I posted this on FaceBook in a thread about humanities departments needing to get over Aristotle’s biology and was told to stop spamming, so I suppose I’d better just post it here instead.
If contemporary biology is going to throw out “purpose” and “essence” as concepts, it needs to throw out correlate concepts like “accident,” as well. I’d want to affirm that individual organisms were not planned in advance by God’s envisionment of the eternal forms as divided into a particular array of genera and species. By definition, a unique individual exists in excess of any abstract universal, whether at the special or general level in the chain of being. Even if there is such a Platonic God envisioning eternal objects, this envisionment could not determine the playing out of cosmic evolution. If time is truly evolutive–if it is a creative advance and not just a collision of particles–then even an all-knowing, all-powerful Laplacian God could not have known in advance (on “the first day”) what the physical universe would become in the last (today). We can’t think the realities of earth and sky in Aristotle’s terms anymore. No more purposes or essences determining species, but no more “accidents” or “mutations” determining them, either.
Organisms are negentropically powered homeodynamic systems that emerge, transform, and go extinct in the course of historical time. They live only by surfing thermodynamic gradients in their local environments. When these physical energy currents shift courses, organisms can either adapt or die. But so long as organisms meet the minimal entropic requirements of their energy environment, they are ‘free’ to evolve creatively. They can drift and are not simply shaped by pre-existing niches. Niches emerge alongside the creative decisions of organisms and are the not one-way causes of speciation. Random mutation and natural selection alone cannot account for the current or future biosphere (as Stu Kauffman is fond of repeating in ever-more convincing terms: http://www.necsi.edu/video/kauffman.html).
This doesn’t mean organisms are pre-programed by eternal forms, this means there is a non-random, non-programed “creative” aspect to the evolution of life. So gone are the ancient concepts of Creator and creature, Mind and matter, Essence and accident, Purpose and perversion, etc. What we need now are mediating concepts like Creativity, Imagination, Emergence, Expression, etc.
Wanted to share this before going to bed. Here are a few words about “the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner” from Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction Humboldt’s Gift:
It wasn’t that I minded giving information to honest scholars, or even to young people on the make, but I just then was busy, fiercely, painfully busy–personally and impersonally busy: personally, with Renata and Denise, and Murra the accountant, and the lawyers and the judge, and a multitude of emotional vexations; impersonally, participating in the life of my country and of Western Civilization and global society (a mixture of reality and figment). As editor of an important magazine, The Ark, which would probably never come out, I was always thinking of statements that must be made and truths of which the world must be reminded. The world, identified by a series of dates (1789-1914-1917-1939) and by key words (revolution, Technology, Science, and so forth), was another cause of busyness. You owed your duty to these dates and words. The whole thing was so momentous, overmastering, tragic, that in the end what I really wanted was to lie down and go to sleep. I have always had an exceptional gift for passing out. I look at snapshots taken in some of the most evil hours of mankind and I see that I have lots of hair and am appealingly youthful. I am wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit of the Thirties or Forties, smoking a pipe, standing under a tree, holding hands with a plump and pretty bimbo – and I am asleep on my feet, out cold. I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died). This is all terrifically relevant. For one thing, I may as well admit that I came back to settle in Chicago with the secret motive of writing a significant work. This lethargy of mine is related to that project–I got the idea of doing something with the chronic war between sleep and consciousness that goes on in human nature. My subject, in the final Eisenhower years, was boredom. Chicago was the ideal place in which to write my master essay on Boredom. In raw Chicago you could examine the human spirit under industrialism. If someone were to arise with a new vision of Faith, Love, and Hope, he would want to understand to whom he was offering it–he would have to understand the kind of deep suffering we call boredom. I was going to try to do with boredom what Malthus and Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill or Durkheim had done with population, wealth, or the division of labor. History and temperament had put me in a peculiar position, and I was going to turn it to advantage. I hadn’t read those great modern boredom experts, Stendhal, Kierkegaard, and Baudelaire, for nothing. Over the years I had worked a lot on this essay. The difficulty was that I kept being over come by the material, like a miner by gas fumes. I wouldn’t stop, though. I’d say to myself that even Rip van Winkle had slept for only twenty years, I had gone him at least two decades better and I was determined to make the lost time yield illumination. So I kept doing advanced mental work in Chicago, and also joined a gymnasium, playing ball with commodity brokers and gentleman-hoodlums in an effort to strengthen the powers of consciousness. Then my respected friend Durnwald mentioned, kiddingly, that the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner had much to say on the deeper aspects of sleep. Steiner’s books, which I began to read lying down, made me want to get up. He argued that between the conception of an act and its execution by the will there fell a gap of sleep. It might be brief but it was deep. For one of man’s souls was a sleep-soul. In this, human beings resembled the plants, whose whole existence is sleep. This made a very deep impression on me. The truth about sleep could only be seen from the perspective of an immortal spirit. I had never doubted that I had such a thing. But I had set this fact aside quite early. I kept it under my hat. These beliefs under your hat also press on your brain and sink you down into the vegetable realm. Even now, to a man of culture like Durnwald, I hesitated to mention the spirit. He took no stock in Steiner, of course. Durnwald was reddish, elderly but powerful, thickset and bald, a bachelor of cranky habits but a kind man. He had a peremptory blunt butting even bullying manner, but if he scolded it was because he loved me–he wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. A great scholar, one of the most learned people on earth, he was a rationalist. Not narrowly rationalistic, by any means. Nevertheless, I couldn’t talk to him about the powers of a spirit separated from a body. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had simply been joking about Steiner. I was not joking, but I didn’t want to be thought a crank. I had begun to think a lot about the immortal spirit. Still, night after night, I kept dreaming that I had become the best player in the club, a racquet demon, that my backhand shot skimmed the left wall of the court and fell dead in the corner, it had so much English on it. I dreamed that I was beating all the best players–all those skinny, hairy, speedy fellows who in reality avoided playing with me because I was a dud. I was badly disappointed by the shallow interests such dreams betrayed. Even my dreams were asleep. And what about money? Money is necessary for the protection of the sleeping. Spending drives you into wakefulness. As you purge the inner film from the eye and rise into higher consciousness, less money should be required. Under the circumstances (and it should now be clearer what I mean by circumstances: Renata, Denise, children, courts, lawyers, Wall Street, sleep, death, metaphysics, karma, the presence of the universe in us, our being present in the universe itself) I had not paused to think about Humboldt, a precious friend hid in death’s dateless night, a camerado from a former existence (almost), well-beloved but dead. I imagined at times that I might see him in the life to come, together with my mother and my father…hough I was about to leave town and had much business to attend to, I decided to suspend all practical activities for one morning. I did this to keep from cracking under strain. I had been practicing some of the meditative exercises recommended by Rudolf Steiner in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. As yet I hadn’t attained much, but then my soul was well along in years and very much stained and banged up, and I had to be patient. Characteristically, I had been trying too hard, and I remembered again that wonderful piece of advice given by a French thinker: Trouve avant de cher-cher – Valery, it was. Or maybe Picasso. There are times when the most practical thing is to lie down. …
Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death. There were even profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience. All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents–whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate. The clumsy mistakes you see in museum fossils. How could such bones crawl, walk, run? It is agony to think of the groping of the species–all this fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying, and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed. And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally of mankind, the dull life of paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages. These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this. The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought. As we approach, through technology, the phase of instantaneous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence – one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer–has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful! Socrates tried to soothe us, true enough. He said there were only two possibilities. Either the soul is immortal or, after death, things would be again as blank as they were before we were born. This is not absolutely comforting either. Anyway it was natural that theology and philosophy should take the deepest interest in this. They owe it to us not to be boring themselves. On this obligation they don’t always make good. However, Kierkegaard was not a bore. I planned to examine his contribution in my master essay. In his view the primacy of the ethical over the esthetic mode was necessary to restore the balance. But enough of that. In myself I could observe the following sources of tedium: 1) The lack of a personal connection with the external world. Earlier I noted that when I was riding through France in a train last spring I looked out of the window and thought that the veil of Maya was wearing thin. And why was this? I wasn’t seeing what was there but only what everyone sees under a common directive. By this is implied that our world-view has used up nature. The rule of this view is that I, a subject, see the phenomena, the world of objects. They, however, are not necessarily in themselves objects as modern rationality defines objects. For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for them. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it’s high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with the creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted. 2) For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever–by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or by external chaos. In a way it doesn’t give a damn. It is asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of non-caring lies upon this painfully free consciousness. It is free from attachment to beliefs and to other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of “words, words, words,” of “Denmark’s a prison.”
Maybe these sudden illuminations of mine were an effect of the metaphysical changes I was undergoing. Under the recent influence of Steiner I seldom thought of death in the horrendous old way. I wasn’t experiencing the suffocating grave or dreading an eternity of boredom, nowadays. Instead I often felt unusually light and swift-paced, as if I were on a weightless bicycle and sprinting through the star world. Occasionally I saw myself with exhilarating objectivity, literally as an object among objects in the physical universe. One day that object would cease to move and when the body collapsed the soul would simply remove itself. So, to speak again of the lawyers, I stood between them, and there we were, three naked egos, three creatures belonging to the lower grade of modern rationality and calculation. In the past the self had had garments, the garments of station, of nobility or inferiority, and each self had its carriage, its looks, wore the sheath appropriate to it. Now there were no sheaths and it was naked self with naked self burning intolerably and causing terror. I saw this now, in a fit of objectivity. It felt ecstatic.
I had no book to read, I took this opportunity to meditate briefly. The object I chose for meditation was a bush covered with roses. I often summoned up this bush, but sometimes it made its appearance independently. It was filled, it was dense, it was choked with tiny dark garnet roses and fresh healthy leaves. So for the moment I thought “rose,” “rose” and nothing else. I visualized the twigs, the roots, the harsh fuzz of the new growth hardening into spikes, plus all the botany I could remember: phloem xylem cambium chloroplasts soil sun water chemistry, attempting to project myself into the very plant and to think how its green blood produced a red flower. Ah, but new growth in rosebushes was always red before it turned green. I recalled very accurately the inset spiral order of rose petals, the whitey faint bloom over the red and the slow opening that revealed the germinating center. I concentrated all the faculties of my soul on this vision and immersed it in the flowers. Then I saw, next to these flowers, a human figure standing. The plant, said Rudolf Steiner, expressed the pure passionless laws of growth, but the human being, aiming at higher perfection, assumed a greater burden–instincts, desires, emotions. So a bush was a sleeping life. But mankind took a chance on the passions. The wager was that the higher powers of the soul could cleanse these passions. Cleansed, they could be reborn in a finer form. The red of the blood was a symbol of this cleansing process. But even if all this wasn’t so, to consider the roses always put me into a kind of bliss. After a while I contemplated something else. I visualized an old black iron Chicago lamp post from forty years back, the type with a lid like a bullfighter’s hat or a cymbal. Now it was night, there was a blizzard. I was a young boy and I watched from my bedroom window. It was a winter gale, the wind and snow banged the iron lamp, and the roses rotated under the light. Steiner recommended the contemplation of a cross wreathed with roses but for reasons of perhaps Jewish origin I preferred a lamp post. The object didn’t matter as long as you went out of the sensible world. When you got out of the sensible world, you might feel parts of the soul awakening that never had been awake before.
Whenever Thaxter and I met we had at least one intimate conversation. I spoke freely to him and let myself go. In spite of his eccentric nonsense, and my own, there was a bond between us. I was able to talk to Thaxter. At times I told myself that talking to him was as good for me as psychoanalysis. Over the years, the cost had been about the same. Thaxter could elicit what I was really thinking. A more serious learned friend like Richard Durnwald would not listen when I tried to discuss the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. ”Nonsense!” he said. “Simply nonsense! I’ve looked into that.” In the learned world anthroposophy was not respectable. Durnwald dismissed the subject sharply because he wished to protect his esteem for me. But Thaxter said, “What is this Consciousness Soul, and how do you explain the theory that our bones are crystallized out of the cosmos itself?”
A lover in the lockup gave Renata a classic floozy opportunity for free behavior. Because of my habit of elevating such mean considerations to the theoretical level it will surprise no one that I started to think about the lawlessness of the unconscious and its independence from the rules of conduct. But it was only antinomian, not free. According to Steiner, true freedom lived in pure consciousness. Each microcosm had been separated from the macrocosm. In the arbitrary division between Subject and Object the world had been lost. The zero self sought diversion. It became an actor. This was the situation of the Consciousness Soul as I interpreted it. But there now passed through me a qualm of dissatisfaction with Rudolf Steiner himself. This went back to an uncomfortable passage in Kafka’s Diaries pointed out to me by my friend Durnwald, who felt that I was still capable of doing serious intellectual work and wanted to save me from anthroposophy. Kafka too had been attracted by Steiner’s visions and found the clairvoyant states he described similar to his own, feeling himself on the outer boundaries of the human. He made an appointment with Steiner at the Victoria Hotel on Jungmannstrasse. It is recorded in the Diaries that Steiner was wearing a dusty and spotted Prince Albert and that he had a terrible head cold. His nose ran and he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nostrils with his fingers while Kafka, observing this with disgust, told Steiner that he was an artist stuck in the insurance business. Health and character, he said, prevented him from following a literary career. If he added theosophy to literature and the insurance business, what would become of him? Steiner’s answer is not recorded. Kafka himself of course was crammed to the top with this same despairing fastidious mocking Consciousness Soul. Poor fellow, the way he stated his case didn’t do him much credit. The man of genius trapped in the insurance business? A very banal complaint, not really much better than a head cold. Humboldt would have agreed. We used to talk about Kafka and I knew his views. But now Kafka and Steiner and Humboldt were together in death where, presently, all the folk in Stronson’s office would join them. Reappearing, perhaps, centuries hence in a more sparkling world. It wouldn’t have to sparkle much to sparkle more than this one. Nevertheless, Kafka’s description of Steiner upset me.
the view, if you cared for views, was remarkable. I was very good myself at putting other people on to views for the purpose of absenting myself. Below, Fifth Avenue glowed with Christmas decorations and the headlights of the jammed traffic, solid between the Seventies and the Thirties, and shop illuminations, multicolored, crystalline, and like the cells in a capillary observed through a microscope, elastically changing shape, bumping and pulsatory. All this I saw in a single instant. I was like a deft girl, scooping all the jacks before the ball bounced back. It was as it had been with Renata last spring when we took the train to Chartres, “Isn’t that beautiful out there!” she had said. I looked and yes, it was indeed beautiful. No more than a glance was necessary. You saved yourself a lot of time that way. The question was what you were going to do with the minutes gained by these economies. This, I may say, was all due to the operation of what Steiner describes as the Consciousness Soul.
“Trying to keep up with your interests,” said Thaxter, “I’ve been reading your man Rudolf Steiner, and he’s fascinating. I expected something like Madame Blavatsky, but he turns out to be a very rational kind of mystic. What’s his angle on Goethe?” ”Don’t start that, Thaxter,” said Renata. But I needed a serious conversation. I longed for it. “It isn’t mysticism,” I said. “Goethe simply wouldn’t stop at the boundaries drawn by the inductive method. He let his imagination pass over into objects. An artist sometimes tries to see how close he can come to being a river or a star, playing at becoming one or the other–entering into the forms of the phenomena painted or described. Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of his mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge? For Shelley, Adonais in death became part of the loveliness he had made more lovely. So according to Goethe the blue of the sky was the theory. There was a thought in blue. The blue became blue when human vision received it. A wonderful man like my late friend Humboldt was overawed by rational orthodoxy, and because he was a poet this probably cost him his life. Isn’t it enough to be a poor naked forked creature without also being a poor naked forked spirit? Must the imagination be asked to give up its own full and free connection with the universe–the universe as Goethe spoke of it? As the living garment of God? And today I found out that Humboldt really believed that human beings were supernatural beings. He too!” ”There he goes,” said Renata. “What did you want to start him spouting for?” ”Thought is a real constituent of being,” I tried to continue. ”Charlie! Not now,” said Renata. Thaxter who was normally polite to Renata spoke stiffly to her when she barged into these higher conversations. He said, “I take a real interest in the way Charles’s mind works.” He was smoking his pipe, his mouth drawn wide and dark, under the big Western brim. ”Try living with it,” said Renata. “Charlie’s kinky theorizing puts together combinations nobody else could imagine, like the way the US Congress does its business, with Immanuel Kant, Russian Gulag camps, stamp collecting, famine in India, love and sleep and death and poetry. The less said about the way his mind works, the better. But if you do have to be a guru, Charlie, go the whole distance–wear a silk gown, get a turban, grow a beard. You’d make a hell of a good-looking spiritual leader with a beard and those paisley nostrils of yours. I’d dress up with you, and we’d be a smash. The way you carry on and for free! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I think I’ve taken fifty Valiums and am hearing things.” ”People of powerful intellect never are quite sure whether or not it’s all a dream.” ”Well, people who don’t know whether they’re awake or dreaming don’t necessarily have that powerful intellect,” Renata answered. “My theory is that you’re punishing me with this anthroposophy. You know what I mean. That blonde runt introduced you to her dad, and since then it’s all been really spooky.” ”I wish you’d finish what you started to say,” Thaxter turned again to me. ”It comes to this, that the individual has no way to prove out what’s in his heart–I mean the love, the hungering for the external world, the swelling excitement over beauty for which there are no acceptable terms of knowledge. True knowledge is supposed to be a monopoly of the scientific world view. But human beings have all sorts of knowledge. They don’t have to apply for the right to love the world. But to see what goes on in this respect, take the career of someone like Von Humboldt Fleisher? ”Ah, that guy again,” said Renata. ”Is it true that as big-time knowledge advances poetry must drop behind, that the imaginative mode of thought belongs to the childhood of the race? A boy like Humboldt, full of heart and imagination, going to the public library and finding books, leading a charmed life bounded by lovely horizons, reading old masterpieces in which human life has its full value, filling himself with Shakespeare, where there is plenty of significant space around each human being, where words mean what they say, and looks and gestures also are entirely meaningful. Ah, that harmony and sweetness, that art! But there it ends. The significant space dwindles and disappears. The boy enters the world and learns its filthy cutthroat tricks, the enchantment stops. But is it the world that is disenchanted?” ”No,” said Renata. “I know the answer to that one.” ”It’s rather our minds that have allowed themselves to be convinced that there is no imaginative power to connect every individual to the creation independently.” It occurred to me suddenly that Thaxter in his home-on-the-range outfit might as well have been in church and that I was behaving like his minister. This was not a Sunday, but I was in my Palm Court pulpit. As for Renata, smiling–her dark eyes, red mouth, white teeth, smooth throat-though she interrupted and heckled during these sermons she got a kick out of the way I delivered them. I knew her theory well. Whatever was said, whatever was done, either increased or diminished erotic satisfaction, and this was her practical test for any idea. Did it produce a bigger bang? “We could have been at the Scala tonight,” she said, “and part of a brilliant audience hearing Rossini. Instead, do you know what we were doing today, Thaxter? We went out to Coney Island so Charlie could collect his inheritance from his dear dead old pal Humboldt Fleisher. It’s been Humboldt, Humboldt, Humboldt, like “Figaro, Figaro.” Humboldt’s eighty-year-old uncle gave Charlie a bunch of papers, and Charlie read ‘em and wept. Well, for a month now I’ve heard nothing but Humboldt and death and sleep and metaphysics and how the poet is the arbiter of the diverse and Walt Whitman and Emerson and Plato and the World Historical Individual. Charlie is like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, covered with information. You remember that song, “You Can Learn a Lot from Lydia”?”
Now Renata was, as a biologically noble beauty, in a false category–Goya’s Maja smoking a cigar, or Wallace Stevens’ fretful Concubine who whispered “Pfui!” That is she wished to defy and outsmart the category to which she was assigned by common opinion. But with this she also collaborated. And if there is one historical assignment for us it is to break with false categories. Vacate the personae. I once suggested to her, “A woman like you can be called a dumb broad only if Being and Knowledge are entirely separate. But if Being is also a form of Knowledge, one’s own Being is one’s own accomplishment in some degree…? ”Then I’m not a dumb broad after all. I can’t be, if I’m so beautiful. That’s super! You’ve always been kind to me, Charlie.” ”Because I really love you, kid.” Then she wept a little because, sexually, she was not all that she was cracked up to be. She had her hang-ups. Sometimes she accused herself wildly, crying, “The truth! I’m a phony! I like it better under the table.” I told her not to exaggerate. I explained to her that the Ego had emancipated itself from the Sun and it must undergo the pain of this emancipation (steiner). The modern sexual ideology could never counteract this. Programs of uninhibited natural joy could never free us from the universal tyranny of selfbood. Flesh and blood never could live up to such billing. And so on.
…I devoted long hours to Steiner meditation and did my best to draw close to the dead. I had very strong feelings about this and could no longer neglect the possibility of communication with them. Ordinary spiritualism I dismissed. My postulate was that there was a core of the eternal in every human being. Had this been a mental or logical problem I would have dealt logically with it. However, it was no such thing. What I had to deal with was a lifelong intimation. This intimation must be either a tenacious illusion or else the truth deeplyburied. The mental respectability of good members of educated society was something I had come to despise with all my heart. I admit that I was sustained by contempt whenever the esoteric texts made me uneasy. For there were passages in Steiner that set my teeth on edge. I said to myself, this is lunacy. Then I said, this is poetry, a great vision. But I went on with it, laying out all that he told us of the life of the soul after death. Besides, did it matter what I did with myself? Elderly, heart-injured, meditating in kitchen odors, wearing Renata’s cloak in the biffy–should it concern anyone what such a person did with himself? The strangeness of life, the more you resisted it, the harder it bore down on you. The more the mind opposed the sense of strangeness, the more distortions it produced. What if, for once, one were to yield to it? Moreover I was convinced that there was nothing in the material world to account for the more delicate desires and perceptions of human beings. I concurred with the dying Bergotte in Proust’s novel. There was no basis in common experience for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And I was too queerly haughty to take stock in the respectable empiricism in which I had been educated. Too many fools subscribed to it. Besides, people were not really surprised when you spoke to them about the soul and the spirit. How odd! No one was surprised. Sophisticated people were the only ones who expressed surprise. Perhaps the fact that I had learned to stand apart from my own frailties and the absurdities of my character might mean that I was a little dead myself. This detachment was a sobering kind of experience. I thought sometimes how much it must sober the dead to pass through the bitter gates. No more eating, bleeding, breathing. Without the pride of physical existence the shocked soul would surely become more sensible. It was my understanding that the untutored dead blundered and suffered in their ignorance. In the first stages especially, the soul, passionately attached to its body, stained with earth, suddenly severed, felt cravings much as amputees feel their missing legs. The newly dead saw from end to end all that had happened to them, the whole of lamentable life. They burned with pain. The children, the dead children especially, could not leave their living but stayed invisibly close to those they loved and wept. For these children we needed rituals – something for the kids, for God’s sake! The elder dead were better prepared and came and went more wisely. The departed worked in the unconscious part of each living soul and some of our highest designs were very possibly instilled by them. The Old Testament commanded us to have no business with the dead at all and this was, the teachings said, because in its first phase, the soul entered a sphere of passionate feeling after death, of something resembling a state of blood and nerves.
I linked to Cain’s essay on Darwin in my last post on his theory of the psychedelic origins of religion. I wanted to comment on what he tries to do in the Darwin essay. His claim is that, post-Darwin, the old distinction between life and matter no longer holds; therefore, we are all more like undead zombies than living creatures. He even goes so far as to argue that Nature in its entirety must be some kind of Super Zombie.
What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural spirit. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features–its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains–as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next so that their distant ancestors migrate and occupy other niches, becoming more complex and specialized in the process.
I wonder what Cain makes of Kant’s argument in the Critique of Judgment (sec. 75) about the impossibility of explaining living organization according to mechanical causes alone. He (famously or infamously, depending on your philosophical persuasion) claimed that natural science could never understand how even a mere blade of grass grew–that there could never be “a Newton of the grass blade.” Darwin, of course, has been championed by many biologists as precisely such a “Newton of the grass blade.” Many of a more scientistic persuasion have argued that, after Darwin, natural science definitively surpassed philosophy as the superior (if not the only genuine) mode of knowledge production.
Were Kant still alive, I imagine he would dismiss the triumphant claim of scientistic biologists to have explained life mechanistically as but a transcendental illusion. This despite all that has been learned since Darwin about biochemistry and genetics. Organisms display a form of circular causality that is not applicable to machines: in the case of organisms, the cause and the effect are both internal to the organism in question, whereas a machine’s cause is external to its effects. I’ve argued on many occasions that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has more in common with William Paley’s argument from design than most modern biologists are willing to let on. Both Paley and Darwin understood organisms to be machines assembled by an outside “agent”; Paley believed the agent was God, while Darwin showed how Nature could do the same job (at least when analogized to human selection). But Darwin never claimed his theory could explain how organisms themselves were possible. The last paragraph of The Origin of Species defers to a Creator to account for how life may have been originally breathed into the first organism/s. His theory offers an account of organic speciation, not origination. Which is to say that he had to assume the existence of biological individuals for Nature to do the selective work he showed it could.
Post-Kantian thinkers like Goethe and Schelling took Kant’s transcendental claims about organisms to the next level by attempting to articulate how self-organization could be intrinsic to the universe (Kant had only shown that the human mind could not know how organisms were possible in the absence of self-organization, not that such organization was necessarily intrinsic to Nature). Alfred North Whitehead also developed an organic conception of the universe. Cain’s argument in favor of a zombie universe is one possible direction to take after Darwin’s erasure of the life/matter dichotomy. The other direction would be to accept something like Whitehead’s panexperientialism, whereby material bodies at every level of organization (from the atomic to the astral and galactic) are in some sense “alive.” I argued as much in my essay on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
See below for more in depth arguments about this topic…
- Evan Thompson on Autopoiesis and Enactivism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Schelling, Darwin, and the Romantic Conception of Life (footnotes2plato.com)
- Fragments of a Romantic Theory of Evolution (footnotes2plato.com)
- Purpose in Living Systems (footnotes2plato.com)
Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature
“[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” -Whitehead188
Epperson argues that Whitehead’s account of the process of concrescence, the centerpiece of his metaphysical scheme, provides “an extremely precise, phase-by-phase exemplification” of contemporary “decoherence-based interpretations” of quantum mechanics.189 Unlike the instrumentalist interpretations that have spun off Niels Bohr’s account of quantum effects in terms of epistemological “complementarity,” quantum decoherence offers a fully fledged ontological description of quantum reality.190 Further, unlike Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, the decoherence-based approach provides a more ontologically parsimonious, not to mention less empirically question begging, account of the unfolding of the physical universe. And finally, unlike the quantum cosmogonies offered by Hawking and Krauss, which purport to explain the random emergence of the actual universe ex nihilo from the sheer potentiality of the “quantum void,” decoherence-based interpretations avoid the logical incoherence of having to posit a realm of pure potentiality utterly independent of, and somehow responsible for generating, concrete actuality.191 Whitehead, as discussed earlier, also describes something akin to the “quantum void,” or “vacuum,” from which all potency is ceaselessly born: Creativity. But, in order to maintain the coherence of the fundamental categories of his metaphysical scheme (such that all ideas require one another for their meaning), the sheer potentiality of Creativity is said always to be conditioned by at least one actual creature.192 The primordial creature of Creativity is God. Subsequently to God, Creativity also comes to be conditioned by the passage into objective immortality of finite actual occasions.193 Potentiality, in other words, has never been untouched by actuality.
The decoherence interpretation of quantum mechanics, like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, presupposes the givenness of facts, rather than trying to offer some arbitrary ex nihilo explanation of their spontaneous appearance. According to Epperson,
…actuality is necessarily presupposed by…potentiality, such that the latter cannot be abstracted from the former. This is both a logical requirement and a requirement of quantum mechanics, which describes the evolution of actual facts and their associated potentia–not the evolution of vacuous potentia into actuality.194
In other words, quantum mechanical descriptions presuppose actuality, and so cannot explain its emergence by reference only to potentiality. Nonetheless, potentiality does have a significant role to play in both decoherence-based and Whiteheadian accounts of the evolution of the universe. In 1958, probably independently of Whitehead’s earlier re-incorporation, Werner Heisenberg argued that quantum effects demanded that something like Aristotle’s concept of “potentia” be brought back into the philosophy of nature.195 The decoherence interpretation describes the way a quantum event, or wave-function, first arises from the actualized facts of the past, evaluates the potentia relevant to its situation, and finally selects among those potentia to bring about the collapse of its wave-function, thereby realizing some novel actual fact.196 It is a process of “evolutions from actuality to potentiality to actuality.”197 In Whitehead’s terms, the concrescence of an actual occasion passes through several phases: 1) the occasion prehends the initial data provided to it by the multiplicity of objectively immortal occasions making up its past actual world, negatively prehending those elements which are irrelevant to its situation, 2) the occasion, through a process of integration of simpler feelings into more complex feelings, unifies its many prehensions of its actual world into one, objective datum, 3) the objective datum is felt by the subjective form of the occasion, which is the complex qualitative pattern of eternal objects characterizing how this occasion experiences its world, 4) the occasion, having satisfied its subjective form, perishes into objective immortality to become the data prehended by further occasions.198 The end result of this process is the emergence of a novel actuality.
Earlier, in a discussion of the inherent limits to our experience of simultaneity based upon the finite (but invariant) speed of light, I mentioned a further complexity based upon quantum non-locality and the difference between efficient and formal causality. Efficient causes are those influences involving the direct transmission of feeling from one actual occasion or society of occasions to another, as when a flashlight shines in my eyes or a baseball breaks through a window. They are physical causes. Formal causes, from both a Whiteheadian perspective on reality more generally and a decoherence-based perspective on quantum physics more specifically, can involve instantaneous, non-local affection of the potenia of distant actual occasions. These are conceptual causes. To illustrate the difference, Epperson uses the example of an asteroid that has just been knocked by a comet into a collision course with Earth.199 Although in terms of physical influence, we will not know about the incoming astroid until the photons reflecting off its surface reach Earth, in conceptual, or potential, terms, the astroid’s change of course has instantaneously affected the potenia describing Earth’s ongoing evolution. Further clarifying the difference between efficient and formal causality, Epperson writes:
“Causal influence,” in the Whiteheadian scheme, is operative in the physical pole or primary stage (the conformal phase, or phase of causal efficacy), and is bound by the speed of light according to the theory of special relativity; “causal affection” is operative in the mental pole or supplementary stage, and is not limited by special relativity.200
If the local relativisitic relationships of causal influence among actual occasions were not supplemented by the non-local quantum relationships of logically ordered potenia, the reality of an asymmetrical passage of time from closed past to open future would be impossible to account for. On the purely relativistic reading, time is symmetrical: causality works just the same whether you run it forward or backward. But from the perspectives of quantum decoherence, thermodynamics, Whitehead’s process philosophy, and our own direct experience, time is intrinsically irreversible.201
The physical account of the decoherence of a wave-function and the metaphysical account of the concrescence of an actual occasion both imply a panexperientialist ontology of constructive becomings, rather than a materialist ontology of ready-made beings. In a materialist ontology, reality is identified with actuality.202 This implies that nothing new ever really emerges, since all that can be has already been actualized. Change is merely apparent, the re-shuffling of static parts that are externally related. In an ensouled process ontology like Whitehead’s, actuality and potentiality are organically integrated so as to allow for a genuinely creative cosmos where, though the past is settled, the future remains wildly open. New forms of fact are always emerging, though none ever exists in isolation from its environment. “In sharp contrast [to mechanistic materialism],” writes Epperson,
[in] Whitehead’s cosmology as exemplified by the decoherence interpretations of quantum mechanics, the universe is…characterized as a fundamentally complex domain with an inherent aim toward an ideal balance of reproduction and reversion–a balance formative of a nurturing home for a seemingly infinitely large family of complex adaptive systems such as ourselves.203
Epperson explicitly connects Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, along with the decoherence-based account of quantum mechanics, to efforts in the complexity sciences to account for the regularity and diversity achieved by the various examples of emergent order at all scales in nature.204 In Whitehead’s terms, emergence concerns the achievement by actual occasions of novel forms of “structured society,” be they physical (atoms, stars), biological (cells, plants), or psychological (animals, humans).205
For contemporary complexity scientist Terrence Deacon, mentioned earlier, coherent accounts of emergence also depend upon the ontologization of potentiality along side actuality. Deacon coins the term “absential” to refer to those features of nature that, while not physically present, nonetheless have an important role to play in the emergence of the higher order organizational levels of biology and psychology.206 These role of these absential features would suggest that nature is in some sense “incomplete.” The recognition of this incompleteness leads Deacon to flirt with something like Whitehead’s panexperientialist process ontology, where
no object, event, or interaction–down to the most fundamental physical interactions, such as between elementary particles–is complete in itself, [meaning that] all aspects of physical causality implicitly depend on something extrinsic that is not physically present “there.”207
But in the end, Deacon remains unsatisfied with Whitehead’s approach, since it seems to assume what he is setting out to explain, namely, how experience and value emerge later on up the scale of complexity from otherwise numb, purposeless matter. Deacon attempts to avoid what he calls “homuncular” accounts of the emergence of complexity from physical processes, which he says include information theoretic accounts as well as Whitehead’s. Information theory suggests that all physical processes can be interpreted as computation-performing operations.208 As a result, physical processes “can be treated as though [they have] mentalistic properties.”209 Although Deacon admits to being favorably influenced by Whitehead early in his career, especially in respect to his attempt to save realism as against nominalism in natural philosophy, he eventually became dissatisfied by Whitehead’s seeming need to “[sneak] in homunculi at a very, very low level…the level of subatomic quantum events.”210 From Deacon’s scientific perspective, building in anything like purpose or feeling at the basement level of actuality doesn’t explain anything; rather, only “if you can show how [these are] generated [will] you have an explanation for [them].”211
From Whitehead’s philosophical perspective, science cannot explain the emergence of experiential qualities like value, purpose, and feeling out of dumb physical activity. Whitehead’s understanding of what constitutes a proper explanation seems to be the reverse of Deacon’s, in that for Whitehead, natural philosophy cannot explain the emergence of what is concrete (i.e., value and experience), but only of what is abstract. New possibilities are always emerging into actuality (or in Whitehead’s terms, novel eternal objects are always ingressing); actuality itself, on the other hand, must be intrinsically evaluative for explanations of such emergence to remain rational instead of miraculous. The emergence of complex forms of organization like galaxies and stars, for example, already requires an explanation in terms of some aim intrinsic to physical activity. “The element of value,” writes Whitehead,
of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event.212
In other words, no value, no reality. Akin to Deacon’s scientific desire to avoid humuncular explanations is Whitehead’s philosophical desire to avoid employing the dubious concept of “vacuous actuality.” This concept “haunts realistic philosophy,”213 according to Whitehead, which is born out by the example of Deacon’s realism, where experience is purported to emerge from dumb matter. “Apart from the experience of [actual occasions],” writes Whitehead, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”214
This fundamental divergence of metaphysical first principles may at first seem like a matter impossible to settle other than by subjective preference. As mentioned earlier, aside from their metaphysical differences, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biological and psychological forms of organization can be read as adding much needed specificity to Whitehead’s more general account. In this sense, their approaches are complimentary. But there are other criteria from which to judge the overall coherence of each of their approaches.
Deacon claims to prefer a perspective of radical emergence, wherein infinitely many novel forms of organization are possible, while he regards Whitehead’s cosmological scheme as somehow restricting the open-endedness of emergent evolution.215 On the other hand, Deacon admits that there are limits on the evolution of this novelty, offering a rather sophisticated account of these limits based upon the notion of hierarchically nested constraints.216 The question is, what constrains the emergence of novelty at the cosmic, rather than specifically biological or psychological scale? According to Deacon’s scientific account, cosmic constraint is afforded by the interplay between the biased probability of entropic orthograde processes and the emergent contragrade processes supported by thermodynamic work.217 Once constraints at the thermodynamic level are established, higher-order constraints can emerge to secure what Deacon calls “morphodynamic”, and then “teleodynamic,” modes of organization.
Whitehead also offers an account of limitation, but his rests on a far more general, and therefore metaphysical, basis. As discussed in a preceding section, the unfathomable potency of Creativity being the ultimate category of his scheme, Whitehead needed a principle of limitation, or concretion, to account for how anything of definite value could come to exist. Whitehead calls his principle of limitation, or concretion, “God.” Instead of basing limitation on some particular tendency in the physical world, as Deacon does, Whitehead asks what must be the case, metaphysically speaking, for physical “tendencies” to be possible at all: “What is the status of the enduring stability of the order of nature?”218 Whitehead’s answer to this question depends, again, on what is to count as a valid means of explanation. From his perspective, the aim of any genuine philosophical explanation is to produce “self-evidence,” or “sheer disclosure.”219 This aim can never be finally realized due to the fact that “language halts behind intuition.”220 In this sense, “all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness.”221 Nevertheless, although total disclosure cannot finally be achieved, the penetration of our understanding can be increased.222
Many contemporary scientists, Deacon included, would seem to have little patience for traditional theology. Whitehead generally shares their distaste for those philosophers and theologians who, “anxious to establish the religious significance of God,” succumbed to the unfortunate habit of paying him “metaphysical compliments.”223 The God of Western religion has tended to be fashioned in the image of an imperial ruler.224 Rather than making God an exception to the principles holding true of every other actual occasion, Whitehead’s God is “their chief exemplification.”225 Why then does Whitehead risk the scorn of atheistic or agnostic scientists and philosophers by calling his principle of concretion “God”? “Because,” writes Whitehead,
the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that “subjective form” of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.226
God’s primordial act of concretion cannot be rationally explained, since this divine act provides the foundation for rationality.227 That the universe has some definite character, some order, realized along certain limits despite the onrush of Creativity possessing no intrinsic reasons of its own, requires explanation. But in attempting to explain how this definite order could be possible, we come to the very limits of reason. As a panexperientialist, Whitehead’s allegiance is ultimately to empiricism. “The general principle of empiricism,” he writes,
depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.228
It follows from Whitehead’s allegiance to empiricism that the progress of the general science of metaphysics and the special sciences alike depends upon a certain faith, or “ultimate moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action.”229 Whitehead’s approach also has rationalist aspects, but he always checks the impulse for theoretical explanation with the requirement that “there be ‘given’ elements so as to form the material for theorizing.”230 God is such an element, the primordial reason conditioning the creative flux, though not itself rationally explainable.
As discussed earlier, God is that actual entity responsible for grading the relevance of the infinite multiplicity of eternal objects. “Apart from God,” writes Whitehead, “there could be no relevant novelty.”231 In other words, it is God’s primordial role to provide each concrescing actual occasion with possibilities graded as relevant to the givenness of its unique situation. Without this provision, eternal objects yet to be realized in the actual world would be all but non-existent for the occasion in question.232 It follows from Whitehead’s ontological principle that as of yet unactualized possibilities, or eternal objects, cannot float into actuality from nowhere.233 Eternal objects yet to be actualized by any finite actual occasion have already been conceptually prehended by the divine non-temporal actual occasion. God is that non-temporal actual occasion which conceptually prehends, and thereby evaluates, the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby adjusting, or conditioning, creativity so as to allow a definite order to emerge in the ongoing course of cosmogenesis. “The adjustment is the reason for the world,” writes Whitehead; he continues:
It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order in nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. Also since there is a world, we know that there is an order. The ordering entity [God] is a necessary element in the metaphysical situation presented by the actual world.234
In respect to Deacon’s desire both to “save Plato, or to save realism,”235 and to describe a cosmos with open-ended possibilities of emergent order, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without some cosmic principle of concretion to provide the basis for the emergence of forms of order relevant to the actual occasions, or societies of occasions, in question. That biological and psychological forms of order have emerged in the course of time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” Epperson likens this harmonious tendency, or “subjective aim” provided by God “by which nature regulates herself without determining herself,” to the concept of “effective complexity” employed in complexity theory.236 It could be said that this tendency is “built in” to the universe, but this phrase is likely to foster an image of a transcendent divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. In his famous cosmological dialogue Timaeus, Plato uses a similar image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Timaeus also employs other images to account for cosmogenesis, including that of an indwelling World-Soul, and that of a formless mediatrix for form called the Receptacle. Were Plato alive today, he may have emphasized these latter images as the more appropriate rhetorical choices for mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead not only attempts to “save Plato” from the myth of a transcendent demiurge, but also to save modern theology from the jealous tyrant imagined by Job, and modern science from the deistic mechanical engineer imagined by Newton. To do so, he re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present.”237 God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned also by the objective immortality of the past decisions of all the other historical routes of concrescence populating its cosmic community. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged. In the final section, the implications of Whitehead’s reformed Platonism will be explored, with special attention paid to the need to mythologize his metaphysics so as to excite the aesthetic, emotional, and moral appetites in a way that purely rational discourse cannot.
188 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 80.
189 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 129.
190 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 33.
191 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 18; Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, xiv.
192 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 3.
193 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.
194 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 7
195 Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 185.
196 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 8-9.
197 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.
198 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 221.
199 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii-xiii.
200 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 228.
201 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 234.
202 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.
203 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 17.
204 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 198.
205 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 100.
206 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 3.
207 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 78.
208 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 75.
209 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 374.
210 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
211 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
212 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.
213 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.
214 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 167.
215 “I see emergence as an open-ended process, while [Whitehead] does not,” Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
216 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 423cf.
217 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 230, 247.
218 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.
219 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.
220 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.
221 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.
222 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 51.
223 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.
224 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 342.
225 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.
226 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31-32.
227 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.
228 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.
229 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.
230 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.
231 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.
232 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.
233 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.
234 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 91.
235 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.
236 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 236.
237 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.
The Imaginative Generalization of Evolutionary Theory
“In the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas…[The universe is] passing with a slowness, inconceivable in our measures of time, to new creative conditions, amid which the physical world, as we at present know it, will be represented by a ripple barely to be distinguished from non-entity.” -Whitehead114
The main outlines of the doctrine of evolution, on Whitehead’s reading, must be “[absorbed]…as the guiding methodology of all branches of science.”115 Grasping the transdisciplinary significance of evolution requires the “negative capability” mentioned earlier, a willingness to consign oneself to the speculative risks Whitehead’s philosophy of organism has proposed for thinking. Because all our knowledge depends upon abstraction, the point is not to avoid it but to do it gently, such that our knowing leaves the concrete life of the world unharmed and intact. Whitehead’s contribution to the philosophical integration of the special sciences and their abstract domains of relevance is derived from what he calls his method of “imaginative generalization.” Metaphysics is the imaginative attempt to express in language the most general features of experience, and therefore, of nature. Every special science devises its own instruments: the instrument of metaphysics, the science of sciences, is language.116 Like physics, metaphysics should be undertaken as an experimental practice, only the experiments are to be performed on language itself. “The success of the imaginative experiment,” according to Whitehead, “is always to be tested by the applicability of its results beyond the restricted locus from which it originated.”117
In the case of the connection between evolutionary theory and the new physics, Whitehead’s experiment is to imaginatively generalize Darwin’s specialized concepts of variability, reproduction, and inheritance, such that evolution comes to describe the activity of self-organizing entities at every scale of nature, no longer just the biological. In this sense, as was mentioned earlier, biology becomes the study of the evolution of the larger organisms, while physics becomes the study of the evolution of the smaller organisms.118 “I am…a thoroughgoing evolutionist,” says Whitehead,
…Millions of years ago our earth began to cool off and forms of life began in their simplest aspects. Where did they come from? They must have existed in potentiality in the most minute particles, first of this fiery, and later of this watery and earthy planet.119
Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 demonstrates that “mass [is] the name for a quantity of energy considered in relation to some of its dynamic effects”; this leads, according to Whitehead, to the displacement of matter by energy as the most fundamental concept in physics. But what is energy other than
the name for the quantitative aspect of a structure of happenings…[a structure] that depends on the notion of the functioning of an organism?120
That is, if energetic activity is to be understood in its full concreteness, and not just as mathematical functions in an abstract equation, then some reference must also be made to the mental functions of the self-realizing but prehensively interrelated creatures of the actual world (i.e., to purposeful organisms in an ecology). Whitehead explains:
Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter…There is nothing to evolve…There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive…[and] there is material [or energy]…which endures. On the organic theory, the only endurances are structures of activity, and the structures are evolved [units of emergent value].121
After Whitehead’s imaginative generalization, evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations under selective pressure becomes evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historically organized routes, whereby a specific occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the cause of structural inheritance) become synthesized with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the source of structural variation) into some enduring pattern of experiential value. In other words,
There is a rhythm of process whereby creation produces natural pulsation, each pulsation forming a natural unit of historic fact.122
These processes of evolutive concrescence “repeat themselves to the crack of doom in the creative advance from creature to creature.”123 Whereas in the Darwinian version of the theory, a pre-existent environment of inert material in empty space is considered to be the sole source of selective pressure, in the Whiteheadian version, organisms are understood to be co-creators of their own environments.124 Also, whereas in the Darwinian theory the competitive struggle for existence is considered the primary engine of evolution, in the Whiteheadian version, cooperative interaction becomes the essential factor for long-term survival. Wherever resilient ecosystems are found, whether at the atomic, biotic, or anthropic level, it is evident that their success is a result of an association of organisms “providing for each other a favorable environment.”125 Whitehead offers a descriptive example of the evolution of atomic ecologies:
Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.126
In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history. Just as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory threw Earth into motion, thereby turning the medieval world upside-down, under the new requirements of the evolutionary theory, the sturdy mechanistic cosmos of modernity has been turned inside-out, revealing an organic cosmogenesis creatively advancing through emergent stages of organization. Cosmogenesis, resting on the infinite potential of literally nothing (i.e., the quantum vacuum), has since its eruption been rushing toward more and more complex forms of realization over the course of billions of years.
Cosmic evolution began with the “primordial Flaring Forth,” after which the earliest generation of primate organisms emerged out of the “cosmic fecundity” of the quantum vacuum.127 In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, this fecundity finds its place as the ultimate principle of his metaphysical scheme: Creativity. Creativity is “universal throughout actuality,” such that it eternally pervades creation to infect each and every one of its creatures with sparks of potentiality.128 As the geologian Thomas Berry and the physicist Brian Swimme suggest,
Though the originating power gave birth to the universe fifteen billion years ago, this realm of power is not simply located there at that point in time, but is rather a condition of every moment of the universe, past, present, and future.129
In Whitehead’s scheme, even God is creaturely, and therefore conditioned by the power Creativity. As discussed in the last section, Creativity is also conditioned or concretized in turn by God’s all-embracing valuation of the multiplicity of potentialities, thereby providing each finite organism with erotic lures encouraging the sort of harmonious functioning that has lead to the stages of enduring societal organization characteristic of the universe.130
Whitehead’s organic primates–or, speaking metaphysically, actual occasions–cannot be understood in isolation; like all biological creatures on Earth, with both their ecological relations in the present and their evolutionary relations in the past, primate organisms are bound together as co-creators in a multiform cosmogenetic community, all of which emerged from one original unfathomably powerful energy-event. “At the base of the serene tropical rainforest,” write Berry and Swimme,
sits this cosmic hurricane. At the base of the seaweed’s column of time is the trillion-degree blast that begins everything. All that exists in the universe traces back to this exotic, ungraspable seed event, a microcosmic grain, a reality layered with the power to fling a hundred billion galaxies through vast chasms in a flight that has lasted fifteen billion years. The nature of the universe today and of every being in existence is integrally related to the nature of this primordial Flaring Forth.131
The primitive beings which first emerged from the Flaring Forth have come since Whitehead’s day to be known by the standard model of particle physics as the muon and tau leptons, along with the charm, strange, top, and bottom quarks, collectively called the fermions.132 These fundamental organisms have mostly evolved, or decayed, since the Big Bang into the more familiar electrons, protons, and neutrons which make up (as organelles, so to speak) the larger atomic organisms of the periodic table of elements. Left out of this picture are the bosons, or force carriers, like gluons, photons, and the as yet undetected graviton. In Whitehead’s organic terms, bosons and fermions can be described according to the two types of vibration, “vibratory locomotion” and “vibratory organic deformation.”133 Organic deformation describes the wave-like aspect of primate organisms (i.e., their continuous transition, or duration, of realized pattern, as felt from within), while locomotion describes the particle-like aspect (i.e., their discontinuous epochal realizations, as felt from without).
The entire genus of atoms did not appear all at once. Prior to the assistance of the higher-level activity of stars (i.e., the process of stellar nucleosynthesis), no elemental organisms heavier than hydrogen and helium were able to stabilize out of lower-level energetic activities. But before stars could emerge, hydrogen and helium had to collect into huge swirling clouds, which became galaxies.134 At the center of these early galaxies there emerged black holes (whose gravity was so intense not even light could escape), further securing the next stage of evolutionary complexity. According to astrophysicist Caleb Scharf, the influence of “energy feedback” from these early black holes played a crucial role in forming the stars and planets making up the universe we know today.135 Star formation was first catalyzed as a result of the rapid revolution of the black holes at the center of galaxies, which generated gravitational density waves that “shocked clouds of hydrogen and helium to condense rapidly into thousands of stars at a time.”136 Had this rapid process of star formation continued unabated, the raw hydrogen and helium gas of most of the galaxies in the universe would long ago have become far too hot to form any new stars.137 Fortunately, the energy feedback effects of supermassive black holes has kept star formation in check. In effect, the eating habits of black holes allow them to act as cosmic thermostats, “making sure the porridge of intergalactic matter is not to hot and not too cold.”138 Black holes have played a fundamental role in the evolutionary adventure that gave rise to our present cosmic ecology.139 According to Scharf,
The fact that there are any galaxies like the Milky Way in the universe at this cosmic time is intimately linked with the opposing processes of gravitational agglomeration of matter and the disruptive energy blasting from matter-swallowing black holes. Too much black hole activity and there would be little new star formation, and the production of heavy elements would cease. Too little black hole activity, and environments might be overly full of young and exploding stars–or too little stirred up to produce anything.140
Galaxies and black holes can be understood as analogous to massive cellular systems, where the regulative role of the black hole is akin to that of the central nucleus of a cell. Like all other organisms, galaxies appear to have a finite life-span, beyond which they can no longer produce new stars. The nested feedback loops at work to secure the self-organizing dynamics of a biological cell are obviously far more complex and adaptive than the simpler feedback exhibited by black holes; but nonetheless, the general analogy seems to hold.
114 Whitehead, Religion in the Making (Edinburg: Cambridge University Press, 1926/2011), 100, 144.
115 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.
116 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 11.
117 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 5.
118 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.
119 Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, 277.
120 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 96.
121 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 101.
122 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 88.
123 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.
124 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 105.
125 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104.
126 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 104-105.
127 Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992/1994), 21.
128 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.
129 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 17.
130 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.
131 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 21.
132 Lederman, The God Particle, 62.
133 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 121-125.
134 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.
135 Caleb Scharf, Gravity’s Engines: How Bubble Blowing Black Holes Rule Galaxies, Stars, and Life in the Cosmos (New York: Scientific American, 2012), 210.
136 Berry and Swimme, The Universe Story, 34.
137 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 202.
138 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 143.
139 Scharf, Gravity’s Engines, 164.
140 Schwarf, Gravity’s Engines, 204.
Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory
“The general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism.” -Whitehead103
Since its eruption in the 17th century, modern science has instigated profound re-orientations in the outlook and self-conception of European civilization. More recently, in the last century and a half, various discoveries have forced upon science the need for no less fundamental a transformation of its own presupposed materialistic-mechanistic ontology. This transformation, understood in the light of Whitehead’s organic ontology, is the focus of this section. To begin, let us take stock of what has happened: In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, wherein he described, according to the special abstractions proper to biology, a process which would later come to be known more generally as the theory of evolution:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.104
In the early 1880s, while Whitehead was still a student of mathematics at Cambridge, “physics was supposed to be nearly a closed subject,” with just a few minor details left to be explained in terms of Newton’s fundamental principles. “No one sensed what was coming,” according to Whitehead: “By 1900, the Newtonian physics were demolished, done for!”105 The whole notion of fixed laws of nature imposed upon the behavior of ready-made material particles in absolute time and space, which Darwin’s mechanistic biology took for granted as its foundation, had been called into question by relativity and quantum theories. “The appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology,” wrote Whitehead in 1925,
was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of concepts.106
Arguably, almost a century after Whitehead’s remark, physical science still lacks anything approaching such a systematic account of nature. While several candidate theories uniting relativistic and quantum effects have been proposed, due to lack of empirical confirmation or mathematical coherence, none of them has succeeded in garnering the widespread support of the physics community. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is generally understood to have successfully unified quantum mechanics with at least special relativity, but because it leaves out gravitational effects, and because its approach remains largely instrumental, it does little in the way of providing a truly unifying theory of nature.107 According to physicist Leon Lederman,
Gravity is our number one problem as we attempt to combine particle physics with cosmology…Here we are like the ancient Greeks, waiting and watching for something to happen, not able to experiment…Without bringing the gravitational force into the family of quantum forces, we’ll never understand the details of the Big Bang or, in fact, the deep, deep structure of elementary particles.108
Though it remains mechanistic in orientation, unlike 19th century physics QED can longer claim that its mechanical accounts reflect a reality independent of its experimental instruments. What was originally a mechanistic ontology meant to explain nature has become a mechanistic epistemology meant to operationally describe it; as a result, metaphysical realism in science has devolved into nominalism. This allows instrumentalist approaches to quantum mechanics to avoid the philosophical challenge of having to integrate the spooky paradoxes of wave/particle duality and non-locality into their hypothesized materialist ontology. Instead, as Whiteheadian physicist Michael Epperson suggests, instrumentalists can defer their philosophical failings by invoking the fact that “quantum mechanics is simply a tool used to predict the outcomes of measurements under specific conditions.”109 Even if its mechanistic models cannot be unambiguously proven to reflect the reality of nature in itself, “nature” (whatever it is) can be forced, at least under laboratory conditions, to agree with QED’s operational predictions to an extremely high degree of statistical accuracy. According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, this instrumentalist mindset among physicists is a result of a lack of respect for the importance of philosophy in framing the way problems are posed in physics: “It is a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.”110
Supposing a properly physical (if not fully metaphysical) “grand unifying theory” is eventually discovered, there still remains the philosophical problem of unifying physics with biology, psychology, and spirituality. During the later half of the 20th century, a number of explanatory and descriptive strategies began to be developed in an attempt to tackle aspects of this problem, all of which could be said to fall under the general umbrella of complex systems theory. Many of these scientific approaches to theretofore intractable philosophical problems became possible, not because humanity suddenly developed a finer imagination, but rather because we developed finer technological instruments.111 Computer modeling now provides scientists with God-like powers of simulation; however, deep philosophical issues remain regarding how such simulations can be said to relate to reality.
Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that
it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by non-living and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.112
Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos.113 Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux. Despite their differing philosophical presuppositions, it is nevertheless possible to re-interpret Deacon’s scientific contribution as a specific application of Whitehead’s more general cosmological scheme. In other words, despite Deacon’s dissatisfaction with panexperientialism, without something like Whitehead’s radical reconstruction of the metaphysical foundations of scientific materialism, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biotic and psychic phenomena from physics and chemistry remains literally incomplete. Deacon’s and Whitehead’s approaches are compared and contrasted in more detail in a later subsection. The philosophical commitments differentiating their approaches to the emergence of complexity should become clearer if I first unpack Whitehead’s startlingly novel interpretations of 20th century physics and his cosmological generalization of evolutionary theory.
103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.
104 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1859/2004), 384. Darwin added the words “by the Creator” in the second edition.
105 Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Mentor, 1954), 277.
106 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.
107 Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 277cf.
108 Lederman, The God Particle, 99.
109 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004), 33.
110 Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956), 100.
111 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 107.
112 Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 549.
113 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.
The Sunset of Materialism: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science
“The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea into a sky all brazen–all one brightening for gods immortal and for mortal men on plow lands kind with grain.” -Homer25
“God invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding.” -Plato26
“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.” -Whitehead27
For ancient poets like Homer, the sun was a being of tremendous spiritual significance. The immense beauty of its rising and setting brought forth a dramatic display of the abiding moral harmony underlying the cosmos. For ancient philosophers like Plato, the sun was similarly a sign of the highest Good, but its visible light was thought to be only partially responsible for the shower of colors drenching earth and sky. Participating in the sunlit phenomena of the outer world was an inner noumenal light emanating from the eyes. Plato suggested that this inner light flows gently outward through the eyes from a psychic fire kindred to that animating the sun. It meets and coalesces with the light of the sun (or at night, the moon and stars) to bring forth the beauty and splendor of the universe.28 Plato’s was a participatory account of our knowledge of nature, such that soul and world were understood to synergetically intermingle in each act of perception. He considered the eyes the noblest of the senses, “source of supreme benefit to us,”
in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun, or heaven. As it is, however, our ability to see the periods of [the heavens] has lead to the invention of number, and has given us the idea of time and opened the path to inquiry into the nature of the universe.29
Not only was Plato’s cosmology inclusive of perceptual experiences in its definition of nature, it felt divine eros and saw eternal eidos at work throughout the cosmos. The circling stars, sun, and moon were considered to be living gods, humanity’s wisest teachers. In his survey of European history, Whitehead places Plato at the center of the first great period of intellectual development, a period with deep influences on all subsequent thought.30 In the main, Plato’s cosmological scheme and account of visual perception, as articulated most profoundly in the dialogue Timaeus, reigned among Europe’s intelligentsia for more than 1,500 years.31 It was not until the height of the scientific revolution in the 17th century that his participatory premises were rejected by the next wave of great geniuses.
“In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”32 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”33 The new analytic methods of Descartes, Galileo, and Newton succeeded in breaking the bond between the numinosity of the soul and the phenomenality of the world, bifurcating nature into two distinct substances, the material and the mental. Humanity’s understanding of its relationship with the universe underwent a fundamental transformation.
Three hundred years later, despite the evidences of modern physical science, the average 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” argued Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”34 The warmth and hue of a sunset, continues Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”35 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names of consciousness. Plato’s insight into the erotic coupling of inner/spiritual light with outer/physical light has been degraded into the dualistic modern theory of “two natures…one the conjecture and the other the dream.”36 Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our personal experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the impersonal cause of that experience (the conjecture).
Following upon Galileo’s initial bifurcation of nature, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern scientific materialism. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical elegance of Copernicus’ heliocentric model (as improved upon by Kepler) made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanisms of the extended things (res extensa) of nature, a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion. Religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the unearthly substance of the soul, providing moral guidance for existentially troubled thinking things (res cogitans) like us. Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal dimensions of reality.37
In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. By 1850, the values of industrial capitalism, justified by the mechanistic cosmology of scientific materialism, had infected much of the Western world, forever altering traditional forms of agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and religious practice. “[All] thought concerned with social organization,” writes Whitehead,
expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt.38
Today, at the peak (if not the beginning of the decline) of humanity’s technoscientific mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology capable of guiding the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium is just beginning to take root. Still, our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing–constructed on the metaphysical assumption of the bifurcation of subject and object, fact and value, meaning and matter–threatens the continued existence of the community of life on earth.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Whitehead interrogated modern science and industrialism, not to dismiss them,39 but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to Stengers, this question is not an attempt to condemn scientific materialism for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather
a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.40
Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of natural philosophy is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science to be that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature otherwise: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”41 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”42 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”43 it implies, waiting eagerly to see in what way it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to the values of actual life. Materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability44 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain secrete consciousness?”, or “what sort of thing is curved space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology and philosophy of science require the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, causality, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the relevance of both quantitative patterns and qualitative perceptions in the passage of nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to replace concrete experience with abstract explanation. In this sense, Whitehead’s scientific method can be compared with Goethe’s “gentle empiricism,” which similarly rejected mechanical explanations, instead pursuing nature’s reasons by learning to participate more fully in the archetypal patterns interwoven with experience itself.45 “The divergence of [scientific] formulae about nature from the appearance of nature,” argues Whitehead, “has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character.”46
Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into shadow. In what way does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that
the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.47
Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the so-called “hard problem” of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”48 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the speculative wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead’s philosophy of science is trying to spell out. For now, says Whitehead, “we leave to metaphysics the synthesis of the knower and the known.”49 Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: a coherent foundation for our scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s re-imagined point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”50 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.
Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.51
If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of scientific explanation cannot itself be scientifically explained. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-aesthetic) qualities. Instead of turning science against commonsense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”52 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.53 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,
that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.54
The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The photon is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his or her perception of light as a result of certain replicable experiments, laboratory technologies, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The photon, as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the creative advance of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.55 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.56 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s aesthetic encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to provide such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.57 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged instrumentally, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature, rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature.
Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and commonsense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.58 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a participatory mode of attending to nature–a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally manipulated by an alienated technoscientific mode of knowing. Instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms cannot be characterized merely by mass, extension, and velocity; they are creatures enjoying the value of their own experience, which itself is initially inherited from the feelings of others. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are individual living organisms, each dependent on their relationships to others for their continued existence as themselves.
By the late 1920s, Whitehead had given up on the problems that framed his earlier inquiry into the philosophy of science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. “Riskier” because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”59 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” The imaginative enjoyment of the poet and the intellectual reflection of the theoretician resulting from the beauty of the setting sun must themselves be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Mind must find its foothold in the midst of things themselves, an inhabitant of nature and not its transcendental knower. In the next section, I further unpack Whitehead’s venture beyond the philosophy of science into the formidable project of constructing a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.
25 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, New York: Double Day, 1961), bk. 3, lines 1-4.
26 Plato, Timaeus, 47b-c.
27 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 178.
28 Plato, Timaeus, 45a-d.
29 Plato, Timaeus, 47a
30 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 38.
31 Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21. Plato’s cosmology’s only serious challenger was Aristotle.
32 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.
33 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 13.
34 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer, transl. Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday, 1623/1957), 274.
35 Galileo, The Assayer, 274.
36 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920/1964), 31.
37 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious function as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm (see Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20). Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (see ibid., 45).
38 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 181.
39 “I assume as an axiom that science is not a fairy tale” (Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 40).
40 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.
41 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.
42 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
43 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.
44 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
45 Zajonc, Catching the Light, 203.
46 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.
47 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 154.
48 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.
49 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 28.
50 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.
51 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.
52 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.
53 Or in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.
54 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.
55 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.
56 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.
57 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.
58 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.
59 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
Here’s a hyperlinked outline of a long essay on Whitehead and scientific cosmology that I’ll post in sections. Here is a link to a PDF of the complete essay: Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of A. N. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology
Table of Contents
This is a talk I gave back in September for my colleagues at CIIS during our annual retreat to Esalen in Big Sur, CA.
If a pushy philosopher were to back me into a corner and force me to choose one or the other, naturalism or supernaturalism, I would choose naturalism. But I’d find myself wanting to ask, as Socrates might, what is meant by “nature”?
Physics becomes metaphysics as soon as the word–”nature”–is pronounced. The logos of language of its own accord compels conscious creatures like us to ask the fateful question: “What is nature?” I’ve heard many definitions, each with its own interesting implications for any attempt to interpret experiential reality. Plato suggested that nature was the life of the All. Aristotle posited that nature was the sum total of phenomenal/physical beings. Descartes thought it was energetic vortexes circling in an extended plenum. Newton thought it was atoms colliding in the void of space (space, meanwhile, he considered to be the omniscient sensorium of God).
We might also reframe the question by asking about the proper relationship between the logos which asks and the nature which responds. From this there may emerge important epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical queries, none of which are anything like the pursuits of the specialized natural sciences. These methods of inquiry pose their own kinds of problems and devise their own kinds of solutions, solutions which, though they are relevant (we hope!), still differ greatly from the kinds of solutions sought out by physicists and chemists.
“The recourse to metaphysics,” says Whitehead, “is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena” (The Concept of Nature, 29).
Once the question of nature has been asked, it seems we come to find ourselves in a strange and imaginal land. Appearances can no longer be taken for granted as real. Knowledge comes to seem unfounded. Plato wrote from such a mythical place of not-knowing in the Timaeus, even daring to offer several names for it including chora, matrix, receptacle, nurse, and nurturer. He depicted this matrix hovering between the being of invisible forms and the becoming of visible matter, able to take on any definite form and thereby grant it birth into the physical realm, while itself always remaining formless. I interpret Plato’s nurturing “third kind” between the eidos and chaos not as a fantasy land, but as the event-place of reality’s eruption into concrete experience. Necessary ideas and contingent matter are both abstractions from the real. The real comes to be always in-between.
To even frame a polemic around the dichotomy “naturalism v. supernaturalism,” no matter whether one’s aim to choose the atheistic or theological option, is already to implicate oneself in a logic of transcendence, since each term is defined only by its exclusion of the other. A more friendly inquiry (born out of intellectual philia rather than intellectual polemos) was that of Spinoza, who thought not in the exclusive terms of either God or Nature, but in the integral terms of both God and Nature.
Approaching the metaphysical problems posed by naturalism philosophically, rather than polemically, allows one to delight in the multiplication of possibilities and in the intensification of wonder, rather than in the rush to simplify and explain.
Levi Bryant recently offered some thoughts, and some fighting words, on behalf of the naturalistic interpretation of reality (Skholiast has responded in a way that contextualized Bryant’s remarks for me quite nicely). Bryant’s real enemy in these posts is the Continental tradition of philosophy, which he suggests was founded in the 19th century as an anthropocentric reaction against the tremendously technologically successful (but psychologically traumatizing) scientific naturalism first developed in the 16th century. Bryant’s naturalism has three major requirements: 1) no supernatural causes, 2) no metaphysical telos, 3) culture must be natural. A implication of these requirements is that materiality and insensate efficient forces are to be the only real factors operating anywhere in the natural world. Bryant also rejects the idea of nature constructed in the imaginations of reductionists, eliminativists, and positivists, preferring his own “machine-oriented ontology.”
As I said at the beginning, if the dilemma were posed as such, I’d also want to pursue naturalist over supernaturalist accounts of reality. I think Bryant has rightly avoided the blunders of the other ideas of nature floating around among materialists. His alternative materialist ontology is of great interest to me, if only because on some level I do enjoy the creativity that can be unleashed by polemic (“War is the father of all things…” Heraclitus). For the past four of five years of my graduate study at CIIS, I have had a handful of guides helping to shape my initial approach to questions concerning the nature of nature. Of this handful, I’ve grown most familiar with the voices of Alfred North Whitehead and Friedrich Joseph Schelling. As far as naturalisms go, I’d toss as many of their books into my metaphysical wagon as my horses are able to carry. Spare me your universal acids and logics of extinction, I’ll take an originally duplicitous nature animated by a mytho-logic of creativity.
Of course, the journey through the dessert of the real cannot be completed only by imbibing the spilt ink of dead names. Thoughts must boil up from out of the heat of my own blood and words must be uttered from out of the air of my own lungs. I’m working on it… But let us not forget this is also a conspiracy. Though we wage war with symbolic soldiers on paper battlefields, we still think our thoughts, breathe our words, and take our earthly steps together. There need be no polemic between a machine- and an organic-orientation toward reality if we are able to approach their proper relation in a friendly (i.e., a philosophical) way. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to account for both the appearance of mechanism and the reality of organism. He writes:
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists (On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and DevelopmentVI, 70.)
Similarly, from the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, physics and chemistry do not study the non-living components of living ecologies; rather, they are themselves the study of living ecologies at scales other than the biological, tracking the migratory behavior of electrons and protons rather than gnats and zebras. I hearken back to the original meaning of the Greek word physis here, which did not refer to the motion of dead stuff through empty space, but to the growth of living form in teleological time. “Life,” in the context of the organism-oriented ontology I’m trying to construct, is not bios but zoö, where the latter comes to designate existence as such. What exists as such are living organisms.
Bryant denies to naturalism anything but material and efficient causality. I am not aware of any coherent interpretation of quantum physics based solely on material and efficient causation. Nor am I aware of any coherent explanation for biological phylo- or ontogenesis that does not employ at least formal if not also final causes. Unless we are willing to ignore much of “what we are aware of in perception” (Whitehead’s definition of the nature studied by science), it is hard not to grant more than the blind conveyance of forces to nature. To be fair, Bryant does think biological purposes can emerge on accident out of the evolutionary algorithm. Human ideals are emergent realities, new features of the world. I’d argue that telos is no accident, but rather, like life, it is of the very essence of existence. To exist is to be a reason. Nature is not aimless, but nor is its telos designed by a transcendent demiurge. Nature is a creative process of birth and perishing persuaded into enduring patterns of harmony by a participating Eros. Harmony is not a metaphysical necessity, though both Creativity and Eros are. Cosmic harmony is an achievement, the contingent result of the values of a society of organisms characteristic of a particular cosmic epoch. Cosmos need not always emerge from chaos; yet it tends to.
Bryant leaves open the possibility that the world’s great religious teachers might have important metaphysical lessons to teach us. One of my projects has been to try to argue for the relevance of religious imaginaries in combatting precisely the sort of anthropocentrism that Bryant claims naturalism vanquishes (see for example this essay on a Christian spiritual response to the social and ecological crises of our day).
Thinking with Whitehead:
The Scientific Revolution and the Bifurcation of Nature
The scientific revolution, beginning perhaps with Copernicus’ rediscovery of the heliocentric model of the solar system early in the 16th century, and culminating perhaps with Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and universal gravitation towards the end of the 17th century, fundamentally transformed humanity’s sense of its relationship to the universe. “In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”1 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”2 Earth was thrown into motion, now a planet like any other, a material body wandering through the void of space around the sun. After a mere two centuries of furious intellectual upheaval, the entire theological basis of European civilization, built up over the course of the prior two millennia, was thrashed to pieces. A new civilization, and a new cosmos, was dawning.
Three hundred years later, we find ourselves at or nearing the noon hour of modern industrial civilization. At the highest point of the arc of the modern project, we can see clearly the historical morning behind us, full of even more war and empire than the prior millennia of supposedly un-Enlightened races; and we can see clearly enough before us the inevitable future course leading to our demise: nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, political tyranny. Among academics, the optimistic certainty of our fathers’ deistic-mechanistic image of the world has been succeeded by the cynical irony of postmodern relativism.3 Though the deistic-mechanistic mythos of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton was persuasive to a few educated elites, and though its technological utility would be responsible for unleashing an energy-transformation event unlike any the earth had seen before, it has not provided a meaning-producing, value-imbued cosmological story capable of infecting the social imaginary at a deep enough level to replace that provided to medieval European civilization by Aquinas and Dante.
Despite the evidences of modern physical science, a normal 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” says Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”4 The warmth and hue of a sunset, according to Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”5 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names consciousness.
Following Copernicus’ and Galileo’s astronomical and physical discoveries, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern science. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical truth of the heliocentric model made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanical “how?” of extended things (res extensa), a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion; religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the substance of the soul, providing answers to the moral “why?” questions that trouble thinking things (res cogitans). Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal sources of reality.6
In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. But even today, at the height of humanity’s technoscientific7 mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology has not yet arisen to guide the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium. Our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing, with its bifurcation of subjects and objects, facts and values, meaning and matter, is killing humanity and earth alike. As late as 1882, Nietzsche was still one of only a handful with the spiritual courage to confront the cosmic disorientation characteristic of the modern age and to cry out on behalf of life:
…how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?8
Whitehead came to philosophy in the first quarter of the 20th century with questions very similar to Nietzsche’s. He interrogated modern science and the Enlightenment, not to dismiss them, but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to his interpreter, Isabelle Stengers, this question is not an attempt to find some final explanation for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather
a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.9
Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of science and philosophy (natural philosophy) is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science as that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature differently: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”10 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”11 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”12 it implies, waiting eagerly to see how it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to actual life. The materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability13 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain produce consciousness?”, “what sort of stuff is space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology requires the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the importance of both mathematical patterns and sensual perceptions in nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to explain away mental quality by reduction to mathematical quantity.
Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into silence. How does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that
the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.14
Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the problem of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”15 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the philosophical wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead is trying to discover. Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s reformulated point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”16 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.
Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.17
If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of explanation cannot itself be explained. This is not to say that science might not find out a great deal about the mind by studying the brain; its just that it makes no sense to seek a cranial explanation of the mind when it is before the mind itself that science would have to defend its explanation. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-artistic) qualities. Whitehead’s refusal to drag the scientific concept of nature unknowingly into the metaphysical disputes of philosophy (as materialists do) prevents him from reducing the creative advance of natura naturans to the deterministic mechanisms of natura naturata. Instead of turning science against common sense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”18 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.19 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,
that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.20
The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The “photon” is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his perception of light as a result of certain replicable scientific practices, laboratory situations, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The “photon,” as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the passage of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.21 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.22 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to offer such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.23 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged economically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature (usually for private profit), rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature (for the common good).
Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and common sense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.24 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a new, participatory mode of attending to nature, a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally attended to as in the alienated technoscientific mode of knowing; instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms are beings characterized by more than mass, extension, and velocity; they are beings with presence, prehension, and purpose. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are each and all alive.
Eventually, Whitehead gave up on the problems that framed his inquiry into science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. Riskier because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”25 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” Even the aesthetic enjoyment of the poet and the theoretical reflection of the physicist must be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Whitehead would venture upon the great work of every true and genuine philosopher-poet: the creation of a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925/1960), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13.
3 We have only the insufficiently cosmological depth of the great archetypal psychologists to lead us through the maddening maze of “posts” populating the contemporary academic scene (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Hillman).
4 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (1623), translation by Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (1957), New York: Doubleday, 274.
6 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious purpose, functioning as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm. See also Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20. Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (ibid., 45).
7 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 11).
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), sec. 125, translation by Walter Kaufmann, in The Nietzsche Reader (2006), Malden: Blackwell, 224.
9 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.
10 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920/1964), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 28.
11 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
12 Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929/1978), New York: The Free Press, 4.
13 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.
16 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.
17 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.
18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.
19 Or, in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.
20 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.
21 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.
22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.
23 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.
24 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.
25 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
Bergson suggested that the Absolute had to be approached from two sides, the scientific and the metaphysical. Science/Intellect considers the universe according to a series of states. Metaphysics/Intuition considers the universe according to the self-differentiation of a whole.
Here is a video creating/communicating the thoughts of Tom McDonald on Deleuze’s Philosophy of Cinema:
Here is Arthur Young speaking about Bergson and his argument with Einstein about the nature of time:
Young speaks of the photon’s quantum of action at the microcosmic level being productive of time. He counts it as the primordial cycle of learning, the first instance when matter finds itself mixed with memory, perception mixed with recollection.
Young suggests that natural science/physics needs to take into consideration not only the objective and inanimate, but the projective and active aspect of physical nature: i.e., light. Only then will science be able to account for perceptive life and subjective mind further up the scale of cosmic complexity.
- “The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal” (2012) by Joshua Ramey (footnotes2plato.com)
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of introducing Sam Mickey at the PCC Forum. Sam graduated earlier this year after successfully defending his dissertation entitled: Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology. Along with Sean Kelly, Brian Swimme and Catherine Keller served on his committee. The dissertation weaves together a diverse array of thinkers, including Kelly, Swimme, Keller, Thomas Berry, Ken Wilber, Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari.
Sam has worked with the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and currently teaches environmental ethics and other courses at the University of San Francisco in the theology and religious studies department.
Sam spoke to us about hopeful new beginnings, for earth and for humanity. He also talked about endings and transitions. It was clear to most of the people in the room at his talk, and increasingly to the rest of the world, that we are in the midst of an event of the greatest possible historical magnitude unfolding all across the planet. This event is multifaceted: there is, of course, an anthropogenic ecological crisis resulting from climate change and mass extinction; there is also a cultural crisis, a failure of ideas and of consciousness, resulting in tremendous economic and geopolitical instability and injustice, in post-factual campaigning where the monetary speech of corporate persons is replacing civic participation, and resulting in global terrorism, whether that brought about by the remote-controlled drones of nation-states or by religiously-motivated suicide bombers. We live in an increasingly wired world, a world woven by an electronic web of instantaneously interconnected media into an ecology of screens; a world, therefore, held fast along the blurred boundary between image and reality, where cartoon pictures of prophets incite violent uprisings in one land, while in another, satellite photographs of melting glaciers, gigantic hurricanes, and shrinking rainforests barely make the news. As far as earth is concerned, our human presence will be making headlines for millions of years. We’ve already left our mark on the very geology of the planet. Literally, we are on the verge of a ground-breaking shift in the nature of nature and the nature of culture that has already reshaped the face of the planet. Too often, philosophy has made itself irrelevant to social and ecological realities, focusing narrowly on texts, on knowledge, and on politics to the exclusion of contexts, wisdom, and the cosmos. Sam is a philosopher, and a friend, who I know has heard the call of the earth to think in this time of emergency the intimate links between the variety of who’s and what’s that have too often gone unthought by traditional philosophies…. Enjoy!