CIIS tomorrow (May 1): Ursula King speaking on Cosmotheanthropic Philosophy in Teilhard de Chardin and Raimon Panikkar

[update: video now available]

The Teilhard scholar Ursula King will speak tomorrow, May 1st, at 4pm at the California Institute of Integral Studies (1453 Mission St) about the evolutionary spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin and Raimon Panikkar. It’s free and open to the public. Join us!

kingPierre-Teilhard-de-ChardinRaimundo Panikkar world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

See the flyer linked below for more information.

Ursula King Flyer

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.

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Weep- The Many Faces of Progress

Great piece by Trevor Malkinson on the state of the planet:

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Weep- The Many Faces of Progress.

Malkinson quotes the process theologian John Cobb Jr. from this recent interview:

If I tried to be very philosophical, and look at things very broadly, I think that the divine experiment on this planet is not going to continue much longer. But I think whatever we have done, whatever we have accomplished, has enriched the life of God and it has not been a waste, so the experiment has not been a total failure. And I hope somewhere else in the universe, maybe many other places in the universe, there are other experiments and some of them will be more successful then this one. 

Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature?

I’ve just read Grant Maxwell’s critique of a HuffPo piece by Matthew Hutson.

I enjoyed his rebuttal of Hutson’s blanket rejection realism regarding teleology. I am also enjoying the discussion Grant is having with Hutson down in the comments. I do not think Hutson has read the work of organic/creative finalists like Bergson or Whitehead. His concept of teleology is very mechanical and industrial, very Anglo-American; it totally lacks the Franco-German flavor of Whitehead and Bergson’s organicism, which has its modern origins in the Naturphilosophie of Goethe, Novalis, and Schelling (and its ancient origins in alchemy and hermeticism). If you’ve read those guys, or their more recent incarnation Teilhard’s “The Human Phenomenon,” its impossible to think of creationism as somehow necessarily opposed to evolutionism. It begins to seem, rather, that they imply and require one another.

I heard a lecture by professor of German literature Fred Amrine tonight on Goethe’s Color Theory. Prof. Amrine quoted Goethe (usually known for his poetry and artistic genuis and not as a pioneering natural scientist) as having asserted towards the end of his life something like “It is for my theory of colors, and its refutation of Newton, that posterity will remember me.” Goethe described his color theory as a “sensory-moral” account of natural phenomena such that the “physical laws” those phenomena “obey” are seen to emerge from out of one’s conscious perceptions themselves, rather than being imposed upon them from outside as in Newton’s mechanistic theories. Goethe’s scientific method “makes phenomena transparent to their own lawfulness,” as Prof. Amrine put it. Instead of the deistic-mechanistic metaphysics and calculative-quantitative methods that came with the Galilean-Newtonian scientific revolution, Goethe developed his own processual and organic approach to nature (an approach whose philosophical implications were first developed by Schelling and later made more explicit by Rudolf Steiner). His organicism was rooted in the qualitative structure-dynamics of experience itself, rather than the calculable motion of “external matter.” “External matter,” I’d argue, is among the most abstract concepts imaginable by the human mind. Goethe instead remained faithful to appearances and to common sense, as Aristotle long ago prescribed. The Faustian magician-priests of the modern techno-scientific revolution, of course, had other plans. External mechanistic matter was as real as it gets, and modern science’s job was to gain control over it. Modern science is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly powerful belief system. We should dream it and use it more wisely than we do.

How could Goethe have been so mistaken about his future influence? He is not remembered as a great scientist, as the creator of an alternative but no less “modern” scientific worldview and methodology. Newton’s Optics is still esteemed as the paragon of scientific treatises by most historians and philosophers of science, while most people have either never heard of Goethe’s color theory, or have summarily dismissed it as some kind of an alchemical throwback.

But maybe this is the wrong question… Is Goethe really mistaken? It could be that he is still ahead of his time scientifically. Could it be that, in another generation, not only Darwin but Goethe too will be celebrated as a discoverer of “evolution”? Actually, Darwin only used the word “evolution” once in the 6th edition of Origin of Species. For good reason (at least from the perspective of the mechanistic metaphysics he inherited from the scientific revolution): the concept of evolution is inherently teleological in that it implies the unfolding of something enfolded, the rolling out of a plan, etc…. ya know, “teleology.” Goethe’s natural science, like Schelling’s and Whitehead’s and Bergson’s and Teilhard’s, does not attempt to explain away meaning, purpose, and value in the universe, but rather aims to simultaneously elucidate and deepen our understanding and experience of human teleology by rooting it in the teleogenic capacity of the cosmos itself. The question is no longer “What must human meaning/purpose/value be if nature is really mechanical/dull/void?”– The question rather becomes “What must nature be such that human teloi are possible?”

Of course, I just disqualified myself in the eyes of the scientifically-minded for admitting to belief in teleology. “Evolution teleological? Clearly you don’t understand science and evolution! Or worse, you’re not even being scientific at all, you’re being religious!”

Only a scientifically illiterate religious nut could believe, for example, that “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.” Hutson uses this example (it originated in a 2009 study by psychologists from Boston University) in one of his comments to Grant in an effort to display the absurdity of teleology. He suggests Grant’s [and my own, in this post] assumption about such nut cases and their beliefs “is not that they have made a common mistake but that in some sense the sun would not have come to be if plants had not evolved three billion years later.” Teleology does seem absurd when framed in such a way. But it need not be framed in such a way. Hutson himself relies upon a teleological argument of a different sort when he mobilizes the idea of transcendentally imposed universal and necessary “physical laws” that contingent and particular natural bodies are required to obey. This is pure deism, regardless of Hutson’s preference for the Spinozist flip that has nominally replaced Deus with Natura sometime between Newton’s and our own day. The telos in modern science’s view of nature is the cosmic machine’s pre-planed “design.” For Newton, this telos was designed by an all-powerful “designer” or “divine engineer.” Hutson, I assume, prefers to speak of random quantum fluctuations giving rise to the laws governing our universe, which is just one of infinitely many more randomly arising universes, most of which have no order at all and certainly do not have intelligent life. This is a strange sort of teleology, whether in its early modern deistic or late modern atheistic phase: it makes the human seem a stranger in nature by transforming our common sense experience of ourselves, the earth, and the cosmos as alive into an epiphenomenal illusion projected upon what is really just mechanical matter in motion. How strange, that rather than looking deeper into nature to understand how our human teleological creativity is possible, modern science has denied such creativity to nature, thereby detaching human egoic consciousness both from its own creativity, as well as from the unconscious (but still experiential!) creativity of nature.

There are yet other ways of framing teleology, like that of the organic evolutionary thinkers I mentioned above. Whitehead and Bergson in particular offer devastating critiques (both philosophical and scientific critiques) of the “spatialized” conception of time guiding modern mechanistic science from Newton to Einstein. Rather than thinking that the future somehow reaches back in time to cause the past (as when the evolution of photosynthesis somehow causes the sun to exist), they came to think of future possibilities as luring the present decisions of every organism, such that plant life is understood to be the further expression of an activity that, 4.5 billion years ago, had only achieved the sun-like phase of its organic development. Plants are quite literally the further flowering of the sun. You could say, then, that plants are part of the sun’s purpose. As Goethe said in a slightly different context (eye-sight instead of plant photosynthesis): “The eye must be something like the sun, otherwise no sunlight could be seen.” This is not to imply that the future can somehow be seen in advance, as though the sun knew life was coming. It is more as if the light of the sun discovered for the first time what it truly is only once it had created life on earth. Life is the dreaming of light, not its “design.” Indeed, this process of the universe’s self-discovery through evolution may only have just begun. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

Neuroscientist Christoph Koch comes out as a panpsychist?

Now that I’m just about finished with my comprehensive exam, let’s see what interesting things are happening around the blogosphere… WOW! According to Michael Zimmerman, Christoph Koch has come out as a panpsychist in his new book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Koch generates an information-theoretic account of consciousness, which he labels Φ, suggesting that all organized systems, from sub-atomic particles to humans, and perhaps to computer networks like the Internet, experience the world internally in some way.

If it has both differentiated and integrated states of information, it feels like something to be such a system; it has an interior perspective. The complexity and dimensionality of their associated phenomenal experiences might differ vastly, but each one has its own crystal [interior] shape…Even simple matter has a modicum of Φ. Protons and neutrons consist of a triad of quarks that are never observed in isolation. They constitute an infinitesimal integrated system. (p. 131-132).

I studied Koch’s work back when he collaborated with the late Francis Crick, and needless to say, I thought their search for a neural cause of consciousness was doomed to failure. I am surprised and delighted that he was lead by his own scientific research to the conclusion that coming to terms with the explanatory gap requires re-imagining the metaphysical presuppositions of scientific materialism.

Koch even goes so far as to praise Teilhard de Chardin for his pathbreaking work toward such a new image of the cosmos:

Teilhard de Chardin is alluring because his basic insight is compatible with the observed tendency of biological diversity (measured by the amount of variation) and complexity to increase over the course of evolution and with the ideas about integrated information and consciousness I have outlined…The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe–if not the whole cosmos–are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge. (p. 134, 165).

The Imaginal Universe

Continuing this discussion with Archive Fire, and joining Knowledge Ecology here:

It seems like what we all want to say is that imagination is generated by the universe, but what we can’t seem to agree upon is whether the universe is therefore also imaginal.

We are seeking understanding of the nature of causality, and of the roots of animal perception and imagination in a supposedly pre-perceivable, pre-imaginable electro-magneto-physio-chemical process.

I myself would not want to suppose that anything precedes experience–no matter how proto-perceptual or proto-imaginal some forms of causality may seem from our evolved anthropic perspective. Electrons are the neurons of our cosmic brane. They are intimately involved in the cognitive activity of our brains. Human thinking appears in the world as chemically mediated electrical activity, which is also to say that the physical world appears to think. Panpsychism? No, this isn’t smearing mind all over everything indiscriminately. The thinking universe has a more differentiated form than that. Mind individualizes, drawing itself together into organized bodies of ever increasing complexity. Rocks are made of highly organized bodies, like crystals, and even smaller and more highly organized beings, like carbon, and gold. But the rock itself cannot properly be considered an individual organism; it is not an organized, self-organizing being. Its identity as that particular rock is far, far more accidental than the identity of an individual atom of gold or an individual bacterial cell or human person. These latter bodies have a deeper causal memory, and a more intense experiential relationship with their own identity than does the rock. Given the mineral structure of certain elements, and the plate tectonics of earth, rocks just happen. They don’t display purposive or organized behavior. They are the accidental result of more individualized, mentalized organic/organized activity taking place on a different scale. And they are only really individualized by cognitively proficient animals such as ourselves, who define that rock as distinct from this rock.

This is Teilhard’s law of complexity/consciousness, which lead him not to pantheism, but to a vision of the cosmos as the still gestating Body of Christ.

As Teilhard put it, “We humans cannot see ourselves completely except as part of humanity, humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe … True physics is that which will someday succeed in integrating the totality of the human being into a coherent image of the world” (The Human Phenomenon, Preface).

Towards a Cosmotheandric Re-orientation: Response to Knowledge-Ecology

Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology recently responded to After Nature’s (Leon Niemoczynski) post on anthrodecentrism in Object-Oriented Ontology. I’ve visited this topic several times lately, but I’d have to admit that I seem to have failed to fully develop my own position in regards to the place of the human in the universe.

What I have suggested thus far is that we make a distinction between the particular earthly species we call Homo sapiens and a universal anthropic evolutionary potential, or Anthropos, characterized by its archetypal intelligence and compassion. The Anthropos is not yet an actual being, but remains a possible being. Teilhard de Chardin calls this being the Omega toward which cosmic evolution inevitably tends. I am not always able to muster the same metaphysical optimism that Teilhard does, but I am unable to shake the sneaking suspicion that the continuity of human civilization ultimately depends upon each individual’s faith in the possibility of realizing the absolute wisdom and love of the Anthropos. Civilized life is predicated on the assumption that our species, at least at its scientific and spiritual best, represents a unique example of a universal anthropic tendency intrinsic to cosmogenesis. Without faith in this highest human potential, I believe we simply lose the will necessary to live together peacefully on earth. Without an anthropic orientation, in other words, our ethicality and zest for life (as Teilhard calls it) would shrivel and die within a generation or two. Indeed, I think European civilization is growing precariously close to the death of belief in the Anthropos, just as it has already killed God. Perhaps now, in our thoroughly disenchanted historical moment, all that is left to us as a “live option” (as William James would say) is the Cosmos; but even there, late industrial capitalism continues to man the helm of an economic system pushing the earth into ever-worsening mass extinction and global climate change.

Adam writes:

“[OOO] reveals that the human has not been traumatically ‘decentered’ by the triple revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud (feel free to add to this list your favorite ‘traumatic’ decentralists…). This decentering, we can now see, was actually only a traumatic event from a particularly eurocentric, dualist, and transcendentalist perspective. I think its time we stop whining about the poor european psyche’s ‘displacement’ and realize that immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology actually center us within the context of things.”

I am all for immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology; but I affirm the importance of these principles right alongside those of transcendence, ontological depth, and involutionary metaphysics. There are cross-cultural parallels in the philosophies of India and of various indigenous traditions for these three notions; they are not simply anomalies of a deranged European mentality (e.g., the Indian Vedas and the Mayan Popul Voh). The modern scientific “displacement” of humanity is unavoidable, but if our civilization is to survive the 21st century, I think we must also seek out and discover some sort of cosmotheandric re-orientation. Instead of understanding Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos as ontologically dissociated and isolable substances as the ancients often did, and instead of annihilating each one-by-one as the moderns have, we must enact a weltanschauung wherein this trinity becomes complexly interpenetrating and dependently co-arising.

Adam goes on to suggest that OOO may be the first substance-based and anti-essentialist philosophy. I’m still not convinced of the linguistic utility or metaphysical validity of returning to a substance ontology. I remain committed to the process-relational paradigm. If we consider the main thrust of the scientific displacement of human beings from the center, most of its momentum seems to come from the discovery of the deep time of evolution and thus the developmental nature of the universe. As Teilhard conveys it, 19th and 20th century cosmology has made it clear that the Anthropos is not the static center of a hierarchically arranged Great Chain of Being, but the “axis and arrow” of a complexly organized creative process of unfolding. In other words, our species, as a result of a longing for the anthropic ideal, is near the leading edge of the cosmogenic rush toward deeper interiority. Everything actual possesses a degree of interiority (and so withdrawnness) precisely because it is a process of becoming (I’ve developed the reasons why here and here).

The Ethics and Esotericism of Eating

Bourdain says the analogy between animal and human flesh (PETA: “you eat cow, eh? so would you eat human meat, too?”) is the last irrational wail of the animal rights activist. His response: “If I were two weeks out on the life boat, hell yeah I would!” Gill then makes an especially poignant response about how we are all already eating other people (their labor, their emotional well-being, their air and water, etc.). He then says, if he is honest, he really doesn’t give a fuck about animal suffering.

I am left wondering if these popular chefs/food critics are not consciously parodying themselves. I can only hope that they are at least aware of the way that their big media personas reflect the decadence and ethical decay of consumer capitalist society, with its autistic ‘relationship’ with the rest of the community of life on earth.

I ate a turkey sandwich for dinner. I can’t justify it ethically. Not only my eating the turkey flesh, but my eating a “product” (a living creature) produced in an unsustainable industrial factory. Plants receive their energy directly from the Sun, and when we eat them, we are eating the light of our local star at only one remove. Animals receive their energy from plants and other animals, two or three levels removed from the Sun’s physical energy. In an esoteric sense (which for me has a lot to do with Rudolf Steiner), the situation might be construed this way: Eating other animals, as some humans and non-humans do, is eating a being who was ensouled. This behavior seems to me to represent the confusion of a spiritual with a physical reality. Christians might call this the Fall. In some ways, however, I think “the Fall” was evolutionarily inevitable, at least if you take a Teilhardian perspective on evolution. Life has always been hell bent on complexification, a process wherein matter continually transcends itself by adding new organismic rungs to its thermodynamic ladder to heaven. Bacteria began by eating the solar-and earth-heated chemicals around them, then quickly graduated to eating other bacteria, which then hitched a ride in the guts of larger protists who ate them, who in turn supported larger and more neurologically complex creatures who ate them, and so on… Matter “cried out and raised itself to spirit” (as Hegel put it, echoing Luke 19:40) by learning to more effectively (i.e., symbiotically) eat itself.

Nonetheless, the industrial diet cannot be justified. It has taken the necessary carnage of the evolutionary process and exploited it to produce an unsustainable amount of surplus gustatory pleasure. It misses the mark that evolution is aiming at (i.e., it is sinful). Unlike plants, which do not have an astral body (as Steiner calls the soul) and feed only on the locally supplied light of our planet’s star, animals feed (spiritually) also on the light of distant (in space and time) extraterrestrial stars. When we eat animals, we are killing not only the work of our local parents (the Sun and the Earth), but also the work of our great, great grandparents, our eternal ancestors in heaven. The non-chalant eating of animals (raised and killed industrially) is not only physically unsustainable and biologically unethical, but also spiritually blasphemous.

The New Reformation: Whitehead on Christian Metaphysics

“…if you want to make a new start in religion, you must be content to wait a thousand years.” -Alfred North Whitehead

I’ve been thinking through my recent posts on the philosophical import of religious experience, and in light of some of the concerns brought up by Jason Hills, I wanted to further unpack the nature of the spiritual integration I’m trying to pull off. I think Jason’s worries concerning syncretism and equivocation are well-founded, and I appreciate being given the opportunity to articulate further how an evolutionary panentheism might allow “post-secular” philosophy to converse meaningfully with more traditional forms of religious sense-making. Following thinkers like Jean Gebser and Rudolf Steiner, my approach is not, at least in theory, an attempt to meld the content of different religious visions into some amorphous conception of “God,” but rather to give an account of the history of religious experience in terms of an evolution of consciousness. I’ve written a bit about what such a scheme entails (HERE and HERE), but I’ll admit much work remains ahead of me if I hope to adequately disentangle an integral account of the evolution of consciousness from a syncretic melding of religions.

In this post, I will consult chapter 10 of Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas, “The New Reformation,” wherein he focuses on the evolving relationship between metaphysics and religion in Western history. He concentrates upon “three culminating phases”: 1) an intellectual discovery by Plato, 2) the exemplification of this discovery in the life of Christ, and 3) the metaphysical interpretation of these events generated in the formative period of Christian theology.

Before discussing the nature of these phases, Whitehead comments on the “steady decay” of Protestant Christianity in the modern age: “its dogmas no longer dominate, its divisions no longer interest, its institutions no longer direct the patterns of life” (p. 160). I think it is important to point out in this context that the forces of secularization that were pushing Christianity out of public life while Whitehead was writing [~1930] simultaneously functioned to further interiorize religious belief. What had been public became increasingly individual, especially in 1960s America, as exported Asian traditions began to influence a spiritually-orphaned youth, leading to wholly novel forms of mostly unaffiliated religious practice. So rather than considering religiosity and secularity to be opposed forms of socialization, I think it makes more sense to recognize the interactive role of each in our still developing “post-secular/post-religious” situation.

While Whitehead recognized the decline of traditional religions in Europe and America during the first half of the 20th century, he also pointed to the non-violent uprisings in India orchestrated by Gandhi as evidence that the religious spirit “still holds its old power, even more than its old power, over the minds and the consciences of men” (p. 161). Had he lived to see the civil rights movements of the 60s inspired by MLK, I think Whitehead would have felt a further assurance of this spirit’s continued effectiveness in America, as well.

Whitehead, here as elsewhere, asks us to be attentive to a contrast: religion is decaying even as it survives in new and more powerful forms. Instead of erecting a false dichotomy, where religion is pegged as a superstitious and regressive force preventing the spread of rationality and science, Whitehead asks us to look again at the history of our civilization.

“Must ‘religion,'” he asks,

“always be a synonym for ‘hatred’? The great social ideal for religion is that it should be the common basis for the unity of civilization… The religious spirit is always in process of being explained away, distorted, buried. Yet, since the travel of mankind towards civilization, it is always there” (p. 172).

Whitehead’s thesis is that a “New Reformation” is underway across every continent, but that its success depends upon the integration of conflicting beliefs into some general spiritual scheme. I quote him at length:

“I do not hold it to be possible, or even desirable, that identity of detailed belief can be attained. But it is possible that amid diversities of belief, arising from differences of stress exhibited in metaphysical insight and from differences of sympathetic intuition respecting historical events,–that it is possible, amid these differences, to reach a general agreement as to those elements, in intimate human experience and general history, which we select to exemplify that ultimate theme of the divine immanence, as a completion required by our cosmological outlook. In other words, we may agree as to the qualitative aspects of religious facts, and as to their general way of coordination in metaphysical theory, while disagreeing in various explanatory formulations” (p. 161).

Absent such a coordination of humanity’s varied spiritual expressions, I am not at all optimistic regarding the future of our civilization. Capitalism and war have already bound the planet together into an ever-tightening knot, yet we still lack the “Earth ethos” that will surely be necessary to sustain a planetary civilization into the 21st century and beyond. Given this increasingly precarious situation, my position is rather straightforward: only a widespread renewal of humanity’s religious spirit, reformed in light of contemporary ecological and cultural conditions, can save us now.

In this context, philosophy’s most urgent role is to midwife the birth of this new planetary spirit. But short of a fragile and superficial syncretic patchwork of different traditions, how is the varied religious experience of humanity to be given metaphysical expression? Whitehead’s approach may be criticized by atheists as inheriting too much from his Christian background, except for the fact that his cosmology, upon his own admission, “seems to approximate more to some strains of Indian, or Chinese, thought, than to Western Asiatic, or European, thought” (Process and Reality, p. 11). From my perspective, Whitehead’s thoroughly historical approach rightly emphasizes the progression, or evolution, of religious consciousness, which, through “the effort of Reason,” has been trained so as to “safeguard against the wild emotions of superstition” (p. 162).

Levi Bryant has argued (also HERE and HERE) that, while individual religious experiences obviously do occur, the content of many of these experiences (e.g., God) is probably illusory in light of the explanatory reductions made possible by the social and natural sciences. In appealing to the history of religious experience, Whitehead does not mean to suggest that we should avoid discrimination of the evidence. He employs two grounds of criticism, aesthetic and logical, which are to be “welded together in the final judgment of reason as to the comparison of historical periods, one with the other” (p. 164). He dismisses the idea that the requisite evidence for the content of religious experience can be derived from “direct introspection conducted in one epoch by a few clear-sighted individuals” (ibid.). Rather, when Whitehead considers the history of religion from a philosophical perspective, he does so as an “appeal to summits of attainment beyond any immediate clarity in our own individual existence” (p. 162). In other words, he sees in the historical development of our civilization an accumulation of spiritual wisdom, based not in the fleeting dreams of isolated individuals, but in the enduring “actions, thoughts, emotions, and institutions, which great persons and great occasions [have] made effective” (p. 165).

“Each age deposits its message as to the secret character of the nature of things. Civilizations can only be understood by those who are civilized. And they have this property, that the appropriation of them in the understanding unveils truths concerning our own natures. It has been said that the great dramatic tragedies in their representations before audiences act as a purification of the passions. In the same way, the great periods of history act as an enlightenment. They reveal ourselves to ourselves” (p. 164).

Returning now to the “threefold revelation” singled out by Whitehead at the outset of this essay, I’d like to spend a moment examining the unique role I believe is still to be played by Christianity–that strange and unsteady amalgam of Hebrew prophecy and Greek philosophy–in our planetizing civilization. Whitehead, like Steiner, Gebser, Teilhard de Chardin, Carl Jung, and Owen Barfield (all 20th century thinkers who have significantly influenced my own thinking), believes, both for reasons of historical honesty and popular effectiveness, that “the leaders of religious thought should today concentrate upon the Christian tradition.” Each of the above mentioned men had no shortage of respect for the profound wisdom generated by other traditions, but nonetheless, saw in the archetypal motifs of Christianity an embodiment of “the greatest advances in the expression of moral and intellectual intuitions [marking] the growth of recent civilization” (p. 166).

The incarnation of Christ is, according to Christianity, the supreme moment in religious history. The Christ event revealed the true nature of God and of God’s agency in the world. Though the historical record is fragmentary and inconsistent, Whitehead argues that “there can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature”:

“The Mother, the Child, and the bare manger: the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy: the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair: and the whole with the authority of supreme victory” (p. 167).

But, while Whitehead admits that the singular beauty and moral example of Christ’s life “forms the driving power of the religion,” he also points to the importance of an intellectual discovery made several centuries prior:

“Can there be any doubt that the power of Christianity lies in its revelation in act, of that which Plato divined in theory?” (p. 167).

Whitehead credits Plato with “one of the greatest intellectual discoveries in the history of religion,” that being the enunciation (in the Sophist and the Timaeus) of the doctrine of Grace: that divine persuasion, rather than coercion, is the foundation of the order of the world. Unfortunately, Plato, more a visionary than a systematic philosopher, failed to coordinate this doctrine with the rest of his cosmology. Aside from a few glimpses of a more participatory possibility, when Plato is asked to schematize the relationship between God and God’s Ideas to the world, he depicts the latter as a derivative and second-rate imitation of the former. Ideas were brought into relation with the physical world only through the supernatural power of divine will. This is unacceptable from a metaphysical perspective, wherein the relationship between God and the world must be grounded in the necessity of their natures, rather than the accidents of will.

Whitehead suggests that the formative phase of Christian theology was principally concerned with the struggle to overcome Platonism. He credits early theologians for partially overcoming the Platonic dualism by “deciding for some sort of direct immanence of God in the World,” however differently it was worked out in detail (p. 169). They failed to fully generalize the metaphysical implications of the doctrine of divine immanence, however, since “the nature of God was exempted from all the categories which applied to individual things in the temporal world” (ibid.). The final verdict of Christian theology was that God is necessary for the world’s existence, but the world itself was deemed entirely contingent, a free creation of divine will. It remains the task of philosophy to correct the arbitrary gap hewn by traditional theology between God and the world. As it stands at present, God’s nature remains largely obscure, since, “it is only by drawing the long bow of mysticism that evidences for his existence can be collected from our temporal world” (ibid.).

“The task of [a properly philosophical] Theology,” writes Whitehead,

“is to show how the world is founded on something beyond mere transient fact, and how it issues in something beyond the perishing of occasions. The temporal world is the stage of finite accomplishment. We ask of Theology to express that element in perishing lives which is undying by reason of its expression of perfections proper to our finite natures. In this way we shall understand how life includes a mode of satisfaction deeper than joy or sorrow” (p. 172).


For a better sense of how I think Christianity is relevant to Speculative Realism generally, see my essay “Towards a Christolgical Realism: Thinking the Correlation with Teilhard and Barfield.”

Religion and Philosophy: The God Problem

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.

OOO and Anthropos: Graham Harman responds

Adam Robbert and Graham Harman have both posted responses to my post about the anthrodecentrism of object-oriented ontology.

I think Adam’s summary of my position as regards the relationship between divinity, nature, and humanity is quite accurate. He chose Raimon Panikkar‘s term “cosmotheandrism” to describe my approach. I’m definitely sympathetic to this characterization and have worked Panikkar’s ideas into several essays on panentheism.

Harman responded in particular to my assertion that OOO needs to articulate its anthropological and theological foundations to avoid spiraling into nihilism.

He writes:

Since footnotes2plato doesn’t seem inherently opposed to the OOO project, I assume that when he says that “OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications,” he doesn’t mean that the way to do this is by restoring human being to its previous grandiose eminence. I don’t think footnotes2plato means that nihilism automatically results from putting all beings on the same footing, and if he did mean that I would argue against it.

I don’t think, after Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, that philosophy should or can re-instate humanity as God’s uniquely chosen species, singled out from all other life. I also don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology. It all depends on how we construe the relationship between Cosmos and Anthropos. The species Homo sapiens is not identical to the Anthropos; rather, the latter represents the ideal toward which our species, like all other life, is striving. I follow much ancient Hermetic thought in construing the Anthropos as an archetype active throughout the Cosmos, a potential form of manifestation that, at least on our planet, has been most closely approximated by Homo sapiens. I, like Teilhard de Chardin, think there is a direction to evolution, a curve toward greater complexity and consciousness expressed through deeper interiority. Given enough time, and as a result of the influence of divine lures, the Universe tends to evolve the capacity for a deeper feeling of Beauty, a clearer sight of Truth, and a stronger will for Goodness. I think overcoming nihilism requires articulating a coherent “cosmotheandric” scheme, wherein the role of the human is to more fully realize its potential as a representative of the Anthropos on planet Earth.

I need to unpack some of these thoughts further, but I’m running out the door now. More soon!

Cosmos, Anthropos, and Theos in Harman, Teilhard, and Whitehead

Knowledge-Ecology has written a reflection upon finishing Graham Harman’s new book The Quadruple Object.

Adam writes that “OOO is greatly enriching our sense of cosmos, whilst (somewhat) impoverishing our sense of anthropos.”

I’ve had similar reservations about Harman’s anthrodecentrism (if I may diagnose it): Harman and the Special Magic of Human Knowledge.

Harman’s is an ontology that re-orients our human-centricity relative to objects in general, such that objects become full, autonomous participants in the cosmic drama right along side us. Humans are not ‘up ahead’ of objects in general, not the leading edge of evolution; neither are they any closer to Being than every other being. Harman’s is a sorely needed intervention into the philosophies of access currently dominating the Academy, especially in light of the difficulties faced by phenomenology and scientific naturalism alike when it comes to devising an actionable ethical response to an increasingly inevitable natural/ecological catastrophe. But in order to avoid spinning into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe (I’m thinking more of Brassier than Harman here), I think OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications. Whitehead’s cosmic realism/object-orientation is brought into harmony with the fact of his own conscious knowing of the universe; but this scheme only holds together if, as Whitehead speculates, God’s primordial aims and consequent feelings are ingredient in our human experience, such that we become fully conscious of God’s envisagement of and suffering in the Universe. Meillasoux may not actually be so far from suggesting something similar to this polar Whiteheadian God.

I think a realism as regards Cosmos requires a realism in regard to Anthropos and Theos as well. Otherwise our conception of the Cosmos becomes impoverished, and our ethics dwell on passion (suffering) instead of compassion (love). Whitehead does bring God fully into relation with the World, and even though he is fully invested in the adventure of rationality precariously supported by our civilization, in the end he seems to deny human Consciousness any special role in the drama of creation. Eventually, our species may simply go extinct, making way for some as yet entirely unimaginable adventure in Creativity upon the Earth. Perhaps machines are awaiting the nuclear disaster that makes most organic life on this planet impossible, just as mammals once hid in the shadows of the dinosaurs to await their chance to rule the world.

Teilhard plays up the importance and inevitability of Consciousness a bit more, but only because it is the necessary condition for Christogenesis. Why is the Human really so important for Teilhard? Because like Matter for Life, and like Life for Thought, the Human provides the womb within which the Cosmos is able to turn in on itself again, gaining a deeper dimension of interiority (more vision, more feeling). Human consciousness (which in actuality is a collective phenomenon–in its full deployment is the Noosphere, the Planetary Mind) is the birthplace of Christ.

There is one point in particular where I think Harman implicitly recognizes the unique capacity of the Human. Are we not the only object who is capable of conceiving of “real,” as opposed “sensual” objects? Are we not the only things in the world who know the world withdraws from us and from itself, that things are always more than they at first appear to us to be? Are we not, in short, the only sort of object that can have an object-oriented metaphysics? Fire always thinks it is burning the paper, but it is only burning what was already fiery in the paper. It seems like a good place to start recognizing the “special magic” of the Human is our capacity for wonder and awe in the face of the sublime, our ecstatic participation in the infinite, our comprehension of the fire’s finite prehension of the paper.

Soul and World: Fragments written upon reading “Thinking with Whitehead” by Isabelle Stengers

Stengers has succeeded in bringing Whitehead back to life.

Whitehead’s speculative cosmology succeeds, if it does, by avoiding bifurcations between disassociated categories. Instead of placing “subjective illusion” and “objective reality” in irremediable conflict with one another; instead of separating “man” and “nature,” “mind” and “matter,” or “God” and “the World” in order to explain one as determined by the other; instead of over- or under-mining the infinite diversity of creation with a form of reductionism, Whitehead seeks out a coherent metaphysical scheme wherein such differences are made to “presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (Process and Reality, p. 3).

Ethics and Physics, or Religion and Science, need not be opposed modes of thought, where one battles the other for explanatory ultimacy. Is not the human activity of physics in some sense for the universe? Is not the scientific endeavor an effort of nature itself to rise up to the level of theory?, to explain and control its own creation?, to storm heaven and steal the vision and power of eternity for the betterment of the present?

“Mankind and the animals with analogous abilities are distinguished by their capacity for the introduction of novelty [in contrast to the givenness of the past]. This requires a conceptual power which can imagine, and a practical power which can effect. The role of sense experiences consists in the fact that they are manageable. The animals evolved and emphasized the superficial aspects of their connexity with nature, and thus obtained a manageable grip upon the world. The central organism which is the soul of a man is mainly concerned with the trivialities of human existence. It does not easily meditate upon the activities of fundamental bodily functions. Instead of fixing attention on the bodily digestion of vegetable food, it catches the gleam of the sunlight as it falls on the foliage. It nurtures poetry. Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster with some minor divergencies. In this way, the life aim at survival is modified into the human aim at survival for diversified worthwhile experience. The pitfall of philosophy is exclusive concentration on these manageable relations, to the neglect of the underlying necessities of nature,” Modes of Thought, p. 30.

Whitehead here suggests that philosophy, to the extent that it focuses narrowly on the logical necessities of thought alone, risks forgetting the physical conditions (“underlying necessities”) of these thoughts. Whitehead would agree with the materialist that the soul is inextricably bound up with nature, and is an inevitable consequence of the causal efficacy of the complex social organism through which it is actualized. But Whitehead would not agree that the soul is therefore explainable in reference to physical activity, in itself. In a complex organism, the physical activity of hydrogen atoms reflects the inherited values of a somatic environment distinguished from “nature” at large. Inside a living animal, atoms no longer behave in a way relevant to physicists, since they have become conditioned by a local ethos within which they play roles distinct from their activity in stars, galaxies, or laboratory experiments.

The ethical responsibilities of the soul and the physical necessities of nature are not in conflict with one another; rather, the soul’s desires exist by virtue of the universe’s lures. Ethics is not a consequence of Physics, if the physical be conceived abstractly as though made up of vacuous actualities devoid of experience and self-enjoyment. But Ethics may be conceived as conditioned and so implied by Physics if the physical is imagined concretely as a creative rush of subjectivities seeking more beautiful, more virtuous intensity of experience. The Good Life, for Whitehead, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

Teilhard de Chardin, who never tired of contemplating the physics of the soul, here expresses his intuitions about the soul’s relation to digestion:

“The highest speculation and the most burning love are 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 a color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration. There is no doubt that material energy and spiritual energy hold together and are prolonged by something. Ultimately, somehow or other there must be only a single energy at play in the world. And the first idea that comes to mind is to see the “soul” as a center of transmutation, where through all the avenues of nature the power of bodies converges in order to become interiorized and sublimated in beauty and truth,” The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30.

I believe Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity, provides the “something,” and the process of concresence the “somehow or other,” that Teilhard leaves unpronounced. Teilhard was a scientist (at least in this book), and left such speculative statements to the metaphysician. Whitehead was compelled to unmask the general character of the energy at play in the world, and at the end of his imaginative leap into speculative cosmology, he discovered not the transcendent ground of some theory of everything, but a more noble and enjoyable way of envisaging actuality.

Why did Whitehead find it so important to avoid the bifurcation of nature in his speculative scheme? Why was he so careful to avoid creating modes of thought that re-inscribe a dissociation between our experience of subject and object, psyche and cosmos? It seems he was simply seeking coherence, since it is only when life is able to “hold together” despite the continual threat of contradiction and extinction that it becomes beautiful and good. Living actuality is not a given, but an achievement won at the cost of alternatives, and maintained at the cost of the robbery of other actualities of their life. In our contemporary context, where an ecological crisis conditions our every move, enacting modes of thought that hold the Living Earth together are becoming of more than just aesthetic or ethical value. The living existence of our species (and many others) depends upon our coming to think the Living Earth in a more durable and resilient way, since in thinking it we live in it, with it, and upon it.

Scientific Materialism and Consumer Capitalism think and produce nature hastily, with little care for its non-human achievements of community (i.e., its ethical activity). These modes of thought exaggerate a basic truth while forgetting an essential exception: they engage nature as valueless and determined, except for the human, who is free to know and control its processes. Such materialist modes must become imaginative enough to conceive of freedom and matter, the human knower and the thing known, in a more coherent way.

Whitehead provides a template for such a new mode of thought, but its actualization requires a miracle. The propositional feelings buried in his written words must be resurrected and brought into novel contrast with the spirit of the present. His logos must be given life.

Towards a Christological Realism: Thinking the Correlation with Teilhard and Barfield


Quentin Meillassoux‘s lucid text, After Finitude (2008), comes at a time when Continental philosophy finds itself engaging more closely with what might be called  “poetico-religious” modes of thought. Rationality of the Cartesian sort has been thoroughly deconstructed, and no longer seems capable of providing what it once promised: a clear and distinct picture of the substance of the world as it exists outside and independent of the human soul. Meillassoux admits that Cartesianism seems to have become “irrevocably obsolete” (AF, p. 29), since, following Kant’s transcendental critique of the ontological argument (that the necessity of a concept for thought does not prove its existence in fact), the theological basis of Descartes’ knowledge of the ‘in-itself’ has been dissolved. Two centuries of post-Kantian reflection have carried his critique of our organ of knowledge even further, pointing to, among other things, the constitutive role of language for thought and the evolutionary origins of consciousness as factors severely limiting, if not outright denying, philosophy’s access to the Absolute. Whatever Reason, or Logos, is, contemporary philosophy has made it all but impossible to conceive of it in abstraction from the body and its cosmohistorical origins.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was well aware of the need to conceive of the cosmos and the soul in less dualistic terms, and did not shy away from rejecting religious dogmatisms that could not be squared with the findings of 20th century natural science. Neither were these conditions lost on Owen Barfield, who argued throughout his life that Romanticism’s poetico-religious conception of humanity’s relation to nature and divinity can and must “come of age” in our era. For him, “imagination,” the favored organ of Romantics, referred not to “the faculty of inventing fictions,” but rather that which,

at its highest level…[inherits] and [continues] the divine creative activity of the Logos,…the common origin of human language and consciousness, as well as the world which contains them (RM, p. 20).

Meillassoux argues formidably against such a “return of the religious,” lamenting that “the contemporary philosopher has completely capitulated to the man of faith,” since post-Kantian modes of thought have forced upon him the conclusion that, “if there is an ultimate truth, only piety can provide it, not thought” (AF, p. 47). A truly adequate response to Meillassoux in light of Barfield’s and Teilhard’s Christologies would require a longer study than I can provide in this short essay. My aim is to begin opening a few sites of inquiry into the poetico-religious mode Meillassoux so sharply, and perhaps unfairly, criticized by supplementing this mode’s seemingly pietistic justifications with a logic of incarnation. Faith need not be contrary to logic; rather, faith may be that which opens logic to being.

Beyond an Abstract Absolute

Though it is the Copernican revolution that Meillassoux marks as the decisive moment for modern philosophy—that moment when, following Kant, philosophy was led “to conceive of [the Copernican] de-centering in terms of thought’s unprecedented centrality relative to this same world” (AF, p. 118)—it was not until the end of the 18th century that the sciences of deep time began to reveal the paradox of ancestrality underlying his critique of post-Kantian correlationism. “By ‘correlation,’” writes Meillassoux, “we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (AF, p. 5). The force of the paradox of ancestrality articulated by Meillassoux consists in the fact that, according to the empirico-mathematical claims of geologists and astrophysicists, there is an asymmetrical relation between the being of the world and the world’s being thought, since a material substance of some kind must have existed prior to the emergence of either sentient life or conscious creatures capable of reflecting upon it. Being, therefore, precedes thought. But how could this be so? Short of hypostasizing the correlation, such that a Universal Mind is deemed to have been present to witness the accretion of the earth and the formation of life, it seems that the scientific understanding of cosmic evolution requires breaking the “correlational circle” tying consciousness and cosmos together. This break, according to Meillassoux, would release thought from its solipsistic contemplation of a “cloistered outside”—“an outside in which we’re trapped, only ever finding the correlates of our own acts of consciousness and language” (CAO, p. 6). A “Great Outdoors” might thereby be revealed to consciousness that is not only external to it, but persists entirely independent of it, existing ‘in-itself’ for no one and, even more radically, for no reason. Meillassoux’s Absolute is absolute precisely in that, though it is thinkable, it is indifferent to the light of Logos. It is omnipotent Chaos.

There are post-Kantian alternatives to Meillassoux’s experiment in thinking the Absolute independent of the correlation. Instead of locating the Absolute in an impersonal being outside of and indifferent to human consciousness, I will, with inspiration from Barfield and Teilhard, Christologize the Absolute by attempting to articulate how the ‘in-itself’ can become for us. A clearer picture of the problems of contemporary philosophy will be painted by situating it within the larger cosmohistorical arc of the evolution of consciousness, approaching the Absolute via a logic of incarnation. An incarnational logic challenges both the notion that the Absolute might be grasped through a formal or mathematical proof and the notion that irrational belief alone, no matter how fervent, might be enough to secure it. The realization of the Absolute as Christ demands the participation of the full suite of human faculties, including thinking, feeling, and willing. The philosophical pursuit of the Absolute is as much a theoretical as a practical and aesthetic adventure, since the mere thought of the Absolute would be empty unless this thought was correlative to a transformed perception of the world and carried with it a renewed moral calling to redeem it. In Christ, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful each participate, such that through the logic of incarnation Christ transforms not only our conceptual, but also our perceptual and physical registers of reality.

Teilhard’s Christological Science

“Until the dawn of the present era,” writes Teilhard,

one could say that man still had the illusion of living ‘in the open air’ in a universe that was penetrable and transparent. At that time there was no hard and fast boundary, and all sorts of exchanges were possible between the here below and the beyond, between heaven and earth, between relative and absolute…Then, with the rise of science, we saw the gradual spreading over everything of a sort of membrane that our knowledge could not penetrate (AE, p. 186).

The “dawn of the present era” can be equated with the beginning of post-Kantian thought. The impenetrable membrane can then be read as the transcendental limits Kant placed on human cognition. “I have found it necessary,” wrote Kant, “to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” After the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), it was no longer possible to access the beyond, or to participate directly in the angelic ecology tying heaven and earth together, since any supposed knowledge of things or beings outside the pre-established categories of the understanding and our sensory experience of time and space became but a transcendental illusion. The divine was no longer the source and telos of human concern for reality, but a regulative idea of practical reason—a possibility to be willed or believed in, but not a necessity deducible by the understanding or a being graspable by the senses.

Teilhard recognized and championed the post-Kantian discoveries of the new sciences of geology, biology, and astrophysics. But rather than accepting the Kantian or Cartesian paradigms that would wall off the conscious soul of man from the mechanisms of a soulless universe, Teilhard emphasized the extent to which the curvature of the universe is both geometric and psychic: out of the core of our own soul there grow fibers reaching back into the fabric of space-time itself. While Descartes would have us “irrevocably imprisoned” in a “thinking bubble,” Teilhard saw in the still maturing center of the human psyche evidence of the latest phase in a universal process of convergence underway throughout the organic and inorganic cosmos (AE, p. 189). For him, human thought is the result of a billion year yearning of the ‘without’ for the ‘within.’ He saw consciousness as the latest product of the axis of evolution toward deeper interiorization, the most recent rebirth of the whole (macrocosm) in the center (microcosm). To the adequately prepared subject, apparent in the cosmogenetic phenomenon revealed by science is also an anthropogenesis: “we are not an element lost in the cosmic solitudes…within us a universal will to live converges and is hominized” (HP, p. 7). The cosmos implies the anthropos for Teilhard, as though it were ‘finely-tuned’ just so as to eventually become conscious of itself. This is a perspective Meillassoux must reject not because it is anthropocentric, but because of his denial of causality in nature: there is no tuning at all, no self-organization, only what he calls the “stabilist illusion of sensible becoming” characterizing our shortsighted experience of empirical constants (AF, p. 83). Teilhard would agree that thinking about the universe in terms of fixed laws was shortsighted, since in an evolving cosmos, thresholds of complexity can be reached that irreversibly transform ontological and behavioral norms. Once the earth came to life around 4 billion years ago, its geological and atmospheric dynamics were entirely altered. Similarly, after only a few tens of thousands of years of human civilization, the living planet’s dynamics, relatively stable for the majority of its multi-billion year history, have been altered in just as radical a way. But in dismissing fixed causal law with Meillassoux, Teilhard does not then follow him by instating the total reign of chaos. The universe’s punctuated evolution can still be understood as obeying a logic of incarnation, following a general trajectory toward complexity and consciousness through pre-life, to life, to thought. The human species is not the end of cosmic evolution, however, but a potential vessel capable of incarnating the Spirit of Christ on earth. Anthropogenesis is, finally, Christogenesis.

Meillassoux’s speculative materialism emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human consciousness against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Teilhard’s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

Though he remains a correlationist of sorts, Teilhard acknowledges the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, disorienting us in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of [our] own self” (AE, p. 187). No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all. Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.”

Teilhard realized that the flourishing of our species depends upon bringing forth a new, scientifically and spiritually informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that would grind to a halt without the narrative renewal offered by each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provided him with only momentary condolence, if any at all. “The truth is,” he writes, “that even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter” (HM, p. 8). Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (AE, p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world-shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos:

With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things—the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge (AE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and human consciousness are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that the cosmohistorical unfolding of the correlation is progressive and convergent. “The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long,” writes Teilhard, “but the axis and the arrow of evolution—which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation tends. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation.

After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire (AE, p. 280).

The Logic of Incarnation

Meillassoux writes of the necessity of incarnation for the transcendental subject: “Granted, the transcendental is the condition for knowledge of bodies, but it is necessary to add that the body is also the condition for the taking place of the transcendental” (AF, p. 25). He goes on to conclude that subjectivity is instantiated, rather than exemplified, by the body, meaning that embodiment is the “non-empirical condition of [thought’s] taking place” (ibid.). Without the body, there could be no such thing as thinking, and so no human being. Teilhard would not disagree, but would add that it is precisely in the reflective, or transcendental, consciousness emerging from the complexity of the human cardio-metabolic-nervous system that the divine finds a suitable portal into the phenomenal world. For God to become man through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ requires a true mediation of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the material. The human being has the potential, through the development of transcendental consciousness, to participate in the incarnation of the Word, since only by “taking place at the heart of the world” (ibid.), by living and dying as a physical creature, can the Creator instantiate his eternal love for creation. To love infinitely, God first had to become finite, to enter the horizon of the world. Jesus was not a heavenly example sent by God for men to poorly imitate, but the first historical manifestation of the, until then, dormant Christ-impulse dwelling within the human being. Christ “was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2), but in becoming flesh and walking among us, also carries God into the present and brings hope for the future redemption of earth. God’s omnipotence makes possible the incarnation by “dissolving the apparent contradiction between His complete identity and His difference with His Son” (AF, p. 41). Meillassoux argues that the mystical register within which this statement, and the incarnation itself, is meaningful depends upon the hypostatization of the correlation, such that the possibility of incarnation is justifiable or dismissible not due to the facts of the world ‘in itself,’ as depicted by reason and science, but rather due to the sublime fact that there is a world ‘for us’ at all, a world that carries with it at least the potential for beauty and goodness.

Theology, after Kant, became speculative reflection upon the transcendental conditions of creation, a “faith seeking understanding” (Aquinas: “fides quaerens intellectum”) of creation’s sufficient reason. For Meillassoux, such reflection is fallacious, since, he argues, it is thinkable that the world has come to be for no reason. The world is no more significant, despite its potential for aesthetic and moral order, than any of the evidently contingent facts occurring daily within it. Meillassoux’s “principle of unreason” is a result of his conception of the Absolute as Chaos, a being of pure power without desires or ideals. Teilhard’s picture of the universe is not without chaos, since his vision of evolution leaves room for the local randomness of evolutionary groping. But instead of ignoring or marginalizing cosmos in favor of chaos, Teilhard accounts for the global arc cosmogenesis by understanding it as the gradual incarnation of the Logos into matter through the power of love. Even upon meeting the seemingly absurd resistance of death, love is able to transform it into the necessary condition of the world’s redemption. In this sense, the love at work in the logic of incarnation is impossible to understand absent the “logic of extinction.”

Without becoming mortal, a disembodied divine being has no need of love, since no separation exists between it and another. Death, then, is the condition for the possibility of agape, or divine love. The power of God is in the service of the wisdom and love of Christ, without whom the creation would spiral blindly into chaos. The logic of incarnation brings Logos into mortal flesh, giving meaning even to death and extinction, since it is only by confronting the possibility of annihilation that the true significance of life becomes apparent. On Teilhard’s reading of the cosmological, geological, and biological evidence, in the human, the universe has grown a heart and a mind and is now evolving consciously into the Omega toward which it has always already been bending.

The Logic of Extinction

“The will to know,” according to Ray Brassier, Meillassoux’s translator, “is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction” (NU, p. 239). Even if consciousness survives in some form 4.5 billion years from now, the inevitable death of the sun will annihilate any life still remaining on earth. Acknowledging the truth of extinction, for Brassier, means not only accepting that consciousness will not be, but that it already is not: “the subject of philosophy must recognize that he or she is already dead.” Brassier argues, against Nietzsche, that despite life being the precondition of thought, the former cannot be privileged over the latter without underestimating the profundity of the challenge posed to life by the will to know (NU, p. 222). Even if life’s only meaning is to survive, knowledge of extinction eradicates even this minimal sense of purpose. There is no reason for conscious life, according to Brassier, since, following Meillassoux, he reads post-Copernican science as having ratified the diachronicity of thinking and being, exposing thought’s contingency for being: “although thought needs being, being does not need thought” (NU, p. 85).

Meillassoux argues, as we’ve seen, that post-Kantian philosophy has failed to fully reckon with the scientifically verified (or at least not yet falsified) asymmetry between being and thought, or the universe and consciousness. He coined the term “correlationism” to mark the philosopheme operative in all thinking that denies the possibility either of a universe that existed in itself prior to consciousness or that might exist in itself after the extinction of consciousness. That consciousness has emerged is an entirely contingent fact with no underlying reason whatsoever, according to this scheme.

So long as we believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, the belief that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things (AF, p. 82).

Such a belief in reason (or in meaning), according to Meillassoux, is logically unnecessary, since there is no reason that reason must be ontologically foundational. Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason only follows from the belief in a perfect and eternal God whose essence is to exist, and who could not but create the best of all possible worlds. Meillassoux, in contrast, seeks an absolute that is unreasonable because purely chaotic, and argues that nothing is necessary, not God, consciousness, or even the endurance of scientifically verified physical laws. In other words, everything is contingent, and this contingency is not merely a transcendental statement concerning the limits of human understanding and experience, but a speculative statement about the nature of reality itself. For Meillassoux, asking “why is there something, rather than nothing?” is not a silly or unanswerable question: the answer is “no reason.” This is Meillassoux’s “principle of unreason,” a result of thinking through the logic of extinction without also discovering its corollary, the logic of incarnation. He attempts to devise an argument to dispel the sense of wonder provoked by Leibniz’ question in order to prevent the eclipsing of philosophy by religion. But the wonder persists, since consciousness continues to find itself alive to wonder where it has come from and where it shall go. The dialogue between philosophy and religion therefore continues.

Barfield and Participation

“I believe,” writes Barfield,

that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is, that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed from all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element in its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two (SA, p. 167).

Barfield is best known for his articulation of the evolution of consciousness, which is a concept subtler than the history of ideas usually offered in its stead. The former is not simply concerned with the progress of thought generated as each age responds to the problems of its predecessors, but with a change at the level of perception, and indeed a transformation in how the world itself is brought forth for consciousness. Like Teilhard, Barfield is an unabashed correlationist who directly confronts the difficulties spelled out by Meillassoux. Meillassoux suggests that, precisely to the extent that he has been “de-Christianized” by rejecting the “metaphysical pretension that [the Christian] belief system [is] superior to all others,” the inheritor of the Western tradition has opened the door to the complete relativization of truth (AF, p. 48). In our post-secular, post-Kantian context, according to Meillassoux, all belief systems are equally legitimated as potential paths to the Absolute, so long as they don’t claim to be rational.

Instead of rejecting the structure of history as revealed in Christianity, Barfield recognizes the way in which the emergence of the scientific method is itself the result of the logic of incarnation. The world alienation and disenchantment brought about following the Scientific Revolution are not the nullification of the Christian mythos, but the culmination of Spirit’s fall into matter. If Barfield is right, in the future, it will become “impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word” (SA, p. 164).

The contingent origins of mind out of life, and life out of matter, are the crux of Meillassoux argument for the priority of being in relation to thought. Barfield is well aware of the paradoxes of ancestrality, but instead of making non-sense of them by breaking the correlational circle, he opens up a more coherent possibility. Even the most devout scientific materialists (for whom the Kantian counter-revolution may as well never have occurred) are forced to employ a “crypto-noetic” vocabulary in order to overcome the absurdity of a “pre-perceptual past” (WA, p. 165). “Information” is now an indispensable concept for physicists and biologists alike; “decision-making” capacities are attributed to sub-atomic particles; chemical activity is said to follow order-generating “rules.” This hidden correlationism within science itself makes suspect Meillassoux’s evocation of the scientific perspective in order to secure his speculative materialist argument.

From a Barfieldian perspective, if after all secondary, or subjective qualities, are removed from matter, only number (or, if you like, “information”) remains, then materialists have no reason to believe that earth, prior to life and thought, existed in anything like the solid, physical state it today appears to be in. Solidity becomes as much a secondary quality as color, sound, or value. To his credit, Meillassoux does not insist on extension or solidity when referring to matter for similar reasons, but only to its mathematical properties. But he fails to realize the implications of this admission. Given that the physicality (or spatial extension) of matter is no longer essential to it, what reason does the materialist have for insisting on the physical origins of consciousness? The body may be necessary for our kind of consciousness without being its sufficient condition. If what we call matter is really the result of the underlying numerical relations between unseen dynamic forces, does this not imply the reality of some disembodied consciousness capable of holding these relations, or ideas, in mind? Meillassoux explicitly denies this possibility: “we know nothing of [an] eternal or disembodied subject” (CAO, p. 3); but his logic seems nonetheless to rest on such an eternal subject’s reality.

In the way that Barfield describes the evolution of consciousness, the relevant question is no longer “how did matter make consciousness?” but rather, “how did consciousness ever come to be so intimately tied up with matter?” (WA). This shift in emphasis is a result of Barfield’s thoroughly participatory approach, which has it that being exists for thought, and vice versa, not in a relation of asymmetrical dependence but of co-creative evolution. From this perspective, Copernicus’ heliocentric insight represents not simply “a new idea of the relation between man and nature [or thinking and being],” but rather “an idea of the new relation between them” (WA, p. 178).  The Copernican de-centering of human consciousness in relation to the cosmos was not simply a scientific correction of a primitive age’s misperception; it was thought entering into a new, mutually transforming relationship with being, thereby ushering in a new epoch in the history of the world.

The Scientific Revolution in some sense represents the climax of the evolution of consciousness, that historical moment when Spirit first fully recognized its distinctness from matter. Descartes is perhaps the most articulate thinker to experience the tremendous existential force of this new condition by ontologically separating the res cogitans from the res extensa. The separation was so radical that it seemed all but impossible to understand how the two might relate, leading Kant to declare that knowledge of the supersensible conditions underlying thought was impossible, not only in fact, but in principle. By articulating the transcendental conditions of knowledge, Kant created a situation in which Spirit could only enter further into the body and the world in pursuit of a solution to its dualistic situation.

If we are able to inquire into Spirit’s, or consciousness’, situation as Barfield was, we realize that

We are not studying some so-called “inner” world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called “outer” world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world (HGH, p. 18).

As all philosophers since Kant, Barfield is unable to conceive of the physical world independent of the participation of consciousness in its evocation (SA, p. 12). As modern science has forced us to expand our understanding of the universe, philosophy and religion have been forced to intensify the reach of the human spirit.


In the final pages of Owen Barfield’s fictional dialogue, World’s Apart, the narrator (Burgeon, a philologist) shares a letter from one of the seven other participants (Hunter, a theologian) received a week after their wide-ranging conversation had ended. Along with thanking Burgeon for organizing a successful experiment in cross-disciplinary conversation (in which an engineer, a physicist, a teacher, a biologist, an analytic philosopher, and a psychiatrist also took part), Hunter shared a strange and obscure dream that was provoked by the discussion. The dream involved three distinct humanoid figures that appeared and disappeared in turn, each bearing their own verbal message. The first had a round box with two holes in it for a head, with “light blazing out of its eye-holes in all directions” (p. 275). The words “Subjective Idealism” were associated with this figure. The second figure had the head of a lion with an emphatic mane that spread out, ray-like, in a way emblematic of the sun. Associated with this figure were the words “The Key of the Kingdom.” The third and final figure appeared without any head at all, carrying only the message “The Kingdom.” “In spite of the touch of alarm,” concludes Hunter, “the whole dream, from beginning to end was somehow “like a breeze blowing from excellent places, bearing health” (p. 276).

The dream, though enigmatic, would seem to be a symbolic summation of Barfield’s entire philosophy. The contemporary thinker must begin his or her pursuit of Wisdom from within, as a free individual mind (Subjective Idealism). This subjective beginning is then strengthened by the Christ-impulse (The Key to the Kingdom), transforming its inward light into the light of the universe. Finally, the individual mind is entirely taken up and absorbed into the eternal life of a redeemed cosmos (The Kingdom).

The dream sequence reveals the Christological foundation of Barfield’s thinking. For him, the truth of reality, if there be one, is revealed in Christ. Philosophy without Christ can think only the skeleton of the Absolute, leaving the blood and guts of the world in the margins of its treatises. Without the logic of incarnation (which is both a practice and a theory), spirit is unable to reconcile itself with sensation or gain the reign of its will, and though in thought it may grasp the formal structure of the thing-in-itself, it cannot feel its warmth or see its light. Faith need not be in opposition to knowledge, for is that movement that prepares and opens the soul to the incarnation of the Logos.

Works Cited

  1. Barfield, Owen. History, Guilt, Habit. 1979. The Barfield Press: San Rafael, CA.
  2. Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning. 1977. The Barfield Press: San Rafael, CA.
  3. Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. 1988. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.
  4. Barfield, Owen. World’s Apart. 2010. Barfield Press: Oxford, UK.
  5. Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound. 2010. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, UK.
  6. Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. 2009. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York, NY.
  7. Meillassoux, Quentin. “Contingency and the Absolutization of the One.” 2010. A lecture delivered at the Sorbonne for a symposium called “Metaphysics, Ontology, Henology.”
  8. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. Activation of Energy. 1978. William Collins Sons: London, UK.
  9. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Heart of Matter. 1978. Williams Collins and Sons: London, UK.
  10. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. 1999. Sussex Academic Press: Portland, OR.