Letters on Cosmology and Theodicy

Below, I’ve copied an email thread with Dan Dettloff, who blogs at Re(-)petitions. I thought some of our other readers might want to chime in. Actually, I’d really like to hear other people’s responses to Dan’s question. I’ve not arrived at a satisfying answer to it, but I do think getting past “the problem of evil” will require a far more radical re-conceptualization of God’s nature than that offered by any ontotheology. On the other hand, there is more to religion than concepts. If, as the religious believe, God actually exists, then God is not simply an idea. God is real. After Kant–for whom God became merely a regulative idea necessary “for us” as rational thinkers but for all that not necessary for being “in itself”–the problem of evil became more acute, since it was re-located from the transcendent to the transcendental, from the universal to the individual: what had been an abstract problem for God to work out before the creation of the universe became a concrete problem for each human person to work out before theorizing about or acting within the world. Theology was no longer ontologically relevant, was not a science of divinity, but nonetheless remained crucially important for phenomenological knowledge and practical affairs, for free and responsible action among others. Without the regulative idea of God, or the Kingdom of Ends, human freedom would spin free of its gravitational center and unwind into blind willing. We would be incapable of good or evil action, incapable of loving. We would be as nothing.

Dean has been busy trying to think Christianity in the context of Speculative Realism and the “New Story” of evolutionary cosmology. Some of my own thoughts on these topoi were collected in this essay “Towards a Christological Realism.”


Matthew,

I’ll be brief, as I’m sure you’re busy, and I to you with what may turn out to be a bit of a heady question. I have followed your blog from time to time, and I admire your ability to bring various strands of thinking together. In fact, your writing prompted me to take a course on eco-theology with Dennis O’Hara in Toronto. I come from continental philosophy and identify as a Christian with the usual string of philosophical qualifiers. Convicted by Speculative Realism and a general growing interest in science, I have been hard at work trying to bring together the theological visions, which have ontological ramifications, of religious traditions (most specifically Christianity). Perhaps a year or so ago, Levi Bryant made a post at larval subjects calling out folks like Caputo for reducing religion to a sort of poetic overlay on the world, suggesting this cuts its legitimate, if (on Bryant’s view) misguided, ontological claims.

I share Bryant’s criticism, but, naturally, not his atheism, and as such have been exploring just what those ontological claims of Christianity might be, especially given the new cosmology. I’ve read The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry and Berry’s The Great Work, along with a myriad of articles (and I have some formal theological training, most specifically with Moltmann). While I’m not novice to theology, I recognize that this is a new arena for me, or at least I’m coming to it with new sets of questions.

Let me cut to the chase. I’m having trouble finding a satisfactory answer to the problems of creative destruction in the universe story, especially as it pertains to the kind of vision of a God of love present in most religious traditions. The argument is likely not foreign to you, but so we’re on the same page it goes something like: if God is so loving, as revealed in figures like, for example, Jesus Christ (though one could obviously choose others, but perhaps staying Christocentric will give us a little bit of a particular ground to work with), and God reveals that humans are called to enact radical love, forgiveness, and peace in the world, why would God create a universe which can only seem to create itself via loads of natural evil? In other words, when God incarnates into the person of Christ, God essentially becomes not just a human but inherits the sacrifice of millions of suffering creatures who, as part of the universe story, have given rise to this particular conscious being we call Jesus. Jesus then explores an ethic of love which runs precisely counter to the pre-human logic of cosmogenesis (or at least biogenesis).

Solutions to this issue usually take the form of some kind of libertarian notion of freedom for creation. God steps back and allows creation to realize itself. But this, too, is at odds with plenty of religious definitions of freedom, and, of course, autonomy is hardly synonymous with freedom. So what gives? Are we forced to affirm some kind of strange, perverse religious ontology which suggests God creates a universe which creates itself, only to tell the universe it was messing up the whole time? Do you know of any ways out of this predicament?Thanks in advance, Matthew. I hope all is well, and thank you, again, for your work. I’ve personally benefited quite a bit from it and look forward to reading more.

Best,
Dean

~~~~~

Hi Dean,

Thanks for your email. You’ve raised a question that has been on my mind lately, actually. I just finished a book by Matthew Stewart called The Courtier and the Heretic: Spinoza, Leibniz, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. It goes into the different theological positions of Spinoza and Leibniz.

For Spinoza (a pantheist), there is no such thing as good and evil from God’s all-inclusive perspective. Further, God has no freedom, since God is identical to the natural world, which was conceived by Spinoza along Newtonian lines as deterministic and law-abiding.

For Spinoza, the problem of evil is really just an illusion resulting from our limited perspective on things. Things are the way they are because they couldn’t have been any other way. God had no choice in the matter.

Leibniz was deeply influenced by Spinoza, but fought against his conclusions. Leibniz wanted to defend a conception of God as both apart from and internal to the universe, as both free and as necessary. In his Theodicy, he asked “why is there something, rather than nothing?” He imagined God deliberating with Himself prior to creating the universe: “Is such an endeavor worth it?,” Leibniz imagines God asking Himself. Leibniz then distinguishes between the divine understanding (God’s mind, if you will) and the divine will (God’s heart). The divine understanding, in creating a universe, must obey the logical principles of identity and non-contradiction. The divine will, given these restrictions, desires to create the best of all possible worlds. So the finite created world we know, according to Leibniz, contains the least amount of evil that it possibly could contain. God did His best, in other words. He decided it was worth creating the world for the good that would result, even if this good was won at the cost of some degree of evil and suffering.

My own response to the problem of evil comes largely out of Whitehead’s process theology. Whitehead (dis)solves the problem in a way that may be unacceptable to some orthodox Christians, in that he denies God’s omnipotence. Leibniz also limited God’s power in some sense (in that he required God to obey logic–Descartes is an example of someone who conceived of God as so powerful that He could even make 2+2=5 if He wanted). But Whitehead’s denial is more radical. God is no longer an all-powerful dictator who created out of nothing a finite and contingent universe. Rather, God is a creature of Creativity, part of cosmogenesis like you and I, not a distant unmoved mover but”a fellow sufferer who understands.” His only power derives from “the worship He inspires.” He is not capable of coercing creation to obey his commands, but works gently by way of erotic, moral, and aesthetic persuasion.

I presented a paper recently that further fleshes out Whitehead’s psychocosmotheology called “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy” that further develops his process theology.

In short, for Whitehead, evil is not God’s fault, but is a side effect of creative process/evolutionary becoming. Evil is “creativity in the wrong season,” as he puts it.I’m also influenced by Schelling’s treatment of these issues… He would probably invert the Whiteheadianism that “evil is not God’s fault.” For Schelling, evil is precisely the fault or fissure in God between hiddenness and revelation, between wrathful withdrawal and radiant love.

Hope that clarifies some things for you somewhat… I welcome further dialogue about all this. Would you mind if I post your question and my response on my blog? I think others would enjoy thinking alongside us.
Warmly,
Matt
~~~~~

Matt,

Thanks so much for your timely and thorough response. You’re welcome to post it on your blog, and feel free to edit whatever you’d like. I’m not much a stickler on those sorts of things.

Your presentation of Whitehead is a useful way of cutting through Spinoza and Leibniz. I wonder, though, if this response moves the problem around rather than solving it (I recognize that “theodicy” may very well be an impossible thing to “solve,” but it remains the nagging problem of the universe story and, I fear, threatens it as a viable interpretive option). While I would happily deny God’s classical omnipotence, the question remains as to how God could not have created a universe which creates itself without all the violence. The Judeo-Christian writings get out of the problem by basically affirming that God creates a universe which is open to further development under a primordial goodness, and evil/suffering end up having a radically anthropocentric cause. This older cosmological mythos doesn’t explain suffering, of course, but it gets God off the hook. With the new cosmology, I, like you, find it necessary to deny a strong Providence, but we end up running into the usual problems of process theism, namely that it seems to encourage us to modify the concept of God so significantly that the God who comes out on the other side seems totally alien to the impulses of most world religions. God ends up sort of being shoe-horned into a certain cosmological model rather than setting the terms of the discourse, and thus process theology runs the risk of re-establishing another God of the philosophers and committing the sin of ontotheology.

Bringing this back to the problem of evil, the process paradigm, while still (I think) a God of the philosophers, is an improvement on the classical paradigm, but it fails to name the origin of evil other than to say it is structurally present in the very processes of the universe. It would be hard, I think, to hold that God creates the universe out of love as a result. We would need to posit the usual Boehme-Hegel-Moltmann-zimzum models, which come loaded with their own structural instabilities just as the classical models do.

But perhaps I’ve missed something somewhere along the way. I’ve sort of assumed a lot of things about these models in a slow disclosure of how I feel about them, and I certainly don’t want to pin anything on you that you don’t wish to be saying. My apologies for any presumptions or errors.

Thanks again for your time, Matt.

Peace,Dean

~~~~~

Dean,

I suppose it comes down to whether or not we are persons of faith, for whom God’s nature and existence are attested by way of spiritual revelation. If we cannot simply affirm this or that sort of God by way of an inner faith or an acceptance of outer religious authority, then we are forced to consider the physico-cosmological revelation instead by asking: What can God be like, given what we know of the physical universe? This question seems absurd, even abhorrent, for evangelical Christians, since what we’ve learned about biological evolution (which marches forward mostly by way of the satanic Great Selectors: sex and death) suggests we’d do better not ask the question at all, since if such a universe of continual carnage does have a Creator, its not the sort of God that would be worth loving. Better to be an atheist than to admit the existence of a deity who thought billions of years of rape and slaughter were worth the effort of creation…

I think process theism, whether we’re talking about Whitehead’s version, or Schelling’s Böhmean version, forces us to consider the darkness, the wrath, and the unconsciousness of God, as much as we may prefer only to look at His conscious light and love. If the life of God is an eternal process of incarnation, then the classical sort of religion that would have provided its adherents with hope for some sort of escape hatch to a better world beyond this one must be regarded as nothing more than the illusion of a death fearing primate struggling desperately to cope. God is here with us, part of us, living and dying with us. God isn’t trying to escape this world, but to become more and more mixed up with it. Creation wasn’t something God undertook by choice, as far as I can tell.

“God,” said Whitehead to Lucien Price, “is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.”

I came across this article in The Atlantic penned by Whitehead in 1925 called “Science and Religion.” Much of it seems to be excerpted from his lecture published as Religion in the Making. Thought it might be relevant to quote at length:

“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something which gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. The immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship. Religion has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination. Gradually, slowly, steadily, the vision recurs in history under nobler form and with clearer expression. It is the one element in human experience which persistently shows an upward trend. It fades and then recurs. But when it renews its force it recurs with an added richness and purity of content. The fact of the religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.

 

The vision claims nothing but worship; and worship is a surrender to the claim for assimilation, urged with the motive force of mutual love. The vision never overrules. It is always there, and it has the power of love presenting the one purpose whose fulfillment is eternal harmony. Such order as we find in nature is never force — it presents itself as the one harmonious adjustment of complex detail. Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision. Evil is overruling, retarding, hurting. The power of God is the worship He inspires. That religion is strong which in its ritual and its modes of thought evokes an apprehension of the commanding vision. The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.”

Best,
Matt

~~~~~

Brian Swimme on “The New Story” in cosmology:

Update: By chance, I noticed this opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times: “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Her discussion of Rudolf Otto‘s psychology of religion is certainly relevant.

10th International Whitehead Conference – “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization”

After speaking at the 9th International Whitehead Conference last fall in Krakow, Poland, I was invited to help organize a track for the 2015 IWC in Claremont, CA next summer (June 4-7). The 2015 conference is called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization” and is largely the brain child of process theologian and environmental philosopher John Cobb, Jr. Plenary speakers include Cobb, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Brian Swimme, Catherine Keller, Herman Daly, and David Ray Griffin. The conference will be divided into 12 topical sections, with each section including 4 or 5 tracks. My track is in section 3, “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose,” and is called “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” For a brief description of the proposed focus of this section and its sub-tracks written by Cobb, click HERE.

In his proposal for my track, Cobb writes:

Rene Descartes, who developed the Enlightenment vision most profoundly and influentially, is known especially for his radical dualism of the human soul, on one side, and mere matter in motion on the other.  Although this carried the alienation from nature to its extreme, it gave dignity to human beings.  It supported the ideas of human rights and even of a fundamental equality of all.  However, in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin showed that human beings are a product of evolution, so that they are fully part of nature.  This opened the door to re-thinking nature as having some of the properties Descartes attributed to the human soul.  But the commitment of the sciences to methods associated with nature’s purely objective existence was very strong.  Instead of changing the approach to the rest of the natural world, scientists chose to study humans in the way they had previously studied the objects of human experience.  Enlightenment dualism was replaced in late modernity by reductionist monism.  The Enlightenment led people to understand themselves as responsible citizens.  The new reductionistic monism represents us as laborers in the service of the economic system.

To re-phrase, my track will focus on the way that the classical Enlightenment dualism between morally responsible human souls and a morally neutral mechanical nature has, in the late modern period, been replaced by a pseudo-materialistic monism. Descartes was the first to articulate this dualism in its modern form. His attempt at a clean break from traditional dogmas by re-grounding human rationality on our own self-evident powers of reflective self-consciousness was an essential factor in the Western world’s later revolutionary struggles for individual political freedom. Without Descartes and those who followed in his wake (especially Locke and Kant) there would be no Modern philosophy, obviously, but nor would there have been a French or American Revolution. The dualistic ontology of spiritual human vs. mechanical matter, though unsuited for (and in some sense the cause of) our present ecological nightmare, was for an earlier epoch a catalyst for democratic liberation from the oppressive theocratic monarchies of the medieval world. Nowadays, since the dominant ontology has devolved into a confused monist materialism (which Latour deconstructs and re-assembles in AIME), the democratic political ideals of the Enlightenment are increasingly being called into question by neoliberal economists and reductive neurobiologists, among others. If there is no such thing as a soul, there is no such thing as freedom, no such thing as moral responsibility to other human souls, and so no real justification for democratic self-governance. If we are really just selfish desire-machines blindly designed by the Darwinian struggle for consumption and reproduction called Natural Selection (nature’s “invisible hand”), then, following the neoliberal capitalist approach, the best form of governance is that orchestrated by well-trained technocrats and social engineers, those who know how best to keep the civilizational machine running smoothly.

The discoveries of deep time and biological evolution that emerged during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries dealt the death blow to substance dualism, forcing humanity to make a fateful ontological decision: either, as Cobb puts it, (1) re-imagine nature as in some way ensouled, or (2) re-think the human soul as somehow mechanical. In the 20th century, Western techno-science committed itself to the second project: human society and the earth itself were to be re-made in the image of the machine (if ancient cosmologies suffered from anthropomorphism, modern cosmologies suffer from mechanomorphism). Our early 21st century world, with its exploding economic inequality and ecological unraveling, is the near ruin lying in the wake of that decision.

alfred-north-whitehead-1

Whitehead stands out among 20th century philosophers, not for his revolt against techno-scientific reductionism (certainly, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were just as dedicated to resisting it), but for his decision to have a go at project #1. As I describe in my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (2013), Whitehead’s response, not only to 19th century evolutionary theory, but to 20th century quantum and relativity theories, was to re-imagine, in process-relational terms, the relationship between the interior psychical and exterior physical worlds. That conscious human experience is continuous with the rest of an evolved nature is clear enough; but Whitehead argues that we cannot think coherently of this continuum in an eliminatively materialist way, as though consciousness could be explained by reduction to something entirely dumb and numb, unintelligent and unfeeling. If we are to remain civilized, we must take knowledge and love seriously as having a real effects on the course of human history. To take human knowledge and love seriously requires that we root these powers ontologically, that we ground them in the energies of cosmogenesis itself. Otherwise they are mere passing fantasies, cultural figments to be reduced to the neurotic mechanics of our brains and controlled by techno-scientific specialists.

The results of the modern world deciding in favor of project #2 are detailed by Whitehead toward the end of Science and the Modern World (1925):

[All] thought concerned with social organization expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt (181).

 

Participants in my track will have an opportunity to draw on Whitehead, as well as other congenial thinkers, in an effort to both critique late modernity’s reductive monism and to re-construct a more viable ontology for a future ecological civilization. I’ll continue to post updates about the shape of the track as the conference date approaches.

Online course this Fall: “Mind and Nature in German Idealism”

Below is the introductory lecture of a 10-week undergraduate course called “Mind and Nature in German Idealism” that I’m hoping will run this coming Fall (2014) for the University of Philosophical Research. If you’re an undergrad looking for an independent study, let me know.

Alexander Bard on Network Metaphysics

I really dig Alexander Bard’s “network-dynamic persepective.” Geometrogenesis is also extremely relevant to my research on Whitehead’s and Rudolf Steiner’s ether theories (the former articulated an alternative to Einstein’s theory of relativity based on an “ether of events”; the later spoke of an etheric dimension of nature mediating between the material and spiritual dimensions). The idea is that space-time is not ultimate, but an emergent product of quantum events (what Whitehead called “actual occasions”). Thanks to Prof. Corey Anton for pointing me to Bard’s lecture.

After a little searching, I’ve turned up this blog post by Bard wherein he makes reference to Whitehead as one of the few philosophers who can survive Nietzsche’s deconstructive hammer. But he seems to distance himself from Whitehead’s process metaphysics because he feels it lacks a proper phenomenological account of the real. Conrta Bard, Whitehead does in fact situate his cosmology in the context of America’s own breed of phenomenology coming out of William James’ radical empiricism.

Bard also discusses Burning Man, syntheism, Silk RoadSimon Critchley’s “faithless faith,” and the “chemical liberation” set off in the 60s by the California counterculture’s use of psychedelics. He finishes with the provocative question: “What if the internet is God?” (the title of his recent Ted Talk).

“Nature is a priori” -Schelling

Thanks to milliern for his commentary on and reflections about an exchange Professor Corey Anton, myself, and others have been having on YouTube. I’m reposting my comment to him below:

I wanted to offer a few clarifications of my own position. I don’t normally think of myself as a “Heideggerian,” though I suppose most people who take the time to really read Heidegger are irrevocably transformed in some way. I’m one of those who has spent considerable time with his texts and ideas. While he has changed the way I think, I’ve nonetheless come to differ with him (as I understand him) in important ways. I’m not at all convinced that ‘human’ being, or Dasein, is the only significant mode of being. Nature, too, is significant. In fact, like Schelling, I would say the significance of human being could only be derived from that of Nature’s original being. Nature is a priori, not mind. Nature generated mind; mind is but a higher potency of Nature’s subjectivity. So I’m more Schellingian than Hedeggerian. If Heidegger spoke of a “groundless ground,” it’s because he was a close reader of Schelling, who more than a century earlier had recorded his encounter with das unvordenkliche (“the unprethinkable”). I don’t think this “groundless ground” should be identified with the Kantian transcendental ego or ding an sich. The groundless ground, the abyss or abgrund (a term Schelling borrowed from the esotericist Böhme), is the mother of both phenomena and noumena. Das Unvordenkliche is not born of the phenomenal-instrumental nature known to physicists and biologist. Nor is it born of the Ego, as in the Fichtean interpretation of Kant. Rather, like Spinoza before him, and Whitehead after him, Schelling distinguished between Natura naturans and Natura naturata. The former is Nature ‘naturing,’ the latter Nature ‘natured.’ The former is process, the latter is product. The former is alive, the latter is dead. Schelling’s Nature is not the external/extended material world of law-abiding physical particles that is supposed to exist by mathematical physicists. His Nature is not a ground, but a creative abyss. To know such a world, you must not march off to explain and control it as though it were entirely made up of plainly visible bodies,–as modern techno-scientific materialism has–, you must humbly seek to understand and communicate with its mostly invisible sensitivities (i.e., with its soul).

Unlike Kant’s mechanized Newtonian universe, Schelling perceived the earth and her creatures, the sun, planets, and other stars–yes as mathematically ordered–, but also as animate gods, as living beings creative of beautiful worlds. Where scientific materialism sees only dead nature (that is, nature natured), organic realism (what I refer to Schelling and Whitehead’s  philosophies of nature as) perceives nature naturing. What is unprethinkable about ourselves and about the world is this ongoing creative process–call it “cosmogenesis,” call it “Creativity,” call it “the One and All,” or God, if you want. Whatever “It” is, it’s before subject and object. It is before mind and matter. Schelling is usually lumped in with the idealists, but it was Heidegger himself (in his lectures on Schelling’s 1809 book on human freedom) who first suggested that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie in fact subverted the entire German Idealist project from the inside out. I’d argue he has more in common with the radical empiricist James than with any idealist, and especially with James’ philosophical inheritor at Harvard, the mathematical adept turned cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead.

Speaking of which, I noticed you are interested in Einstein, ether, space-time, etc…. I wonder if you’ve run across Whitehead’s alternative ether theory (the “ether of events” or “extensive continuum”)? I’ve written about it HERE. I’d be curious to know your take on his organic cosmological scheme.

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

I’ve just submitted my dissertation proposal for review. Click on the title below for the PDF.

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophiy From Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

I welcome suggestions, critiques, sources, and/or extensions.

Basically, I’m doing a comparative study of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling, the esotericist Rudolf Steiner, and the mathematician and cosmologist Alfred North Whitehead. In particular, I want to interpret their respective “etheric” ontologies (Schelling’s “world-soul/universal organizing principle,” Steiner’s “etheric formative forces,” and Whitehead’s “evental ether/Creativity”) as typical of the process-relational imagination.
solis6The plate above, a painting of the Philosopher’s Tree, is from Splendor Solis, an alchemical treatise published by Solomon Trismosin in 1582.

Audio from International Whitehead Conference in Krakow

Here is the audio of my presentation at the IWC last week in the philosophy of religion section:

Here is a PDF of the paper I read, titled “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy”

Also, thanks to Leon over at afterxnature.blogspot.com for posting my presentation, as well.

Consciousness Between Science and Philosophy (response to Steve Ramirez)

Almost three years ago, Steve Ramirez (neuroscience grad student at MIT) and I exchanged a few videos and blog posts about the scientific study of consciousness (see HERE for a run down). Ramirez began and ended our brief electronic debate convinced that I, like most other philosophers he’s encountered, have developed a profound misunderstanding of how science works. In his original post back in 2010, he argued that the tools of neuroscience have become precise enough to explain consciousness without remainder by causally reducing it to intracranial neural states. Two years later, Ramirez published a fine bit of neuroscience in the journal Nature, seemingly making good on his promise. He and his colleagues’ memory re-activation experiment on lab mice has been making its way around the Internet recently and also led to this TEDx talk. It is truly an ingenious experiment that raises all kinds of interesting scientific and ethical questions regarding how such “optogenetic reactivation” technology might be used in the future on human brains (see for example this Scientific American article about the arrival of “memory engineering”).

In their paper, Ramirez et al. don’t comment on the far more difficult because more general project of explaining consciousness itself, but rather focus in on memory, one particular faculty said to be related to consciousness. They claim in their paper to have proven that activation of “specific ensembles of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory.”

Given that we know specific memories are often stored holographically (as Karl Lashley famously showed), I can’t find a reason to assume that activation of a specific neural ensemble is even necessary for the recall of a related memory, much less that such activation is sufficient for recall. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a memory is simply located in this or that group of neurons when so much research has already corroborated the global distribution of memories throughout the nervous system. That the controlled activation of these neural ensembles in surgically altered lab mice with giant lasers attached to their hippocampuses should seem to cause a reactivation of previously learned behaviors in no way proves or even suggests that the mouse’s experience of said memory is somehow caused by or localized within those particular cells.

Part of it depends what we mean by “recall.” If we define recall behavioristically, as was the case in this study, then sure, I will grant Ramirez et al.’s claim. When they flip the light switch, the mouse freezes (ostensibly because its fear response is being reactivated).

If, however, we approach memory from a phenomenological as well as a neurological point of view (i.e., neurophenomenology), we will not be able to settle for a behaviorist definition of memory recall. A neurophenomenologist would be left wondering what the mouse was experiencing when the light switch was flicked on. Was its recalled memory identical to the original experience? Was it the same in some ways, but different in others? How can we say? Claiming that reactivation of a localized group of neurons is sufficient to recreate the memory said to be somehow caused by or “inscribed” on those neurons begins to seem way more speculative from the neurophenomenological perspective. We simply don’t know what the mouse’s remembered experience is like, and unfortunately we can’t ask it. Whether or not we can or should perform similar experiments on speaking animals capable of describing their experience remains to be seen. I suspect it won’t be too much longer before technology is available that is just as precise but way less invasive than that used in Ramirez’s experiment. Indeed, developing this sort of technology is one of the main goals of Obama’s government funded Brain Initiative.

But I didn’t begin this post to pick at Ramirez et al.’s experiment. It is good science, as they say. I think they’ve developed an amazing research technique that will prove to have many applications in the future (medical, commercial, political, military, etc., applications). (I can only hope these future technological applications enhance rather than undermine the spiritual freedom, aesthetic intensity, and moral depth of human existence. Based on prior technological augmentations of human cognition, I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. I am open to being surprised. Life always finds a way.)

I am writing this post not to critique his science, but to redirect his wayward philosophical interpretations of that science. In a recent post on his blog titled “Conquering All Mysteries,” Ramirez writes:

The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s… [Nowadays] consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do – have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.

My almost instinctual response to any scientist’s aggressive attempt to explain away consciousness by causally reducing it to neurophysiological mechanisms in the skull is to fall back upon transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy is said to have begun with Kant’s critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment), all published in the last decades of the 18th century. Kant’s philosophical discovery (or invention?) of the transcendental method has made him the modern equivalent of Aristotle (who for 1500 years Islamic and Western scholars simply referred to as “the Philosopher”). But unlike with Aristotle, whose metaphysical decrees were swallowed almost without chewing by medieval European thinkers, Kant’s work repeatedly mutated as it was chewed over, swallowed, digested, and improved upon by the best scientific minds of his era. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (and Husserl in the 20th ce.) vastly expanded the reach of transcendental philosophy. Where Kant believed he had been forced “to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith,” his three main German predecessors, each in their own way, broke open all dogmatic limits to scientific knowledge–not only to knowledge of nature, but also to knowledge of God (because as Spinoza taught us, God is Nature).

Kant didn’t exactly claim that the natural world and human consciousness were “immune to scientific investigation.” Rather, he tried to uncover the a priori conceptual and perceptual conditions under which any science of nature–whether cosmic or human nature–must necessary proceed in order to remain scientific. Kant was in a sense trying to place limits on positive science (whether it purported to produce knowledge of the cosmos, the soul, or the divine), but he was also trying to provide a firm foundation for the possibility of scientific investigation of the natural world (the world that appears to our senses and conforms to our logic). I don’t count myself as a transcendental philosopher when in conversation with other philosophers (see HERE for example), but when confronted by anti-philosophical scientific materialists, I can’t help but invoke the transcendental position. If subjective consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the experience and cognition of external objects (as transcendentalists argue), then an explanation in terms of those objects, no matter how sophisticated or complexly arrayed they may be, will always fail to explain said consciousness. What so many scientific materialists seem to neglect is that a reduction of human consciousness to the deterministic playing out of neurophysiological mechanisms is also a reduction of the scientific enterprise to a talking primate’s delusion of grandeur. If consciousness (and with it, rigorous logic and honest empiricism) is just an empty word, just a culturally acquired illusion with no causal or physical role to play, then we have no reason to take science–one of human consciousness’ greatest achievements (right up there with art, religion, and morality)–seriously. Neuroscientific reductionism (usually unknowingly) undermines its own philosophical conditions of possibility. As Hegel argued, it treats spirit as though it were a bone.

Ramirez’s approach to the brain remains at the level of what Owen Barfield called “dashboard knowledge.” Such knowledge gives us the ability to manipulate and control the brain from the outside, but tells us very little about how the brain is related to the consciousness we experience directly “in here.” For the latter, we need something like phenomenology or contemplative practice (or both, as Evan Thompson argues). Any hope we have of explaining experience (whatever that might mean…) is going to have to emerge as much from a transformation within experience (i.e., through a new first person expression of subjectivity) as from outside it by way of a new third person description of or technological intervention upon the behavior of the objective brain and body.

Ramirez claims that his hypothesis regarding the neural causes of consciousness is falsifiable. I fail to see how this is the case. He isn’t researching the brain to see if it causes consciousness. That the brain causes consciousness is a presupposition of his neuroscientific research method. If we grant that there is some kind of correlation between conscious experience and neural processes (which I am perfectly willing to do), he can’t help but confirm his hypothesis with every experiment. Ramirez’s hypothesis is blind to the difference between mind-brain correlation and brain-mind causation (as I argued in my response to him three years ago). It is no surprise that neuroscientists operating from within such a reductionistic paradigm can only confirm their own initial hypothesis. Brain-mind reductionism is more a metaphysical position than a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Its faults and merits would be better considered in the court of philosophy. The situation today is no different than it was for Kant more than 200 years ago. There were reductionistic neurophysiologists then, too. His transcendental arguments still apply, for those who care to understand them.

Ramirez responds to the claim of a philosopher in this MIT neuroscience magazine (see p. 23) that scientific study of the brain has only shown and could only ever show mind-brain correlation rather than brain-mind causation. According to Ramirez, we philosophers “deeply misunderstand what correlation and causation really mean.” But his rebuttal entirely misses the point both the author of the magazine piece and myself are trying to make, which is not at all concerned with whether physical manipulations of the brain (using laser beams or pharmaceuticals, etc.) can alter consciousness. Obviously they can. The point is that, no matter how proficient we are at altering consciousness by manipulating the brain (i.e., “dashboard knowledge”), this tells us nothing about the causal relationship between physical brain states and subjective experience, nor does it tell us anything about the ontology of the latter. We know they must be somehow related, yes. But how? If Ramirez or any other neuroscientific reductionist has a theory for how the grey matter in the skull could generate mental experience, I’m all ears. Thus far, I’ve yet to hear of such a theory. What I hear are aggressively asserted unfalsifiable metaphysical claims masquerading as science, claims that can only be properly adjudicated philosophically.

In philosophy, there are no final solutions. No philosopher’s judgment ever goes unchallenged by another’s. Every genuine philosophical problem is therefore an infinite task. I approach the hard problem of consciousness as precisely such an infinite task. If there is an explanation for experience, it better include an injunction for erasing experience, a sort of Zen koan or psychedelic trip that opens me to the emptiness that is supposed to reside inside my “no-mind.”

Here is my original video response to Steve Ramirez three years ago:

Here are some of my reflections from several years ago on materialism:

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.

Imagining Nature with Schelling and Whitehead

Schelling and Whitehead were speculative philosophers. This appellative, like that of metaphysician or theologian, may carry with it certain baggage that those of a skeptical or positivist bent are wont to do without. But aside from those epochal moments when thinkers are suddenly inspired by speculative imagination, or by the break through of concept creation, or the influx of divine logos, I can’t see any further sources of genuine philosophical insight. We may as well admit we don’t believe in these possibilities anymore and let philosophy die. It’d be more honest to just call our actual endeavor that of “linguistic analysis” or “skeptical reflection upon factual evidence” or “techno-scientific transformation of nature” or whatever.

Whitehead, for one, was not ready to lay wisdom in her grave. In The Aims of Education, he wrote:

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.”

Schelling and Whitehead both attempted to philosophize in the context of revolutionary advances in science. For Schelling, it was electricity, magnetism, and chemistry. For Whitehead, it was evolutionary, quantum, and relativity theories. They strove not to contradict these scientific advances in order to protect the sanctity of the human soul, as we might interpret Kant’s project (“I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith”), but rather to understand the human psyche as an outgrowth of the dynamic natural world science was coming to know.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote:

“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body.”

In Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), Schelling wrote:

“So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”

This continuity between mind and life, nous and physis, is the speculative philosopher’s wager. A speculative philosopher approaches philosophy both as a creative task and as a journey of discovery. Speculative philosophy relies as much on synthetic power of imagination as it does the analytic power of understanding, as much on feeling and desire as logic or theory. To speculate is to construct conceptual networks that tell meaningful stories concerning the course of natural history. For this reason, speculative philosophy will always have a mythical flavor. But I’d argue the root images and creative concepts seeded, sprouted, and grafted together by Schelling and Whitehead connect myth directly to the elemental powers of a dynamic and evolving nature. Their goal is not to explain nature as the design of deities (or Deity), but to reveal the way in which what get called deities in cultural stories are in fact just the creative dynamics of nature itself (e.g., gravity and light, earth and sun, etc.) operating at a higher power or potency. The physical tension between light and gravity in nature becomes the spiritual tension between love and evil in the realm of human culture (physical polarity^2=spiritual polarity).

In Philosophical Inquiries into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809), Schelling writes:

“As a thunderstorm is caused in a mediated way by the sun but immediately by an opposing force of the earth, so is the spirit of evil aroused by the approach of the good not through a sharing but rather by a spreading out of forces. Hence, only in connection with the decisive emergence of the good, does evil also emerge quite decisively and as itself, just as, in turn, the very moment when the earth becomes for the second time desolate and empty becomes the moment of birth for the higher light of the spirit that was in the world from the very beginning, but not comprehended by the darkness acting for itself, and in a yet closed and limited revelation.”

Later in the same text, Schelling writes:

“Nature is the first or old Testament, since things are still…subject to the law. The human is the beginning of the new covenant through which as mediator, since he is himself tied to God, God also accepts nature and makes it into himself. The human is hence the redeemer of nature toward which all formation in nature aims. The world that is fulfilled in human beings is in nature as a dark, prophetic (not fully pronounced) word.”

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?).

 

Life After Darwin (another response to Benjamin Cain)

I linked to Cain’s essay on Darwin in my last post on his theory of the psychedelic origins of religion. I wanted to comment on what he tries to do in the Darwin essay. His claim is that, post-Darwin, the old distinction between life and matter no longer holds; therefore, we are all more like undead zombies than living creatures. He even goes so far as to argue that Nature in its entirety must be some kind of Super Zombie.

What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural spirit. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features–its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains–as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next so that their distant ancestors migrate and occupy other niches, becoming more complex and specialized in the process.

I wonder what Cain makes of Kant’s argument in the Critique of Judgment (sec. 75) about the impossibility of explaining living organization according to mechanical causes alone. He (famously or infamously, depending on your philosophical persuasion) claimed that natural science could never understand how even a mere blade of grass grew–that there could never be “a Newton of the grass blade.” Darwin, of course, has been championed by many biologists as precisely such a “Newton of the grass blade.” Many of a more scientistic persuasion have argued that, after Darwin, natural science definitively surpassed philosophy as the superior (if not the only genuine) mode of knowledge production.

Were Kant still alive, I imagine he would dismiss the triumphant claim of scientistic biologists to have explained life mechanistically as but a transcendental illusion. This despite all that has been learned since Darwin about biochemistry and genetics. Organisms display a form of circular causality that is not applicable to machines: in the case of organisms, the cause and the effect are both internal to the organism in question, whereas a machine’s cause is external to its effects. I’ve argued on many occasions that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has more in common with William Paley’s argument from design than most modern biologists are willing to let on. Both Paley and Darwin understood organisms to be machines assembled by an outside “agent”; Paley believed the agent was God, while Darwin showed how Nature could do the same job (at least when analogized to human selection). But Darwin never claimed his theory could explain how organisms themselves were possible. The last paragraph of The Origin of Species defers to a Creator to account for how life may have been originally breathed into the first organism/s. His theory offers an account of organic speciation, not origination. Which is to say that he had to assume the existence of biological individuals for Nature to do the selective work he showed it could.

Post-Kantian thinkers like Goethe and Schelling took Kant’s transcendental claims about organisms to the next level by attempting to articulate how self-organization could be intrinsic to the universe (Kant had only shown that the human mind could not know how organisms were possible in the absence of self-organization, not that such organization was necessarily intrinsic to Nature). Alfred North Whitehead also developed an organic conception of the universe. Cain’s argument in favor of a zombie universe is one possible direction to take after Darwin’s erasure of the life/matter dichotomy. The other direction would be to accept something like Whitehead’s panexperientialism, whereby material bodies at every level of organization (from the atomic to the astral and galactic) are in some sense “alive.” I argued as much in my essay on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

See below for more in depth arguments about this topic…