The Pluralism Wars Return: Towards a Diplomatic Ontology of Organism

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

spider-web580

 

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

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream. -The Concept of Nature, p. 31

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Process, Relationality, and Individuality: Graham Harman and Alfred Norht Whitehead (response to Jonathan Cobb)

Relevant links to the argument between me, Levi Bryant, and Graham Harman:

Levi Bryant Mis-reading Whitehead?

Harman’s response to me

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (Response to Graham Harman)

Object as subject-superject, or why Harman is wrong about Whitehead

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

Harman’s Crucified Objects and Whitehead’s God: More on Withdrawal

 

 

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.

Building Shared Environments: Towards a Pluriversal Theory and Practice

The videos below are philosophical dialogues, first with the artist and YouTuber Mike Vahl and second with Professor Corey Anton. Both a relevant preface for the third video on pluralism and process-relational cosmology, which is largely a response to the recent blogosphere pluralism wars:

Life in the Pluriverse: Towards a Realistic Pluralism

Levi Bryant recently called for a cross-blog discussion concerning what he perceives to be the problematic relationship between ethnographic pluralism and ontological realism. His call was instigated by Jeremy Trombley’s post on the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology and ethnography. Trombley articulated what might be described as an ontology of the concept, wherein concepts are not representational frames that mirror (or fail to mirror) the world, but participatory interventions that dis- and/or re-assemble our thoughts and practices. Trombley writes:

“a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently… What the ontological turn does is…[allow] us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.”

Before I get into what such an anti-representationalist ontology of concepts does to our understanding of Truth (hint: Truth is not pre-given but enacted), I should mention a few other bloggers who have already jumped into the conversation. Phillip of the blog Circling Squares (which I need to explore more!) responded to Bryant’s original post by pointing out that thinkers like Latour and Stengers (and Whitehead before them) have been articulating a rather robust form of pluralistic realism for some time now (i.e., cosmopolitics). Terence Blake of Agent Swarm also chimed in, arguing that Bryant’s “realism” seems to be no more than old-school scientism, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is so difficult to square with pluralism.

Bryant believes that the social constructionist turn of the 90s was politically valuable in that it improved the social standing of many oppressed minorities. But he rejects what he perceives to be the extension of such constructionism beyond politics into ontology. Bryant writes:

“In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste.  It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn.  For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?”

I’m not sure if Bryant intends to include cosmopolitical thinkers like Latour and Stengers in his punching bag category “social constructionist.” I don’t understand how he could. If he does insist on labeling them as such (which seems to me to just obscure their true positions–but if he insists…), then, building on Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, I’d retort that “society” for these cosmopolitical thinkers has to be understood in the most general sense as an ontological category, not simply a human “construct.” The human organism is already a society of cells, each of which is itself a society of organelles, each of which is a society of molecules, each of which is a society of atoms, each of which is a society of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and so on… Realities are decomposed and recomposed by associations between and among actual occasions–occasions which are never simple unities but are always multiple and so always “in the making.” Which brings me to the concept of “construction”: if we are working within a process ontology, construction also needs to be ontologized. Biological evolution is a gradual process of construction wherein what begins as psychological desire later becomes physiological reality (to take the example of evolution by sexual selection). The physical world is itself continually constructed by what physicists are now calling “geometrogenesis.” This is not to say that the physical world is a human construct, mind you. The picture that is beginning to become clear as a result of contemporary physical cosmology is that space and time are the co-emergent products of the real activity of pure energy, something both non-human and pre-physical/pre-extended (Whitehead called it Creativity; physicists call it the quantum vacuum). If the physical world (as described by contemporary physics) is a network of relations always “in the making,” and not some collection of pre-given particles obeying eternal laws, then a “true” understanding of it must also always remain open-ended. There is no Science or Universal Reason that might once and for all pronounce upon the nature of the Real. There are many sciences, many methods, many rationalities. Science as it is actually practiced now and in the past has always already been a pluralistic enterprise. As Latour showed in Science in Action, what ends up being called “Nature” is always a consequence of some more or less temporary settlement of controversies. Every new generation of scientists stirs up new controversies about what the aging generation thought was settled.

The cosmopolitical perspective that I’d want to defend certainly does not “undermine the possibility of public deliberation about truth”–it is (once we accept an enactivist account of truth) the condition of its possibility! It is Bryant’s position that rules out such public deliberation by insisting on declaring war on all those human societies that reject materialism. Latour has plenty to say about the vacuity of the notion of “matter,” which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t get into here.  Accepting a cosmopolitical form of ontological pluralism doesn’t at all require that we think of all beliefs and belief-systems as created equal. Nor does it imply that social groups “freely choose” their beliefs simply as a matter of “taste.” The ontological commitments of any given society typically emerge out of long multi-generational processes of historical development. They aren’t just made-up on a whim by individual members. Further, the world view of a social group is as integral to their their livelihood and well-being as their food, shelter, and water, not simply an optional aesthetic veneer. As Trombley suggested, belief-systems enact ways of being and are not just representations.

Ontological pluralism is a commitment to multiple realities, many of which overlap, but some of which remain (at least for now) irreconcilable. It is not a commitment to tolerance of multiple perspectives on a single reality. This latter option, as Bryant points out, would be a rather trivial form of pluralism. It is also a rather colonialist and scientistic take on the Real. Anyone trying to argue that contemporary science has somehow provided us with a unified account of an objective reality that holds true for all people in all places and times has their work cut out for them. Several hundred years of “modern” science has only succeeded in making the world stranger, more dangerous, and more multifarious than it was for ancient and medieval peoples.

Am I saying that a ayahuasca shaman’s encounter with the spirit of the jaguar is just as real as the particle physicist’s encounter with the Higgs boson? Yes, most definitely. In fact, the shaman’s encounter is way more concrete and direct than the physicist’s, since the latter has to wait for a world-wide network of supercomputers to process the information for him, which only after many repeated trials, journal publications, and so on becomes what most (but not every!) physicist will agree is something like a Higgs boson. Even after all this painstakingly detailed mediation (“science in the making”), the Higgs boson remains now and forever a theoretical construct. The ayahuasqueros’ encounter with the jaguar spirit is anything but. Sure, a cognitive neuroscientist might claim to be able to explain the shaman’s experience as a “brain malfunction” brought on by the ingestion of a psychedelic plant brew. But this remains a reductive etic description and not a complete explanation. The neuroscientist should participate in an ayahuasca ceremony for himself before he goes declaring war on the shaman. At least, this is what a pluralist ethics would entail. Such shamanic practices have functioned quite well in their own tribal context for thousands of years. Instead of assuming from the get go that anyone who doesn’t describe the world in your favored language is deluded, try to get to know them, to understand not only what their world is like, but how their world is brought forth. Follow the injunctions through which they enact their world. Then, once you’ve explored it from the inside, by all means judge their enactment, contest it, translate its features into other terms to show why it is unethical, dangerous, or misguided.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay of mine on the ethical implications of enactivism and the need for a pluralistic planetary mythos (Logos of a Living Earth):

One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular cognitive domain made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed, its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.

As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance. As Latour put it, “we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).

Towards a “Thermopolitics” (question for Levi Bryant)

Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.

Bryant writes:

This is not a metaphor.  At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels.  This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants.  All living and social being is solar in its origin.

I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?

Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,

must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).

Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.

Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:

For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.

[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.

I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.

The Varieties of Materialism: Matter as the Play of Form

Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.

_snowflakes__by_candymax

While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.

Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:

…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.

I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.

Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).

I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:

Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter.  If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of idealincorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter.  What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.

Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.

……

 

 

Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.

“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.

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.

Responding to Levi Bryant on the Question of Religion

I’ve copied my response to Levi below:

I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.

What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).

Reflections on nihilism as a belief system

Levi Bryant initiated a string of blog posts on nihilism with his “axioms for a dark ontology.” Attempts at Living followed HERE, and Bill Rose Thorn HERE. Both of them accept Bryant’s ontological purposelessness, but raise the important issue of developing a “post-nihilistic praxis” (see this great post by Michael/Archive Fire from last year on what comes after nihilism, and this more recent post at his new home, SyntheticZero). I do not accept Bryant’s axioms, of course (he and I have argued about this several times over the years). I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him. Certainly, this literal-mindedness infects not only those of a more materialist persuasion, like Bryant, but also those of a religious bent. When religion becomes dogmatic, based upon lists of unassailable axioms and commandments written on stone tablets, the creative life of the human socius is threatened. An education in the power of imagination is the best cure for either form of literalism.

My dismissal of Bryant’s “dark ontology” is not a dismissal of the merits of immanence in philosophy. My recent essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity” (accepted by the 9th International Whitehead Conference later this year–hopefully I can find the funding to get to Poland! for a PDF of the essay, click HERE), is an attempt to articulate a philosophy of religion compatible with modern standards of belief and practice. Religion, like science, is about more than just belief in certain propositions, of course. Both religion and science are complex assemblages which include ritual practices (meditation, prayer, experimentation) and communal experiences (liturgy, peer review). Certainly, the aims of science are different from those of religion (one is largely descriptive, the other largely prescriptive), but from my Jamesian pragmatic perspective, the philosophical test of each is not to ask about the truth or falsity of their propositional claims (can we please be done with the dogmatic representational image of thought already?), but to ask about the effects of their practices on living organisms and their (noetical and physical) habitats.

Nihilism of the sort expressed by Bryant in terms of axioms like “there is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe” is itself already a sort of religious response to human life, a mythopoeic way of coping with the mystery of being, even if it is in this case a scientistic religious response whereby the epistemic limits of the scientific method have been hypostatized into a mechanistic-materialistic ontology. There is no reason to construe the facts of science in the atheistic, anti-teleological way that Bryant does. There are other interpretations of contemporary scientific cosmology, most notably that offered by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (for a PDF of this essay, click HERE).

{Update: check out the discussion surrounding Bryant’s dark ontology over at the Integral Post-Metaphysics blog.}

Vitalism in Philosophy: “The stars are the fountain veins of God.” -Böhme

Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.

No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism'” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).

As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.

If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

Jonah Dempcy offered a critical response to Bryant’s mechanistic cosmology, building on an excerpt from the cultural historian Richard Tarnas‘ book Cosmos and Psyche (41):

“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas

Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):

Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.

And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:

Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.

I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.

I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree. 

Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):

The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.

*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).

The Varieties of Naturalistic Philosophy

If a pushy philosopher were to back me into a corner and force me to choose one or the other, naturalism or supernaturalism, I would choose naturalism. But I’d find myself wanting to ask, as Socrates might, what is meant by “nature”?

Physics becomes metaphysics as soon as the word–”nature”–is pronounced. The logos of language of its own accord compels conscious creatures like us to ask the fateful question: “What is nature?” I’ve heard many definitions, each with its own interesting implications for any attempt to interpret experiential reality. Plato suggested that nature was the life of the All. Aristotle posited that nature was the sum total of phenomenal/physical beings. Descartes thought it was energetic vortexes circling in an extended plenum. Newton thought it was atoms colliding in the void of space (space, meanwhile, he considered to be the omniscient sensorium of God).

We might also reframe the question by asking about the proper relationship between the logos which asks and the nature which responds. From this there may emerge important epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical queries, none of which are anything like the pursuits of the specialized natural sciences. These methods of inquiry pose their own kinds of problems and devise their own kinds of solutions, solutions which, though they are relevant (we hope!), still differ greatly from the kinds of solutions sought out by physicists and chemists.

“The recourse to metaphysics,” says Whitehead, “is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena” (The Concept of Nature, 29).

Once the question of nature has been asked, it seems we come to find ourselves in a strange and imaginal land. Appearances can no longer be taken for granted as real. Knowledge comes to seem unfounded. Plato wrote from such a mythical place of not-knowing in the Timaeus, even daring to offer several names for it including chora, matrixreceptacle, nurse, and nurturer. He depicted this matrix hovering between the being of invisible forms and the becoming of visible matter, able to take on any definite form and thereby grant it birth into the physical realm, while itself always remaining formless. I interpret Plato’s nurturing “third kind” between the eidos and chaos not as a fantasy land, but as the event-place of reality’s eruption into concrete experience. Necessary ideas and contingent matter are both abstractions from the real. The real comes to be always in-between.

To even frame a polemic around the dichotomy “naturalism v. supernaturalism,” no matter whether one’s aim to choose the atheistic or theological option, is already to implicate oneself in a logic of transcendence, since each term is defined only by its exclusion of the other. A more friendly inquiry (born out of intellectual philia rather than intellectual polemos) was that of Spinoza, who thought not in the exclusive terms of either God or Nature, but in the integral terms of both God and Nature.

Approaching the metaphysical problems posed by naturalism philosophically, rather than polemically, allows one to delight in the multiplication of possibilities and in the intensification of wonder, rather than in the rush to simplify and explain.

Levi Bryant recently offered some thoughts, and some fighting words, on behalf of the naturalistic interpretation of reality (Skholiast has responded in a way that contextualized Bryant’s remarks for me quite nicely). Bryant’s real enemy in these posts is the Continental tradition of philosophy, which he suggests was founded in the 19th century as an anthropocentric reaction against the tremendously technologically successful (but psychologically traumatizing) scientific naturalism first developed in the 16th century. Bryant’s naturalism has three major requirements: 1) no supernatural causes, 2) no metaphysical telos, 3) culture must be natural. A implication of these requirements is that materiality and insensate efficient forces are to be the only real factors operating anywhere in the natural world. Bryant also rejects the idea of nature constructed in the imaginations of reductionists, eliminativists, and positivists, preferring his own “machine-oriented ontology.”

As I said at the beginning, if the dilemma were posed as such, I’d also want to pursue naturalist over supernaturalist accounts of reality. I think Bryant has rightly avoided the blunders of the other ideas of nature floating around among materialists. His alternative materialist ontology is of great interest to me, if only because on some level I do enjoy the creativity that can be unleashed by polemic (“War is the father of all things…” Heraclitus). For the past four of five years of my graduate study at CIIS, I have had a handful of guides helping to shape my initial approach to questions concerning the nature of nature. Of this handful, I’ve grown most familiar with the voices of Alfred North Whitehead and Friedrich Joseph Schelling. As far as naturalisms go, I’d toss as many of their books into my metaphysical wagon as my horses are able to carry. Spare me your universal acids and logics of extinction, I’ll take an originally duplicitous nature animated by a mytho-logic of creativity.

Of course,  the journey through the dessert of the real cannot be completed only by imbibing the spilt ink of dead names. Thoughts must boil up from out of the heat of my own blood and words must be uttered from out of the air of my own lungs. I’m working on it… But let us not forget this is also a conspiracy. Though we wage war with symbolic soldiers on paper battlefields, we still think our thoughts, breathe our words, and take our earthly steps together. There need be no polemic between a machine- and an organic-orientation toward reality if we are able to approach their proper relation in a friendly (i.e., a philosophical) way. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to account for both the appearance of mechanism and the reality of organism. He writes:

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 (On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and DevelopmentVI, 70.)

Similarly, from the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, physics and chemistry do not study the non-living components of living ecologies; rather, they are themselves the study of living ecologies at scales other than the biological, tracking the migratory behavior of electrons and protons rather than gnats and zebras. I hearken back to the original meaning of the Greek word physis here, which did not refer to the motion of dead stuff through empty space, but to the growth of living form in teleological time. “Life,” in the context of the organism-oriented ontology I’m trying to construct, is not bios but zoö, where the latter comes to designate existence as such. What exists as such are living organisms.

Bryant denies to naturalism anything but material and efficient causality. I am not aware of any coherent interpretation of quantum physics based solely on material and efficient causation. Nor am I aware of any coherent explanation for biological phylo- or ontogenesis that does not employ at least formal if not also final causes. Unless we are willing to ignore much of “what we are aware of in perception” (Whitehead’s definition of the nature studied by science), it is hard not to grant more than the blind conveyance of forces to nature. To be fair, Bryant does think biological purposes can emerge on accident out of the evolutionary algorithm. Human ideals are emergent realities, new features of the world. I’d argue that telos is no accident, but rather, like life, it is of the very essence of existence. To exist is to be a reason. Nature is not aimless, but nor is its telos designed by a transcendent demiurge. Nature is a creative process of birth and perishing persuaded into enduring patterns of harmony by a participating Eros. Harmony is not a metaphysical necessity, though both Creativity and Eros are. Cosmic harmony is an achievement, the contingent result of the values of a society of organisms characteristic of a particular cosmic epoch. Cosmos need not always emerge from chaos; yet it tends to.

Bryant leaves open the possibility that the world’s great religious teachers might have important metaphysical lessons to teach us. One of my projects has been to try to argue for the relevance of religious imaginaries in combatting precisely the sort of anthropocentrism that Bryant claims naturalism vanquishes (see for example this essay on a Christian spiritual response to the social and ecological crises of our day).

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (response to Graham Harman)

Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.

The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:

Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).

I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.

On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):

1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.

Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…

P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”

 

Levi Bryant Misreading Whitehead?

Re-posting my comment to Bryant’s recent criticism of Whitehead and process-relational thought below:

Levi,
I’m not so sure treating an actual occasion as a “bundle of prehensions” is at all faithful to Whitehead’s scheme. Maybe you arguing that some other aspect of his thought forces him into an inconsistency on this point? If that’s not what you’re suggesting, then I fail to understand how an actual occasion’s process of concrescence–which Whitehead insists is self-created and transcends the whole of the past universe in a moment of private self-enjoyment–could be reduced to a “bundle of prehensions.” Don’t forget Whitehead’s formula of Creativity: “the many become one, and are increased by one.” It seems to me you’re selectively ignoring Whitehead’s emphasis on the distinct and novel oneness produced by each occasion’s concrescence.

I think Bryant is making the same mistake about Whitehead that Harman makes. See my earlier post in response to Harman.

Whitehead’s Endo-Theology

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has laid down a clear and clarifying plumb-line definition for a contentious word that finds itself being thrown around the OOO blogosphere from time to time:  Correlationism. It has a fascinating biography. Harman recently offered his version of its history and conceptual origin.

Bryant’s was a very helpful post for me. His shift in emphasis from internal/endo-relations to external/exo-relations is definitely the sort of provocation contemporary thought needs to stir it from its humanist dreams and awaken it to the painful light of climate change and mass extinction. I wonder, though, if he means to include Whitehead among those internalists who fail to offer an adequate account of how ruptures in reality (sudden separations or novel connections) are possible…

I’d argue the fundamentally atomistic nature of actual occasions, as well as their capacity for negative prehension and conceptual reversion, makes room for the kind of creative/destructive relations among relata that Bryant wants to preserve. Whitehead’s remains an internally related universe, there’s no doubt about that. But its a universe just as clearly perpetually dividing from itself (Creativity=many become one, and increase by one).

In further agreement with Bryant, for Whitehead, no society is finally safe from disintegration. Enduring relations are fragile in the extreme. But when societies do manage to endure, they are not just bundles of qualities projected on the screen of bare sense-perception; rather, they become self-creating subject-superjects, real individual actors in the world in possession of their own unique and definite characteristics.

Where Bryant and Whitehead probably begin to differ rather starkly is on the issue of how to account for the qualitative character distinguishing each complex society of occasions as the individual that it is (in Circus Philosophicus, Harman calls this an object’s “style”). Whitehead has recourse both to the unique telos of each occasion’s subjective aim, and to the ingression of some relevant set of eternal objects. The initial relevancy of eternal objects to any finite occasion’s situation is a result of the harmonizing attunement sung by divinity at the origins of time.

Whitehead’s God is not the creator or designer of the world, however, but the fellow sufferer of its ongoing re-creation by Creativity. The song and the singer who tunes our universe is an accident of Creativity.

Time is a moving image of eternity originating in the tension between the poles of beginning and ending, what Whitehead calls the primordial and consequent natures of God (two adjectives, one noun). If the beginning is God’s act of finite decision amidst infinite creative potential, the ending is the fact of God’s recollection of the diversity of actualities as a whole.

While any given society will surely some day pass away, each and every occasion of experience composing it achieves objective immortality in the eternally resurrecting body of divine memory.