Evolutionary Panpsychism v. Eliminative Materialism: Towards an Anthrodecentric Philosophy of Nature

A talk I gave at my graduate program’s retreat at Esalen a few weeks ago.

Part 1:

Part 2:

A comment by media theorist and professor of communication Corey Anton about what I say around the 3 minute mark of part 2 about the death/rebirth mystery of cosmogenesis:

Corey Anton:
Hi Matt, Thanks again.
A question for me comes at about 3:25 [of part 2]. Will the whole universe “die” and/or be reborn? What, exactly, would that mean? How would that be similar or not similar to human death? Does the cosmos have any “sense” of its finitude? I mean, humans can know that they will die, and that seems to be a main condition for certain kinds of meaningfulness–an articulation of the whole of their lives. Are you suggesting something like reincarnation for either individuals or the cosmos itself? Would you find intelligible some kind of notion of postmortem memories or postmortem experience, for either individual or cosmos? It seems quite slippery at the human level because my own death then appears not as the ending of my life but as a movement to a different mode of life for me in some form (assuming, of course, that the universe itself is not dying simultaneously) but, also, at the cosmos level, when “the cosmos ‘dies,'” does it have postmortem ‘experience’? Is there any ground prior to, or outside of, some kind of “experience”?

0ThouArtThat0 (me):
Corey, The universe does have a sense of its (in)finitude. This is not the same as having human consciousness of finitude. Symbolic consciousness is not just sense, but the sense of sense. I do the cute thing with the parentheses there because sensing finitude immediately implies that finitude has been and continues to be operated upon by infinitude. Neither we nor the universe are simply finite. To be a dying being is not simply to be a finite being. Our being-toward-death is precisely our infinitude, our openness to what waits beyond, to the imponderable future full of infinite possibilities. We and the rest of the universe are undergoing what Whitehead called a “creative advance into novelty.” Contrary to the materialist sermonizers, there is no inevitable state of entropic equilibrium awaiting us at the end of time because time is unending. Time is a moving image of eternity as Plato said. Pure difference, absolute disequilibrium, reigns. The death of the body is the birth of the soul and the death of the soul is the birth of the body. Really, we are never one or the other (a soul or a body), but always caught somewhere in-between, in-between incarnational embrace of waking life and withdrawal toward dreamy death. We breathe. All things breathe together. Life is not the opposite of death but includes it.

Schelling on Nature, Humanity, and God (re-reading Iain Hamilton Grant)

Last year, some colleagues and I at CIIS participated in a panel discussion on Speculative Realism called “Here Comes Everything.” My lecture drew primarily upon Grant’s text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006). This summer, I’ve been doing research for a comprehensive exam on the recent resurgence of Schellingian philosophy (HERE is my reading list). I saved Grant’s book until last, since I think it provides the strongest case for Schelling’s contemporary relevance by foregrounding the extent to which his long life of philosophical creativity remained, from beginning to end, focused on the problem of nature.

What is the problem of nature? Grant locates this problematic in the Kantian revolution, when the transcendental gap between freedom and nature reduced nature to mere appearance, a phenomenal ghost lying in wait for the practical projects of human industrialism. “The whole of modern European philosophy has this common deficiency,” wrote Schelling in 1809, “that nature does not exist for it.” Grant suggests that, in adopting Aristotle’s “physics of all things,” rather than Plato’s “physics of the All,” Kant made it impossible to ground his transcendentalism in anything but the anthropocentric ethical projects of practical reason (p. 7). From Schelling’s perspective, this is hardly a ground at all, since the transcendental subject cannot account for the genesis of its own subjectivity. Kant isn’t blind to this problem, but is forced to posit a logical concept of ground as the supersensible substrate underlying both nature and freedom. Schelling is not satisfied with a merely logical ground, so he retreats from Kant’s Aristotelian approach to physics (what Grant calls somaticism) to pursue Plato’s physics of the All. Instead of conceiving of ground as an underlying substrate or substance, Schelling, following Plato, grounds subjectivity in the dynamic activity of matter itself. Schelling here inaugurates a form of process ontology that will later be picked up by Whitehead, though the latter seems unaware of the former’s contributions to his own project. Whitehead bypassed any explicit acknowledgement of Schelling’s naturphilosophie, going back to Plato himself to find in the Timaeus the same possibility for a physics of becoming that Schelling did.

“Nature is subject,” says Schelling, which is not to say that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind (a form of anthropomorphism), but rather that the human mind is a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know what we are?”

In his celebrated 1809 text, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling delves into traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological problems only to re-emerge, not with new answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that human reason is itself a recapitulation of the sublime tension of cosmogenesis itself: the eternal struggle between darkness and light. Our human freedom to choose good or evil, according to Schelling, irrevocably separates us from the animal kingdom. Evil isn’t an obedience to brute instincts that might draw us back into animality; no, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical calibrator Fr. Baader: “…it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40/373).

This spiritual freedom of humanity should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, as this characterization would entirely miss the literally decisive importance of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity, since this implies some more original subjectivity which would employ freedom as a means. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. I am the freedom to choose good or evil, and nothing besides. There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of freedom. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. This is not some special human difference, some special capacity, as though our essence was just to be some other kind or species of natural being. Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very being of nature itself self-consciously, while other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming. Like the divine, humanity is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to erotically reproduce ourselves in relation to some irreducible otherness within ourselves (i.e., evil). But unlike the divine, there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically engaged in the sacred marriage of eternal circulation. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected. Evil appears real precisely when a human being denies the evil in themselves to wage war against it in others. Schelling saw no hope in national politics, since the state is merely an evil made necessary by the fall. True human salvation lies elsewhere, in a democracy of spirits who freely chose the Good out of love, not due to fear of secular or religious punishment.

What Barfield Thought Coleridge Thought

I’m in the midst of another fantastic course this semester with Prof. Jake Sherman, this time on the creative imagination. We’re now reading Owen Barfield‘s masterful What Coleridge Thought (1971). It’s my second reading, though this time with a new copy (lacking my original marginalia in a more recent printing that I’ve since given away). The new copy was a gift from a friend and is signed on the inner side of the cover:

“Josephine Spence

with love from

Owen Barfield

February 1984″

I just googled her on a whim, and, as it turns out, Josephine Spence may have been the love of Barfield’s life, according to his biographer. Though they were never married, after Barfield’s wife Maud died and he took up his final residence in East Sussex in 1986, Spence lived less than a mile away and was his frequent companion until his death in 1997. I have a feeling the friend who gifted me this copy was unaware of what they were holding, but I will have to ask where they originally found it.

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The work of Coleridge the poet and the critic is well known and usually, well liked and well understood. The work of Coleridge the philosopher, on the other hand, was, according to his own testimony, “directly the reverse of all [most people] had ever been accustomed to consider as truth” (Biographia Literaria, Ch. 13). No doubt, part of the difficulty was circumstantial, deriving from his attempt to communicate transcendental philosophy “to his already empirically minded English contemporaries”:

“If the German thinkers [Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel] could count on at least a second class road of understanding into the minds of their readers, Coleridge tried to penetrate where there was no longer a road at all; to awaken to active thought minds for which ‘the conceivable’ had already been ‘reduced within the bounds of the picturable’ [Biographia Literaria]” (p. 43, WCT).

Barfield is well aware of the influence of these German philosophers on Coleridge, but his chief interest in What Coleridge Thought is, indeed, what Coleridge thought. Coleridge himself believed there were primarily two kinds of intellectuals: tanks, who simply borrow the ideas of others; and springs, who adopt ideas as their own after careful digestion and deliberate assimilation. Most of Coleridge’s English contemporaries had grown quite used to thinking of their thinking’s relationship to nature in degenerated Lockean terms, as a finite, passive mind shaped by its sensations of a mechanical nature designed by an omnipotent deity. Degenerated, I say, because Locke himself was a subtler thinker than Barfield often let’s on in his relentless attacks upon dualism of every stripe (Whitehead has more respect for Locke, especially for his concept of power).

Locke conceives of matter as essentially identical with space, and that God could have generated it only through a qualitative (i.e., accidental) change in the “thickness” of space, rather than an ex nihilo creation of it as though generating something from nothing. Though much of the time he conceives of the final real things as tiny material bodies, in the end Locke recognizes this could never be true of nature itself, since such separated particles “could never produce that order, harmony and beauty which are to be found in nature” (p. 17, “God and Matter in Locke,” by Bennett, 2005).

Barfield’s most important contribution to contemporary philosophy (later articulated in Saving the Appearances) is perhaps his critique of “idolatry.” One worships an idol, in Barfield’s sense, “whenever the unobservable in nature is converted, for handling, into supposed observables” (p. 87, WCT). To do so is to assume that one phenomenon can explain another phenomenon, when clearly, an appearance cannot be a real cause of anything. If phenomena are thought to have real causes at all, they must be noumenal (i.e., supersensible). And in that case, the final real things aren’t extended things or sensible bodies at all, but invisible generative forces. For Coleridge, following the polar logic of Boehme and Bruno, there are two such forces united in a single Power:

“The polar forces are the two forms, in which a one power works in the same act and instant” p. 203, n. 24, WCT);

and again, this time summarized by Coleridge’s student J. H. Green:

“A one power, which manifests itself in opposite and correlative forces, or in distinctive relations at once opposite and reciprocally complemented, and which therefore perpetuates itself in living reality and totality by distinction in unity” (ibid., n. 25).

The human mind is not set apart from nature in this scheme, but discovered in the very heart of it. That in nature which is generative is identical to that in the mind which is generative: the nous poetikos. That which makes visible nature is that which erupts as Muse in the poet’s imagination. The poetic genius does not copy an already completed nature; rather, the poet taps into and expresses the very spirit which is still creating nature, there creating it anew.

In the Bibliographia, Coleridge offers the following:

“Descartes, speaking as a naturalist, and in imitation of Archimedes, said, give me matter and motion and I will construct you the universe. We must of course understand him to have meant: I will render the construction of the universe intelligible. In the same sense the transcendental philosopher says: grant me a nature having two contrary forces, the one of which tends to expand infinitely, while the other strives to apprehend or find itself in this infinity, and I will cause the world of intelligences with the whole system of their representations to rise up before you. Every other science presupposes intelligence as already existing and complete: the philosopher contemplates it in its growth, and as it were represents its history to the mind from its birth to its maturity” (ch. 13).

I hear Schelling and Hegel echoing in these lines. Hegel wrote in his essay “The difference between Fichte’s and Schelling’s System of Philosophy” that the chief challenge of post-Kantian philosophy is to

“…recompense nature for the mishandling that it suffered…and set Reason itself in harmony with nature, not by having Reason renounce itself or become an insipid imitator of nature, but by Reason recasting itself into nature out of its own inner strength…”

Kant was perhaps able to awaken the spirit of freedom in the human soul, but he did so only by severing any relation between it and the apparent mechanism of Nature. In Coleridgean terms, the desire to think at first rises in my soul because of the inverse but complementary movement of an expanding universe. I intend as it extends. The cosmos is incomplete in itself, but in thinking, I will its wholeness. Light cannot travel fast enough through space to show me what is beyond the edge of time—the physical eyes cannot see to eternity. But an inner sight intuits the universe’s end without my having to sense it. I am able not only to intuit, but to participate in the creative movement of the universe toward wholeness because in my soul, matter finds its center, becoming the image of Spirit, the point of eternal stillness around which all else revolves.

“[In the Human] the whole force of organic power has attained an inward and centripetal direction. He has the whole world in counterpoint to him, but he contains an entire world within himself…a compendium of Nature–the Microcosm!” (Theory of Life).


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

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

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

Adam writes:

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

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

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

OOO and Anthropos: Graham Harman responds

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

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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethologies of Death

Adam over at Knowledge Ecology posted some thoughts in response to my last blog on the concept of Life. I suggested that one way of distinguishing the human from other kinds of being is that we can contemplate abstractions like life-in-itself, and therefore also, death-in-itself.

Adam writes the following:

I think this is worth discussing further, and while I think Matt is on the right track here, I also want to ask: what does it mean that elephants perform burial rituals for both other elephants and other species such as the rhinoceros (as Bekoff says is the case)? Is there some contemplation of the meaning of “life itself” and its inevitable end result in death? It seems that elephants in this case are contemplating not just their own life cycles, but also acknowledging that such cycles are a property for living beings in general, which would in a way hint that they are contemplating the meaning of life not just “for them.” Of course, I am speculating, but I think its worth thinking about. Elephants partaking in the aporia of the life/death mystery? Thats the kind of question I’m interested in. More to come, Im sure.

Adam is right, Homo sapiens are not the only mammals who have some inkling of their own mortality. Elephants mourn dead members of their group, and apparently, other species as well (I’d like to know a bit more about that!).

Then there are chimpanzees:

I think I’d still argue that, while other animals can mourn their dead, they are still mourning particular beings, rather than contemplating life-in-itself. After all, even human scientists only recently came to grasp the significance of extinction, the death of an entire species. But then again, this raises an interesting line of inquiry… there is nothing inherent to our biological constitution that makes us aware of death, since children only gradually come to understand mortality, often with great emotional difficulty. And if we take Socrates seriously, even fully enculturated adults are in the dark in regards to contemplating the true nature of death. Perhaps it would be more helpful, if also a bit more mystical, to conceive of the “Human” or “Anthropos” as a transbiological, archetypal potential not monopolized by the Homo genus, but available to a wide variety of complex earthlings, particularly mammals? To be human, then, would mean to be capable of contemplating the meaning of death; but “Human” as an ideal that a number of biological species, including elephants and chimps, participate in to varying degrees.

There is a lot more to be explored and unpacked here. Plenty of occultists (especially Rudolf Steiner) have suggested that there is an intimate link between thinking and dying, and that somehow consciousness is always already an awareness of spirit, or that which is beyond this body. There is also a rich tradition of Hermetic speculation about the Anthropos and its evolutionary relation to the human animal and the rest of the earth community.

I’ll close this admitedly aborted inquiry for now with an few words of Georges Bataille’s cited by Thacker in After Life:

And the spirit is so closely linked to the body that the latter never ceases to be haunted by the former, not even at the limit, the point where spirit is never more present than when death reduces it to the status of a thing… In this sense, the corpse is the most perfect affirmation of the spirit. It is even the essence of the spirit to reveal the definitive powerlessness of death, in the same way that the cry of that corpse is the supreme affirmation of life. (Theory of Religion, p. 54).