mechanisms aren’t yet understood.

Deacon then moves into a discussion of final causality, cautioning us not to take the misstep leading to Intelligent Design, where unexplained phenomena (e.g., life and mind) are explained by reference to an absent designer. While it is standard practice for scientists to create homuncular “black boxes” to stand in for not-yet-understood physical mechanisms, these are regarded as I.O.U’s, not permanent solutions. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it posits a designer as “a permanently unopenable black box” (p. 62). Deacon rightly sees such a position as an attack upon “the very logic and ethic of the scientific enterprise” (p. 61). As I recently suggested in a comment to Levi Bryant, I’d say the I.D.ers are wrong in what they (attempt to scientifically) affirm (i.e., “God did it”), but right in what they deny (i.e., that scientific materialism can ever explain life or consciousness).

Deacon then makes some important comments about the popular oversimplifications regarding the biological role of DNA. See, for example, Dawkins’ recent book review, where he continues to argue that organisms are just survival machines for selfish genes (as he has done for almost 40 years, despite major conceptual shifts in mainstream biological science), as though the DNA molecule were the only real level of causal agency in the biosphere (see also Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s review of Dawkins and our exchange in the comments). As Deacon makes clear, homuncular explanation is alive and well in contemporary neodarwinian accounts of life. Neodarwinian fetishizations of DNA ignore the fact that the “information” involved in living organization cannot be simply located in specific molecules, since in metazoan creatures, this information is

“ultimately embodied in the elaborate patterns of interaction among cells and how these affect which genes get expressed. The vast majority of structural information is generated anew in each organism as an emergent consequence of a kind of ecology of developing cells…patterns of gene expression depend on patterns of embryo geometry, and changes of gene expression influence embryo geometry in cycle upon cycle of interactions” (p. 69).

This is not a new critique of genetic reductionism (Thompson offers a nearly identical critique of DNA in Mind in Life, only he argues DNA can’t even play the role of “programmer” in single-celled organisms; Richard Lewontin offers another similar critique in this lecture from 2004). Still, it remains an important criticism worth repeating.

After briefly beating the dead horses, Fodor, Chomsky, and Pinker, for their blatantly homuncular account of cognition in terms of a “language of thought,” Deacon moves on to express his dissatisfaction with the panpsychism that some quantum-information theorists have been lead to. He then all too briefly unpacks Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, a scheme he says is “probably the most sophisticated effort to  make twentieth-century physics compatible with teleological principles” (p. 77). Deacon agrees that something like a process ontology is necessary to solve the problem of ententional phenomena in nature: all physical events must be understood to be in some sense “incomplete” in themselves, and therefore dependent upon absential causes. But he doesn’t think Whitehead finally explains why life and mind seem so different from inanimate matter.

As I’ve attempted to articulate elsewhere, it all depends what we mean by explanation. Whitehead’s philosophizing, if we are willing to follow him, shifts the problem set, such that the universe is understood as always already alive, always already intelligent. The scientific materialist’s questions: from where comes life, from where mind?–become irrelevant. A new set of questions arise, questions Deacon hits on, concerning specific organizational differences between grades of societies of actual occasions. (Dis)solved are old questions arising only from a Cartesian picture of the world. From Whitehead’s point of view, it makes no sense to ask where experience and value come from. Without them, there would simply be nothing, so we may as well ask where matter comes from. It is no less mysterious a question from Whitehead’s point of view. Whitehead’s universe is bound up in a single soul, not bifurcated into intelligent scientists looking out upon extended bodies for the ateleological mechanisms that might explain them. Deacon is asking questions that cannot be answered from the ontological paradigm within which he is asking them. His questions, should they be solved, can only lead him to a cosmological re-orientation along the lines offered by Whitehead.

Earlier in the chapter, Deacon writes that “since the Renaissance, the concept of efficient cause has become the paradigm exemplar for all fully described conceptions of cause in the natural sciences” (p. 59). Perhaps he should have said “since the Scientific Revolution.” More characteristic of the Renaissance are accounts of nature in terms of the anima mundi by alchemical thinkers like Ficino and Paracelsus (James Hillman explores this theme masterfully). If we’re going to preserve formal and final causes in nature, I don’t see any way around recognizing it as ensouled. Either the universe itself thinks and wills (serving as the participatory ground of any organism’s thinking and willing), or, as Jason has been pointing out for a while now, we’re left with a form of nominalistic anthropocentrism, where special human consciousness projects general structures/forms and purpose/finality onto an otherwise dumb, numb nature.

Participatory Psychedelia: Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness [final draft]

Participatory Psychedelia: 

Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-

Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness

Photo: Tree of Life by Ron Barnett

Preface: Take it and eat it.

 

Walking alone on a quiet beach at dawn, I found an old, leather-bound book half buried in the sand whose title, once stamped with golden letters, was now too worn to decipher. I opened it, discovering inside that a cavity had been carved out of the pages to make room for its pharmacological contents: seven nearly dried psyilocybe cyanescens mushrooms. I removed and ate them one by one, leaving behind a bluish-purple outline on the page. As I swallowed the last mushroom, I noticed the text beneath the blue stains and realized I must be holding the Bible. The text, from Revelation, chapter 10, read:

Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land…Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.

I looked up from the page and was immediately struck by the first beam of light from the Sun as it rose above the ocean horizon. Its light carried with it a powerful sound, like a cosmic trumpet, which knocked me to the ground. I dropped the book and laid in the sand with my hands covering my face to shield me from the synesthesic storm. A sinkhole opened beneath me, as though I were passing through an hourglass. My body descended into darkness. In a moment, all was silent and still, until suddenly, my consciousness was turned inside-out.

I awoke to find myself in bed, the first gentle glow of sunrise gleaming through a crack between the curtains. It had been a dream. As I rubbed my eyes to greet the new day, all sorts of metaphysical questions occurred to me. The dream was vivid and visceral enough that I wondered if I should expect the onset of a psychedelic experience in the next 15 or 20 minutes as a result of the placebo effect having lead my pineal gland to release a bit of its own secret stash of DMT.1 Might my psyche find a way to blend my psychedelic dream with what “I” call “reality”–“I,” the “normal waking, rational consciousness” that William James so eloquently relativized in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Alas, no such alteration of my consciousness was forthcoming, but I was left wondering, like James, what the meaning of this abrupt transition could be. As James put it, reflecting upon his psychedelic encounters with nitrous oxide,

No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.2

As James well knew, consciousness is not easily made into an object fit for scientific study, if it can be so studied at all. The nearest approach to such a study appears most effective when one pays close attention to alterations in consciousness, to the transitions between dreaming and waking, or indeed, to the transformations brought about by the ingestion of one of many psychedelic chemicals. These peculiar chemicals, found throughout the plant and fungi kingdoms, and often close cousins of mammalian neurotransmitters, provide the fields of consciousness and transpersonal studies with the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or Hooke’s microscope.3 The effect of psychedelic instruments has been variously described by experimenters as an expansion and/or an intensification of everyday consciousness. But these are metaphors: unlike normal scientific instruments for observation of the very large or the very small, consciousness has no size and cannot be measured. As transpersonal instruments and participatory technologies, psychedelics call into question the very identity of the scientist doing the observation. In such experiments, the “object” of study, consciousness, becomes both observer and observed. These recursive effects make psychedelic experiments an especially fruitful method of participatory spiritual inquiry.

 

Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Alchemical Consciousness

 

Transpersonal theory emerged in the wake of the radical political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s, finding its principle expression in the work of Abe Maslow and Stanislav Grof. As Gregg Lahood has argued, the so-called Philosophia Perennis functioned for this first wave of transpersonalism

as a masking device, or a prestigious, protective, and seemingly authoritative sacred canopy with which to wheel a marginal, subversive, and unimaginably anomalous psychedelic epistemology into the heart of what William Blake called Newton’s sleep, or the hyperrational West.4

In other words, through what Lahood calls the “post-rational sorcery”5 of countercultural figures like Aldous Huxley,6 Timothy Leary,7 and Alan Watts,8 the psychedelic experience became sutured to a precariously universalized but nonetheless rhetorically powerful hybridization of the world’s great religious traditions. According to Lahood, transpersonalism is “still evolving through a major conceptual crisis in its worldview.”9 The second wave of transpersonalism could be said to have emerged with Jorge Ferrer’s publication of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (2002). Ferrer deconstructs the explicitly universalist and residual Cartesian assumptions of the first wave of transpersonal thinkers in order to reconstruct the discipline within the context of “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.”10

The principal aim of this essay is to explore the influence of chemically-altered, or alchemical consciousness, not only on the founding and ongoing articulation of transpersonal theory, but on the origins of spirituality more generally. Alchemical consciousness has been intimately bound up with religious innovation for thousands of years. Accordingly, I argue that the emergence of transpersonalism out of the foment of the 1960s is just the most recent example of the radical rhetorical effects of psychedelics on spirituality. I also attempt to support and expand Lahood’s notion of psychedelically-induced cosmological hybridization by drawing upon Richard Doyle’s thesis that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the evolution of spiritual discourse,11 as well as Michael Rinella’s study of the interplay between speech (the logistikon) and psychedelics (the pharmakon) in ancient Greek spirituality.12 From Doyle’s perspective, rhetoric is not simply persuasive speech leading one astray from the truth, but, due to its role in sexual selection, the engine of biological novelty; rhetoric, in other words, is an ecological practice.13 Just as flowers evolved as rhetorical devices for getting the attention of bees, and male peacock plumage for getting the attention of female peacocks, human rhetorical strategies have been evolutionarily selected for their eloquence.14 The degree to which such rhetoric truly or falsely corresponds to reality is biologically irrelevant, since it is precisely the creative appearance of beauty and its boundary dissolving effect as an “attention sink” that has guided the evolution of life on earth, determining through genetic and symbolic inheritance the bodily and behavioral patterns that shape our lives.15 What begins as appearance can in the future become reality. Psychedelics function as “rhetorical adjuncts” for many species,16 and for humans in particular

are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect…they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical…[such that] language…becomes the occasion for a feedback loop, where utterances and writings that seem to enable the endurance and enjoyment of psychedelic experience are replicated, programming further ecodelic investigations…17

Rather than seeking some form of authoritative disambiguation,18 as Lahood argues the first wave of transpersonalism did by turning to Perennialism, the “anomalous,” ineffable, and participatory nature of alchemical consciousness are affirmed as a fertile source of open-ended rhetorical strategies for both consciousness transformation and cosmological (re)construction. Before tentatively defining religion with help from Robert Bellah, and exploring the rhetorical influence of psychedelics on religious consciousness, I unpack Ferrer’s participatory contribution to the study of human consciousness and spirituality.

 

The Participatory Turn and the Representational Paradigm

Ferrer’s major contribution to the field of transpersonal studies was to defend the validity of spirituality without basing this validity upon the authority of the Perennialist tradition, at least as this tradition has been interpreted through the subjectivist and scientistic biases of modern Western culture. These biases are rooted in the representationalist paradigm that has held sway, consciously or not, since the time of Descartes. As Richard Tarnas notes in his foreword to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, despite the radical intensions of the first wave of transpersonalism, its theoretical framework “[retained]…certain essential and usually unexamined assumptions” carried over from the historical background out of which it emerged.19 From within the representationalist paradigm, truth is thought to consist in a correspondence between a subjective picture or concept in the mind and an objective state of affairs in the world. Both the Myth of the Framework (subjectivity constructs reality) and the Myth of the Given (reality is objectively pregiven) are potential symptoms of this representationalist dualism.20

For the initial Perennialist wave of transpersonalism, every genuinely mystical or spiritual experience, despite potential differences in its explicit description, must implicitly refer to a single underlying and so pregiven spiritual reality. The research program for transpersonal theorists within the Perennialist paradigm is therefore to seek scientific validation of spiritual experiences by applying a broader form of the empirical method than that used in the natural sciences, one that includes not only outer, but also inner experience.21 According to Ferrer, though appeals to scientific verification were perhaps “historically inevitable,” and even “methodologically crucial” in establishing the academic legitimacy of transpersonal theory at the time of its founding, such an approach “has become today problematic and detrimental.”22

There are many reasons a representationalist/scientistic approach is problematic for transpersonal studies, several of which have been singled out and skillfully deconstructed by Ferrer in Revisioning. One of the crucial problems with the representationalist paradigm for psychedelic studies in particular is that interpreting alchemical forms of consciousness from such a perspective leaves them especially vulnerable to dismissal as subjective misrepresentations of a pregiven objective reality. Despite the attempts of transpersonal theorists to expand the epistemology of empirical correspondence so as to include inner realities, contemporary academic research on altered consciousness by those outside the field of transpersonal studies has tended to argue for precisely such a dismissive characterization. For example, Revonsuo et al. recently argued that, while during a “normal state of consciousness…the mechanisms of conscious representation in the brain…carry accurate information from ‘world’ to consciousness,” during an “altered state,” “consciousness…deviate[s] from the natural relation in such a way that the world and/or self tend to be misrepresented.”23 Revonsuo et al. go on to explicitly dismiss what they call “higher and mystical states of consciousness”:

…despite their intensely positive emotional tone and significance for the subject, these states…tend to induce a variety of misrepresentations for the subject’s conscious experience.”24

There are many question-begging assumptions here, not the least of which are the dogmatic reduction of consciousness to neural mechanisms, and the substantialist reading of consciousness in terms of experiential “states.” It would appear that transpersonal theorists cannot beat natural scientists at their own representationalist game, since it is all too easy for the latter to reduce “inner experience” of spiritual realities to some kind of neurological malfunction. Instead, it is necessary to change the rules of the game by shifting the critique to the epistemological and ontological foundations of modern scientism.

Ferrer’s remedy for the representational residue in first wave transpersonal studies is his participatory, or enactive, vision of spirituality. Enactivism was first articulated as a paradigm shift in the cognitive sciences by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991).25 As Ferrer describes it,

Participatory knowing…is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions cocreated by the different elements involved in the participatory event.26

Rather than rooting the foundation of knowledge in a secure, unaffected and largely aloof subject who modestly witnesses the behavior of an external world (as natural science tends to pretend), Ferrer’s participatory approach to human consciousness uproots knowledge from the the solid self, such that the act of knowing is transformative of both self and world.27 Alchemical forms of consciousness are accordingly best understood, not as “states” of the mind, but as world-transfiguring events. As Ferrer suggests:

…this transfiguration of the world is not…a mere change in our individual experience of a pregiven world, but…the emergence of an ontological event…in which our consciousness creatively participates.28

Religion as Participation in Non-Ordinary Realities

In his study of religion in human evolution (in a book of the same title), sociologist Robert Bellah attempts to define “religion” in the context of a wider discussion about non-ordinary realities, like those encountered in quantum physics, cinema, dreams, play, after ingesting a psychedelic chemical, or when approaching death.29 He contrasts such non-ordinary realities with the ordinary (or at least culturally dominant) reality of “waking, rational consciousness,” or what he, following Alfred Schutz,30 calls “the world of wide awake, grown up men.”31 Unlike the participatory consciousness of religious realities brought forth through ritualized symbolic play and/or chemical alteration, the solid self of the “grown up” world of instrumental rationality tends to bracket the ontological implications of such “offline” activities, while attending instead to everyday practical needs and desires.32 In this everyday world, a world Bellah connects with a felt sense of lack or deficiency, space is experienced as discretely separating my body from every other body (and so my mind from every other mind), and time passes in a linear fashion according to the minutes and hours of a clock and the days and weeks of a calendar. The world of rational consciousness is the world of isolated bodies colliding in a crowded container, bidding for survival in the course of neutral (i.e., non-teleological) time, all the while haunted by a fundamental anxiety rooted in the fear of death. But, as Bellah is careful to point out, “nobody can stand to live in [such a world] all the time.”33 Ordinary reality is inevitably interrupted and overlapped by non-ordinary realities, typically with dramatic effects:

It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that…bracketing [the vague sense on the fringes of rational consciousness that other forms of reality are possible] is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life.34

In the case of religious realities, the distinguishing feature is that they emerge from what Bellah refers to as “unitive events.”35 Such events bring forth worlds of non-standard space and time, where the boundaries between bodies and minds becomes porous and the flow of events is inherently creative and meaningful. Accordingly, unitive events are notoriously difficult to describe in a predominantly representational language, which tends to construe such events after the fact as subjective experiences. Bellah, like Ferrer, is sensitive to the modern Western tendency to speak of experience in terms of something “had” by a private, inner self, and so chooses the term “event” deliberately to avoid the implication that religious realities are somehow not “objective” or real. It is also important to note that by designating non-ordinary religious consciousness as “unitive,” Bellah does not mean to equate all such non-ordinary events with the realization of some nondual ultimate reality. Rather, “unitive” refers to the way in which the dichotomous subject-object consciousness of ordinary space and time is transformed, such that formerly sharp boundaries become relativized in a whole variety of ways.

As for a simple and unambiguous definition of religion, Bellah admits that cultural biases make this difficult. Following George Lindbeck,36 he lists three current alternative approaches to defining religion: 1) the propositional, 2) the experiential-expressivist, and 3) the cultural-linguistic.37 The propositional theory of religion holds that religion is essentially a series of conceptually stated beliefs concerning what is true. Bellah argues that this approach is inadequate since, while the conceptual/propositional aspects of religion are important, they are not essential to religious practice. The experiential-expressivist theory holds that a universal human potentiality for religious experience underlies all particular cultural manifestations of religion. The perennialist, quasi-empirical approach of first wave transpersonalism owes much to this theory. Finally, the cultural-linguistic theory holds that the symbolic forms of religion are primary, though

not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.38

This theory emphasizes the irreducible plurality of religions, and so also tends to bracket the ontological significance of religious symbolism. Bellah does not believe it is necessary to choose one approach over the other, but suggests that both the experiential-expressivist and cultural-linguistic theory can be utilized as “coordinate approaches.”39

In their introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008), Ferrer and Jacob Sherman construe the field of religious studies in a way similar to Bellah. They critique the “linguistic Kantianism” of postmodern scholars who would deny the possibility of real religious knowledge by pointing out the ethnocentric presuppositions underlying such dismissals.40 There is no privileged neutral ground from which to judge the metaphysical claims of religious practitioners, since academic scholars are no less ambiguously situated within their own cultural and historical contexts. In keeping with the participatory approach, Ferrer and Sherman gesture beyond the scholar/practitioner dichotomy by suggesting that

some kind of personal engagement or even transformation…may be required for both the apprehension and the assessment of certain religious truth claims.41

The “linguistic rationality” of ordinary consciousness simply is not capable of judging the non-ordinary unitive events at the generative core of the world’s religions. Ferrer and Sherman’s approach to the issue nicely complements Bellah’s, in that while none of them want to dismiss the experiential component of religion all together, all three call attention to the ways in which language and experience mutually transform one another. “In short,” says Bellah, “we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form.”42 Rather than seeing this entanglement as an unescapable epistemic limitation, Bellah argues that religious symbolism is potentially a way of knowing capable of reaching beyond the “dreadful fatalities…[of the]…world of rational response to anxiety and need.”43 In a similar vein, Ferrer and Sherman call into question the skeptical postmodern claim that non-ordinary religious consciousness is “overdetermined by cultural-linguistic variables” and therefore cannot possibly refer to “translinguistic” realities.44 At the same time, they call for a “resacralization of language,” such that religious symbolism is understood to carry its own “creational weight,” since it arises out of the semioticity of reality itself.45

 

Alchemical Consciousness and Cosmological Hybridization

The entangled relationship between symbolic formation, alchemical consciousness, and the generation and regeneration of religious realities has been fruitfully explored by a number of thinkers, to whom I now turn. As mentioned above, Lahood has argued persuasively that, by aligning themselves with a hybrid form of “psychedelic perennialism,” the “sorcerers and shamans” of first wave transpersonalism effectively participated in “the emergence of a novel mutating religious process on the West Coast of the United States.”46 While Lahood praises Ferrer for “re-booting” transpersonalism by destroying the perennialist “idol” worshipped by its first wave of theorists, he criticizes Ferrer’s “Ocean with Many Shores” metaphor for its “tacit appeal to religious purity”:47

Ferrer’s redeployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores…may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity [the nondual One of Perennialism] we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other).48

Following cultural theorists like Bhabha, Rosaldo, and Roof, Lahood articulates an approach to religious studies and transpersonal theory within which the default condition of every human culture is to be in open-ended transcultural mutation. In this sense, orthodox purity cannot be opposed to heretical syncretism, since there has never been a time when hybridity did not go all the way down.49 As Roof has argued:

…religions are anything but immaculately conceived; purity is a fiction…they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.50

Such redrawing of boundaries remains especially pronounced in the “contact zone of late capitalism’s religious borderlands,”51 lands like the West Coast of California, where for more than half a century, psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” bringing forth novel forms of hybridized spirituality. First wave transpersonalism, though helpfully deconstructed by Ferrer for its universalist assumptions, can nonetheless be read as “an early attempt at coming to terms with globalization and its related phenomena.”52 This first wave’s psychedelic perennialism was “a legitimate but largely culturally contextual project”53 whose major shortcoming was failing to recognize the extent to which it had cocreated a novel form of cosmological hybridization, rather than simply rediscovered a pure traditional source.

Historically, psychedelic consciousness has a marked tendency to generate rhetorical strategies for

…blurring…religious boundaries; breaking apart while, at the same time, binding together multiple cosmological postulates.54

This is what happened in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s among the “educated theory-making literati,”55 as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece,56 which almost certainly involved chemical alterations of consciousness57 and represent

the most important religious experience of anyone who could speak Greek…for close to a thousand years.58

In his study of the tension between Plato’s development of the dialectical logistikon and the ecstasy-producing pharmakon of the Eleusinian rites, Rinella describes Plato’s discovery of the psychedelic qualities of language itself:

…the spoken word does not simply effect the audience–it has a ‘feedback’ effect that affects the rhetor himself.59

Plato, an alchemical initiate, was also one of the most literate and rhetorically skilled men of his age. Like later intellectual sorcerers of the 20th century, he was empowered by both the alphabetic and psychedelic technologies available to him to bring forth a novel, countercultural religious reality.60 Unlike later sorcerers, however, he did so not just by making new theories, but by disentangling theory itself from a heretofore polytheistic and mythic consciousness.61 He stepped out of the cave in which the rites were performed in an attempt to integrate what he had learned into the “waking” world of daily political life. All subsequent attempts to theorize our human participation in religious realities are, in one way or another, indebted to Plato’s original form of participatory cosmological hybridization.62

If, historically and logically, alchemical experimentation has been closely wed to participatory transpersonal research, then it is to be expected that new forms of more relaxed spiritual universalism will continue to emerge from its theorization. These forms will be “more relaxed” because researchers who adopt the participatory approach become more self-aware of the way their ambiguously situated bodies and the languages they speak have the potential to cocreate hybrid worlds with others.

As Doyle has suggested, psychedelics (or as he prefers to refer to them, “ecodelics”) function as “transhuman technologies,” or again as “deeply participatory media technologies.”63 By this he means that they intensify the everyday “problem” of awareness, a problem that waking, rational consciousness tends to repress, namely, “its inability to narrate its own conditions of emergence [and submergence]”:

This difficulty of observing the conditions of observation…leads to a further difficulty of observing the conditions of observing the observation, and so on into an infinite regress of observation, until observation forms the entirety of both the subject and the object of observation and all other objects disappear from consciousness and only a mandala…can orient the attention.64

Though often characterized as ineffable, Doyle notes the paradox encountered by many alchemical experimenters, that the rhetorical challenge of psychedelics–“the continual disavowal of language in language”–itself becomes an endlessly fertile site of open-ended cosmological inquiry.65

Ferrer’s metaphorical Ocean with Many Shores is a crucial corrective to the Perennialist longing for the One Destination. Adding the psychedelic “trip trope”66 to this oceanic analogy may open up even more possibilities for spiritual exploration. The origins of the rhetorical trope of a psychedelic “trip” can be traced back to analogies made in ancient Homeric Greek culture between drinking alchemically-enhanced wine and setting out on a nautical journey.67 Norman Mailer may have been the first to use the noun “trip” in an attempt to describe his indescribable encounter with mescaline published in 1959.68 By the mid-60s, it had spread throughout the psychedelic counterculture to become the trope of choice.

According to Doyle, the trope succeeds in that it

…[maps] the whorl of space-time characteristic of psychedelic experience…[and thereby] recuperates a psychonaut’s capacity to articulate by compressing a thoroughly distributed experience into a serial one. 69

Alchemical consciousness is “thoroughly distributed,” straddling sea and shore at once. Psychonauts are never again able to plant both their feet on the seemingly solid ground of everyday, rational consciousness. The trip trope functions not simply to describe psychedelic events to others, but to relativize one’s own consciousness by rendering into language recipes for self-transformation.70

Logos itself–that which, following Aristotle, has been said to define the human71–is, according to Corey Anton, best described as “a never ending tide of ambiguous merger and division.”72 Anton, building on the work of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, brilliantly explores the way our human capacity for speech and so self-consciousness implicates us in an anxious search for some prevailing authority who might relieve our fear of dying, of becoming permanently lost at sea:

Logos transforms an otherwise submerged transpiring of organismal [birthing and dying] and vegetative [dreaming and sleeping] processes into a highly abstract, complex, and agonizingly lived-through drama enacted by personae whose lives play out within bids for cosmic relevance.73

But even these submerged biological processes are recognized by Anton to participate in the ambiguous mergers and divisions of non-conscious logos, as when a sperm merges with an ovum, which then divides within itself before merging with the uterine wall on its way to becoming a baby that will eventually divide itself from the mother through the process of birth. In other words, “logos [is] already rooted in the body.”74 Or, as Ferrer and Sherman put it:

In our poetic powers, we do not leave the world behind but create after the manner that nature herself creates.75

When logos becomes routinized in the form of instrumental rationality, it tends not only to estrange us from our earthly embodiment, but to struggle to authoritatively disambiguate the ineradicable mystery of our cosmic situation. However, logos can also, given the right religious or alchemical conditions, “reunite us with nature on a higher realm of contact”76 by granting conscious participation in unitive forms of space-time, or even participation in eternity. Rational consciousness, of course, can never,

with one summative and eternal word, say all of our different mergers and divisions.77

But research on chemically-altered, spiritually-attuned consciousness suggests at least the possibility of “rhetorical patterns consistent with…an epic eloquence,” verging on “eternal speech.”78 According to Doyle, participating in alchemical experiments to “[listen] for the logos” requires

subjects…willing to be healed, perhaps even subjects willing to be healed of being subjects.79

As much contemporary research is also suggesting, psychedelics provide the spiritual practitioner with a potent technology for overcoming the fear of death responsible for the fundamental anxiety dominating the world of ordinary rational subjectivity.80 Alchemical consciousness has the “disorienting ability to negate any essentializing voice by merging its symbols,”81 and so unlike an exclusively rationalistic consciousness, need not continually seek out authoritative forms of death denial. Their role in the ancient mystery traditions of Greece, not to mention the Vedic traditions of India,82 the shamanic traditions of South America,83 and perhaps even the Biblical tradition of Israel,84 shows that their influence upon the birth and development of transpersonalism in the 1960s is hardly a new religious phenomenon. As more scientific research is conducted, legal barriers restricting the free expression of psychedelic religion are sure to be broken down, and the open-ended cosmological hybridization so characteristic of transpersonal theory has the potential to blossom even more, gently grafting various branches of the world’s spiritual traditions together with its own creative discoveries into some as yet unrealized form of planetary mystery religion, a single cosmic tree producing an endless variety of salvific fruits.

 

Postface: A Book Sweet as Honey

After the dream with which this essay opened, I came across Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina’s identification of psilocybin mushrooms with the logos, referring to them as “a Book”:

A book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.”85

May these new words continue to be learned in dialogue with sacred chemicals, with a multiplicity of unique others, and with the universe itself.

 

 Footnotes

1 Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 21, 33.

2 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1982), 388.

3 An analogy that many psychonauts have found appropriate, including Stanislav Grof [in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, ed. Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 125], Ralph Metzner [Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), 81] and Alan Watts [preface to The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965)].

4 Gregg Lahood, “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007): 4.

5 Gregg Lahood, “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008): 159.

6 See The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945) and The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).

7 See The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel, 1964).

8 See The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965).

9 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.

10 Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),183.

11 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy.

12 Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012).

13 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 121.

14 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 127-173.

15 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 146, 170.

16 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 165-166.

17 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 114-115.

18 Corey Anton, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010), 28.

19 Richard Tarnas, preface to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, vii. 

20  Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 156-157.

21 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 69.

22 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 70.

23 Antii Revonsuo, Sakari Kallio, and Pilleriin Sikka, “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 194.

24 Antii Revonsuo et al., “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” 200.

25 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).

26 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 123.

27 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 122.

28 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 118.

29 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-43.

30 Alfred Schutz, “Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), 207-259.

31 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2.

32 “Offline” activities take place outside the strictly biological context of Darwinian survival. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xx-xxi.

33 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3.Italics are Bellah’s.

34 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 4.

35 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12-13.

36 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984), 31-41.

37 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution,11.

38 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 11.

39 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.

40 Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (New York: State University of New York, 2008), 26.

41 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 26.

42 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.

43 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 9.

44 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 29.

45 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 17.

46 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160-161.

47 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 163, 179.

48 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.

49 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 167.

50 Wade Roof, “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998), 5.

51 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.

52 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 182.

53 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.

54 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 161.

55 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160.

56 Camille Paglia has compared the “transnational mystery religions” of the ancient world, like that at Eleusis, to the marginalized and subversive psychedelic movement of the 1960s (see “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.

57 Rinella, Pharmakon, 85-87.

58 Rinella, Pharmakon, 137.

59 Rinella, Pharmakon, 214.

60 See Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 29-31, where Doyle analogizes the co-evolution of writing and human consciousness to the co-evolution of plant and fungi-based psychoactive chemicals and consciousness. See also Rinella, Pharmakon, 192-195, where Rinella discusses Plato’s mobilization of philosophy as a form of counter-magic.

61 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 387-398.

62 As Alfred North Whitehead suggested, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato” [Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 39]. See also Jacob Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, 81-112.

63 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 43, 51.

64 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 77.

65 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 45.

66 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 21.

67 Rinella, Pharmakon, 9.

68 “…a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe.” Norman Mailer, Advertisements For Myself, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 245.

69 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 49.

70 “Trip reports are fundamentally rendering algorithms, clusters of recipes to be tried out, sampled, and remixed by psychonauts.” Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 50.

71 Humans are the zoon logon echon, “the speaking animal.”

72 Anton, Sources of Significance, 28.

73 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.

74 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.

75 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 20.

76 Anton, Sources of Significance, 42.

77 Anton, Sources of Significance, 43.

78 Doyle cites an international study (Beach et al., 1997) wherein “over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called ‘the logos’” (Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 109).

79 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 110.

80 Lauren Slater, “How Psychedelics Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012, accessed April 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html?pagewanted=all

81 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 176.

82 The Rigveda describes a psychedelic drink named “Soma”: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (8.43.3, transl. by R. T. H. Griffith).

83 Archaeological evidence of psychedelic sacraments being used in South America dates back to at least 1500 BCE. Dennis McKenna, “Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History,” in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999), 42.

84 See Benny Shanon, “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.

85 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 108; and “The Vaults of Erowid,” accessed April 23, 2012, http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_quote1.shtml

 

Bibliography

 

Anton, Corey. Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010.

 

Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 7, 1:12-17 (1997).

 

Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

 

Doyle, Richard M. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.

 

Ferrer, Jorge. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

 

Ferrer, Jorge and Sherman, Jacob, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. New York: State University of New York, 2008.

 

Grof, Stan, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

 

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.

 

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.

 

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1982.

 

Lahood, Gregg. “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008).

 

Lahood, Gregg. “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007).

 

Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel, 1964.

 

Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984.

 

Metzner, Ralph. Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.

 

Metzner, Ralph, ed. Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.

 

Paglia, Camille. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.

 

Revonsuo, Antii. Kallio, Sakari. Sikka, Pilleriin. “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 187-204.

 

Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.

 

Roof, Wade. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998).

 

Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.

 

Shanon, Benny. “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.

 

Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.

 

Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York: Vintage, 1965.

 

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Purpose in Living Systems

Levi Bryant and I have been going back and forth over at Larval Subjects about the role of formal and final causation in the explanation of living systems. He argues that Darwin forever banished teleology from nature, or at least showed how the apparent purposiveness of organisms is a result of an entirely non-teleological process. I’ll paste my latest response to him below:

You are still construing the argument I referenced at #6 [it is not so much “my” argument as it is Varela and Thompson’s (see "Life After Kant," 2002, and Mind in Life, 2008)] as though it refers to the purpose or function of distinct traits or variations. That was never my claim. I fully accept that the function of an organ or a trait usually comes after its formation, and that in the course of evolutionary history, the same organ can come to have entirely unforeseen functions. The argument has to do with the immanent teleology of biological individuals, not with the contingent function of their parts. Darwin’s genius was to discover a non-teleological mechanism to account for speciation at the phylogenetic level due to chance variation and inheritance at the ontogenetic level. There is nothing in his theory, or in any additions to his theory in the last 150 years, that explains the existence of biological individuals with immanent purposes. Systems theory has offered descriptions of biological individuals in terms of attractors, but these are descriptions of behavior and not causal explanations. Efficient causality cannot offer a complete explanation for the sentient behavior of living beings. It is of course part of any explanation, but cannot be the whole explanation unless we are willing to ignore the distinct phenomenology of living systems by reducing them to the neutral language of physics (neutral in regard to the taking into account of the perspective of the system one is studying). As Etienne Gilson brilliantly argued (see From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, 1984), no defender of teleology in nature has ever done so in order to deny the role of mechanism (efficient causation); it is only the mechanists who deny teleology. From Gilson’s perspective, while mechanistic biology can perhaps explain the specifics of the functioning of individual organisms (which is what you have been arguing), they cannot explain the existence of such individuals as such. To account for the existence of biological individuals requires a principle of immanent teleology. You’ve made reference to the reductionistic promissory notes that eventually an explanation in purely efficient terms will be provided for how DNA and RNA replication got started, thereby bypassing Varela/Thompson’s argument about the explanatory priority of autopoiesis; but as I understand the arguments of systems biologists like Stuart Kauffman (see Reinventing the Sacred, 2008), any account of nucleic acid autocatalysis, due the inherently recursive nature of such reactions, will already be in terms of formal and final causes.

Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism

I’ve been fascinated by the development of the enactive paradigm since I read The Embodied Mind back in college at UCF, where I studied cognitive science with Prof. Mason Cash and Prof. Shaun Gallagher. I feel fortunate that I was able to study cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in a program where the phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were taken seriously, since traditional approaches to cognition still tend to rely heavily on computational metaphors for mind and see the development of artificial intelligence as the most effective research program. The enactive paradigm is fundamentally opposed to such metaphors, and to the idea that mind can be understood independently of living systems.

Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) is perhaps the foremost researcher associated with Enactivism. He studied very closely with Francisco Varela as a graduate student, and even before that as a child at the Lindisfarne Association (started by his father, William Irwin Thompson), where Varela often lectured. I had the opportunity to meet E. Thompson earlier this year when he lectured about his upcoming book on neuroscience and meditation at the CIIS Consciousness Forum. I asked him then what his empirical and phenomenological research implies about the ontology of consciousness, a question he answered by giving an autobiographical account of his personal spiritual development. Having grown up at Lindisfarne surrounded not only by new paradigm scientists, but new age mystics, he said he was more inclined early in his life to believe that consciousness was indeed basic to, if not constitutive of, reality. Since becoming an academic philosopher and immersing himself in the neurophysiological and biological sciences, he has stepped back a bit from this ontologization, and is now inclined to believe that life, rather than consciousness, is basic to at least our knowledge of reality (as per his “strong continuity thesis”). I continue to follow his work very closely and will probably reference enactivism quite a bit in my dissertation on the ontology of imagination. Having studied and internalized the perspectives of Whitehead, Schelling, and other cosmologically-inclined thinkers since initially encountering the paradigm in college, I think enactivism, though epistemologically and methodologically robust, remains ambiguously afloat in murky metaphysical waters. What lies beneath the surface of the co-constituted umwelt of organism and environment? Meaningless chemical reactions and thermodynamic gradients? Is the emergence of sense-making autopoiesis possible in the universe as it is depicted by scientific materialism? Kant certainly didn’t think so, but he was still living in a Newtonian universe. Have systems theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity made his comment about the impossibility of a “Newton of the grass-blade” passé ? These are the kinds of questions I’m left wondering about…

Response to Knowledge-Ecology about Dawkins, Evolution, and Creationism

Knowledge-Ecology recently posted his lament about the scientific ignorance of GOP presidential candidate Gov. Perry, who denies both evolution and climate change. Adam also mentioned his support for Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal.

I might also count Dawkins as a political ally, but not as a cosmological ally. And since I, like Adam, struggle to avoid separating cosmos and polis, in the end I have to critique Dawkins as quickly as I do Perry. Jung said he was glad he was not a Jungian; I think Darwin would say something similar were he alive today. Dawkins represents a minority position in the ecology of ideas circulating in the rather large academic aquarium of the contemporary life sciences. His assertion that “natural selection” explains life, the universe, and everything seems no less fundamentalist to me than creationism. Darwin assumed much about the nature of reality in order to offer an account of the origin the variety of species. His assumptions were empirically justified, I’d agree, but not theoretically explained. His conception of life-itself is quite Romantic (yes, in the capital “R” sense; see Robert Richards’ work on the influence of Schelling and Goethe on Darwin). Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection assumes self-producing/autopoietic organisms capable of reproduction (E. Thompson makes this case convincingly in “Mind in Life”). Natural selection, in the neo-Darwinist genocentric context that Dawkins employs it, offers no explanation whatsoever even for how genes can produce individual living cells, much less animals or a potentially freely creative, self-reflective species like us. Creationists may not know how to rationally articulate their intuition that scientific materialism is inadequate, nor even how to rationally construct an alternative account of cosmogenesis; but nonetheless, their intuition is correct. Civilization cannot survive without a more adequate answer to the Biggest Question.

The Creativity of Causality in Bios and Cosmos: a response to Levi Bryant

Levi Bryant has posted a comment in response to me over at plasticbodies. He has also posted a comment directed at Adam and I over at knowledge-ecology. I’d like to respond to some his questions and concerns, which include issues surrounding causality, explanation, God, and Nature.

He first suggests I have conflated two different construals of teleology in an earlier reference to Maturana and Varela‘s work. In an essay I linked prior to his comment, there are several chapters on the history of biology wherein I unpack the development of the concept somewhat extensively. I track the changes in the conception of teleology from the premodern to the modern era. I differentiate the more Platonic doctrine of teleology as “demiurgic design” from the more Aristotelean doctrine of immanent teleology, which was later modernized by Kant into a regulative principle for judging the organization of living systems. In the last paper Varela published before he died, he took up Kant’s project in the Critique of Judgment by attempting to ontologize telos at the individual level (making it constitutive of the reality of organisms, rather than simply a human way of conceptualizing their activity).

I don’t think Varela succeeds in the paper, since he leaves a lot of the philosophical work required to support his account unarticulated, but his references to Whitehead suggest he saw him as an ally in a similar project. Part of the problem with Varela’s account is that, though he claims to ontologize final causality, he really only grounds formal causality in the self-organization of living beings. What Varela refers to in his last paper as “the instauration of a point of view” is what Whitehead calls the “subjective form” of an actual occasion. In order to link the subjectivity of living beings (i.e., their soul, or formal identity) to a final cause, matter of the universe itself has to be subjected to the ideals of a cosmic, everlasting soul: God. Varela never went this far (at least not in writing; he does, however, come close to evoking the “subtle consciousness” of the World-Soul in this video interview toward the end of his life). He reveals that formal and final causality are closely tied in individual organisms, but one has to turn to Whitehead’s work for a fully re-enchanted (though undeniably post-modern) conception of an inherently purposeful Universe. “Re-enchantment” in this context means that Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology includes both the activity of Ideas and the desire for Ends in the process of reality.

Let’s put Whitehead’s panexperialist, panentheist metaphysics to the side for a moment and revisit Varela’s autopoietic account of telos. Bryant writes the following:

Maturana and Varela…understand teleology in cybernetic terms as feedback mechanisms in an organism wherein the organism regulates itself homeostatically within a particular range. While more complex, there’s nothing markedly different here from how the thermostat functions in your house. The temperature at which the thermostat is set is the teleological goal or cause, and the air conditioner turning off and on is the feedback mechanism by which that state is goal is actualized. The goal itself has no causative power. It is just the basin around which actions settle. In organisms, moreover, this teleological dimension is produced through evolution, not design, and is produced out of processes that are not themselves teleological, i.e., there is no goal towards which evolution is striving or tending.

I think Bryant is conflating the difference between the “goal-like” movements of intelligently designed machines and the immanent purposes of autopoietic organisms.  I can’t speak for Maturana, since I haven’t studied the evolution of his thought beyond his early work with Varela. But as his last paper makes clear, Varela came to reject his earlier view that organisms are purposeless systems. Autopoiesis is not simply a description of self-regulation (as in thermostats), but a description of self-production. Organisms are purposeful systems because they are self-organizing systems: they exist for the sake of themselves. Machines are also purposeful systems, but they do not produce themselves, nor do they bring forth their own horizon of experience. The neo-Darwinist paradigm referenced by Bryant, wherein non-teleological processes are purported to generate biological form, seems confused to me. It denies design in nature at the same time that it carries over the design metaphor from artificial selection to natural selection. In this way, nature is said to generate the appearance of design in organisms, while the process of selection itself is claimed to be completely purposeless and non-directed.

Again, I think intelligent design (or any metaphor still rooted in the design paradigm) is being conflated here with organismic production. It is one thing to claim that the process of evolution on the phylogenic level is non-directed and in some sense purposeless (Whitehead would disagree, but let’s stick to Varela for now); it is an entirely separate claim to say that the development and organization of individuals on an ontogenic level is purposeless, or merely teleonomic (“goal-like”). In point of fact (as Evan Thompson, once a student of Varela’s, points out in Mind and Life), the mechanism of natural selection must assume self-organizing biological individuals that can reproduce before it explains anything about the way speciation occurs. Natural selection is not an explanation for autopoietic organisms, since it provides no account of their subjective horizons or their immanent purposes. Natural selection is one mechanism playing a role in what Varela calls “natural drift,” the generational changes in the morphology of species due to shifting environmental conditions.

If not natural selection, what would constitute an explanation of the ideas, meanings, and purposes of organisms? Bryant complains that I am employing God as the explanation for life and everything. I do employ a concept of God when cosmologizing, but not as the singular cause of reality. God is rather the living soul of the world, within which “values arise from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (Process and Reality, p. 88). The world is as much the cause of God as God is the cause of the world. At this point, we must move into a discussion beyond causality in nature: we must consider the nature of causes, explanations, and reasons, as such. Varela, the biologist, becomes less helpful here than Whitehead, the metaphysician and cosmologist.

Bryant writes:

I fail to see what Whitehead’s conception of god adds to our metaphysics. It introduces a number of highly contentious and troubling postulates (that god influences things to produce certain aesthetic contrasts) that can neither be verified in any way and that seem deeply arbitrary. I fail to see what evolutionary and autopoietic theory gains from such an approach.

I think evolutionary and autopoietic theory gain their metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s panentheist cosmology. His work is an attempt to show how the 19-20th century facts of evolution and the 16-17th century theory of mechanistic materialism are incompatible. Contemporary scientific cosmology has discovered (in theory and in fact) that the physical universe itself, like life on earth, is a historical entity. It appears to have been born, and, if current trends continue, it appears that it will die. If philosophy is to articulate the metaphysical principles of reality in the context of an evolutionary cosmology, it cannot refer only to the temporal aspect of the universe, to the diversity of organisms which have emerged in evolutionary history. Philosophy must also consider the ideals of God, the everlasting soul of the universe. The concept of God is not an arbitrary addition to philosophy, unless our philosophy denies all validity to the history of human experience prior to the development of politico-techno-scientific secularity in local pockets of some urban societies, where a neo-liberal capitalist imaginary fosters the emergence of the self-creating individual to whom God becomes a mere hypothesis.

God, from a Whiteheadian perspective, is not an explanation for actual occasions. As Stengers’ writes in Thinking With Whitehead, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). I develop this idea in a response last week to the atheist biologist PZ Myers, who, like Bryant, sees no evidence of God or reason for thinking seriously about religious experience.

Thinking etho-ecology with Stengers and Whitehead

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.

The Logic of Life and the Life of Logic

I’ve just finished Eugene Thacker‘s After Life, wherein he surveys the positions of key pre-modern thinkers, including Aristotle, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. Despite the often illuminating nature of their thoughts, it seems that none of these men were able to articulate a workable account of life-in-itself, at least not one that could be grasped absent some initiatory encounter with the mystical. The first 4 chapters were a difficult but rewarding read, as Thacker leads the reader through the cognitive darkness of paradox and contradiction inherent to any attempt to think the Absolute as Life. In chapter 5 (“The Logic of Life”), things start to get really interesting…

Whether utilizing a theological or philosophical mode of reflection, it seems that all the thinkers Thacker surveys (with the possible exception of Deleuze’s Spinoza) were bound by a correlational logic: they attempted to think an ontology of life relative to the human being. Overcoming this correlation is easier said than done, since “Life,” as such, can only be approached by a living being capable of, or perhaps possessed by, self-conscious thinking. In other words, it would appear that the concept of Life is only meaningful given that there exists a rational creature capable of abstracting it from all the many given instances of individual living creatures, including me myself. Distinguishing the human animal from other forms of life is controversial, both philosophically and politically, but perhaps it is precisely in thinking life-in-itself, or at least in thinking the impossibility of such a thought, that the human distinguishes itself from other beings. It is not that the life of a dog is not, in some sense, meaningful for the dog; but can the dog pre-discursively form anything like the proposition “what is the meaning of life?” Not “what is the meaning of life for me,” mind you, but the meaning of life in general. The contemplation of the aporia of life-in-itself seems to be a specifically human predicament.

“The concept of life,” writes Thacker, “–and whether such a concept is possible–places philosophy in a hovering, wandering space between an ontotheology and an ontobiology” (p. 241).

The challenge, as Thacker lays it out, is to articulate a conception of Life that is neither reductively theological or biological. Philosophy is that restless wanderer charged with the task of navigating between these two extremes.

“The history of Western philosophy,” continues Thacker, “is this ongoing dilemma concerning the very possibility of ‘living thought’” (p. 242).

What is the relationship between life, on the one hand, and thought, on the other? The intentional structure of consciousness is such that thought always has an object; might not life-in-itself be the Object of all objects, that which, being “ambivalently positioned between self and world,” constitutes the very possibility of a “continuum [connecting] the ‘out there’ to the ‘in here’” (p. 247)? Life would then be, paradoxically, both the condition of the possibility of thought and the end toward which thinking strives.

Thacker’s book has reminded me of Evan Thompson‘s thesis, presented in Mind in Life, that the self-organizing dynamics at work in living beings are not just conceptually analogous, but structurally continuous with the self-conscious dynamics of mind. What remains unexplored is what this continuity between life and thought means for the nature of the universe itself. Can the being of the world-in-itself be understood independently of the thought of the world-for-us? Breaking the correlation would entail something like the nihilism of Ray Brassier, where “living thought” is deemed impossible, since truth is discovered only in the thought of thought’s own extinction. Perhaps a depth psychological approach can overcome this dichotomy between vitalism and nihilism, as from the soul’s perspective, life and death exist on a continuum. Of course, this only brings us back to the mysticism of pre-modernity. Not that this is necessarily a problem…

(as always) To be continued…

Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice?

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog (http://okaysteve.wordpress.com/) concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness: