Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,

Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.

-William Blake

Read the engaging and wide-ranging post hereThe Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I’ve written a few posts bringing Whitehead into conversation with Nietzsche that unpack my perspective a bit regarding nihilism as a pathological transitional phase.

converted PNM file

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:

I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help From Bergson and Whitehead

Above is my talk for the Jean Gebser Society conference held at the California Institute of Integral Studies the weekend of October 16th.

Title: The Interrupted Irruption of Time: Towards an Integral Cosmology, with Help from Bergson and Whitehead

Abstract: Gebser suggests that the world-constituting reality of time first irrupted into Western consciousness with the publication in 1905 of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This was the first indication of an emerging mutation from the three-dimensional, Copernican world of the mental structure into the four-dimensional world of the integral structure. My presentation will critically examine Einstein’s role in this evolutionary initiation by situating his concept of a space-time continuum within its early 20th century context.  While Einstein’s relativity theory played a central role in the 20th century revolution in physics, revisiting the debates he was engaged in with thinkers like Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead reveal that his perception of time was still obscured by the residue of the mental structure’s spatializing tendency. As Gebser remarked, we are “compelled to become fully conscious of time—the new component—not just as a physical-geometric fourth dimension but in its full complexity” (EPO, 288, 352). During his controversial debate with Bergson in Paris in 1922, Einstein argued that the former’s understanding of time as “creative evolution” was merely the subjective fantasy of an artist, and that, as a hard-nosed scientist, he was concerned only with the real, objective time made manifest by the geometrical reasoning of relativity theory. Bergson, for his part, argued that Einstein had mistaken a particular way of measuring time (i.e., clock-time) for time itself. Whitehead’s meeting with Einstein shortly after this debate with Bergson, though not as public, was no less significant. Whitehead similarly argued that the philosophical implications of Einstein’s brilliant scientific theory must be saved from Einstein’s faulty interpretation. My presentation will review these early 20th century debates about the nature of time in light of Gebser’s prophetic announcement of the birth of a new structure of consciousness. More than a century after Einstein’s theory was published, mainstream scientific cosmology still has not fully integrated the immeasurably creative character of qualitative time. I will argue that Bergson and Whitehead’s largely neglected critiques and reconstructions of relativity theory help show the way towards the concrete realization of Gebser’s integral structure.

Bergson, Henri ; philosophe français (prix Nobel de Littérature 1927) ; Paris 18.10.1859 - 4.1.1941. Photo, v. 1928. Année de l'évènement: 1928 Année de l'oeuvre: 1928 © akg-images

gravity-works-3 whitehead

The Universe Story, and/or A Pluriverse Story?

Sideris’ article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Lisa Sideris and Mary Evelyn Tucker speak at a conference about The Journey of the Universe

Brian Swimme:

Lisa Sideris:

response to R. Scott Bakker on transcendental phenomenology and BBT

Anyone who posits some form of efficacy or constraint outside the natural order on the basis of some kind of interpretation of ‘experience’ has the same argumentative burden to discharge: How do you know? What justifies such an extraordinary (supernatural) posit?…What makes the question so pressing now is that their instrument, reflection, has finally found itself on the coroner’s table. -R. Scott Baker

There is nothing “outside” the natural order. In this sense, I am opposed to the transcendentalist’s move to remove Reason or the reflective understanding from physical reality. There is indeed a supernaturalist residue in much transcendental and phenomenological philosophy. This is why my project has always been to theorize “the natural order” as itself always already creative, aesthetic, interpretational, experiential (mine is a naturalized transcendental (Schelling’s “Nature is a priori”)). There is no “other” world from which the causal efficacy of our world derives. With our universe, the cause is internal to the effect, which is another way of saying our universe is primarily organic (with mechanism as a secondary appearance). This is why I follow Whitehead in the endeavor to construct an ontology of organism, wherein: 1) Physics is the study of the evolutionary development of particles, stars, galaxies, and other micro- and macro- organisms-in-ecologies; 2) Biology is the study of the evolutionary development of single cells, plants, and animals in their meso-cosmic ecologies; 3) Philosophy, anthropology, and theology are different aspects of the study of the evolutionary development of languages, myths, and ideas in their noetic ecologies. The organism-environment field becomes the metaphysical metaphor guiding our theorizing, rather than the machine.

Now, when I say “my project has always been to theorize…”, I should qualify that “theory” in the context of an open-ended, evolving cosmos such as ours can never pretend to certainty or finality. Theory is not the construction of a disinterested, reflective ego (at least, no valuable theory is). Theory always remains dependent on the speculative leap of some metaphor or another. Theory is imaginative construction requiring equal doses of aesthetic taste and logical clarity. Our theories are always as much science fiction as they are science fact.

I agree with Bakker than cognition of the real just isn’t possible. But we must distinguish between cognition on the one hand, and sensation, feeling, and intuition on the other. If an intuition of the real is our goal, using the reflective instrument is like shining a flashlight in search of darkness. Reflective cognition is like King Midas, turning everything it touches into noetic gold. It transforms everything not-I into food for itself, digesting the world and defecating whatever it can’t assimilate as waste. It does’t seem to me much of a stretch to say that modernity’s exclusive reliance on reflective cognition is one of the main factors leading to the ecological crisis.

Let me be clear that, while I defend transcendental phenomenology from Bakker’s eliminativist meta-critique, my own philosophical home base is process-relational ontology. I have major issues with transcendental phenomenology as a philosophical resting place. It remains too anthropocentric, too concerned with issues of human access and not attentive enough to solar nucleosynthesis, cellular mitosis, and atmospheric levels of CH4. But still, I just don’t understand how, having grasped the power of transcendental critique–as critique–one could fail to see eliminativist arguments like BBT as anything but dogmatic materialism (materialism has today become the new School Philosophy, though it pretends to be the ultimate critic of all metaphysics). Where I leave transcendentalism behind is in my pursuit of a constructive, cosmologically-rooted philosophy, something the phenomenological approach just cannot provide.


It is clear Bakker has done his philosophical homework. I don’t think it is fair of him to lump everyone into the same transcendentalist clown car, though. Phenomenology was born out of the intense debates between Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, all of whom accused Kant of not having cleared his vision of dogmatist residues. They all recognized the possibility and the fact of neglect, and even of the neglect of neglect. But for these post-Kantians (with the possible exception of Hegel), the transcendental project was an infinite one by definition, meaning there would never be a point when the a priori structures were finally reached and could be clearly and distinctly spelled out once and for all. Fichte grounded the transcendental historically in the ethical development of humankind, describing philosophy as an attempt to asymptotically approach absolute metacognition as an ideal while never in fact being able to reach it. Schelling went further and grounded the transcendental in the creative developmental arc of the cosmos itself. For Schelling (and here he converges with Whitehead), not even God knows the a priori conditions of experiential reality: the divine is just as caught in the chaotic turmoil of historical becoming as any creature is. None of these thinkers, with the possible exception of Fichte when he is sloppy, thought that impersonal natural systems could be cognized in terms of their own 1st person experience.

Here is Schelling mulling over this exact problem, for ex.:

“I could conceive of that being perhaps as something that, initially blind, struggles through every level of becoming toward consciousness, and humanity would then arise precisely at that moment, at that point in which the previously blind nature would reach self-consciousness. But this cannot be, since our self-consciousness is not at all the consciousness of that nature that permeates everything: it is just *our* consciousness and hardly encompasses within itself a science of becoming applicable to all things. This universal becoming remains just as foreign and opaque to us as if it had never had a bearing on us at all. Therefore, if this becoming has achieved any kind of purpose it is achieved only through humanity, but not for humanity; for the consciousness of humanity does not = equal the consciousness of nature” (The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 1841).

In other words, 1st person reflective ego consciousness is largely a sham. It can tell us little if anything about the unconscious natural ground from which it emerges. Of course, Schelling (like Whitehead) argued that the field of experience extends beyond mere 1st person ego consciousness. My argument with Bakker has always been: why reduce the experiential field that is open to us to 1st person ego consciousness? Most of our daily and nightly experience is not egoic! Most of the time we are flowing through other experiential states more akin to animals, plants, and even minerals. So in a sense mine is also a post-human manifesto. We have never been human, if you want.

Space and Time in an Ontology of Organism


I’m thoroughly enjoying Jimena Canales social, scientific, and philosophical history of the Einstein-Bergson debate in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate that Changed Our Understanding of Time. There are quite a few pages on Whitehead’s alternative rendering of relativity theory. There is one place (198-99) where Canales, while commenting on George Herbert Mead’s criticism of Whitehead, offers what to me reads like a distortion of Whitehead’s concept of eternal objects. It could be that Whitehead only worked out a more coherent understanding of eternal objects in Process and Reality as a result of his early exchange with Mead at Harvard in September of 1926.

IMG_6365I’ve often wondered if it makes more sense to replace Whitehead’s phrase “eternal object” with the poet Charles Olson’s suggestion of “eternal event.” The poet’s phrase may actually convey Whitehead’s concept better than Whitehead’s way of wording it. Perhaps Whitehead’s original intent was to put eternal objects in irrevocable tension with occasional subjects, such that experience always presupposed participation in both. Every event or occasion is eternally temporal, a differential repetition or concrescence of Creative Process into creaturely product.

Earlier today, Justin commented under my essay on Whitehead’s cosmological scheme titled Physics of the World-Soul. He took issue with Whiteheadian jargon and with what he thought was the “straw man” version of Einstein I spent several paragraphs critiquing. These are both valid concerns. I’d argue that the former concern is true of every significant thinker. Personally, if I don’t find a philosopher’s prose difficult to understand at first pass, I quickly become bored with the ideas. Sure, Burt Russell is often clearer and more straightforward than the “muddleheaded” Whitehead. But Russell’s demand that the depths of the world reveal themselves to him in clear and distinct ideas may in fact do violence to the chaotic heteronomy of those depths. New ideas cannot always be expressed in old words. The latter concern is something I hope to respond to more fully after I finish Canales’ book. The wider question of the relationship between space, time, and experience in an ontology of organism is one I hope to expand upon in my dissertation.

Schedule for our track at next week’s Whitehead/Ecological Civilization Conference


Click here for the conference program

Section III: Alienation from Nature, How it Arose
Track 3: Late Modernity and Its Re-Imagining (Lebus Hall, 201)

Friday, June 5
2:00 PM – 2:45 PM
Track Session #1a – Tam Hunt “Absent-minded science and the ‘deep science’ antidote”

2:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Session #1b – Christian de Quincey “A Radical Science of Consciousness”

4:00 PM – 4:45 PM
Track Session #2a – Aaron Weiss “Reduction, Process, and Praxis: Cross-Cultural Reflections on a Global Problem”

4:45 PM –  5:30 PM
Track Sessions #2b – Matt Segall “Whitehead’s Nonmodern Ontology: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse”

Saturday, June 6
11:00 AM – 11:45 AM
Track Session #3a – Adam Robert “Concept and Capacity: The Ecology of Knowledge”

11:45 AM – 12:30 PM
Track Session #3b –   Jonathan Davis “Experience, Meaning, and Revelation: Actual Occasion as Theophany”
2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Sessions #4 – Matt Segall to speak in Sec. 4, Track 6 on “Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision” (Mason Hall, 006)*

4:00 PM – 5:30 PM
Track Sessions #5 – Matt Segall to speak on panel  in Sec. 9, Track 4 track on “Weiss’s theory of NDEs and Whitehead” (Hahn Hall, 214)*

2:00 PM – 2:45 PM
Track Sessions #4a – Grant Maxwell “A Variety of General Truths about the Universe: Toward an Integrative Method”

2:45 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Sessions #4b – Josefina Burgos “From Goethe to Whitehead: A Path Toward Holistic, Ecological Monism”

4:00 PM – 4:45 PM
Track Sessions #5a – Sheri Ritchlin “Living Philosophy: The Organic Cosmos of Confucius and Whitehead”

4:45 PM – 5:30 PM
Track Sessions #5b – Elizabeth Allison “Learning from the Mountain Elders: Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a Challenge to Modernist Reductionism”

Sunday, June 7
11:00 AM – 11:45 PM
Track Sessions #6a – Sean Kelly “Towards a Gaian Planetary Consciousness after Modernity”

11:45 AM – 12:30 PM
Track Sessions #6b  – David Steinrueck “Divine In/existence: Dynamic Ethics for Planetary Transformation”

2:00 PM – 3:30 PM
Track Sessions #7 – Brian Thomas Swimme & Richard Tarnas “Radical Mythospeculation: World Soul in a Post-Einsteinian Universe, Deep History, and a Second Axial Age”

4:00 PM – 4:45 PM
Track Sessions #8a – Becca Tarnas “Whitehead and Archetypal Cosmology”

4:45 PM – 5:30 PM
Track Sessions #8b –  Wrap-up/track summary Panel discussion


*Note that these two talks are not in my track. I’ll have to leave my track on Saturday afternoon for two speaking engagements in other tracks. It’s going to be a crazy weekend, with something like 80 tracks running simultaneously. 

Minding Time: Chronos, Kairos, and Aion in an Archetypal Cosmos

Notes for a brief talk I gave today at CIIS.

[Update (June 3, 2015)] here is the video of my talk:


 “…what is time? Who can give that a brief or easy answer? Who can even form a conception of it to be put into words? Yet what do we mention more often or familiarly in our conversation than time? We must therefore know what we are talking about when we refer to it, or when we hear someone else doing so. But what, exactly, is that? I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.”

-Saint Augustine, Confessions (book 11, chapter 3) (~400CE)

One thing is for sure, whatever the ego thinks time is—whatever spell it tries to cast with its alphabetic magic to capture it—it will almost certainly miss the mark. Whatever time is, we should admit we are mostly unconscious of it. In fact, it seems to me that there is an intimate connection, perhaps even an identity, between time and the Jungian notion of the unconscious, a connection that archetypal cosmology obviously substantiates. Despite time’s unconscious depths and ineffability, I am after all a philosopher, and we love nothing more than to try to “eff” the ineffable.

In the 15 brief minutes I have with you, I want to introduce, with help from the Ancient Greek language, 3 different modalities of temporality, or rather, I want to introduce you to 3 Gods, each with a powerful hand in shaping our experience of time:  Chronos, Kairos, and Aion. In concrete experience, each mode appears to me at least to be co-present and interwoven; I only separate them abstractly to help us get a better sense for the anatomy of time. Of course, we should remember all the while that “we murder to dissect” (Wordsworth).

I therefore humbly ask for the blessing of the Gods of time as I embark on this short journey into their meanings. May you grant us entry into your mysteries.

A Brief History of (the Idea of) Time: 

1. Plato suggests in the Timaeus that time is brought forth by the rhythmic dancing of the Sun, Moon, and five other planets then known upon the stage of 12 constellations. Through the cooperative and friendly circling of these archetypal beings, eternity is permitted entry into time. Time, in other words, is said to emerge from the harmonious or regular motion of the heavens—motion regulated by mathematical harmonies. Plato’s ancient vision of a perfect cosmic order had it that the motion of the 7 known planetary spheres was in mathematical harmony with the 8th supraplanetary sphere of fixed constellations, that the ratios of their orbits added up to one complete whole, finding their unity in what has been called the Platonic or Great Year (known to us today as the 26,000 year precession of the equinoxes). This highest of the heavenly spheres was the God known to the ancients as Aion.

2. Aristotle critiqued Plato’s idea of time as produced by motion. Aristotle argued that time couldn’t possibly be produced by motion, because motion itself is something we measure using time. Motion can be fast or slow, he argued, but time always flows at the same rate. Time is simply a way of measuring change. Aristotle’s conception of time, then, is chronic, rather than aionic. His was the beginning of the scientific view of time as a merely conventional measurement, rather than a cosmic motion, as with Plato.  

3. Galileo’s view of the universe was, on the face of it, a complete rejection of Aristotle’s physics. Remember that Aristotle still held a teleological view of chronological time: an apple falls to the ground, for Aristotle, because it desires to do so, because earth is its natural home; for Galileo, nothing in the apple compels it to fall, it is simply a blind happening working according to mechanical laws. Galileo, like Newton and Descartes, rejected the idea of purposeful, meaningful time. Time became for them merely a function in a differential equation. In a sense, then, though the early scientists rejected Aristotle’s view of teleological time, they only further formalized Aristotle’s view of time as a measure of motion. Time became t, a variable quantity used to calculate the precise velocity of material bodies through space.

4. Einstein’s theory of relativity revealed how time and space are intimately related, since, strange as it may seem, as speed increases, time slows. But still, time is understood not on its own terms, but is reduced to a linear, easily measurable and quantifiable function. The reduction of time to Chronos may have begun with Aristotle, but was carried to new extremes by modern materialistic science.

5. Today we know things are quite a bit more chaotic than earlier thinkers, including Plato, let on: we live in a chaosmos, not a perfect cosmos; an open spiral not a closed circle. The orbital periods of the planets shift ever so slightly as the years pass, and the “fixed” stars are actually not fixed at all. Our universe is very strange, and measuring time is no easy matter. Even merely chronological time is extremely counter-intuitive: A day on Venus, for instance, is longer than a Venusian year.

Everything is spinning around everything else. Time is then not a moving image of eternal perfection; rather, time is what happens when divinity loses its balance and gets dizzy. But don’t worry, there is nowhere to fall over in the infinite expanses of space.

Time comes in three modalities:

Minding Time, Chronos, Kairos, Aion
1. Chronos
 (chronic time/Saturn): quantitative, homogeneous, secular time. The modern age has entirely succumbed to the rule of chronic time. Chronic time is empty, passing meaninglessly and without narrative arc. Chronic time is mere conventional measurement, a means of counting time so as to be able to use it as we see fit for our private economic or public political ends, as something to be “spent” (time is money) or “wasted” (time is a resource). Chronic time is laid out on a grid upon which unremarkable change can be plotted; it is time as materialistic physical science knows it, where the past is imagined to be no different ontologically from the present or the future (that is, there is no creativity, no teleology). Chronic time is utterly indifferent to what happens, a passive background rather than an active and interested participant. With Chronos, the temporal situation is indifferent to the subject. Chronic time is ruled by death anxiety: Chronos is the time of the ego.

2. Kairos (kaironic time/Uranus)- qualitative, heterogeneous, seasonal, archetypally informed time. Kaironic time is full of potential, such that it beckons us to participate in special moments more pregnant than others. Kairos reveals to us that there are certain times when the order of things, the cosmos, the would-soul, is attempting to persuade we human souls to participate in the unfolding of events in a particular way, times when a certain mood descends as though from heaven to characterize earthly events. Kairos allows for a “subject-situation correlation.” Kaironic time introduces novelty into the banality of linear, chronic time. It is time as “creative advance,” to use A.N. Whitehead’s phrase. It is timeliness. We might even refer to the planetary archetypes as kairoi, as principles of timeliness, rulers of the different ways eternity puts on the dress of time. When we ask, “what time is it?”, we receive an answer in chronic terms; when we ask “what kind of time is it?”, we receive an answer in kaironic terms. If Chronos is the time of the ego, Kairos is the time of the Soul.

3. Aion (aionic time/Neptune)- unbounded, sacred or eternal time. Aion is time as a moving image of eternity, as an eternal circle that, when we contemplate it, grants us eternal life. Aion is time as experienced by the archetypes themselves (rather than, as with Kaironic time, when the archetypes spill out of eternity to participate in our more mundane experience). Aionic time is a sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. Aionic time is our immeasurable movement of experiential intensification toward our unique but no less cosmic destiny. If Chronos is the time of the ego, and Kairos is the time of the Soul, Aion is the time of the Self.

Minding time means learning to participate again, to collaborate with the stars in the making of meaningful time. Without the promethean aid of astrology, the texture of time would remain invisible to our mind’s eye, its music inaudible to our heart’s ear. Astrology makes time sensible, meaningful, and moral. The archetypal astrological perspective teaches that each of us expresses our own time signature; transits make us aware of how our own psychic rhythms attune to planetary rhythms. Each of our beating hearts is a microcosmic Sun, which is to say that we are each at the center of our own mini-universe. Time doesn’t just happen to us, we help generate its meaningful passage. Only chronic time seems to happen to us, while kaironic time requires our participation. Aionic time dissolves any difference between what happens to us and what we make happen.

One practical way forward for our civilization would be to consider the difference between Conventional and Cosmological calendars: Ancient peoples tended to have calendrical systems based upon natural or cosmic rhythms (the Egyptians started their year with the periodic flooding of the Nile, for example). Modern people have introduced calendrical systems that are more mathematically regular, but bear little if any relationship to the cosmos itself (the Roman Empire introduced the Gregorian calendar, whose year begins arbitrarily on Jan 1, a date which doesn’t’ correspond to any significant cosmological or ecological event, for example). Today the modern world measures time in merely conventional terms, reducing it to a cultural construct. If we are to re-invent ourselves and bring forth a more ecological civilization, turning again to the cosmos for our sense of timing will be one of the most crucial steps.

Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

This was an early draft of a paper I presented at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. For video of the actual presentation, click HERE.


Abstract: This talk compares several approaches to the emergence of religion in human evolution. I contrast Robert Bellah’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts to Daniel Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritualized play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals)  is a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. I then argue that the history of human religious expression should count as data requiring interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” religious expression stem from an incoherent bifurcated image of nature, wherein dead matter is given explanatory priority over life and consciousness, which are relegated to the status of improbable epiphenomena. This approach, which ends up claiming that the emergence of human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident, provides the exact opposite of a proper scientific account. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible for the project of “naturalizing religion” to proceed in a non-reductionistic way. The guiding research question is no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?” 

My talk today will explore the evolutionary origins of human religion. As many post-colonial anthropologists have pointed out, “religion” is a highly contested term that cannot be unproblematically deployed as a transhistorical, universalist catch-all category. Although I’ve chosen to use the word, I agree with this problematization of a priori definitions of religion, which all too often blur our perception of the multifaceted richness of human spiritual expression by forcing it to submit to the discursive categories of modern scientific and sociological methodologies. I include the term “spirituality” here to indicate that by “religion” I don’t just mean a set of clearly articualted dogmas in which one believes with certainty, but a creative and experientially grounded orientation to the mystery of being alive. Whatever religion, and the spirituality at its core, are, they are more than can be captured by a fixed definition. They are interrelated dimensions of an ongoing cosmologically embedded activity, not simply a set of verbally professed beliefs. Like Augustine said of time, when it comes to religion and spirituality, “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.” Instead of trying to explain religion by reducing it to the favored terms of modern biology, psychology, sociology, the aim of this talk is to let it reveal itself by situating it within the long evolutionary account offered by Robert Bellah and the alternative cosmological scheme provided by Alfred North Whitehead.

Inquiring into the origins of religion—and connecting those origins to the evolutionary emergence of our species—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or objective way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. Inquiring into its nature will never be a dispassionate affair decidable by mathematical proof or experimental refutation. At the same time, human religious concerns and values are themselves matters of fact that have arisen and continue to arise in the course of cosmic evolution. As such, they require interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme.

Even the most sober-minded, materialistic scientists, whenever they offer evolutionary accounts of the origins our species, or of our universe, inevitably become myth-makers. Bellah makes this quite clear when, in the early chapters of his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution, he examines the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched the philosopher and author of The Atheists Guide to Reality (2011) Alex Rosenberg during a recent conference presentation introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).

In contrast to these scientistic thinkers engaged in what Whitehead referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away,” my own approach, building on Whitehead and Bellah, is motivated by the search for some sort of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious mythopoiea. I hope to show that the forced choice between religion and science is a false one, and that the emergence of an ecological civilization will depend upon our ability to construct a cosmological outlook that does justice to both scientific facts and religious values, and that recognizes the various ways facts and values overlap.

slide 3

Perhaps the most well-known attempt to “explain away” the phenomenon of religion is the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell (2006). He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins’ well-known and largely discredited meme theory, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the neo-Darwinian perspective, are not granted evolutionary agency, but are reduced to lumbering robots accidentally shaped by a multigenerational battle to the death with a harsh environment. So-called religious “memes” are said to spread and survive today not because people find them deeply meaningful and potentially transformative but because they have succeeded in their “competition for rehearsal space in the brain” by getting copies of themselves made. Their transmission from brain to brain, and from generation to generation, has been, as Dennett puts it, “transmission without comprehension.”[1] Now that humans have woken up to  the all-comprehending light of scientific rationality, and have come to know the universe as nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out any usefulness it may once have had and must be gotten rid of. Maybe it served our species initially as a sort of “morality prosthesis” or “nurse crop” for civilization, to use Dennett’s words again. But we are grown ups now and need to accept that existence—that of humanity and of the cosmos itself—ultimately comes to nothing. Nihil. Or so the modern scientific materialist story goes.

To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. He admits that the memetic theory he puts forward is probably wrong, but at least, he says, it gives others something to fix. Fair enough. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am sympathetic to the call for a naturalization of religion, for a scientific study of it as a phenomenon emergent from and continuous with its wider biological and cosmological contexts. But of course, it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.”

The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that Dennett’s approach to the evolutionary emergence of religion presupposes what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protests against: the bifurcation of nature.[2] For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. All seemingly intrinsic value is then explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material across the generations.

slide 4

The contrast between such reductionistic biological accounts of religion and Bellah’s and Whitehead’s more cosmological approaches could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience (a major influence on Whitehead), only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more reductionistic purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious expression must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, the cosmological.

“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).

So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine flowering of the universe we find ourselves living within: not as accidental, but as essential. Human religious experience, in other words, should count as part of the legitimate data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. To treat religion naturalistically, we need not explain it away as epiphenomenal. We can instead inquire into the cosmic conditions of its possibility. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).

Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in reality a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.

“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning.

“In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which I should point out Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also identify “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms or centers of agency? Alongside efficient causality, formal and final causality are also evident in the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny a cosmic ground to agency, purposiveness, and value, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny it in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of [humans] to the universe in which they find themselves” (Religion in the Making, 31). Following Whitehead’s reversal of the usual logic of evolutionary explanation, we can recognize the emergence of religion in human beings as evidence that something more than blind chance and inexplicably imposed physical necessity is at work—or, as we’ll see—at play in the evolution of our universe.

Bellah, like Whitehead, grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, to eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings. In contrast to Dennett’s mechanical, gene-centric view, Bellah’s is certainly an organism-oriented understanding of biology. But it is not yet a full-fledged ontology of organism like Whitehead’s. More on this later.

slide 7

Although he of course recognizes important distinctions that make humans unique among other members of the animal kingdom, even reproducing Terence Deacon’s statement that our species represents an entirely new phylum, Bellah nonetheless dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for us, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in the childhood phase longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. Bellah cites numerous ethologists who describe the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention (in a word, empathy) are the precondition for any form of sociality.

Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of mammalian play. The source of the complexification was the ramping up of empathic sociality among humans, eventuating in what Bellah (quoting Sarah Hrdy) calls “emotional modernity” (85). Homo sapien minds, due to their tendency to play ever-more intimately, have become uniquely vulnerable to possession by the power of symbolism—the power of words and images to bind us to certain political and cosmological worlds, worlds we literally create through the ritual enactment of myth. This power of symbolic binding transforms ritual play into religion. It is important in this context to admit, as Whitehead reminds us, that “we should not be obsessed by the idea of [religion’s] necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion.”[3] Despite the fact that religious symbolic consciousness was born out of our unprecedented capacity for social intimacy, once it has emerged, it has the power to detach us from one another just as readily, generating the worst kind of in-group/out-group discrimination, and, as has become more apparent in the modern, industrial era, symbolic consciousness also has the power to produce civilizational myths that are entirely detached from the ecological context of the living planet that sustains us.

What is clear is that religion grows out of the soil of collective ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in: it is something you are and do. The essential thing about religious life is not mindless, ranting about dogmatic creeds, but sincerity in its engagement with symbolic forms of ritual play. A religious symbol “[has] the effect of transforming character when [it is] sincerely held and vividly apprehended,” according to Whitehead.[4] Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the plants and animals on the earth and the shinning orbs in the sky. The human being’s religious impulse, growing out of ritual play, is to “recreate” the harmonies of these cosmic beings in symbolic form, to refashion them into myths for the guidance of our civilized societies.

Bellah’s argument draws extensively on the cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938), from which I quote at length: “Archaic society…plays as the child or animal plays…Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it…Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play…[humanity’s] consciousness that it is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).

slide ritual

Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. Further, because of the important role of play in the evolution of our species, and because it depends on shared attention/intention and basic ethical relations, it provides clear evidence contrary to Dennett’s view that organisms are just mimicry machines. “In acknowledging play,” says Huizinga, “you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter.”

“Even in the animal world,” he continues, “[play] bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable…when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings…” (Homo Ludens, 4).

Huizinga here almost slips into Whitehead’s fallacy of bifurcation by reifying the difference between mind and matter. Elsewhere he asks “would it be too absurd to assign a place [to play] outside the purely physiological?” I’d say yes, it would be absurd, or at least incoherent, to suppose the playfulness of mind-bearing organisms somehow exists separately from their physiological make-up. The physiological need not be equated with the mechanical.

Even though I’m critical of Huizinga’s slippage toward bifurcation due to his tendency to reify culture and mind as entirely “outside” of and set apart from mere “nature,” I still acknowledge and gladly inherit from him his other, underemphasized but no less profound intuition, that the efficacious reality of play in human and nonhuman lifeforms entails that we inhabit a sensitive and playful universe, not a dull, deaf, and dumb one. As we’ll see in a moment, I have similarly mixed feelings about the residue of bifurcation in Bellah’s more phenomenological approach to religion.

We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead also knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival: it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better.”[5]  If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to million year old minerals, life is deficient in survival value.

Whitehead, like Bellah and Huizinga, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play.[6] Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religion’s evolutionary emergence:

Whitehead: ritual play<>emotional evocation<>mythical belief<>rationalization

Bellah (drawing on Merlin Donald’s work on the evolution of human cognitive capacity): mimetic/ritual<>mythic<>theoretic

Both acknowledge that ritual is widespread among mammals. Early humans were no different, but because of their increasing emotional and cognitive sensitivity, began to recognize that certain emotional states, enjoyable for their own sake apart from the needs of biological survival, could be reliably reproduced through collective ritual enactment. Only later, once the capacity for symbolism had emerged, were mythic beliefs articulated in an attempt to account for the purpose of ritual practices and their attendant emotional quality. Myths then contributed through a kind of feedback loop to the intensification of the emotional qualities. Notice that the arrows in the diagram point both ways, which is meant to prevent us from thinking that the emergence of a new stage means the prior stage is forgotten or transcended. Early stages are still present with and necessary for the expression of later stages. This is true even with the final stage of rational, philosophical, or theoretical reflection upon religious rituals and myths. Religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about who one is and what one does. The fundamentalisms of our late modern age, whether atheist or creationist, tend to neglect the ritual and mythical dimensions of religious life. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the cognitive components of belief systems, which are often only the dead products excreted by a more primary, living process of cosmic participation.

Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of “work” or mere survival. Bellah’s understanding of religious experience as one among a variety of cultural realities (differing from that of science, aesthetics, politics, and so on) is drawn largely from the phenomenological approach of Clifford Geertz and Alfred Schutz. While I think this sort of approach provides a helpful critique of and alternative to more scientistic explanations, allowing us to examine religion on its own terms, because it leaves the question of the cosmological basis of religious experience unanswered if not also unasked, I believe a Whiteheadian supplement is necessary. Taking a phenomenological look at religious experience by bracketing other cultural enactments of reality risks leaving the bifurcation of nature from culture intact. Whitehead allows us to grant the validity of multiple cultural realities while also acknowledging human culture’s continuity with the rest of the cosmos. This will become clearer as I conclude this talk, but for now let’s stick with Bellah’s account of ritual play (and the religious experiences it is associated with) as transcending the everyday world of work.

The idea is not to transcend work entirely,  which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it generates, is at the historical origin and remains the existential core of our cultural lives?

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Göbekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1990s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard, technocentric account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. The existence of Göbekli Tepe suggests, instead, that these cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural mode of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society” (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued). The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

This understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary civilization, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. The contemporary world’s obsession with sports may seem like an exception, but I’d argue they are usually engaged in, not as ends in themselves, but as means for social prestige or to fulfill moral expectations of success. The question remains: Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the renewal of cycles of cosmic creativity?

Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead, inanimate collection of objects?


That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the incoherence of modern science’s bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask:

“What is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?”

This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.

Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist like Weinberg, Monod, or Rosenberg. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber (thereby potentially helping him overcome the residue of bifurcation resulting from his reliance on Geertz and Schutz’ more cultural approaches). Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”).

Building on Buber, Bellah argues that it is not at all surprising that for a “supersocial” species like us, an “I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trump the I-It relation.” He continues: “To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).

Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. This is very different from Dennett’s I-It approach, which is predicated upon the idea that the best way to study the evolution of religion is to imagine we are aliens from another planet trying to gain a view of it “from the outside,” as it were. To approach human religion from such an alienated perspective is to seriously handicap the pursuit of a naturalistic account of its evolutionary emergence. If we want an account of religion’s emergence that is immanent to cosmogenesis and avoids the undue imposition of other-worldly transcendence, then we’re going to need to study religious experience from the inside out.

“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting.”[7]

Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts, or rather, to include these values as among the facts. “We have no right,” says Whitehead, “to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.”[8] For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, to be a fact, for Whitehead, means to experientially enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman organisms, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”[9]

Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to move beyond the modern bifurcation separating nature from culture, fact from value, and mechanism from meaning. Moving beyond the bifurcation of nature to grasp the cosmological significance of religion, and the religious significance of cosmology, will require re-evaluating metaphysical assumptions that have been woven into the very fabric of the scientific worldview for hundreds of years. The originators of this worldview, the original myth-makers responsible for initiating the Scientific Revolution, conceived the universe as a machine and imagined God as its transcendent designer. Though they differ in the details, this was the imaginative background informing the thoughts of Newton, Descartes, and Kant. Nowadays, scientific materialists no longer have any need for the “God hypothesis,” but the imaginative background informing their ideas remains the same. The universe is still to be understood by analogy to a machine, only now it has become a purposeless machine. Understanding this cosmic machine requires purifying our perspective of any hint of emotion, value, or appreciation, since these merely subjective qualities can only contaminate an impartial view of reality. Whitehead ontology of organism provides us with an alternative.

“The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded,” he says in the final pages of Religion in the Making, “finds the foundations of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant [and many contemporary scientific materialists]—in the cognitive and conceptual experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order…The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” (91-92).

To draw this talk to a close, I want to draw a parallel between Whitehead’s aesthetic ontology to Huizinga’s understanding of play. Huizinga locates play within the field of aesthetics, and suggests that playing is inherently creative of order. “Play,” he says, “has a tendency to be beautiful.”[10] Huizinga goes on, in Whiteheadian fashion, to describe ritual  acts of play as cosmic happenings, as continuous with natural processes.

Would it be too absurd, following Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in favor of an aesthetic ontology, to assign a place [to play] within the evolution of the universe itself? Might we come to understand the whole of the cosmos at every level of its self-organization as an expression of divine play? Might Blake have been right, that “energy is eternal delight”? Instead of God the disincarnate transcendent designer of a clock-work universe, or a meaningless machine-world running down toward heat death, might we interpret the scientific evidence otherwise? Might it be, as Whitehead suggests, that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God” (140, 143)?   For those with an allergy to the G word, we should remember that Whitehead’s philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.”[11] The ultimate religious theme in Whitehead’s cosmology is this divine Eros, the counter-agency that saves the world from decay into irrelevance by luring organisms toward more creative forms of organization. Whitehead’s God is not a big boss in the sky who designs and determines everything, but the poet of the world, who through aesthetic sensitivity beckons all beings toward the highest beauty that is possible for them, given the limitations of their finite situation. Beauty is the teleology of the universe. This, at least, is Whitehead’s alternative cosmological interpretation of the facts and values of the history of human religious expression. Whether or not we seize this alternative vision will determine the future of our civilization, if indeed it is to have one.
Further resources:
On the ideological sources of the selfish gene approach to biological evolution:
Bruno Latour. “How to make sure Gaia is not a God of Totality, with special attention to

Toby Tyrrell’s book On Gaia.” Written for the Rio de Janeiro meeting “The Thousand Names of Gaia,” September 2014.

On the geochemical inevitability of the emergence of life on earth (life is no accident):

James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith. “The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons.” American Scientist (Volume 97), 2009.

On the importance of love in biological evolution:

Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller. Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Imprint Academic, 2009.

[1] 2010 talk at Sante Fe Institute

[2] see The Concept of Nature

[3] Religion in the Making, 3.

[4] Religion in the Making, 5.

[5] Religion in the Making, 8.

[6] Religion in the Making, 10.

[7] Religion in the Making, 128.

[8] Modes of Thought, 111.

[9] Process and Reality, 167.

[10] Homo Ludens, 15.

[11] Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343

War of the Worlds: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

Notes for an upcoming talk…

What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is,” for example, implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?

Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one.  The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we  can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. It is certain that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are effectual—they are agents, they are participants in the make up of reality. 

So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One, singular. But what if there is not one reality, but many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we are but a part.

One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality—for now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. Better to speak of a network of naturing natures than an already complete all-encompassing Nature. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) growing beyond the childhood phase, struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of the earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.

My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

My presentation will introduce a few of the consequences that follow from a genuinely pluralistic understanding of reality. I will offer a metaphysical thesis about multiple worlds, multiple natures. Not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. I want to argue that reality itself is made of perspectives, that there is no underlying unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer. Instead of a monistic or dualistic substance ontology, I will put forward a pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology.


Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for my talk), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, we are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Our Science and our Reason, so the story goes, granted us access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath cultural projections.  Buried, that is, until we came along. We sent our anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, we Westerners also have our subjective quirks, our psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only we had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside our cultural idiosyncrasies so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became our sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference: some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza.

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, tolerance no longer seems possible. We Westerners can no longer take seriously our attempts to force feed our enlightened free market democracy to the Muslim world. We no longer believe that, if only they would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. We no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our type of faces on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are irreconcilable, but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” our “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all these special activities which were supposed to make us superior by giving us access to a higher truth—we know now that they are no less constructed than what the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency. The question is, what is emerging?

Latour again: “Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)

What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but tolerance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, my very identity as a self constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”

Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and understanding of science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is bathed in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged from eternity; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of beings which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.

Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.

Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Over lord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through the each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.

New Hubble Telescope Deep Field of our Galactic neighborhood.

“I am convinced…that the story of the universe that has come out of three centuries of modern scientific work will be recognized as a supreme human achievement, the scientific enterprise’s central gift to humanity, a revelation having a status equal to that of the great religious revelations of the past” -Brian Swimme

Notes for a Sunday Evening Cosmology Salon

If you’re a San Francisco local, I’ll be speaking with a few friends at Cyprian’s Episcopal Church on Turk and Lyon this Sunday (4/27) at 7pm about community-building and the cosmopolitical importance of play in the aftermath of capitalism. Our salon-style panel discussion is part of a larger community festival in the Panhandle neighborhood.

Here is the blurb:

Cosmologies of Work and Play: Community in the Making  

Slavoj Zizek has recently suggested that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. For those aware of the seriousness of the ecological and social crises of our time, imagining the end of the world may not seem all that difficult anymore. But perhaps it is not the world, but a world that is ending. For perhaps the first time in the modern age, the anti-cosmology of global capitalism is losing its ideological grip on the collective imagination. Exploitation of the human and nonhuman earth community for the private profit of a few has now become so intense, that apologists for capitalism can no longer divert our attention from the injustices it requires. Though the crises of our time are indeed serious, re-creating a more viable world will require at least as much play as it will work. Join us for a conversation building on anarchist anthropologist David Graeber’s recently proposed “principle of ludic freedom,” which not only, as he suggests, “gives us ground to unthink the world around us,” but also provides a means of composing a more cosmologically grounded community from out of the compost of capitalism. 

And some of my notes: 

Why is cosmology relevant to community-building? Because cosmologizing is the most fundamental form of political action.

Nowadays, in our scientific age, when we think of cosmology what comes to mind are things like energy, matter, space-time, and so on. But for former pre-modern and contemporary non-modern thinkers, cosmology had/has also to do with more concrete realities, like the place of human values in the scope of the wider community of living beings on earth and in the sky. In the modern age, scientific cosmology became separated from its own ecological and political ground here on earth beneath the sky. The enchanted geocentric cosmology of the ancients was replaced by the abstract heliocentrism of mathematical physicists. This sort of modern conception of a static sun-centered universe obeying eternal laws is of course more than a century behind the discoveries of today’s scientific cosmology, with its evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and complexity theories. The problem nowadays is that physics has become so overwhelmingly mathematical that the average person has no hope of actually understanding what it is supposed to have revealed about the cosmos. Like with the medieval Church that only gave mass in Latin, contemporary science has grown too esoteric for the common person to consciously participate in. Science has come to treat the universe as though it had no fundamental connection with the presupposed values of civilized life. Science treats the universe as if the shape of the Milky Way galaxy and the rhythmic orbits of the planets overhead were entirely irrelevant to our individual and collective human experience. Though physicists have devised several stunning mathematical models that bear some resemblance to our measurements of the physical world, they have provided no functional cosmology to the human species. If we have a popular cosmology today, it is “market cosmology.” And if, as Thomas Berry suggested, a functional cosmology is synonymous with an adequate ecology (i.e., a theoretical and practical sense for how we are best to inhabit our habitat), then clearly market cosmology is dysfunctional. 


Cosmopolitics! — Let us be done with the Modern constitution that bifurcates Nature from Society, Science from Politics, Facts from Values.

Cosmologizing is an integral activity, as much artistic, as religious, as scientific (I, We, It). 

Cosmology is always in the making, a fragile process of collective world-creation; always an ongoing activity, an ever-contested endeavor whose completion is only ever intimated and never finally assured. Cosmology is fiction crafted in public, political poetry (as Shelley said, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”). 

“The creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead (Aims of Education). 

To cosmologize is to re-imagine how space and time are experientially distributed. To cosmologize is to hack the social imaginary, to reshape the imaginative background or unconscious speculative ground upon which the conscious values of a civilization are based. In the capitalist world, under “market cosmology,” space is property and time is on loan. That is to say, for most of us, time and space are made to seem scarce commodities. Our society’s cosmology divides up space into real estate and measures time as though human beings were perpetually “on the clock.” “Time is money,” as Ben Franklin put it. 

Are there any non-modern cosmological alternatives to market cosmology? Yes. Whitehead for one. 

“We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity.” -Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

For Whitehead, philosophy begins in wonder. Wonder is the vague feeling we all have all the time that hovers just beyond the horizon of workaday consciousness—the intuition of being embedded within the grand adventure of a larger universe. Wonder is the all-pervasive (and so largely taken for granted) sense we have of the wholeness and the totality of things which embraces us. Wonder is the sublime feeling of being awash in the value-experience of other living creatures, astonished by the insistence of their existence, the way they press in upon us and demand our care and attention. Philosophy is the attempt to respond to this equal parts erotic and eristic experience of the values of the universe streaming in to us from every direction. Philosophy is the attempt to become faithful to the earth and to the sky, to become responsible for the way our humanity joins in their ancient cosmic procession.

How are we going to re-imagine lived space and lived time after the spatiotemporal matrix of global capitalism dissolves? We must run experiments >>