A talk I gave for ERIE at CIIS a few months ago building on (an admittedly loose interpretation of) Andy Clark’s extended mind thesis and Richard Doyle’s ideas about the role of psychedelics in human evolution:
HERE is the interview. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I remember a wide-ranging conversation on everything from my own intellectual and spiritual development, to the relationship between science and religion, to the role of imagination and psychedelics in the philosophy of nature.
HERE is Jesse Turri’s personal website.
“The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially consists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contradictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.” -Alfred North Whitehead, September 10, 1941
It is in this spirit that I believe Shaviro wrote The Universe of Things. Although his name is not in the title, Whitehead is the protagonist of Shaviro’s short book, subtitled On Speculative Realism. Shaviro successfully develops Whitehead’s scheme as an alternative to the other strands of speculative realism. He starkly contrasts Whitehead’s scheme with the eliminativism of Brassier and the mathematism of Meillassoux, but devotes by far the most attention to the differences between Whitehead’s Organism-Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. I learned a lot from these comparisons. One thing I’d really liked to have seen is a more sustained treatment of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Schellingian powers ontology. Whitehead and Schelling make for an intensely interesting comparison. Of the 4 original speculative realists, Grant’s vitalist variety of SR always struck me as the most intuitively compelling. Harman’s object ontology hit me as more of an intellectual shock that I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from yet.
Despite the lack of engagement with Grant/Schelling, what Shaviro convincingly illustrates is the way Whitehead’s philosophy of organism anticipates the most important of speculative realism’s main concerns, in particular SR’s desire to overcome “the anthropocentrism that has for so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality” (1). Call it “correlationism” or “the philosophy of access”: the assumption of almost all philosophy since at least Kant is that the only reality of any consequence is human reality, reality as it appears or submits to human theories and practices.
“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).
In order to overcome the pervasive anthropocentrism of so much modern philosophy, Shaviro argues we would be better served by erring on the side of anthropomorphism. I agree, but with important qualifications. Even if human experience is a special instance of a more general feature of nature, we still need to perform a kind of alchemical distillation of human consciousness in order to determine exactly what is special and what is generic about our experience. What is unique to our way of aesthetically translating the universe, and what is universal? In Whitehead’s estimation, when we perform such a distillation, it quickly becomes clear that not all experience is conscious. There are all sorts of non-conscious experiences causally contributing to our conscious personalities. There are also all sorts of non-conscious experiences occurring beyond and below the reach of human access. As Harman reminds us, “the life of gravel and sandpaper is every bit as troubled by inner ambiguities as human existence ever was” (GM, 257). Both Whitehead and Harman agree on the need to decenter the human. Further, they both agree philosophy must overcome what cultural historian Richard Tarnas describes as “the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind,” namely, “the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” (Cosmos and Psyche, 41).
Harman actually denies that he is a panpsychist, since he doesn’t want to install the special features of human cognition into the heart of being. If this is what panpsychism entails, then Whitehead is not a panpsychist, either. David Ray Griffin coined the term “panexperientialism” to better describe Whitehead’s ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative” (GM, 244). Just as Whitehead reminds us that, while all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious, Harman states that “all consciousness is allure, but not all allure is conscious” (GM, 245). Whether we call their approaches panpsychist, panexperientialist, or panallurist, it’s obvious that both Whitehead and Harman reject the modern dichotomy between the “conscious images” of minds and the “causal impacts” of matter. According to Harman, images live in the gaps between everything, even particles of supposedly inanimate dust. He enigmatically suggests that we are most closely bound up with the rhythms of being when we are overcome by laughter or worship (243). While I’m not entirely sure what he means, I’m hoping this statement primes my readers to more open-mindedly consider the panexperientialist notion that perhaps the human body can be understood as a sort of monotheistic religion, the god-serving ritual of molecules and cells.
All the components of our body dance in harmony according to the ancient rhythms inherited from their evolutionary forebears, working together to construct and reconstruct the hierarchical structure of our organism. As individual components they have no idea they are participating in creating and maintaining the body of a hidden and unspeakable god. If the cells and molecules of our bodies are so clearly alive, what are we to make of the wider so-called “inanimate” or “inorganic” world?
“The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. Every instability of any part of it–be it chemical, physical, or molar–imposes an activity of readjustment throughout the whole organism. In the course of such physical activities, human experience has its origin. The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism. The actualities of nature…must be explanatory of this fact…Such experience seems to be more particularly related to the activities of the brain. But…we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain” (Adventures of Ideas, 289-290).
Panpsychism (or whatever we want to call it), though it has a long pedigree as “a recurring underground motif” in Western philosophy (from the presocratics, to Spinoza and Leibniz, to William James and Whitehead), is only just recently beginning to be taken seriously again. Still, the notion of inherently experiential material strikes many as absurd. Colin McGinn, for example, refers to the idea as “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” He goes on to ask “isn’t there something vaguely hippyish, i.e., stoned, about the doctrine?” (Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, 93). On Shaviro’s reading, it is not panpsychism that provides us with comfort in the face of an otherwise meaningless and inhuman universe; on the contrary, the comforting modern myth is the anthropocentric idea that all intelligence and purposefulness is safely locked up within the human skull. It gives us a false sense of control over our environments, as though the nonhuman world were just a bunch of dead objects whose blind motion strictly obeys the clear and distinct laws discovered by science. The panpsychist re-enchantment of nature is actually a rather terrifying prospect from the perspective of our hyper-alienated, still all too Cartesian late modern consciousness.
I’ll continue with my review of Shaviro’s book in subsequent posts. Still to be discussed is Shaviro’s rebuttal of Harman’s claim that Whitehead is a relational reductionist. I’ve been arguing against Harman’s reading for years (see here). For many Whiteheadians, the whole issue was settled back in 2010 at the “Metaphysics and Things” conference in Claremont, CA (click here for Shaviro’s brief review and links to other accounts of he and Harman’s exchange at the conference). I’m not sure if Harman remembers, but a few of us from CIIS ran into him at a cafe across the street from the lecture hall just prior to Isabelle Stengers’ keynote. I’d already heard of his OOO by that point, but didn’t catch his name at the time and so only realized it was him after the fact. In any event, despite being gently but consistently scolded by Shaviro, Roland Faber, and other Whiteheadians for his misreading, Harman continues to caricature Whitehead’s process atomism in what I can only believe is an exaggerated attempt to differentiate and so win attention for his own philosophical scheme. There’s nothing abnormal about this tactic in the history of philosophy (I often say, only half facetiously, that the history of philosophy is a long series of caricatures). And the good spiritedness of this particular debate makes it a really great opportunity to flesh out the implications of Whitehead’s ontology. It provides a great example of how disagreement can be conceptually fruitful without degenerating into polemic. As I hope to show in a subsequent post, Harman’s key concept of “withdrawal” provides important insights about causal relation. But I also think Whitehead’s account of an occasion’s momentary privacy gives us what Harman wants without having to affirm the incoherent notion of “vacuous actualities.” Stay tuned…
Below is my lecture on German Idealism and Romanticism given yesterday (Sept. 30) for MA students enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness course at CIIS.
Some notes toward a talk I’m giving at Burning Man next week. I’ll be at camp Cosmicopia (located at 3:45 and Ephesus). The talk is on Wednesday at 4pm.
The word “psychedelic” was coined in the 1950s by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter exchanged with the famed author and philosopher Aldous Huxley. Osmond had recently supplied Huxley with a dose of mescaline. Huxley later sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested neologism: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (phanero meaning ‘to show’ or ‘make visible’ and thymos meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Greek). Osmond countered with the lines “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” The word means “soul manifesting” (from ψυχή, meaning psyche or soul in Latin), and δήλος, delos, meaning ‘manifest’). Osmond was among the first medical scientists to study the effects of Albert Hoffman’s recently invented chemical compound LSD-25. He was convinced that the psychedelic state could help psychiatrists understand and treat schizophrenia.
Many burners would probably agree that psychedelics offer treatments for a whole variety of individual ailments, whether alcoholism or addiction, PTSD, depression, anxiety due to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, etc. I want to suggest that psychedelics may also provide us with at least part of the solution to wider social, economic, and ecological problems. They are not a cure all, but given the short time-frame human civilization has to fundamentally transform itself before cascading catastrophe drives our species and many others beside into extinction, I think our only hope comes in the form of a drastic chemical—or better, alchemical—intervention. Only the re-birth of a psychedelic religion can save us now.
The global religion of consumer capitalism is predicated upon the belief that consciousness is fundamentally atomic and individualistic, that it is produced by the brain and contained within the skull. The word capital derives from the Latin word “caput,” meaning “head,” and originally referred to the number of cattle a rich person owned. Today, as always, rich people also own human heads. One of the principle lessons of psychedelics as far as I can tell is that, as Daniel Pinchbeck put it, they “break open the head,” revealing the cosmological ground of consciousness. Richard Doyle, author of Darwin’s Pharmacy, goes so far as to rename psychedelics “ecodelics” because of the way they dissolve the skin-thin boundary between human beings and their earthly habitats. What does it mean that so many plants and fungi contain psychoactive analogs of the human brain’s endogenous neurochemicals? Banisteriopsis caapi, psilocybin mushrooms, ergot fungus, cannabis—even our front lawns contain trace amounts of DMT! The nervous system is an ecologically extended network of chemical interactions. The human brain has been co-evolving with these other organisms for tens of thousands of years. Consciousness is not in the head. Consciousness is an emergent, symbiotic process that is planetary in extent.
It’s no mistake that religion of consumer capitalism requires that these substances be illegal. In order for the global economy to function, we have to continue to believe that we are skin-encapsulated egos (as Alan Watts put it) and that the meaning of life is determined by how much we own. We are raised to believe that human nature is basically selfish, that nature is basically cruel, and death is the end, so we may as well push others out of the way to get as much as we can while we’re still alive. We have to continue to commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by attributing more value to paper or plastic money than to human relationships, human lives, or the lives of other species. Our civilization is willing to destroy the entire planetary ecosystem to maintain corporate profit margins.
Have you ever taken a look at a $20 bill while tripping? Try it next time. I can’t help but laugh in astonishment whenever I do. This is the lifeblood of our civilization? We forget so easily that money is merely symbolic. You can’t eat it, drink it, or make love to it. When we put a bill on the counter or swipe our credit card at Starbucks, we act as though some metaphysical law forces the barista to make us our latte. In fact, we are entering into a social agreement. Capitalism does everything in its power to background this agreement, to background the alienating social relations that are required for the system to function. Capitalism tricks us into thinking that money is the only real measure of value and that this value necessarily determines the course of our lives. I’d wager that American money is green because this leads us to unconsciously associate it with photosynthesizing plants—which by the way are the only truly energy producing organisms on the planet. All the energy on earth enters into the food chain because plants have learned to transform sunlight into carbs. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy driving the global economy comes from fossilized plants.
Capitalism is a form of black magic. It is a dark, soul- and earth-destroying religion. Like all religions, it’s founded on certain rituals: shopping, working, watching TV or otherwise being inundated by advertisements, etc. It has its holy sites: malls, movie theaters, car dealerships. And it has its crusades: wars in the Middle East on behalf of “freedom” and “democracy” (code words for capitalism). Most modern industrial people think of themselves as entirely secular, but no religious believer ever considers their own religion to be just another religious belief system. No, our capitalist civilization, like all prior civilizations, thinks it has found the one true rational way to do things.
The reason I think psychedelics provide part of the solution to our crisis is that they allow our cultural conditioning to fall away, permitting us to re-imagine our values, our symbols, and our stories. They reveal the deeper connections between all things, the way the very idea of property or ownership does violence to the creative and sacred dimension of the universe. They allow us to rediscover the mystery of existence that has always been hidden in plain site. Psychedelic chemicals catalyze the formation of new rituals. Normally, ritualization is an unconscious process that takes many generations to take shape. Unfortunately, we don’t have many generations. If our civilization cannot fundamentally transform itself within the space of a few years, the odds of our survival are slim. Don’t get me wrong, these substances are extremely dangerous. They come with huge risks. Anyone ingesting them risks losing their mind. Of course, the default mind is suffering from a disease. Maybe losing it isn’t such a bad idea.
Steven Craig Hickman recently posted a fascinating commentary on the fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker’s “Blind Brain Theory.” I’ve offered several of my own commentaries in the past (see HERE). My general sense of unease seems to be shared by Hickman, who ponders towards the end of his post whether Bakker’s BBT might be more of a prediction of our post-human future than a description of what remains of human being in the present. This is unnerving to me because I worry that mistaking a prediction for a description only serves to contribute to the realization of what I find to be a nightmarish future. Bakker argues that his thesis–“that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves”–is so disturbing that it remains unbelievable, even to him. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony in his claim not to believe BBT himself: his whole point is that “beliefs” and the “selves” we think hold them are just sophisticated shams.
While for obvious reasons it is difficult if not impossible to actually experience oneself as a blind brain, the common sense theoretical account offered by most educated people nowadays is some variety of mind-to-brain reductionism. Nowadays we are all more or less materialists (as Obama’s recent “Brain Initiative” press conference brought home for me). Or we are unacknowledged dualists: we say the universe is just purposeless material in motion, while by some cosmic accident the moving matter of our nervous systems gained the capacity for self-reflection. While I admit that is some irony in some of his statements, I’d have to classify Bakker as an unacknowledged dualist. He is offering a “theory,” after all. How is theorization even possible if we are really just blind brains? Isn’t theorization just an illusion like everything else that takes place in consciousness? If consciousness can’t be trusted, why should we trust any theory, much less one that tells us our capacity for theorization is an utter fraud?
As I’ve come to understand it, consciousness is a perfectly real factor in the universe. It makes a difference in what happens next, at least for human beings and some other animals. I don’t conceive of it as a substance or a “thing” that exists separate from the body, driving it around like a go cart (i.e., it is not a res cogitans). It is, rather, a very special, high grade achievement of the more generic energetic activity making up the whole cosmos. I follow Whitehead the panexperientialist here (who Hickman also references in his post) by arguing that the most fundamental activity of the universe is already experiential, already in some sense “there” for itself. Consciousness, in other words, is a very sophisticated form of experience made possible by the organizational complexity of animal nervous systems. While all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious. The less complexly organized (or “informationally integrated”) a system is, the less intense its experience. Another way to think about experience here is to put it in temporal terms. More complex organisms are capable of deeper experiential realizations because their nervous systems grant them access to thicker slices of time. For example, the temporal reach of human beings into the actual past or potential future is in principle nearly unlimited: it cannot be known in advance how far into the past (e.g., cosmologists have already reached to the edge of space-time 13.8 billion light years away) or future (e.g., think of the most imaginative sci-fi writers) the human mind can reach. On the other hand, the temporal reach of a hydrogen atom is rather narrow: it inherits its past and is launched into its future almost instantaneously, with very little opportunity for creative variation. Still, though, this opportunity to vary is there from the beginning. There are no instants in nature. Duration goes all the way down. Even hydrogen hesitates. There is a crack in causal transmission at the most fundamental levels of physical reality, an experiential gap that must be leapt. Nothing is absolutely determined or fixed in advance. The universe is radically creative and open ended. It’s for this reason (which follows from 20th century quantum and complexity theories) that Whitehead chose to aestheticize causality, to insert experience into every nook and cranny of the cosmos.
Whitehead’s experiential universe, as radically creative, is radically evolutionary. Every seemingly stable form of organizational achievement is subject to further change, either for the better or for the worse. In Whitehead’s aesthetic ethics (or aesethics), “better” would mean more beautiful, where beauty is defined as the harmonization of contrasting particulars into an organic whole, such that both the parts and the whole are enhanced in the process. My worry, again, is that believing in the blind brain theory can actually do damage to our human potential as consciously creative beings. We are all too ready nowadays to resign ourselves to the mechanical way of life demanded by techno-capitalist society. The only way to fight back against the reduction of human life to the blind machinations of the marketplace is to empower imagination. As Robert Richardson, Jr. says in his biography of Emerson, “It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.” If the human soul is in fact a processual achievement and not, as was long thought, an eternal substance, then it must be made, and, once it has, can be unmade. Soul-making is a sort of theurgy; its what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years; it is the very basis of culture. When we stop ritually enacting our souls, we lose them. We become blind brains.
Maybe this all sounds very conservative to some of my readers. Maybe it is. I’ll grant that their are conceptions of human consciousness that are overblown (e.g., the medieval notion of an eternal substance, the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous free agent, etc.): our agency is restricted, our memory faulty, our grasp of the massive emotional backdrop encompassing conscious attention is severely limited. But unless we take the admittedly wavering power of our consciousness seriously enough to continue ritually invoking it, extending it, experimenting with it, then the evolutionary achievement it represents (13.8 billion years in the making), along with the adventure of civilization, will come to an abrupt end. Yes, I know, the end is inevitable in any case: the Sun will eventually explode and swallow us all. But again, from a Whiteheadian aesethical perspective, it isn’t a question of if it will all end some day, but of how it will end. My own aesthetic tastes and moral proclivities lead me away from the post-human machinic future imagined by Bakker. Its not that I see such a future as impossible; its rather that I don’t see it as a necessary or desirable future. The way we talk and theorize about ourselves has a big role to play in what we in fact become. BBT is itself a form of ritual technology. It changes us as we begin to think it, as its logic infects us. If it is true, as Isabelle Stengers’ writes in her study of Whitehead, that “no thinker thinks twice,” then we must think more carefully, lest we become other than we want to be.
…Morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral… Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history.”
-Whitehead (Modes of Thought)
Almost three years ago, Steve Ramirez (neuroscience grad student at MIT) and I exchanged a few videos and blog posts about the scientific study of consciousness (see HERE for a run down). Ramirez began and ended our brief electronic debate convinced that I, like most other philosophers he’s encountered, have developed a profound misunderstanding of how science works. In his original post back in 2010, he argued that the tools of neuroscience have become precise enough to explain consciousness without remainder by causally reducing it to intracranial neural states. Two years later, Ramirez published a fine bit of neuroscience in the journal Nature, seemingly making good on his promise. He and his colleagues’ memory re-activation experiment on lab mice has been making its way around the Internet recently and also led to this TEDx talk. It is truly an ingenious experiment that raises all kinds of interesting scientific and ethical questions regarding how such “optogenetic reactivation” technology might be used in the future on human brains (see for example this Scientific American article about the arrival of “memory engineering”).
In their paper, Ramirez et al. don’t comment on the far more difficult because more general project of explaining consciousness itself, but rather focus in on memory, one particular faculty said to be related to consciousness. They claim in their paper to have proven that activation of “specific ensembles of hippocampal neurons that contribute to a memory engram is sufficient for the recall of that memory.”
Given that we know specific memories are often stored holographically (as Karl Lashley famously showed), I can’t find a reason to assume that activation of a specific neural ensemble is even necessary for the recall of a related memory, much less that such activation is sufficient for recall. It doesn’t make sense to me to claim that a memory is simply located in this or that group of neurons when so much research has already corroborated the global distribution of memories throughout the nervous system. That the controlled activation of these neural ensembles in surgically altered lab mice with giant lasers attached to their hippocampuses should seem to cause a reactivation of previously learned behaviors in no way proves or even suggests that the mouse’s experience of said memory is somehow caused by or localized within those particular cells.
Part of it depends what we mean by “recall.” If we define recall behavioristically, as was the case in this study, then sure, I will grant Ramirez et al.’s claim. When they flip the light switch, the mouse freezes (ostensibly because its fear response is being reactivated).
If, however, we approach memory from a phenomenological as well as a neurological point of view (i.e., neurophenomenology), we will not be able to settle for a behaviorist definition of memory recall. A neurophenomenologist would be left wondering what the mouse was experiencing when the light switch was flicked on. Was its recalled memory identical to the original experience? Was it the same in some ways, but different in others? How can we say? Claiming that reactivation of a localized group of neurons is sufficient to recreate the memory said to be somehow caused by or “inscribed” on those neurons begins to seem way more speculative from the neurophenomenological perspective. We simply don’t know what the mouse’s remembered experience is like, and unfortunately we can’t ask it. Whether or not we can or should perform similar experiments on speaking animals capable of describing their experience remains to be seen. I suspect it won’t be too much longer before technology is available that is just as precise but way less invasive than that used in Ramirez’s experiment. Indeed, developing this sort of technology is one of the main goals of Obama’s government funded Brain Initiative.
But I didn’t begin this post to pick at Ramirez et al.’s experiment. It is good science, as they say. I think they’ve developed an amazing research technique that will prove to have many applications in the future (medical, commercial, political, military, etc., applications). (I can only hope these future technological applications enhance rather than undermine the spiritual freedom, aesthetic intensity, and moral depth of human existence. Based on prior technological augmentations of human cognition, I can’t say I’m all that optimistic. I am open to being surprised. Life always finds a way.)
I am writing this post not to critique his science, but to redirect his wayward philosophical interpretations of that science. In a recent post on his blog titled “Conquering All Mysteries,” Ramirez writes:
The starry heavens above and the moral law within — these were the two things that Immanuel Kant claimed were immune to scientific investigation. Equally untouchable was the vague abstraction known as consciousness. That was in the 1700s… [Nowadays] consciousness can be explained solely in terms of orderly neural activity and is fully measurable; and, morality is and ought to be understood in light of the brain states of conscious creatures. We can — and do – have a neuroscience of both, because we’re not in the 1700s anymore.
My almost instinctual response to any scientist’s aggressive attempt to explain away consciousness by causally reducing it to neurophysiological mechanisms in the skull is to fall back upon transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy is said to have begun with Kant’s critiques (of pure reason, practical reason, and judgment), all published in the last decades of the 18th century. Kant’s philosophical discovery (or invention?) of the transcendental method has made him the modern equivalent of Aristotle (who for 1500 years Islamic and Western scholars simply referred to as “the Philosopher”). But unlike with Aristotle, whose metaphysical decrees were swallowed almost without chewing by medieval European thinkers, Kant’s work repeatedly mutated as it was chewed over, swallowed, digested, and improved upon by the best scientific minds of his era. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel (and Husserl in the 20th ce.) vastly expanded the reach of transcendental philosophy. Where Kant believed he had been forced “to limit knowledge in order to make room for faith,” his three main German predecessors, each in their own way, broke open all dogmatic limits to scientific knowledge–not only to knowledge of nature, but also to knowledge of God (because as Spinoza taught us, God is Nature).
Kant didn’t exactly claim that the natural world and human consciousness were “immune to scientific investigation.” Rather, he tried to uncover the a priori conceptual and perceptual conditions under which any science of nature–whether cosmic or human nature–must necessary proceed in order to remain scientific. Kant was in a sense trying to place limits on positive science (whether it purported to produce knowledge of the cosmos, the soul, or the divine), but he was also trying to provide a firm foundation for the possibility of scientific investigation of the natural world (the world that appears to our senses and conforms to our logic). I don’t count myself as a transcendental philosopher when in conversation with other philosophers (see HERE for example), but when confronted by anti-philosophical scientific materialists, I can’t help but invoke the transcendental position. If subjective consciousness is the condition for the possibility of the experience and cognition of external objects (as transcendentalists argue), then an explanation in terms of those objects, no matter how sophisticated or complexly arrayed they may be, will always fail to explain said consciousness. What so many scientific materialists seem to neglect is that a reduction of human consciousness to the deterministic playing out of neurophysiological mechanisms is also a reduction of the scientific enterprise to a talking primate’s delusion of grandeur. If consciousness (and with it, rigorous logic and honest empiricism) is just an empty word, just a culturally acquired illusion with no causal or physical role to play, then we have no reason to take science–one of human consciousness’ greatest achievements (right up there with art, religion, and morality)–seriously. Neuroscientific reductionism (usually unknowingly) undermines its own philosophical conditions of possibility. As Hegel argued, it treats spirit as though it were a bone.
Ramirez’s approach to the brain remains at the level of what Owen Barfield called “dashboard knowledge.” Such knowledge gives us the ability to manipulate and control the brain from the outside, but tells us very little about how the brain is related to the consciousness we experience directly “in here.” For the latter, we need something like phenomenology or contemplative practice (or both, as Evan Thompson argues). Any hope we have of explaining experience (whatever that might mean…) is going to have to emerge as much from a transformation within experience (i.e., through a new first person expression of subjectivity) as from outside it by way of a new third person description of or technological intervention upon the behavior of the objective brain and body.
Ramirez claims that his hypothesis regarding the neural causes of consciousness is falsifiable. I fail to see how this is the case. He isn’t researching the brain to see if it causes consciousness. That the brain causes consciousness is a presupposition of his neuroscientific research method. If we grant that there is some kind of correlation between conscious experience and neural processes (which I am perfectly willing to do), he can’t help but confirm his hypothesis with every experiment. Ramirez’s hypothesis is blind to the difference between mind-brain correlation and brain-mind causation (as I argued in my response to him three years ago). It is no surprise that neuroscientists operating from within such a reductionistic paradigm can only confirm their own initial hypothesis. Brain-mind reductionism is more a metaphysical position than a falsifiable scientific hypothesis. Its faults and merits would be better considered in the court of philosophy. The situation today is no different than it was for Kant more than 200 years ago. There were reductionistic neurophysiologists then, too. His transcendental arguments still apply, for those who care to understand them.
Ramirez responds to the claim of a philosopher in this MIT neuroscience magazine (see p. 23) that scientific study of the brain has only shown and could only ever show mind-brain correlation rather than brain-mind causation. According to Ramirez, we philosophers “deeply misunderstand what correlation and causation really mean.” But his rebuttal entirely misses the point both the author of the magazine piece and myself are trying to make, which is not at all concerned with whether physical manipulations of the brain (using laser beams or pharmaceuticals, etc.) can alter consciousness. Obviously they can. The point is that, no matter how proficient we are at altering consciousness by manipulating the brain (i.e., “dashboard knowledge”), this tells us nothing about the causal relationship between physical brain states and subjective experience, nor does it tell us anything about the ontology of the latter. We know they must be somehow related, yes. But how? If Ramirez or any other neuroscientific reductionist has a theory for how the grey matter in the skull could generate mental experience, I’m all ears. Thus far, I’ve yet to hear of such a theory. What I hear are aggressively asserted unfalsifiable metaphysical claims masquerading as science, claims that can only be properly adjudicated philosophically.
In philosophy, there are no final solutions. No philosopher’s judgment ever goes unchallenged by another’s. Every genuine philosophical problem is therefore an infinite task. I approach the hard problem of consciousness as precisely such an infinite task. If there is an explanation for experience, it better include an injunction for erasing experience, a sort of Zen koan or psychedelic trip that opens me to the emptiness that is supposed to reside inside my “no-mind.”
Here is my original video response to Steve Ramirez three years ago:
Here are some of my reflections from several years ago on materialism:
- Is Physicalism Enough? Can Consciousness be Naturalized? – Owen Flanagan in dialogue with Evan Thompson (footnotes2plato.com)
- Neuroscientists plant false memories in the brain (web.mit.edu)
- Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Imagining Nature with Schelling and Whitehead (footnotes2plato.com)
Let’s spend some time with Alan Watts. I recommend a decent dose of sour diesel just prior to pushing play.
So then, is it true? Is the modern idea of consciousness–the so-called “me,” my “I,” the “ego”–a hallucination, a sort of muscle knot inside our forehead in sorry need of a meditative massage? Is our battle with a mechanical nature just a terrible nightmare, a dream that our true identity will soon awaken from?
Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…
Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.
Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.
Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.
Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.
1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.
Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.
2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?
We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.
3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.
4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.
As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”
I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…
Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?“, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…
In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.
In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.
Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).
- Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism (footnotes2plato.com)
Last week, I shared a few of Galen Strawson‘s ideas about panpsychism (as quoted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) on FaceBook. A very long thread began. The conversation continues at Dream the World Anew. I suggest you start there before reading further.
In this post, I want to begin situating my own particular breed of panpsychism in relation that of Strawson and a few other contemporary panpsychists. This will be more of an opening gesture to lay out what is at stake than a final word on my own position(s).
First lets listen to what Strawson has to say concerning the place of psyche in the universe:
Strawson squares off against his reductive physicalist opponents with the stance that “conscious states are themselves literally physical, just like electric charge.” I’m not sure how Strawson’s own version of panpsychism pans out, but he would appear to argue for some sort of identity theory. There are some versions of mind-brain identity theory that I would reject as either incoherent or so obvious as to be tautological. I disagree with him that consciousness just is the brain, since I understand conscious experience, like all modes of experience, to be primarily relational, which is to say it emerges between entities rather than “in” an entity. But regardless of the specific form his panpsychism takes, I think Strawson is right to argue that a genuinely realist understanding of physics entails a panpsychist ontology, broadly speaking.
Eliminative physicalists are almost always closet Cartesians in that they implicitly separate their own rational theorizing consciousness (or scientific ego) from the objective mechanical world they claim to have explained. They explain the physical universe in its entirety, except of course the part whereby it manages to get itself consciously explained. Typically, the eliminativist will claim the panpsychist has ignored scientific facts and replaced them with pre-modern superstition and animism. But the panpsychist is equally attentive to the given facts of the physical world, its just that unlike the reductive physicalist, they include the fact of attention itself in their physical explanations. Experience is understood to be a fundamental category of reality, just like the matter, energy, space, and time assumed to exist by modern science. The reductive physicalist who desires to explain away consciousness as a purposelessly evolved working out of neuroelectrochemistry not only undermines the phenomenological ground of their theoretic activity, they misunderstand what contemporary science has revealed to us about neurons, electrons, and chemicals. These entities are by no means inert or mechanistic–they are far more animated than reductionists typically let on. The known history of the physical universe is the history of the unpredictably emergent complex-adaptive intra-action of entities like electrons, chemicals, and neurons.
Let’s listen as Nicholas Humphrey responds skeptically to Strawson’s panpsychist arguments:
For Humphrey, as for Strawson (and I’d imagine most other philosophers of mind), the place of psyche is as much a matter of concern as it is a matter of fact. When it comes to consciousness, the neat separation between facts and values becomes difficult if not impossible to maintain. The study of consciousness is the study of what makes us human.
Humphrey differentiates ontologically between “physical instants” and “subjective moments”(~1:30). Now, I think Humphrey rightly singles out what is ontologically significant about experience: its temporality. But I think he is wrong to deny temporality to the entities/relations of the physical world. He is wrong not only philosophically, but physically. If we follow Planck, there can be no such thing (no quantum) of matter or energy at an instant. Even a single photon (if such a thing can be said to exist in abstraction from its environment) takes time to become what it is. At an instant, there is nothing. This is why I think its important to ally my own species of panpsychist realism with a process ontology. To understand the ubiquity of experience in the universe, we need to define experience generally enough that it no longer refers exclusively to conscious human experience. To experience, then, is to emerge from the stubborn facts of a settled past while reaching for the novel possibilities of an open-ended future. Human conscious experience grants us the capacity to scan our memories at will or to intend long-term goals, while the non-conscious experience of an atom in a protein molecule has a far less malleable relation to past facts and a far more attenuated capacity to determine its future acts.
The final reality of the physical universe, then, cannot be captured by an instantaneous configuration of externally related particles. The final reality is always in process and so as yet undetermined. The creative intra-activity of the infinite set of actual occasions composing our cosmic epoch has not yet achieved (and may never achieve) final unity.
David Chalmers is another major voice in contemporary academic philosophy of mind who takes panpsychism seriously. While he seems to prefer a dualist approach at the moment, he nonetheless construes panpsychism as a serious contender in the the search for consciousness’ proper place in the universe:
In the first video, Chalmers lists the main positions in the study of consciousness as materialism, dualism, and idealism. He seems to lump panpsychism into the third category of idealism, which is perhaps misleading since Strawson prefers to call himself a physicalist. But then in the second video, he construes panpsychism as a radical form of physicalism. There is no doubt that this sort of terminological confusion makes discussing panpsychism extremely frustrating at times. Perhaps most of the confusion is a reflection of the way panpsychism isn’t playing by the same rules as the other standard positions (materialism, dualism, or idealism).
My own species of panpsychism owes much to Alfred North Whitehead. In a subsequent post, I’ll try to unpack how his approach to the issue differs from the thinkers discussed above.
- Panpsychism and Its Emergent Discontents (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Myth of Eliminativism (footnotes2plato.com)
Wanted to share this before going to bed. Here are a few words about “the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner” from Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction Humboldt’s Gift:
It wasn’t that I minded giving information to honest scholars, or even to young people on the make, but I just then was busy, fiercely, painfully busy–personally and impersonally busy: personally, with Renata and Denise, and Murra the accountant, and the lawyers and the judge, and a multitude of emotional vexations; impersonally, participating in the life of my country and of Western Civilization and global society (a mixture of reality and figment). As editor of an important magazine, The Ark, which would probably never come out, I was always thinking of statements that must be made and truths of which the world must be reminded. The world, identified by a series of dates (1789-1914-1917-1939) and by key words (revolution, Technology, Science, and so forth), was another cause of busyness. You owed your duty to these dates and words. The whole thing was so momentous, overmastering, tragic, that in the end what I really wanted was to lie down and go to sleep. I have always had an exceptional gift for passing out. I look at snapshots taken in some of the most evil hours of mankind and I see that I have lots of hair and am appealingly youthful. I am wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit of the Thirties or Forties, smoking a pipe, standing under a tree, holding hands with a plump and pretty bimbo – and I am asleep on my feet, out cold. I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died). This is all terrifically relevant. For one thing, I may as well admit that I came back to settle in Chicago with the secret motive of writing a significant work. This lethargy of mine is related to that project–I got the idea of doing something with the chronic war between sleep and consciousness that goes on in human nature. My subject, in the final Eisenhower years, was boredom. Chicago was the ideal place in which to write my master essay on Boredom. In raw Chicago you could examine the human spirit under industrialism. If someone were to arise with a new vision of Faith, Love, and Hope, he would want to understand to whom he was offering it–he would have to understand the kind of deep suffering we call boredom. I was going to try to do with boredom what Malthus and Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill or Durkheim had done with population, wealth, or the division of labor. History and temperament had put me in a peculiar position, and I was going to turn it to advantage. I hadn’t read those great modern boredom experts, Stendhal, Kierkegaard, and Baudelaire, for nothing. Over the years I had worked a lot on this essay. The difficulty was that I kept being over come by the material, like a miner by gas fumes. I wouldn’t stop, though. I’d say to myself that even Rip van Winkle had slept for only twenty years, I had gone him at least two decades better and I was determined to make the lost time yield illumination. So I kept doing advanced mental work in Chicago, and also joined a gymnasium, playing ball with commodity brokers and gentleman-hoodlums in an effort to strengthen the powers of consciousness. Then my respected friend Durnwald mentioned, kiddingly, that the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner had much to say on the deeper aspects of sleep. Steiner’s books, which I began to read lying down, made me want to get up. He argued that between the conception of an act and its execution by the will there fell a gap of sleep. It might be brief but it was deep. For one of man’s souls was a sleep-soul. In this, human beings resembled the plants, whose whole existence is sleep. This made a very deep impression on me. The truth about sleep could only be seen from the perspective of an immortal spirit. I had never doubted that I had such a thing. But I had set this fact aside quite early. I kept it under my hat. These beliefs under your hat also press on your brain and sink you down into the vegetable realm. Even now, to a man of culture like Durnwald, I hesitated to mention the spirit. He took no stock in Steiner, of course. Durnwald was reddish, elderly but powerful, thickset and bald, a bachelor of cranky habits but a kind man. He had a peremptory blunt butting even bullying manner, but if he scolded it was because he loved me–he wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. A great scholar, one of the most learned people on earth, he was a rationalist. Not narrowly rationalistic, by any means. Nevertheless, I couldn’t talk to him about the powers of a spirit separated from a body. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had simply been joking about Steiner. I was not joking, but I didn’t want to be thought a crank. I had begun to think a lot about the immortal spirit. Still, night after night, I kept dreaming that I had become the best player in the club, a racquet demon, that my backhand shot skimmed the left wall of the court and fell dead in the corner, it had so much English on it. I dreamed that I was beating all the best players–all those skinny, hairy, speedy fellows who in reality avoided playing with me because I was a dud. I was badly disappointed by the shallow interests such dreams betrayed. Even my dreams were asleep. And what about money? Money is necessary for the protection of the sleeping. Spending drives you into wakefulness. As you purge the inner film from the eye and rise into higher consciousness, less money should be required. Under the circumstances (and it should now be clearer what I mean by circumstances: Renata, Denise, children, courts, lawyers, Wall Street, sleep, death, metaphysics, karma, the presence of the universe in us, our being present in the universe itself) I had not paused to think about Humboldt, a precious friend hid in death’s dateless night, a camerado from a former existence (almost), well-beloved but dead. I imagined at times that I might see him in the life to come, together with my mother and my father…hough I was about to leave town and had much business to attend to, I decided to suspend all practical activities for one morning. I did this to keep from cracking under strain. I had been practicing some of the meditative exercises recommended by Rudolf Steiner in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. As yet I hadn’t attained much, but then my soul was well along in years and very much stained and banged up, and I had to be patient. Characteristically, I had been trying too hard, and I remembered again that wonderful piece of advice given by a French thinker: Trouve avant de cher-cher – Valery, it was. Or maybe Picasso. There are times when the most practical thing is to lie down. …
Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death. There were even profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents–whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate. The clumsy mistakes you see in museum fossils. How could such bones crawl, walk, run? It is agony to think of the groping of the species–all this fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying, and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed. And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally of mankind, the dull life of paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages. These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this. The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought. As we approach, through technology, the phase of instantaneous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence – one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer–has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful! Socrates tried to soothe us, true enough. He said there were only two possibilities. Either the soul is immortal or, after death, things would be again as blank as they were before we were born. This is not absolutely comforting either. Anyway it was natural that theology and philosophy should take the deepest interest in this. They owe it to us not to be boring themselves. On this obligation they don’t always make good. However, Kierkegaard was not a bore. I planned to examine his contribution in my master essay. In his view the primacy of the ethical over the esthetic mode was necessary to restore the balance. But enough of that. In myself I could observe the following sources of tedium: 1) The lack of a personal connection with the external world. Earlier I noted that when I was riding through France in a train last spring I looked out of the window and thought that the veil of Maya was wearing thin. And why was this? I wasn’t seeing what was there but only what everyone sees under a common directive. By this is implied that our world-view has used up nature. The rule of this view is that I, a subject, see the phenomena, the world of objects. They, however, are not necessarily in themselves objects as modern rationality defines objects. For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for them. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it’s high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with the creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted. 2) For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever–by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or by external chaos. In a way it doesn’t give a damn. It is asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of non-caring lies upon this painfully free consciousness. It is free from attachment to beliefs and to other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of “words, words, words,” of “Denmark’s a prison.”
Maybe these sudden illuminations of mine were an effect of the metaphysical changes I was undergoing. Under the recent influence of Steiner I seldom thought of death in the horrendous old way. I wasn’t experiencing the suffocating grave or dreading an eternity of boredom, nowadays. Instead I often felt unusually light and swift-paced, as if I were on a weightless bicycle and sprinting through the star world. Occasionally I saw myself with exhilarating objectivity, literally as an object among objects in the physical universe. One day that object would cease to move and when the body collapsed the soul would simply remove itself. So, to speak again of the lawyers, I stood between them, and there we were, three naked egos, three creatures belonging to the lower grade of modern rationality and calculation. In the past the self had had garments, the garments of station, of nobility or inferiority, and each self had its carriage, its looks, wore the sheath appropriate to it. Now there were no sheaths and it was naked self with naked self burning intolerably and causing terror. I saw this now, in a fit of objectivity. It felt ecstatic.
I had no book to read, I took this opportunity to meditate briefly. The object I chose for meditation was a bush covered with roses. I often summoned up this bush, but sometimes it made its appearance independently. It was filled, it was dense, it was choked with tiny dark garnet roses and fresh healthy leaves. So for the moment I thought “rose,” “rose” and nothing else. I visualized the twigs, the roots, the harsh fuzz of the new growth hardening into spikes, plus all the botany I could remember: phloem xylem cambium chloroplasts soil sun water chemistry, attempting to project myself into the very plant and to think how its green blood produced a red flower. Ah, but new growth in rosebushes was always red before it turned green. I recalled very accurately the inset spiral order of rose petals, the whitey faint bloom over the red and the slow opening that revealed the germinating center. I concentrated all the faculties of my soul on this vision and immersed it in the flowers. Then I saw, next to these flowers, a human figure standing. The plant, said Rudolf Steiner, expressed the pure passionless laws of growth, but the human being, aiming at higher perfection, assumed a greater burden–instincts, desires, emotions. So a bush was a sleeping life. But mankind took a chance on the passions. The wager was that the higher powers of the soul could cleanse these passions. Cleansed, they could be reborn in a finer form. The red of the blood was a symbol of this cleansing process. But even if all this wasn’t so, to consider the roses always put me into a kind of bliss. After a while I contemplated something else. I visualized an old black iron Chicago lamp post from forty years back, the type with a lid like a bullfighter’s hat or a cymbal. Now it was night, there was a blizzard. I was a young boy and I watched from my bedroom window. It was a winter gale, the wind and snow banged the iron lamp, and the roses rotated under the light. Steiner recommended the contemplation of a cross wreathed with roses but for reasons of perhaps Jewish origin I preferred a lamp post. The object didn’t matter as long as you went out of the sensible world. When you got out of the sensible world, you might feel parts of the soul awakening that never had been awake before.
Whenever Thaxter and I met we had at least one intimate conversation. I spoke freely to him and let myself go. In spite of his eccentric nonsense, and my own, there was a bond between us. I was able to talk to Thaxter. At times I told myself that talking to him was as good for me as psychoanalysis. Over the years, the cost had been about the same. Thaxter could elicit what I was really thinking. A more serious learned friend like Richard Durnwald would not listen when I tried to discuss the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. “Nonsense!” he said. “Simply nonsense! I’ve looked into that.” In the learned world anthroposophy was not respectable. Durnwald dismissed the subject sharply because he wished to protect his esteem for me. But Thaxter said, “What is this Consciousness Soul, and how do you explain the theory that our bones are crystallized out of the cosmos itself?”
A lover in the lockup gave Renata a classic floozy opportunity for free behavior. Because of my habit of elevating such mean considerations to the theoretical level it will surprise no one that I started to think about the lawlessness of the unconscious and its independence from the rules of conduct. But it was only antinomian, not free. According to Steiner, true freedom lived in pure consciousness. Each microcosm had been separated from the macrocosm. In the arbitrary division between Subject and Object the world had been lost. The zero self sought diversion. It became an actor. This was the situation of the Consciousness Soul as I interpreted it. But there now passed through me a qualm of dissatisfaction with Rudolf Steiner himself. This went back to an uncomfortable passage in Kafka’s Diaries pointed out to me by my friend Durnwald, who felt that I was still capable of doing serious intellectual work and wanted to save me from anthroposophy. Kafka too had been attracted by Steiner’s visions and found the clairvoyant states he described similar to his own, feeling himself on the outer boundaries of the human. He made an appointment with Steiner at the Victoria Hotel on Jungmannstrasse. It is recorded in the Diaries that Steiner was wearing a dusty and spotted Prince Albert and that he had a terrible head cold. His nose ran and he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nostrils with his fingers while Kafka, observing this with disgust, told Steiner that he was an artist stuck in the insurance business. Health and character, he said, prevented him from following a literary career. If he added theosophy to literature and the insurance business, what would become of him? Steiner’s answer is not recorded. Kafka himself of course was crammed to the top with this same despairing fastidious mocking Consciousness Soul. Poor fellow, the way he stated his case didn’t do him much credit. The man of genius trapped in the insurance business? A very banal complaint, not really much better than a head cold. Humboldt would have agreed. We used to talk about Kafka and I knew his views. But now Kafka and Steiner and Humboldt were together in death where, presently, all the folk in Stronson’s office would join them. Reappearing, perhaps, centuries hence in a more sparkling world. It wouldn’t have to sparkle much to sparkle more than this one. Nevertheless, Kafka’s description of Steiner upset me.
the view, if you cared for views, was remarkable. I was very good myself at putting other people on to views for the purpose of absenting myself. Below, Fifth Avenue glowed with Christmas decorations and the headlights of the jammed traffic, solid between the Seventies and the Thirties, and shop illuminations, multicolored, crystalline, and like the cells in a capillary observed through a microscope, elastically changing shape, bumping and pulsatory. All this I saw in a single instant. I was like a deft girl, scooping all the jacks before the ball bounced back. It was as it had been with Renata last spring when we took the train to Chartres, “Isn’t that beautiful out there!” she had said. I looked and yes, it was indeed beautiful. No more than a glance was necessary. You saved yourself a lot of time that way. The question was what you were going to do with the minutes gained by these economies. This, I may say, was all due to the operation of what Steiner describes as the Consciousness Soul.
“Trying to keep up with your interests,” said Thaxter, “I’ve been reading your man Rudolf Steiner, and he’s fascinating. I expected something like Madame Blavatsky, but he turns out to be a very rational kind of mystic. What’s his angle on Goethe?” “Don’t start that, Thaxter,” said Renata. But I needed a serious conversation. I longed for it. “It isn’t mysticism,” I said. “Goethe simply wouldn’t stop at the boundaries drawn by the inductive method. He let his imagination pass over into objects. An artist sometimes tries to see how close he can come to being a river or a star, playing at becoming one or the other–entering into the forms of the phenomena painted or described. Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of his mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge? For Shelley, Adonais in death became part of the loveliness he had made more lovely. So according to Goethe the blue of the sky was the theory. There was a thought in blue. The blue became blue when human vision received it. A wonderful man like my late friend Humboldt was overawed by rational orthodoxy, and because he was a poet this probably cost him his life. Isn’t it enough to be a poor naked forked creature without also being a poor naked forked spirit? Must the imagination be asked to give up its own full and free connection with the universe–the universe as Goethe spoke of it? As the living garment of God? And today I found out that Humboldt really believed that human beings were supernatural beings. He too!” “There he goes,” said Renata. “What did you want to start him spouting for?” “Thought is a real constituent of being,” I tried to continue. “Charlie! Not now,” said Renata. Thaxter who was normally polite to Renata spoke stiffly to her when she barged into these higher conversations. He said, “I take a real interest in the way Charles’s mind works.” He was smoking his pipe, his mouth drawn wide and dark, under the big Western brim. “Try living with it,” said Renata. “Charlie’s kinky theorizing puts together combinations nobody else could imagine, like the way the US Congress does its business, with Immanuel Kant, Russian Gulag camps, stamp collecting, famine in India, love and sleep and death and poetry. The less said about the way his mind works, the better. But if you do have to be a guru, Charlie, go the whole distance–wear a silk gown, get a turban, grow a beard. You’d make a hell of a good-looking spiritual leader with a beard and those paisley nostrils of yours. I’d dress up with you, and we’d be a smash. The way you carry on and for free! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I think I’ve taken fifty Valiums and am hearing things.” “People of powerful intellect never are quite sure whether or not it’s all a dream.” “Well, people who don’t know whether they’re awake or dreaming don’t necessarily have that powerful intellect,” Renata answered. “My theory is that you’re punishing me with this anthroposophy. You know what I mean. That blonde runt introduced you to her dad, and since then it’s all been really spooky.” “I wish you’d finish what you started to say,” Thaxter turned again to me. “It comes to this, that the individual has no way to prove out what’s in his heart–I mean the love, the hungering for the external world, the swelling excitement over beauty for which there are no acceptable terms of knowledge. True knowledge is supposed to be a monopoly of the scientific world view. But human beings have all sorts of knowledge. They don’t have to apply for the right to love the world. But to see what goes on in this respect, take the career of someone like Von Humboldt Fleisher? “Ah, that guy again,” said Renata. “Is it true that as big-time knowledge advances poetry must drop behind, that the imaginative mode of thought belongs to the childhood of the race? A boy like Humboldt, full of heart and imagination, going to the public library and finding books, leading a charmed life bounded by lovely horizons, reading old masterpieces in which human life has its full value, filling himself with Shakespeare, where there is plenty of significant space around each human being, where words mean what they say, and looks and gestures also are entirely meaningful. Ah, that harmony and sweetness, that art! But there it ends. The significant space dwindles and disappears. The boy enters the world and learns its filthy cutthroat tricks, the enchantment stops. But is it the world that is disenchanted?” “No,” said Renata. “I know the answer to that one.” “It’s rather our minds that have allowed themselves to be convinced that there is no imaginative power to connect every individual to the creation independently.” It occurred to me suddenly that Thaxter in his home-on-the-range outfit might as well have been in church and that I was behaving like his minister. This was not a Sunday, but I was in my Palm Court pulpit. As for Renata, smiling–her dark eyes, red mouth, white teeth, smooth throat-though she interrupted and heckled during these sermons she got a kick out of the way I delivered them. I knew her theory well. Whatever was said, whatever was done, either increased or diminished erotic satisfaction, and this was her practical test for any idea. Did it produce a bigger bang? “We could have been at the Scala tonight,” she said, “and part of a brilliant audience hearing Rossini. Instead, do you know what we were doing today, Thaxter? We went out to Coney Island so Charlie could collect his inheritance from his dear dead old pal Humboldt Fleisher. It’s been Humboldt, Humboldt, Humboldt, like “Figaro, Figaro.” Humboldt’s eighty-year-old uncle gave Charlie a bunch of papers, and Charlie read ’em and wept. Well, for a month now I’ve heard nothing but Humboldt and death and sleep and metaphysics and how the poet is the arbiter of the diverse and Walt Whitman and Emerson and Plato and the World Historical Individual. Charlie is like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, covered with information. You remember that song, “You Can Learn a Lot from Lydia”?”
Now Renata was, as a biologically noble beauty, in a false category–Goya’s Maja smoking a cigar, or Wallace Stevens’ fretful Concubine who whispered “Pfui!” That is she wished to defy and outsmart the category to which she was assigned by common opinion. But with this she also collaborated. And if there is one historical assignment for us it is to break with false categories. Vacate the personae. I once suggested to her, “A woman like you can be called a dumb broad only if Being and Knowledge are entirely separate. But if Being is also a form of Knowledge, one’s own Being is one’s own accomplishment in some degree…? “Then I’m not a dumb broad after all. I can’t be, if I’m so beautiful. That’s super! You’ve always been kind to me, Charlie.” “Because I really love you, kid.” Then she wept a little because, sexually, she was not all that she was cracked up to be. She had her hang-ups. Sometimes she accused herself wildly, crying, “The truth! I’m a phony! I like it better under the table.” I told her not to exaggerate. I explained to her that the Ego had emancipated itself from the Sun and it must undergo the pain of this emancipation (steiner). The modern sexual ideology could never counteract this. Programs of uninhibited natural joy could never free us from the universal tyranny of selfbood. Flesh and blood never could live up to such billing. And so on.
…I devoted long hours to Steiner meditation and did my best to draw close to the dead. I had very strong feelings about this and could no longer neglect the possibility of communication with them. Ordinary spiritualism I dismissed. My postulate was that there was a core of the eternal in every human being. Had this been a mental or logical problem I would have dealt logically with it. However, it was no such thing. What I had to deal with was a lifelong intimation. This intimation must be either a tenacious illusion or else the truth deeplyburied. The mental respectability of good members of educated society was something I had come to despise with all my heart. I admit that I was sustained by contempt whenever the esoteric texts made me uneasy. For there were passages in Steiner that set my teeth on edge. I said to myself, this is lunacy. Then I said, this is poetry, a great vision. But I went on with it, laying out all that he told us of the life of the soul after death. Besides, did it matter what I did with myself? Elderly, heart-injured, meditating in kitchen odors, wearing Renata’s cloak in the biffy–should it concern anyone what such a person did with himself? The strangeness of life, the more you resisted it, the harder it bore down on you. The more the mind opposed the sense of strangeness, the more distortions it produced. What if, for once, one were to yield to it? Moreover I was convinced that there was nothing in the material world to account for the more delicate desires and perceptions of human beings. I concurred with the dying Bergotte in Proust’s novel. There was no basis in common experience for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And I was too queerly haughty to take stock in the respectable empiricism in which I had been educated. Too many fools subscribed to it. Besides, people were not really surprised when you spoke to them about the soul and the spirit. How odd! No one was surprised. Sophisticated people were the only ones who expressed surprise. Perhaps the fact that I had learned to stand apart from my own frailties and the absurdities of my character might mean that I was a little dead myself. This detachment was a sobering kind of experience. I thought sometimes how much it must sober the dead to pass through the bitter gates. No more eating, bleeding, breathing. Without the pride of physical existence the shocked soul would surely become more sensible. It was my understanding that the untutored dead blundered and suffered in their ignorance. In the first stages especially, the soul, passionately attached to its body, stained with earth, suddenly severed, felt cravings much as amputees feel their missing legs. The newly dead saw from end to end all that had happened to them, the whole of lamentable life. They burned with pain. The children, the dead children especially, could not leave their living but stayed invisibly close to those they loved and wept. For these children we needed rituals – something for the kids, for God’s sake! The elder dead were better prepared and came and went more wisely. The departed worked in the unconscious part of each living soul and some of our highest designs were very possibly instilled by them. The Old Testament commanded us to have no business with the dead at all and this was, the teachings said, because in its first phase, the soul entered a sphere of passionate feeling after death, of something resembling a state of blood and nerves.
“Ideas no more than Problems do not exist only in our heads but occur here and there in the production of an actual historical world” (Difference and Repetition, p. 190).
Ideas are not simply located inside the head. Nor can Ideas be entirely captured inside the grammatical form of a logical syllogism, even if that syllogism is dialectically swallowed up and digested in the course of history by an Absolute Spirit.
Ideas are not merely represented inside an individual conscious mind, they are detonated in the imaginal depths of the world itself. Exploding Ideas seed symbolic vibrations that echo along the cosmic membrane and unfold at the level of representational consciousness as a profound complicity between mind and nature. Ideas are productive of synchronicities.
“The function of Reason,” says Whitehead, “is to promote the art of life” (4). Reason thereby becomes primarily an aesthetic concern, a matter of appetition, and of the appetition of appetition with “emphasis upon novelty” (20). Reason is not simply the art of surviving, but of living well, and living better.
If some degree of life is active at every level of nature (the boundary between organic and inorganic being endlessly blurred), selective appetition–or Reason–would also then be active not only in the evolution of earth-bound plants, animals, and humans, but in the formation of the material cosmos itself.
“The material universe has contained in itself, and perhaps still contains, some mysterious impulse for its energy to run upwards,” says Whitehead (24).
What is the “upward trend,” the “counter-agency” that is already necessary to account for the genesis of those organized beings known to science as protons, electrons, molecules, stars, and galaxies? From whence comes the purposiveness of nature, the urge towards higher forms of organization despite the equally real tendency towards decay and fatigue? For Whitehead, the counter-agency to entropy is Reason. “Reason is the special embodiment in us of the disciplined counter-agency which saves the world” (34). Reason is then not only the presupposition of civilized human society and the ground of our scientific knowledge of nature, it is the creative source of the cosmic order itself.
“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms. But why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms? Why not reverse the process? … In the course of evolution why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his activities of Reason remain without influence on his bodily actions?” (15, 27).
Whitehead reverses the typical evolutionary epistemology that would attempt to explain away human consciousness and Reason by reducing them to seemingly inanimate physical and chemical processes. Instead, he attempts to understand the simplest processes of the physical universe in terms applicable to the presuppositions of civilized human life. His cosmologizing begins with what science must assume in all its investigations into nature, namely that human consciousness is capable of rational reflection upon the facts as observed. The human being is the primary instrument of all scientific investigation: we cannot separate the consciousness of the scientist or the purposeful process of his or her research from the scientific knowledge that is produced. The knowledge claimed by materialistic science that life is a mere mechanism governed by physics, chemistry, and the absolutely purposeless pressures of natural selection undermines this science’s own epistemic foundations. If unconscious Reason were not already rooted in every cosmic process, its conscious form could never have flowered in human scientists. To argue otherwise is to fall victim to blatant self-contradiction by denying in theory what no one can deny in practice. “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study,” says Whitehead (16).
- Reflections on Thomas Nagel’s mentions of Schelling and Whitehead in “Mind and Cosmos” (footnotes2plato.com)
- Vitalism in Philosophy: “The stars are the fountain veins of God.” -Böhme (footnotes2plato.com)
- Huffington Post Blogger Appears to Engage in Blatant Confirmation Bias and Scientism (rockandrollphilosopher.wordpress.com)
- Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature? (footnotes2plato.com)
- Can Reason Be Understood Naturalistically? More Notes on Nagel (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)