Alexander Bard on Network Metaphysics

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

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

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

The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael/Archive Fire has just written a gracious and astute response to my recent comment about Whitehead’s reformed Platonism. He has made me aware of the fact that my referring to Whitehead or to Plato in the hopes that they offer some sort of authoritative disambiguation is insufficient to support the arguments I am trying to make. I cannot expect Michael to read a large portion of Whitehead’s, or Plato’s corpus, nor guarantee that if he were to read these, he’d interpret them in the same way that I do. If I have any hope of adequately responding to Michael, its because I will be able to translate my reformed Platonism into forms of expression that he finds interesting (if I do draw on authority, maybe Schelling’s will be more rhetorically effective… He also is inevitably mixed up in any philosophical pie I may try to bake). Philosophical adequacy means keeping the conversation going, i.e., keeping the logos flowing.

My process philosophy is rheological, like Michael’s; but it is not just that, not just a scientific study of the flow of matter in the world. It is also a love of the way of wisdom in the world. Philosophy–at least as it was known when the word, and the way of life, was brought forth and developed in the pre- and post-Socratic philosophers–is concerned not only with contingent flows but with the “becoming of being,” the way of eternity, the living unity of the temporal universe.

Unity is the first form, the universal archetype, of philosophy; its first task is to express this unity in the multiplicities of its logoi and to discover it in the differentiations of its cosmoi. There are many important philosophical questions, among them (1) Why do things fall apart? Why Chaos? and (2) Why do things rise to attention? Why Order? I would not privilege (1) over (2), not only because both questions lead in interesting directions, keeping the logos flowing, but because I would not know what chaos was unless I had order to compare it with (and vice versa). Natural science itself already assumes the unity of the universe, that it is cosmos despite its chaos, even where it seems to methodologically require that intelligent freedom be kept distinct from a contingent and purposeless reality (i.e., that some mixture of mentality not be assumed to exist already in all materiality). This seeming methodological requirement of a modest witness to objectify neutral matter cannot be metaphysically justified. Philosophy, if it is to be anything more than an apology for nominalistic materialism, is the attempt to think the complex unity of intelligence and nature, to participate in the One Life organizing the whole. Schelling described the character of this complex unity as follows:

“Is it not manifest, that the tendency to posit the infinite in the finite and conversely the later in the former, is dominant in all philosophical speech and investigations? To think this form is [as] eternal as the essence of that which is expressed in it, and it has not just now begun, and nor will it ever cease; it is, as Socrates in Plato says, the immortal, never changing characteristic of every investigation” (from Bruno, Or on the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1802), I/4).

But what about Michael’s concern to bring forth a philosophy afresh? He called for “anarchic re-engagement” with tradition to avoid the tried and true pitfalls of ontotheological metaphysics. I share his concerns, even while I find tradition important (even if it is a pre-scientific and aristocratic tradition). When Whitehead wrote that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, I believe he meant to say that he thought in the spirit, if not always in the letter, of Plato. After all, as Whitehead also suggests, most of the best criticisms of what has come to be called Platonic philosophy are in Plato’s own dialogues. Further, though Plato’s political views have come to seem oppressive to us today, in his own time, his critiques of myth and attempt to establish a society based on true merit, rather than tyrannical power, were rather progressive.

I’d prefer not to have this post turn into a defense of Plato, since Michael asked to know what I think, not what I’ve read. But then again, if I’m honest, it is hard to tell where what I’ve read and who I’ve conversed with ends and what I think or who I am begins. A kind of alchemical hermeneutics would seem to be at play here, making it impossible for me to disentangle my identity from my influences.

On to some of Michael’s specific comments:

We only have limited access to the contingencies of nature as they have unfolded so far but there is nothing that leads me to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” won’t change barring some future cosmic event.

Eternity’s participation in time does not imply the erasure of contingencies or the permanence of physical laws. Laws are cosmic habits. They could have been otherwise. What couldn’t have been otherwise is that cosmic memory (i.e., intelligence as it acts in time) would form habits of some kind. Meillassoux’s absolute contingency–hyperchaos–is an interesting thought experiment, but as a cosmological principle I just can’t bring myself to accept it. In reality, there is no pure contingency, just as there is no pure necessity: there is only a mixture of each. Laws, as habits, can and do change, but as a moving image of eternity. Like Harman, I refuse to give up on the principle of sufficient reason, even while I (following Schelling) find it necessary to think reason without the law of non-contradiction (thinking reason with contradiction is where I think a process ontology is most helpful).

Michael goes on to speak of the

“anarchistic expansion, diversification, and complexification…inaugurated by the primordial expression of potency in our cosmos, otherwise known as the ‘big-bang.’”

The “big-bang” theory is surely one of the strangest and most wonderful ideas to emerge from scientific investigation of the universe. Here, I think Michael and I have the most in common, though I’d again emphasize that I am lead by such an idea to a sense of the profound unity of the universe (i.e., all matter-energy and space-time shares a common origin) no less than to its capacity for differentiation.

There remains, finally, an important discussion to be had regarding the nature of qualities and quantities, but alas, I’ve run out of time and energy tonight and will have to take up that challenge later.

After Finitude and Fideism comes Speculative Christianity?

Quetin Meillassoux is an important philosopher, according to Graham Harman,

“not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure.”

Leon Niemoczynski (After Nature) has recently posted about the theistic implications of Meillassoux’s work. He asks why so many Speculative Realist have ignored the religious aspects of his anti-correlationism. Adam at An und fur such pointed out Meillassoux’s ontology of radical contingency, taken to its extreme in The Divine Inexistence, leads to a reformed Christian incarnationalist scheme, where human value is derived, not from a past act of incarnation, but from our hope for future resurrection.

In an earlier post on this issue, I suggest that Meillassoux “dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.” Philosophies of the Absolute cannot avoid inquiry into divinity. Whether explicitly atheistic, like Ray Brassier’s eliminativism or or Levi Bryant’s materialism (Larval Subjects), or explicitly theistic like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, metaphysical systems cannot simply ignore the presence of divinity in the universe. They either have to explain away spiritual experience by reducing it to religious indoctrination, and explain away the persistance of religion by reducing it to biopolitical, psychological, and/or ideological factors, or they have to discover God in cosmogenesis. If a scheme of thought choses the prior reductive route, it would no longer seem to be in pursuit of a comprehensive picture of reality, but merely of a subsection of it. It would no longer be properly metaphysical, in other words, since it has prejudicially disqualified the miraculous in favor of the mundane. Metaphysics is the (perhaps endless) pursuit of a systematic discourse concerning both the limits (immanent, finite aspects) and the freedom (transcendent, infinite aspect) of the Absolute. Immanence and transcendence are not properly thought of as opposites; rather, transcendence is the superlative of immanence. The infinite is not opposed to the finite, but contains and indeed implies it.

Meillassoux’s conceptual recourse to the contingency of facticity in After Finitude leads him eventually into the ethical issues surrounding the contingency of the Act of creation itself in The Inexistent Divine. If everything is absolutely contingent, then this world-creating Act, too, was gratuitous. Creatio ex nihilo: creation for no reason whatsoever. For this very reason, everything remains possible, even for our seemingly irredeemable world. Our world. Despite the anthrodecentric gesture of his’ After Finitude, Meillassoux seems to affirm in Inexistent that man “is born to be [nature's] ultimate end,” as Kant supposed. “Such an end, however” Kant goes on to warn, “must not be thought in nature” (CoJ). Such an end seems to imply the divine’s entrance into the world, or at least its earthly birth within the incarnate human soul.

Integrating Panpsychism and Eliminativism in Processual Panentheism

I’ve just watched a good chunk of Shaviro’s lecture at OOOIII. I agree with his premise concerning the fork in the philosophical road between eliminativism and panexperientialism created by speculative realism’s anti-correlationism [See Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology's recent post for a refreshingly novel perspective concerning the supposed courageous soberness of eliminativism]. There is no middle ground here; Meillassoux‘s dilemma concerning the meaning of ancestrality and extinction for human thought can only be resolved through the negation/elimination of thought/meaning or the hypostatization/eternalization of thought/meaning. Shaviro does, however, end his talk by leaving the door open to some kind of integration between eliminativism and panpsychism. He doesn’t make this connection, but to my mind, such an integration would look a lot like a processual panentheistic scheme, wherein the ouroboric universe is perpetually birthing/dying, both wholly and incompletely divine at once (whereas panpsychism proper suggests pantheism–a determined, already completed universe/divinity, and eliminativism suggests atheism–the death not simply of God, but also of Man and Cosmos). I aspired to something like this integration here (see especially the sections on the logics of incarnation and of extinction): Thinking the Correlation with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Owen Barfield

Here is one of my earlier takes on eliminativism: The Myth of Eliminativism 

In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

I cannot, without much hesitation, identify myself as either a “prickly” or a “gooey” philosopher. It depends on who my interlocutors are. If I am in a philosophical conversation with, say, a professional biochemist with a reductionistic orientation, my attempt to wipe away and retrace the horizons of their world will inevitably come off as vague, pretentious, and mystical. If I enter into discussion with a musician or poet, my need to reflect upon and conceptualize the beats and flows of lived experience will probably upset their vibe.

Naught Thought/Ben Woodard recently posted about the “rhetorical disadvantages” of process philosophy resulting from its habit of embracing “ontological fuzziness.” He does nonetheless ally himself with the process perspective, speaking approvingly of Grant’s and Meillassoux’s philosophies of becoming by defending them from Harman’s worry about the “mining” of objects. The point of Woodward’s post, it seems to me, is to encourage the process wing of Speculative Realism to tidy up and formalize its rhetorical style:

“Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming…this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.”

I definitely appreciate any call to clarify my philosophical position. While I guess I am one of the “process-relational folks” (Woodard’s phrase), in the sense that I have participated in some PR blogalogues recently, I probably wouldn’t employ the phrase to describe myself. Whitehead is one of my most significant philosophical influences at this point in my short philosophical career, but I don’t think the term “process-relational” quiet works for him, either. If pressed, I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Christian Hermeticist. I’m all about “process,” but my heart and mind lead me to affirm that the cosmic process is evolutionary in the teleogenic sense. On a purely metaphysical level, I agree that hyper-chaos/creativity reigns; but on a cosmological level, God’s Love guides physical processes toward an increasingly intense harmonization of aesthetic contrasts, which is Whitehead-speak for Beauty.

Whitehead, like James, is a metaphysician of experience as much as process. Granted, he holds that, ontologically, only becoming is real; but physically, which is to say experientially, becoming is atomized. As James’ put it, experiential reality is both “substantive,” consisting of discrete and unified buds, and “transitive,” with buds flowing out of and into one another as a continuous stream. James suggested that the transitive phase of experience unfolds on the “fringe” of consciousness; it is made conscious only in non-ordinary situations (like that generated by nitrous oxide, in James’ case), and then only with great difficulty. Consciousness of the flow between buds is difficult because, as soon as consciousness attends to the multitude of feelings unfolding on the edges of experience, it transforms them into a unified drop of experience with a new center of subjective identity withdrawn from a new circumference of mostly occluded processes. But still, these flows are only mostly occluded, and many of our commonsense beliefs about the world depend upon our taking for granted that true relation is possible, that each discrete moment of private consciousness is causally bound up (and so continuous) with public processes.

I disagree with Woodard that process philosophy, at least that of the Whiteheadian variety, does violence to commonsense. On the contrary, Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to cosmologize the commonsensical ethical arguments of David Hume. Whitehead’s Jamesian inheritance leads him to elevate experiential adequacy to the very top of his philosophical priority list. His is a scientifically informed plea for re-enchantment, a spirited defense of human freedom and creativity against the radically non-commonsensical reductionisms of mechanistic materialism.

The more I begin to grasp Meillassoux’s process approach the more strikingly similar it becomes to Whitehead’s. The only major difference (and I still have to read The Divine Inexistence for myself) seems to me to be that Meillassoux focuses almost exclusively on (at least the future possibility of) the consequent pole of God’s experience, denying any primordial element. There is no reason at all for the way the universe is, despite its aesthetic beauty and mathematical intelligibility, and there would be no reason at all if a God capable of world redemption were one day to emerge. Whitehead, on the other hand, adheres to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He does so without separating thinking and feeling such that the intellect is forced to disenchant and mechanize the cosmos in spite of the heart’s protests. God, the eminent actuality and chief exemplar of Whitehead’s occasionalist ontology, is the dipolar embodiment of Reason; that which is responsible for experiencing both Reason’s eternal potentiality and its temporal actualization. Creativity remains Whitehead’s ultimate category, but absent God’s valuation and enjoyment, there can be no Cosmos. It is not a given that there is a Cosmos, but if we aspire to bring forth order and harmony in the world (i.e., if we aspire to cosmologize), then we do so under the assumption that a World Soul exists beyond our own soul to hold it all together.

Whitehead has been called a “philosopher for the muddleheaded,” and there is no doubt that he is an eccentric and complicated thinker. But I don’t think this implies that those philosophers (like myself) who share his attitude toward the real are necessarily at a rhetorical disadvantage. It all depends how one construes the end of philosophy. Some think philosophy, while it may begin in wonder, should end in precise understanding. This is not how Whitehead judges the success or failure of speculative metaphysics. For him, metaphysics should begin and end in wonder.

Bertrand Russell, about as prickly a philosopher as they come, recalls that Whitehead once remarked to him that:

“You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day; I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.”

Woodard’s comment about the “twilight of becoming” certainly seems accurate given this candid statement by Whitehead himself. I see his “philosophy of dawn,” not as a liability, but as perhaps his most important attitudinal contribution to intellectual culture. Unlike Woodard, I think metaphysical speculation is necessarily affective and existential. Philosophy must be involved  in the ethical complexities of everyday life among others, since it is only in response to these complexities that thinking emerges at all. If affect and ethics are not properly “metaphysical” topics, then I say to hell with metaphysics.

The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica

Image via Wikipedia

In his cosmographic study of the Copernican Revolution,The Poetic Structure of the World (1987), Fernand Hallyn entirely re-envisions the foundations of modern science. Instead of reading Copernicus’ break with the geocentric scheme as a rejection of the enchanted cosmos of the ancient world, Hallyn makes clear that Copernicus himself believed he was only making ancient Platonic and Hermetic doctrines more plausible.

Copernicus writes:

“At rest…in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. The Thrice Greatest [Hermes Trismegistus] labels it a visible god, and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it” (p. 22, On the Revolutions, 1978).

Quentin Meillassoux, in After Finitude, credits Copernicus with decentering earthly humanity in the universe; however, according to Hallyn, Copernicus also re-enacted the Platonic notion of astronomy as as divine science. In effect, through a rent in the imaginal fabric of the medieval sense of the sky, Copernicus caught a ray of light from a new heaven (or perhaps, in a gleam, saw heaven in a new way): he perceived the solution to the problem of the planets in the heliocentric theory; he stole fire from Zeus and elevated humanity to the status of the gods.

“It is highly unlikely,” he writes, “that anyone lacking the requisite knowledge of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies can become and be called godlike”  (p. 7, On the Revolutions).

Ptolemy, a more empirical and Aristotelean astronomer, humbly denied that the human mind could finally perceive the secret meaning of the planetary movements, since this secret was safely tucked away in the mind of an unmoved transcendent God existing above the vault of heaven. As far as Ptolemy was concerned,  hypotheses were all the human mind could hope for: we can but “save the appearance” by offering clumsy descriptions of the universe as if it were a mechanical gear-works originally rigged up by a now absent divine Architect. Perception of the inner truth of things was deemed forever beyond the capacity of the finite human being.

Copernicus’ intellect caught fire in his contemplation of the stars. His was the Hermeticist‘s method: to know through identity, to learn the song and dance of eternity’s moving image by becoming one with the everlasting Soul animating the whole. Half a century later, Kepler was able to simplify Copernicus’ geometry by allowing for elliptical orbits. He was also able to clarify the theological implications of heliocentrism by pointing out that a decentered earth is actually the perfect place for a contemplative creature such as ourselves to observe and come to understand the order of the universe.

Kepler writes:

“If the earth, our home, did not measure the annual orbit of the other planets –changing from place to place and station to station– human reason would never have arrived at knowledge of the precise intervals of the planets and other things that depend on those intervals; it would never have instituted astronomy” (p. 366, Selected Works, vol. 6, 1938).

In other words, Kepler analogizes the relationship between creature and Creator to that between an earth’s eye view of the solar system and a sun’s eye view. From the sun’s perspective, only a God with a priori knowledge of the spheres could understand their design, whereas on earth, a being capable of “the labor of reason” (p. 66, ibid.) could uncover their design in the course of time (a posteriori) as a result of the comparison of their relative motions. Man is like God, except man’s knowledge becomes in time, a moving image of God’s timeless wisdom.

[A variation on Whitehead's theological scheme here occurs to me, wherein God's primordial nature is equated with this timeless wisdom, while God's consequent nature is equated with humanity's gradual awakening to the divine meaning of the universe of appearances from within the limits of that very same universe. This is a Hermetic spin on Whitehead's panentheistic cosmology, wherein God's origin is the unconscious innocence of Nature and God's end is the conscious responsibility of Man.]

The Copernican Revolution, according to Hallyn, was a victory for speculative organicism, for the idea that symmetry and systematicity are behind the appearances of nature, rather than the mechanical motion of separately and haphazardly arranged parts, as in Ptolemy’s model. But by the time of Newton, a conceptually degraded Copernicanism had provided the necessary conceptual foundation for the complete replacement of qualitatively differentiated, concrete space with the abstract, homogenous space of Euclidian geometry. As the Scientific Revolution marched onward, the enchanted and participatory cosmos of the Renaissance was forgotten in favor of an increasingly “objectified” universe devoid of “subjective” meaning.

It seems to me that another jolt of promethean imagination is necessary to complete the noösphere’s phase transition from the current, epicyclic materialistic paradigm –where subject and object remain sundered– into a more integrated vision of the cosmos as a living whole.

Intuitive Thinking vs. Reflective Thought: Harman on Meillassoux

I’ve just read Graham Harman‘s essay for continent. entitled “Meillassoux’s Virtual Future” (2011). As usual, it is primarily Harman’s style of philosophizing that really excites me. I am fascinated by the way he juggles and plays with ideas, even when I don’t finally agree with his attempts to securely mold a certain set of them into a consistent metaphysical system. In the essay linked above, he refrains from arguing for or even mentioning any of his own metaphysical positions. Instead, the focus is on the philosophical impact of Quentin Meillassoux‘s thoughts, on how they might come to effect the history of Thought by being reversed or radicalized by the “rude handling from later figures” (p. 88, continent. 1.2).

Harman says elsewhere that he

“is inclined to say that what really makes a philosopher important is not being right, but being wrong…One becomes an important philosopher not by being right, but by attracting rebellious admirers who tell you that you are wrong, even as their own careers silently orbit around your own” (p. 87).

He goes on to offer examples of future philosophers who might memorialize Meillassoux’s ideas through radicalization or reversal, but I think he leaves out a least one other interpretive possibility. Harman references Meillassoux’s respect for German Idealism several times, but he never fully unpacks the Schellingian or Hegelian ontologies in order to properly distinguish them from Fichtean subjective idealism. He argues that so-called “strong correlationism,” the starting point of Meillassoux’s philosophy, must inevitably fall back into subjective idealism, since otherwise it speaks nonsense by asserting that the unthought can be thought.

Thought, according to Aristotle, must be non-contradictory. This is a result of his doctrine of substance and the principle of sufficient reason. If we make a further experiential distinction, however, between thinking and what is thought, we see that while the latter must remain consistent to be considered reasonable, the former must remain inconsistent for the same reason. Thinking is the differentiation of that which nonetheless remains whole; it is identity in process, not an identifiable product; it is the transitive flow of experience, rather than its substantive content. The unthought cannot be thought, since the unthought is that which produces thought. It is the activity of thinking itself.

Harman continues:

“In a world where everything is instantly converted into thought, we cannot claim that there might be something extra-mental anyway, because this ‘might be something’ is itself converted into a thought by the same rules that condemned dogs, trees, and houses to the idealist position [that when I think the thing, X, it becomes X for thought]” (p. 81).

Thinking is outside thought not because it is extra-mental, but because it is the naturans underlying the naturata. Nature itself thinks: it is an open ended process that is neither objective nor subjective, since thinking is productive of both of these concepts. Thinking is always converting itself into thought, but never can thinking itself be thought. I agree with Harman that Meillassoux (at least on my Schellingian reading) seems to be offering a kind of Zen koan (p. 81).

I unpack this Schellingian form of speculative realism more fully elsewhere (HERE and HERE and HERE). See also Rudolf Steiner’s Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, especially chapter 7: “Are there limits to human cognition?”

Michael Persinger and the Extended Mind

I’d like to follow up on my recent post about Michael Persinger’s research on the non-local electromagnetic aspects of consciousness. There is a growing contingent of cognitive scientists taking what has come to be called the “extended mind” theory quite seriously. Andy Clark is most associated with the idea, but Levi Bryant has been blogging about it lately. The idea is pretty straightforward: while the brain may be necessary for mental phenomena (including consciousness, memory, thinking, vision, etc.), it is not sufficient, since it is primarily through the fully embodied nervous system’s transactions with the surrounding extracranial world that such phenomena are made possible. The mind may still be characterized as entirely material, but it’s circuitry is understood to extend beyond the skin to form cognitive assemblages with other people and the various media technologies we share. Without learning to read and write an alphabetic language, for example, the kind of individuated subjectivity that Westerners take for granted as basic to human nature could never arise. Consciousness is, from this perspective, still an emergent property, but an emergent property of social activity and cultural artifacts as much as neural processes.

Now, what Persinger is suggesting is similar, but way more radical in some respects. He is suggesting (with experimental data to back it up) that the brain is something like a radio receiver/transmitter that tunes in to and is affected by a globally distributed “mental-field” (or “noosphere”?) closely associated with particular electromagntic frequencies. This is more radical than Clark’s “extend mind” hypothesis only because, if mental phenomena are indeed generated or carried by electromagnetism, this implies not just the local extension of mind, but the possibility of non-local, instantaneous connections between brains independent of space-time.

I’ve shared the video of Persinger’s lecture on this research with a long-time interlocutor of mine, Julian Walker, in the hopes that his generally more skeptical approach to consciousness studies would provide for an interesting discussion. I’ve not been disappointed.

Julian raises several difficulties that I’ll respond to in turn.

First, Julian praises Persinger for his work on the relation between psychoactive plants/fungi and the origins of religion, as well as his work with the “God helmet.” This research provides down to earth accounts of what might otherwise be explained supernaturally. I agree with Persinger (and Terence McKenna!) that psychedelic substances played a crucial role in the formation of, not just religious practice, but human culture generally. I’m not so sure this account explains away religion as the byproduct of a long history of hallucinations, however. “Hallucination” never struck me as the best term to describe what occurs during the non-ordinary states of consciousness produced by psilocybin and other tryptamines. It seems far more likely to me that the profoundly opening, spiritual experiences reported by most people who have ingested such substances actually provide a closer look into reality than our ordinary consciousness (which after all evolved to allow us to survive in a world of other hungry animals, not to commune with the ground of being). If there is a hallucinatory mode of consciousness, it is the everyday, ego identification that makes us feel like tiny points of apperception lodged somewhere inside the skull. So if religious practice arose out of the psychedelic experience, I think this implies that, where religion is based in experience rather than sectarian dogma, it is of great value to humanity, since it provides us with a window into a form of life not motivated solely by biological survival, but by more spiritual values like creativity and love. It’s not that psychedelics provide proof of anything “supernatural”; rather, I think a powerful entheogenic experience can reveal just how impoverished our modern, industrialized view of “nature” has become.

Moving right along, Julian criticizes Persinger’s application of phenomena observed by quantum physicists (like non-locality) to biological organization and human subjectivity. I’d agree that such transdisciplinary work remains highly speculative, but unlike most of the thinkers who mobilize quantum physics to explain the paranormal, Persinger is actually doing the experiments to support his applications.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Skeptico:

Skeptico: …you do seem to be…leaning in the direction of saying that there might be other ways [other than direct sensory contact] that consciousness interacts with other consciousness… [A]re you open to the possibility that the physical structure of our brain is more of a transceiver than the agent that creates consciousness, as some people have suggested. Is that on the table for you, or…

Dr. Michael Persinger: Absolutely. There is, of course, the idea that the brain is the source of all experiences because, obviously, if you terminate it you don’t have experiences; but the counter hypothesis – actually it’s not even counter, it’s a parallel hypothesis – is that the brain is microstructured. This infinitesimal, complex pattern, is microstructured so that it can serve as a substrate for electromagnetic patterns. And those electromagnetic patterns are the behaviors and the experiences, which means technically they could exist somewhere else. That means that if indeed there is an electromagnetic pattern, a complex one though it may be, associated with consciousness, if you recreated a substructure in another kind of setting, for example, a computer or in rocks or in trees, could you have some simulation of that. This, of course, is a hypothesis that definitely deserves testing.

So I think Julian’s worry is that the well-confirmed microcosmic weirdness of quantum physics is often used to explain all sorts of phenomena on the macroscopic scale purely through analogy or other non-scientific correspondences. This is one of dangers of cross-disciplinary research. But this does not mean such research should not and cannot be done scientifically! What good is science for understanding the universe as a whole if its many theorems are locked away from one another in the watertight compartments of narrow disciplinary research? Perhaps the biggest outstanding challenge for science in the 21st century will be uniting the truths of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and, dare I say it, spirituality. Scientific disciplines are human constructs; the universe itself is a single evolving process. Yes, it appears to be differentiated and layered, but there are no gaps between layers. Neural activity is conditioned by quantum activity “below it” and by social activity “above it.” Any account of psychological/mental phenomena will remain incomplete unless these conditioning links are fully explored. I think it is especially significant that Persinger finds the brain-based and electromagnetic accounts of consciousness “parallel” rather than contradictory. I am fascinated by his research in this area, not because it implies mental phenomena are non-physical, but because it forces us to expand (quite literally) our understanding of matter.

Julian is convinced that any account of mental phenomena that suggest it is not physiologically caused contradicts everything we know about the universe dating back to the big bang. Having recently engaged with the ideas of Quentin Meillassoux concerning the ancestral statements of science, this notion seems especially shortsighted to me. Our scientific knowledge of deep time (back to the big bang) might imply something like a primordial field of awareness as an invisible background underlying the complexification of matter. Cosmologists can make claims about what happened before human consciousness or biological sentience arose, even before atomic structure arose, because they are tapping into a layer of information or memory that does not depend on complex biology. These events are based on mathematical inference, you say? Certainly, but as soon as we attempt to translate this information into some sort of physical picture, we do so “as if” there was an observer there to witness it all happening. This is a great paradox. If we are to take cosmology at its word, we either tuck this paradox under the rug or we acknowledge its strange implications. Obviously there was no biological creature around 13.7 billion years ago to witness the big bang, but without assuming a witness of some kind, there is no way to make sense of the event. Even given that some unconscious but still mind-like field connecting everything in the universe at the quantum level was present to witness the big bang, it remains difficult to imagine how time might have a beginning, or what visible space might be expanding into as it grows. It is no more difficult to imagine what the nature of this field might be like. Stranger ideas have come to be scientifically accepted.

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.

“Here Comes Everything” Speculative Realism Panel summary (via Knowledge-Ecology)

Adam Robbert has written a nice summary of the panel discussion last week (4/8) on Speculative Realism. I’ve pasted it below. For the audio from the event, click HERE.

Here are a few reflections on last Fridays event “Here Comes Everything: An Introduction to Speculative Realism.” Video of the event will be posted later today (hopefully!).

The evening was split roughly into two halves with three presentations on each side of a short break. The first three, as you shall see, focused heavily on the Latour-OOO branch of Speculative Realism, with the second half focusing on Buddhist dialogues with Speculative Realism as well as excellent treatments of the work of Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux.

The evening started off with Sam Mickey and myself (Adam Robbert) recounting our own version of “The History of Access” a little piece riffing on the many facets of the post-Kantian scene in philosophy. Fortunately for everyone, Sam is one of those people who can summarize a book in three words, an auspicious asset considering that we gave ourselves only 25 minutes to explain the major philosophical insights gained since the late 18th century.

Correlationism is of course the centerpiece of any attempt to introduce Speculative Realism to those unfamiliar with the disparate and divergent movement. Charting the history of philosophy, Sam took us through the multiple adumbrations of correlationism including German idealism, phenomenology, deconstruction, analytic philosophy and their assorted subgenres, showing how correlationist thinking has left anti-realist and anti-metaphysical philosophies in its wake.

My own task in this introduction was somewhat easier and focused on the relevant strands of philosophy that, in their own way, had continued a tradition of speculation, ontology and metaphysics despite their increasing unpopularity throughout 20th century philosophy.

Where Sam articulated post-Kantian prohibitions against speculation, I focused on those figures that I felt had admirably maintained an avid love of speculation. William James seemed an obvious choice, as it was he who had such an impact on both Whitehead and Latour. There is something about James’ phrase “everything is ever not quite” that I felt captured so well both the desire to articulate an ontological position, and the inevitable failure of any attempt at complete metaphysical description. James in this way anticipates central figures to speculative realism.

Where Whitehead sought to systematize James’ ontological pluralism, and Latour so adequately applied both the Jamesian notion of radical empiricism and the Whiteheadian metaphysical love of process, one could also read into James’ “ever not quite” a hint of what Heidegger would later articulate as the withdrawn nature of the tool- a position that, as anyone familiar with OOO knows, would become a cornerstone of Harman’s articulation of the ontology of objects.

Though the connection between James and Heidegger is perhaps not canonical in any recognized philosophical sense, the tie between the “withdrawn” and the “ever not quite” seems to situate both thinkers in a way that makes both the phenomenological background of Heidegger and the psychology of James as important precursors to at least the OOO branch of Speculative Realism. Of course, “ever not quite” and “totally withdrawn,” are phrases from different traditions with notable distinctions; nevertheless an evasive ontological quality is present in both.

Whether or not Speculative Realism is still a term that can be used to describe the work of people as diverse as Ray Brassier and Graham Harman is a matter of contention. Our own group seemed ambivalent about the distinction, but it seemed clear that OOO and Speculative Realism, though historically related, are growing further apart.

Our introduction rounded out with further reflections on the use of speculative philosophy in connection with other movements in thought that occurred during the 20thcentury. In addition to the psychology of James and the cosmology of Whitehead, we also noted the contributions of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stenger’s with regards to the “Parliament of Things” and the “Cosmopolitics,” respectively. Donna Haraway’s work in feminism, science studies and her work on companion species were also noted. Haraway seems to be the figure most rooted in both the 20th century critical continental scene drawing on the likes of Foucault, as well as exhibiting a strong connection to Whitehead’s own speculative philosophy (on a side note, her capacity to hold these distinct positions is one of the reasons she is such a hero of mine).

That Stengers and Haraway were both central to the Claremont conference “Metaphysics and Things,” which was attended by three of the six panel members at our event was noteworthy as well. Haraway and Stengers are not, strictly speaking, members of the original four speculative realists (which most now know consisted of Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman and Ian Hamilton Grant), nevertheless their ongoing contributions to philosophy, anthropology and science studies make them central figures in the ongoing need to articulate not only new ontologies, but also new political and ethical systems of practice in relation to the work of metaphysics. One of the recurring themes and questions at our Friday event centralized ethics, the problem of evil and practice. There seemed to be an air of question as to whether the potency with which Speculative Realism has approached ontology has left it vulnerable, at least at this stage in the game, to political, ethical and moral criticisms (are we forsaking crucial considerations vis-à-vis praxis in the rush return to metaphysics?) Important questions abound here.

Our brief introduction was followed by the work of doctoral student Elizabeth McAnally, whose recent return from India gave her presentation a concrete and direct feel for us all to engage with the value of speculative realism in general, and with the philosophy of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman in particular. Having written her MA thesis on Latour, her ability to describe the value of actor-network theory with confidence and ease was apparent. The Ganges River in India, her particular site of study, afforded everyone with the opportunity to explore just what an object-oriented philosophy could perform in terms of on the ground research. The Ganges is a goddess, a river, a sewage canal and much more. That religion, politics and ecology are intertwined with the river goes without saying, the problem lies in allying these disparate perspectives into a kind of “water democracy” that adequately situates each perspective. Latour’s notion of “irreduction” was particularly prescient here as it becomes easy to see that any mode of abstraction (be it religious, scientific or political) has the capacity to reduce the Ganges to a particular set of relations, something that both Latour and Harman provide robust grounds for arguing against. Elizabeth’s presentation highlighted the value of Latour’s work in terms of religious, ecological and political praxis.

Next, Sam Mickey was given the floor once again to explore “The Astonishing Depths of Things,” a philosophical exegesis that opened us into the philosophical roots of Graham Harman’s philosophy. Mickey, once a devout Heideggerian, explained how through reading Latour he was able to break the Heideggerian circle and return to “the things themselves” through both Latour’s critique of Heidegger in We Have Never Been Modernand Latour’s political musings in The Politics of Nature. Anyone familiar with Harman will note Sam’s historical kinship with him. As a student of the works of Heidegger, and then of Latour, Sam was uniquely positioned to understand Harman’s position perhaps better than any of us. A simple synthesis of Heidegger and Latour was not, however, Sam’s highlight. In my opinion, Sam was at his strongest when articulating a “philosophy of touch” as both an integral philosophy (from the etymology of “integral” meaning “untouched”) and an object-oriented philosophy following, for example, Whitehead scholar Roland Faber’s comments at the Claremont conference that Harman’s is also a “philosophy of touch.” Drawing on Harman’s concepts of vicarious causation and allure, Sam argued that all objects are both always already touching every other object in the universe and are always withdrawn from all relations, planting him firmly in Harmanian grounds. I am definitely looking forward to see how the project of touch unfolds in both integral and object-oriented philosophical modes.

I will abstain from producing an account of my own talk for the panel as I have already posted the paper I delivered for the event HERE. My own notions of an ecological realism and a fourfold research method are nascent, but suffice to say that they at least seemed well received.

Shifting gears in the second half (after food and some wine), Aaron Weiss, doctoral student in the Asian Comparative Studies department regaled us with an account of both Buddhist cosmology and Harman’s chapter in Circus Philosophicus entitled “The Ferris Wheel.” Aaron is another one of those rare scholars that is as funny as he is deep. Starting with a description of the god-king Indra’s jeweled net –in which each faceted gem is connected to an infinite amount of other gems strung together through an n-dimensional array of threads- Aaron invited questions that could be considered alongside of Harman’s own accounts of objects as they rotate above and below ground, traveling as they do upon a gigantic Ferris wheel. Praxis was also a central theme of Aaron’s talk. We had heard about touch, we had heard about actors, objects and networks, but what are the practices associated with these ontological musings, asked Aaron. As a practitioner and scholar of Buddhism, practices are central to both Aaron’s studies in general and to his reading of integral philosophy in particular. The “Latourian Litanies” –those lists of cheetahs, leprechauns and patriot missiles for which Latour is so famous (and from which Harman seems to have learned so much) are for Aaron, modes of mindfulness where one can consider the interconnections of disparate things. Aaron’s talk seemed to me a call not just philosophize, but also to consider philosophy alongside non-philosophical modes of practice, to which philosophy (being that it cannot be its own self-contained island) must remain in relation to.

Thus far in the evening a disproportionate amount of attention had been paid to the likes of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, so much so that I had a creeping feeling of anxiety that we should have named this event “Introduction to Object-Oriented Philosophies” rather than the more general title “Introduction to Speculative Realism.” It was true that we had centered Quentin Meillassoux’s work and his term “correlationism” in the introduction (and again in a brief recap after the break for those folks who had arrived late). Sam had also on more than one occasion invited us to explore and try out not just nihilism, but Ray Brassier’s more sophisticated  “transcendental nihilism.” Nevertheless with four out of six presentations complete, the original speculative realist crew seemed ill represented. Our final two presenters, however, would serve to help remedy this imbalance as both Dr. Jacob Sherman and philosophy doctoral student Matt Segall would take us through the works of both Quentin Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant, respectively.

Matt Segall’s ambitious presentation sought to argue the well taken point that, although speculative realism may be new in name, the mode of philosophizing advocated by speculative realists is as old is Plato (Segall’s blog, named FOOTNOTES2PLATO after Whitehead’s famous comments about the history of philosophy being “footnotes to Plato” gives you a sense that returning to Plato is a common practice for this young philosopher). Working through three central texts: Kant’s Critique of Judgment,Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, and Plato’s Timaeus, Segall sought to justify and explore the insight of Iain Hamilton Grant’s own contributions to Speculative Realism in Nature after Schelling. Aside from all the heavy philosophizing, Segall has a background in cognitive science and biology, which gives him the unique power to move between philosophical and scientific discourse in a manner unfair for someone of his age. Alongside of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, one finds Segall’s talks peppered with references to geology, evolutionary theory and in particular, a love of the work of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. “There will never be a Newton of the grass blade,” remarked Segall, echoing Kant’s famous phrase. For Segall, following in Grant’s footsteps, correlationism is overcome by a reversal of the Kantian position that ‘all of existence must be grounded in the mind.’ No such thing is necessary, argues Segall. Rather, the earth itself is the transcendental ground that anchors consciousness and not the reverse. Segall’s tagline could have been “no earth, no geology” a quick phrase that demonstrates the thesis that were there no earth prior to mind, no experience as such would be possible by any human. In this way Segall persuasively argued for Grant’s “geocentric realism,” and that questions of the “thing in itself” need also consider that “the thing itself thinks!” In other words, for Segall and for Grant, there is more to the phenomenal realm which renders it immune to any simple distinction from the noumenal, as the two can be seen to act concordantly in all living things, with our without human mediation.

After repeated criticisms of correlationism from the prior presentations, our keynote speaker Dr. Jacob Sherman’s presentation returned our attention to the origin of the problem of correlationism in modern philosophy, including insightful overviews of the philosophies that led up to Kant’s Copernican turn (including Locke, Berkeley, and Hume).  Focusing on After Finitude, Sherman introduced the penetrating arguments and refreshing style that have helped Meillassoux gain a wide readership.  Honoring the elements of “participatory realism” in Meillassoux’s response to the problem of correlationism, Sherman called for “two cheers for Meillassoux.”  Instead of offering a third cheer, Sherman raised some critical concerns about Meillassoux’s mathematical understanding of real (primary) qualities.

In an odd turn of events, Sherman opened his talk with the verse of Wordsworth, but perhaps this was not so strange when considering some of Meillassoux’s choice words inAfter Finitude. Meillassoux’s “great outdoors,” or “absolute outside,” that aspect of the world to which no human correlate need correspond, is for Sherman a central component of the original Romantic project. Sherman traced the original coinage of the phrase “the great outdoors” to Keats in 1819. The Romantics, Sherman noted, were not concerned with producing mathematical descriptions of primary qualities “outside” of human experience, but rather sought explicitly to explore the sensible qualities that pervaded, with a strange uncannyness, not just the great outdoors, but also, to quote Sherman’s phrase “the great indoors.” For Sherman, Meillassoux has offered just critiques of correlationism in general and of Romanticism in particular, critiques that should and must be heeded by the continuation of any Romantic project.

It is better to watch Sherman so carefully take us through his arguments than it is for me to try and reproduce them here as I can do them no justice, however, Sherman’s final remarks are noteworthy. Meillassoux, who is so eager to a think a world apart from the mind, to consider the arche-fossil as a serious challenge to any honest correlationist position, and who wants, and may have succeeded, in producing a mathematical proof of existence before manifestation, still leaves Sherman wanting. If we are thinking qualities, and not maths, does this not imply that we are also thinking interiority, asked Sherman. And if so, are not the sensual relations, qualities and stories what we want to break free from the correlation? Sherman ended with a challenge for us to thinkqualities non-anthropocentrically.

During the Q&A that followed, it was mentioned that Harman’s metaphysics provides ways of discussing real qualities without mathematicizing them.  The rest of the brief Q&A touched on a variety of big topics for speculative realism, including beauty, time, and the future of philosophy.

Thinking and Sensing, Space and Time

Philosophy and science can be distinguished: the former is primarily concerned with thinking, the latter with sensing. This distinction is superficial, however, since there can be no pure science or pure philosophy; no pure concept or pure intuition. Phenomenologically, what exists is an interpenetration of cognitive action and carnal reaction, a vast network of felt contrasts between future-directed mind and past-detected matter (the feeling and the felt). Matter is always already differentiating and so taking on form, and difference is always already materializing and so becoming other than its form. The real is the different–which is not to challenge the metaphysical status of the principle of non-contradiction by wedging contradiction into the heart of the Absolute, but to affirm this principle by thinking the Absolute as a differentiating process that never exists as a whole in an instant and so cannot be in contradiction. Difference becomes without contradiction, which is why wholes can endure as parts of other wholes. If time froze, there would not even be nothing, since nothing is still a difference and so always having to re-conceive of itself as not being so.

Experience is not only the present-at-hand representation of objects (as in conscious creatures), it is also the ready-to-hand prehension of dying subjectivities. I cognitively grasp things in space only after things have aesthetically grasped me in time. Light gave rise to the eye in the living time of evolution; only afterward did physical space take on depth. Consciousness emerges in the non-contradictory difference between space and time, between presence/distance and past/future.

Teilhard de Chardin and the Christ-Cosmos Correlation

Speculative realism has emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human existence 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. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

“… the most agonizing experience of modern man, when he has the courage or the time to look around himself at the world of his discoveries, is that it is insinuating itself, through the countless tentacles of its determinisms and inherited properties, into the very core of what each one had become accustomed to calling by the familiar name of his soul” (Activation of Energy (1978), p. 187).

In the same essay, he writes of the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The human has been de-centered in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of his own self.” 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 (1999)  to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.” Teilhard realized that the survival of our species depends upon discovering a new, scientifically informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that grinds to a halt without the narrational renewal of each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provides only momentary condolence, if any at all. 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.

Teilhard is still a correlationist. He writes: “…nobody has any serious doubt but that if the world is to be, it must be thinkable” (AoE, p. 191). He believes that the world must be that sort of object graspable in principle by thought. For Teilhard as for Hegel, “the rational alone is real.” This correlation between the real and the rational, or between being and thought, is required by the “homogeneity in the structure of the cosmos” (ibid., p. 195) detected by Teilhard. The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (ibid., 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” (AoE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and the human mind 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 this history is progressive and convergent. Cosmogenesis is also anthropogenesis.

“The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; 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 grows. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation. Anthropogenesis is now culminating in Christogenesis.

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” (AoE, p. 280).


Does speculative realism require atheism? Meillassoux and Ray Brassier seem to think so, as both unequivocally reject the viability of mythopoeic thought and despise the recent religious turn in Continental philosophy. I’d like to leave open the possibility of a speculative realism as Christology, with Teilhard as its primary, if still problematic, exemplar (Rudolf Steiner, especially as carried forward by Owen Barfield and Jonael Schickler, also offers assistance here–See my essay on Steiner and Teilhard). Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound arrives later this week… after reading it, I’ll have more to say about this possibility…

Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy

I’ve jumped from Meillassoux‘s After Finitude to reading Steven Shaviro‘s book on Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze Without Criteria (2009). A few thoughts have occured to me…

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction. There is no evidence of causal efficacy at this level of conscious experience (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), since it is here that our human freedom becomes most pronounced. One of the unique features of human consciousness seems to be its capacity to step back from the emotionally saturated causal vectors inherited by bodily organs in order to disinterestedly observe them. Whitehead thinks this capacity for the conceptual prehension of eternal objects (or universals) is present in all organisms to some degree, but it reaches extremes in especially reflective moments of human consciousness.

Meillassoux’s chapter on Hume’s problem might have benefited from Whitehead’s analysis. Meilloussoux asks why the apparent connection between events given to us perceptually should be allowed to trump our cognitive grasp of the absolute contingency of such events. But what if philosophy were to acknowledge that cognition is a species of feeling? Causality, which for Kant was a category added to experience by the understanding, would no longer be necessary, but nor would it be purely contingent. The connective glue between bodies would be habitual, but not in the sense that Hume meant (as though it were only a limitation of the human mind that restricted us from true knowledge of real events). Whitehead’s construal of causal efficacy transforms effects into affects, thereby connecting actual occasions in a sensual matrix in which ordered behavior becomes canalized for the sake of lasting beauty and prolonged enjoyment. There is no necessary connection between events, but things nonetheless have an aesthetic longing to relate harmoniously. Novelty also enters into the causal flow of events to disrupt encrusted formations of order, but it is always checked by the socializing tendencies of actual occasions. The subjectivities composing the universe desire freedom from each other even while they seek to merge with one another, creating a cosmic pulsation always verging on but never falling entirely over into the chaotic mystery at the root of reality.

Meillassoux and Post-Secular Philosophy

“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” (After Finitude, p. 82).

This belief, 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, discovers an absolute that is unreasonable because purely chaotic, and argues that nothing is necessary, not God, physical law, or any finite thing. In other words, everything is contingent, and this contingency is not merely a transcendental statement concerning the limits of human factiality, but a speculative statement about the nature of reality itself. 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, which is the result of his desire to seek out an argument that dispels the sense of wonder provoked by Leibniz’ question. This wonder, he thinks, leads to the religionization of philosophy, especially in a post-Kantian atmosphere where reason is forbidden any claim to the absolute, thereby leaving philosophy defenseless against non-rational poetic, spiritual, or psychological (etc.) claims to have uncovered its truth.

The “return of the religious” is a strange fact about our contemporary world. Sociologists had long assumed that modernization would necessarily lead to increasing secularization. The failure of the secularization thesis leads me to wonder whether religiousity isn’t a more basic feature of human nature than atheist or nihilist thinkers typically want to let on. This is an anthropological, rather than an ontological issue, but then again, maybe Leibniz’ question should be reframed in the context of Kant’s transcendental critique: “why is something given for us, rather than simply being in itself?” Put otherwise, why consciousness capable of asking “why?” when there just as easily could have been something not given to anyone at all?

Meillassoux writes about the necessity of contingent beings, and perhaps approaches an answer to my question in that context. He argues that if contingency is necessary, then contingent beings are also necessary. And to be a contingent being implies being a finite incarnation that has a point of view on the world and so naturally asks “why?” despite the fact that Being itself offers no reason.

Nihilism is very convincing on intellectual grounds alone. But perhaps knowlege and truth cannot be limited to the dictates of logos (what of ethos and pathos?). More soon…

Owen Barfield and Quentin Meillassoux

Meillassoux and Barfield may at first seem like strange bedfellows, but by unmasking the pervasiveness of correlationism in post-Kantian philosophy, the former steps right into an issue that works its way into nearly all of Barfield’s published works.

In perhaps the most complete and cogent explanation of his position, Saving the Appearances, Barfield writes:

“…the evolution of nature is correlative to the evolution of consciousness…[which] hitherto can best be understood as a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the ‘meaning’ of phenomena towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. The earlier awareness involved experiencing phenomena as representations; the latter preoccupation involves experiencing them, non-representationally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness. This latter experience, in its extreme form, I have called idolatry.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. For Barfield, the evolution of consciousness is not just a matter of recognizing the historical changes in our ideas about nature (an obvious and widely acknowledged process); rather, theories of the evolution of consciousness attempt to describe ontological changes in the underlying relationship between human awareness and the universe. For example, in Worlds Apart, writing about the significance of Galileo’s division of nature into qualitative (subjective) and quantitative (objective) aspects, Barfield says, “It wasn’t a new idea of the relation between man and nature; it was an idea of the new relation between them” (p. 178).

Barfield suggests that, prior to the Copernican and scientific revolutions, humanity directly experienced the surrounding world as symbolically meaningful: the whole moral structure of the geocentric cosmos was arrayed before consciousness in the appearance of the night sky, for example. Post-Copernican consciousness, however, could no longer take immediate sensory experience at face value. Our sensory perception of the heavens had been proven to be mistaken by the newly emerging mathematical methods of science. It now seemed that the planets were not gods concerned with our earthly destinies, but mere matter arrayed in empty space going about its business whether or not anyone was there to perceive it. Humanity’s sense of centrality had been humiliated. Barfield, a correlationist of the eternal variety discussed by Meillassoux in After Finitude (p. 22-23), goes to great lengths in many of his books to explain why the purported existence of objects independent of Mind (be it human or divine) is non-sensical.

As for Meillassoux, he has much to say about the effect of the scientific revolution, as well:

“…science’s promotion over philosophy as guarantor of knowledge has become the locus of a misunderstanding, not to say wrong-footing, that appears to be without precedent in the annals of thought – for it is at the very moment when philosophy attempted for the first time to think rigorously the primacy of scientific knowledge that it decided to abjure precisely that aspect of thought which constituted the revolutionary character of scientific knowledge: its speculative import. It is at the very moment when philosophy claimed to be acknowledging its own supersession by science in the realm of knowledge that it renounced as ‘moth-eaten dogmatism’ its own capacity to think the object ‘in-itself’ -precisely the mode of thinking that, for the first time, was concurrently being promoted to the status of potential knowledge in the context of this very science. Even as science, by virtue of its power of decentring, revealed to thought the latter’s own speculative power, philosophy, at the very moment when it was ratifying this takeover, did so by abjuring all speculation, which is to say, by renouncing any possibility of thinking the nature of this revolution. Something akin to a ‘catastrophe’ occurred in this changeover from metaphysics to science as guarantor of knowledge -Copernican science provided the impetus for philosophy’s abandonment of speculative metaphysics, but this abandonment was reflected back onto Copernican science as philosophy’s Ptolemaic interpretation of the latter. Thus, philosophy’s message to science was: ‘it is you (and not speculative metaphysics) that holds the reins of knowledge, but the underlying nature of this knowledge is the very opposite of what it seems to you.’ In other words, in providing the impetus for philosophy’s destruction of speculative metaphysics, science also destroyed any possibility of a philosophical understanding of its own essence.”

For Meillassoux, Kant’s counter-revolution, which philosophically re-centered the subject after its scientific displacement, was a wrong turn. I’m still not entirely clear on how his attempt to radicalize correlationism from the inside (by absolutizing the facticity of the correlation itself) plays out, but in his rejection of Kant’s compromise with science, he would find an ally in Barfield (who is certainly in favor of a speculative renewal!). On the other hand, Barfield was a lifelong critic of the sort of scientific materialism that posits a mind-independent universe filled with sense-less objects; but if Meillasoux’s radicalization leads in something of a panexperientialist or pansensualist direction (as Harman’s OOO does), then they may be fighting the same fight, after all.