Letters on Cosmology and Theodicy

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

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


Matthew,

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

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

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

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

Best,
Dean

~~~~~

Hi Dean,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt,

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

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

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

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

Thanks again for your time, Matt.

Peace,Dean

~~~~~

Dean,

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Best,
Matt

~~~~~

Brian Swimme on “The New Story” in cosmology:

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

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

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

Schelling & Whitehead inheriting Spinoza & Leibniz: God and the Modern World

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I’ve just finished Matthew Stewart’s popular book The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (2006). I was hoping to fill out my own understanding of the historical context surrounding these two thinkers. I was not disappointed on this front. Stewart combed the archives and stitched together an entertaining story about the important influence (even if negative) that Spinoza had on Leibniz. After Leibniz had caught wind of Spinoza’s heretical writings through a mutual friend, he initiated a short correspondence before eventually meeting with Spinoza at the latter’s apartment in The Hague in November of 1676.

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Stewart’s presentation of the ideas, as well as the personal character, of these two world-historical thinkers is tilted rather sharply in Spinoza’s favor. Stewart is certainly entitled to his perspective, but I was put off by his hatchet job on Leibniz. Spinoza, clearly his hero, is made to seem like an anti-mystical modern liberal materialist, while Leibniz is painted as a greedy, socially needy medieval throwback and a pathological liar whose best ideas were cribbed from Spinoza. Leibniz’s character flaws, as well as his philosophy, are psychoanalytically reduced by Stewart to the loss of his doting father at the tender age of 6.

Leibniz was well-traveled and well-connected man whose collected works and correspondence with other learned members of the European upper classes totals more than 150,000 pages. As a result, historians know far more about his biography than Spinoza’s, who was forced into seclusion after being excommunicated from the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam when he was 24. Leibniz’s flaws, as well as his brilliance, are far more on display than Spinoza’s, whose life remains shrouded in mystery. This makes it easy for Stewart to elevate Spinoza to the stuff of legend, the exemplar of all virtue and modesty. Stewart claims him as the heroic forerunner of everything he finds great about modernity: the religiously tolerant and democratic state, the ethos of self-interest, the mechanistic understanding of nature, etc.

Stewart laments the “anti-modern” influence of Leibniz in the centuries following his death, suggesting that “the reactive form of modernity that began with [him] has in fact become the dominant form of modern philosophy” (310). He goes on:

“Anxious over the apparent purposelessness of the world revealed by modern science; bitter about the threatened demotion of humankind from its special place in nature; alienated from a society that seems to recognize no transcendent goals; and unwilling to assume personal responsibility for happiness–a needy humankind has reinvented the Leibnizian philosophy with abandon over the past three centuries” (311).

Stewart lists Kant, Hegel, Bergson, and Heidegger as each expressing what amounts to the same sort of reactionary philosophy that Leibniz first articulated in response to his encounter with Spinoza’s system. All these anti-modern thinkers, according to Stewart, failed to face the darker mundane truths about human and cosmic nature revealed by the scientific method and by the bloody course of political history. Contra Leibniz, it would seem that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

There is certainly something profound in both Spinoza’s pantheism and Leibniz’s monadology. My own philosophical heroes, Schelling and Whitehead, learned a great deal from each of them. Schelling, who argued his entire life on behalf of freedom (for humanity, for God, and for nature), nonethteless lavishes great praise upon Spinoza (this despite the latter’s thoroughgoing deterministic world-picture). In his 1833 lectures published as On the History of Modern Philosophy, Schelling writes:

“It is unquestionably the peacefulness and calm of the Spinozist system which particularly produces the idea of its depth, and which, with hidden but irresistible charm, has attracted so many minds. The Spinozist system will also always remain in a certain sense a model. A system of freedom–but with just as great contours, with the same simplicity, as a perfect counter-image of the Spinozist system–this would really be the highest system. This is why Spinozism, despite the many attacks on it, and the many supposed refutations, has never really become something truly past, never been really overcome up to now, and no one can hope to progress to the true and the complete in philosophy who has not at least once in his life lost himself in the abyss of Spinozism” (66).

Schelling was stimulated to move beyond his early allegiance to Fichte’s subjective idealism by Spinoza. But the latter’s system was no resting place for Schelling, it was rather a springboard towards deeper speculations on the relationship between the creative life of God and on God’s participation in the becoming of nature. For Spinoza, God was inseparable from and so identical with nature. Though infinite, Spinoza’s God was also an immovable and so dead substance, incapable, says Schelling, of going out of itself in order to create. And as far as Schelling was concerned, despite the genius of his system, Spinoza left us with no explanation for how the transition to even just the appearance of finite things could ever have taken place. “We are compelled,” writes Schelling, “to go back into infinity with the explanation of everything.”

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As for Leibniz, Schelling agrees with Stewart that his monadology was largely a reaction to Spinoza’s system, “a hypothesis which [Leibniz] thought up, perhaps only to oppose something different for a time to Spinozism, in order, so to speak, to divert the world with it” (78). Schelling goes on to say (in further agreement with Stewart) that “we can primarily regard Leibnizianism only as a stunted Spinozism.” Schelling sees Leibniz not so much as an opponent, but as an interpreter or mediator of Spinoza’s ideas. As Stewart points out, Spinoza’s doctrine of mind-matter parallelism became Leibniz’s doctrine of a pre-established harmony of monads.

Schelling does praise Leibniz for his insight into the stages of nature’s coming to consciousness of itself as spirit. The material world Leibniz called a “sleeping monad-world”; the vitality of plants and animals he referred to as the “dreaming monad”; and the rational soul of intelligent creatures like human beings he referred to as the “waking monad.” Schelling was also inspired to build on Leibniz’s early attempt to delve into the mind of God prior to the creation of the world. In Schelling’s hands, this exercise became the attempt to articulate a sort of “temporal eternity,” a past that was never present, a divine time prior to cosmic time in which God deliberated with Itself. Schelling’s Ages of the World project remained unfinished at his death. It proved too difficult in the end for Schelling to overcome the subject-predict mode of expression while at the same time remaining logically comprehensible at the same time. Though perhaps he came close in his drafts:

“The doctrine that God created the world in time is a pillar of genuine faith. The labor of this present work [Ages of the World] would be adequately rewarded had it only made this thought comprehensible and intelligible. For since there is no time in God itself, how should God create the world in time if there is not a time outside of God? Or how would a determination of this time be possible if there is not already, before creation, a movement outside of God, according to whose repetition time is measured? God, in accordance with His highest Self, is not manifest. God manifests Himself. He is not actual. He becomes actual. It is precisely by this that God may appear as the most supremely free being. Hence, something else emerges between the free eternity and the deed, something that has a root that is independent from eternity, and is something commencing (finite), albeit eternally so. Thereby, there may eternally be something through which God could draw nigh to creatures and communicate Himself to them. Thereby, pure eternity may always remain free with respect to Being. And Being may never appear as an emanation from the eternal capacity-to-be and hence, there may be a distinction between God and his Being. In science, as in life, people everywhere are governed more by words than by clear concepts. Hence, on the one hand, they explain God in an indeterminate fashion as a necessary being and, on the other hand, they get worked up over a nature being ascribed to God. They would thereby like to give the appearance that they are saving God’s freedom. How little they understand, or, moreover, how they understand nothing of this whatsoever, is illuminated by the preceding. For without a nature, the freedom in God could not be separated from the deed, and hence would not be actual freedom. Hence, they quash, as is proper, the system of universal necessity and yet they appear just as eager to quash any succession in God, although, if there is no succession, only a single system remains, namely that everything is simultaneous with and necessary to the divine being. In this way, as one notices that they also do in life, they reject, like the blind, precisely that which they most eagerly seek (without understanding it) and are drawn exactly to that which they really wanted to flee” (80-81).

In the end, Schelling faults Leibniz as much as Spinoza for denying freedom and life to God. Spinoza’s denial was more forthright: God’s only “freedom” is to be what God is. God is substance–simple, unified, unchanging being. End of story. Leibniz attempted to retain God’s freedom, but only through a logical device. He distinguished between the divine will and the divine understanding, whereby the metaphysical necessity of God’s understanding was said not to hamper the moral freedom of God’s will. But Leibniz goes on to claim that God’s goodness could only have led him to chose the best world (even while His understanding forced him to accept only the best of all possible worlds, given the necessities that come along with bringing a finite world into existence). This logical maneuver is but a diplomatic pretense, just “the last resort of rationalism,” according to Schelling (83). Leibniz says God is free, but by arguing that God’s nature is to be good, Leibniz has actually limited God to an essence, that is, God has been equated with necessary existence, which in fact is no existence at all (where to ex-ist means to stand out from oneself, to be free of oneself, but also free to become oneself). Here it is clear how Leibniz, though he consciously strove to escape Spinoza, could in the end only collide with him. As Stewart writes in his endnotes:

“The truth is that, before he knew anything about Spinoza, Leibniz was against Spinoza; and yet, at the same time, he also had a Spinozistic side. The encounter with Spinoza was crucial to his philosophical development because it forced him to confront this division within his own thought. Spinoza presented him with a problem he devoted his philosophical labors to solving, namely, how to suppress the dangerous Spinozist within himself. Absent the dalliance with Spinoza, Leibniz would have remained a conservative thinker; but he would not have been an essentially modern one, and his philosophy would not have originated the reactive form of modernity” (331).

Neither Leibniz nor Spinoza had a way to account for the transition from the infinity of their ideas to the finitude of actual experience. Pure reason alone offers no such path. Leibniz’s many monads and their a priori harmonies; Spinoza’s one Substance with Its attributes and modes: both speculative systems fail the test of experience.

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Experimenting on experience is described by Whitehead in the opening pages of Process and Reality as “the true method of discovery.” Like an airplane, the testing of experience:

“starts on the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation” (5).

Whitehead certainly owed a lot to both Spinoza and Leibniz. His speculative system is a re-assemblage of many of their most insightful concepts. But in re-assembling them, Whitehead also drastically alters their meaning. Leibniz’s monads are turned into process-relational actual occasions; they are, unlike Leibniz’s ultimate entities, almost all window. Spinoza’s simple substance is turned into creative process, neither finally describable as one or as many, but only as a transitional inter-relationship whereby “the many become one and are increased by one”–an eternal repetition of creative differentiation forever and again until the crack of doom. As for God, It becomes a creature of Creativity (but an important one, in that God is Whitehead’s principle of limitation, that Eros for which and by which there is anything definite at all in the first place… Without Desire, nothing could become. Creativity/the Absolute would remain unmanifest, unrevealed, mere potential, unable to ex-ist, to free itself from itself.

So Spinoza and Leibniz (since Kant, usually classified as rationalists) couldn’t account for the transition between the infinite and the finite, and so couldn’t coherently bring God and the World into positive relation… Are Schelling and Whitehead’s answers any better? Is Desire or Divine Eros a convincing reason for this transition? Could there be any other reason? Whatever you may think, Whitehead wagered on this particular solution because he felt it was the most empirically adequate account of the ontological question (“why something rather than nothing?”). Existence has value, else it would not and could not exist. Schelling similarly advocated for a metaphysically empirical account of the ultimate act/fact of creation in his late philosophy of revelation.

Are Schelling and Whitehead “anti-modern” thinkers because of the religious dimension of their thought? I suspect Stewart would think so. They seem to fit right into his schema of “anxious,” “bitter,” “alienated,” and “needy” inheritors of Leibniz who felt the need to protect their human dignity by inventing a divine Father-figure capable of redeeming the chaos and suffering that has thus far dominated human history. I think Stewart rightly warns us to avoid the sort of ontology of consolation he describes. Perhaps Leibniz did fall victim to such a quasi-philosophical strategy in some of his lazier moments. I think Schelling and Whitehead must be understood, not as anti-modern, but as alter-modern. Their philosophies are incarnational, focused more on the Son and the Spirit than the Father, to continue to develop the theological analogy. In this sense they are fully secular, concerned with this world, and not the next. 

Thinking Through Atheism in a Religious Cosmos (response to professoranton)

Like Professor Anton, I would also want to pose the existential problematic of self-consciousness to those atheists who reject religion outright. If religion arose naturally as a result of humanity’s gradually increasing capacity for self-consciousness, and by implication, for conscience, then what are we secular folks supposed to replace it with? We cannot simply expect all our guilt to disappear with the churches if the churches and their rituals arose in the first place as a response to the guilt-inducing effects of our undeniable feeling of being free (more or less if not absolutely so). To deny that consciousness is a real feature of the universe, as many atheistic scientific materialists are tempted to do, is just a cop out, another psychological ploy no better than the old religions that allows them to avoid having to directly face the terrifying reality of feeling ethically responsible to a community of other moral agents. The question is not whether we should be done with religion or not. We cannot be done with religion. The question is rather “what sort of religion are we to make, now that we are conscious of our need to do so?”
In his wonderful little book Religion in the Making, Whitehead writes:
“In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty.”
Whitehead was a religious man, but his vision of God was intimately wed to his vision of the universe. His religion, in other words, was fully cosmologically, loyal to the real universe as we experience it (and therefore not beholden to supernatural beings beyond our experience). To the extent that Anton shares my Whiteheadian desire for a worldly religion, our unorthodox positions in the theism vs. atheism debate run together. But, as we’ve made explicit before, we part ways when it comes to the question of agency’s place in the cosmos. I defend a panexperientialist ontology, while Anton’s position seems to float somewhere between physicalist emergentism and a sort of Kantian transcendental vitalism. On the one hand, he wants to accept the scientific materialist version of the story, whereby the agential qualities of life and mind are said to have emerged (contingently or necessarily, he can’t be sure) out of an originally non-agential matter, while on the other hand he wants to deny that temporality can precede the emergence of living organisms (making it impossible to understand how non-living matter could have “preceded” life). Maybe I am misinterpreting Anton’s aims, but I don’t see how these two positions can hang together coherently. Like Steven Shaviro, I’d argue that the only two coherent positions remaining after traditional theism has been dismissed are eliminative materialism and some sort of panpsychism.
Rather than trying to imagine (since I’m not at all convinced it can be coherently imagined) that time, and with it the experience of agency, emerged with the first living cells, I defend the thesis that temporality is a real feature of the universe at every scale of its organization, including the physical. Not only living organisms, but every self-organizing physical system brings forth some kind of temporal experience. The temporal experience (and so the degree of agency) of a system varies depending on its form and level of complexity. The vast majority of experiential systems are non-conscious and so their agency is extremely limited. As the cosmos proceeds up the evolutionary chain of becoming from physical, to vegetable, to animal forms of organization, the degrees of freedom and agency increase exponentially. In the human being, time can become conscious of itself at last as a moving image of eternity. In this experience of what Deleuze called the “temporally eternal,” human beings discover their greatest blessing and their greatest curse: freedom itself.
Schelling defines freedom, not as an attribute of the human self (as though I have freedom and can wield it with my will), but as the unruly chasm that continually erupts from the ground of our existence as a result of the tension between good and evil: I am simply the freedom to decide between the two, and I maintain my identity only by continuing to decide again and again, eternal moment by eternal moment. I do not have freedom; freedom has me. Religion emerges from this tensional experience of self-conscious freedom as an attempt to help us cope. But it is not here that human beings become most unlike the rest of the cosmos; rather, it is here that we reveal our consciousness to be continuous with the rest of the cosmos. The same conflict of centripetal (gravity) and centrifugal (light) forces that allows a star to temporarily forge its identity, at a higher power allows a human being to form its.

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

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

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

Thompson writes:

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

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

Alexander Bard on Network Metaphysics

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

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

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

“Nature is a priori” -Schelling

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

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

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

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

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophy from Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

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

Etheric Imagination in Process Philosophiy From Schelling and Steiner to Whitehead

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

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

Reflections on Bruno Latour’s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence,” Ch. 4: Learning to Make Room

I’m participating in a reading group with about 40 other scholars focusing on Bruno Latour‘s recently published book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013). This week it is my turn to comment on Ch. 4, which is titled “Learning to Make Room.” I’m going to cross-post my comments here, as well as on the blog we’ve set up for the reading group (aimegroup.wordpress.com). If you want to respond to anything I’ve said here, please do so on the AIME group blog so that all the comments will be assembled in the same place.

…………………………….

Introducing the Beings of Reproduction,
Instituting ‘A Whole New Diplomacy’ 

by Matthew David Segall

   In chapter 4 of his inquiry into modes of existence, Latour begins the difficult task of appropriately enunciating how it came to be that the Moderns, despite having conquered the whole world, still lack the room to deploy the values––legal, moral, fictional, political, economical, spiritual, psychological––that they so cherish. Even the values of physical science became impossible to localize and equip after the entire earth and sky were submerged in an abstract space-time filled by the mathematical motion of matter-energy. Where, it must be asked, is the Mind that measures, calculates, and understands the infinite system of the Universe standing? On whose authority was this Mind granted access to the Ideas at work in Nature? Latour’s inquiry into the modes of existence cannot even begin until after the Cartesian Constitution leading us to repeat such poorly posed questions has been torn to shreds.

There is hope for the values of the Moderns, if only they are willing to give up all the bad habits and confused composites that come along with the “institution of matter” (118). Ecologizing Modernity will require instituting “a whole new diplomacy” (103) adequate to a pluriverse in which neither Nature nor the Mind can be said to exist. The alternative non-Naturalist, non-Idealist Constitution that Latour is trying to enunciate has summoned many modes of existence to the negotiating table. In chapter 4, Latour introduces us in particular to the beings of reproduction [REP]. He also attempts to disamalgamate the poorly formed composite causing a confusion of the beings of reproduction with the immutable mobiles of reference [REP ~ REF]. This confusion is the “double category mistake” through which “the notion of ‘matter’ emerges” (110). Poor Descartes gets blamed for more than his fair share of philosophical damage (we might at least admire his genius before we shame him for his mistakes), but Latour cannot avoid dating the emergence of the idea of matter to his (in)famous meditations. After Descartes, the Modern world “[begins] to believe that the thought of matter describes real things, whereas it is only the way the res cogitans–itself dreamed up–is going to start imagining matter” (110).

Imagine instead that the nascent, still scattered people of Gaia are waking up from Descartes’ dream. Imagine that the flood of Materialism has receded, and that all the faux battles waged by “spiritualists” against “reductionists” have grown quiet for lack of interest. Imagine you are an Earthling once again, returned from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our common sense world of earth and sky, of plants, animals, and persons, makes the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of science look like “child’s play” in comparison (120). The world of common sense experience is more unfathomable, more mysterious, than the micro- and macroscopic worlds described by physicists, since, as Latour reminds his readers, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” Latour wants to re-introduce Moderns––a people so obsessed with their theories of matter that they’ve entirely neglected the material practices that make these theories possible––to the beings of reproduction [REP] that, for several centuries now, have been so rudely silenced by the bizarre institution of matter. One of these beings, Gaia––no longer content to remain the unacknowledged background of human history––is now intruding to return the favor by rudely ignoring the Modern pretension to a risk free, double-click Science that might grant total control over a 3+1 dimensional world, as if this world were made of pure “knowability” (112, 121). Such a world would leave no room for life. Luckily, Gaia is no homogeneous substance or geometrical form, but a proliferating ecology of expressive, inventive, and active beings, each of whom, like us, is at risk from moment to moment of disappearing forever should they fail to be articulate, original, or insistent enough to subsist as themselves in an environs swarming with differences (99-101). Latour introduces us to the beings of reproduction [REP] so that the “matter” of materialism, “the most idealist of the products of the mind,” can be de-idealized (106).

Even the so-called “inert” entities of the inorganic world forcefully insist and express themselves. The concept of “force” that has proven so irreplaceable to physicists in their study of microscopic particles and far away galaxies is, we should remember, a concept that emerges from and gains its meaning only by continual reference to experience, to our feelings of attraction or repulsion, of being forced, in one way or another, by the insistent presence of an other. As Schelling, speaking to the Newtonian scientist, wrote in his Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1803),

“you can in no way make intelligible what a force might be independent of you. For force as such makes itself known only to your feeling. Yet feeling alone gives you no objective concepts. At the same time you make objective use of those forces. For you explain the movement of celestial bodies–universal gravitation–by forces of attraction and maintain that in this…you have [a physical ground of explanation for] these phenomena” (transl. by Harris and Heath, CUP, 1988, p. 18).

In point of fact, experience can grant us no such physical principles, if by “physical” it is meant that which exists “outside” experience, in the so-called “external world” of mute matter in motion. All our scientific knowledge of distant quasars and black holes hits its mark, not because the Mind has correctly represented the formal essences of Nature, but because our organism (equipped with its world-wide network of geometrical notations, telescopes, satellites, computers, and well-trained peers) has succeeding in translating the lines of force at work outside itself into the feelings of life at work within itself. All our knowledge, no matter how abstract, must make its final appeal in the courtroom of experience, since the court of Reason, having disavowed the the facts of feeling involved in all its acts of knowing, has as a result been cut off from its only means of concrete relation to reality. If everything were submerged in abstract “space-time/matter-energy,” science could never follow the threads of experience, could never arrive at the immanence of a truly de-idealized material (106).

It is not entirely clear at this point if Latour is willing to follow Schelling and Whitehead all the way to a full-blown panexperiential ontology. But what is obvious is that the beings of reproduction [REP], whether physical “lines of force” or biological “lineages,” do not mutely persist like undead zombies: to keep on existing as material existents, they must loudly insist that their values matter. Else they risk extinction. There is no “blind necessity” maintaining the substance of these beings. They can never rest inertly in a simultaneous sameness, nor can they succeed at succession through mere inertial momentum. The beings of reproduction must continually re-produce themselves by passing into and through others, taking little leaps to cross the hiatuses punctuating this world at every twist and turn of its becoming. These tiny transcendences force beings to risk passing through each other in order to remain in existence as themselves: “To obtain being, otherness is required. Sameness is purchased, as it were, at the price of alterations” (110).

When Science forgets the beings of reproduction [REP] by confusing them with its own mode of existence [REF], the formal knowledge produced and employed by it begins to seem as though it dropped into the minds of scientists from heaven. Luckily, the careful practice of scientific abstraction can easily be shown to be a concrete job at every step (110). The material universe referenced [REF] by Modern Science is not made up of objective facts that might speak for themselves and so put an end to every human debate (119). Rather, scientific knowledge “is the labor of a whole chain of proof workers, from those whose hands are black with dirt to those whose hands are white with chalk” (110). Science is a local practice, after all. Its knowledge [REF] is relative to the subsistence [REP] of its networks. Scientists––including their “languages, bodies, ideas, and institutions” (102)––are beings of reproduction [REP] contingently composed and recomposed from moment to moment by the same lineages and lines of force they pretend to study as “matter” whenever it appears “outside” themselves. We need not fear the eternal silence of infinite space, nor the mute mindlessness of inert matter. No, we have never been Modern, we have never lived in a geometrical space, and “this whole matter of matter has to have remained just a simple mind game” (117). We can imagine another, more coherent world: a world that leaves us room not only to think, but to breathe, to live. If we grow sensitive again to the multitude of earthly existents within and around us–to the swarming differences articulating the face of Gaia–maybe we can annunciate an ecological alternative to Modernity before it is too late, before the “grave events” (122) already expected of the coming century ramify so severely that the adventure of civilization has its unacknowledged ground pulled out from beneath its feet. Perhaps Hegel was partially right: after several thousand years of self-negation, human history has reached its end. But it has ended only so the Moderns (or the people who come after them) might reawaken to the multi-billion year geostory they have been sleepwalking through.

So, can we follow Latour’s diagnosis of the “sort of coherent madness” (115) motivating Modernity’s mistaken amalgamations and bifurcations? Are we ready to give up the Mind of Science, with its universal Knowledge and its obedient Nature, in exchange for the far messier pluriversal practices of the well-equipped sciences? Are we willing to welcome the lively beings of reproduction back to the negotiating table, or must we continue to drown out their multiplex voices in a Flood of res extensa-cogitans (112)? Are we ready yet to grasp the modes of existence, not as different representations of the same underlying reality (that discovered and described by Science), but as uniquely enacted realities, each in their own right?

Robert Rosen and Friedrich Schelling on Mechanism and Organism

I’ve been reading some of the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen‘s essays on the relationship between biology and physics and can’t help but compare him to Friedrich Schelling.

Rosen writes:

[Contemporary physics embodies] a mechanistic approach to biological phenomena, whose only alternative seems to be a discredited, mystical, unscientific vitalism. [It] supposes biology to be a specialization of something inherently more general than biology itself, and the phenomena of life to be nothing but very special embodiments of more universal laws, which in themselves have nothing to do with life and are already independently known. In this view, whatever problems set biology apart from the rest of science arise precisely because organisms are so special.

One prevailing manifestation of such ideas is the naive reductionism that passes today as the prevailing philosophy underlying empirical approaches to organisms. The very word connotes that living things are special cases of something else, and that we learn everything there is to know about them by reducing them, treating them as mere corollaries of what is more general and more universal.

However, organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.

-(p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000).

Schelling, considering nature’s fundamental organization, writes:

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

-(p. 70, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI).

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

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

See also this post on the Astrality of Materiality.

Imagining Nature with Schelling and Whitehead

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

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

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

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

In Process and Reality, Whitehead wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the same text, Schelling writes:

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

Life After Darwin (another response to Benjamin Cain)

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

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

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

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

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

See below for more in depth arguments about this topic…