William Irwin Thompson on Planetary Transformation

Adam/Knowledge-Ecology and I interviewed the integral philosopher William Irwin Thompson a while back. He recently posted a transcription of part of that encounter on his blog. Here’s a sample:

So imagine in a noetic polity that a girl is born, the very fact that she is a member of that polity would empower her to get an education, to go to a good school, to not starve on the street, to participate in the economic exchange of values with the idea that she’ll go on to contribute to her culture by creating Apple computers or new kinds of art or philosophy or technology, and that rather than being seen as a drain on the system, she makes a contribution. Recall that Reagan used to like to talk about welfare mothers in Chicago driving Cadillacs and living well while doing nothing but watching TV. This image comes from Reagan’s postwar TV culture of illusion and deception—Death Valley Days and Westerns. But in a post-television, post-national, post-market world, the culture would not be about passive consumption but participation in noetic polities through the growth of consciousness. Education becomes a primary institution of exchange in the same way that monasteries were in the Dark Ages.

One has to look at religion, economics and political structures as all part of this transition. Unfortunately, we’re living in the transition-state and we’re out of the event-horizon of the old basin of attraction, and we’ve entered the turbulent zone between two event-horizons, so we’re in for a very bumpy ride, because we haven’t yet entered the event horizon of the new cultural ecology of noetic polities. This transition probably won’t come easily, but will be characterized by die backs, pandemics, and ecological catastrophes, because for the past 40 years we’ve made all the wrong decisions, as you guys are aware. When Gore did not contest his plurality, but let the Supreme Court interfere with the election by supporting George W. Bush, we lost our last chance to avoid a catastrophic transition. Bush and the Neocons gave us the two trillion dollar war of Iraq and blocked the transition from economics to ecology as the governing science of a new planetary culture.

President Coolidge said that the business of America is business. Now most college kids want to get a job and make their education mean something as an investment from their parents.  They want to get an MBA from Harvard or Wharton, so our culture is still based upon  the business model of economics. Congress is still filled with businessmen and lawyers. The governing politicians now won’t accept ecological science, hence their denial of global warming, despite the fact that every major scientist in the prestigious journal Nature affirms that global warming is real and not a plot of Euro-intellectuals to introduce Socialism. Climate change is real. David Orr even goes so far as to call our situation one of climate collapse.  But Good ol’ Republican businessmen still insist that it is all a fraud, a scam. So our politicians are still trying to run this system with market theory and economics with good old-fashioned common business sense.  They’re now trying to run universities as profit-making systems, and thus they are getting rid of the humanities the way they got rid of the classics 40 years ago.  They are trying to get rid of intellectuals to mass-produce business, economics, and government majors. And to keep the Plebs happy, they invest more in sports and their required facilities than they do in the Humanities. So they are getting rid of literature, philosophy, and English—the kind of majors that encourage thinking instead of consuming. But here too, things are changing, because Creative Writing is now a consumers’ market and has been absorbed by the publishing and media industries. There are now literary journals that have no other purpose than to publish these artificial academic works in order to secure tenure for their A List writers. Creative Writing literature is like a yeast infection: it is a surface colony that parasitizes the reproductive system and gets in the way of the real thing. Writers should know things, so they should major in another subject from Astronomy to Zoology. The kind of liberal arts college education in which I studied anthropology, philosophy, and literature at Pomona College fifty years ago is now no longer available or valued. You’re not going to get it at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

 

So that’s a big change in the notion of an educated citizenry. All the people who are now part of the government are the wrong kind of people for our global crisis. People like the McConnells and the Boehners–they don’t know what the hell is going on. So we are going to learn the hard way.

 

If we had listened to the first prophetic warnings in the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies–in all the work that Lindisfarne did 30 to 40 years ago–and even before that to Earth Day stuff in 1968, then we might have had leaders that were more open to a new world-view. Jerry Brown, when he was governor of California the first time, did listen and did come to some of our Lindisfarne meetings. Brown appointed  people like Gregory Bateson, Sim Van der Ryn, and Rusty Schweickart  who introduced new ways of thinking and new technologies of solar and wind and organic farming. Brown made the green architect Sim Van der Ryn to be state architect; so Brown did try to energize new ideas, but he was dismissed as “Governor Moonbeam” by the popular press–which is, of course, owned by the media corporations, of folks like Rupert Murdoch.  Jerry Brown would go to a Zen monastery like Tassajara and meditate, and so the popular press ridiculed him. Jerry has a lot of problems, like the rest of us, but he did have a political sense that these issues were the wave of the future, so it will be interesting to see now that he is governor again how he handles this transition we are in.

 

But for sure the concreteness of markets, solid gold currency–all of these instruments are inadequate and are an application of the wrong geometry to the behavior of the system we’re in. So often times it is outlaws, poets, mystics, and philosophers who get a sense of what the new thing is—as Bucky Fuller with his global-thinking pirates pointed out.

 

Remember even when science was replacing religion at the time of Newton, most of those guys were Rosicrucians and hermetic mystics (in the way Francis Yates has explored), and they were pretty wacky and really far-out kind of guys. They weren’t just classical scientific materialists– that came later with materialists like Lavoisier. So there is often a whole lunatic fringe, or cutting edge group of people, out there who are beginning to express the transition, but they are not the people who are governing us, so there is a time lag.

Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism

I’ve been fascinated by the development of the enactive paradigm since I read The Embodied Mind back in college at UCF, where I studied cognitive science with Prof. Mason Cash and Prof. Shaun Gallagher. I feel fortunate that I was able to study cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in a program where the phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were taken seriously, since traditional approaches to cognition still tend to rely heavily on computational metaphors for mind and see the development of artificial intelligence as the most effective research program. The enactive paradigm is fundamentally opposed to such metaphors, and to the idea that mind can be understood independently of living systems.

Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) is perhaps the foremost researcher associated with Enactivism. He studied very closely with Francisco Varela as a graduate student, and even before that as a child at the Lindisfarne Association (started by his father, William Irwin Thompson), where Varela often lectured. I had the opportunity to meet E. Thompson earlier this year when he lectured about his upcoming book on neuroscience and meditation at the CIIS Consciousness Forum. I asked him then what his empirical and phenomenological research implies about the ontology of consciousness, a question he answered by giving an autobiographical account of his personal spiritual development. Having grown up at Lindisfarne surrounded not only by new paradigm scientists, but new age mystics, he said he was more inclined early in his life to believe that consciousness was indeed basic to, if not constitutive of, reality. Since becoming an academic philosopher and immersing himself in the neurophysiological and biological sciences, he has stepped back a bit from this ontologization, and is now inclined to believe that life, rather than consciousness, is basic to at least our knowledge of reality (as per his “strong continuity thesis”). I continue to follow his work very closely and will probably reference enactivism quite a bit in my dissertation on the ontology of imagination. Having studied and internalized the perspectives of Whitehead, Schelling, and other cosmologically-inclined thinkers since initially encountering the paradigm in college, I think enactivism, though epistemologically and methodologically robust, remains ambiguously afloat in murky metaphysical waters. What lies beneath the surface of the co-constituted umwelt of organism and environment? Meaningless chemical reactions and thermodynamic gradients? Is the emergence of sense-making autopoiesis possible in the universe as it is depicted by scientific materialism? Kant certainly didn’t think so, but he was still living in a Newtonian universe. Have systems theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity made his comment about the impossibility of a “Newton of the grass-blade” passé ? These are the kinds of questions I’m left wondering about…

On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics

On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics

Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: What is Life?

I. The Irruption of Time

II. Ancient Biology

III. Modern Biology

IV. Teleology as a Regulative Principle of Living Organization

V. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive of Living Organization

VI. Concrescence and Bodily Perception

VII. Concrescence and Autopoiesis

VIII. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time

IX. Integral Thought-Perception and Market Cosmology

X. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity

Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life

Works Cited


“Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?” –p. 7, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures

Preface

The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population[1] and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.[2] In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.

This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity; but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy[3] into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.

The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).[4] But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and earth.

Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics[5] by devouring the remaining resources of the earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to “give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noosphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).  Only with the full emergence of the noosphere can humanity become integral with the earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).

Humans and their societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued, “…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).

I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by dualistic ontologies and fetishized mythologies. These forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our human-human relations is the psycho-social precursor that primed scientific consciousness for the reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution (which lead, consequently, to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic policy).

Mechanistic biology typifies deficient mental thought concerning human-earth relations. I will try to draw ideological links between mechanistic sciences of life and industrial economics to make clear that, while not the only cause of current social and ecological injustice, mainstream biology’s dismissal of soul (formal cause) and spirit (final cause) gives ideological steam to the hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching the planet’s living population to the edge of extinction. I will attempt to deconstruct the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo so that more integral human-human/human-earth relationships might be brought forth.

Introduction: What is Life?

“Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result” –p. 12, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures

Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an

“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).

The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying on earth. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate this metaxic, commercial concept. The reflective human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which

“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (p. 177, ibid.).

Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present “everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.). How are we to conceive of life’s integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence; an overly expansive definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature. Each living creature is a moving image of eternity, embodying both temporal and eternal ingredients.

I will endeavor in the following pages to coherently define every actual occasion, from atom to Eve, as a living creature. The reason is that no scientific account of the biosphere can, without incongruence, explain the emergence of life in a physical universe that is otherwise devoid of feeling, meaning, and purpose.

My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic[6] process” (p. 320, Dennett). This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all roots whatsoever between our own intentionality and the evolutionary dynamics that carried us here. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.

The process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela, will aid my critique[7] of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.

The approach of these two thinkers represents what cultural philosopher Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). It was not until the 20th century that life could be properly understood, as prior to this historical moment, time itself had not fully entered the consciousness of human beings. Gebser’s account of the irruption of time will aid us throughout this text.

I. The Irruption of Time

“The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur in this science at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration.” –Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384

In The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser elegantly enacts a still nascent structure of human consciousness, the integral, and distinguishes it through comparison to the other structures uncovered in his phenomenological study of the evolution of consciousness. The structures he discovered include the archaic, magic, mythic, and mental, each with its own dimensionality and sensory emphasis. Most important for my task—that of bringing forth a living cosmology to replace the dominant mechanical, market cosmology—is the ongoing mutation from the deficient mental to the integral structure, with special attention paid to the resulting transformed awareness of time.

The efficient mental structure of consciousness is described by Gebser as having been “already shaped in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity” (p. 11) by such figures as Parmenides, Plato, and especially Aristotle. The full mutation from psyche to mind[8], however, did not take place until 13th century Europe, revealed in the intensely personal poems of the Troubadours and the revival of Aristotle in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Gebser’s account of the mental structure suggests it was responsible for producing “the visualization of and openness to time with a quantifiable, spatial character” (p. 12), and offers as an example of this new attitude toward time the erection of the first public clock in 1283 in the courtyard of Westminster Palace.[9] From this moment forward, the mind became increasingly deficient, a growing impediment to integral space-free, time-free awareness.

Gebser is clear that this rising of time into consciousness is both a gain and a loss: a gain because it allowed humanity to think, to understand, to reflect, to calculate—in short, to recognize its capacity for rationality (p. 74); a loss because, with the invention of clocks, time became falsely spatialized, thereby occluding the transparency of the whole for the sake of rampant quantification of the parts.

As Gebser puts it,

“…our fathers [dominated by the mental structure] had no sensorium for the phenomenon of time. Living in a spatially frozen world, they considered the temporal world to be a disturbing factor which was repressed, either by being ignored, or by being falsified by measurement into a spatial component” (p. 284).

The implications of the obsession with measurement in a world experienced as “spatially frozen” will be explored in depth below, but it suffices to say for now that such factors played a central role in the formulation and widespread acceptance, whether explicit or not, of the substance dualism that continues to plague much of mainstream mechanistic biology (whether it be the dualism between consciousness and earth, or that between genetic information and somatic realization). Only once the mutation into integral consciousness commenced could humanity begin to appreciate time, not as a quantity or magnitude, but as a qualitative intensity (p. 285). Before exploring the crucial significance of qualitative time in an integral biology of economics, I must first examine the beginnings of biology itself during the birth and development of the mental structure.

II. Ancient Biology

“Biologists cannot study their subject in abstraction from matter, since nature always acts for the sake of an end, which involves studying the relation of what is potentially something to its full realization” – p. 641, Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium

Gebser recognizes Aristotle as among the first in antiquity to display an unquestionable tendency toward mental, as opposed to mythic, consciousness (p. 408). It is not surprising then that Aristotle is widely seen as the originator of both the science and philosophy of biology (p. xx, Lennox). Whitehead, however, famously wrote that philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” (p. 39, 1978), and indeed, Aristotle is indebted to him, even where he diverges. Whitehead credits Aristotle with correcting Plato’s tendency to “separate a static spiritual world from a fluent world of superficial experience” (p. 209, ibid.). In Timaeus, Plato lays out a cosmology that is structurally similar to what would today be called intelligent design. The universe is described as something made, though is imbued with intelligence and soul by its designer, a divine craftsman, who orders it based upon a changeless, ideal model to bring about the most beauty and goodness possible (p. 228, Lennox). Aristotle, on the other hand, tried to find a less theological middle ground between atomistic reductionism and Plato’s still mythic artifactual idealism, being careful not to scrub away nature’s purposes in the process. Though he still made use of the metaphor of the craftsman to understand organic form, Aristotle recognized an important difference between artifact and organism that was blurred by Plato’s cosmology (despite the fact that in Timaeus Plato describes the cosmos as a living thing—its soul was inserted from outside):

“For the artist is source and form of what comes to be, but in another; whereas the movement of nature is in what is coming to be” (p. 735, Generation of Animals).

Aristotle here distinguishes the work of an artist from the form of an organism by pointing out that artists shape their crafts from the outside, while organisms form from within. The core difference between Plato’s understanding of life and Aristotle’s is that Plato finds it necessary to import purpose into nature from beyond nature (by demiurgic design), while Aristotle finds it immanent in the movement of natural things themselves.

It might be helpful here to introduce Aristotle’s four αιτίες (roughly translated as causes, or reasons) for the sake of which every living organism exists. I will revisit these causes in a later section (VII) on Whitehead, where a slight reworking of them will aid our understanding of concrescence. The material cause is the potentiality necessary for formation, and the efficient cause this formative movement’s agent of initiation. The formal cause is movement directed toward an end, the final cause being the attainment of that end. Aristotle viewed the matter and form of a creature as intimately related: matter provides the potential for the actualization of form. The difference between Aristotle’s immanent and Plato’s demiurgic understanding of teleology is extremely significant, as this distinction has influenced nearly every philosopher of biology since, as well as every economist.

The separation and valuation of man and his labor over and above the surrounding natural environment goes hand in hand with the separation and valuation of a divine architect allied with eternity over and above a created world that is a mere imitation, “a thing that has come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods” (37d, Timaeus). The mythic enchantment still informing Plato’s cosmology would eventually be cleansed and anthropocentrized by more modern thinkers, who used its logical structure in support of what Donna Haraway has called “productionism”: “Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” (p. 297, 1992). I will discuss productionism in connection with mind/matter dualism in section VIII.

III. Modern Biology

“…if one accepts the evolutionary perspective, attempts to discuss science (or any other sort of conceptual activity) become much more difficult, so difficult as to produce paralysis.” – p. 299, David Hull, The Naked Meme

Charles Darwin, idolized by many contemporary materialists as the slayer of teleology and champion of the mechanistic paradigm, was a student of William Paley, whose natural theology and argument from design can be traced back directly to Plato (p. 228, Lennox). Paley held that certain artifacts, including organisms, could not be explained without recourse to an intelligent artificer due to their obviously designed features. Darwin was inspired to respond to Paley, and so devised the theory of natural selection to explain how the apparent design of organisms could be the result of a purely mechanical process working over immense geological time (p. 68, Dennett). Darwin’s response to Paley is difficult to disprove by weight of empirical evidence alone,[10] but when one realizes the implicit assumptions that both make, it becomes clear they are working from within the same paradigm: both Darwin and Paley understood organisms to be nothing more than especially sophisticated machines. They differ only in the reasons given for this sophistication. Paley’s argument from design required a transcendent deity for nature to have any purposes. Once Darwin called the logical necessity of that deity into question, the biological world was left sterile and purposeless, the result of chance, necessity, and an unfathomable amount of time.[11] Plato’s demiurge and the wisdom it had ensouled the universe with had been vanquished, leaving only the undirected flux of nature in its stead.

This is not the whole story, however. Darwin’s was a biology constructed to comply with and reduce to Newtonian physics. Newton conceived of the universe in a way reminiscent of (demythologized) Plato: nature was a clockwork machine constructed by God according to certain transcendent laws. Darwin was compelled to find a place for life within this framework, a framework Whitehead describes as “the doctrine of Imposed Law” (p. 113, 1967). The only way to make room for life in Newton’s universe was to erect a radical division between the contingency of biological evolution and the necessity of physical law. While Darwin correctly replaced Paley’s deist natural theology of creation with his evolutionary narrative, he failed to recognize that the laws of physics themselves also had to be evolutionized.[12] But because he was still firmly rooted within the mechanistic paradigm, Darwin could not understand how the biosphere’s miraculous beauty and harmonious organization might have arisen without recourse to the arbitrarily imposed, deterministic order of Newton’s laws.

Immanuel Kant, who died more than 50 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (and so also lived in the shadow of Newton), heavily criticized the view that organisms can be understood as machines/artifacts. His view is reminiscent of Aristotle, in that it affirms natural purposes without recourse to supernatural designers. Why the Anglo-American world paid so little attention to his critique of mechanistic biology is an historical curiosity worth exploring.

British colonialism (and later, American capitalism) has had no better apologist than Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by variation under natural selection can be read as the animistic projection[13] (through metaphorical transfer) of the socio-economic models of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus[14] onto natural processes. England was at the height of its global empire while David Ricardo, Smith, and Malthus were writing their treatises on market economics. His own national history and enculturation no doubt presented Darwin with a sense of moral obligation to explain natural history and biological evolution in such a way that they not contradict sanctioned norms of colonial and capitalist power relations.

Biologist Ernst Mayr has suggested that “Kant’s acceptance of teleology…greatly affected German evolutionists in the nineteenth century”[15] (p. 82, 2001). Nonetheless, Mayr felt that any use of final causation in biology was doomed to failure (ibid.). We can only assume that Mayr had other philosophical[16] (and perhaps ideological) commitments that prevented him from investigating Kant’s understanding of teleology in more depth. We turn now to explore Kant’s account of life, one that would almost two centuries later resurface in the scientific guise of Varela’s theory of autopoiesis (p.136, Thompson, 2007).

IV. Teleology as a Regulative Principle of Living Organization

“An organized being is then not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but it possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organizes them, in fact, and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion.” –Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment

In The Critique of Judgment, Kant ridicules the very idea of a purely mechanical account of life:

“…it is quite certain that in terms of merely mechanical principles of nature we cannot even adequately become familiar with, much less explain, organized beings and how they are internally possible. So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd for human beings even to attempt it, or to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws unordered by any intention, how even a mere blade of grass is produced” (p. 282-283).

Many materialists have argued that Darwin was exactly the “Newton of the grass blade” that Kant thought would never come. But this confuses an important distinction between ontogeny and phylogeny. Darwin’s theory was exclusively an account of the phylogenic diversification of species.

As Evan Thompson makes clear,

“Kant’s concern was the definite organization of living beings, but the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection does not provide any account of organization at the level of biological individuals. On the contrary, the theory must presuppose biologically organized individuals that reproduce” (p. 131).

To suppose Darwin’s theory banished the immanent purposes of particular beings, one must commit Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness by mistaking a general law about the abstraction “species” for an account of the nature and origin of concrete individuals. Further, because Darwin had to presuppose reproducing organisms for his theory of speciation to work, modern biology cannot look to his work for anything approaching a complete account of life.

Kant’s genius was to recognize that “some products of material nature cannot be judged to be possible in terms of merely mechanical laws” (p. 267, CoJ). To understand life, according to Kant, final causality must be employed. Like Paley, Kant also thought artifacts were impossible to explain without the application of some teleological principle. Material and efficient causes were not enough to account for the design of a bicycle, for instance. But unlike Paley, Kant understood organisms as “natural products,” not artifacts of divine design (p. 133, Thompson). A natural product is generated immanently by a natural purpose, in contrast to an artifact, which is given its purpose by an external, intelligent agent.[17] A natural purpose is found in “a thing [that is] both cause and effect of itself” (p. 249, CoJ).

It will be helpful to explore the relationship between artifacts and organisms a bit further. Both are organized in a purposeful manner, which means they are incomprehensible without an idea motivating their production. Further, the structure of any organized thing, machine or organism, is such that each of the parts composing it exists for the sake of the whole (i.e., each of the components conforms to an overall idea).

But this is not enough to understand the natural purposes of organisms, as Kant explains:

“…we must think of each part as an organ that produces the other parts (so that each reciprocally produces the other)… Only if a product meets that condition…will it be both an organized and a self-organizing being, which therefore can be called a natural purpose” (p. 253, CoJ).

Again, an artifact is purposeful because it is caused by an idea, but it is an idea that “resides outside the entity in the mind of an intelligent designer” (p. 134, Thompson). The idea informing an organism is, in contrast, “both cause and effect of itself.” Kant’s coining and elucidation of the term “self-organization” is strikingly similar to Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, but an important complication remains for us to discuss before I can move on to this more recent formulation. Kant saw the natural purposes of organisms as merely a regulative principle of our own human epistemological limitations. Regulative principles, in contrast to constitutive principles, do not tell us what a thing is, but only what we can know about that thing (p. 137, ibid.). Kant held that we needed both mechanical and teleological modes of thought to investigate nature, but was agnostic as to these concepts’ ultimate relation to things. This is a necessary result of the Kantian dualism between the phenomenal realm of experience and the transcendent realm of noumena.[18]

Even so, Kant comes very close to admitting that self-organization is constitutive of living organisms (and not just a regulative principle), but backs away from this position for reasons that are extremely significant considering the overarching aim of our current exploration (to reverse the disenchantment of nature that sustains the instrumentalist attitude so characteristic of techno-industrial capitalism).

It is worth quoting him at length:

“In considering nature and the ability it displays in organized products, we say far too little if we call this an analogue of art, for in that case we think of an artist (a rational being) apart from nature. Rather, nature organizes itself… We might be closer if we call this inscrutable property of nature an analogue of life. But in that case we must either endow matter, as mere matter, with a property (hylozoism) that conflicts with its nature… Or else we must supplement matter with an alien principle (a soul) conjoined to it. But if an organized product is to be a natural product, then we cannot make this soul the artificer that constructed it, since that would remove the product from (corporeal) nature. And yet the only alternative would be to say that this soul uses as its instrument organized matter; but if we presuppose organized matter, we do not make it a whit more intelligible. Strictly speaking, therefore, the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us” (p. 254, CoJ).

Kant here attempts to reconcile the possibility that organisms are intrinsically self-organizing (and therefore purposeful) with his philosophical commitment to Newtonian science.[19] He finds that he must either endow matter with life-like properties (hylozoism), or admit a dualism whereby an intelligent soul either constructs or inhabits organized matter (vitalism). He rejects both on the grounds that they conflict with Newton’s view of nature as composed of inert and unfeeling atoms shuffled around by transcendentally imposed laws. Self-organization, therefore, is seen as an entirely irrational principle that is nonetheless indispensible for any human understanding of living creatures.

Kant’s understanding of the nature and scope of science was lacking due to no fault of his own. In the time since his death, both the study of physics and the study of self-organization in biology have advanced beyond the wildest dreams of the 18th century imagination. Kant, like most of his generation, was mesmerized by the mathematical magic displayed in Newton’s Principia.

But as Gebser points out,

“This form of mathematics permits calculation with infinitely small variable quantities. These quantities…are merely mathematical quantities…[and]…render causal processes measureable by mathematically fragmenting intensities. These spatialized ‘quantities’ of intensity…will continue to exert a negative effect until we clearly recognize this rational falsification” (p. 311).

Gebser is here attempting to explain that calculative systems like Newton’s are clumsy abstractions, basing their measurements of space and time on “so-called ‘ideal quantities’” (p. 310) that are actually falsely spatialized intensities. The significance of this will not become clear until Whitehead’s process metaphysics are unpacked, but for now I will allude once more to the tendency of the deficient mental structure of consciousness to spatialize and quantify everything, leading to

“an extreme dualistic form of thinking which recognized only two antithetical and irreconcilable constituents of the world: measurable, demonstrable things, the rational components of science which were valid; and the non-measureable phenomena, the irrational non-components, which were invalid” (p. 285, ibid.).

Kant falls victim to this extreme form of dualism, and so is forced to understand self-organization as merely an appearance necessitated by the structures of our understanding. Life, for Kant, was self-organizing and purposeful, but only because the human mind is unable to experience and describe it any other way.[20]

This deficient mental dualism between what is rational/measurable and what is irrational/non-measurable will be explored later in connection with capitalism’s tendency to wedge general-purpose money between all human-human and human-earth relations (see sections VIII, IX, X). Such decontextualization erases the qualitative diversity of cultural meanings and natural purposes, replacing them with abstract and homogenous quantities assigned arbitrary value by the short-term whims of the market.

“Like all structures,” says Hornborg,

“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, 2001).

Mechanistic biology quantifies living organization by reducing its essential nature to the replication of genetic algorithms. A living organism, from the perspective of such a paradigm, is defined as “anything that can use the resources of the world to get copies of itself made” (p. 15, Ridley, 1999). It is a small step to the defacto attribution of vital existence to money itself, which feeds off the mineral and organic mass of the planet to turn a profit (i.e., make copies of itself).

V. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive of Living Organization

“…autopoiesis proposes an understanding of the radical transition to the existence of an individual, a relation of an organism with it-self, and the origin of ‘concern’ based on its ongoing self-produced identity.” –p. 116, Francisco J. Varela, et al., 2002

The resurrection of Aristotelian teleology in modern biology is a matter of great controversy (p. 1, Colin et al., 1998).  Some biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, deride any mention of it, as natural selection is deemed to have explained away any requirement of a purpose or aim behind the purely mechanical process of reproduction.[21] This view can be easily dispensed with, as Darwin’s theory concerned phylogenic change, having nothing to say whatsoever about the self-organization and goal-directed behavior of individual organisms.[22] Indeed, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is applicable only given an already self-organizing creature intentionally operating and reproducing within its environment.

Other biologists have adopted a new term, “teleonomy,” to describe the as-if property of purposes evident in the behavior and organizational dynamics of life. Biologist Jacques Monod goes so far as to say that “it is indispensible to recognize that [teleonomy] is essential to the very definition of living beings” (p. 9, 1972). Here, he echoes Kant by pointing out that life cannot be understood without purposes, though also like Kant, he understands these purposes to be a projection of the human observer. This is as far as most biologists are willing to go, as they feel obliged to respect the epistemological dualism of the mechanistic paradigm. Hornborg points to the cognitive science of Varela and Humberto Maturana in an attempt to deconstruct this dualism, suggesting that their approach “…[downplays] the distinction between human intention and other forms of systemic directionality in living systems” (p. 179).

Whitehead similarly notes that “no biological science has been able to express itself apart from phraseology [that] refers to ideals proper to the organism in question” (p. 84, 1978). Whitehead goes on to credit Aristotle with having impressed this fact on the science of biology, and relates how the overstressing of final causation during the Christian medieval period probably provoked the equally overstressed reliance on efficient causation in modern science.

When Varela and Maturana originally developed the theory of autopoiesis, they were undoubtedly influenced by this scientific tendency to overstress efficient causes: “Living systems, as physical autopoietic machines, are purposeless systems” (p. 86, 1980). By machine, they did not intend to confuse organisms with artifacts, but meant that the system was determined by its structure and organization (p. 141, Thompson). Any purposes attributed to it were considered projections: regulative, as opposed to constitutive features.

In one of the last essays he authored before his death, however, Varela proposed a revision of the understanding of purposes present in his earlier work with Maturana. He recognized that an autopoietic organization of the living implies the emergence of “an autonomous center of concern capable of providing an interior perspective” (p. 97, 2002). To understand why, it is necessary to explore in more detail the theory of autopoiesis:

“…an autopoietic system—the minimal living organization—is one that continuously produces the components that specify it, while at the same time realizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in space and time, which makes the network of production of components possible” (p. 115, ibid.).

To understand this rather abstract definition, let us ground it in the paradigm case from which it is drawn: the cell. A living cell is engaged in a continual process of self-production and repair, wherein each of its organelles participate in the production of one another, as well as in the production of the membrane defining them as a unity. Though an autopoietic system is also a self-organizing, dissipative structure,[23] it should not be reduced to these more general categories. What distinguishes an autopoietic system is its “self-produced identity,” or “instauration of a point of view” (p. 116, ibid.). An autopoietic entity is one that can be studied empirically (from the outside), but that also requires one to appreciate the horizon of experience brought forth by its continual self-production (from the inside). It is here that an immanent teleology finds its way back into biology, not as a regulative principle of our study of organisms (teleonomy), but as constitutive of life itself.

“…self-production is already and inevitably a self-affirmation that shows the organism as involved in the fundamental purpose of maintaining its identity”  (ibid.).

Varela’s analysis of the experiential component of autopoiesis involves more than just recognizing the identity arising due to an organism’s internal circular dynamics, but also the surrounding Umwelt[24] emerging from its “sense-making” abilities, allowing it to “change the physiochemical world into an environment of significance and valance” (p. 147, Thompson). In this way, intentional movements directed toward ends become the very basis of life. Both formal (the identity, or idea, actualized in the movement of the organism and its organs) and final (end-directed behavior) causality are here implicated in the organization of the living.

But can the Kantian dilemma be so easily resolved? Kant, as was discussed earlier (p. 19), did not understand how self-organization of the autopoietic variety could be possible naturalistically. In the last century, however, our understanding of the physiochemical make-up of organisms has increased significantly. We are far better equipped than Kant to cope with organic form (p. 140, Thompson; p. 101, Varela, 2002). But how, exactly, does an autopoietic account of life establish that the activity of an organism is intrinsically purposeful? How do we know that a teleological element is behind life when it could just as well be a projection of our own “…perspective on an otherwise completely neutral behavior” (p. 108, Varela, 2002)?

“It is actually by experience of our teleology—our wish to exist further on as a subject, not our imputation of purposes on objects—that teleology becomes a real rather than an intellectual principle. Thus causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life” (p. 110, ibid.).

Varela here inverts the whole tradition of natural philosophy since at least Descartes by reminding us that, “before being scientists we are first living beings, and as such we have the evidence of our intrinsic teleology in us” (ibid.). The mechanistic paradigm could begin only after Descartes had firmly established a metaphysical rift between thinking and extended substances. The Kantian difficulty over whether to embed teleology in organisms themselves, or to recognize it as a heuristic principle of human judgment, can be traced back to this division between mind and matter.[25] Descartes decreed that the extended substance was purely mechanical, ruled by efficient causes alone. This included our own living bodies.

Once it is understood that experience is rooted in bodily processes, and not in some invisible mental substance existing beyond it, attributing genuine interiority and teleology to other living bodies is simply a matter of generalizing our own embodiment. We need not, as Whitehead warns, “relapse into the tacit presupposition of the mind with its private ideas which are in fact qualities without intelligible connection with the entities represented” (p. 76, 1978).

But how far can this generalization of our own experience be taken? Varela, while he grants that teleology is more than an artifact of the human mind, only re-establishes it as a necessary phenomenological fact about our own embodied experience. To firmly root teleology, and therefore formal and final causes, in organisms generally, Varela must establish an ontological principle, not merely a phenomenological description. It appears he is willing to do just that:

“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).

Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.

VI. Concresence and Bodily Perception

“The philosophy of organism aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason. This should also supersede the remaining Critiques required in the Kantian philosophy.” – p. 113, Whitehead, 1978

All of the mechanistic ways of thinking thus far critiqued habitually commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, due in large part to inherited patterns of thought dating back to the Greeks. Aristotle can be praised for ushering in the mental mutation by recognizing the immanence of nature’s purposes, but he can be damned for having introduced the substance-quality logic that entranced the European intellect for much of the medieval period, eventually leading to the deficient sensationalist doctrine of modern scientific materialism. The sensationalist doctrine mistakes a high abstraction—universals derived from bare perception of sensory data (perception in the mode of presentational immediacy)—for the most primitive, concrete element of experience: “sense-reception” (perception in the mode of causal efficacy). This confusion of the concrete with the abstract allowed for the unchecked spatialization of time, with all its rigidifying and alienating effects, discussed in a prior section (see I). Whitehead adopts Bergson’s “admirable phraseology” to explain why: “Sense-reception is ‘unspatialized,’ and sense-perception is ‘spatialized’” (p. 114, 1978). The sensationalist perspective collapses the unspatialized continuum of experiential intensity connecting actual occasions through time, and so entirely ignores the immanent teleology found therein.

This ignorance of what Whitehead calls sense-reception, or causal efficacy, prevents mechanistic paradigm from accounting for sentience of any grade, whether the motile sensitivity of flagellating bacteria or the discursive consciousness of human beings. The sensationalist doctrine lead Hume to deny the soundness of induction, for with only sense-perceptions of the outer world of surfaces to go on, the best he could do was correlate sequential observations that tended to arise together into bundles of general association. Causation, as Kant would later declare (based on Hume’s empiricist premises), was merely a regulative principle projected on experience by the structure of our intellect. Whitehead blames this misplaced concreteness on the Greek overreliance on visual perception[26] (p. 117, p. 121, ibid.), which Gebser also points to as the dominant mode of sensory experience in the mental structure. Sense-reception, or causal efficacy, can be described as the temporally-ordered experience of one’s own living bodily presence, such that the past and the future are both constitutive elements in every passing moment, concretely and meaningfully making each one transparent to the whole. The immanence of past and future in a mandalic present provides us with a direct link, Whitehead argues, to the real becoming of the universe.

“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” (p. 119, ibid.).

Here, Whitehead is attempting to generalize our experience as human beings, especially our non-sensuous perception of time, to all other occasions in the universe. Concrescence is best understood as the most general analysis of the phases of becoming of every actual occasion in the universe, though it should be remembered that these phases are not sequential in time, but always already growing together into an integral whole.

The simplest way to explain the phases of concrescence is to begin with Aristotle’s four causes/reasons. So long as we remember “the passage from phase to phase is not in physical time,” we will avoid oversimplification due to a false spatialization of the process (p. 283, ibid.). Aristotle uses the example of a house to elucidate the meaning of the causes, which was fitting for the mental structure’s preference for static categories. It is important to emphasize process in an integral account of experience; but for simplicity’s sake, the causes involved in concrescence will be introduced in relation to another artifact, a sailboat adrift at sea.

The material cause, for Whitehead, is the creative potential underlying all actuality: “It is that ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality” (p. 31, ibid.). In my sailboat analogy, this cause is the wind and the water, as well as the very structure of the boat itself. This entire nexus of occasions emerges each moment out of the satisfactions of the actual occasions that have perished before it. The efficient cause is “the transition from attained actuality (satisfaction) to actuality in attainment,” such that the prehensive acquisition of the satisfied occasions becomes the datum for the next phase (p. 214, ibid.). This prehensive phase is represented by the sails of the boat catching the winds of prior creative expressions, feeling their potential, and endeavoring, in the next phase, to make something of its own with them. This next phase is associated with the formal cause, wherein the valuation of future possibilities informs the reshaping of past actualities. The winds of inherited expression caught by the sails form a contrast between what is already given and what might yet become. As the saying goes, “You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” The final cause is the ideal of satisfaction luring the sailboat in the direction formed by the adjustment of its sails. It is here that the analogy begins to break down, as the sailboat, like Aristotle’s house, is an artifact. Its purposes are imposed on it from without, and so it attains no satisfaction of itself in the final phase of concrescence. This extremely simplified analysis of concrescence must be extended to the more complex occasion of the living human body.

The first thing to remember is that the emergence of each occasion of experience is partially conditioned by the entire past unfolding of the cosmos. The material cause, as described above, contains within it the subjective aims of countless actual entities that have come into being and perished. They gain objective immortality as they “[pass] over into the ‘given’ primary phase for the concrescence of other actual entities,” (p. 85, ibid.). This givenness is the efficient cause as experienced directly through the body’s non-sensuous perception (or causal efficacy) of the immediate past. Rather than understanding efficient causes as mere mechanical effects lacking emotive agency, Whitehead reconnects mind and matter by interpreting them as affects, or feelings directly prehended through bodily experience. As Whitehead puts it, “…sympathy…is the primary ground for the continuity of nature” (p. 183, 1967). The emotive forces of the past, aptly referred to as the physical-pole of concrescence, situate our immediate experience “…as a fact in history, derivative, actual, and effective” (p. 72, 1938).

Whitehead describes the transition to the mental-pole:

“In the formation of each occasion…the swing over from re-enaction to anticipation is due to the intervening touch of mentality…the occasion arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future. In between there lies the teleology of the Universe” (p. 194, 1967).

This swing from re-enaction to anticipation is the subjective form of concrescence, which, after integrating physical feelings related to actuality, opens to the ingression of eternity into time as the possibilities of definiteness available for shaping the future. Without this “intervening touch of mentality,” every actual occasion would be entirely determined, destined to passively repeat the past without any hope for novel expression or valuation of the future.

As was mentioned earlier in relation to Kant (see p. 17), the defining characteristic of living organisms is that they are cause and effect of themselves. The importance of such reciprocal causality becomes evident when considering the role played by the mental-pole of concrescence. The initial phase of the mental-pole is the self-formation of the organism, wherein the determined effects of its past are evaluated in light of future ideals. This contrast between feelings of givenness (physical prehensions) and feelings of potential (conceptual prehensions) constitute the autonomous subjective form of each occasion of experience. The completion of each occasion is reached when the subjective comparison of affects reaches satisfaction, perishing into objective immortality by becoming the efficient cause of subsequent occasions. This continual process of death-life-rebirth, of “derivation from without [physical prehension],…immediate enjoyment within [conceptual prehension],…and transmission beyond [final satisfaction],” is continually taking place within what would be recognized empirically as a single living organism. The phases of concrescence should shed light on what it means for organisms to be their own cause and their own effect. If Kant was able to analyze the organization of the living without having mistakenly assumed his sensuous perception (presentational immediacy) was most primitive, he might have recognized in himself, as an instance of living matter, an analogue of the teleological process of organic formation in nature.[27]

Varela realizes just this when he writes that “causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life,” which for Varela and Whitehead is intrinsically teleological. I will now explore the close ties between Varela’s biological account of autopoiesis and Whitehead’s metaphysical account of concrescence.

VII. Concrescence and Autopoiesis

“[The] wholeness [of an organism] is self-integrating in active realization, [its] form is not the result but the cause of the dynamic arrangements of matter, and hence the process at the same time is the form.” – p. 21, Hans Jonas, 1992

“It belongs to the essence of all occasions of experience,” contends Whitehead, “that they are concerned with an otherness transcending themselves” (p. 180, 1967). As Hosinski says of this contention, it implies that “subjectivity is derivative from objectivity” (p. 56). In other words, each occasion receives from the objective world the ground of its [the occasion’s] subjective enjoyment and the motive for its own subsequent (logically, not temporally) individual expression.

Similarly, Varela says of organisms that

“…because there is an individuality that finds itself produced by itself it is ipso facto a locus of sensation and agency, a living impulse always already in relation with its world” (p. 117, 2002).

The relation of an organism to its Umwelt is one of care and concern, as Whitehead says:

“The occasion as subject has concern for the object. And the ‘concern’ at once places the object as a component in the experience of the subject, with an affective tone drawn from this object and directed towards it,” (p. 176, 1967).

Varela is in agreement, in that “there cannot be an individuality which is isolated and folded into itself,” (p. 117, 2002). Instead, organisms have

“…[a] precarious existence…always menaced by concern, the need to avoid perishing, and to do this, [they are] again dependent on matter whose characteristics are the reason for [their] concern” (p. 113, ibid.).

The constant threat of perishing referred to by Varela is a result of every organism’s dependence upon flows of matter and energy, which mechanistic science tells us inevitably tend towards entropy. But as Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme allows us to grasp, the notion of “dead matter…is an abstraction from the full complexity of concrete actuality” (p. 62, Hosinski, 1993).  Life is defined by its continual self-production, maintaining its form by remaining far from thermodynamic equilibrium riding atop a wave of negentropy (or extropy). As Varela says, “this entails that teleology is a primordial tendency of matter manifest in the form of organisms,” (p. 114, 2002). An organism’s material struggle to avoid death will not ultimately succeed, but in temporarily achieving its ongoing life via autopoiesis, it brings forth a subjective form, “[enjoying] its decisive moment of absolute self-attainment as emotional unity” (p. 177, 1967) before perishing, becoming an immortal object to be prehended by subsequent occasions of experience.

To account for the natural purposes inherent in living forms, both Varela and Whitehead are forced to reject the materialist doctrine that defines matter as inert and passive.

As Varela puts it:

“The emergent causality of the reciprocal passages between the local elements [physical-pole] and the global emergent identity [mental-pole] are not a caprice, but inscribed and endogenous to nature itself, a tendency rather than an irregularity” (p. 114, 2002).

And Whitehead:

“…what has vanished from the field of ultimate scientific conceptions is the notion of vacuous material existence with passive endurance, with primary individual attributes, and with accidental adventures…the concept is useless as an ultimate notion in science and in cosmology” (p. 309, 1978).

A materialist may here protest that I have run roughshod over the established empirical facts concerning objective nature. But from Whitehead’s perspective, the dualism between subject and object established by Descartes is in conflict with the “organic realism” he sought to establish. Descartes dualism lead to the uneasy doctrine of primary and secondary qualities, a dualism Whitehead rejects, pointing out that “what [Descartes] described as primary attributes of physical bodies are really the forms of internal relationships between actual occasions, and within actual occasions” (p. 309, ibid.).

For Whitehead, primary qualities, which are supposed by the materialist doctrine to be the final real things existing independently of subjective experience, are but abstractions, for

“…we can never survey the actual world except from the standpoint of an immediate concrescence…actuality means nothing else than this ultimate entry into the concrete, in abstraction from which there is a mere non-entity,” (p. 211, ibid.).

Both the primary and secondary qualities of the experienced world must be understood in a relational, ecological way, rather than in a Cartesian, representational way. The mind does not make an internal picture of the world based on subjective ideas and perceptions corresponding to its objective, pre-existing features, but participates through the process of concrescence in the bringing forth of intersubjective worlds.

This return to the evidence of concrete experience leads to a further parallel between Varela’s theory of autopoiesis and Whitehead’s process of concrescence. Concrescence can be defined as “the real internal constitution of a particular existent” (p. 210, ibid.).

More technically, concrescence is

“the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the ‘many’ to its subordination in the constitution of the novel ‘one,’” (p. 211, ibid.).

Though it is true that “every entity in the actual world of a concresent actuality has some gradation of real relevance to that concrescence” (p. 41, 1978), in order to attain its unity of subjective satisfaction, the concrescence must simplify the multiplicity of its feelings with negative prehensions. A negative prehension is “the definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution” (ibid.).

Varela account of the autopoietic process of self-realization is similar: “stimuli from outside enter the sphere of relevance…only by their existential meaning for…the process of self-establishment,” (p. 117, 2002). Any element of the actual world incompatible with the subjective aim of an organism is negatively prehended, such that its role becomes negligible, though still actual enough to affect the emotional complex involved in the final satisfaction of the concrescence (p. 41, 1978). In Varela’s terminology, organisms bring forth their own domain of cognitive significance; or, in Whitehead’s: “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates” (p. 210, ibid.).

Before exploring the cosmological significance of this metaphysical account, it is necessary to elucidate the relation between form and matter that has been tacitly assumed so far. The classical materialist account is that matter has a fixed essence, cannot evolve, and has no intrinsic potential; it is determined entirely by exterior forces. The emergence of life out of such material would therefore require a miracle, as there is no way to account for individual self-formation without a yearning for organization and enjoyment present in matter from the beginning. Accounting for the ontological status of biological identity—for the “ever existing gap between the realization of the living and its underlying matter” (p. 119, 2002)—requires moving beyond the mechanistic understanding of organisms as substances informed with genetic qualities (traits) through passive selection by a pre-given environment. Not only does this ignore the reciprocal role played by organisms in the selection of their environment, it fails to fully consider an organism’s moment-to-moment task of having to produce its identity out of a continual flow of matter and energy. The neo-Darwinist claim is that genetic algorithms are responsible for the formation of the organism, but as has been pointed out numerous times already, one cannot account for the teleological organization and meaningful experience of individual living organisms (ontogeny) by reduction to a mechanical process operating at the level of whole species (phylogeny). To do so is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Accounting for the natural purposes of individual organisms does not require that we reject the reality of physiochemical constraints. On the contrary,

“the organism has to remain in the field of physiochemical laws to maintain a ‘coupling’ with the underlying energetical structures [i.e., entropy, autocatalyzing reactions, etc.] whose regularities assure that it can maintain coupling through the course of its life” (p. 118, 2002).

In other words, “the environment gives the basis for the organism’s behavior precisely by establishing a continuous challenge to it” (ibid.). This point is similar to the one made earlier about the object-subject structure of experience (see p. 45). The basis of subjectivity is a concern for that which transcends it. This subjectively immanent concern for objective transcendence is equivalent to the desire to exist for one’s own sake, or as Varela puts it, “Subjectivity is the absolute interest the organism takes in its continued existence” (p. 119, ibid.).

Varela continues:

“Necessary…are the material compounds of an organism, their incessant input and their unhindered supply. But this necessity…is governed by a principle of autonomy: the fact that a living system is able to become an ontological center, that it is able to organize itself into a form that is not explainable by the features of the underlying matter (the pure necessity) alone. This autonomy then is nothing other than true teleological behavior” (p. 119, ibid.).

To understand how purposeful living forms could arise from matter, an evolutionary tendency toward increased intensity of autonomous experience and planetary interconnectivity must be attributed to it.

“The doctrine [of evolution],” says Whitehead,

“cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental to nature. It also requires an underlying activity—a substantial activity—expressing itself in individual embodiments, and evolving in achievements of organism. The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake,” (p. 107, 1925).

The “substantial activity” Whitehead refers to could be called Eros. Eros is the “the soul stirring itself to life and motion” (p. 66, 1967) to “endow with agency all ideal possibilities” (p. 210, ibid.). If matter/energy is imbued with self-enjoyment and the desire to evolve (as in a Whiteheadian cosmology), it should be possible to give a thermodynamic account of the work of Eros in the universe, on earth, and in human society. The next section will unpack the implications of thermodynamics for both the biosphere and the noosphere, looking at how Gaia and the global techno-industrial economy relate materially and semiotically.

VIII. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time

“Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of truth.” –Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn to Matter

The tremendous temperature gradient[28] between space, the surface of the earth, and light from the sun generates the far from equilibrium conditions necessary for organic life to emerge. The gradient produces a tremendous amount of free energy, allowing autopoietic beings “to spontaneously create new patterns of order and organization by dissipating entropy” (p. 32, de Quincey, 2002). A thermodynamic account of living organization demonstrates the planetary basis of life. It is the material earth who is in the first pregnant with the energetic possibility of life, which quickly spreads around the planet to become a biospheric phenomenon. Lovelock hypothesizes that life, should it exist on Mars today, will not exist much longer; without pervading the entire planet with their metabolic presence, isolated organisms remain unable to activate the self-regulatory effects displayed by Gaia and so quickly perish.[29]

“Life,” says biologist Lynn Margulis, “is a gradient-reducing system” (p. 46). Living organization does not contradict the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as was once thought.[30] Instead, it feeds on extropy produced by the generous sun and receptive earth in much the same way as the industrial organism[31]; though in the case of industrialism, the rate of gradient reduction via exergy extraction has become so accelerated that it threatens to upset Gaia’s ability to self-regulate climate and sustain biodiversity.

Hornborg distinguishes between “biomass” and “technomass” to make transparent the difference between Gaia’s growth/maintenance strategies and the industrial machine’s:

“For biomass, growth is a morally neutral reward granted by nature itself, whereas for technomass it is a reward resulting from human ideologies and generating unequal global relations of exchange” (p. 17).

He goes on to remind us that technomass and biomass are currently competing for energy with one another on a planet with finite resources. Technology and economics, according to Hornborg, are not unrelated, independent levels of reality; machines do not magically create “growth,” “progress,” and “development” at the industrial centers out of nothing, but are animated by land and labor that has been exploited in the periphery (p. 147). Economics, like ecology, is a zero-sum game. Hornborg urges us to adopt wiser cultural concepts through which to engage with the rest of the community of life on earth. Mechanistic biology functions politically as a pseudo-scientific apology for contemporary industrial capitalist human-human and human-earth relations, and so my critique of its metaphysical foundations and reconstruction of biology in light of Varela and Whitehead is not a mere definitional nicety, but a political and eco-spiritual revolt. A mutually enhancing future human-earth relation will require more philosophically nuanced and spiritually mature discourses about the complexities of life and living.

As was suggested earlier (p. 2-3), the tremendous (and perhaps cancerous) growth of technomass can be understood as an extension of thermodynamic law to human economic activity. But this does not imply that the total dissipation of the planet’s energy via industrial extraction is inevitable. Consciousness can and must awaken to its integral, planetary role by overcoming the deficient mechanistic thinking currently polluting the noosphere. It might be helpful here to unpack, with Gebser, the process of mutation in the evolution of consciousness.

Gebser describes the mutation from the mythic to the mental structure as an “earth-shaking” event: it pierces the womb of the psyche—where all was pregnant with imaginal meaning and polar congruence—birthing the directed, dualistic, and discursive thought of the mind (p. 75).  “The ring [of his protective psychic circle] is broken, and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking” (ibid.). Gebser describes this process as “a fall from time into space,” as the sheltering cyclical temporality of the mythic structure gives way to the three-dimensional, alienating vacuum of space (p. 77). Efficient mentality, first exemplified by the thought of Aristotle (as well as Socrates and Plato before him), was a momentous achievement of the human spirit. It broke the mythic circle of temporality and aligned humanity with a purposeful, historical evolution. But after more than two millennia of increasing conceptual and colonial conquest of space, a growing sense of anxiety is alerting the mind to its deficiencies. Despite all our conceptual systematicity and technoscientific mastery, it seems the health of the earth has rarely been in so precarious a state (see p. 1).

“The environmental crisis,” says Hornborg,

“forces upon us the insight that Descartes expelled from view, that the human subject, with its bundle of concepts, anxieties, and aspirations, is recursively interfused with the planetary landscape” (p. 160).

The mutational task of integral consciousness is to free time from the spatial containers the mind has attempted to trap it in. The alienating struggle to spatialize time so characteristic of a deficient mentality turns dynamic and intentional life into static and inert material. This disembodied perspective on a disenchanted cosmos evoked the psycho-spiritual mood that allowed the towering empirco-mathematical system of Newton—not to mention the global techno-industrial system first gaining ideological steam in 18th century England[32]—to stand for several centuries, “but at last the Newtonian cosmology has broken down” (p. 156, Whitehead, 1967). Erecting such systems was possible only after Descartes had “decisively [separated] ‘mind’ from ‘nature’ (p. 210, bid.). This separation allowed Newton to conceive of atoms as “devoid of self-enjoyment.” Mind was deemed present only in the human, who through its unique access to conscious deliberation imposed upon a dead material cosmos the clarity and distinctness of its innate ideas (p. 212, ibid.).

As Gebser puts it,

“In the process of consolidating space-consciousness man has precariously placed himself at the outermost reaches of all manifestations. He brought about the isolation of the human, leaving it with only matter as its valid support….” (p. 310).

Whitehead recognizes that “human mentality is an extreme instance…of those happenings which constitute nature,” but refuses to exempt humanity from the course of natural events by imposing an artificial dualism. He argues that humanity must generalize its own conscious experience so that the phases of concrescence discovered therein become applicable to the descriptions of all other species of occasion in the cosmos, including God (p. 184-5, 1967; p. 110, 1978).

Failing to overcome the human-nature duality leads to a rigidification of culture wherein, as Gebser says,

“…consciousness increasingly empties itself of the ‘time’ it has negated, which, as a result of this attitude, itself becomes a lifeless spatial component. And the quantified motoricity of the machine and its lifelessness are in turn merely another expression of the spatialized concept of time [emphasis added]” (p. 310).

The danger in falsely spatializing time, of which we have given so much attention, is not only that it replaces the transparency of our experience with a opaque dualism, but that this dualism results in the attempt to make measurable and predictable every phenomenon one is faced with, even when such measurement, as in the case of a living organism, fractures its qualitative intensities of feeling, meaning, and purpose into abstract, homogenous quantities of matter and energy[33] (p. 311, 383, ibid.).

“If technology is the verification of modern scientific thought,” says Hornborg, “its social and ecological failures pose a challenge to that mode of thought” (p. 130). The global techno-industrial machine will continue to hollow out the heart of the earth until the human organism regains its own alienated labor.[34] Land (earth), too, must come to be experienced as more than a mere spatial extension of property or standing reserve of raw materials awaiting manufacture. The living earth is the primordial producer of life whose generativity is overshadowed only by the radiant generosity of the sun (p. 123, Hornborg). The humanist productionism discussed earlier (see p. 12) is a gross distortion of our species’ actual energetic relation to the biosphere.

Hornborg goes on to suggest that “…a more profound understanding of the machine must rest on the recognition that ‘technology,’ ‘society,’ and ‘cosmology’ are inseparable: as a socio-technical artifact, the machine simultaneously embodies and reproduces a specific configuration of cultural categories” (p. 127).

These deficient cultural categories are dominated by the notion of materiality. Hornborg argues that the word “material” is used prescriptively in modern Western discourse to refer to those aspects of life that are unquestionable (p. 130).[35] The result of this materialistic obsession is that thought begins to obediently kneel before the power of the machine (p. 116, ibid.), helpless to avert its thermodynamic trajectory toward ever more efficient conversion of exergy into entropy for the sake of disproportionate monetary accumulation.[36] The machine is “a material object of our own making which we seem to have lost control” (p. 147).

Nonetheless, “intensities, unless we mistake them for pressure or tension, are not measureable” (p. 310, Gebser), and so cannot be successfully mechanized/monetized. The materialism and mechanization still in vogue in contemporary economics and biology are, in part, a result of a failure to assimilate the transformation occurring in physics over the past century.

As was discussed earlier (p. 13), Darwin’s reduction of the apparent design of species to the accidental mechanism of random variation under natural selection was based on the fundamental assumption that space, time, and matter were Newtonian in nature. While his theory was undoubtedly empirically sound, it is often the case that “we have to rescue the facts as they are from the facts as they appear” (p. 155, Whitehead, 1967) by metaphysically reorienting the mind in its relation to things. Darwin selected from among the facts appearing to him only those most salient to his thoroughly Newtonian and bourgeois mind. As a result, the animate presence of the creatures he sought to understand was ignored, overlaid by the abstract rationalizations favored by the deficient mental structure of consciousness (p. 387, Gebser).

Time, for Newton as for Darwin, played merely a quantitative role: it was the space, conceived as a fourth dimension of extension, that allowed one moment, a fixed instant, to pass into the next, equally as instantaneous and having no intrinsic relation to the one prior to or following it but for the exchange of forces by way of efficient causation.[37] This collapse of time into a spatial sequence, each snap shot externally and accidently related to the next, vanquished the concrete temporal intensity required to understand how formal and final causes participate in living organization.

As Whitehead puts it:

“…the old conception  [of time] allows us to make an abstraction of change and to conceive the full reality of nature at a given moment…an abstraction is made of all temporal duration” (p. 195, 1934).

From Darwin’s point of view, the admission of teleology in evolution was absurd because it implied that the future had causal influence on the past. Time, conceived as purposeless and entirely accidental renders the future a mere result of forces determining it from the past—an aggregate of instants piled one on top of the other, species gaining their form along the way from the accumulation of chance mutations surviving the differential selection of a pre-given environment. This may be a partial explanation for the diversity of species[38], but not for the origin of life itself (see p. 16: the process presupposes self-organizing creatures that reproduce). This inadequate explanation retards a full account of life by neglecting the formal and final causes of autopoiesis, which become occluded when the “opposed doctrine of internal relation [is] distorted by reason of its description in terms of language adapted to the presupposition of external [i.e., spatial] relations of the Newtonian type” (p. 157, Whitehead, 1967). It should be noted in Darwin’s defense that his theory of variation under natural selection wasn’t designed to explain anything but the origin of species. The neo-Darwinism of Dennett, Dawkins, Ridley, and others is the source of the epistemic over-extension of Darwin’s more modest proposal.

Darwin imagined that all relations between occasions were external, but concrete/integral time is not decomposable into the static and exclusionary categories of past, present, and future—nor space into “here” and “there”: every point is the center.[39] Teleology is not a matter of the future causing the past, but of the future and the past being immanent in the concrescence of every occasion. Formal and final causation are relevant only for the internal relations within and between organisms and their environments, which Darwin assumed could only be related externally because of his commitment to mechanistic materialism.

“Evolution for the materialistic theory,” says Whitehead,

“…is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modem doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (p. 107, 1925).

The doctrine of matter as merely externally related “stuff” in a continual process of purposeless re-arrangement according to arbitrarily imposed preconditions is no longer tenable, for reasons discovered in both the biological, as well as the physical sciences. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, though its discoverer does not take it this far, was the first crack in the foundation of Newton’s cosmological edifice.

The final sentence of Darwin’s Origin reads:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (p. 384).

Darwin’s mistake was to assume that the law of gravity is fixed. He fails to extend the formative influence of evolution far enough. But worse for the implications of his theory within his own field of biology, he assumes that living organization is just an anomaly in nature[40], having been imposed upon matter from without by a capricious God, “breathed…into a few forms or into one” at the dawn of life. Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species” tells us nothing of scientific value about the origin of life. For natural selection to be of any use as a theory of biological form, we must presuppose the self-creation and natural purpose of individual organisms. Only given self-organizaion and Eros does Darwin’s theory shed any light on the subsequent development and diversification of the biosphere. Mechanistic attempts to account for the organization of the living fail because they employ too abstract and disembodied a conception of space, time, and matter, mistaking the quantities of Newtonian equations for the durations of lived experience, where each actual occasion, though continuous with the past, can anticipate novel futures. Newton’s conception of space and time was that each was a vast container indifferent as to what filled it, and even indifferent one to the other. Matter shuffled through, blindly obeying arbitrarily imposed laws.

But contemporary physics no longer understands time and space, nor matter and energy, as separate or absolute. Each shares a common history, having co-emerged and reciprocally conditioned the other throughout the process of cosmogenesis. Matter, similarly, is intimately related to the development of space and time—not in space-time as a kind of inert “stuff,” but integrally woven with it into a physio-psycho-spiritual process of inconscient yearning gradually flowering into luminous awareness, compassion, and bliss.

Emerson suggests there is “a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms” and that “The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world” (p. 25). Matter is not lifeless, but intrinsically animated by an enfolded spiritual destiny always and everywhere calling it toward higher forms and ideals. Its motion is not accidental or imposed upon it from without, but manifest by an indwelling spiritual longing for wholeness.[41]

Most contemporary physicists are still unwilling to grant that spirit pervades matter because the deficient mental structure of consciousness prevents its presence from being transparently apprehended. Having gained a better handle on the potential for the emergence of thermodynamic order found throughout nature, however, physics is now in a position to supplement the “aimless, aloof, and external power of natural selection” with the “willful, self-sufficient, and internal power of self-organization” (p. 128, Barlow). Evolution really is what arch-mechanist Daniel Dennett calls a “universal acid” (p. 63). It leaks out of biology and dissolves traditional ways of thinking in every field it comes in contact with. But it cannot be understood as a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” unless we somehow exempt the Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm (Gebser’s deficient mental structure of consciousness) from evolution’s transformative reach. Evolution is a theory that points to the common origin of the many forms of matter, life, and mind—not just at some distant moment in the past, but as a present reality, as every living creature owes its continued existence to its ecological (material-semiotic) relationship with others. Evolution (in a more cosmological sense than Darwin intended) is incompatible with the doctrine of external relation, which is the foundation of materialism.

The progress in the field of thermodynamics over recent decades, specifically the work of Ilya Prigogine, has established that the irreversibility of time is essential to the emergence of order in nature. This is a direct break with all of the mechanistic attempts to account for time, which did not recognize anything essential whatsoever about its direction. Newton’s equations give the same results no matter which direction time flows. This is also true for all equations expressing relativistic or quantum mechanics. Einstein himself once remarked that “time [as irreversible] is an illusion.” For Prigogine, however, the directionality of time is essential for any account of non-equilibrium systems and the creative advance into novelty that they make possible.

Whitehead’s notion of concrescence, derived from the Latin verb meaning “growing together,” is, according to Prigogine, an attempt to “reconcile permanence and change” (p. 59). Whitehead recognizes the essential role played by time in the creative unfolding of the universe, and his analysis of concrescence allows us to understand what was said at the outset (p. 6), that life is a moving image of eternity. Living organization cannot be accounted for in terms of the stuff of which it is made because its processual and experiential essence always transcends the mind’s attempt to decompose it into a spatially rationalized mechanism or totalized system.

Life perpetually recedes from the mind’s attempts to conceive of it materially because the mind’s materiality (i.e., its life) is the very source of its limiting spatialized modes of conceptuality. Life sustains the dynamic and evolving interplay of mind in matter, liberating mentality from its material slumber by increasing the sensitivity and reactivity of its concrescence. Only integral consciousness becomes aware of life as a transparent and purposeful whole, whose autonomous individual parts naturally tend toward symbiotic mutuality. Deficient mental consciousness, disillusioned by the disembedding forces of the techno-industrial market, is forced to explain life away as the naturally selected product of accumulated genetic algorithms. This supposedly scientific story about the reduction of life to DNA only carries metaphorical weight when imbued with mythological significance in the biological guise of Dawkins’ capitalistic “selfish genes.”

Logically, the neo-Darwinian mechanism is tautological: it says only that genotypes continue to survive today because they survived in the past. The only way to turn this from a meaningless non-statement into the founding principle of deficient mental biology is to mythologize it by metaphorically transferring English socio-economic ideology onto natural processes. Self-interested genes compete for resources in order to reproduce themselves indefinitely, much like middle-class industrial consumers and corporations compete for money (via sale of labor, land, products, and ideas) in order to generate the highest possible profit. Each instance ignores the concrete reality of its situation: the notion of selfish genes is a fetishized reduction of the teleology of whole organisms, just as the notion of general-purpose money and profit are fetishized reductions of the purposes of interpersonal relationship.[42]

Transparently apprehending the spiritual meaning underlying nature’s evolutionary unfolding requires new modes understanding and perception. Only an integral way of seeing and being can break the ideological spell techno-industrial capitalism has cast upon the human imagination. In the next section, I will recount Gebser’s attempt to bring forth understanding as systasis and perception as synairesis, comparing these to the deficient modes caused by what Heidegger has called the “enframing” of nature.

IX. Integral Thought-Perception and Market Cosmology

“Integral reality is the world’s transparency, a perceiving of the world as truth: a mutual perceiving and imparting of the truth of the world and of man and of all that transluces both.” –Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin

In the Ever-Present Origin, Gebser introduces two terms he feels exemplify the transparency and wholeness typifying the integral structure of consciousness. The first is systasis, “the conjoining or fitting together of parts into integrality” (p. 310). Gebser contrasts systasis with system, not to imply that they are opposites (as a thesis to its antithesis), but rather to make explicit the fact that systematization is still the method of a consciousness stuck in the three-dimensional, predominantly spatial world of parts. When one refers to a system, he describes the effect of some quantitative process of addition, thereby draining that process of any intrinsic life. Viewing an organism as a system converts it into a lifeless collection of objects, whereas systasis grants the parts a transparency allowing the organism to be understood as a subject perpetually becoming whole.

The second term, synairesis, refers to the mode of perception adequate to the integrality of reality. Gebser says that synairesis

“fulfills the aperspectival, integrative perception of systasis and system…[and is] a precondition for diaphany, which is able to be realized when, in addition to systasis and system, the symbol—with its mythical effectivity—and magic symbiosis are included, that is to say, present” (ibid.).

Varela and Whitehead display a clear understanding of the need for a synairetic mode of perception that breaks free of the spatial categories and systematization endemic to the mental structure. Whitehead’s analysis of concrescence is precisely an attempt to come to terms with living organization systatically. Systasis is Greek for “put together,” with the connotation of “forming” (Gebser, p. 292), linking it closely with the meaning of concrescence.

As Whitehead says,

“We have to discover a doctrine of nature which expresses the concrete relatedness of physical functionings and mental functionings, of the past with the present, and also expresses the concrete composition of physical realities which are individually diverse” (p. 157, 1967).

The related processes of concrescence and autopoiesis bring together each of the structures of consciousness in their attempt to make clear the organization of the living, uniting the systematic categorization and empirical attention to detail of the mental (through an appreciation of the dynamics of genetic inheritance), the circular polarity of the mythic (through an appreciation of cellular autopoiesis), and the vital synchronicity of the magic (through an appreciation of the concresent interpenetration of subject and object) without becoming fixated upon any in particular. The transparency of the whole is thus made evident.

It was not until the 20th century that time became fully apparent to human consciousness. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, participated directly in the scientific revelation that our sensory experience of the heavenly bodies is delusory until we have an appreciation of eternity. That is, because light takes time to travel from distant stars and galaxies to our eyes, we can only appreciate them as actual occasions if time has become transparent to us. Then we presentiate them without having to see them, bringing forth a “[reality] in which the present is all-encompassing and entire” (Gebser, p. 7).

Gebser continues:

“The synairesis which systasis makes possible integrates phenomena, freeing us in the diaphany of ‘a-waring’ or perceiving truth from space and time. Space and time are, after all, merely conditional realities and as such realities with a double relation. They are in the first place ‘objective’ as the transitory structure of our universe, and in the second, ‘subjective’ as the transitory structure and mirroring of our consciousness. This transitory character refers us to origin, which, with respect to consciousness, becomes space-and-time-free when we fulfill and complete synairesis, the aperspectival imparting-of-truth. In this are consolidated the clarity and transparency of man and universe in which origin becomes present, inasmuch as origin, which ‘lies’ before spacelessness and timelessness, manifests itself in consciousness as space-time-free present” (p. 311-12).

Absent such integration, those fixated within the mental structure will continue to reduce all factors of living organization to spatial-material components, thereby negating not only the natural purposes of the organisms around them, but “denying [their] own status as sentient beings who have a right to the pursuit of an undisturbed life” (p. 111, Varela, 2002). We cannot afford to ignore what Whitehead, after Shelley and Wordsworth, refers to as the “values [arising] from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (p. 88, 1925).

Thinking nature as concrescence and bios as autopoiesis prepares the conceptual alembic necessary for an integral cosmology that not only re-ensouls the world, but makes the ideas at work in the heart of the universe transparent to the human spirit. Human and universe are an anthropo-cosmogenesis, a whole in the process of intelligently forming itself; in its human mode, the universe not only forms, but performs the story of its evolution through cultural expression and civillizational ideals.

“Our image-building,” says Hornborg, “actively participates in the constitution of the world…Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (p. 10). Market cosmology conceives of the world as a fragmentary heap of raw materials awaiting technological production, a standing reserve of objects devoid of instrinsic worth or self-enjoyment. This leads to the mistaken idea that industry produces real value, when in thermodynamic fact, it operates deceptively by generating symbolic value (money) with no intrinsic relation to the actual earth processes it is degrading at evermore efficient rates (p. 32, ibid.). An integral perception and understanding of human-earth-cosmos relations grasps the inseparability of mind and nature, as “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (p. 24, Emerson). Space-time is not an objective container to which the rational human mind is subject, but the outermost reaches of the living tissue of an evolving consciousness.

The systematicity so characteristic of techno-industrial capitalism drains the earth of its vitality by fragmenting its symbiotic diversity of eco-semiotic valuations into a uniform, general-use currency such that “resource nations are economically forced to trash their ecologies to promote foreign exchange” (p. 174, W. I. Thompson). “Money in itself,” says Hornborg, “is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged” (p. 10). Hornborg understands general-purpose money (especially fiat currency) to be an “algorithm of destruction” because it is symbolically accumulated at the industrial centers even while the actual means of production underlying its profits on the periphery systematically render useless the truly generative potential of the planet.[43] “Industrial sectors of world society,” says Hornborg, “subsist precisely on that discrepancy between the material and the symbolic” (p. 47). This exploitative techno-socio-economic situation has resulted from a dissociation of human symbolic valuation from earthly productivity, and is principally responsible for the ecological crisis. Deficient mental attempts to commodify the ecopoietic processes[44] of nature (biosphere) and culture (noosphere) are given traction by abstract, quantitative measures of energy. Such hyper-perspectivalism severs all lines of possible contact between the raw state of natural energy and the qualitative and purposive temporality of human life.[45] In the next section (X), Lockean notions of labor, property, and the common state of nature will be re-imagined in an attempt to enact an integral “Gaian politique” (p. 174, W. I. Thompson, 1985).

A systatic understanding of earth as a whole awakens the knower to his or her participation in a complex physio-bio-noospheric concrescence that is intrinsically purposeful and generative. Integral consciousness perceives synairetically the co-emergence of ideas and images in a living cosmos that always already involves the human being in processes beyond his or her ability to rationally dissect and control (though spending great amounts of energy “tying nature to the rack”[46] may temporarily make the mechanization of life seem possible –witness the so-called Petroleum Interval[47]).

Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because the mechanistic conception of energy already systematically enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our monetary ends.

Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such” (p. 320, Heidegger, 1977).  Technology seems to be the means to this end.  However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (p. 317, ibid.). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature.  The danger in relating to earth in such a way—as a “calculable coherence of forces” (p. 326, ibid.)—is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry[48], which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense (p. 321. Ibid.).

Energy becomes, for the mechanistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth’s poïesis has been falsely monetized and thermodynamically exploited. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.

Humanity seems afraid to recognize that its technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. Ours is a crisis not only of the environment, but of the human souls dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, human beings will become batteries bio-powering the machines that have enslaved us, homeless upon a dying earth.

Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” -p. 340, ibid.), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger, scientific materialism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought forth technology. The great success of the empirico-rational disciplines is not the result of their metaphysical truth or correspondence to reality, but rather of the practical, economic value of their methods. These methods, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, have depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for humanity’s, and all life’s, continued existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given our species the opportunity to truly stand watch over the earth as the only home we’ll ever have.

The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the Garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. Humanity cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny has had to be lived out—our process of maturation cannot be reversed. In a typical enantiodromic reversal, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen synairetically, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of saving the earth from the techno-industrial monster that has been strangling it. For the first time, the noosphere can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath its feet.

As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (p. 351, ibid.). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars and the sun, whose diviner energies grant life to we mere earthly mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute” (p. 167, Rilke). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say (i.e., systasis and synairesis), and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.

X. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity

“The revolution cannot come in time for us to quit out jobs or cancel our debts, and the end of the world cannot come in time to eliminate the mess we have made of history; nothing smaller than the earth is large enough to express the revelation, and nothing smaller than this instant is vast enough to contain all the future that we need” -p. 182, W. I. Thompson

John Locke articulated the social foundations of market cosmology by defining property as anything human labor has taken out of “the state nature leaves it in” (p. 330, 1965). Human labor is said to produce property and value, the first of its proclaimed properties being itself. Once I have monetized my own ability to do work, the reduction of nature to a standing reserve of raw materials to be exploited is an afterthought (see pgs. 12, 44, 48, and 57).

“In our informational society,” says William Irwin Thompson, “property is no longer simply land; it is consciousness” (p. 177). Thompson suggests we think with Gregory Bateson by understanding matter, not as a “state of nature” awaiting human production, but as “unconscious Mind, or Gaia” raised to consciousness by the labors of the soul (ibid.). Such a shift in economic ethos reverses the relationship between mind and matter currently informing industrialism: the former is epiphenomenal to the latter. In a Gaian polity, Mind is understood to be united with the living earth, whose value is determined by the intensity of consciousness associated with the particular product in question (179, ibid.).

Thompson continues:

“If autonomy is the fundamental recognition of the distinction of life, and if autopoiesis is the fundamental narrative process of life, then the biological politics that derive from these descriptions are radically different from sociobiology or scientific socialism. This is what I see as the Gaia Politique, a politics that is radical in the sense that it is deeply rooted in the understanding of life [and] is truly…ecological and not simply the old industrial Marxist critique newly decorated with sun-flowers and green paint” (p. 180, ibid.).

Thompson goes on to suggest that, autonomy being essential to life and consciousness, the evil of market cosmology consists in its “failure to recognize the [distinct] living [performances] of autonomous unities” in their “narrative process of self-description” (p. 179). A Gaian polity would evoke the “counterdrive to total commoditization” that Hornborg identifies as culture (p. 172). Culture’s main resistances to the homogenizing tendencies of market exchange are the processes of singularization and sacralization that reverse money’s “tendency to render social [and human-earth] relations increasingly abstract” (p. 166, ibid.). Sacred or spiritual forms of culture are also abstract, but still rooted in narratives of “local resonance,” unlike the disembedded abstractions of science and money (p. 171, ibid.).

“The ecological crisis of modern society,” says Hornborg,

“has two connected aspects: one objective and generated by the general-purpose market and its axiom of universal inter-changeability, the other subjective and founded in the alienation of the disembedded, modern individual” (p. 160).

The challenge of enacting an integral cosmology hinges upon a transformed sense of narrative and the construction of meaning, which, according to Hornborg (p. 120) and Thompson (p. 101), is motivated by a fear of chaos and the desire to establish order through the ritualized performance of myth. Even the culture-eating techno-industrial worldview is made to function ideologically by way of deficient mythic narratives depicting the march of progress toward total control and rationalization of life.

Thompson defines narrative as a uniquely human way of responding to time, “an attempt to escape the infinity of the present as duration by reifying time into a past” (p. 100). Our narratives bring forth the worlds we inhabit, and enacting worlds of ecological resilience and diverse cultural expression requires respecting the autonomy of both Gaia and her many children. While only humans seem capable of knowing they tell stories, all creatures unconsciously bring forth their own cognitive domains of significance. The reduction of human consciousness to wage labor (measured by falsely spatialized clock-time) is a symptom of modern technology’s tendency to dissociate formerly integrated facets of reality, “namely tool/body, physical work/mental work, means/ends, work/agency, use/meaning, production/art, and work/life” (p. 130, Hornborg). Techno-industrial life leads to meaninglessness and existential anxiety precisely because money (and the social relations it establishes) alienates consciousness from its own powers of creative response to the overflowing meaning of each and every moment. Money is understood by Hornborg to be a “communicative disorder”; empty signs of arbitrary value are shown to be the very heart of market cosmology (p. 170-171). While general-purpose money can reinforce power relations, it cannot itself convey meaning, which depends on difference (p. 167, ibid.).

Thompson sees “the recognition of differences as the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 163), which is to say that cultural diversity is paramount to the establishment of resilient forms of meaning capable of providing spiritual nourishment for the whole human family. “Regional devolution,” says Thompson, “is part of planetary evolution; so it is the larger entity that nourishes the emergence of the smaller identity” (p. 166). Hornborg recognizes the need for a similar return to local valuation to “domesticate the market,” calling for the creation of dual currencies “so as to render local subsistence and global communication two parallel but distinct and incommensurable domains” (p. 34).

The living earth is the new stage upon which all human interaction must take place, but not in the decontextualized fashion typical of global capitalism. The move to a Gaian Politique deconstructs the Western division between person and thing, human and nature (p. 195, Hornborg).[49] Hornborg points out that, the more tied up with global networks of exchange we become, the less “outreaching” we become as persons. A return to local material and cultural subsistence would involve taking up forms of reciprocity that have been increasingly marginalized by market forces. Marshall Sahlins (1972) has articulated three forms of reciprocity, including generalized reciprocity (a “pure gift” with no expectation of return), balanced reciprocity (a fair trade), and negative reciprocity (an impersonal exchange where each party seeks to get something for nothing via symbolic persuasion) (p. 201, Hornborg).

An integral cosmology functions on “the basic intuition [of a] shift from industrial work, abstraction, and materialism to play [and] sensual consciousness” (p. 161, Thompson). Enjoyment of subjective community becomes the primary value of life, replacing the market cosmology of atomistic competition of each against all to accumulate quantities of money whose value is appraised based upon how successfully it can disembed meaning and material from its local, inter-personal and inter-bodily instantiation. A return to the experiential depth of the places where we live and the faces who we live with is the only way to reverse industry’s destruction of earth and money’s inversion of the Sacred (p. 171, Hornborg). The disenchantment and alienation resulting from the monetized mechanization of life are rectified only through a renewed authenticity capable of bringing forth the specificity and non-interchangeability of individual expression and inter-personal relation that resists being appropriated by the abstract and impersonal values of the market.

Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life

“The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself [and with woman and humanity]. He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit.” –p. 47, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aurobindo lists death and mutual devouring, hunger and conscious desire, and the struggle to increase, expand, conquer, and possess as the basic truths of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (p. 199). But this theory defines life only by its relation to the mechanisms of matter, forgetting the arc of evolution extends also toward mind and spirit. As mind emerges to overtake the vital striving of life, the “law of love” replaces that of death, and the fittest become those “who harmonize most successfully survival and mutual self-giving” (p. 203).

Mind, according to Aurobindo, “does not need to devour in order to…grow; rather, the more it gives, the more it receives and grows” (p. 204). The global economy has thus far been guided by Darwin’s overemphasis on the aggressive principle of life, devouring the very vitality of the planet it depends upon for its continued existence. Humanity is struggling to give birth to the higher principle of mind, to the love of conscious joining and interchange that might forestall our entropic rush to convert the common earth into private property.

The biosphere is experiencing the pains of labor as it struggles to give birth to its enfolded destiny, the noosphere. “We can hope for no progress on earth,” says Teilhard, “without the primacy and triumph of the personal at the summit of mind” (p. 297). Teilhard reminds us that even an interiorized and involuted universe labors, sins, and suffers (p. 313). Such are the demands of the spirit working through this anthropo-cosmogenesis, which, as Teilhard says, even from the perspective of a biologist, “resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross” (ibid.).

“Eros (love) does not occur only in the human soul,” says Eryximachus in Plato’s Symposium,

“It is a significantly broader phenomenon. It certainly occurs within the animal kingdom, and even in the world of plants. In fact, it occurs everywhere in the universe. Eros is a deity of the greatest importance: he directs everything that occurs, not only in the human domain, but also in that of the gods” (186b).

The personalization of earth and the cosmos is essential to any renewed engagement of humanity with its ecological context, as “persons and landscapes are mutually constitutive [and] co-evolve” (p. 3, Hornborg, 1998). The deficient mental separation of mind from nature has shattered the wholeness of the biosphere and of human society by translating the living intensity and particularity of the relationships holding each together into quantities of money and raw materials.

“Driven by the forces of love,” says Teilhard, “the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being” (p. 264-265). Teilhard urges humanity to overcome the “anti-personalist” complex paralyzing our techno-industrial civilization, and to at least grant the possibility, under the heightened pressure of our infolding world, that the earth has a face and a heart (p. 267). Life is not a machine, nor the human being a consumer. A human being, like all creatures, is alive because a great cosmic creativity stirs its very atoms into autopoietic e-motion.

“Whatever happens on the earth,” says Gebser,

“man [who is the consciousness of earth] must share the responsibility…On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s” (p. 541).

An integral biology of economics brings to light the wholeness of life and makes transparent the law of love luring even the materiality of the earth toward its center. The mutation of consciousness into its integral mode requires enduring a violent birth, as the industrial process has made quite evident. But the end of consciousness’ unfolding is not the annihilation of earth—rather, it is to participate with earth in the regeneration of Eden by learning to face the universe with an open heart and a mind transluced by the spirit of origin.

Works Cited

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  5. Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. New York: Barnes and Noble. 2005.
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  19. Locke, John. Laslett, Peter (ed.). Two Treatise of Government. New York: New American Library. 1965.
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  31. Ridley, Matt. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. Harper Collins. 1999.
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  33. Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2007.
  34. Thompson, William Irwin. Pacific Shift. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco. 1985.
  35. Varela, Francisco J. Weber, Andreas. Life After Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. Published in Vol. 1 of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 2002.
  36. Varela, Francisco J. Maturana, Humberto. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Published in Vol. 42 of Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. 1980.
  37. Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: The Free Press. 1967.
  38. Whitehead, Alfred North. Concept of Nature. New York: Cosimo Classics. 2007
  39. Whitehead, Alfred North. Modes of Thought. New York: Free Press. 1938.
  40. Whitehead, Alfred North. Nature and Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1934.
  41. Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press. 1978.
  42. Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: The Free Press. 1925.

[1] ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.

[2] The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.org) estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.

[3] i.e., energy available to do work.

[4] Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law.  I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.

[5] Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).

[6] For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).

[7] Criticism is not my only task, however. Like Emerson, I desire “an original relation to the universe” and to behold God and nature face to face, rather than through the eyes of tradition (p. 7).

[8] Gebser characterizes the mythic structure as predominantly psychic and spaceless, as the intimate bond between soul and nature had not yet been severed. As a result, “Man’s lack of spatial awareness is attended by a lack of ego-consciousness, since in order to objectify and qualify space, a self-conscious ‘I’ is required that is able to stand opposite or confront space, as well as to depict or represent it by projecting it out of his soul or psyche” (p.10).

[9] In the closing centuries of the 2nd millennium, the mechanical clock would become the dominant model used by science to understand the physical world (quantitative, symmetrical time), the biological world (organisms are gene survival/propagation machines), and the economic world (“Time is money” –Ben Franklin). See also p. 122, Hornborg: “The clock has been advanced as the prototype for all machines…The idea of the machine has…generated a web of cross-references by which nature and the machine are engaged in a reciprocal metaphor.”

[10] Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, is littered with observational evidence in support of the plausibility of his theory. No scientists can deny what Darwin found without first reworking his metaphysical assumptions.

[11] Time, in this context, is to be understood as the falsely spatialized time of the mental structure: as quantitative magnitude, rather than qualitative intensity as for the integral.

[12] “…a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff…from which a materialistic philosophy begins is incapable of evolution” (p. 107, Whitehead, 1925).

[13] “Descola (p. 88, 1996) defines animism as the use of ‘the elementary categories structuring social life to organize, in conceptual terms, the relations between human beings and natural species” (p. 200, Hornborg, 2001).

[14] “In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus’ Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence [a phrase used by Malthus] which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be a new species. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work.” –Charleas Darwin (The Zoology of the Beagle, 1840).

[15] Karl Marx, through Hegel, was certainly influenced, even if he rejected Kant’s critical system.

[16] Such as a tacit acceptance of Hume’s sensationalist doctrine (see p. 29).

[17] Kant’s Aristotelianism is evidenced here. Darwin and Paley were more influenced by Plato’s dualism between form and matter than Kant, who was able to conceive of the purposes of an organism as immanent, thereby avoiding the machine/organism analogy. However, Kant imposed a dualism of a different sort, which will be explored below.

[18] This is a variation of Plato’s separation between spiritual and superficial experience mentioned on p.10 above.

[19] Kant’s bourgeois ethos no doubt also influenced his reluctance to imbue nature with life or soul (as constitutive), as capitalism depends upon a fetishized productionist account of value where nature is worth only what human labor and inventiveness can add to it. An ensouled earth could not be as guiltlessly exploited.

[20] In his last philosophical text (Opus Posthumum), Kant realized that his thinking on this matter was incomplete. Varela (after Jonas, 1973) argues that “without invalidating the a priori categories that had been the possibility of all knowledge, Kant finds an entirely new foundation for them: the lived body. The moving forces of matter—prime subject of natural science—are not deduced from or ‘dictated’ by the a priori categories of reason but themselves are a basic experience underlying all a priori categories” (p. 109, 2002). Thus we know an organism is intrinsically purposeful and self-organizing because we extrapolate as much from our own experience as organisms.

[21] See The Blind Watchmaker, 1986

[22] As has already been discussed on p. 16.

[23] A dissipative structure is an energetically open system that emerges in non-equilibrium conditions (ex: tornado, whirlpool, etc). The key difference between a dissipative structure and an autopoietic system is that the former usually does not produce a boundary that establishes it as a unity, nor does it produce the components on which it depends. Instead, it is more structurally dependent on its local environment and so lacks a degree of autonomy present in organisms.

[24] This concept was first developed by Jakob von Uexküll (1940). Hornborg writes that “Each organism lives in its own subjective world (Umwelt) largely defined by its species-specific mode of perceiving its environment…The implication is that ecological interaction presupposes a plurality of subjective worlds…ecological relations are based on meaning; they are semiotic” (p. 183).

[25] Descartes needn’t take all the blame: We could also point to Plato’s dualism of form and substance, to Aristotle’s subject-predicate logic, to Parmenides’ separation between being and non-being, or indeed to more the modern separation between culture and nature.

[26] “Philosophers have disdained the information about the universe obtained through their visceral feelings, and have concentrated on visual feelings” (p. 121, 1978).

[27] Indeed, as we already mentioned (see footnote, p. 21), Kant recognized this possibility late in his life, but was unable to rework his entire philosophical system to reflect it prior to his death.

[28] Incoming solar radiation is approximately 5800 Kelvin and outer space approximately 2.7 Kelvin (p. 46, Margulis, 2003).

[29] While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6).

[30] Margulis points to the “geometry of the universe’s expansion” to account for its ever increasing creative possibilities for gradient reduction (p. 48), while Whitehead suggests “…the expansion of the universe in respect to actual things is the first meaning of ‘process’; and the universe in any stage of its expansion is the first meaning of ‘organism’” (p. 214-15, 1978).

[31] “…both biomass and ‘technomass’ represent positive feedback processes of self-organization, where the system’s use of harvested resources is ‘rewarded’ with new resources in a continuing cycle. Both are dissipative structures, requiring inputs higher than outputs and subsisting on the difference. A crucial difference is that biomass is a sustainable process whereas technomass is not. For biomass, energy resources are virtually unlimited, and entropy—in the form of heat—is sent out into space. For technomass, resources are ultimately limited, and we are left with much of the entropy in the form of pollution” (p. 17, Hornborg).

[32] “The neoclassical concept of growth was borrowed from…Newton, to whom it would simply have meant a process of aggregation. Whereas natural science has moved on to a more organic or systematic perception of growth, that is, as appropriation of order (Schrodinger, 1944), mainstream economists remain confined within the old, mechanical version” (p. 94, Hornborg); “Nineteenth-century scientists materially constituted the organism as a laboring system, structured by a hierarchical division of labor, and an energetic system fueled by sugars and obeying the laws of thermodynamics” (p. 97, Haraway, 1997).

[33] And money (see p. 23). The whole world is supposed in the capitalist scheme to be encompassable, at least in promise, by a sufficient quantity of general-purpose money.

[34] “The relationship between human labor and technology is clearly ambiguous in terms of which serves which” (p. 103, Hornborg).

[35] Rudolf Steiner had a similar understanding of the psycho-spiritual causes of materialism: “The concept of matter arose only because of a very misguided concept of time. The general belief is that the world would evaporate into a mere apparition without being if we did not anchor the totality of fleeting events in a permanent, immutable reality that endures in time while its various individual configurations change” (p. 174, 2000).

[36] Hornborg suggests that “general-purpose money was the universal solvent that gave Western industry access to the resources of its global periphery” (p. 105).

[37] Henri Bergson refers to this way of understanding time as the “cinematographical method.” “Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially” (p. 204).

[38] Though Margulis’ theory of the origin of species via symbiogenesis may provide more robust an account, as the mere accumulation of chance mutations, even given billions of years, does not provide a means of phylogenic change quick and resilient enough to have done the necessary organizational work (see Acquiring Genomes, 2003).

[39] “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” –Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century; “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere” Blaise Pascal, 1670. In a Whiteheadian metaphysics, both God and nature participate in the integral becoming of every actual occasion.

[40] i.e., accidental, rather than essential.

[41] “…when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, Whence is matter? and Whereto? many truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn…that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound, it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves: therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (p. 41, Emerson).

[42] “Fetishism is about interesting “mistakes”—really denials—where a fixed thing substitutes for the doings of power-differentiated lively beings on which and on whom, in my view, everything actually depends…Without question, contemporary genetic technology is imbricated with the classical commodity fetishism endemic to capitalist market relations” (p. 135, Haraway, 1997).

[43] “An item produced from oil and metal ores must be priced as if it were more valuable than the oil and the ores that were destroyed in making it, or the process could not go on. This in turn amounts to a constant rewarding of the continued destruction of oil and ores by giving industry access to increasing amounts of oil and ores to destroy” (p. 14-15, Hornborg).

[44] “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).

[45] The implications of the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics were so contrary to mechanistic expectations, that Niels Bohr once remarked, “It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we say about nature” (p. 291, McEvoy, 2001).

[46] “My only earthly wish is… to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds… [Nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”(p.viii); “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations” (p. 21, Francis Bacon, 1980).

[47] “’The Petroleum Interval’ [is] the brief interlude of 200 years where we extracted all of this amazing material from the ground and burnt it” (p. 20, Hopkins, 2008).

[48] Hornborg makes similar aspects of technology transparent: “Industrial technology does not simply represent the application of inventive genius to nature but is equally dependent on a continuous and accelerating social transfer of energy organized by the logic of market exchange” (p. 45).

[49] “Such a distinction…is alien to hunter-gatherer groups like the Algonquian-speakers of northeastern North America, who tend to view all living beings as undivided centers of awareness, agency, and intentionality” (p. 195, Hornborg).

Logos of a Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology

Logos of the Living Earth:

Towards a Gaian Praxecology

By Matthew Segall

Fall 2009

Science, Ecology, and Contested Knowledge(s)

Prof. Elizabeth Allison

“No More” by Josephine Wall – (from http://www.josephinewall.co.uk/josephine.html): “Progress” – Man’s word to excuse the disgraceful abuse of our precious world. “Gaia” has watched from afar, hoping that the trustees of this world would come to their senses, and finally unable to bear the destruction any more, the “Earth Goddess” returns to force back the advancing darkness. Some animals flee in terror whilst others shelter beneath her life-giving mantel. The battle to restore beauty is joined. “No more” will she allow man’s blindness, greed and intolerance to pervade this planet. As she strides purposefully forward, nature’s beauty is once again restored.

Introduction

The word “praxeology” has been employed with various meanings in 20th century French and Austrian discourse.[1] Praxecology is a distinct, though not entirely unrelated neologism invented for the purposes of this essay. A new word is not without a history, nor a text without context—praxecology is the mutated kin of its discursive ancestors whose semiotic relation cannot be denied. But my neologism is not just a sign; it is also a materially inscribed event emerging in my life and, having been read and understood, in the lives of each of you, my audience. Words have real effects in the world of material-semiotic cyborgs[2] like us.

Praxecology is the embodied practice of a living planetary systems theory, the enacting of a Gaian way of life. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, developed in the 1960s while working for NASA to detect life on other planets, has played an important psycho-spiritual role in the environmental movement[3], but half a century later has not been fully realized as an eco-cultural revolt against modern techno-industrialism and the alienation, fetishization, and commodification of self, society, and nature that such a system requires. The results of this Enlightenment project of disembedded rationality are well known: loss of place, self-alienation, social injustice and ecological devastation chief among them.[4] A scientific theory of Earth as a self-regulating system is not enough in itself to overturn any of these aspects of our post-industrial malaise, but the knowledge of a living Earth is compelling enough, I believe, to inspire both the aesthetic skill and religious will of humanity into a renewed relationship with the Earth.

In this essay, I will try to lay down a path in walking toward a Gaian praxecology by offering a more integral, or at least nonmodern (Latour, 1993) narration of embodied practice concerning human-earth relations. As Latour argues in his critique of modern science, the only myth is that there could be science without myth (p. 93, ibid.). I will seek a planetary (and so seemingly universal) mythos, though careful attention will be paid to nature as place, or topos (commonplace).

As Donna Haraway has written,

“We turn to this topic [nature] to order our discourse, to compose our memory …[because] nature is the place to rebuild public culture…[and] is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the Earth” (p. 296, 1992).

The title, “Gaia,” has been criticized for its gender essentialism and mythic connotations.[5] I will try to convey why Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess, is among the most appropriate of names for the living Earth. Her theogonic origins in the poetry of Hesiod, Ovid, and others is an apt reminder that disentanglement of science from myth, or knowledge from narrative, while logically possible, is vacuous in practice.[6] Praxecology is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the Earth community. Science (logos) and story (mythos) are distinct, but in no way separate expressions of the underlying human yearning for knowledge born out of a recognition of our origins in a larger cosmogenic whole. “The Earth,” says cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser, “is nothing but an event [self-enacted/autopoietic unfolding] which in materialization has become progressively slower” (p. 541, Gebser). Matter and mind, embodied action and theoretical discourse, are not isolated influences or opposed forces, but friendly poles in a holistic process of evolutionary autobiography. As Haraway puts it, “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44, 1997).

The protagonists in my story include Haraway, who reminds us that modern technoscientific biology is not life itself, but a cultural discourse about life; Thomas Berry, who evokes an original relationship to the universe by reminding us that an ongoing cosmogenesis is the origin of our existence; Bruno Latour, who demystifies science in action by unveiling the networks of relationships supporting its facts; William Irwin Thompson, whose vision of a Gaian polity helps us re-imagine the world; Francisco Varela, whose enactive cognitive science shows how worlds are brought forth through autopoietic structural coupling; and Gaia, our common ground, producer of all bodies and muse of every mind.Others, too, will lend a helping hand along the way of this logos of the living Earth.

“Ecology,” according to Thomas Berry, “is functional cosmology” (p. 84, 1999). This suggests that an adequate understanding of the universe as a whole is not at all separate from knowing how to live sustainably within one’s particular community of life. The whole and the part are mutually implicated in any “functional cosmology.” Any truly universal knowledge should also be applicable and adaptable to life at home. Such a relational approach to cognition-as-living will guide us along our journey through various philosophical holzwege, or wood paths (German: wegen- “to make a way,” wagen- “to risk”), with the hope that we emerge at a clearing revealing new, perhaps unexpected, ways forward.

Neither representational, nor constructionist epistemologies will suffice for such thoughtful and heartfelt wanderings, as I am concerned here with concrete matters of life and death, not decontextualized ideas of transcendent truth or the moral resignation of unmoored relativism. This discourse concerning the Earth is an attempt to refigure the way words relate to worlds, in part because

“humans are not the ones who arbitrarily add the ‘symbolic dimension’ to pure material forces. These forces are as transcendent, active, agitated, spiritual, as we are” (p. 128, Latour, 1995).

The following pages will record the traces of my struggle to enact a story, not about Earth, but of, as, and for an Earth personified: Gaia.[7] The clearing I hope will be discovered at the end of my praxecological textual way-making is but the beginning of our long overdue transformation from disembedded techno-industrial consumers into symbiotic participants in a flourishing Gaian polity.[8]

“The urgent task of ecological culture,” says Rosemary Radford Ruether,

“is to convert human consciousness to the Earth, so that we can use our minds to understand the web of life and to live in that web of life as sustainers, rather than destroyers, of it” (p. 250, 1992).

It is my hope that my words may participate in the Great Work of weaving Western consciousness back into the tapestry of life from which it sprang by inspiring a renewed call to situated eco-action.[9]

Praxeology Becomes Praxecology

Praxeology is a word with a mixed history of discursive use. Murray N. Rothbard suggests that: “Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals” (p. 58, 1997). Arnold Kaufmann defines praxeology as “the science of human decision-making,” and models his approach after the Cartesian method of logical analysis (p. 12, 1968). Both Rothbard and Kaufmann seek universal, a priori laws of human action; but unlike Kaufmann (best known for his work in computer science), Rothbard criticizes the notion that conscious human beings can be treated like “stones or molecules whose course can be scientifically tracked in alleged constants or quantitative laws” (p. 74). I am in agreement with Rothbard’s (and before his, Ludwig von Mises’) rejection of a quantitative or positivistic account of human action, but because he fails to recognize the feelings, values, and purposes of all the species sharing this planet with humanity, his narrowly humanistic praxeology falls short of enacting the Gaian polity implied by a praxecology.

Kaufmann’s praxeology is even more problematic, as his account of the human nervous system by analogy to a “combinatorial machine [i.e., parallel computer]” (p. 224) neglects the autopoietic nature of living cognitive processes. As will be discussed at length in the following section, the nervous system is not a linear “chain of perceptionàanalysisàdecisionàaction” (p. 228, ibid.), but a recursive and operationally closed loop of sensorimotor coordination within endogenously specified environments of relevancy (see p. 12). Construing cognition as if analysis and decision-making took place as independent steps in a causal chain between perception and action neglects the physiological fact that thinking (i.e., analyzing and deciding) is always already an embodied and embedded sensorimotor activity. Kaufmann’s praxeology re-inscribes the Cartesian dualism responsible for the metaphysical confusions at the root of the ecological crisis. Praxecology is my attempt to re-embody the human being’s conscious analytic capacities by re-imagining the way mind and body, thought and action, knowing and being relate to one another.

Autopoietic Biology and Enactive Cognition

The particular discourse of biology is one that I, like Haraway, “value, want to participate in and make better…and believe to be culturally, politically, and epistemologically important” (p. 218, ibid.). The biology of the late Francisco Varela, more recently carried forward by Evan Thompson, strikes me as especially important because it arises out of an awareness of the “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing” (p. 25, Maturana & Varela, 1988). In other words, deep inquiry into biology can reveal that our ontology, praxis, and epistemology are knotted together such that “…every act of knowing brings forth a world” (p. 26, ibid.).

Varela’s central conceptual contribution (along with Humberto Maturana) to the study of life is the theory of autopoiesis.[10] The theory is part of a larger move away from current orthodoxy in biology that understands organisms as “heteronomous units operating by a logic of correspondence”; instead, Varela offers a new biology that sees organisms as “autonomous units operating by a logic of coherence” (p. 50, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987). The standard, gene-centric perspective of neo-Darwinist biology maintains that individual organisms are the puppets of their DNA, struggling to achieve fitness by way of natural selection into pre-given niches.[11] They are “other-determined” (heteronomous) because the forms of their bodies and behaviors are imposed extrasomatically by a supposedly objective world[12] and endosomatically by supposedly objective genetic algorithms. Evolutionary success is retroactively explained as the result of a correspondence between an organism’s body, instincts, and thoughts (all reducible to genetic coding) and the external world. Varela’s autopoietic view, in contrast, allows us to see organisms as autonomous and purposeful beings whose success is explained not by correct representation of a pre-given, objective reality, but by adequate structural coupling[13] with others allowing for the enaction of coherent and durable material-semiotic worlds.

Further, an autopoietic biology makes clear that self-production is at least logically (if not also temporally) prior to reproduction (p. 131, E. Thompson). The basis of living organization, therefore, is not the ability to genetically replicate, but to produce a membrane-bound, self-organizing identity distinguishing organism from environment. In this way, the ecopoiesis[14] of Gaia grants it living status, contrary to gene-centric neo-Darwinian criticisms.

Varela’s penchant for transdisciplinarity lead him to link his autopoietic biology to cognitive science, and his enactive theory of cognition to sociology. Varela has described enaction by borrowing the words of the poet Antonio Machado: “Wanderer the road is your footsteps, nothing else; you lay down a path in walking” (p. 63, 1987).

The scientific principles underlying this poetic insight have been highlighted by Evan Thompson, who offers five features central to the theory of enactive cognition (p. 13, 2007):

1.“…living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and thereby also enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains.”

2.“…the nervous system is an autonomous dynamic system [that] actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity according to its operation as a circular and reentrant network of interacting neurons.”

3.“…cognition is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”

a.“Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action.”

b.Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling.”

4.“…a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment.”

5.“…experience is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”

One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular “cognitive domain” (see # 1) made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed (see # 2), its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.

As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance.[15]

Referring to technoscience, as opposed to just science, emphasizes the extent to which knowledge emerges out of skillful action in embodied situations (see #’s 3 and 4). Science has always been dependent upon technological sensorimotor extensions to deepen its understanding of that commonplace called by its peculiar culture “nature.” Artifacts and their articulations, including alphabetic technologies, shape the kinds of worlds scientists are capable of enacting. Even mathematics is a figurative language (p.11, ibid.), constructing analogies between otherwise unrelated domains of experience.[16]

Varela’s biology has implications not only for scientific epistemology, but also for society and human-earth relations. Echoing the sentiments of Haraway, Varela writes that:

“…biology is the source of most metaphors in current thinking…and expresses the possibility of a worldview beyond the split between us and it…what we do is what we know, and ours is but one of many possible worlds. [Enactive cognition] is…the laying down of a world, with no warfare between self and other” (p. 62, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987).

It is our shared biological lineage that secures the basic structure of the worlds we can bring forth together via linguistic and empathic structural coupling. But culture is not bound by nature, or rather human nature is sufficiently malleable that diverse cultural expressions can emerge within isolated social groups. It is often only through inter-cultural confrontation and misunderstanding that members of one society come to recognize the unthought background of their enacted worlds. Varela is at pains to convey to us the message of his biology, that “…as human beings, we have only the world which we create with others” (p. 246, 1988). Unless I can encounter the differences between my (or my culture’s) cognitive domain and another’s with the willingness to make room for their meanings besides my own, I undermine the biological process of structural coupling that produces livable worlds. Meaning emerges out of difference (p. 167, Hornborg), and as W. I. Thompson suggests, “the recognition of differences [is] the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 167, 1985). Bringing forth worlds with others requires tapping into a universal substratum of empathic relation, not to erase difference, but to celebrate it.

Varela calls this willingness to forego self-certainty for the sake of enacting inclusive worlds with others love. Love, says Varela (and Maturana), “is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness” (p. 264, 1988). Most scientists would dismiss such claims because they overshoot the objective scope of the scientific enterprise. But Varela’s biology is an attempt to break down the Cartesian divide between rationality and emotion, between what is and what ought to be. Biology is the study of life, but in the context of the recursive logic of enactivism, it becomes the self-study of our own living. Perhaps some physicists can study the mathematical regularities of measurable matter without too much personal investment, but to study the processes that birth and sustain our very being inevitably calls for profound personal and interpersonal involvement. And because of the identity between knowing and doing, the stories we tell about how life came to be and what it is doing here will determine what sorts of future worlds we bring forth together.

“Whatever we do in every domain, whether concrete (walking) or abstract (philosophical reflection), involves us totally in the body, for it takes place through our structural dynamics and through our structural interactions. Everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence” (p. 248, ibid.).

Varela’s autopoietic biology is a critical response to the mechanistic trends of mainstream studies of living organization. He emphasizes the autonomy of individual organisms while also situating them within the eco-social environments that sustain them materially and semiotically. Varela also engages the philosophical implications of biology in a more penetrating way than most other scientists when he recognizes the dynamic unity of mind and body. Thought, perception, and action are knotted together in the process of living, and life is by its very nature a co-creative, world-making affair. Acknowledging this, a Gaian praxecology strives, not to disembed local cultures (whether scientific or indigenous) from their specific histories of structural coupling, but to expand their cognitive domains such that they begin to comport themselves appropriately in light of the knowledge of the whole Earth as a single living system—in mythopoeic fact, a person—that all beings, no matter our cultural or even biological differences, depend upon for survival. The task of our planetary age is to situate the parts in the whole (so human persons can relate to Gaia) while not forgetting that the whole is also to be found in each of the parts (humans are, first and foremost, earthlings). Personifying the Earth not only leads to renewed respect for our home planet, but reminds us of the encompassing and interconnected natural processes responsible for breathing life into individual human persons and all other earthlings. Personhood, it could be said, is granted only when beings are able to meet each other in loving social spaces.

Discursive Earth

Language is the primary instrument of human knowing, the tool of tools that opens up worlds of meaning more flexible (and reflexive) than the bio-semiotic endowments granted to most other organisms. But the virtue of human language is also its tragic flaw, as the creative power of words enable the imagination to almost entirely detach from the actuality of the body and the Earth. One result of such disengagement is what A. N. Whitehead has called the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” (p. 51, 1925): abstract worlds of words and images restructure not only thought, but perception and action, such that the concrete lived experience of the uniqueness of individual persons, to take one example, becomes obscured by pre-conceived notions of culture, race, and class (etc.), leading to an objectification of others that short-circuits the process of linguistic and empathic structural coupling.

Varela suggests that human language evolved as a result of increased socialization and loving cooperation between our hominid ancestors (p. 220, 1988). The female shift from estral cycles to nonseasonal sexuality and the frontal coitus resulting from upright posture are mentioned as possible reasons for the development of such a complex and expressive behavior as speech[17] (p. 219, ibid.).

Evan Thompson points also to “…the evolution of a new stage of development, namely, childhood,” which provides developing human beings with an incredible plasticity, so much in fact that

“…individual subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, a result of the communally handed down norms, conventions, symbolic artifacts, and cultural traditions in which the individual is always already embedded” (p. 409-411, 2007).

Writing may have arisen later (around the 4th millennium BCE) for economic reasons (p. 13, Jean, 1987), but the spoken word appears to have emerged originally as a result of the desire for increased interpersonal intimacy. This is, of course, a revisionist account of the origins of human language, focusing more on the evolution of consciousness than economic progress or the invention of technologies. W. I. Thompson offers evidence contrary to the standard technophilic and androcentric explanations, citing the work of prehistorian Alexander Marshack, who, like E. Thompson and Varela, argues language arose as a result of neoteny and increased social cohesion:

“If, at any point in the evolutionary process ‘language’ or proto-language was to be learned, it would not have been in the context of the hunt. It would have been learned young, before the individual was economically productive…in the context of the child’s widening, increasingly complex relational competence” (p. 91, W. I. Thompson, 1981).

A Gaian praxecology requires a novel way of relating to language as primarily communicative, rather than descriptive or representational. The meaning of our words comes not from a correspondence between them, our brains, and objects or events in the world, but from the consensual coordination of our lived bodies and their linguistic intentions.[18] Social coherence, rather than representational correspondence, produces meaningful intersubjective linguistic domains.

The communicative origins of language should make it clear that claims to establish a pure observer language free of cultural idiosyncrasy (and so capable of objective description of phenomena) are more political than scientific. Human beings speak with one another in order to share emotion and direct attention, and so any notion of descriptive or explanatory truth must include at least the potential for agreement between structurally coupled agents. If one group’s emically verified description contradicts another’s, there has not been a factual conflict but a failure to communicate. Such conflicts of description are especially insidious when political power is used to enforce “true” accounts of reality despite the resistance of marginalized social enactments of meaning.

The move away from representational accounts of language is the first step toward “…[placing] the human within the dynamics of the planet rather than [placing] the planet within the dynamics of the human” (p. 160, T. Berry, 1999). By recognizing language as a poetic product of the Earth’s own desire to know itself through autobiography, perhaps the psychological alienation and spiritual disenchantment so characteristic of our historical moment can be overcome.[19] According to Berry, “this awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth” (p. 165, ibid.). As I shared above, our language and the imaginative capacities it facilitates evolved because humans grew more capable of empathic structural coupling. As the cultural and symbolic systems that emerged became more complex, they began to reify differences between one another and, at least in the Western world, between humanity and nature. In effect, Western consciousness detached from the dream of the Earth and fell into its own nightmare of endless economic growth fueled by technological progress.[20]

A flourishing Gaian-polity will require rooting human imagination and language back in the body of the Earth and Cosmos, such that our evolutionary journey from protozoa to speaking primates becomes an expression of the planet’s own joie de vivre.

As Rick Tarnas has written:

“The human spirit does not merely prescribe nature’s phenomenal order; rather, the spirit of nature brings forth its own order through the human mind when that mind is employing its full complement of faculties–intellectual, volitional, emotional, sensory, imaginative, aesthetic, epiphanic…human language itself can be recognized as rooted in a deeper reality, as reflecting the universe’s unfolding meaning…Human thought does not and cannot mirror a ready-made objective truth in the world; rather, the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind” (p. 435, 1991).

A participatory approach like Tarnas’ is exactly the kind of relationship between language, culture, and nature that praxecology seeks. Humanity, rather than the alienated dominator of Earth, can become Gaia’s most articulate storyteller and most potent dream weaver. Logos did not arrive in the universe in human form from beyond at some point in history, but has been a part of cosmogenesis since the beginning.[21]

Gaian Mythos

Humanity is unique, in the double sense of being both one with (Latin: unus) the Earth/Cosmos and undeniably alone. What it is that makes our species so special is a matter of contention. The risk one takes in defining the difference between human and nonhuman is that some group be marginalized by not being included in the favored category. History makes it quite apparent that societies become more willing to commit atrocities when they adopt antagonistic linguistic classifications (race, class, gender, species, etc.). But even to deny the difference is already to have marked the topic as a forbidden fruit. I cannot avoid this risk if I wish to tell my story (cross-cultural communication depends, at least etymologically, on munitions—on firing an opening shot). I can only provisionally offer that what makes us human is our being always already embedded participants in evolving worlds of meaning, and knowing so. Knowledge is what distinguishes humanity, but all knowing is situated within the promiscuous meanings and romantic-comedic-tragic narratives of embodied life among others, both human and non.

Our human capacity for knowledge also clues us into our ignorance, the fact that we lack, perhaps indefinitely, a complete understanding of how we came to be and how best to live. Nonetheless, as Wendell Berry has written, “…we have to act on the basis of what we know, [even if] what we know is incomplete” (p. 10, 2000). Our cultures must provide us with a flexible way to navigate the unmappable complexities of the terrain of life on this evolving planet. A renewed engagement with the mythopoeic dimensions of consciousness is one way to keep our balance while walking upon such uncertain ground.

Myth, according to W. I. Thompson, “is a state of being, analogous to music [and so] not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe” (p. 6, 1996). Any knowledge we pretend to have regarding the world simultaneously participates in the bringing forth of exactly such a world. Even modern technosciences of life have deep mythological roots, and so to properly contextualize matters of fact I must invoke the poetic images of the ancient past (of at least our Western, alphabetic tradition).

Hesiod, Ovid, Homer and other Greek orators have given poetic, divinatory, or dramatic tribute to Gaia, the “mother of all [and] eldest of all beings” (Homeric hymn XXX). She is imagined to have emerged at the beginning of the world from the undifferentiated, lifeless mass of Chaos. Once her earthly foundation was in place, she birthed the sky, the mountains, and the sea, along with countless other beings, mortal and immortal. She was, for ancient humanity (on all continents, though by other names), personified as Grandmother, revered for her creative generativity and life-sustaining soils.[22]

For us, despite living thousands of years later in an age of “Reason,” it remains wise to remember with W. I. Thompson that a Gaian evolutionary theory and practice (a praxecology) “requires not simply training and data collection, but imagination” (p. 252, 1991).

Imagination, for Thompson, is what integrates perception and enacts coherent worlds of situated meaning:

“What brings forth a world is the human body as a field of metaphoric extension of the known into the unknown… [Imagination’s] ability to stabilize a world derives from…preverbal geometries of behavior we have come to cognize as the way things happen” (p. 253, ibid).

These preverbal geometries of behavior archetypally structure our unconscious experience of the Earth. In those “mythic times called the ‘Scientific Revolution’” (p. 1, Haraway, 1997), the Cartesian coordinate plane emerged to refigure the human body-mind, constructing a flattened background upon which the Western imagination could perform its world-making magic at relative distance from the local complexities and particular faces of Earth.

The re-imagining of the world I am after requires locating the supposedly universal scientific truths responsible for disenchanting the Earth and Cosmos. “[The scientific tribe], says Latour, “like earlier ones, projects its own special categories onto Nature; what is new is that it pretends it has not done so” (p. 102, 1993). This pretense to objectivity, ironically, is what allowed Lovelock to publish his first hypotheses (p. 568-570, Nature, 1965) concerning how best to detect extraterrestrial life (by searching for “order” and “non-equilibrium”). The ambiguous boundaries between life and non-life, much like those between human and nonhuman, are fraught with controversy.[23] Lovelock’s generalizations, however, seem to offer at least relatively universal characteristics applicable even to alien worlds. As far as Lovelock is concerned, life is a planetary affair[24], involving even the physiosphere in its metabolic processes of growth and evolution (through regulation of atmosphere and plate tectonics [Mann, 1991]).

Our living planet has produced not only complex eco-semiotic webs of organic community, but also a special primate who can know the difference between sign and thing (and who surfs the mystery in between with myth). This differential knowing raises the specter of minds separate from bodies, of a noosphere over and above the biosphere using it as a means for its own elevated ends. But we need not reproduce the Sacred Image of the Same by reifying the human difference; we can instead, through a self-critical and diffractive consciousness, bring forth histories of entangled meaning where reality and idea, science and story, nature and culture mutually constitute one another (Haraway, 1997). The cosmogenesis of Earth is as much mental, cultural, and transcendent as it is physical, natural, and immanent. There is no one true and ideal copy of the world that might be reproduced culturally or technologically. Reality is not a reflected image in the human mind, but co-emerges out of the interference patterns generated by the varied material-semiotic activities of countless earthlings, most of whom are not human (p. 299, Haraway, 1992). A Gaian praxecology attempts to make this radically inter-species realization explicit in both our ecological practices and our discourse.

Imagine a world where Lovelock’s scientific narratives about the “Ages of Gaia” are tied together in a distributed and layered way (p. 121, Haraway, 1997.) with the ancient myths and mysterious organic origins of so many other human and nonhuman natures-cultures. Gaian praxecology requires not hegemonic universalism or globalization, but a shared discourse of common origins always open to interpellation (p. 49-50, ibid.). Humanity does not yet share a sacred story of creation, but our global techno-industrial activities have already inextricably linked our biological destinies. The future of our species depends upon a more integral relation between economic theory and ecological practice, myth and science, and imagination and knowledge. A Gaian praxecology is at least an opening gesture toward a more appropriate relation between these dualisms.

Earth recognized and lived with as what Ian Hacking (p. 31-32, 1999) has called an “interactive kind,” a person, would bring our species even closer to what a Gaian praxecology implies. Reconnecting on a personal level with the Earth makes evident the real ways that our ideas are actualized in the bringing forth of worlds. For too long, Gaia has been conceived of as a dead rock mutely bearing oil drills and explosives, a mere standing reserve of resources fed into the human market, and only then made valuable. The result is that much of her body (including the parts of her that we are) has become toxic and infertile. The time has come to pay respect again to the Grandmother of all who eat and breathe beneath the sun. I call for a polyphonic Gaian mythos sung by humans and nonhumans alike, “…for things [quasi-objects] too have to be elevated to the dignity of narrative” (p. 90, Latour, 1993).

Conclusion

The spiritual import of a logos of the living Earth cannot be underestimated. Unless the human spirit can begin to feel at home again upon the planet of its birth, it will surely soon become the planet of its death.

“As physical resources become less available,” says Berry,

“psychic [or spiritual] energy must support the human project in a special manner. This situation brings us to a new reliance on powers within the universe and also to experience of the deeper self. The universe must be experienced as the Great Self. Each is fulfilled in the other: the Great Self is fulfilled in the individual self, and the individual self is fulfilled in the Great Self. Alienation is overcome as soon as we experience this surge of energy from the source that has brought the universe through the centuries. New fields of energy become available to support the human venture. These new energies find expression and support in celebration. For in the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration” (p. 170, 1999).

The ongoing celebration of the Cosmos and Earth community, indeed, provides us with a mythos worth performing and participating in. Indigenous peoples have ritually participated in Gaia’s seasonal rhythms for thousands of generations, recognizing the celebratory significance of all life’s activities. A similar re-sacralization of life goes hand in hand with a Gaian praxecology. Ritual is the concrete foundation of culture, the source of our most fundamental habits and dispositions. Renewing our connection with the “mother of all things” can bring an end to the fragmented Chaos of post-industrial civilization, giving us the inspiration to tell the meaningful stories of creation and regeneration going on around, between, and within us. It is through such scientifically informed, mythically imbued narratives and rituals that a Gaian praxecology can be brought forth. All of our cultural institutions must seek their guidance from the roles granted them by such numinous, celebratory stories such that they perform their world-making work for the glory of Gaia, rather than for the profit of a few corporations.

My story has now reached its end, but hopefully the holzwege I have laid down in walking has provided an opening for fellow terrestrial trekkers to follow in my footsteps. Our ultimate destination cannot be prematurely known, as the mythic landscapes we must travel are dense and full of mystery.

“The landscape of myth,” says W. I. Thompson,

“…is that shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being…When we come to [such] an edge we have to shift our mode of thought…from rational analysis to intuitive meditation” (p. 87, 1981).

We can only hope to understand the current planetary moment by wholeheartedly participating in the multibillion-year cosmic performance of powers that produced and continues to nourish us. Science and spirituality must mutually aid us in any joint venture to enact a Gaian praxecology, because only a more integral relation between intelligence and imagination will allow the human being to dream with the Earth once again.

Works Cited

1)Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. 1988. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

2)Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. 1999. Bell Tower: New York.

3)Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: Essays Against Modern Superstition. 2000. Counterpoint: Washington D.C.

4)Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? 1999. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

5)Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. 1997. Routledge: New York.

6)Haraway, Donna J. The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. Printed in Cultural Studies. 1992. Eds. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., Treichler, A. Routledge: New York.

7)Hesiod. Theogony. 1953. Bobbs-Merrill: New York.

8)Hornborg, Alf. The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment. 2001. AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek.

9)Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. 1992. Abrams: New York.

10)Kaufmann, Arnold. Transl. from French by Rex Audley. The Science of Decision-Making: An Intro to Praxeology. 1968. McGraw-Hill: New York.

11)Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. 1987. Harvard: Cambridge.

12)Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth. 1988. Bantam Books: New York.

13)Mann, Charles. Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother. Science 19 April 1991. Pgs. 378-381

14)Maturana, Humberto and Varela, J. Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. 1988. Shambala: Boston.

15)Rothbard, Murray N. The Logic of Action I: Method, Money, and the Austrian School. 1997. Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, UK.

16)Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. 1989. Harper: San Francisco.

17)Segall, Matthew. On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics. 2009.

18)Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. 1991. Ballantine Books: New York.

19)Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. 2007. Harvard: Cambridge.

20)Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia: A Way of Knowing, Political Implications of the New Biology. 1987. Lindisfarne: New York.

21)Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia 2: Emergence, The New Science of Becoming. 1991. Lindisfarne: New York.

22)Thompson, William Irwin. Pacific Shift. 1985. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.

23)Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. 1981. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

24)Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. 1925. The Free Press: New York.


[1] In the next section (see p. 6), I will unpack the implications and limitations of praxeology, explaining why praxecology provides a more appropriate plan of action for our historical moment.

[2] Cyborgs are “the offspring of…technoscientific wombs—imploded germinal entities, densely packed condensations of worlds, shocked into being from the force of the implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, machine and organic body, money and lives, narrative and reality” (p. 14, Haraway, 1997).

[3] See Weston, A. ‘Forms of Gaian ethics,’ pgs. 217-230, Environmental Ethics 9. 1987. Lovelock himself sees his work as strictly scientific, but this has not stopped others from extending the implications of his theory into ethics and spirituality via critiques of anthropocentrism and materialism.

[4] “…the intensified misery of billions of men and women [and nonhuman species] seems organically rooted in the freedoms of transnational capitalism and technoscience” (p. 3, Haraway, 1997). Another result of techno-industrialism is mechanistic biology. I explore the metaphysical substructure of this disembedded perspective in my essay “On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics” (2009).

[5] Refers to class discussion (11/4/09). Also see Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype (1983), where he argues that natural selection could not have produced a self-regulating planetary organism. Dawkins’ definition of life in terms of genetic replication is too narrow for reasons discussed on page 9.

[6] “Even Hegel, for whom the Absolute is fully grasped as such only as Concept or Idea, recognized that art, religion and philosophy all share the same substance, that in fact it is only as reflection on (or refraction through) the myths and symbols of religion in particular that ‘absolute knowing’ can arise in the first place.” –Sean Kelly, Evolutionary Panentheism for the Planetary Era, 2009

[7] This is, essentially, a move away from representationalist epistemology to participatory epistemology, where knowledge “about” a system or process is understood to be an integral part of the same system or process. Personality is not the sole possession of our species, but a refined expression of the primordial personhood of the living Earth.

[8] For more on what a Gaian polity entails, see Gaia, A Way of Knowing: Political Implications of the New Biology, ed. by W.I. Thompson. Several principles are suggested, including the move away from one-sided ideologies to an “ecology of consciousness” (Bateson) and the supersession of nation-state territorialism through a recognition of the atmosphere as our global commons. See also section X (p. 67) of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009).

[9] Eco-action is action in service of one’s earthly home and all the kin who live there (oikos- household, or family).

[10] The details of the technical definition of “autopoiesis” (self-production) need not concern us in this paper, but in short, a system is generally defined as autopoietic if it is composed of a network of dynamic chemical transformations that produces its own components and the membrane that spatially defines it as a system (p. 46, M. & V., 1988). The paradigmatic example of autopoiesis is the cell.

[11] See Dawkins 1989 and Dennett 1995

[12] Lovelock’s Gaia theory allows us to see that life does not adapt to fit the fixed parameters of a lifeless planet, but remakes its host into a complex, self-regulating living system.

[13] “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (p. 74, M. &V., 1988).

[14] “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).

[15] “…we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).

[16] For example, Thomas Edison wove a chain of associations together to relate Joule’s and Ohm’s equations with economic principles. The result was the electric light bulb (p. 239-240, Latour, 1988).

[17] W. I. Thompson (p. 21-26, 1981) similarly links the evolution of language and sexuality, pointing to, among other things, Alfred Kinsey’s studies in the 1950s showing the intelligentsia (those who have mastered language), unlike the working classes, tended to revel in oral sexuality.

[18] See Maturana’s Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality (1978), where he points to structural coupling as the origin of language. This is in contrast to denotative or representational theories of language, where words stand for things independent of consensual coordination between human organisms.

[19] “The governing dream of the twentieth century appears as a kind of ultimate manifestation of that deep inner rage of Western society against its earthly condition as a vital member of the life community” (p. 165, ibid.).

[20] See section VIII (p. 42) of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009) for a possible account of why Western consciousness became so detached from the ecopoiesis of the Earth.

[21] “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through [the Word] and without [the Word] was not anything made that hath been made” (John 1:1-1:4).

[22] See James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd ed., 1915). Frazer points to the common origin of all modern religions in the ancient goddess worshipping traditions of the world. Especially significant in the context of my essay is his statement that “…imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid” (ch. 22).

[23] Autopoiesis has been suggested in an earlier section on Varela’s systems biology as a possible scientific definition of “life” that recognizes self-production and self-regulation (rather than genetic replication) as essential to living organization, thereby granting Gaia living status. The economic implications of the controversy over what counts as “life” are central to my essay On the Matter of Life (2009), where I argue, with the help of Whitehead and Varela, that all actual occasions are autopoietic organisms.

[24] While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6, 1988).

Information and Noise: From Order Comes Chaos

“Pollution, like a neurotic symptom, is a form of communication. To ignore the symptom, to thrust it to the side of awareness and push it back into the collective unconscious, is to perform the same action that created the pollution, the dissonance, the neurotic symptom, in the first place. The end result of ignoring the communication is to stimulate it to the point that the dissonance becomes so loud that it drowns out all other signals. Ultimately, the ignored and unconscious precipitates itself as the ultimate shadow of civilization, annihilation. This is another way of expressing what I have noted before: If you do not create your destiny, you will have your fate inflicted upon you. The creation of destiny, then, depends on maintaining a more permeable membrane between noise and information, unconscious and conscious, nature and culture.

(Modern) Civilization, however, is not surrounded by a light, permeable membrane, but a wall. The salinization of the soil was not seen or heard. A local technology, defined by the city’s limits, created a problem area larger than its political area of control. Any cultural attempt to control an area rationally only seems to generate a shadow … the fascinating aspect of the cultural patterning of urban civilization is that the problem or crisis, the dissonance, can itself be read as the signal of emergence of the next level of historical order.

Like a shadow that does not permit us to jump over it, but moves with us to maintain its proper distance, pollution is nature’s answer to culture. When we have learned to recycle pollution into potent information, we will have passed over completely into the new cultural ecology.” -William Irwin Thompson (p. 82, Pacific Shift, 1987)

I found the above excerpt to be highly significant in relation to the discussions which have resulted from the z4 symposium on enactivism, integralism, and spirituality. Enactivism is calling into question the dominant metaphor of the brain as an “information-processor,” recontextualizing it by adopting what Thompson above describes as “a more permeable membrane between noise and information.” There is not a matter of fact about the world independent of our attempt to know it. What is a fact to us, no matter how important, is noise from another perspective. Unless we can come to recognize the unique worldspaces and ecosystems brought forth by each organism, we will remain as blind to their threatened survival as we are to our own as the result of our ignorance of pollution. We read pollution as “noise,” when really it is nature trying to tell us to awaken to the realities of our deep connection to the planet that birthed and sustains us. There is no “other” but that part of ourselves which has been repressed.