A biographical piece published in the last issue of Being Human. Special thanks to my friend Max DeArmon for making this possible. See also this essay Thinking With Steiner Beyond the Brain: Reflections on my Bildung and the Philosophy of Freedom.
[update: video now available]
The Teilhard scholar Ursula King will speak tomorrow, May 1st, at 4pm at the California Institute of Integral Studies (1453 Mission St) about the evolutionary spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin and Raimon Panikkar. It’s free and open to the public. Join us!
See the flyer linked below for more information.
This was an early draft of a paper I presented at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. For video of the actual presentation, click HERE.
Abstract: This talk compares several approaches to the emergence of religion in human evolution. I contrast Robert Bellah’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts to Daniel Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritualized play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals) is a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. I then argue that the history of human religious expression should count as data requiring interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” religious expression stem from an incoherent bifurcated image of nature, wherein dead matter is given explanatory priority over life and consciousness, which are relegated to the status of improbable epiphenomena. This approach, which ends up claiming that the emergence of human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident, provides the exact opposite of a proper scientific account. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible for the project of “naturalizing religion” to proceed in a non-reductionistic way. The guiding research question is no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?”
My talk today will explore the evolutionary origins of human religion. As many post-colonial anthropologists have pointed out, “religion” is a highly contested term that cannot be unproblematically deployed as a transhistorical, universalist catch-all category. Although I’ve chosen to use the word, I agree with this problematization of a priori definitions of religion, which all too often blur our perception of the multifaceted richness of human spiritual expression by forcing it to submit to the discursive categories of modern scientific and sociological methodologies. I include the term “spirituality” here to indicate that by “religion” I don’t just mean a set of clearly articualted dogmas in which one believes with certainty, but a creative and experientially grounded orientation to the mystery of being alive. Whatever religion, and the spirituality at its core, are, they are more than can be captured by a fixed definition. They are interrelated dimensions of an ongoing cosmologically embedded activity, not simply a set of verbally professed beliefs. Like Augustine said of time, when it comes to religion and spirituality, “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.” Instead of trying to explain religion by reducing it to the favored terms of modern biology, psychology, sociology, the aim of this talk is to let it reveal itself by situating it within the long evolutionary account offered by Robert Bellah and the alternative cosmological scheme provided by Alfred North Whitehead.
Inquiring into the origins of religion—and connecting those origins to the evolutionary emergence of our species—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or objective way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. Inquiring into its nature will never be a dispassionate affair decidable by mathematical proof or experimental refutation. At the same time, human religious concerns and values are themselves matters of fact that have arisen and continue to arise in the course of cosmic evolution. As such, they require interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme.
Even the most sober-minded, materialistic scientists, whenever they offer evolutionary accounts of the origins our species, or of our universe, inevitably become myth-makers. Bellah makes this quite clear when, in the early chapters of his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution, he examines the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched the philosopher and author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (2011) Alex Rosenberg during a recent conference presentation introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).
In contrast to these scientistic thinkers engaged in what Whitehead referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away,” my own approach, building on Whitehead and Bellah, is motivated by the search for some sort of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious mythopoiea. I hope to show that the forced choice between religion and science is a false one, and that the emergence of an ecological civilization will depend upon our ability to construct a cosmological outlook that does justice to both scientific facts and religious values, and that recognizes the various ways facts and values overlap.
Perhaps the most well-known attempt to “explain away” the phenomenon of religion is the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell (2006). He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins’ well-known and largely discredited meme theory, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the neo-Darwinian perspective, are not granted evolutionary agency, but are reduced to lumbering robots accidentally shaped by a multigenerational battle to the death with a harsh environment. So-called religious “memes” are said to spread and survive today not because people find them deeply meaningful and potentially transformative but because they have succeeded in their “competition for rehearsal space in the brain” by getting copies of themselves made. Their transmission from brain to brain, and from generation to generation, has been, as Dennett puts it, “transmission without comprehension.” Now that humans have woken up to the all-comprehending light of scientific rationality, and have come to know the universe as nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out any usefulness it may once have had and must be gotten rid of. Maybe it served our species initially as a sort of “morality prosthesis” or “nurse crop” for civilization, to use Dennett’s words again. But we are grown ups now and need to accept that existence—that of humanity and of the cosmos itself—ultimately comes to nothing. Nihil. Or so the modern scientific materialist story goes.
To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. He admits that the memetic theory he puts forward is probably wrong, but at least, he says, it gives others something to fix. Fair enough. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am sympathetic to the call for a naturalization of religion, for a scientific study of it as a phenomenon emergent from and continuous with its wider biological and cosmological contexts. But of course, it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.”
The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that Dennett’s approach to the evolutionary emergence of religion presupposes what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protests against: the bifurcation of nature. For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. All seemingly intrinsic value is then explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material across the generations.
The contrast between such reductionistic biological accounts of religion and Bellah’s and Whitehead’s more cosmological approaches could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience (a major influence on Whitehead), only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more reductionistic purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious expression must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, the cosmological.
“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).
So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine flowering of the universe we find ourselves living within: not as accidental, but as essential. Human religious experience, in other words, should count as part of the legitimate data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. To treat religion naturalistically, we need not explain it away as epiphenomenal. We can instead inquire into the cosmic conditions of its possibility. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).
Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in reality a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.
“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning.
“In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which I should point out Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also identify “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms or centers of agency? Alongside efficient causality, formal and final causality are also evident in the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny a cosmic ground to agency, purposiveness, and value, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny it in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of [humans] to the universe in which they find themselves” (Religion in the Making, 31). Following Whitehead’s reversal of the usual logic of evolutionary explanation, we can recognize the emergence of religion in human beings as evidence that something more than blind chance and inexplicably imposed physical necessity is at work—or, as we’ll see—at play in the evolution of our universe.
Bellah, like Whitehead, grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, to eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings. In contrast to Dennett’s mechanical, gene-centric view, Bellah’s is certainly an organism-oriented understanding of biology. But it is not yet a full-fledged ontology of organism like Whitehead’s. More on this later.
Although he of course recognizes important distinctions that make humans unique among other members of the animal kingdom, even reproducing Terence Deacon’s statement that our species represents an entirely new phylum, Bellah nonetheless dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for us, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in the childhood phase longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. Bellah cites numerous ethologists who describe the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention (in a word, empathy) are the precondition for any form of sociality.
Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of mammalian play. The source of the complexification was the ramping up of empathic sociality among humans, eventuating in what Bellah (quoting Sarah Hrdy) calls “emotional modernity” (85). Homo sapien minds, due to their tendency to play ever-more intimately, have become uniquely vulnerable to possession by the power of symbolism—the power of words and images to bind us to certain political and cosmological worlds, worlds we literally create through the ritual enactment of myth. This power of symbolic binding transforms ritual play into religion. It is important in this context to admit, as Whitehead reminds us, that “we should not be obsessed by the idea of [religion’s] necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion.” Despite the fact that religious symbolic consciousness was born out of our unprecedented capacity for social intimacy, once it has emerged, it has the power to detach us from one another just as readily, generating the worst kind of in-group/out-group discrimination, and, as has become more apparent in the modern, industrial era, symbolic consciousness also has the power to produce civilizational myths that are entirely detached from the ecological context of the living planet that sustains us.
What is clear is that religion grows out of the soil of collective ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in: it is something you are and do. The essential thing about religious life is not mindless, ranting about dogmatic creeds, but sincerity in its engagement with symbolic forms of ritual play. A religious symbol “[has] the effect of transforming character when [it is] sincerely held and vividly apprehended,” according to Whitehead. Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the plants and animals on the earth and the shinning orbs in the sky. The human being’s religious impulse, growing out of ritual play, is to “recreate” the harmonies of these cosmic beings in symbolic form, to refashion them into myths for the guidance of our civilized societies.
Bellah’s argument draws extensively on the cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938), from which I quote at length: “Archaic society…plays as the child or animal plays…Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it…Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play…[humanity’s] consciousness that it is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).
Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. Further, because of the important role of play in the evolution of our species, and because it depends on shared attention/intention and basic ethical relations, it provides clear evidence contrary to Dennett’s view that organisms are just mimicry machines. “In acknowledging play,” says Huizinga, “you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter.”
“Even in the animal world,” he continues, “[play] bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable…when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings…” (Homo Ludens, 4).
Huizinga here almost slips into Whitehead’s fallacy of bifurcation by reifying the difference between mind and matter. Elsewhere he asks “would it be too absurd to assign a place [to play] outside the purely physiological?” I’d say yes, it would be absurd, or at least incoherent, to suppose the playfulness of mind-bearing organisms somehow exists separately from their physiological make-up. The physiological need not be equated with the mechanical.
Even though I’m critical of Huizinga’s slippage toward bifurcation due to his tendency to reify culture and mind as entirely “outside” of and set apart from mere “nature,” I still acknowledge and gladly inherit from him his other, underemphasized but no less profound intuition, that the efficacious reality of play in human and nonhuman lifeforms entails that we inhabit a sensitive and playful universe, not a dull, deaf, and dumb one. As we’ll see in a moment, I have similarly mixed feelings about the residue of bifurcation in Bellah’s more phenomenological approach to religion.
We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead also knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival: it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better.” If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to million year old minerals, life is deficient in survival value.
Whitehead, like Bellah and Huizinga, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play. Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religion’s evolutionary emergence:
Whitehead: ritual play<>emotional evocation<>mythical belief<>rationalization
Bellah (drawing on Merlin Donald’s work on the evolution of human cognitive capacity): mimetic/ritual<>mythic<>theoretic
Both acknowledge that ritual is widespread among mammals. Early humans were no different, but because of their increasing emotional and cognitive sensitivity, began to recognize that certain emotional states, enjoyable for their own sake apart from the needs of biological survival, could be reliably reproduced through collective ritual enactment. Only later, once the capacity for symbolism had emerged, were mythic beliefs articulated in an attempt to account for the purpose of ritual practices and their attendant emotional quality. Myths then contributed through a kind of feedback loop to the intensification of the emotional qualities. Notice that the arrows in the diagram point both ways, which is meant to prevent us from thinking that the emergence of a new stage means the prior stage is forgotten or transcended. Early stages are still present with and necessary for the expression of later stages. This is true even with the final stage of rational, philosophical, or theoretical reflection upon religious rituals and myths. Religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about who one is and what one does. The fundamentalisms of our late modern age, whether atheist or creationist, tend to neglect the ritual and mythical dimensions of religious life. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the cognitive components of belief systems, which are often only the dead products excreted by a more primary, living process of cosmic participation.
Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of “work” or mere survival. Bellah’s understanding of religious experience as one among a variety of cultural realities (differing from that of science, aesthetics, politics, and so on) is drawn largely from the phenomenological approach of Clifford Geertz and Alfred Schutz. While I think this sort of approach provides a helpful critique of and alternative to more scientistic explanations, allowing us to examine religion on its own terms, because it leaves the question of the cosmological basis of religious experience unanswered if not also unasked, I believe a Whiteheadian supplement is necessary. Taking a phenomenological look at religious experience by bracketing other cultural enactments of reality risks leaving the bifurcation of nature from culture intact. Whitehead allows us to grant the validity of multiple cultural realities while also acknowledging human culture’s continuity with the rest of the cosmos. This will become clearer as I conclude this talk, but for now let’s stick with Bellah’s account of ritual play (and the religious experiences it is associated with) as transcending the everyday world of work.
The idea is not to transcend work entirely, which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it generates, is at the historical origin and remains the existential core of our cultural lives?
One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Göbekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1990s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard, technocentric account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. The existence of Göbekli Tepe suggests, instead, that these cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural mode of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society” (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued). The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.
This understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary civilization, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. The contemporary world’s obsession with sports may seem like an exception, but I’d argue they are usually engaged in, not as ends in themselves, but as means for social prestige or to fulfill moral expectations of success. The question remains: Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the renewal of cycles of cosmic creativity?
Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead, inanimate collection of objects?
That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the incoherence of modern science’s bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask:
“What is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?”
This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.
Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist like Weinberg, Monod, or Rosenberg. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber (thereby potentially helping him overcome the residue of bifurcation resulting from his reliance on Geertz and Schutz’ more cultural approaches). Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”).
Building on Buber, Bellah argues that it is not at all surprising that for a “supersocial” species like us, an “I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trump the I-It relation.” He continues: “To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).
Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. This is very different from Dennett’s I-It approach, which is predicated upon the idea that the best way to study the evolution of religion is to imagine we are aliens from another planet trying to gain a view of it “from the outside,” as it were. To approach human religion from such an alienated perspective is to seriously handicap the pursuit of a naturalistic account of its evolutionary emergence. If we want an account of religion’s emergence that is immanent to cosmogenesis and avoids the undue imposition of other-worldly transcendence, then we’re going to need to study religious experience from the inside out.
“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting.”
Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts, or rather, to include these values as among the facts. “We have no right,” says Whitehead, “to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.” For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, to be a fact, for Whitehead, means to experientially enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman organisms, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”
Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to move beyond the modern bifurcation separating nature from culture, fact from value, and mechanism from meaning. Moving beyond the bifurcation of nature to grasp the cosmological significance of religion, and the religious significance of cosmology, will require re-evaluating metaphysical assumptions that have been woven into the very fabric of the scientific worldview for hundreds of years. The originators of this worldview, the original myth-makers responsible for initiating the Scientific Revolution, conceived the universe as a machine and imagined God as its transcendent designer. Though they differ in the details, this was the imaginative background informing the thoughts of Newton, Descartes, and Kant. Nowadays, scientific materialists no longer have any need for the “God hypothesis,” but the imaginative background informing their ideas remains the same. The universe is still to be understood by analogy to a machine, only now it has become a purposeless machine. Understanding this cosmic machine requires purifying our perspective of any hint of emotion, value, or appreciation, since these merely subjective qualities can only contaminate an impartial view of reality. Whitehead ontology of organism provides us with an alternative.
“The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded,” he says in the final pages of Religion in the Making, “finds the foundations of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant [and many contemporary scientific materialists]—in the cognitive and conceptual experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order…The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” (91-92).
To draw this talk to a close, I want to draw a parallel between Whitehead’s aesthetic ontology to Huizinga’s understanding of play. Huizinga locates play within the field of aesthetics, and suggests that playing is inherently creative of order. “Play,” he says, “has a tendency to be beautiful.” Huizinga goes on, in Whiteheadian fashion, to describe ritual acts of play as cosmic happenings, as continuous with natural processes.
Would it be too absurd, following Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in favor of an aesthetic ontology, to assign a place [to play] within the evolution of the universe itself? Might we come to understand the whole of the cosmos at every level of its self-organization as an expression of divine play? Might Blake have been right, that “energy is eternal delight”? Instead of God the disincarnate transcendent designer of a clock-work universe, or a meaningless machine-world running down toward heat death, might we interpret the scientific evidence otherwise? Might it be, as Whitehead suggests, that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God” (140, 143)? For those with an allergy to the G word, we should remember that Whitehead’s philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.” The ultimate religious theme in Whitehead’s cosmology is this divine Eros, the counter-agency that saves the world from decay into irrelevance by luring organisms toward more creative forms of organization. Whitehead’s God is not a big boss in the sky who designs and determines everything, but the poet of the world, who through aesthetic sensitivity beckons all beings toward the highest beauty that is possible for them, given the limitations of their finite situation. Beauty is the teleology of the universe. This, at least, is Whitehead’s alternative cosmological interpretation of the facts and values of the history of human religious expression. Whether or not we seize this alternative vision will determine the future of our civilization, if indeed it is to have one.
On the ideological sources of the “selfish gene” approach to biological evolution:
Bruno Latour. “How to make sure Gaia is not a God of Totality, with special attention to
Toby Tyrrell’s book On Gaia.” Written for the Rio de Janeiro meeting “The Thousand Names of Gaia,” September 2014.
On the geochemical inevitability of the emergence of life on earth (life is no accident):
James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith. “The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons.” American Scientist (Volume 97), 2009.
On the importance of love in biological evolution:
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller. Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Imprint Academic, 2009.
 2010 talk at Sante Fe Institute
 see The Concept of Nature
 Religion in the Making, 3.
 Religion in the Making, 5.
 Religion in the Making, 8.
 Religion in the Making, 10.
 Religion in the Making, 128.
 Modes of Thought, 111.
 Process and Reality, 167.
 Homo Ludens, 15.
 Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343
A talk I gave at my graduate program’s retreat at Esalen a few weeks ago.
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:
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”?
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.
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.
- Poetic Imagination in the Speculative Philosophies of Plato, Schelling, and Whitehead [final draft] (footnotes2plato.com)
- “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics: On the Way to Ecological Civilization” by Arran Gare (footnotes2plato.com)
- Philosophy of the Human in Whitehead and Schelling (response to Knowledge-Ecology) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Schelling’s Pantheogenic Naturphilosophie (footnotes2plato.com)
- Reflections on the Astrality of Materiality (footnotes2plato.com)
- Footnotes to Plato, Knowledge & Ecology (iamadam.org)
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:
with love from
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.
* * * * * * *
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).
- Imagining the Future with Owen Barfield: Towards a Participatory Turn (footnotes2plato.com)
- Disambiguating Spirit and Matter (reflections on scientific materialism) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Schelling and the Transcendental Abyss of Nature (footnotes2plato.com)
- Böhme’s and Schelling’s Cosmogenic Theology (footnotes2plato.com)
- “Coleridge and the Science of the Mind” by Chris Rudge (footnotes2plato.com)
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.
“[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).
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.
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!
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.
- Philosophy Blogging, OOO/SR, Nihilism, and God (footnotes2plato.com)
- OOO and Anthropos: Graham Harman responds (footnotes2plato.com)
- SR/OOO and Nihilism: a response to Harman and Bryant (footnotes2plato.com)
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).