The Varieties of Materialism: Matter as the Play of Form

Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.


While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.

Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:

…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.

I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.

Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).

I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:

Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter.  If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of idealincorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter.  What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.

Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.




Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.

“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.

Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature?

I’ve just read Grant Maxwell’s critique of a HuffPo piece by Matthew Hutson.

I enjoyed his rebuttal of Hutson’s blanket rejection realism regarding teleology. I am also enjoying the discussion Grant is having with Hutson down in the comments. I do not think Hutson has read the work of organic/creative finalists like Bergson or Whitehead. His concept of teleology is very mechanical and industrial, very Anglo-American; it totally lacks the Franco-German flavor of Whitehead and Bergson’s organicism, which has its modern origins in the Naturphilosophie of Goethe, Novalis, and Schelling (and its ancient origins in alchemy and hermeticism). If you’ve read those guys, or their more recent incarnation Teilhard’s “The Human Phenomenon,” its impossible to think of creationism as somehow necessarily opposed to evolutionism. It begins to seem, rather, that they imply and require one another.

I heard a lecture by professor of German literature Fred Amrine tonight on Goethe’s Color Theory. Prof. Amrine quoted Goethe (usually known for his poetry and artistic genuis and not as a pioneering natural scientist) as having asserted towards the end of his life something like “It is for my theory of colors, and its refutation of Newton, that posterity will remember me.” Goethe described his color theory as a “sensory-moral” account of natural phenomena such that the “physical laws” those phenomena “obey” are seen to emerge from out of one’s conscious perceptions themselves, rather than being imposed upon them from outside as in Newton’s mechanistic theories. Goethe’s scientific method “makes phenomena transparent to their own lawfulness,” as Prof. Amrine put it. Instead of the deistic-mechanistic metaphysics and calculative-quantitative methods that came with the Galilean-Newtonian scientific revolution, Goethe developed his own processual and organic approach to nature (an approach whose philosophical implications were first developed by Schelling and later made more explicit by Rudolf Steiner). His organicism was rooted in the qualitative structure-dynamics of experience itself, rather than the calculable motion of “external matter.” “External matter,” I’d argue, is among the most abstract concepts imaginable by the human mind. Goethe instead remained faithful to appearances and to common sense, as Aristotle long ago prescribed. The Faustian magician-priests of the modern techno-scientific revolution, of course, had other plans. External mechanistic matter was as real as it gets, and modern science’s job was to gain control over it. Modern science is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly powerful belief system. We should dream it and use it more wisely than we do.

How could Goethe have been so mistaken about his future influence? He is not remembered as a great scientist, as the creator of an alternative but no less “modern” scientific worldview and methodology. Newton’s Optics is still esteemed as the paragon of scientific treatises by most historians and philosophers of science, while most people have either never heard of Goethe’s color theory, or have summarily dismissed it as some kind of an alchemical throwback.

But maybe this is the wrong question… Is Goethe really mistaken? It could be that he is still ahead of his time scientifically. Could it be that, in another generation, not only Darwin but Goethe too will be celebrated as a discoverer of “evolution”? Actually, Darwin only used the word “evolution” once in the 6th edition of Origin of Species. For good reason (at least from the perspective of the mechanistic metaphysics he inherited from the scientific revolution): the concept of evolution is inherently teleological in that it implies the unfolding of something enfolded, the rolling out of a plan, etc…. ya know, “teleology.” Goethe’s natural science, like Schelling’s and Whitehead’s and Bergson’s and Teilhard’s, does not attempt to explain away meaning, purpose, and value in the universe, but rather aims to simultaneously elucidate and deepen our understanding and experience of human teleology by rooting it in the teleogenic capacity of the cosmos itself. The question is no longer “What must human meaning/purpose/value be if nature is really mechanical/dull/void?”– The question rather becomes “What must nature be such that human teloi are possible?”

Of course, I just disqualified myself in the eyes of the scientifically-minded for admitting to belief in teleology. “Evolution teleological? Clearly you don’t understand science and evolution! Or worse, you’re not even being scientific at all, you’re being religious!”

Only a scientifically illiterate religious nut could believe, for example, that “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.” Hutson uses this example (it originated in a 2009 study by psychologists from Boston University) in one of his comments to Grant in an effort to display the absurdity of teleology. He suggests Grant’s [and my own, in this post] assumption about such nut cases and their beliefs “is not that they have made a common mistake but that in some sense the sun would not have come to be if plants had not evolved three billion years later.” Teleology does seem absurd when framed in such a way. But it need not be framed in such a way. Hutson himself relies upon a teleological argument of a different sort when he mobilizes the idea of transcendentally imposed universal and necessary “physical laws” that contingent and particular natural bodies are required to obey. This is pure deism, regardless of Hutson’s preference for the Spinozist flip that has nominally replaced Deus with Natura sometime between Newton’s and our own day. The telos in modern science’s view of nature is the cosmic machine’s pre-planed “design.” For Newton, this telos was designed by an all-powerful “designer” or “divine engineer.” Hutson, I assume, prefers to speak of random quantum fluctuations giving rise to the laws governing our universe, which is just one of infinitely many more randomly arising universes, most of which have no order at all and certainly do not have intelligent life. This is a strange sort of teleology, whether in its early modern deistic or late modern atheistic phase: it makes the human seem a stranger in nature by transforming our common sense experience of ourselves, the earth, and the cosmos as alive into an epiphenomenal illusion projected upon what is really just mechanical matter in motion. How strange, that rather than looking deeper into nature to understand how our human teleological creativity is possible, modern science has denied such creativity to nature, thereby detaching human egoic consciousness both from its own creativity, as well as from the unconscious (but still experiential!) creativity of nature.

There are yet other ways of framing teleology, like that of the organic evolutionary thinkers I mentioned above. Whitehead and Bergson in particular offer devastating critiques (both philosophical and scientific critiques) of the “spatialized” conception of time guiding modern mechanistic science from Newton to Einstein. Rather than thinking that the future somehow reaches back in time to cause the past (as when the evolution of photosynthesis somehow causes the sun to exist), they came to think of future possibilities as luring the present decisions of every organism, such that plant life is understood to be the further expression of an activity that, 4.5 billion years ago, had only achieved the sun-like phase of its organic development. Plants are quite literally the further flowering of the sun. You could say, then, that plants are part of the sun’s purpose. As Goethe said in a slightly different context (eye-sight instead of plant photosynthesis): “The eye must be something like the sun, otherwise no sunlight could be seen.” This is not to imply that the future can somehow be seen in advance, as though the sun knew life was coming. It is more as if the light of the sun discovered for the first time what it truly is only once it had created life on earth. Life is the dreaming of light, not its “design.” Indeed, this process of the universe’s self-discovery through evolution may only have just begun. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

Whitehead’s Divine Function (response to Knowledge Ecology)

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.

Reading “Incomplete Nature” by Terrence Deacon

Jason/Immanent Transcendence has written the first response for our summer reading group. Chapter 0 of Terrence Deacon‘s new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter introduces what he calls the “absential” features of the universe. According to Deacon, the defining property of every living or psychic system is that its causes are conspicuously absent from the system in which they participate. They are causes not present in the material system itself, even though they produce effects in that system.

As I read Deacon in the first few opening chapters (and after hearing him lecture and respond to questions), I think he clearly wants to preserve formal and final causality (to use Aristotle’s archelogisms). Preserving a more expanded conception of causality has been perhaps my main philosophical ambition since starting graduate school. HERE is an early example, and HERE is a more recent response to Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects on the same issue.

While he remains a materialist in the sense that he believes life and mind spontaneously emerged at some point in the past from inanimate particles, Deacon nonetheless dismisses the idea that mind and and life might be explained by reduction to those particles. The absential features of living and psychic systems–like purposes, intentions, images, and identities–are real and cannot be reduced to the physical mechanisms of the systems in which they participate. They are emergent properties that must be accounted for in their own ententional terms.

Deacon is after an account of the emergence of life and mind out of chemistry and physics. Since he dismisses panpsychism (and Whitehead) early on, I remain eager to see how he will explain the emergence of mind from inanimate matter.

Though Whitehead will still color my interpretations, I will be reading Deacon alongside Schelling this summer. I think it will make for an interesting cross fertilization, since Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is ultimately a powers ontology, while I’m still not certain whether Deacon is even going to offer an ontology. His approach is far more descriptive in the healthy scientific sense. I doubt I’ll disagree with the strictly scientific insights in Deacon’s book. I will probably just disagree with the metaphysical and cosmological contexts within which they are placed.

In a few days, I’ll post some thoughts on Chapter 2, wherein Deacon discusses the hidden homunculi of most scientific descriptions of biological and psychological systems.

The Imaginal Universe

Continuing this discussion with Archive Fire, and joining Knowledge Ecology here:

It seems like what we all want to say is that imagination is generated by the universe, but what we can’t seem to agree upon is whether the universe is therefore also imaginal.

We are seeking understanding of the nature of causality, and of the roots of animal perception and imagination in a supposedly pre-perceivable, pre-imaginable electro-magneto-physio-chemical process.

I myself would not want to suppose that anything precedes experience–no matter how proto-perceptual or proto-imaginal some forms of causality may seem from our evolved anthropic perspective. Electrons are the neurons of our cosmic brane. They are intimately involved in the cognitive activity of our brains. Human thinking appears in the world as chemically mediated electrical activity, which is also to say that the physical world appears to think. Panpsychism? No, this isn’t smearing mind all over everything indiscriminately. The thinking universe has a more differentiated form than that. Mind individualizes, drawing itself together into organized bodies of ever increasing complexity. Rocks are made of highly organized bodies, like crystals, and even smaller and more highly organized beings, like carbon, and gold. But the rock itself cannot properly be considered an individual organism; it is not an organized, self-organizing being. Its identity as that particular rock is far, far more accidental than the identity of an individual atom of gold or an individual bacterial cell or human person. These latter bodies have a deeper causal memory, and a more intense experiential relationship with their own identity than does the rock. Given the mineral structure of certain elements, and the plate tectonics of earth, rocks just happen. They don’t display purposive or organized behavior. They are the accidental result of more individualized, mentalized organic/organized activity taking place on a different scale. And they are only really individualized by cognitively proficient animals such as ourselves, who define that rock as distinct from this rock.

This is Teilhard’s law of complexity/consciousness, which lead him not to pantheism, but to a vision of the cosmos as the still gestating Body of Christ.

As Teilhard put it, “We humans cannot see ourselves completely except as part of humanity, humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe … True physics is that which will someday succeed in integrating the totality of the human being into a coherent image of the world” (The Human Phenomenon, Preface).

The Varieties of Causal Experience

Michael over at Archive-Fire has a new post up distinguishing his notion of epistemic withdrawal from Harman’s ontological withdrawal. While claiming to hold tight to an embodied account of mind, Michael nonetheless wants to carve out a distinction between two kinds of interaction: mental and physical. Mental interaction is always detached and abstract due to its linguistic and imaginal intangibility, while physical interaction is direct because it involves structural contact between entities. Michael accepts the generally Kantian construal of the real as existing forever beyond human knowledge: things withdraw absolutely, but only from our knowledge. Physically, when I grab my coffee mug, the atoms in my fingers are in direct physical contact with the electrons orbiting the atoms of which it is composed. Such physical relations, according to Michael, are causal, while mental relations are symbolic.

I discussed the difference between realism and materialism in this post last week. I affirmed an organic realism, and tried to explain why I reject both materialism and idealism, since each seems self-contradictory on its own. Follow the former to its final conclusions and you end up with the latter, and vice versa [For example, if our knowledge is forever limited, when we speak of the electron orbitals of atoms, are we not speaking of our conceptual models of matter, rather than matter in itself? If we can't know what matter really is, what justifies our speaking of direct contact? Isn't this just a subtle form of idealism?]. Michael describes his position as a kind of non-reductive materialism, leaning on the concept of emergence to account for mentality. I find emergence an indispensable concept for understanding evolutionary leaps like that from molecules to cells, or from single cells to multicellular life; but these are examples of organizational/structural emergence. I do not think emergence can account for mind in an otherwise merely material universe (“merely” material as in not the prehensive matter of Whiteheadian ontology). The emergence of mind would not simply represent the emergence of a more complex organizational structure, but an entirely new ontological domain. Is it really sufficient to say that mind emerges from otherwise insensate matter simply because that matter is structurally organized in a new way? I am unconvinced.

Instead of defining mind as essentially a linguistic phenomenon, as Michael does, I’d suggest that mind is primarily affective in nature. That is, thinking is an especially refined kind of feeling (a feeling of feelings, if you will). Rather than separate cognition and causality, I’d follow Whitehead’s illuminating distinction between “presentational immediacy” and “causal efficacy.” Whitehead critiques Hume’s account of sensory experience using this distinction: Hume’s analysis of his experience of, say, a glass cup in terms of raw sensory universals like “whiteness,” “roundness,” etc., Whitehead argues is actually derived from a more fundamental, causal mode of experience. Hume’s analysis of sensory experience remains on the level of “presentational immediacy,” which for Whitehead is a very rare, high grade mode of experience especially perfected by reflective, language-using human beings. Most of the time, we interact with the world via bodily perception, which is to say, we feel the causal force of the world directly and respond without having to break up that world into its raw sensory components. Hume’s analysis of experience is too abstract, which is why he ends up having to jettison causality all together. Whitehead notes Hume’s realization that we see the cup with our eyes, suggesting that he was close to grasping the causal efficacy of the body. But alas, Hume did not think through the implications of the causal efficacy of his body, the way causation was the condition making possible his abstract analysis of experience in terms of sensory universals. [See this post for a more in depth account of Whitehead's response to Hume].

“Mind” and “matter” are dreadfully vague words, but when I speak of “mind” above, I am referring to everything from sensuality to conceptuality. Mind is anything that requires awareness. Surely, there are forms of awareness that are not linguistic. The feeling of another’s gaze, or of the wind moving the hair across your forehead, for instance. On the other hand, from the perspective of a pansemiotic paradigm (Peirce, or more recently, Hoffmeyer), all relations could be construed as sign interpretation.

Michael mentions Whitehead’s panpsychism as one of Harman’s “background assumptions,” but I don’t think its quite fair to call this an assumption. On the contrary, adopting some varient of panpsychism is the result of much conceptual struggle with mind-matter dualism.

Knowledge takes place at the level of abstract significations. And signification involves very different processes than those involved in basic physical interactions.

This has been a standard distinction since at least Descartes. But when faced with the intractable issue of having to account for mind, or even just basic sensation, in a universe otherwise composed of dead matter, what is to prevent us from re-thinking our ontology (a la Whitehead)? I’ve offered some reasons for rejecting the emergentist account of mind; I’d be curious to know Michael’s reasons for rejecting the panexperientialist account.

The Creativity of Causality in Bios and Cosmos: a response to Levi Bryant

Levi Bryant has posted a comment in response to me over at plasticbodies. He has also posted a comment directed at Adam and I over at knowledge-ecology. I’d like to respond to some his questions and concerns, which include issues surrounding causality, explanation, God, and Nature.

He first suggests I have conflated two different construals of teleology in an earlier reference to Maturana and Varela‘s work. In an essay I linked prior to his comment, there are several chapters on the history of biology wherein I unpack the development of the concept somewhat extensively. I track the changes in the conception of teleology from the premodern to the modern era. I differentiate the more Platonic doctrine of teleology as “demiurgic design” from the more Aristotelean doctrine of immanent teleology, which was later modernized by Kant into a regulative principle for judging the organization of living systems. In the last paper Varela published before he died, he took up Kant’s project in the Critique of Judgment by attempting to ontologize telos at the individual level (making it constitutive of the reality of organisms, rather than simply a human way of conceptualizing their activity).

I don’t think Varela succeeds in the paper, since he leaves a lot of the philosophical work required to support his account unarticulated, but his references to Whitehead suggest he saw him as an ally in a similar project. Part of the problem with Varela’s account is that, though he claims to ontologize final causality, he really only grounds formal causality in the self-organization of living beings. What Varela refers to in his last paper as “the instauration of a point of view” is what Whitehead calls the “subjective form” of an actual occasion. In order to link the subjectivity of living beings (i.e., their soul, or formal identity) to a final cause, matter of the universe itself has to be subjected to the ideals of a cosmic, everlasting soul: God. Varela never went this far (at least not in writing; he does, however, come close to evoking the “subtle consciousness” of the World-Soul in this video interview toward the end of his life). He reveals that formal and final causality are closely tied in individual organisms, but one has to turn to Whitehead’s work for a fully re-enchanted (though undeniably post-modern) conception of an inherently purposeful Universe. “Re-enchantment” in this context means that Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology includes both the activity of Ideas and the desire for Ends in the process of reality.

Let’s put Whitehead’s panexperialist, panentheist metaphysics to the side for a moment and revisit Varela’s autopoietic account of telos. Bryant writes the following:

Maturana and Varela…understand teleology in cybernetic terms as feedback mechanisms in an organism wherein the organism regulates itself homeostatically within a particular range. While more complex, there’s nothing markedly different here from how the thermostat functions in your house. The temperature at which the thermostat is set is the teleological goal or cause, and the air conditioner turning off and on is the feedback mechanism by which that state is goal is actualized. The goal itself has no causative power. It is just the basin around which actions settle. In organisms, moreover, this teleological dimension is produced through evolution, not design, and is produced out of processes that are not themselves teleological, i.e., there is no goal towards which evolution is striving or tending.

I think Bryant is conflating the difference between the “goal-like” movements of intelligently designed machines and the immanent purposes of autopoietic organisms.  I can’t speak for Maturana, since I haven’t studied the evolution of his thought beyond his early work with Varela. But as his last paper makes clear, Varela came to reject his earlier view that organisms are purposeless systems. Autopoiesis is not simply a description of self-regulation (as in thermostats), but a description of self-production. Organisms are purposeful systems because they are self-organizing systems: they exist for the sake of themselves. Machines are also purposeful systems, but they do not produce themselves, nor do they bring forth their own horizon of experience. The neo-Darwinist paradigm referenced by Bryant, wherein non-teleological processes are purported to generate biological form, seems confused to me. It denies design in nature at the same time that it carries over the design metaphor from artificial selection to natural selection. In this way, nature is said to generate the appearance of design in organisms, while the process of selection itself is claimed to be completely purposeless and non-directed.

Again, I think intelligent design (or any metaphor still rooted in the design paradigm) is being conflated here with organismic production. It is one thing to claim that the process of evolution on the phylogenic level is non-directed and in some sense purposeless (Whitehead would disagree, but let’s stick to Varela for now); it is an entirely separate claim to say that the development and organization of individuals on an ontogenic level is purposeless, or merely teleonomic (“goal-like”). In point of fact (as Evan Thompson, once a student of Varela’s, points out in Mind and Life), the mechanism of natural selection must assume self-organizing biological individuals that can reproduce before it explains anything about the way speciation occurs. Natural selection is not an explanation for autopoietic organisms, since it provides no account of their subjective horizons or their immanent purposes. Natural selection is one mechanism playing a role in what Varela calls “natural drift,” the generational changes in the morphology of species due to shifting environmental conditions.

If not natural selection, what would constitute an explanation of the ideas, meanings, and purposes of organisms? Bryant complains that I am employing God as the explanation for life and everything. I do employ a concept of God when cosmologizing, but not as the singular cause of reality. God is rather the living soul of the world, within which “values arise from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (Process and Reality, p. 88). The world is as much the cause of God as God is the cause of the world. At this point, we must move into a discussion beyond causality in nature: we must consider the nature of causes, explanations, and reasons, as such. Varela, the biologist, becomes less helpful here than Whitehead, the metaphysician and cosmologist.

Bryant writes:

I fail to see what Whitehead’s conception of god adds to our metaphysics. It introduces a number of highly contentious and troubling postulates (that god influences things to produce certain aesthetic contrasts) that can neither be verified in any way and that seem deeply arbitrary. I fail to see what evolutionary and autopoietic theory gains from such an approach.

I think evolutionary and autopoietic theory gain their metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s panentheist cosmology. His work is an attempt to show how the 19-20th century facts of evolution and the 16-17th century theory of mechanistic materialism are incompatible. Contemporary scientific cosmology has discovered (in theory and in fact) that the physical universe itself, like life on earth, is a historical entity. It appears to have been born, and, if current trends continue, it appears that it will die. If philosophy is to articulate the metaphysical principles of reality in the context of an evolutionary cosmology, it cannot refer only to the temporal aspect of the universe, to the diversity of organisms which have emerged in evolutionary history. Philosophy must also consider the ideals of God, the everlasting soul of the universe. The concept of God is not an arbitrary addition to philosophy, unless our philosophy denies all validity to the history of human experience prior to the development of politico-techno-scientific secularity in local pockets of some urban societies, where a neo-liberal capitalist imaginary fosters the emergence of the self-creating individual to whom God becomes a mere hypothesis.

God, from a Whiteheadian perspective, is not an explanation for actual occasions. As Stengers’ writes in Thinking With Whitehead, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). I develop this idea in a response last week to the atheist biologist PZ Myers, who, like Bryant, sees no evidence of God or reason for thinking seriously about religious experience.