I’m giving another talk on Monday (9/29) on psychedelics (the last one was at Burning Man) as part of a panel discussion for the Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE) student group at CIIS. This one will focus on the psychedelic roots of philosophy, particularly as they relate to the Eleusinian mystery rites. I’ll paste some of my notes below.
Abstract: Since its origins in ancient Greece, Western philosophy has sought out solutions to psychological, cosmological, and ontological problematics. Nowadays, philosophical problems and their solutions tend to come in the form of written formulas. There is no doubt that language can have a profoundly mind-manifesting effect on its speakers and listeners, but ancient Greek philosophers did not limited themselves to alphabetic solutions: they also partook of chemical solutions. In this short presentation, I’d like to revisit the pharmacological roots of the philosophical tradition in ancient Greece, unpacking its still relevant insights into the nature of the human soul, the origin of the universe, and the ground of being.
My goal is to initiate an anemnetic revival of the long repressed psychedelic dimension of Western philosophy. Building on the work of scholars like Michael Rinella and Peter Kingsley, I’ll argue that the West, too, is historically rooted in a unique sort of shamanic practice that has been excised from our origin story in order to serve the dominant political narrative about the rise of disembedded Enlightenment rationality. Psychedelics are perhaps the most important spiritual technology available to philosophy, opening the doors of perception so as to allow for profound experiential insights into cosmogenesis and our human potential to become creative participants in its ongoing evolutionary expression.
I. What are psychedelics?
They are alchemical substances that, when smoked, snorted, chewed, injected, or transdermally absorbed, make human beings conscious of the Divine Imagination.
Terence McKenna on Divine Imagination: “I think of the Divine Imagination as the class of all things both possible and beautiful in a kind of reverse Platonism. The attractor is at the bottom of a very deep well into which all phenomena are cascading and being brought into a kind of compressed state. This is happening in the biological realm through the career of the evolution of life. It’s simultaneously happening in the world as we experience it within our culture, in history. History is the track in the snow left by creativity wandering in the Divine Imagination.” Terence equates Divine Imagination with Chaos, which he says “is not the enemy of order, but the birthplace of it.” (p. 7)
Reversed, inverted, or psychedelic Platonism?:Reading Plato in the context of the Eleusianian psychedelic rituals reveals that the standard reading of “Platonism” has it exactly backwards. What does it mean to say we are living inside a cave? Psychedelics reveal the play of images upon the cave wall to consciousness, they make us aware of illusion, of the aesthetic basis of experience. Can they also show us the way out of the cave? Are they just mind-altering chemicals that confuse the normal dualities of rational subjectivity, or can they also become alchemical solutions that infuse divine creativity into human souls, that awaken us to our highest human potential as conscious participants in cosmogenesis? I think they provided exactly this to the fathers of philosophy, Plato and Socrates. Psychedelics need philosophy, lest they allow us to rest in confusion. The West has its own shamanic, indigenous tradition. We can learn a lot from other cultural traditions, but we should not forget our own lineage in the process (I assume here that my audience is mostly White, or at least was raised within the context of Western civilization).
Psychedelics transform the phenomenal content of our rational, waking, daytime consciousness into a play of images upon a cave wall. They call the very idea of “Reality” itself into question. What’s real? What’s virtual? How are we to tell the difference? They also throw the idea of the “Self” into question—not just the phenomenal surfaces of experience (sensory objects), but its transcendental depths (subjective concepts and intuitions unified by the apperception of the I). Psychedelics initiate us into the creative polarity of experience, revealing the way self and world, mind and reality, remain always in tension, never settling accounts so as to provide for some fixed foundation or taken for granted ground. Psychedelics make manifest to consciousness the groundlessness, the abyssal Chaos, that lies more or less hidden at the base of all things: (now)here we meet our maker, our mother. Such psychedelically induced auto-revelations of the origins of reality forces those initiated to become metaphysicians, doctors of the soul, who seek not to cure death (as physicians do), but to contemplate it endlessly. Philosophers (mistaken sometimes for claiming it to be a tomb) make a temple of the body, as though its very purpose and design was to manifest psyche, to make soul. Philosophy is Wisdom’s response to love. Love is what birthed us, it is our womb. Philosophy, then, is learning to die, which means learning to turn the body from a tomb into a temple. This was Socrates’ most important instruction to all lovers of wisdom, uttered at the birthplace of philosophy in an Athenian prison cell. Socrates, an initiate into the Eleusinian mystery religion (a lysergic acid fueled ritual), inaugurated the Western philosophical tradition while awaiting a heroic dose of hemlock. He was well aware that it was going to be a very intense trip.
Terence McKenna again on illusion and divine imagination: “ Psychedelics somehow change our channel from the evolutionarily important channel giving traffic, weather, and stock market reports to the one playing the classical music of an alien civilization. In other words, we tend to tune to the channel that has a big payback in the immediate world. It seems obvious to me that there are channels of the imagination that are not so tailored for human consumption…The Divine Imagination is the reality behind appearances. Appearance is simply the local slice of the Divine Imagination.” … “What psychedelics reveal is so intense and extreme an example that it argues strongly that the imagination is not the human imagination at all…The psychedelic experience at its intense levels goes beyond the terms of human motivation. It seems rather to enter an ontological reality of its own, one that the human being is simply privileged to observe briefly. A deep psychedelic experience says no more about a person’s personality than it does the continent of Africa. They are, in fact, independent objects. To my mind, the Divine imagination is the source of all creativity in our dreams, in our psychedelic experiences, in the jungles, in the currents of the ocean, and in the organization of protozoan and microbial life.” (p. 14-17)
Psychedelics direct our attention away from the instrumental concerns of survival (masses, positions, dimensions, etc.) and refocus it on the aesthetic dimensions of experience so we might learn not just to survive but to thrive.
II. What is the eucharist?
By invoking the eurcharist, I’m attempting to put psychedelics (which for much of the modern era have been displaced into the recreational arena) back into a ritual context. Re-ritualization is relatively straightforward, since we need only return to the models provided us by the ancient mystery religions. I’m going to focus on Eleusis since its mysteries are intimately bound up with the origins of philosophy. The precise nature of the annual rites at Eleusis were secret, but we can reconstruct a good deal of their meaning. They are thought to be a recapitulation of older, pre-Olympian goddess-worshipping rituals originating on the island of Crete. The major difference is that the older Cretan rites were celebrated publicly. Eleusis was an attempt to preserve these rites secretly, so as to protect them from the onslaught of patriarchy, which was uneasy, to say the least, with the implications of their psychedelically-induced revelations. These revelations offered insight into the mysterious death-rebirth cycle of plant life. The Eleusinian mystery rites were based on the myth of Demeter, mother earth, and Persephone, her daughter, who would become queen of the underworld after dining on a few pomegranate seeds while in hell with Hades. The myth is a symbolic representation of the seasonal shifts in vegetation (or perhaps these seasonal shifts are symbolic of the myth?).
Homer on this myth (a summary): “Persephone, playing in a meadow, came across a large and wondrous narcissus. As she reached for it, the ground gave way and the dark lord of the underworld, Hades, appeared on his golden chariot. He carried her off screaming to Zeus and the gods for help. Demeter heard her and rushed to find what had happened. For nine days she wandered the earth. On the tenth she appealed to the Sun who sees all in his daily travels. He reported that Zeus had given Persephone to his brother Hades to be his wife. Demeter, filled with grief, was angry. She removed all signs of her divinity and as an old woman walked the earth in quest of her daughter. At Eleusis she sat on the outskirts of town near a well; Clement of Alexandria noted that sitting on a well “is even now prohibited to those who are initiated, lest they should appear to mimic the weeping goddess.” Keleos’s four young daughters wanted to help her, and with their mother’s permission brought her home. Stepping onto the threshold, the old woman touched the roof beam with her head and a heavenly light filled the room. The family was filled with amazement and fear, but no one guessed she was a goddess. The girls’ mother, Metaneira, offered her fine chair, but Demeter waited in silence. Finally a waiting-woman offered a stool covered with white fleece. Demeter sat down, covered herself with her veil, and waited in silence, pining for her daughter. This refers to the silence of the mysteries and the fleece-covered stool on which the initiate sat. The waiting-woman induced Demeter to smile. Metaneira brought a goblet of sweet wine, but the goddess refused, requesting instead a drink of barley, water, and mint, referring to the mystery-drink. Later Metaneira gave Demeter her baby to rear. Demeter secretly fed the boy only the ambrosia of the gods, and at night concealed him in the embers of the fire, like a log. In this way he grew like a god, but Metaneira spied one night and shrieked at the sight of her son in the fire. Furious, Demeter snatched him out and exclaimed that he would have become ageless and immortal. Revealing herself as a goddess, she requested the people of Eleusis to build a great shrine in which she would instruct them in her rites. When the temple was finished, Demeter sat there pining for her daughter. Spring came but fields produced no growth, for heartbroken Mother Nature kept the seeds unsprouted in the ground. The human race would have perished, but Zeus took notice and one by one sent the other Olympians to summon her, but she spurned them all, inconsolable until she saw her daughter. Finally Zeus dispatched Hermes, guide of the souls of the dead, to entreat Hades to release Persephone. Hermes led her to the world above and Demeter ran to her, asking: “While you were in the underworld, surely you didn’t eat anything? For if you did, you’ll return for one-third of the seasons.” Persephone admitted she’d been tricked into eating some pomegranate seeds, and therefore had to spend one-third of each year as queen of the underworld and two-thirds among the rest of the gods. Demeter released the power that caused seeds to sprout, grow, and produce blossoms and harvest. And before returning to the ranks of the immortals she instructed the leaders of Eleusis in the sacred mysteries.” (http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/world/med/me-savage.htm)
This myth is suggestive of a correspondence between the death/rebirth cycle of plants and the death/rebirth cycle of human beings. Just like plants move from seed, to stem, to bud, to flower, to fruit, and back to seed again, human souls grow from birth, through infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senility until death, at which point the soul leaves its temporary embodiment to become the seed for some future reincarnation. Like plants, human souls share in an immortality of sorts. In dying to our individual bodies, we live forever in the soul of the world. Eleusis (Eleuseos) literally means “the coming.” The child that Demeter was feeding ambrosia and placing in the fire to “grow like a god” is a hint of the divine child to come. In fact, there is more than a hint of the incarnation in the Eleusinian myth. It is a myth about the mystery of mortality, about the path through death to what lies beyond it.
The mystery rites at Eleusis took place over 9 days, symbolizing the 9 months of human gestation. Stages of major mystery ritual are symbolic of the archetypal perinatal matrices (Neptune—>Saturn—>Pluto—>Uranus).
Ingesting a psychedelic turns the world inside out, such that the soul extends beyond the skull to encompass us, while the seeming solidity of matter dissolves into the infinite plasticity of energy.
The Eleusinian ritual was an early form of the rite later celebrated by Christians as the Eurcharist. Demeter represented grain or bread for the Greeks. The annual rites also included invocations of Dionysius, another vegetation god, representing grapes or wine.
Terence on the psychedelic eucharist, the kykeon: “It has to be understood that psychedelics are a way to the Gaian mind. They are not metaphors for sacraments, they are real sacraments, and their efficaciousness can have political consequences.”
“Pharmakon” in Greek can mean both poison and remedy. In this sense, psychedelics are poison, in that they tend to catalyze ego death; on the other hand, they are remedies, in that it is only through the death of the ego that human beings are initiated into the true meaning of life and so are healed of the alienation that plagues the rational mind, which perceives itself as separate from the body, from earth, and from the wider cosmos.
Alphabetic technology and Alchemical technology: Plato was living amidst a crisis in consciousness brought about by a mutation in his media ecology: the older analog technology of speech was being augmented by the more recently invented digital technology of alphabetic writing. Psychedelics make both the limits and the power of oral or written language very apparent…
Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness (trilogues of McKenna, Sheldrake, and Abraham).
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere by Richard Doyle
Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens by Michael Rinella
I wanted to post a transcription of some reflections I shared during a medicine circle I participated in this past summer. Some of what came to me has had a big impact on my conceptualization of my dissertation thesis regarding the etheric (or plant-like) nature of Imagination.
It is such a privilege to speak later in the circle, just to be able to absorb everyone else’s experience before sharing my own. It is very grounding. Yesterday I hadn’t yet arrived, and so it was difficult for me to speak from my heart when I was sharing my intentions. I was still feeling uncertainty, wondering if I should be here, asking if I could afford this… I hadn’t yet allowed myself to accept that I had made the decision to be here. And then the rapé was offered. It literally blew the doubts and uncertainties out of my field of awareness and dropped me into what at first was just an intense somatic experience of numbness in my extremities. As that sensation subsided after a few moments, I reached a place of crystal clear clarity. I realized why I had decided to come here. The “reason” is not something I can explain rationally – it is more like a feeling of faithfulness. Later in the evening we drank the ayahuasca. After the first serving, I wasn’t experiencing very much. I felt pretty normal for the duration of that part of the ceremony. My mind was very active and the doubts came back again. I thought maybe this isn’t going to work, maybe this is going to be a long night. I wasn’t even nauseous – there was no change really in my consciousness. The chanting and ceremonial context certainly held me and gave me an experience but it wasn’t what I was hoping for entirely. Then I drank the second dose and it’s hard to tell how long it took, but it drastically altered my normal state of mind in a way I only became conscious of after the fact. At some point after drinking the second dose, maybe 30 minutes or an hour after, I became conscious again and realized I had been experiencing a vision of a beautiful infinitely-armed goddess who was dancing above me, lavishing me with love, care, and attention. I realized that I had been meditating on the question “who am I?” And yet until I became aware of it, I didn’t have any self-consciousness. There wasn’t an ego asking “who am I?”, it was just this experience of deepening into the mood or atmospheric feeling of this question and being answered by the presence of this pervasive feminine intelligence. Then we went outside. When I saw the stars the question that was orienting me shifted to: “what is this?”, “How is this possible?” Then I laid back and gazed at the night sky, holding that question. No immediate answer came. I was transfixed by its infinitude. Then [the shaman] invoked the spirit of the sky and that of the earth, at which point it became clear to me: “oh yeah, there is this too [patting the ground].” Then I found myself struggling for a moment to try to integrate the sky and the earth, their differences, the way they complement one another. And then the dried tobacco was passed around. I began meditating on plants as the essence of life. There are animals, too, but animals eat plants. So plants are what provide the foundation for all of life. I was just praying on the tobacco and realizing that plant life is what integrates earth and sky. Plants between earth and sky. The light of the sky summons the fertility of the earth and the child of their marriage is plant life. Then my mind kicked in and I wanted to understand more theoretically, “wow, how is that possible?” And then I realized I already know the answer, but that it’s not something I could explain in a scientific way. I’m holding the answer in here [points to chest]. Then I offered the tobacco to the fire and I realized that the reason life emerges is to experience the sacrifice of death. And that life is worth it even though when you’re born, the one thing that’s inevitable is that you are going to die. Somewhere in there is—maybe not the explanation—but at least the meaning or understanding I’ve been searching for. I realized that I knew the answer before I even asked the question.
Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien
by Matthew David Segall
In the year 1951, as recorded by the calendar of our world, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a potential publisher of his Lord of the Rings trilogy to describe the origin of his fantasy story:
“In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me. I do not remember a time when I was not building it…I have been at it since I could write” (xi).
The imaginal flowering of Tolkien’s mythopoeic world was never separate from his real life identity. It grew from the soil of his own soul, from out of the wounds of his own real life world. His very sense of himself as a developing personality within a devolving late industrial society was coëval with his feeling for the courses charted by his characters through the story. His autobiography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one.
Though Tolkien is clearly an example of what our traditions of criticism have called a literary genius—a man singularly awakened to the world-making power of his Imagination—we must nonetheless grapple with the apparently contradictory metaphysical implications of his fantasy works: Art is not the privilege of a few especially talented human geniuses, but the shared intuition or common sense running through each and every creature in the cosmos. It is not Tolkien’s imagination that created Middle-Earth, just as it is not any particular person’s imagination that has created our earth as it exists in the year 2014. It is the same Divine Cosmic Imagination that has created both, the one through Tolkien, the other through all of us together. A genius inspires every one of us from the dumbest to the most erudite in our thoughts, and in our hearts, and even in our very cells, the molecules organizing our cells, the protons and electrons whose dancing in currents of light grant motion to those molecules. The process of cosmic creation is the locus of primary genius. All of nature is inspired Art. The cosmic imagination has called the human into being. Human Art is nature’s way of becoming conscious of its own creative process.
Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our human purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe such as ours, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become, as Tolkien referred to it, a “sub-creator.”
The subtending power of Imagination over human life is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, a creative impulse, a sense of self-esteem in our ability to create, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its making. The purpose we have been given by our Maker is to participate in His making.
It isn’t that the lack of a creative desire to participate in life dissolves the illusions of Imagination, leaving behind nothing but bare biological survival and the blind and stupid churning of matter. It’s that, for better or worse, with or without such positivity, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul, yay and nay. To be sub-creators is our doom. If we do not use our power of divine likeness to create beauty, we risk destroying it. We are not permitted to abstain, to be spectators on an already made reality. For there to be any reality at all, we must participate in its making, whether positively or negatively.
Reality is never purely what it is because it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of interwoven processes. Every supposedly simple and finished reality is but a ego-generated image, a mirage, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to resentment of the world’s becoming.
Resentment or enchantment: these are the two paths open to we earthly sub-creators. Both bring forth a certain shape of subjectivity: the former that of an embattled ego who has externalized blame upon an enemy in order to feel expiated for its own failure to faithfully participate; the latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the process of being told.
Tolkien’s Art invites us to step into our roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when the stars have fallen and so much else seems headed for disaster.
Tolkien’s Art is not what it at first appears. More artisanal than artistic, the products of Tolkien’s sub-creation “arose in [his] mind as ‘given’ things.” Always,” writes Tolkien, “I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is also a mode of discovery. This seeming contradiction is easier to grasp if we consider it alongside Tolkien’s belief that “myths are largely made of truth” (xv). The “wide-spread motives or elements” expressed in the world’s mythologies (known to Tolkien’s contemporary Carl Jung as “archetypes”) are such mythic truths. It is no surprise, then, that these archetypes were in some sense re-discovered by Tolkien in the course of his imaginal descent into Middle-Earth. We need not decide whether sub-creation is true creation, or simple discovery, since Imagination functions according to its own oscillatory logic allowing it to hover indeterminately between pairs of seeming opposites (creation/discovery, self/world, intellect/sensation, spirit/matter, and so forth). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.
Tolkien says of all his artwork that it is fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) to Primary Reality (xiii). Primary Reality is the world of daily life, of biological struggle, and, eventually, of death. The sub-creator, in bringing forth a Secondary Reality (made not of mass in motion, but of story and myth, of image and emotion), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself in strife with these functions (xiii). Despite its spiritual motives, the sub-creative desire “is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it” (xiii). Death, even if imaginary, is no less real for all that. We human sub-creators have, again, two paths open to us upon encountering it.
The first option is to resent death as a curse, and so to “rebel against the laws of the Creator” by employing various devices meant to mechanically stave off the inevitable. This is a fallen form of creativity in service of the denial of death, which cannot but lead to the desire for ever more Power. For Tolkien, this desire for Power can lead only to an obsession with “the Machine.” The Machine necessarily possesses its master (and so inverts the master-slave relationship). It represents a form of black magic that is concerned only to make the will quicker and more effective, a technological magic accomplished by external devices, rather than by the innate power of Imagination.
The second option is to accept death as a gift from God, to sub-create out of sheer love of this world without jealousy or possessiveness. This is easier if we follow Tolkien’s advice by looking at things “through Elvish minds” instead of the human ones we’re used to. The object of Elvish magic “is Art, not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (xii). Though “it is not the legendary mode of talking,” Tolkien assures us that his “elves” are really nothing more than “an apprehension of a part of human nature” (xvi). No doubt it is the higher part; though of course, the Elves were the first to fall.
“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall…at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” (xv)
In the mythic mode of speaking, the Elves are said to be the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, humans their Followers. Taking the Elvish view on things gives we mere mortals the opportunity to raise our attention from the mud into which we have fallen to dwell again at least for a moment beneath the stars in the sky and to contemplate the heavenly mission their light was sent to earth to share with us.
“The doom of the Elves,” writes Tolkien,
“is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning–and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed.” (xiv)
“The Doom (or Gift) of Men,” he continues,
“is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden': a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.”
From the Elvish perspective, death is Ilúvatar’s Gift to humans. Elves envy humans because our love for the world is, at least potentially, so much more beautiful than theirs. Why? Because we mortals have the choice to love one another, and to love the world, despite death. Eucatastrophe, is the highest of the Arts, the most beautiful of all Nature’s works.
Only by incarnating into the physical world and passing through the finitude of death could God’s Love become truly infinite. This is the Creator’s great secret, kept even from the angels until (if I might risk an allegorical translation) the Christ Event. Until that “turning point in time,” the Drama had remained incomplete…“incomplete in each individual ‘god,’ and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled…For the Creator had not revealed all.” (xiv)
Embracing death lovingly despite not being certain of its meaning requires a redemptive act of Imagination, a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing.
The same sort of imaginal faith is required to participate in the meaning of Tolkien’s cosmogony as depicted in The Silmarillion. Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, the All-Father, the One, and his noetic offspring, the Ainur, or Holy Ones. Together, all the Ainur sang in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme:
“…a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”
But then, Melkor, the Ainur with the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, began to
“interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” (16)
Not only Elves and Humans, but even Angels are subject to the mythic law of the Fall. Like all evil, Melkor’s fallenness stems from the same root as goodness. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur because he had gone off alone in an effort to fill in the emptiness of the Void where Ilúvatar’s song had not yet reached. His efforts made his heart grow hot with possessiveness. Alas, his will was lost to the lure of Ilúvatar’s music and he turned selfward, instead. Melkor’s rebellion caused heaven’s harmony to falter as many of the other Ainur began attuning with him instead of Ilúvatar. Soon, all about the throne of Ilúvatar “there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war upon one another in an endless wrath.” Ilúvatar contended with Melkor, not by negating his “loud and vain” improvisations, but by weaving even the most triumphant of Melkor’s dissonant notes back into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.
“Mighty are the Ainur,” said Ilúvatar,
“and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar…And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (17)
The universe presents human beings with an opportunity to trust the creative process that has birthed them, to trust it even when its path seems dark and difficult, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world of toil and death. We can embrace mortal sub-creation without resenting the task by realizing that death only appears to the fallen ego to be an enemy. For the ego redeemed by Imagination, death is revealed to be God’s greatest gift to Creation, a sacred secret entrusted not to gods but to humans, those made in His Image and after His likeness.
“The great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world,’” wrote Tolkien,
“are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak–owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” (xvii)
*All citations from second edition of The Silmarillion ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
If you’re a Bay Area local, do try to attend this conference celebrating the work of Stan Grof Oct. 24-25 (Friday and Saturday) at the Hotel Whitcomb. It is being sponsored by the new Center for the Study of Psychedelic Medicine at C.I.I.S. and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
This fall, the California Institute of Integral Studies and the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program is hosting a unique conference honoring the lifetime achievements of Stanislav Grof in the several fields to which he has made such major contributions, including consciousness research, psychiatry and psychology, psychedelic studies, religious studies, philosophy, and esotericism. Scholars and researchers from many disciplines will explore and build upon Grof’s extraordinary expansion of our understanding of the human psyche as well as the range and power of psychotherapeutic approaches. Grof will respond to the diverse presentations, followed by open dialogue with the participants.
Presenters will include:
Christopher Bache, Ph.D.; John Buchanan, Ph.D.; Fritjof Capra; Rick Doblin, Ph.D.; Jorge Ferrer, Ph.D.; Leonard Gibson, Ph.D.; Charles Grob, M.D.; Paul Grof, M.D.; Stanislav Grof, M.D.; Diane Haug, M.A., LPCC; William Keepin, Ph.D.; Sean Kelly, Ph.D.; Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.; Annie Mithoefer, B.S.N; Michael Mithoefer, M.D.; Thomas Roberts, Ph.D.; Tav Sparks; Richard Tarnas, Ph.D.; Kylea Taylor, M.S., M.F.T.; and Jenny Wade, Ph.D.
Some notes toward a talk I’m giving at Burning Man next week. I’ll be at camp Cosmicopia (located at 3:45 and Ephesus). The talk is on Wednesday at 4pm.
The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter exchanged with the famed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond had recently supplied Huxley with a dose of mescaline. Huxley later sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested neologism: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (phanero meaning ‘to show’ or ‘make visible’ and thymos meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Greek). Osmond countered with the lines “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” The word means “soul manifesting” (from ψυχή, meaning psyche or soul in Latin), and δήλος, delos, meaning ‘manifest’). Osmond was among the first medical scientists to study the effects of Albert Hoffman’s recently invented chemical compound LSD-25. He was convinced that the psychedelic state could help psychiatrists understand and treat schizophrenia.
Many burners would probably agree that psychedelics offer treatments for a whole variety of individual ailments, whether alcoholism or addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety due to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, etc. I want to suggest that psychedelics may also provide us with at least part of the solution to wider social, economic, and ecological problems. They are not a cure all, but given the short time-frame human civilization has to fundamentally transform itself before cascading catastrophe drives our species and many others beside into extinction, I think our only hope comes in the form of a drastic chemical—or better, alchemical—intervention. Only the re-birth of a psychedelic religion can save us now.
The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull. The word capital derives from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head,” and originally referred to the number of cattle a rich person owned. Today, as always, rich people also own human heads. One of the principle lessons of psychedelics as far as I can tell is that, as Daniel Pinchbeck put it, they “break open the head,” revealing the cosmological ground of consciousness. Richard Doyle, author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, goes so far as to rename psychedelics “ecodelics” because of the way they dissolve the skin-thin boundary between human beings and their earthly habitats. What does it mean that so many plants and fungi contain psychoactive analogs of the human brain’s endogenous neurochemicals? Banisteriopsis caapi, psilocybin mushrooms, ergot fungus, cannabis—even our front lawns contain trace amounts of DMT! The nervous system is an ecologically extended network of chemical interactions. The human brain has been co-evolving with these other organisms for tens of thousands of years. Consciousness is not in the head. Consciousness is an emergent, symbiotic process that is planetary in extent.
It’s no mistake that religion of consumer capitalism requires that these substances be illegal. In order for the global economy to function, we have to continue to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos (as Alan Watts put it) and that the meaning of life is determined by how much we own. We are raised to believe that human nature is basically selfish, that nature is basically cruel, and death is the end, so we may as well push others out of the way to get as much as we can while we’re still alive. We have to continue to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by attributing more value to paper or plastic money than to human relationships, human lives, or the lives of other species. Our civilization is willing to destroy the entire planetary ecosystem to maintain corporate profit margins.
Have you ever taken a look at a $20 bill while tripping? Try it next time. I can’t help but laugh in astonishment whenever I do. This is the lifeblood of our civilization? We forget so easily that money is merely symbolic. You can’t eat it, drink it, or make love to it. When we put a bill on the counter or swipe our credit card at Starbucks, we act as though some metaphysical law forces the barista to make us our latte. In fact, we are entering into a social agreement. Capitalism does everything in its power to background this agreement, to background the alienating social relations that are required for the system to function. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that money is the only real measure of value and that this value necessarily determines the course of our lives. I’d wager that American money is green because this leads us to unconsciously associate it with photosynthesizing plants—which by the way are the only truly energy producing organisms on the planet. All the energy on earth enters into the food chain because plants have learned to transform sunlight into carbs. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy driving the global economy comes from fossilized plants.
Capitalism is a form of black magic. It is a dark, soul- and earth-destroying religion. Like all religions, it’s founded on certain rituals: shopping, working, watching TV or otherwise being inundated by advertisements, etc. It has its holy sites: malls, movie theaters, car dealerships. And it has its crusades: wars in the Middle East on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” (code words for capitalism). Most modern industrial people think of themselves as entirely secular, but no religious believer ever considers their own religion to be just another religious belief system. No, our capitalist civilization, like all prior civilizations, thinks it has found the one true rational way to do things.
The reason I think psychedelics provide part of the solution to our crisis is that they allow our cultural conditioning to fall away, permitting us to re-imagine our values, our symbols, and our stories. They reveal the deeper connections between all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They allow us to rediscover the mystery of existence that has always been hidden in plain site. Psychedelic chemicals catalyze the formation of new rituals. Normally, ritualization is an unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot fundamentally transform itself within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival are slim. Don’t get me wrong, these substances are extremely dangerous. They come with huge risks. Anyone ingesting them risks losing their mind. Of course, the default mind is suffering from a disease. Maybe losing it isn’t such a bad idea.
Sam Mickey on Big History.
Originally posted on Becoming Integral:
I attended the recent conference of the International Big History Association. The association is oriented toward researching and teaching “Big History,” which aims (as their website says) to “understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity,” specifically by means of “the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.” That opens up the field of history into a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary account of the entire 13.8 billion year history of our universe.
Big History is far from alone in its aim to articulate an integrated and evolutionary vision of matter, life, and humanity. Multiple scholarly fields and schools of thought share the integrative aims of Big History (e.g., the universe story, the field of religion and ecology, integral theory, ecofeminism, complexity theory, posthumanities, process philosophy). Big historians still have much to learn from those and other integrative and transdisciplinary sources of evolutionary knowledge.
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Scientists like to contrast themselves with others by their faithfulness to evidence. Sadly, they resist evidence that does not fit their pre-commitments. Aristotelian scientists at the papal court refused to look through the telescope because they would see what did not fit their philosophical convictions about the heavenly bodies. Modern scientists have all along ignored a great deal of evidence about mental activities that does not fit their materialist presuppositions…The refusal to re-examine metaphysical presuppositions based on the exclusion of metaphysical reflection cannot be sustained indefinitely when so much of the findings of science, from quantum theory to neuroscience, contradicts these presuppositions.
The major defense of moving ahead with assumptions that do not fit either our most basic experience or the evidence produced by empirical investigations is to point to the great and unquestioned achievements of this science. It is argued that as long as it advances knowledge, now even at an accelerating rate, metaphysical quibbles should be ignored. Regrettably, however, scientific advances are now contributing far more to making the planet uninhabitable than to guiding us into a secure future. Unless science subordinates itself to the quest for wisdom, it must accept continuing responsibility for destroying the civilization it claims to advance. The present situation is unstable. It is time, and long past time, to give up the commitment to seventeenth-century metaphysics.
Fortunately, at the margins, some thinkers have long argued for a transformation of our understanding of nature and of our way of studying it. If we are part of nature, then nature has an inside as well as an outside. Evolutionary thinking does not support the idea that this inside came into being for the first time with the first human. Humans are living psychophysical beings who gradually became a distinct species with extraordinary capacities. The nature of which we are a part contains many other species of living psychophysical beings. To be a chimpanzee is certainly different from being a human being, but there is assuredly much similarity as well. That similarity is considerably reduced in relation to a mouse, but it is far from gone. It is not wholly gone in relation to a unicellular organism.
Whitehead was one of those who undertook to re-think nature. He taught that even the most elementary actual entities are “organisms.” Strictly, for him, this does not mean that they are “alive,” but it does mean that they are more like living things than like what is imagined as a lump of matter. They receive from the past and are themselves acts of self-constitution that affect the future. They are affected by their environments and are what they are only as participants in fields of activity. He gave lectures on “Nature Lifeless” and “Nature Alive” in which he contrasted his own view with the one that continues to this day to dominate the scientific community.
The alienation from nature generated by the dualism of the human and the natural was only exacerbated by the inclusion of human beings in mechanical nature. Human beings cannot really understand themselves as machines, even though this is implied by the theories that dominate the modern university. Seeing our own actions as part of the world machine only deepens our alienation.
When we move instead to see how much of what we have prized as unique about ourselves is shared with our fellow creatures, the result is quite the opposite. We belong to nature. Our exploitation of other creatures for our supposed benefit no longer seems self-evidently right and wise. We cannot cease to use others. They all use one another. As Whitehead writes: “All life is robbery.” However, he adds, “But the robber requires justification.” As participants in nature we must reflect about the tragic necessity of using others for our own well-being. The indifferent exploitation justified by the Cartesian worldview cannot continue.
-John Cobb, Jr.
In preparation for a lecture on mind and nature in German Idealism, I’m working my way through Kant’s third of three critiques, the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Prior to this sitting, I’ve only ever spent time with small sections of this text. For example, sections 75 and 76 in the second part on teleological judgment were major catalysts driving my earliest attempts to counter mechanistic biology by replacing it with an alternative theory of organism (for example, this essay written between 2008 and 2009). At that point, I had paid almost no attention to the first part on aesthetic judgment. Having read over that part twice now in the past few weeks, I realize that I had not fully understood what was at stake in Kant’s attempt to articulate a critical philosophy of biology, i.e., a transcendental study of life itself. The key take away for me was Kant’s denial of scientific genius. Only artists, and especially poets, can be considered geniuses. A genius is nature appearing in the form of the human being giving the rule to art. A genius is someone who, without following explicit rules and so according to a method mysterious even to themselves, is able to give artistic expression to the formative forces of nature. Without the slightest contrivance, as though they emerged merely from the free play of the imagination, genius is able to produce beautiful works that, for those with cultivated taste at least, are suggestive of supersensible ideas and cosmic intelligences.
But the notion of a scientific genius is a contradiction in terms, since for Kant natural science presupposes the lawful system of categories imposed universally upon our experience of nature by the understanding. Science produces conceptually determinant knowledge about nature, principally in the form of synthetic a priori logical and mathematical constructions (which if they cannot be known a priori are sorted according to the sieve of experiment). If a scientist cannot tell you with precision exactly how she came to know what she knows, then she doesn’t know anything. Knowledge production is always such that anyone with sufficient training should be able to grasp it and to reproduce it. Artistic genius, however, cannot be taught. Its products remain forever beyond the reach of mere skill or education. Artistic geniuses gain aesthetic insight into nature, but fail to provide any scientific knowledge of nature. Scientists, according to Kant, can catch no cognitive sight (i.e., they have no intellectual intuition) of the hidden cause of nature’s self-organizing processes.
“It is quite certain,” writes Kant,
“that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and indeed this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans even to make such an attempt or to hope that there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather, we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings” (section 75).
When it comes to our power to judge whether the apparently teleological or end-seeking aspects of nature (in its products and as a whole) are real causes or merely illusory intuitions, Kant resolves what would otherwise remain an antinomy for reason by denying natural science any knowledge one way or the other. We simply cannot know scientifically, argues Kant, whether nature is truly mechanical or whether higher ends are shaping its products and processes. Science can neither affirm an intelligent cause behind nature, nor deny that, at least for us as human knowers, such a cause may be necessary to explain the unity of nature. The concept of unity, of course, provides the very condition for the possibility of any natural science at all, and so for Kant, although we cannot know whether nature is objectively purposive, we are justified in our subjective assertions of such a purposiveness because our cognitive powers of imagination, understanding, and reason cannot find internal harmony without operating as though this purposiveness was real.
My own work on etheric imagination is an attempt to push Kant’s transcendental aesthetics a bit further than he was willing into a fully blown ontology of organism. That he was unwilling (per his devotion to the Good) to allow aesthetic feeling (the Beautiful) or scientific knowledge (the True) an equal share in critical philosophy’s transcendental foundation follows from his desire to ground the higher faculties of thinking (the Understanding) and feeling (Taste or Judgment) in that of willing (Reason). The moral law derived from his critique of practical reason was Kant’s trump card. He denied knowledge of nature in order to make room for moral freedom.
In my own work, I hope to show that any search for grounds or foundations always begins and ends in imagination (which contains its own sort of freedom, though not always moral). Once we acknowledge the peripheral centrality of imagination in philosophy (we find ourselves always in the middle of it, especially when we have tried most to escape from it), the search for foundations is transformed from means to end, which is to say philosophy returns to its generative roots in the groundlessness of Creativity. We become philosophers once again: lovers of wisdom instead of sophists claiming to be wise; careful inquirers rather than foolhardy instrumentalizers of nature. Attuned to imagination, we become the spiritual soil for nature’s creative expression. Genius becomes the norm instead of the exception. Supposedly common human beings are returned their birthright. We realize, as Hillman described it, the poetic basis of mind. Genius cannot be taught; it can only be remembered (though exemplars can help provoke our memories). Through genius–through the feeling and expression of nature become conscious in us as beauty–we gain access to goodness and truth.
Just checking in to say I haven’t given up on blogging. I’ve been doing a bit of traveling lately: three weeks in Hawaii, a weekend in Willits (3 hours north of San Francisco) for an ayahuasca ceremony, and soon a 10-day excursion to Black Rock City for the Burning Man festival.
I’ll be back in action making regular posts in September. For now I have to double down on my dissertation research, on top of recording the remaining lectures for my online undergraduate course “Mind and Nature in German Idealism” (contracted with the University of Philosophical Research), and continuing to shape my track at the 2015 International Whitehead Conference.
In other news, a version of my paper on psychedelics, religious studies, and participatory theory should be published next month in The Journal of Transpersonal Research. My contribution on Ralph Waldo Emerson to Param Media’s anthology The Beacon of Mind is in its final editing stages with the publisher. Finally, a poem of mine, written in tribute to Walt Whitman, was recently published by the magazine Sufism: An Inquiry.
“…mental illness. It was like a plague. No one could discern how much was due to drugs. This time in America–1960 to 1970–and this place, the Bay Area of Northern California, was totally fucked. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that’s the truth. Fancy terms and ornate theories cannot cover this fact up (Valis, 4).
I started reading PKD’s VALIS yesterday. I understand now where the inspiration for Richard Doyle’s thesis regarding the evolutionary power of psychedelic rhetoric came from. PKD has a way of alphabetically inducing a psychedelic experience. His words lift us out of our ordinary waking consciousness, opening the doors of perception to what Aldous Huxley called “Mind at Large.” I’m only 40 pages in, but PKD has already taken me on a gnostic trip into what at first, to my mini-mind, seemed pure insanity.
From loss and grief the Mind has become deranged. Therefore we, as parts of the universe, the Brain, are partly deranged. […] The Mind is not talking to us but by means of us. Its narrative passes through us and its sorrow infuses us irrationally. As Plato discerned, there is a streak of the irrational in the World Soul. […] The changing information which we experience as World is an unfolding narrative. It tells the death of a woman… This woman, who died long ago, was one of the primordial twins. She was one half of the divine syzygy. The purpose of the narrative is the recollection of her and of her death. The Mind does not wish to forget her. Thus the ratiocination of the Brain consists of a permanent record of her existence, and, if read, will be understood this way. All the information processed by the Brain–experienced by us as the arranging and rearranging of physical objects–is an attempt at this preservation of her; stones and rocks and sticks and amoebae are traces of her. The record of her existence and passing is ordered onto the meanest level of reality by the suffering Mind which is now alone (33-34).
Here is Doyle on PKD:
“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”
-Alfred North Whitehead
Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.
In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.
Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.
I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?). Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).
In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).
Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.
“I am convinced…that the story of the universe that has come out of three centuries of modern scientific work will be recognized as a supreme human achievement, the scientific enterprise’s central gift to humanity, a revelation having a status equal to that of the great religious revelations of the past” -Brian Swimme
Adam Robbert on the ecology of ideas…
Originally posted on Knowledge Ecology:
[Image: Dennis Wojtkiewicz]
In my last post I offered a two-part description of the concept: the concept-as-tool and the concept-as-capacity. I then suggested both these definitions come together in the learning process. Learning, in this view, is a transition of the concept as an external tool into the concept as an acquired capacity. I concluded by suggesting that the transition into the concept-as-capacity phase reveals the ecological nature of the subject-concept dynamic. In this mode of understanding, a subject is not the kind of being that can simply acquire new concepts while remaining identical to him or herself. Instead, from the ecological view, learning initiates a symbiosis between subject and concept that ends in the merging of the concept with the subject and of the transformation of the subject through its understanding of the concept.
In this post I want to explore the two moments in the life of a concept again, but this time I want to reverse the…
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Since my post a few days ago (“The ‘innocence of becoming': Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism“), I’ve re-read chapter 4 of William Connolly’s The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (2013). Here is his summation of that chapter, which compared Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s process philosophies:
“It must be emphasized that the positive spirituality Whitehead pours into his speculative philosophy is at least as affirmative as that of Nietzsche, and more consistently so. These two process philosophers are thus worthy protagonists from whom others can draw sustenance: they advance contending, overlapping cosmic creeds that speak to today; they address the spiritual quality through which a creed is lived in relation to others; and they throw up for grabs a set of established, complementary assumptions during a period when many constituencies both feel and suppress doubts about those assurances. Each, at his best, argues with the carriers of other creeds while inviting their proponents to fold positive spiritualities into their creedal relations…Nietzsche and Whitehead articulate the planetary and cosmic dimensions in diverse concepts and affective tones that also touch, though neither may have anticipated how densely planetary processes with differing degrees of self-organizing power are entangled today with local, regional, and global issues. Each expresses, in his inimical way, a spirit of deep attachment to a cosmos of dispersed, conditioned processes; each, if he were to confront the contemporary condition, might appreciate the potential contribution an ethos of existential gratitude forged across territories, constituencies, and existential creeds could make to addressing the fragility of things. Or so I project into the magisterial Whitehead and the agnostic Nietzsche. The task, merely launched here, is to draw selective sustenance from each to think our place in the cosmos, to come to terms with the fragility of things at local, regional, global, and planetary sites, and to fend off the existential resentment that threatens to become severe under late modern conditions” (176-178).
As you can see, Connolly counts Whitehead and Nietzsche as allies in his push for a pluralist ontopolitics. Even so, he levels several potentially devastating critiques. I wanted to focus on his attempt to “qualify” two of Whitehead’s most enigmatic categories: “God” and “eternal objects.” Donald Crosby also critiques these concepts in his own comparison of Nietzsche and Whitehead. Many browsers of Whitehead’s writings praise him for his concepts of “Creativity,” “prehension,” “actual occasion,” and “concrescence,” but want nothing whatsoever to do with what they perceive to be his gratuitous theological constructions, most infamously his dipolar creaturely “God” and his indeterminate and existentially deficient but always and everywhere “ingressing” “eternal objects.” Some scientific materialists have suggested that, if Whitehead’s conceptual scheme cannot survive the removal of its theological components, then it must be buried in the graveyard of history’s bold but mistaken philosophical systems. If Whitehead’s universe is really god-infused, the materialists say, then his speculative adventure in cosmology is for that reason also made irretrievably irrelevant for any modern, scientific, rational investigations of nature.
The problem with this assessment of Whitehead’s scheme, as I understand it, is that the story of modern scientific rationality and its technological mastery over matter has itself already been made irretrievably irrelevant by the planetary scale of the ecological crisis it helped to bring about. Nature is not at all like what the moderns thought she was. Her mechanical “laws” turn out to be more like organic tendencies–tendencies whose stability we, as living earthlings, are beginning to have the power (conscious or otherwise) to alter at genetic and geological scales. The supposedly secularized concept of Nature invented by Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Galileo proved to be utterly unprepared for the thermodynamic, electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, and complexity revolutions of 19th and 20th century science. Nature can no longer be depoliticized, denuded of all subjective quality, moral and aesthetic value, and creative potency. Nature is more like a goddess than a machine.
Whitehead’s theology cannot be separated from his ontology. Or at the very least, Whitehead begs us to take seriously his philosophical commitment to avoiding granting God any unique magical powers not native to every other entity in the universe. God is not a separate type of entity, but a conditioned creature like every other actual entity. But at the same time, Whitehead insist on the necessity of God’s “unconditioned conceptual valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects” in order to secure the possibility of the ingression of relevant novelty into the experience of finite actual occasions:
“Apart from God, eternal objects unrealized in the actual world would be relatively non-existent for the concrescence in question. For effective relevance requires agency of comparison, and agency of comparison belongs exclusively to actual occasions” (Process and Reality, 31).
God’s primordial nature may in certain of Whitehead’s expressions seem “eternally fixed,” as Crosby complains (68). But when read in imaginative conjunction with what Whitehead has to say about God’s consequent nature, with the way God is itself conditioned by the creative advance of the actual universe, this fixity quickly dissolves into something that looks a lot like Nietzsche’s universe of “multiple interacting force fields ungoverned by an overriding center” (as described by Connolly in TFT, 168). Whitehead’s own variety of perspectival panexperientialism is more Hesiodian than Connolly acknowledges when he contrasts Nietzsche’s strong attraction to “the contending gods of Hesiod” with the magisterial Whitehead’s supposed preference for the settled order of eternal unity. “In Greek thought, either poetic or philosophic,” Whitehead writes, “the separation between physis and divinity had not that absolute character which it has for us who have inherited the Semitic Jehovah” (PR, 94). Whitehead praises Plato’s proto-evolutionary cosmological insight into what the ancient Greeks referred to as “subordinate deities who are the animating principles for [certain] departments of nature” (PR, 94). Whitehead’s scheme follows the Timaeus in describing
“the creation of the world [as] the incoming of a type of order establishing a cosmic epoch. It is not the beginning of matter of fact, but the incoming of a certain type of social order” (PR, 96).
The order of the universe is historically emergent and socially embedded, not an ex nihilo emanation out of the Eternal One. It is “incoming,” but not from somewhere else, some distant Eternal Realm separate from and prior to the creative advance of the actual universe. Eternal objects on their own (as pure potentials) are “deficient in actuality,” such that it is only ever as a result of the decision of some actual occasion that they have an effect on anything. New order is “incoming” only relative to the cosmic epoch which preceded it.
Connolly worries that Whitehead’s concept of God as a “[conveyer] of new levels of complexity into the future” ignores the fragility of human civilization and indeed the inescapable eventual demise of life on earth (TFT, 175). It is not clear to me that Whitehead’s categorical scheme requires the preservation of the complexity aroused by any particular cosmic epoch’s primordially evaluated potential. My sense is that each cosmic epoch has its own emergent divinity, or world-soul. Perhaps features of the order of past epochs are inherited by incoming world-souls; perhaps everything is lost in the apocalyptic transition form one epoch to the next. Whitehead’s scheme leaves this particular question open, it seems to me. Catastrophic dissociation is just as possible as enduring organization in Whitehead’s processual pluriverse.
Connolly is also concerned that Whitehead’s “doctrine of eternal objects reduces the scope of possible creativity in the world” (163). Terrence Deacon expressed a similar concern to me. On my reading, Whitehead introduces the concept of eternal objects specifically to make the experience of relevant novelty possible. Far from reducing the ingression of novelty into the universe, an actual occasion’s experience of pure potentiality provides the necessary condition for such creative ingression. If prehensions were simply physical (that is, related to past actual occasions), nothing new could ever happen. Nature would remain utterly repetitive. Further, without granting the reality of potenials alongside actualities, there would be no way to distinguish the future from the past. Time would be reversible and homogeneous, not creative. The creative evolution of the universe is made possible by the creative decisions of actual occasions who can conceptually prehend the physical past in some more or less significant way as other than it was. If physical prehensions relate to the settled facts of the past, conceptual prehensions relate to the formal possibilities of the future left open by these facts. As Heisenberg expressed it, the question is (as quoted by Connolly, p. 153), how does “a unique actuality evolve from a matrix of coexistent potenia?” Whitehead’s answer is that each actual occasion, via the process of concrescence, makes definite (or concrete) what had been indeterminate (or abstract), adding another fact of realized value to the ongoing evolution of this cosmic epoch.
As Connolly puts it, both Whitehead and Nietzsche call us to “stretch human capacities by artistic and experimental means so as to respond more sensitively to other force fields” (161). Whether or not the aesthetics of their respective process ontologies can finally be made to cohere remains an open question for me. It seems at this point that Nietzsche’s preference for an “eternal return” of the same runs up against the more open-ended creativity enshrined in Whitehead’s scheme: “No thinker thinks twice” (PR, 29).
As I discussed in my first post, Nietzsche is suspicious of the concept of teleology; but Whitehead’s reformed concept of final causation links it to Nietzsche’s own favorite concept: power. For Whitehead, the concept of power entails both efficient and final causation, where its efficient aspect provides the objective “ground of obligation” inherited by new actual occasions, and its final aspect is the “internal principle of unrest” (PR, 29) expressed by the concrescence of each occasion. Actual occasions do not wield power like a subjective capacity, designing their behavior as if from beyond it. Power is not the capacity of a subject, but the capacity resultant in a subject. Whitehead completely abandons “the notion of an actual entity as the unchanging subject of change.” Instead, “an actual entity is at once the subject experiencing and the superject of its experiences” (PR, 29). In this sense, Whitehead’s re-formed teleology is immanent, self-organizing, and self-implicating. It retains nothing of old concept of teleology related to transcendently imposed design, where the Creator stands clearly and distinctly apart from its creation.