Phenomenology and Process Ontology: Evan Thompson, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, and the Growing Together of the Flesh of the World

I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).

Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan's next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.

Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.

Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:

…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.

Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.

I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).


Is Physicalism Enough? Can Consciousness be Naturalized? – Owen Flanagan in dialogue with Evan Thompson

Check out the video from their exchange at Northwestern earlier this year. Below are some of my notes and reflections after watching…

Owen Flanagan argues that physicalism is the only feasible view. Naturalism is the inference to the best explanation. Conscious states are brain states. At some point in evolutionary history, somehow dead matter came to life, and some time later, somehow, life became conscious. There can only be physical solutions to these problems.

Flanagan argues that I can never have another person’s experience, that consciousness is inherently private.

Flanagan quotes the Dalai Lama, who counters physicalism with the claim that, while gross mental states may be physiological, our innate nature–the luminous core of consciousness–is not limited by the brain.

Evan Thompson had four key points: 1) consciousness is primary, 2) physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodologically, 3) neuroscience must integrate embodied phenomenology, and 4) contemplative practice can help us with this integration.

1) Primacy of consciousness first established by Kant, elaborated by Husserl… Consciousness is not something we have, it is something we live. If we lost it, we would no longer be. Without consciousness, there is no world, there is no science. This is a horizonal conception of consciousness. It cannot be objectified.

Consciousness has epistemological primacy. Scientific models of the world are distillations of our conscious experience as observers. We never step outside consciousness to see the world from nowhere. It makes no sense to try to reduce consciousness to one or another of our scientific models.

2) Physicalism won’t work as metaphysics or methodology. What is it to be physical, anyway? Let’s try to define it: the physical is what today’s science says it is. But that can’t be right, since there are deep and fundamental problems with current physics, so we have to define the physical by pointing to some future scientific conception of matter… But what if it turns out that the panpsychists are right and it turns out that mental states are as fundamental as material states at the most fundamental scale? Or, what if it turns out there is no fundamental scale?

We need to enlarge our conception of the scientific method if we hope to account for consciousness scientifically.

3) Neuroscience must integrate phenomenology. Science cannot objectify the subjective if it hopes to understand the subjective as such. For Thompson, consciousness requires not only a brain, but a body and a world. Science must therefore approach consciousness intersubjectively. Which is easy, since science is already an intersubjective enterprise guided by peer review. Scientists are always already involved in lived experience and their work is always already phenomenological.

4) Contemplative traditions can teach us about the ontology of consciousness. The training of awareness and emotional response, learning to cognitive reappraise our knee-jerk reactions, etc., may be necessary to understand the underlying nature of experience. Learning to distinguish our narrative sense of self from our present moment experience or embodied sense of self has measurable neurological effects. The science of consciousness requires a circle of hermeneutical exchange between (at least!) neuroscientists, phenomenologists, anthropologists, and contemplative practitioners.

As Thompson describes it: “Whatever counts as ‘nature’ can’t be understood apart from human cognitive practices of investigating nature, and therefore can’t be given absolute explanatory primacy over mind.”

I with him for the same reasons I’m on board with Bruno Latour‘s ontological constructivism. I’m not sure Evan would go so far, however, as he seems to plant his feet firmly on phenomenological ground, and so in some sense his claims about the limits of physicalism are not really metaphysical, but epistemological. I don’t know if Husserl is enough here…

Thompson ends with some questions about the ethics of consciousness studies. He wants us to ask not only “what is consciousness?, but “what sort of consciousness do we want to cultivate?” This isn’t a question many cognitive scientists seem to be asking…


In his rebuttal, Flanagan acuses Thompson of “romantic rhapsodizing” for claiming that consciousness is “all we are and all we have.” He questions whether we can really take our phenomenological intuitions seriously. He also wonders if even highly refined introspective practices (like Buddhist meditation) aren’t just unnecessarily theoretically front-loading experimental work. Unlike Thompson, Flanagan thinks science can objectify consciousness.

In his response, Thompson clarifies the ontological principles underlying the particular school of Buddhism (Madhyamika) that he thinks is relevant to the scientific study of consciousness. For Mādhyamikas, there is no underlying substance or essence to anything, whether physical or mental, because all apparently separate things are really dependently co-arising phenomena. From this point of view, not only can’t consciousness be objectified, nothing can. Thompson looks to this Buddhist tradition in an attempt to draw Western cognitive scientists into a cross-cultural dialogue, not so we can all become Buddhists, but so we can learn from a tradition that has been studying human mental processes from a first and second person point of view for thousands of years longer than Western science has been studying it from a third person view. And learning from them doesn’t mean we accept bad arguments about the ontology of consciousness.

Thompson agrees with Flanagan that we can objectify the mind, he just doesn’t think we can do so exhaustively. There will always be something left out of an objective account of subjectivity (duh?).


John Sallis’ Logic of Imagination as an Example of Etheric Imagination

Below is another section of my dissertation proposal. More to come…


John Sallis begins his Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental (2000) by regretting the Husserlian phenomenological tradition’s tendency to subordinate imagination to pure perception in an effort to “[protect] the bodily presence of the perceived from imaginal contamination.”208 Sallis argues that the force of imagination cannot be reduced without remainder to the “image-consciousness” studied by phenomenology, since it is primarily deployed at the generative roots of conscious experience where the intentional ego finds itself ecstatically undone by the powers of the World-Soul and the sublime depths of the elemental cosmos. For Sallis, there is “a more anterior operation of imagination” than mere fancy or superficial imagining, an operation beyond the horizontal limits of consciousness and so “constitutive even for perception”: “If such a deployment of the force of imagination should prove already in effect in the very event in which things come to show themselves,” writes Sallis, “then perhaps one could begin to understand how, at another level, imagination could issue in a disclosure pertinent to things themselves.”209

The phenomenological tradition’s theoretical image of imagination as “no more than the self-entertainment of conjuring up images of the purely possible” is derived, according to Sallis, from the modern age’s largely instrumentalist commonsense, whereby important decisions concerning the future are made “based merely on calculation and prediction” without concern for their aesthetic or ethical implications.210 Imagination, reduced to its merely recreative function, is deemed to work only with one’s personal memories and fantasies without any deeper participation in the sub-sensory history or super-sensory destiny of the evolving universe. For today’s materialistic commonsense, “the very relation of imagination to time comes to border on the inconceivable.”211 Sallis’ sense for the constitutive role of imagination in synthesizing the experience of past and future in a living present allies him with the process tradition. In his Ages of the World project, for example, Schelling attempted to narrate the past, discern the present, and intimate the future ages of the World-Soul by coming to experience a recapitulation of these ages within his own soul.212 Jason Wirth, Schelling’s translator, suggests that the unfolding of such an experience within the soul might allow thinking to become “the same…as the autopoietic movement of time,”213 thereby re-establishing the profound connection between mind and nature known to all pre-modern peoples, though now in a modern, evolutionary context. “Created out of the source of things and the same as it,” writes Schelling, “the human soul is conscientious [Mitwissenschaft] of creation.”214

For Whitehead, every actual occasion, whether atomic, anthropic, or galactic in scale, “includes that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought.”215 The exercise of imagination via the ingression of eternal objects orients a concrescing actual occasion of experience to the real possibilities available to it in the future. Whitehead’s process ontology provides a coherent account of the interplay of both final causality (lure of the future) and efficient causality (pressure of the past) in nature, thereby making the relation of human imagination to evolutionary time conceivable once again.

After critically situating his inquiry into imagination in relation to the phenomenological tradition, Sallis cautiously lauds the legacy of Romanticism. “Cautiously” because he notes the tendency of contemporary culture to waver indecisively between dismissiveness and empty valorization of the “almost unprecedented inceptiveness and intensity” of Romantic thought and poetry.216 It is as if the accomplishments of this era, though almost universally appreciated, are too beautiful to be true, and so the Romantic vision of the world persists today only as a fantastic dream. Sallis calls upon his contemporaries to look again at the “almost singular texts” of the Romantics, to reread them slowly and carefully so as to allow “their provocative force to come into play.”217 The continued relevance of the process tradition to which Schelling and Whitehead belong (as well as the esoteric tradition I aim to cross-fertilize with them) is closely bound up with the fate of the Romantic tradition. Sallis’ attempt to retrieve the radical implications of the Romantic imagination is therefore essential to my research.

Is the Romantic vision of the world too beautiful to be true? Sallis turns to the poet John Keats to get a handle on the way that imagination is said to possess “a privileged comportment…to truth.” “What the imagination seizes as Beauty,” writes Keats, “must be truth–whether it existed before or not.”218 Imagination’s comportment to the truth of beauty is then twofold, establishing itself in both the beauty of what already is, and the beauty of what is not yet but might be made so. “The truth may have existed before the establishing,” writes Sallis, “in which case the establishing would consist in…remembering it; or the truth may not have existed before the establishing, in which case the establishing would consist in…originating the truth, or, in Keats’ idiom, creating it.”219 Sallis reads Keats’ statement as an expression of the paradoxical nature of imagination, enabling it to seize beauty as truth in a simultaneously “originary” and “memorial” way, a kind of creative discovery. The logic of imagination in this sense is not bound by the law of non-contradiction, but hovers between opposed moments allowing contradiction to be sustained.220 “Schelling expresses it most succinctly,” according to Sallis, when he writes in his System of Transcendental Idealism that it is only through imagination that “we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory.”221

Perhaps the most important consequence of imagination’s ability to generate polarity by hovering between contraries rather than allowing them to degenerate into dualistic opposition is that the all too familiar subordination of the sensible to the intelligible world must be radically reformulated. Again, Sallis draws on Keats, who calls us to look upon the sensory world with an imaginal passion or creative love whose reflected light, “thrown in our eyes, genders a novel sense.”222 The truth of Beauty is not perceived abstractly as by an intellect seeking “a fellowship with essence,”223 but rather by an etheric sense which wreathes “a flowery band to bind us to the earth.”224 The true world is not to be found in “the clear religion of heaven,”225 but in the “green world”226 of earth.

Like Keats’ “novel sense” engendered when imagination is lovingly seized by the true light of Beauty, Whitehead speaks of the “basic Eros which endows with agency all ideal possibilities.”227 In Whitehead’s philosophical scheme, intelligible essences become the ideal possibilities or conceptual feelings evaluated by the mental pole of a concrescing occasion. No longer distant unmoved movers, these Ideas erotically yearn for immanent realization, for incarnation in an actual occasion of experience. Ideas act as lures for feeling generative of “novel senses,” thereby creatively shaping the purposes of individual actual occasions. The creative advance of the universe is driven forward by the integration of the real feelings of the physical pole (prehensions of past actualities) with the ideal feelings of the mental pole (ingressions of future possibilities): Novelty, in other words, “results from the fusion of the ideal with the actual:–The light that never was, on sea or land.”228

The light Keats and Whitehead speak of is perceivable only with the power of etheric imagination, the novel sense that, if it becomes common, can heal the bifurcation of nature instituted by modern scientific materialism. “Nature knows not by means of science,” writes Schelling, “but…in a magical way. There will come a time when the sciences will gradually disappear and be replaced by immediate knowledge. All sciences as such have been invented only because of the absence of such knowledge. Thus, for instance, the whole labyrinth of astronomical calculations exists because it has not been given to humanity immediately to perceive the necessity of the heavenly movements, or spiritually to share in the real life of the universe. There have existed and there will exist humans who do not need science, through whom nature herself perceives, and who in their vision have become nature. These are the true clairvoyants, the genuine empiricists, and the men who now describe themselves by that name stand to them in the same relation as pretentious demagogues stand to prophets sent from God.”229

Sallis connects Keats’ reversal of the typical philosophical evaluation of intelligible originals as truer than sensible images to Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “I beseech you, my brothers,” Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, “remain true to the earth!”230 In his account of “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable,” Nietzsche traces the historical development of the dualism between the True and the apparent world from Plato, through Christianity, to Kant. Finally, in Nietzsche’s day, the subordination of appearance to Truth had come to be refuted: “The true world–we have done away with it: what world was left? the apparent one perhaps?…But no! with the true world we have also done away with the apparent one!”231 The return to the sensible called for by Sallis, Keats, and Nietzsche, and Whitehead and Schelling in their own way, is then not a simple reversal that would place appearances above intelligibles. Such an inversion would be nonsensical. Rather, the very dichotomy must itself be overcome so as to provide an entirely new interpretation of the sense of the sensible.232 Sallis suggests that this new orientation to the sensory world will require also a new orientation to logos, to speech. His work toward a “logic of imagination” is largely an attempt to reconstruct the sense of speech so that it is no longer “subordinated…to an order of signification absolutely anterior to it.”233 In other words, rather than the meaning of speech being thought of as a derivative of some preconstituted intelligible order, this meaning is to be brought forth out of the sense of the sensible itself. “What is now required,” writes Sallis, “is a discourse that would double the sensible–interpret it, as it were–without recourse to the intelligible.”234 Instead of the old dichotomy between the intelligible and the sensible, Sallis turns to elemental forces like earth and sky for philosophical orientation: “Distinct both from intelligible άρχαί [archetypes] and from sensible things, the elementals constitute a third kind that is such as to disrupt the otherwise exclusive operation of the distinction between intelligible and sensible. At the limit where, in a certain self-abandonment, philosophy turns back to the sensible, this third kind, the elemental…serves to expose and restore the locus of the primal sense of vertical directionality, on which was founded the sense of philosophical ascendency, indeed the very metaphorics of philosophy itself. One recognizes the Platonic image of the cave is not one image among others; rather, in the depiction of the ascent from within the earth to its surface where it becomes possible to cast one’s vision upward to the heaven, the very translation is enacted that generates the philosophical metaphorics.”235

Sallis admits that such a logic of imagination, in that it “[disturbs] the very order of fundamentality and [withdraws] from every would-be absolute its privileging absolution,”236 places philosophy in a somewhat unsettled, even ungrounded, position. Indeed, Nietzsche’s call to return to our senses by being true to the earth is not an attempt to erect a new foundation for philosophy on more solid ground. Nietzsche sought a new beginning for philosophy in the groundless world of becoming–the world of “death, change, age, as well as procreation and growth.”237 Even the earth is made groundless by the geological forces slowing turning it inside out. Nietzsche subjected all prior philosophers to the earthquakes of his hammer, showing mercy only to Heraclitus, perhaps the first process philosopher, for challenging Parmenides’ emphasis on static Being. Heraclitus declared instead that all things flow.

Although Sallis articulates his logic of imagination largely in the context of Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism, Whitehead’s aesthetically-oriented process ontology may provide a more consctructive example of how to philosophize after the “True world” has become a fable. In Contrast to Nietzsche’s more demolitional approach, you might say Whitehead philosophizes with a paint brush. For Whitehead, the dichotomy between appearance and reality is not as metaphysically fundamental as has been assumed from ancient Greek philosophy onwards.238 The over-emphasis of this dichotomy is based upon the misleading notion that perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” is the basis of experience, when in fact, perception in the mode of “causal efficacy” is more primordial. Another way of phrasing it would be to say that, instead of seeing consciousness as the highly refined end product of a complex process of experiential formation rooted in the vague feelings of the body and the emotional vectors of its environment, philosophers have made the clear and distinct ideas of conscious attention their starting point. “Consciousness,” writes Whitehead, “raises the importance of the final Appearance [presentational immediacy] relatively to that of the initial Reality [causal efficacy]. Thus it is Appearance which in consciousness is clear and distinct, and it is Reality which lies dimly in the background with its details hardly to be distinguished in consciousness. What leaps into conscious attention is a mass of presuppositions about Reality rather than the intuitions of Reality itself. It is here that the liability to error arises.”239 The main error of traditional philosophy has been to overemphasize the metaphysical importance of the clarity and distinctness of conscious attention. “[We] are conscious of more than clarity,” writes Whitehead. “The importance of clarity does not arise until we have interpreted it in terms of the vast issues vaguely haunting the fullness of existence.”240 Whitehead argues that this overemphasis on clarity, already in germ in ancient Greece, eventually lead, in the modern period, to the disastrous separation of mind from nature and the related doctrine of “physical matter passively illustrating qualities and devoid of self-enjoyment.”241

“In the discussion of our experience,” writes Whitehead, “the first point for notice is the superficial variability in our clear consciousness of qualitative detail. [It] results from an effort of concentration and elimination. Also it is never sustained. There is always a flickering variation, varied by large scale transference of attention. Consciousness is an ever-shifting process of abstracting shifting quality from a massive process of essential existence. It emphasizes. And yet, if we forget the background, the result is triviality…The whole notion of our massive experience conceived as a reaction to clearly envisaged details is fallacious. The relationship should be inverted.”242

Whitehead avoids this modern bifurcation of nature by not organizing his philosophizing around the clear sensa and distinct ideas projected before his conscious attention. He vastly expands the speculative scope of his adventure in cosmology by beginning to philosophize in media res, caught amidst the passions of bodily inheritance streaming in from the depths of space and time, lured forward by the ideal possibilities yearning to flow back into the world. There is a kind of “intellectual intuition” at the generative root of Whitehead’s cosmology, an initiatory experience of the cosmic crucifixion eternally binding the Idea to space and time. Whitehead himself suggests as much when, in The Concept of Nature (1919),243 he approvingly quotes Schelling’s account of intellectual intuition: “In the ‘Philosophy of Nature,’” writes Schelling, “I considered the subject-object called nature in its activity of self-constructing. In order to understand it, we must rise to an intellectual intuition of nature. The empiricist does not rise thereto, and for this reason in all his explanations it is always he himself that proves to be constructing nature. It is no wonder, then, that his construction and that which was to be constructed so seldom coincide. A Naturphilosoph raises nature to independence, and makes it construct itself, and he never feels, therefore, the necessity of opposing nature as constructed (i.e., as experience) to real nature, or of correcting the one by means of the other.”244 Whitehead’s intellectual intuition of nature leads him to imaginatively generalize the archetypal dynamics of his own experience so that they can be applied to the experience of actual occasions of every grade. Causal efficacy finds its analogue in the initial “physical pole” of a concrescing occasion, while presentational immediacy is related to the final “mental pole.” In Whitehead’s universe, there is no longer any passive matter lacking experience whose qualities are projected onto it by conscious animals. Rather, the final real things are actual occasions and the entire universe is a living organism.

Whitehead, as well as Schelling, Sallis and company, do not prescribe any simple inversion of the traditional subordination of the sensible world of earthly existence to the intelligible heaven of divine Ideas. Both Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and Schelling’s Naturphilosophie provide examples of the generative power of a new organ of philosophical perception (or intellectual intuition)–the etheric imagination. This organ dissolves the bifurcated consciousness of the spatially frozen intellect by sensorily opening to the “becoming of Being,” to the ingressions of eternity into the aesthetic (e)motions of organic time. In the process philosophies of Schelling and Whitehead, not even God escapes becoming: “God is a life, not merely a Being,”245 as Schelling writes. In the final chapter of Whitehead’s Process and Reality, he imagines how a merely “primordial” God (i.e., God as original Being or perfect Act beyond all beings) would remain buried in the eternal ground of unconscious darkness like a dormant seed unless it was drawn forth by the light and wisdom of a “consequent” pole. Schelling agrees with Whitehead when he writes that “Being becomes aware of itself only in becoming.”246 God must thereby everlastingly integrate original action and complete passion: God is beyond all beings while at the same time becoming-with all beings. As Schelling argues, “Without the concept of a humanly suffering God, one which is common to all mysteries and spiritual religions of earliest time, all of history would be incomprehensible; scripture also distinguishes periods of revelation and posits as a distant future the time when God will be all in all things, that is, when he will be fully realized.”247

Neither Schelling nor Whitehead seek to invert Plato; they seek only to truly understand the mystery his philosophy attempts to convey. Plato’s philosophic method was rooted in the generation of problematic encounters between appearances and reality. His philosophical investigations were spiritual exercises which in his own day and for many centuries after proved liberating both for individual souls and for political bodies. But his initiatory Idea of eternity’s participation in the (e)motions of the World-Soul degraded, for the idolatrous moderns, into the nonsensical idea that an active and intelligent mind “in here” must attack and overcome a blind and stupid nature “out there.” “It is here,” writes Whitehead, “that the prominent epistemology of the modern centuries has been so weak. It has interpreted the totality of experience as a mere reaction to an initial clarity of sensa [via presentational immediacy]. The result is that the reaction is limited to the data provided by the sensa … the mass of our moral, emotional, and purposive experience is rendered trivial and accidental.”248 This idea was first formalized by Galileo into the doctrine of the primary and secondary qualities: Primary qualities are the real, mathematizable aspects of nature accessible only to the intellect (as mediated by telescopes and calculators), while secondary qualities are appearances projected onto primary things/numbers by the contingently evolved sensory organs of the body. Things/numbers are said to determine the necessary and universal laws of mechanistic physics, while organic appearances (species with their attendant psyches) are said to transform haphazardly in the blind struggle for existence. “Things” are here equivalent to Whitehead’s notion of abstract “scientific-objects” constructed in the course of scientific investigation. These abstract objects, according to Whitehead, “embody those aspects of the character of the situations of the physical objects which are most permanent and are expressible without reference to a multiple relation including a percipient event.”249 “Numbers” are not themselves scientific-objects, rather they are “formulae for calculation [which] refer to things in nature,” while “scientific objects are the things in nature to which the formulae refer.”250

It has been known since at least Plato that, to learn the laws of nature, it is best to study the motions of the stars overhead. As for planet earth, down here there are no things/numbers. Down here are only occasions of experience, incandescent tear drops of a creatively dying divinity, an ever-complexifying entanglement between eternal Ideas and actual events. Things/numbers are real enough “up there” in the abstract space of calculation. But here on earth, where we are, a thing is but a distant flickering in the sky. The geometers have forgotten that all measurement begins with geo- and remains planted on the planet. A thing’s trail can be traced, but we always tell the star’s tale with the soil beneath our feet, swallowed by the weight of our inherited bodies, overwhelmed by the fate of our enculturated minds. It is not only the heavens who are spinning; it is we, too. What we see “out there” is an imaginal achievement of the World-Soul whose organs extend from quarks through human beings and trees out to stars and galaxies. All of it is here with us when we are there with it.

Sallis’ attempt to articulate a “logic of imagination” that brings logos down to earth, returning it to its senses, can further assist my reading of Schelling by making the challenges of translation explicit. I am not a fluent reader of the German language, which may be an important reason not to write on Schelling. However, even if I cannot claim expertise in German, I believe I have been able to familiarize myself with what is at stake philosophically in the translation of certain key words, not the least of which are Einbildungskraft (which Sallis translates as “force of imagination”) and Schelling’s neologism Ineinsbildung (which Coleridge translates as “esemplastic power”). For Sallis, translation is not simply the problem of carrying meaning from one language over to another; it is a problem internal to each language, the problem of signification itself. That is to say, even if I were to draw upon only English-speaking authors, the problem of the translation of their “true meaning” would remain. When there are no longer any pre-constituted intelligible signifieds for the sense of a language to signify, logos can no longer be grounded in Reason but must instead find its footing in “the sense of the sensible.”251 The classical sense of translation, where two different languages are said to signify the same transcendent signified, is no longer credible.252 A logic of imagination thus calls for the creation of a novel philosophical style, a new linguistic idiom or rhetorical flowering that “[lets] the discourse engender sense in and through the very movement in which it comes to double the sensible.”253 Rather than approaching the problem of translation, then, as that of carrying over the original meaning of Schelling’s German texts, I will approach the sense of Schelling’s (and the other German authors in his milieu’s) work not just in an attempt to “to teach philosophy to speak English,”254 but also to irreversibly disrupt any sense of a presupposed purity or simple identity to “the English language.” As the English translator of Schelling’s early essays on transcendental philosophy, Fritz Marti, has written, “Philosophy is not a matter of denominational schools, nor does it have one sacred language. Whatever is philosophically true ought to appeal to man as man. Therefore every philosophical formulation demands translation and retranslation. This is why philosophy has a genuine history. Religious words seem timeless. Philosophy demands perpetual aggiornamento. It must be up-to-date. Its truths are reborn by translation.”255 Philosophy, that is, requires constant updating. It remains always unfinished, always lacking the logical completeness of a definitive translation, not because it is pointless or would then come to contradict itself, but because its task is infinite. The telos of philosophy is not wisdom, the goal is not to be wise; rather, the philosopher’s telos is eros, the love of wisdom, becoming-with her instead of replacing her with himself. If the generative form of all philosophy is the absolute I, then the living content of philosophy must be “an infinity of actions whose total enumeration forms the content of an infinite task.”256

I will not encounter Schelling’s German texts as a fluent reader of his language, and so must depend largely upon the sensitivities of certain translators. Even so, in proceeding by way of a logic of imagination, I’ve learned that the problem of translation was already internal to my own language. For this reason, my reading of German (as well as French, Latin, Greek, …) texts is part of an attempt to take English to the very limits of its sense, to philosophize in a style rooted in a logic of imagination, rather than a logic of designation.257 “The truly universal philosophy,” writes Schelling, “cannot possibly be the property of a single nation, and as long as any philosophy does not go beyond the borders of a single people one can be safe in assuming that it is not yet the true philosophy.”258

In my reading of Schelling and Whitehead, I will draw attention to the creative “errors” in their translations of their own philosophical predecessors. I will also attend to the paradox of creative plagiarism exemplified in the poet-philosophers who carried this new process philosophy of imagination from Europe to England to America. “This is the constant ambiguity of the notion of origin,” writes Deleuze, “Origins are assigned only in a world which challenges the original as much as the copy, and an origin assigns a ground only in a world already precipitated into universal ungrounding.”259


208 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 14.

209 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 15.

210 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 15.

211 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.

212 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. xxxv.

213 Schelling, Ages of the World,  p. 136n5.

214 Schelling, Ages of the World, p. xxxvi, transl. by Jason Wirth. In a footnote Wirth adds that his translation of Mitwissenschaft as “conscientious” is meant “to evoke at least three senses of the Latin conscientiæ: joint knowledge, consciousness, as well as the ethical sense of the conscience” (136n5).

215 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 154.

216 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.

217 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 16.

218 The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 1:183-87.

219 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 17-18.

220 Sallis, Logic of Imagination, 161.

221 Sallis, Logic of Imagination, 4.

222 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 808.

223 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 779.

224 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 7.

225 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 781.

226 John Keats, Endymion Book I, line 16.

227 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 210.

228 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 211.

229 Schelling, Gesam. Werke, Abt. I. Bd. vii. “Kritische Fragmente,” p. 246; quoted in The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge: An Epistemological Inquiry by Nikolaĭ Onufrievich Losskiĭ, transl. by Nathalie A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), 170.

230 Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra, in vol. VI 1 of Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 9. Transl. by John Sallis.

231 Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p. 465.

232 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 33.

233 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 23.

234 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 33.

235 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 173.

236 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 21.

237 Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (1888), in The Nietzsche Reader, ed. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 462.

238 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 209.

239 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 270.

240 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147-148.

241 Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 210, 212.

242 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147-148.

243 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 47.

244 Schelling, Gesam. Werke, Abt. I. Bd. iv. “Ueber den wahren Begriff der Naturphilosophie” (“On the True Concept of Naturphilosophie”), 96; quoted in The Intuitive Basis of Knowledge: An Epistemological Inquiry by Nikolaĭ Onufrievich Losskiĭ, transl. by Nathalie A. Duddington (London: Macmillan, 1919), 170.

245 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.

246 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.

247 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, 66.

248 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 147.

249 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 74.

250 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 74.

251 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 32.

252 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 36.

253 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 34.

254 Sallis, Force of Imagination, 35.

255 Schelling, The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays (1794-1796), transl. and comm. by Fritz Marti (London: Bucknell University Press, 17-18).

256 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), 50.

257 See Sallis, Force of Imagination, 122, for more on how the images of imagination withdraw from simple designation by words. A logic of designation assumes an original meaning exists that might be successfully indicated in the lingo of another language, while a logic of imagination endlessly blurs the distinction between an original and its copies.

258 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, 190.

259 Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 202.

This Thursday’s PCC Forum- “Goethe’s Color Theory” – A lecture by Prof. Fred Amrine

For those who live in the Bay Area, the next PCC Forum (hosted by my partner Becca and I) will feature Prof. Fred Amrine, a Goethe scholar from the University of Michigan’s German department. The lecture is open to the public and will take place at the California Institue of Integral Studies (1453 Mission St., San Francisco, CA) this Thursday, March 21st, at 6:30pm in room 306. Prof. Amrine has lectured for us before on the history of imagination in philosophy from Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Goethe in the 19th century, to Rudolf Steiner in the 20th. You can listen to that lecture HERE. See the flyer below for more information. 


Husserl and Schelling, from Phenomenology to Naturephilosophy

A video by emblemOFbeing about Husserl‘s phenomenology as the final resolution of all antithetical schools of philosophy.


And my response questioning Husserl’s correlationism and suggesting Schelling’s geocentric realism:

Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology

I’ve just finished part one of Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Harman’s treatise on the relationship between the phenomenology of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Lingis and his object-oriented approach to philosophy. He is motivated by a desire to direct our attention to the things themselves, the independently existing objects of the world. It is a desire similar in spirit to Husserl’s famous directive: back to the things themselves!, but more radical in that his longing is less for descriptions of our attention than it is for adequate portrayals of the things themselves that aren’t stuck on issues of human access. Husserl’s work elaborates upon the intentional structure of consciousness, making clear that to be conscious is to be conscious of something. In other words, conscious subjectivity is constituted by its acts of objectification. Consciousness doesn’t access the world by interpreting a smear of raw sensory data, but always already perceives meaningful things: couches, water color paintings, and green coffee mugs.

Harman points out that the intentional unity of subject and object constituting consciousness’ relation to the world does not create an unbroken whole or “global purée,”  but rather a highly differentiated and layered matrix of relations between particular objects. When I direct attention to a coffee mug, I can still recognize a difference between myself as perceiver and the mug as a thing perceived. I can even recognize a difference within myself between the I that I am and the I that intends the mug.

As Harman puts it:

“Although in one respect the intentional act is a seamless fabric without parts, in another respect it is riddled with numerous interior objects that hypnotize me, that absorb my attention as I enjoy their sensuous facades and aim my attention at the illusive objects lurking beneath them. In short, the unified intentional experience is already a descent into its own particles.”

Harman doesn’t want to reject the important discoveries and re-orientations of the phenomenological tradition, he wants to extend them so that it becomes possible to imagine objects relating to one another, communicating with one another, independent of human consciousness. Intentionality, then, is not just a feature of human consciousness, but of the relationship between things themselves: the table intends the mug, the mug intends the coffee, just as I intend each of them.

There is so much more to be unpacked, and I’m excited by the prospect of bringing Harman into conversation with the likes of James Hillman, and perhaps even Rudolf Steiner. The similarities with the psychology of the former are sketched in my last post (which Harman noticed and found plausible). And Steiner’s richly textured ontology includes an etheric dimension that mediates between the unreachable substance of physical things (the mineral realm) and the pure qualities of presentational immediacy (the astral realm), which sounds similar to Harman’s call for an ontologization of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh of the world, that mysterious carnal matrix that gives rise to both perceiver and perceived.

Here is an excerpt from Guerilla Metaphysics that might help make this connection to Steiner’s ontology more plausible (p. 24):

“We do not really dwell amidst objects, because they forever surpass our explorations of them, remaining inaccessible to us. But neither do we live among brute sensory givens, since there is no such thing as sensuous matter without objective form [b/c the essence of consciousness is intentionality]: a cacophony of random sound is already interpreted as a specific unit against its background, as are the minute colored points on computer screens. In short, we live in a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”

It sounds to me like the strange medium he is talking about, which is neither physical nor ideational/presentational, is precisely what Steiner means by the etheric body. It isn’t the feelings and sensations of the private soul, nor is it the motions of minerals in the physical body. It is the sense-making, or imaginal processes of the etheric matrix, which is the place Steiner says thinking must come to dwell before any participatory epistemology is to be possible (he says the thinking of modernity and positivism is trapped in the brain, literally determined by the shape of the matter in the skull). I think Harman might be trying to enact this sort of space for thinking. Like Steiner, he seems to look at and feel into a layered and stratified world of real beings whose inner lives are not immediately accessible to consciousness.

It’s all still a jumbled mess of vaguely related ideas in my head at this point, but I’ll be trying to clarify my thoughts in more posts soon to come.

Logos of the Lived Body: Remembering the Way Home

Logos of the Lived Body:

Remembering the Way Home


By Matthew Segall

Fall 2009

Buddhist Philosophical Systems

Prof. Steven Goodman





“Embodiment is: emerging into this world of light and sound…confinement to a body as a constantly changing piece of luggage, always a surprise to look down and it has sprouted hair or breasts, become fat, wrinkled, thin, peeling, saggy…becoming afraid that this will end…frustration of mind-never-still standing square in the way of Mind…wonder of using mind-that-can-grow-quiet to encounter Mind, body-that-can-sit to realize Body…” –Jan Chozen Bays (Being Bodies: Buddhist Women and the Paradox of Embodiment, p. 171-172)



The fact that I exist at all strikes me as unendingly weird (German: werden- ‘to become’; wer- ‘to turn, bend’); but, what at first pass seems like the most stubborn and persistent of facts may, after the careful inquiry and practice of re-turning (i.e., bending back to look again), reveal itself as a fleeting appearance. Perhaps, if my self-query is sufficiently penetrating, the seeming fact of my separate existence will dissolve entirely into the blissful radiance of Śūnyatā. Who and what am I, really? How is it, exactly, that I exist in this wonderfully weird world (W3)? And why should my mysterious existence continue to come into being at all? These questions—the who, what, how, and why of existence—will guide me along this hopefully homeward bound philosophical holzwege (‘wood path’). My walk along this unknown wood path is risky (wagen- ‘to risk’), because I know not from where I came nor when I will end—I simply (and often quite confusedly) find myself thrown here amongst others without memory of my whence and without clear sight of my whither. All I know is that the path I walk is motivated by a heartfelt concern, not for the proper definition of abstract concepts, but for the ultimate significance of my and my fellow’s being-toward-death. I am compelled by this uncanny situation to develop a coherent account of my body-as-lived that is adequate to the task of guiding my journey home (i.e., homing) through such a W3.


The practice of re-turning is also one of remembering, of making the self-body-world complex whole once more through a process of anamnesis: I must call to mind again that in me which is aware of the original universal current of intelligent energy (Logos). The body (Sarx) and its intimate relations are the place of my concern and the mandalic center of significance around which all my existential thoughts will revolve.


“The body,” says Guenther,


“acts as an orientational point in terms of which and around which the surrounding world in all its richness and variety is structured and organized” (Matrix of Mystery, p. 22).


My holzwege will be translated by alphabetic magic into vessels of visible sound, and so must function for the reader as a grammatical walk through tangled webs of English syntax, rather than a bodily sojourn across earthly trails. You cannot literally walk by my side into the invisible landscapes that I seek to traverse, but nonetheless, the written words that mark my movements are originally bodied forth as speech, and speech is the site where my “ethically agitated altruistic intent” (Goodman, 12/7/09) for self and others first fully emerges into the world. As a sentient being of human incarnation, my “authentic utterances” (MoM, p. 67) serve as mediators between the actual and possible worlds that my heart-mind aspires to know and dwell within. As per the demands of discursive investigation, despite my heartfelt concern for concrete matters of life and death, the perspectival power of abstraction and conceptuality must be called upon. I lay down this path in walking home not to outrun the mind’s tendency to grasp-at-in-attempting-to-contain the rich perceptual flow of experiential reality,[1] but to consciously engage these mental tendencies in an attempt to transform them, making of the thinking process a spiritual ally.


As Guenther says,


“Concepts imply selection; that is, some aspects of what we perceive are contrasted with others, some are even suppressed, and the emotions assist in further distorting that which is perceived, because they, too, are denied their scope. In the context of our body this state of affairs is termed the body of sedimented drives and tendencies initiated by and filtered through a system of concepts and discursive ventures” (MoM, p. 25).


In being explicit about the telos of my current task (remembering the way home), I hope to avoid the distortion that might be caused by drives and tendencies that remain sedimented and suppressed. I will select and contrast the perceptions provided by my earthly embodiment, being careful along the way to avoid fruitlessly constructing a castle of systematic thought which in the end serves only to cast an enormous shadow over the nearby shack where I find myself still living.[2] I desire not a new textual representation of the body’s place on the path, but a praxecology[3] applicable to actual life on earth with others.


In a topological sense, the universe is a seamless garment of excitatory intelligence whose energy can, through “bending and twisting,” be “stepped down” and worn by an endless variety of sentient beings even while maintaining the “dynamic invariance” of its “formal gestalt” (MoM, p. 27). The universe remains eternally whole even while impermanent particulars are constantly being born and dying as expressions of its “cosmic evolutionary force moving in an optimizing direction” (MoM, p. 33).


“There is a twisting or going astray of the gestalt into the shape of a body,” says Guenther,


“such that a vast expanse is crumbled into a tight sheath and a transparent and open presence is mistaken (misread) as something which, as an isolated or more exactly self-isolating system, now begins to exert its gravitational pull” (MoM, p. 27).


The nature of this misreading is of great concern to me, as the ignorance and isolation it produces are the chief sources of suffering in my life. That the open transparency of the vast expanse is mistaken by a self-isolating system suggests that only I am to blame for the suffering (dukha- ‘crowded space’) associated with Samsāric experience. This realization leads not to resignation, but to the insight that Nirvāa, too, is potentially my karma (i.e., my responsibility): Through the non-arising (nirodha) of a mistaken reading of reality (and a mistaken identity), dharma can shine through the twisted garment of excitatory intelligence making up my body, thereby revealing the anti-gravitational pull of “pristine cognitiveness” lighting the path home (MoM,p. 10). The body-as-lived Samsārically is like a burdensome piece of luggage dragged along by an alienated ego whose lack of substantial existence necessitates its forever-thwarted attempts to have a life (as if it were not life that always already has it). I do not have a body or a life, but continually become a lived body thrust into and drained out of the intrinsic emptiness of being by the mysterious and intelligent dynamics of our W3. Let us now turn to the task of remembering how this weirdness bodies forth so that the Nirvāic impulse, having gone astray, can find again its homeward way.


Bhāvanā: Meditations on the Spirit of Birth and Death


I first entered this world not out of my own desire, but that of my parents. Twenty-four years ago, Eros’ arrow hit its mark and the ancient biological ritual of genetic transfer was successfully accomplished. A seed was fertilized and began to grow within the womb of my mother. I have no conscious recollection of gestating within her for those formative enneadic months, but the warmth and comfort I feel laying in bed beneath blankets each night evokes dim and distant memories. Upon falling asleep, my lungs are once again breathed for me as my waking life in this W3 is submerged into dreams and darkness. The entire sequence of birth, life, and death is fractally enfolded in each and every day-night cycle. Laying in bed while dreaming, I inwardly re-imagine the world—my limp body vegetating as if still afloat in the maternal waters of pre-creation; waking to the light of morning, I am born again into the gravitationally-restrained motility of life on earth; when of my own weight I grow weary in the evening, I retire to pass once more into the cleansing fires of deep sleep, forgetting all that seemed burdensome and heavy beneath the harsh light of day.


“Twilight is intimate,” writes Erwin Strauss,


“because here nature veils the boundaries separating things from one another as well as the distances that divide us from them” (PP, p. 19).


In sleep, the body is lived again as an undivided whole, temporarily escaping the tumult of daily life. I become again an unborn, still nascent consciousness weaning at the teat of the mother matrix. But all things turn, and in time this side of the earth rolls over to face the sun for another round of wakeful life. If the sleep-wake cycle and the life-death cycle are analogous, then life, as an integral whole, is rounded by birth and death. These events represent the horizon surrounding my presence on earth as a lived body. Birth raises my lived body into the light of the world until death decays it, returning it to the dirt out of which it was grown. Unlike the vegetative sentience of plants, however, my animate life as a human being presents me with a most auspicious occasion for fully awakening.


The place and time of my bodily birth was karmic, the fruit of the conditions surrounding past parental action. Guenther suggests that it is through my body that I “actively [engage] in and with [the] world”—through my body that I am “in touch with” both touching (noesis) and touchable (noema) (MoM, p. 115).By right of birth, my lived body, despite its apparent spatial and temporal limitations, shares in the mysterious indestructible intelligence of the seamless garment of ever-excitable pluripotentiality constituting Being itself (MoM, p. 114).The self-organizing “ensemble” of my body, speech, and mind functions as a unique expression of this universal source, free to participate in but also to seemingly stray from the vast flowering continuity of our cosmogenesis. Seemingly losing our way through the forests of the formal gestalt is possible because of the self-isolating nature of ignorance (avidyā) and our “inveterate human tendency to lose touch and forget, err and stray, stumble and fall” (Levin, p. 257). Losing touch is the result of an overly rigid embodiment leading to a loss of responsive motility and sensitivity.


What is required is a “transition from rigidity to fluidity,” according to Guenther, wherein


“the body as me-as-embodied is experienced as a process of embodying which, in the last analysis, turns out to be the spiritual richness that pervades the whole of Being…Thus every individual is an intentional structure in which the inseparability of mentation, speaking, and embodying occurs as an undivided and indivisible totality” (MoM, p. 196).


Though it may at times appear as if my mind and body, thoughts and speech, lose contact and become fragmented, it remains the case that underlying my personhood is a process of embodiment whose intrinsic motivation is for growth toward wholeness.[4] The garment of excitatory intelligence seems to become tangled and restrictive only superficially, if viewed through occluded eyes or approached with an attitude of ungrateful resignation. The seamless fabric of reality cannot tear, nor can knots in its fibers remain for long before their tension unravels back into the void.


Guenther writes in relation to this inevitability of our awakening that,


“Our internally constituted sense of reality (comprising our embodiment, speaking, and mentation) and our externally constituted sense of reality (comprising the totality of phenomena) are felt as a phantom-like fabric, emerging out of nothing, yet unfolding as something—this ‘something’ being attested by the fact that there is a coming-into-presence, and the ‘nothing’ by the fact that this coming-into-presence never occurs as a reifiable domain” (MoM, p. 79).


No body that has been born can avoid returning to the emptiness from which it came. Death is part of the bargain of embodiment, the energetic payment for life’s temporary far-from-equilibrium adventure as a self-isolating space-time event (or sentient autopoietic being). All forms are empty of substantial existence, even while emptiness remains itself overflowing with an infinite variety of potential forms, each one awaiting its chance to participate in the choreography of cosmic coexistence (tToK, p. 248).


I am born into this W3 again each morning refreshed, having sloughed off the cellular sacrifices whose living offspring continue to generously body forth an organic dwelling place for that in me which is aware and was so even before my mother and father crossed the chromosomes that unfolded into my spatiotemporal form of becoming. Physical reality offers no stable ground for my lived body, but “experience-as-such, having no root, is the root of all that is (MoM, p. 79).


What am I?

What is my body? It appears that all the myriad forms of intentionality that I experience in daily life and dreaming, including my own flesh, are impermanent: grasper and graspable arise together, neither able to sustain objective stability independent of its shifting relation to the other. I thrive as my body not by clinging to an illusory stasis, but by passing away gracefully. Enlightened life as a particular body (Nirmaṇakāya) is the art of decaying willfully while radiating love to others (as the sun consumes itself to warm the earth). My body’s purpose in life is to suffer for the love of others. In this case, my bodily telos is sacrificial service—my body a vessel to be filled-until-overflowing with compassion (Mahākaruṇā).


What is my speech? It seems that all the melodic sounds that I hear or utter, while intrinsically meaningful, nevertheless recede as quickly as they emerge. Meaning cannot remain the same for long, because it emerges from the ongoing dance of differences, the rhythmic call and response of intelligent dynamism. Dogmatic doctrines that once conveyed truth become fossilize with time. Only images evoked with living words and symbols manage to communicate the timeless joys of creative play underlying the manifest universe (Sambhogakāya). The topology of Being is like a text, a logos, always open to fresh interpretation (Levin, p. 260). My speech’s purpose in life is to sing with others in poetic praise of our “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn), that common body in which each contains all (Being Bodies, p. 9).


What is my mind? It appears that all ideas and emotions mentally conceived are but clouds floating through an open sky of“ceaseless pristine cognitiveness” (MoM, p. 79). Through all this conceptuo-emotive commotion, experience transparent to the open expanse of Śūnyatā endures unbroken, undisturbed. The mind is the “directedness of awareness” that, when purified of the desire to possess its intended objects, provides the spiritual momentum underlying the continuous authentic voicing of signifiers relevant to the unfolding character of the encompassing “meaning-saturated gestalt” (MoM, p. 196). An enlightened mind unveils the absolute reality of complete, ever-present emptiness (Dharmakāya) underlying all form. Not a mere heap of thoughts and emotions, the mind is the guiding thread unifying the autopoietic processes[5] linking speech, body, and world.


What am I? I am not a thing, physical or mental, but an


“action of resonating concern…embodied [as a] locus of experience…installed in a world with respect to which I…can engage in various ‘world’-related endeavors” (MoM, p. 195).


In body, speech, and mind, I engage the world because I care. I care because I know the eternal presence of Being can be so easily misread and ignorantly experienced as a dualistic realm of subjects/beings over and against objects/environments. I cannot be separated from my body, my voice, or my mind—nor from the phenomenal world these open me toward; I am aware of but not contained by any of these.


It seems I am not a what—I am a who. As a who, as opposed to a what, I cannot be chained to any particular substance, quality, or idea. As is written in the gSang-ba snying-po:


“…there is [nothing] that could be called a fetter;

Nor is there anyone to be fettered!

Fettering is done by the divisic notion which holds to a self

Tying and untying knots in the open sky” (MoM, p. 31).


A who is not an immutable essence, but a mandalic concentration of energy representable as a cross-cap (2-D), sphere, (3-D), or toroidal vortex (4-D) that forms an extensionless point of origin attended by an appreciative surrounding audience.


“In this manifestation of the point,” says Guenther,


“a departure from its source is indicated, and this departure expresses itself in the experienced (relished) relationship of the central (‘original’) point and the peripheral (‘moving’) point becoming an arc which, as it closes on itself, becomes the circle of (‘encircling’) attendants. Thus, it appears as an enlivening geometrical configuration imbued with the experience of beauty [see title page for visual representations]” (MoM, p. 43).


I am the site of mutual concern where self and other arise together as conspirators in the intrinsically ordered and marvelously coherent unfolding of the universe. I am Dasein, the cosmos as it happens “here” (Goodman, 11/30/09). But here is also “there”; I cannot be without you. In the dependent co-arising of our being-with one another, we participate in the further development of “an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” (Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century). As a who, I am the experiential event horizon created by the folding of the garment of Being back upon itself. Each who emerges as a center attended by a surrounding audience of others with their own unique perspectives (“…center is everywhere…”). This twisting of the universe into multiple centers of perspective prevents any final closure on the identity of a particular being. I remain always open to reinterpretation or even reinvention depending on the company I find myself sharing. The universal contains all particulars (there is no outside to a universe whose “circumference is nowhere”—all things share in unbounded oneness), even while each particular represents a unique once-occurant emergence onto the world stage.


If I truly am a who of such infinite significance, it must be possible to fully embody the deathless state in this life. The section to follow records my recollection of the home I’ve never left.


Embodying Nirvāa


Nirvāṇa is the deathless state that naturally arises with the extinction of Samsāric existence as a being-toward-death. It is the realization of the unfettered bliss of eternal life. Opening to the possibility of deathlessness requires confronting the end (i.e., telos) of my embodiment: death. An embodied life lived awakened (as a Buddha) or asleep (as a sentient being) ends all the same with old age, sickness, and death. What attains deathlessness is not the body, but a pure awareness of and as Śūnyatā that, while alive, may or may not have become transparent to itself despite the apparent restraints of embodiment.


The analogy between sleep and death provides a conceptual aid to support a deeper understanding of the wholeness underlying the life-death cycle. While my body has not yet perished on the physical plane, I have fallen asleep to its presence here/there many times.


“If authentic being-toward-death dwells in angst,” says Corey Anton,


“authentic being-toward-sleep opens humanity to the abiding joy of a more inclusive ground of being. It takes courage to endure the angst of authentically reckoning with death, but we take blissful comfort when we understand that, as alive, existence is always already less than the whole of who we are. To fall asleep is to give up momentarily on the individuated project of resolute existence; it is to let all cares fall to oblivion” (Anton, p. 194).



But individuation is not so easily escaped. The analogy between death and sleep is stressed by the temporary duration of the sleeping state. We lay our bodies down at night only to rest for the coming of a new dawn. The death of the body would appear at first glace to be permanent; however, with the realization of the deathless state beyond the body, reincarnation becomes not a return to bodily entrapment, but an awakening to the responsibility of compassionate coexistence. This is so because, as Nāgārjuna has written, emptiness is not other than form, nor Nirvāṇa other than Samsāra. The truly enlightened (those awake to the pristine cognitiveness underlying their bodily incarnation) do not choose heaven over earth, but forego eternal bliss for the sake of the holier work of easing the suffering of others. Full realization of the emptiness of the deathless state is immediately followed by an outpouring of compassion for all who live and die upon the earth (all sentient beings). Buddhahood reaches its apex not with Nirvāṇa, but with the boddhisatvic vow of willful service to others.


The difference between an arhat and a boddhisatva might be clarified by examining their spatial and temporal backgrounds. Space as the unconditioned openness underlying all apparently material existence provides every body with an opportunity for awakening to the freedom of its intrinsic emptiness. The arhat has realized this spatiousness by letting go of all attachments to the realm of ever-changing forms. But the time dimension is not overshadowed by space; if emptiness is not other than form, the unfinished evolution of the manifest cosmos from origin to Omega calls the enlightened back into human history to participate in the eventual redemption of the world. The boddhisatva hears this calling and responds wholeheartedly. No longer identified merely with the physical body, with its self-centered concerns of pleasure and pain, of having and getting, the boddhisatva is motivated instead by the project of midwiving awakening in all sentient beings through loving kindness and skillfully compassionate action. Embodying deathlessness is not an end in itself, but a catalyst for self- and other-transformation in a life no longer defined in opposition to death. Death, like sleep, is integral with the spiritual purpose of life: only by reckoning ourselves with the temporal destiny of our lived body can the blissful eternal presence of spaciousness be brought forth into the earthly realm in service of all who still suffer through the tangled confusions of Samsāra.



Home Again

The body can seem at times a chore and a burden. But the seed of unfettered existence lies hidden even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances. Never truly isolated, the body remains always arrayed within the “formal gestalt” of a universal coherence. This gestalt is not fixed, but evolutive, and so the body’s seeming instability and excitatory inclination is a “stepped down” expression of the universe’s seamless current of intelligent energy. Returning home is making of this bodily incarnation a temple to the intelligence at work within all things.[6] Through all my earthly travels and ordeals, I remain attuned to the intrinsic wholeness and beauty of our shared adventure of cosmogenesis. My bodily form is a gift, a house where Being is granted a clearing through which it can become present to itself and others.


My holzwege has not been straight or exhaustive; much has been left unexplored, and perhaps some of the discursive trails I’ve traced end only in thickets. I end only where I began, with the awareness that the only home I’ll ever know is already here. But a home without the company of others lacks warmth and good conversation. I’d rather continue my eternal wanderings through this W3 in search of those friends whose heart burns with the same passionate flame that has brought light to my path. Perhaps together we can work to make a home expansive and transparent enough for all to dwell. The earth awaits this most marvelous of divine deeds.




Works Cited

1) Anton, Corey. Human Studies. Volume 29 (2006). ‘Dreamless Sleep and the Whole of Human Life: An Ontological Exposition’

2) Grof, Stan. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. 2000.

3) Guenther, Herbert. Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective. 1989Matrix of Mystery. 1984.

4) Levin, David Michael. Ed. by Graham Parkes. Heidegger and Eastern Thought. ‘Mudra as Thinking: Developing our Wisdom-of-Being in Gesture and Movement.’ 1987.

5) Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Cognition. 1988.

6) Straus, Erwin. Phenomenological Psychology. 1980.

[1] Perhaps there is no other kind than experiential reality. If reality is trans-experiential, it would make little sense to worry myself about it.

[2] See Kierkegaard’s Journals, where he levels a similar critique against Hegel.

[3] Praxecology is a neologism whose meaning was first articulated in my essay, Logos of the Living Earth: Towards a Gaian Praxecology (2009). I invoke it here to continue to build upon its meaning, which “is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the earth community…[and] larger cosmogenic whole” to which all sentient beings belong (p. 4).

[4] See Grof’s work, which suggests the psyche (i.e., sentient being) is inherently holotropic (PotF, p. 2).

[5] First order autopoiesis occurs in each of the hundreds of trillions of cells composing our human bodies; second order autopoiesis maintains the metazoic form of our human bodies (see Maturana and Varela, 1988). A non-organic, primordial autopoiesis might be attributed to atoms, and a third order, social autopoiesis could be said to allow human bodies to consensually coordinate their intentions and behaviors via the enactment of domains of linguistic significance. Each of these microcosmic orders of nested autopoiesis shows an organizational similarity to the macrocosmic Being of the universe as an “atemporally operative dissipative structure” (MoM, p. 40). See title page for visual representation of this toroidal form.

[6] “You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased, and at a price. So glorify God in your body” -1st Corinthians 6:19-20. Compassionate coexistence with others is the only proper payment for the gift of individual existence.

On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics

On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics

Table of Contents


Introduction: What is Life?

I. The Irruption of Time

II. Ancient Biology

III. Modern Biology

IV. Teleology as a Regulative Principle of Living Organization

V. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive of Living Organization

VI. Concrescence and Bodily Perception

VII. Concrescence and Autopoiesis

VIII. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time

IX. Integral Thought-Perception and Market Cosmology

X. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity

Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life

Works Cited

“Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?” –p. 7, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures


The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population[1] and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.[2] In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.

This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity; but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy[3] into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.

The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).[4] But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and earth.

Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics[5] by devouring the remaining resources of the earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to “give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noosphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).  Only with the full emergence of the noosphere can humanity become integral with the earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).

Humans and their societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued, “…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).

I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by dualistic ontologies and fetishized mythologies. These forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our human-human relations is the psycho-social precursor that primed scientific consciousness for the reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution (which lead, consequently, to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic policy).

Mechanistic biology typifies deficient mental thought concerning human-earth relations. I will try to draw ideological links between mechanistic sciences of life and industrial economics to make clear that, while not the only cause of current social and ecological injustice, mainstream biology’s dismissal of soul (formal cause) and spirit (final cause) gives ideological steam to the hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching the planet’s living population to the edge of extinction. I will attempt to deconstruct the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo so that more integral human-human/human-earth relationships might be brought forth.

Introduction: What is Life?

“Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result” –p. 12, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures

Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an

“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).

The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying on earth. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate this metaxic, commercial concept. The reflective human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which

“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (p. 177, ibid.).

Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present “everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.). How are we to conceive of life’s integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence; an overly expansive definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature. Each living creature is a moving image of eternity, embodying both temporal and eternal ingredients.

I will endeavor in the following pages to coherently define every actual occasion, from atom to Eve, as a living creature. The reason is that no scientific account of the biosphere can, without incongruence, explain the emergence of life in a physical universe that is otherwise devoid of feeling, meaning, and purpose.

My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic[6] process” (p. 320, Dennett). This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all roots whatsoever between our own intentionality and the evolutionary dynamics that carried us here. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.

The process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela, will aid my critique[7] of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.

The approach of these two thinkers represents what cultural philosopher Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). It was not until the 20th century that life could be properly understood, as prior to this historical moment, time itself had not fully entered the consciousness of human beings. Gebser’s account of the irruption of time will aid us throughout this text.

I. The Irruption of Time

“The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur in this science at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration.” –Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384

In The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser elegantly enacts a still nascent structure of human consciousness, the integral, and distinguishes it through comparison to the other structures uncovered in his phenomenological study of the evolution of consciousness. The structures he discovered include the archaic, magic, mythic, and mental, each with its own dimensionality and sensory emphasis. Most important for my task—that of bringing forth a living cosmology to replace the dominant mechanical, market cosmology—is the ongoing mutation from the deficient mental to the integral structure, with special attention paid to the resulting transformed awareness of time.

The efficient mental structure of consciousness is described by Gebser as having been “already shaped in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity” (p. 11) by such figures as Parmenides, Plato, and especially Aristotle. The full mutation from psyche to mind[8], however, did not take place until 13th century Europe, revealed in the intensely personal poems of the Troubadours and the revival of Aristotle in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Gebser’s account of the mental structure suggests it was responsible for producing “the visualization of and openness to time with a quantifiable, spatial character” (p. 12), and offers as an example of this new attitude toward time the erection of the first public clock in 1283 in the courtyard of Westminster Palace.[9] From this moment forward, the mind became increasingly deficient, a growing impediment to integral space-free, time-free awareness.

Gebser is clear that this rising of time into consciousness is both a gain and a loss: a gain because it allowed humanity to think, to understand, to reflect, to calculate—in short, to recognize its capacity for rationality (p. 74); a loss because, with the invention of clocks, time became falsely spatialized, thereby occluding the transparency of the whole for the sake of rampant quantification of the parts.

As Gebser puts it,

“…our fathers [dominated by the mental structure] had no sensorium for the phenomenon of time. Living in a spatially frozen world, they considered the temporal world to be a disturbing factor which was repressed, either by being ignored, or by being falsified by measurement into a spatial component” (p. 284).

The implications of the obsession with measurement in a world experienced as “spatially frozen” will be explored in depth below, but it suffices to say for now that such factors played a central role in the formulation and widespread acceptance, whether explicit or not, of the substance dualism that continues to plague much of mainstream mechanistic biology (whether it be the dualism between consciousness and earth, or that between genetic information and somatic realization). Only once the mutation into integral consciousness commenced could humanity begin to appreciate time, not as a quantity or magnitude, but as a qualitative intensity (p. 285). Before exploring the crucial significance of qualitative time in an integral biology of economics, I must first examine the beginnings of biology itself during the birth and development of the mental structure.

II. Ancient Biology

“Biologists cannot study their subject in abstraction from matter, since nature always acts for the sake of an end, which involves studying the relation of what is potentially something to its full realization” – p. 641, Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium

Gebser recognizes Aristotle as among the first in antiquity to display an unquestionable tendency toward mental, as opposed to mythic, consciousness (p. 408). It is not surprising then that Aristotle is widely seen as the originator of both the science and philosophy of biology (p. xx, Lennox). Whitehead, however, famously wrote that philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” (p. 39, 1978), and indeed, Aristotle is indebted to him, even where he diverges. Whitehead credits Aristotle with correcting Plato’s tendency to “separate a static spiritual world from a fluent world of superficial experience” (p. 209, ibid.). In Timaeus, Plato lays out a cosmology that is structurally similar to what would today be called intelligent design. The universe is described as something made, though is imbued with intelligence and soul by its designer, a divine craftsman, who orders it based upon a changeless, ideal model to bring about the most beauty and goodness possible (p. 228, Lennox). Aristotle, on the other hand, tried to find a less theological middle ground between atomistic reductionism and Plato’s still mythic artifactual idealism, being careful not to scrub away nature’s purposes in the process. Though he still made use of the metaphor of the craftsman to understand organic form, Aristotle recognized an important difference between artifact and organism that was blurred by Plato’s cosmology (despite the fact that in Timaeus Plato describes the cosmos as a living thing—its soul was inserted from outside):

“For the artist is source and form of what comes to be, but in another; whereas the movement of nature is in what is coming to be” (p. 735, Generation of Animals).

Aristotle here distinguishes the work of an artist from the form of an organism by pointing out that artists shape their crafts from the outside, while organisms form from within. The core difference between Plato’s understanding of life and Aristotle’s is that Plato finds it necessary to import purpose into nature from beyond nature (by demiurgic design), while Aristotle finds it immanent in the movement of natural things themselves.

It might be helpful here to introduce Aristotle’s four αιτίες (roughly translated as causes, or reasons) for the sake of which every living organism exists. I will revisit these causes in a later section (VII) on Whitehead, where a slight reworking of them will aid our understanding of concrescence. The material cause is the potentiality necessary for formation, and the efficient cause this formative movement’s agent of initiation. The formal cause is movement directed toward an end, the final cause being the attainment of that end. Aristotle viewed the matter and form of a creature as intimately related: matter provides the potential for the actualization of form. The difference between Aristotle’s immanent and Plato’s demiurgic understanding of teleology is extremely significant, as this distinction has influenced nearly every philosopher of biology since, as well as every economist.

The separation and valuation of man and his labor over and above the surrounding natural environment goes hand in hand with the separation and valuation of a divine architect allied with eternity over and above a created world that is a mere imitation, “a thing that has come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods” (37d, Timaeus). The mythic enchantment still informing Plato’s cosmology would eventually be cleansed and anthropocentrized by more modern thinkers, who used its logical structure in support of what Donna Haraway has called “productionism”: “Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” (p. 297, 1992). I will discuss productionism in connection with mind/matter dualism in section VIII.

III. Modern Biology

“…if one accepts the evolutionary perspective, attempts to discuss science (or any other sort of conceptual activity) become much more difficult, so difficult as to produce paralysis.” – p. 299, David Hull, The Naked Meme

Charles Darwin, idolized by many contemporary materialists as the slayer of teleology and champion of the mechanistic paradigm, was a student of William Paley, whose natural theology and argument from design can be traced back directly to Plato (p. 228, Lennox). Paley held that certain artifacts, including organisms, could not be explained without recourse to an intelligent artificer due to their obviously designed features. Darwin was inspired to respond to Paley, and so devised the theory of natural selection to explain how the apparent design of organisms could be the result of a purely mechanical process working over immense geological time (p. 68, Dennett). Darwin’s response to Paley is difficult to disprove by weight of empirical evidence alone,[10] but when one realizes the implicit assumptions that both make, it becomes clear they are working from within the same paradigm: both Darwin and Paley understood organisms to be nothing more than especially sophisticated machines. They differ only in the reasons given for this sophistication. Paley’s argument from design required a transcendent deity for nature to have any purposes. Once Darwin called the logical necessity of that deity into question, the biological world was left sterile and purposeless, the result of chance, necessity, and an unfathomable amount of time.[11] Plato’s demiurge and the wisdom it had ensouled the universe with had been vanquished, leaving only the undirected flux of nature in its stead.

This is not the whole story, however. Darwin’s was a biology constructed to comply with and reduce to Newtonian physics. Newton conceived of the universe in a way reminiscent of (demythologized) Plato: nature was a clockwork machine constructed by God according to certain transcendent laws. Darwin was compelled to find a place for life within this framework, a framework Whitehead describes as “the doctrine of Imposed Law” (p. 113, 1967). The only way to make room for life in Newton’s universe was to erect a radical division between the contingency of biological evolution and the necessity of physical law. While Darwin correctly replaced Paley’s deist natural theology of creation with his evolutionary narrative, he failed to recognize that the laws of physics themselves also had to be evolutionized.[12] But because he was still firmly rooted within the mechanistic paradigm, Darwin could not understand how the biosphere’s miraculous beauty and harmonious organization might have arisen without recourse to the arbitrarily imposed, deterministic order of Newton’s laws.

Immanuel Kant, who died more than 50 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (and so also lived in the shadow of Newton), heavily criticized the view that organisms can be understood as machines/artifacts. His view is reminiscent of Aristotle, in that it affirms natural purposes without recourse to supernatural designers. Why the Anglo-American world paid so little attention to his critique of mechanistic biology is an historical curiosity worth exploring.

British colonialism (and later, American capitalism) has had no better apologist than Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by variation under natural selection can be read as the animistic projection[13] (through metaphorical transfer) of the socio-economic models of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus[14] onto natural processes. England was at the height of its global empire while David Ricardo, Smith, and Malthus were writing their treatises on market economics. His own national history and enculturation no doubt presented Darwin with a sense of moral obligation to explain natural history and biological evolution in such a way that they not contradict sanctioned norms of colonial and capitalist power relations.

Biologist Ernst Mayr has suggested that “Kant’s acceptance of teleology…greatly affected German evolutionists in the nineteenth century”[15] (p. 82, 2001). Nonetheless, Mayr felt that any use of final causation in biology was doomed to failure (ibid.). We can only assume that Mayr had other philosophical[16] (and perhaps ideological) commitments that prevented him from investigating Kant’s understanding of teleology in more depth. We turn now to explore Kant’s account of life, one that would almost two centuries later resurface in the scientific guise of Varela’s theory of autopoiesis (p.136, Thompson, 2007).

IV. Teleology as a Regulative Principle of Living Organization

“An organized being is then not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but it possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organizes them, in fact, and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion.” –Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment

In The Critique of Judgment, Kant ridicules the very idea of a purely mechanical account of life:

“…it is quite certain that in terms of merely mechanical principles of nature we cannot even adequately become familiar with, much less explain, organized beings and how they are internally possible. So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd for human beings even to attempt it, or to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws unordered by any intention, how even a mere blade of grass is produced” (p. 282-283).

Many materialists have argued that Darwin was exactly the “Newton of the grass blade” that Kant thought would never come. But this confuses an important distinction between ontogeny and phylogeny. Darwin’s theory was exclusively an account of the phylogenic diversification of species.

As Evan Thompson makes clear,

“Kant’s concern was the definite organization of living beings, but the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection does not provide any account of organization at the level of biological individuals. On the contrary, the theory must presuppose biologically organized individuals that reproduce” (p. 131).

To suppose Darwin’s theory banished the immanent purposes of particular beings, one must commit Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness by mistaking a general law about the abstraction “species” for an account of the nature and origin of concrete individuals. Further, because Darwin had to presuppose reproducing organisms for his theory of speciation to work, modern biology cannot look to his work for anything approaching a complete account of life.

Kant’s genius was to recognize that “some products of material nature cannot be judged to be possible in terms of merely mechanical laws” (p. 267, CoJ). To understand life, according to Kant, final causality must be employed. Like Paley, Kant also thought artifacts were impossible to explain without the application of some teleological principle. Material and efficient causes were not enough to account for the design of a bicycle, for instance. But unlike Paley, Kant understood organisms as “natural products,” not artifacts of divine design (p. 133, Thompson). A natural product is generated immanently by a natural purpose, in contrast to an artifact, which is given its purpose by an external, intelligent agent.[17] A natural purpose is found in “a thing [that is] both cause and effect of itself” (p. 249, CoJ).

It will be helpful to explore the relationship between artifacts and organisms a bit further. Both are organized in a purposeful manner, which means they are incomprehensible without an idea motivating their production. Further, the structure of any organized thing, machine or organism, is such that each of the parts composing it exists for the sake of the whole (i.e., each of the components conforms to an overall idea).

But this is not enough to understand the natural purposes of organisms, as Kant explains:

“…we must think of each part as an organ that produces the other parts (so that each reciprocally produces the other)… Only if a product meets that condition…will it be both an organized and a self-organizing being, which therefore can be called a natural purpose” (p. 253, CoJ).

Again, an artifact is purposeful because it is caused by an idea, but it is an idea that “resides outside the entity in the mind of an intelligent designer” (p. 134, Thompson). The idea informing an organism is, in contrast, “both cause and effect of itself.” Kant’s coining and elucidation of the term “self-organization” is strikingly similar to Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, but an important complication remains for us to discuss before I can move on to this more recent formulation. Kant saw the natural purposes of organisms as merely a regulative principle of our own human epistemological limitations. Regulative principles, in contrast to constitutive principles, do not tell us what a thing is, but only what we can know about that thing (p. 137, ibid.). Kant held that we needed both mechanical and teleological modes of thought to investigate nature, but was agnostic as to these concepts’ ultimate relation to things. This is a necessary result of the Kantian dualism between the phenomenal realm of experience and the transcendent realm of noumena.[18]

Even so, Kant comes very close to admitting that self-organization is constitutive of living organisms (and not just a regulative principle), but backs away from this position for reasons that are extremely significant considering the overarching aim of our current exploration (to reverse the disenchantment of nature that sustains the instrumentalist attitude so characteristic of techno-industrial capitalism).

It is worth quoting him at length:

“In considering nature and the ability it displays in organized products, we say far too little if we call this an analogue of art, for in that case we think of an artist (a rational being) apart from nature. Rather, nature organizes itself… We might be closer if we call this inscrutable property of nature an analogue of life. But in that case we must either endow matter, as mere matter, with a property (hylozoism) that conflicts with its nature… Or else we must supplement matter with an alien principle (a soul) conjoined to it. But if an organized product is to be a natural product, then we cannot make this soul the artificer that constructed it, since that would remove the product from (corporeal) nature. And yet the only alternative would be to say that this soul uses as its instrument organized matter; but if we presuppose organized matter, we do not make it a whit more intelligible. Strictly speaking, therefore, the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us” (p. 254, CoJ).

Kant here attempts to reconcile the possibility that organisms are intrinsically self-organizing (and therefore purposeful) with his philosophical commitment to Newtonian science.[19] He finds that he must either endow matter with life-like properties (hylozoism), or admit a dualism whereby an intelligent soul either constructs or inhabits organized matter (vitalism). He rejects both on the grounds that they conflict with Newton’s view of nature as composed of inert and unfeeling atoms shuffled around by transcendentally imposed laws. Self-organization, therefore, is seen as an entirely irrational principle that is nonetheless indispensible for any human understanding of living creatures.

Kant’s understanding of the nature and scope of science was lacking due to no fault of his own. In the time since his death, both the study of physics and the study of self-organization in biology have advanced beyond the wildest dreams of the 18th century imagination. Kant, like most of his generation, was mesmerized by the mathematical magic displayed in Newton’s Principia.

But as Gebser points out,

“This form of mathematics permits calculation with infinitely small variable quantities. These quantities…are merely mathematical quantities…[and]…render causal processes measureable by mathematically fragmenting intensities. These spatialized ‘quantities’ of intensity…will continue to exert a negative effect until we clearly recognize this rational falsification” (p. 311).

Gebser is here attempting to explain that calculative systems like Newton’s are clumsy abstractions, basing their measurements of space and time on “so-called ‘ideal quantities’” (p. 310) that are actually falsely spatialized intensities. The significance of this will not become clear until Whitehead’s process metaphysics are unpacked, but for now I will allude once more to the tendency of the deficient mental structure of consciousness to spatialize and quantify everything, leading to

“an extreme dualistic form of thinking which recognized only two antithetical and irreconcilable constituents of the world: measurable, demonstrable things, the rational components of science which were valid; and the non-measureable phenomena, the irrational non-components, which were invalid” (p. 285, ibid.).

Kant falls victim to this extreme form of dualism, and so is forced to understand self-organization as merely an appearance necessitated by the structures of our understanding. Life, for Kant, was self-organizing and purposeful, but only because the human mind is unable to experience and describe it any other way.[20]

This deficient mental dualism between what is rational/measurable and what is irrational/non-measurable will be explored later in connection with capitalism’s tendency to wedge general-purpose money between all human-human and human-earth relations (see sections VIII, IX, X). Such decontextualization erases the qualitative diversity of cultural meanings and natural purposes, replacing them with abstract and homogenous quantities assigned arbitrary value by the short-term whims of the market.

“Like all structures,” says Hornborg,

“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, 2001).

Mechanistic biology quantifies living organization by reducing its essential nature to the replication of genetic algorithms. A living organism, from the perspective of such a paradigm, is defined as “anything that can use the resources of the world to get copies of itself made” (p. 15, Ridley, 1999). It is a small step to the defacto attribution of vital existence to money itself, which feeds off the mineral and organic mass of the planet to turn a profit (i.e., make copies of itself).

V. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive of Living Organization

“…autopoiesis proposes an understanding of the radical transition to the existence of an individual, a relation of an organism with it-self, and the origin of ‘concern’ based on its ongoing self-produced identity.” –p. 116, Francisco J. Varela, et al., 2002

The resurrection of Aristotelian teleology in modern biology is a matter of great controversy (p. 1, Colin et al., 1998).  Some biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, deride any mention of it, as natural selection is deemed to have explained away any requirement of a purpose or aim behind the purely mechanical process of reproduction.[21] This view can be easily dispensed with, as Darwin’s theory concerned phylogenic change, having nothing to say whatsoever about the self-organization and goal-directed behavior of individual organisms.[22] Indeed, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is applicable only given an already self-organizing creature intentionally operating and reproducing within its environment.

Other biologists have adopted a new term, “teleonomy,” to describe the as-if property of purposes evident in the behavior and organizational dynamics of life. Biologist Jacques Monod goes so far as to say that “it is indispensible to recognize that [teleonomy] is essential to the very definition of living beings” (p. 9, 1972). Here, he echoes Kant by pointing out that life cannot be understood without purposes, though also like Kant, he understands these purposes to be a projection of the human observer. This is as far as most biologists are willing to go, as they feel obliged to respect the epistemological dualism of the mechanistic paradigm. Hornborg points to the cognitive science of Varela and Humberto Maturana in an attempt to deconstruct this dualism, suggesting that their approach “…[downplays] the distinction between human intention and other forms of systemic directionality in living systems” (p. 179).

Whitehead similarly notes that “no biological science has been able to express itself apart from phraseology [that] refers to ideals proper to the organism in question” (p. 84, 1978). Whitehead goes on to credit Aristotle with having impressed this fact on the science of biology, and relates how the overstressing of final causation during the Christian medieval period probably provoked the equally overstressed reliance on efficient causation in modern science.

When Varela and Maturana originally developed the theory of autopoiesis, they were undoubtedly influenced by this scientific tendency to overstress efficient causes: “Living systems, as physical autopoietic machines, are purposeless systems” (p. 86, 1980). By machine, they did not intend to confuse organisms with artifacts, but meant that the system was determined by its structure and organization (p. 141, Thompson). Any purposes attributed to it were considered projections: regulative, as opposed to constitutive features.

In one of the last essays he authored before his death, however, Varela proposed a revision of the understanding of purposes present in his earlier work with Maturana. He recognized that an autopoietic organization of the living implies the emergence of “an autonomous center of concern capable of providing an interior perspective” (p. 97, 2002). To understand why, it is necessary to explore in more detail the theory of autopoiesis:

“…an autopoietic system—the minimal living organization—is one that continuously produces the components that specify it, while at the same time realizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in space and time, which makes the network of production of components possible” (p. 115, ibid.).

To understand this rather abstract definition, let us ground it in the paradigm case from which it is drawn: the cell. A living cell is engaged in a continual process of self-production and repair, wherein each of its organelles participate in the production of one another, as well as in the production of the membrane defining them as a unity. Though an autopoietic system is also a self-organizing, dissipative structure,[23] it should not be reduced to these more general categories. What distinguishes an autopoietic system is its “self-produced identity,” or “instauration of a point of view” (p. 116, ibid.). An autopoietic entity is one that can be studied empirically (from the outside), but that also requires one to appreciate the horizon of experience brought forth by its continual self-production (from the inside). It is here that an immanent teleology finds its way back into biology, not as a regulative principle of our study of organisms (teleonomy), but as constitutive of life itself.

“…self-production is already and inevitably a self-affirmation that shows the organism as involved in the fundamental purpose of maintaining its identity”  (ibid.).

Varela’s analysis of the experiential component of autopoiesis involves more than just recognizing the identity arising due to an organism’s internal circular dynamics, but also the surrounding Umwelt[24] emerging from its “sense-making” abilities, allowing it to “change the physiochemical world into an environment of significance and valance” (p. 147, Thompson). In this way, intentional movements directed toward ends become the very basis of life. Both formal (the identity, or idea, actualized in the movement of the organism and its organs) and final (end-directed behavior) causality are here implicated in the organization of the living.

But can the Kantian dilemma be so easily resolved? Kant, as was discussed earlier (p. 19), did not understand how self-organization of the autopoietic variety could be possible naturalistically. In the last century, however, our understanding of the physiochemical make-up of organisms has increased significantly. We are far better equipped than Kant to cope with organic form (p. 140, Thompson; p. 101, Varela, 2002). But how, exactly, does an autopoietic account of life establish that the activity of an organism is intrinsically purposeful? How do we know that a teleological element is behind life when it could just as well be a projection of our own “…perspective on an otherwise completely neutral behavior” (p. 108, Varela, 2002)?

“It is actually by experience of our teleology—our wish to exist further on as a subject, not our imputation of purposes on objects—that teleology becomes a real rather than an intellectual principle. Thus causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life” (p. 110, ibid.).

Varela here inverts the whole tradition of natural philosophy since at least Descartes by reminding us that, “before being scientists we are first living beings, and as such we have the evidence of our intrinsic teleology in us” (ibid.). The mechanistic paradigm could begin only after Descartes had firmly established a metaphysical rift between thinking and extended substances. The Kantian difficulty over whether to embed teleology in organisms themselves, or to recognize it as a heuristic principle of human judgment, can be traced back to this division between mind and matter.[25] Descartes decreed that the extended substance was purely mechanical, ruled by efficient causes alone. This included our own living bodies.

Once it is understood that experience is rooted in bodily processes, and not in some invisible mental substance existing beyond it, attributing genuine interiority and teleology to other living bodies is simply a matter of generalizing our own embodiment. We need not, as Whitehead warns, “relapse into the tacit presupposition of the mind with its private ideas which are in fact qualities without intelligible connection with the entities represented” (p. 76, 1978).

But how far can this generalization of our own experience be taken? Varela, while he grants that teleology is more than an artifact of the human mind, only re-establishes it as a necessary phenomenological fact about our own embodied experience. To firmly root teleology, and therefore formal and final causes, in organisms generally, Varela must establish an ontological principle, not merely a phenomenological description. It appears he is willing to do just that:

“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).

Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.

VI. Concresence and Bodily Perception

“The philosophy of organism aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason. This should also supersede the remaining Critiques required in the Kantian philosophy.” – p. 113, Whitehead, 1978

All of the mechanistic ways of thinking thus far critiqued habitually commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, due in large part to inherited patterns of thought dating back to the Greeks. Aristotle can be praised for ushering in the mental mutation by recognizing the immanence of nature’s purposes, but he can be damned for having introduced the substance-quality logic that entranced the European intellect for much of the medieval period, eventually leading to the deficient sensationalist doctrine of modern scientific materialism. The sensationalist doctrine mistakes a high abstraction—universals derived from bare perception of sensory data (perception in the mode of presentational immediacy)—for the most primitive, concrete element of experience: “sense-reception” (perception in the mode of causal efficacy). This confusion of the concrete with the abstract allowed for the unchecked spatialization of time, with all its rigidifying and alienating effects, discussed in a prior section (see I). Whitehead adopts Bergson’s “admirable phraseology” to explain why: “Sense-reception is ‘unspatialized,’ and sense-perception is ‘spatialized’” (p. 114, 1978). The sensationalist perspective collapses the unspatialized continuum of experiential intensity connecting actual occasions through time, and so entirely ignores the immanent teleology found therein.

This ignorance of what Whitehead calls sense-reception, or causal efficacy, prevents mechanistic paradigm from accounting for sentience of any grade, whether the motile sensitivity of flagellating bacteria or the discursive consciousness of human beings. The sensationalist doctrine lead Hume to deny the soundness of induction, for with only sense-perceptions of the outer world of surfaces to go on, the best he could do was correlate sequential observations that tended to arise together into bundles of general association. Causation, as Kant would later declare (based on Hume’s empiricist premises), was merely a regulative principle projected on experience by the structure of our intellect. Whitehead blames this misplaced concreteness on the Greek overreliance on visual perception[26] (p. 117, p. 121, ibid.), which Gebser also points to as the dominant mode of sensory experience in the mental structure. Sense-reception, or causal efficacy, can be described as the temporally-ordered experience of one’s own living bodily presence, such that the past and the future are both constitutive elements in every passing moment, concretely and meaningfully making each one transparent to the whole. The immanence of past and future in a mandalic present provides us with a direct link, Whitehead argues, to the real becoming of the universe.

“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (p. 119, ibid.).

Here, Whitehead is attempting to generalize our experience as human beings, especially our non-sensuous perception of time, to all other occasions in the universe. Concrescence is best understood as the most general analysis of the phases of becoming of every actual occasion in the universe, though it should be remembered that these phases are not sequential in time, but always already growing together into an integral whole.

The simplest way to explain the phases of concrescence is to begin with Aristotle’s four causes/reasons. So long as we remember “the passage from phase to phase is not in physical time,” we will avoid oversimplification due to a false spatialization of the process (p. 283, ibid.). Aristotle uses the example of a house to elucidate the meaning of the causes, which was fitting for the mental structure’s preference for static categories. It is important to emphasize process in an integral account of experience; but for simplicity’s sake, the causes involved in concrescence will be introduced in relation to another artifact, a sailboat adrift at sea.

The material cause, for Whitehead, is the creative potential underlying all actuality: “It is that ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality” (p. 31, ibid.). In my sailboat analogy, this cause is the wind and the water, as well as the very structure of the boat itself. This entire nexus of occasions emerges each moment out of the satisfactions of the actual occasions that have perished before it. The efficient cause is “the transition from attained actuality (satisfaction) to actuality in attainment,” such that the prehensive acquisition of the satisfied occasions becomes the datum for the next phase (p. 214, ibid.). This prehensive phase is represented by the sails of the boat catching the winds of prior creative expressions, feeling their potential, and endeavoring, in the next phase, to make something of its own with them. This next phase is associated with the formal cause, wherein the valuation of future possibilities informs the reshaping of past actualities. The winds of inherited expression caught by the sails form a contrast between what is already given and what might yet become. As the saying goes, “You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” The final cause is the ideal of satisfaction luring the sailboat in the direction formed by the adjustment of its sails. It is here that the analogy begins to break down, as the sailboat, like Aristotle’s house, is an artifact. Its purposes are imposed on it from without, and so it attains no satisfaction of itself in the final phase of concrescence. This extremely simplified analysis of concrescence must be extended to the more complex occasion of the living human body.

The first thing to remember is that the emergence of each occasion of experience is partially conditioned by the entire past unfolding of the cosmos. The material cause, as described above, contains within it the subjective aims of countless actual entities that have come into being and perished. They gain objective immortality as they “[pass] over into the ‘given’ primary phase for the concrescence of other actual entities,” (p. 85, ibid.). This givenness is the efficient cause as experienced directly through the body’s non-sensuous perception (or causal efficacy) of the immediate past. Rather than understanding efficient causes as mere mechanical effects lacking emotive agency, Whitehead reconnects mind and matter by interpreting them as affects, or feelings directly prehended through bodily experience. As Whitehead puts it, “…sympathy…is the primary ground for the continuity of nature” (p. 183, 1967). The emotive forces of the past, aptly referred to as the physical-pole of concrescence, situate our immediate experience “…as a fact in history, derivative, actual, and effective” (p. 72, 1938).

Whitehead describes the transition to the mental-pole:

“In the formation of each occasion…the swing over from re-enaction to anticipation is due to the intervening touch of mentality…the occasion arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future. In between there lies the teleology of the Universe” (p. 194, 1967).

This swing from re-enaction to anticipation is the subjective form of concrescence, which, after integrating physical feelings related to actuality, opens to the ingression of eternity into time as the possibilities of definiteness available for shaping the future. Without this “intervening touch of mentality,” every actual occasion would be entirely determined, destined to passively repeat the past without any hope for novel expression or valuation of the future.

As was mentioned earlier in relation to Kant (see p. 17), the defining characteristic of living organisms is that they are cause and effect of themselves. The importance of such reciprocal causality becomes evident when considering the role played by the mental-pole of concrescence. The initial phase of the mental-pole is the self-formation of the organism, wherein the determined effects of its past are evaluated in light of future ideals. This contrast between feelings of givenness (physical prehensions) and feelings of potential (conceptual prehensions) constitute the autonomous subjective form of each occasion of experience. The completion of each occasion is reached when the subjective comparison of affects reaches satisfaction, perishing into objective immortality by becoming the efficient cause of subsequent occasions. This continual process of death-life-rebirth, of “derivation from without [physical prehension],…immediate enjoyment within [conceptual prehension],…and transmission beyond [final satisfaction],” is continually taking place within what would be recognized empirically as a single living organism. The phases of concrescence should shed light on what it means for organisms to be their own cause and their own effect. If Kant was able to analyze the organization of the living without having mistakenly assumed his sensuous perception (presentational immediacy) was most primitive, he might have recognized in himself, as an instance of living matter, an analogue of the teleological process of organic formation in nature.[27]

Varela realizes just this when he writes that “causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life,” which for Varela and Whitehead is intrinsically teleological. I will now explore the close ties between Varela’s biological account of autopoiesis and Whitehead’s metaphysical account of concrescence.

VII. Concrescence and Autopoiesis

“[The] wholeness [of an organism] is self-integrating in active realization, [its] form is not the result but the cause of the dynamic arrangements of matter, and hence the process at the same time is the form.” – p. 21, Hans Jonas, 1992

“It belongs to the essence of all occasions of experience,” contends Whitehead, “that they are concerned with an otherness transcending themselves” (p. 180, 1967). As Hosinski says of this contention, it implies that “subjectivity is derivative from objectivity” (p. 56). In other words, each occasion receives from the objective world the ground of its [the occasion’s] subjective enjoyment and the motive for its own subsequent (logically, not temporally) individual expression.

Similarly, Varela says of organisms that

“…because there is an individuality that finds itself produced by itself it is ipso facto a locus of sensation and agency, a living impulse always already in relation with its world” (p. 117, 2002).

The relation of an organism to its Umwelt is one of care and concern, as Whitehead says:

“The occasion as subject has concern for the object. And the ‘concern’ at once places the object as a component in the experience of the subject, with an affective tone drawn from this object and directed towards it,” (p. 176, 1967).

Varela is in agreement, in that “there cannot be an individuality which is isolated and folded into itself,” (p. 117, 2002). Instead, organisms have

“…[a] precarious existence…always menaced by concern, the need to avoid perishing, and to do this, [they are] again dependent on matter whose characteristics are the reason for [their] concern” (p. 113, ibid.).

The constant threat of perishing referred to by Varela is a result of every organism’s dependence upon flows of matter and energy, which mechanistic science tells us inevitably tend towards entropy. But as Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme allows us to grasp, the notion of “dead matter…is an abstraction from the full complexity of concrete actuality” (p. 62, Hosinski, 1993).  Life is defined by its continual self-production, maintaining its form by remaining far from thermodynamic equilibrium riding atop a wave of negentropy (or extropy). As Varela says, “this entails that teleology is a primordial tendency of matter manifest in the form of organisms,” (p. 114, 2002). An organism’s material struggle to avoid death will not ultimately succeed, but in temporarily achieving its ongoing life via autopoiesis, it brings forth a subjective form, “[enjoying] its decisive moment of absolute self-attainment as emotional unity” (p. 177, 1967) before perishing, becoming an immortal object to be prehended by subsequent occasions of experience.

To account for the natural purposes inherent in living forms, both Varela and Whitehead are forced to reject the materialist doctrine that defines matter as inert and passive.

As Varela puts it:

“The emergent causality of the reciprocal passages between the local elements [physical-pole] and the global emergent identity [mental-pole] are not a caprice, but inscribed and endogenous to nature itself, a tendency rather than an irregularity” (p. 114, 2002).

And Whitehead:

“…what has vanished from the field of ultimate scientific conceptions is the notion of vacuous material existence with passive endurance, with primary individual attributes, and with accidental adventures…the concept is useless as an ultimate notion in science and in cosmology” (p. 309, 1978).

A materialist may here protest that I have run roughshod over the established empirical facts concerning objective nature. But from Whitehead’s perspective, the dualism between subject and object established by Descartes is in conflict with the “organic realism” he sought to establish. Descartes dualism lead to the uneasy doctrine of primary and secondary qualities, a dualism Whitehead rejects, pointing out that “what [Descartes] described as primary attributes of physical bodies are really the forms of internal relationships between actual occasions, and within actual occasions” (p. 309, ibid.).

For Whitehead, primary qualities, which are supposed by the materialist doctrine to be the final real things existing independently of subjective experience, are but abstractions, for

“…we can never survey the actual world except from the standpoint of an immediate concrescence…actuality means nothing else than this ultimate entry into the concrete, in abstraction from which there is a mere non-entity,” (p. 211, ibid.).

Both the primary and secondary qualities of the experienced world must be understood in a relational, ecological way, rather than in a Cartesian, representational way. The mind does not make an internal picture of the world based on subjective ideas and perceptions corresponding to its objective, pre-existing features, but participates through the process of concrescence in the bringing forth of intersubjective worlds.

This return to the evidence of concrete experience leads to a further parallel between Varela’s theory of autopoiesis and Whitehead’s process of concrescence. Concrescence can be defined as “the real internal constitution of a particular existent” (p. 210, ibid.).

More technically, concrescence is

“the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the ‘many’ to its subordination in the constitution of the novel ‘one,’” (p. 211, ibid.).

Though it is true that “every entity in the actual world of a concresent actuality has some gradation of real relevance to that concrescence” (p. 41, 1978), in order to attain its unity of subjective satisfaction, the concrescence must simplify the multiplicity of its feelings with negative prehensions. A negative prehension is “the definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution” (ibid.).

Varela account of the autopoietic process of self-realization is similar: “stimuli from outside enter the sphere of relevance…only by their existential meaning for…the process of self-establishment,” (p. 117, 2002). Any element of the actual world incompatible with the subjective aim of an organism is negatively prehended, such that its role becomes negligible, though still actual enough to affect the emotional complex involved in the final satisfaction of the concrescence (p. 41, 1978). In Varela’s terminology, organisms bring forth their own domain of cognitive significance; or, in Whitehead’s: “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates” (p. 210, ibid.).

Before exploring the cosmological significance of this metaphysical account, it is necessary to elucidate the relation between form and matter that has been tacitly assumed so far. The classical materialist account is that matter has a fixed essence, cannot evolve, and has no intrinsic potential; it is determined entirely by exterior forces. The emergence of life out of such material would therefore require a miracle, as there is no way to account for individual self-formation without a yearning for organization and enjoyment present in matter from the beginning. Accounting for the ontological status of biological identity—for the “ever existing gap between the realization of the living and its underlying matter” (p. 119, 2002)—requires moving beyond the mechanistic understanding of organisms as substances informed with genetic qualities (traits) through passive selection by a pre-given environment. Not only does this ignore the reciprocal role played by organisms in the selection of their environment, it fails to fully consider an organism’s moment-to-moment task of having to produce its identity out of a continual flow of matter and energy. The neo-Darwinist claim is that genetic algorithms are responsible for the formation of the organism, but as has been pointed out numerous times already, one cannot account for the teleological organization and meaningful experience of individual living organisms (ontogeny) by reduction to a mechanical process operating at the level of whole species (phylogeny). To do so is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Accounting for the natural purposes of individual organisms does not require that we reject the reality of physiochemical constraints. On the contrary,

“the organism has to remain in the field of physiochemical laws to maintain a ‘coupling’ with the underlying energetical structures [i.e., entropy, autocatalyzing reactions, etc.] whose regularities assure that it can maintain coupling through the course of its life” (p. 118, 2002).

In other words, “the environment gives the basis for the organism’s behavior precisely by establishing a continuous challenge to it” (ibid.). This point is similar to the one made earlier about the object-subject structure of experience (see p. 45). The basis of subjectivity is a concern for that which transcends it. This subjectively immanent concern for objective transcendence is equivalent to the desire to exist for one’s own sake, or as Varela puts it, “Subjectivity is the absolute interest the organism takes in its continued existence” (p. 119, ibid.).

Varela continues:

“Necessary…are the material compounds of an organism, their incessant input and their unhindered supply. But this necessity…is governed by a principle of autonomy: the fact that a living system is able to become an ontological center, that it is able to organize itself into a form that is not explainable by the features of the underlying matter (the pure necessity) alone. This autonomy then is nothing other than true teleological behavior” (p. 119, ibid.).

To understand how purposeful living forms could arise from matter, an evolutionary tendency toward increased intensity of autonomous experience and planetary interconnectivity must be attributed to it.

“The doctrine [of evolution],” says Whitehead,

“cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental to nature. It also requires an underlying activity—a substantial activity—expressing itself in individual embodiments, and evolving in achievements of organism. The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake,” (p. 107, 1925).

The “substantial activity” Whitehead refers to could be called Eros. Eros is the “the soul stirring itself to life and motion” (p. 66, 1967) to “endow with agency all ideal possibilities” (p. 210, ibid.). If matter/energy is imbued with self-enjoyment and the desire to evolve (as in a Whiteheadian cosmology), it should be possible to give a thermodynamic account of the work of Eros in the universe, on earth, and in human society. The next section will unpack the implications of thermodynamics for both the biosphere and the noosphere, looking at how Gaia and the global techno-industrial economy relate materially and semiotically.

VIII. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time

“Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of truth.” –Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn to Matter

The tremendous temperature gradient[28] between space, the surface of the earth, and light from the sun generates the far from equilibrium conditions necessary for organic life to emerge. The gradient produces a tremendous amount of free energy, allowing autopoietic beings “to spontaneously create new patterns of order and organization by dissipating entropy” (p. 32, de Quincey, 2002). A thermodynamic account of living organization demonstrates the planetary basis of life. It is the material earth who is in the first pregnant with the energetic possibility of life, which quickly spreads around the planet to become a biospheric phenomenon. Lovelock hypothesizes that life, should it exist on Mars today, will not exist much longer; without pervading the entire planet with their metabolic presence, isolated organisms remain unable to activate the self-regulatory effects displayed by Gaia and so quickly perish.[29]

“Life,” says biologist Lynn Margulis, “is a gradient-reducing system” (p. 46). Living organization does not contradict the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as was once thought.[30] Instead, it feeds on extropy produced by the generous sun and receptive earth in much the same way as the industrial organism[31]; though in the case of industrialism, the rate of gradient reduction via exergy extraction has become so accelerated that it threatens to upset Gaia’s ability to self-regulate climate and sustain biodiversity.

Hornborg distinguishes between “biomass” and “technomass” to make transparent the difference between Gaia’s growth/maintenance strategies and the industrial machine’s:

“For biomass, growth is a morally neutral reward granted by nature itself, whereas for technomass it is a reward resulting from human ideologies and generating unequal global relations of exchange” (p. 17).

He goes on to remind us that technomass and biomass are currently competing for energy with one another on a planet with finite resources. Technology and economics, according to Hornborg, are not unrelated, independent levels of reality; machines do not magically create “growth,” “progress,” and “development” at the industrial centers out of nothing, but are animated by land and labor that has been exploited in the periphery (p. 147). Economics, like ecology, is a zero-sum game. Hornborg urges us to adopt wiser cultural concepts through which to engage with the rest of the community of life on earth. Mechanistic biology functions politically as a pseudo-scientific apology for contemporary industrial capitalist human-human and human-earth relations, and so my critique of its metaphysical foundations and reconstruction of biology in light of Varela and Whitehead is not a mere definitional nicety, but a political and eco-spiritual revolt. A mutually enhancing future human-earth relation will require more philosophically nuanced and spiritually mature discourses about the complexities of life and living.

As was suggested earlier (p. 2-3), the tremendous (and perhaps cancerous) growth of technomass can be understood as an extension of thermodynamic law to human economic activity. But this does not imply that the total dissipation of the planet’s energy via industrial extraction is inevitable. Consciousness can and must awaken to its integral, planetary role by overcoming the deficient mechanistic thinking currently polluting the noosphere. It might be helpful here to unpack, with Gebser, the process of mutation in the evolution of consciousness.

Gebser describes the mutation from the mythic to the mental structure as an “earth-shaking” event: it pierces the womb of the psyche—where all was pregnant with imaginal meaning and polar congruence—birthing the directed, dualistic, and discursive thought of the mind (p. 75).  “The ring [of his protective psychic circle] is broken, and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking” (ibid.). Gebser describes this process as “a fall from time into space,” as the sheltering cyclical temporality of the mythic structure gives way to the three-dimensional, alienating vacuum of space (p. 77). Efficient mentality, first exemplified by the thought of Aristotle (as well as Socrates and Plato before him), was a momentous achievement of the human spirit. It broke the mythic circle of temporality and aligned humanity with a purposeful, historical evolution. But after more than two millennia of increasing conceptual and colonial conquest of space, a growing sense of anxiety is alerting the mind to its deficiencies. Despite all our conceptual systematicity and technoscientific mastery, it seems the health of the earth has rarely been in so precarious a state (see p. 1).

“The environmental crisis,” says Hornborg,

“forces upon us the insight that Descartes expelled from view, that the human subject, with its bundle of concepts, anxieties, and aspirations, is recursively interfused with the planetary landscape” (p. 160).

The mutational task of integral consciousness is to free time from the spatial containers the mind has attempted to trap it in. The alienating struggle to spatialize time so characteristic of a deficient mentality turns dynamic and intentional life into static and inert material. This disembodied perspective on a disenchanted cosmos evoked the psycho-spiritual mood that allowed the towering empirco-mathematical system of Newton—not to mention the global techno-industrial system first gaining ideological steam in 18th century England[32]—to stand for several centuries, “but at last the Newtonian cosmology has broken down” (p. 156, Whitehead, 1967). Erecting such systems was possible only after Descartes had “decisively [separated] ‘mind’ from ‘nature’ (p. 210, bid.). This separation allowed Newton to conceive of atoms as “devoid of self-enjoyment.” Mind was deemed present only in the human, who through its unique access to conscious deliberation imposed upon a dead material cosmos the clarity and distinctness of its innate ideas (p. 212, ibid.).

As Gebser puts it,

“In the process of consolidating space-consciousness man has precariously placed himself at the outermost reaches of all manifestations. He brought about the isolation of the human, leaving it with only matter as its valid support….” (p. 310).

Whitehead recognizes that “human mentality is an extreme instance…of those happenings which constitute nature,” but refuses to exempt humanity from the course of natural events by imposing an artificial dualism. He argues that humanity must generalize its own conscious experience so that the phases of concrescence discovered therein become applicable to the descriptions of all other species of occasion in the cosmos, including God (p. 184-5, 1967; p. 110, 1978).

Failing to overcome the human-nature duality leads to a rigidification of culture wherein, as Gebser says,

“…consciousness increasingly empties itself of the ‘time’ it has negated, which, as a result of this attitude, itself becomes a lifeless spatial component. And the quantified motoricity of the machine and its lifelessness are in turn merely another expression of the spatialized concept of time [emphasis added]” (p. 310).

The danger in falsely spatializing time, of which we have given so much attention, is not only that it replaces the transparency of our experience with a opaque dualism, but that this dualism results in the attempt to make measurable and predictable every phenomenon one is faced with, even when such measurement, as in the case of a living organism, fractures its qualitative intensities of feeling, meaning, and purpose into abstract, homogenous quantities of matter and energy[33] (p. 311, 383, ibid.).

“If technology is the verification of modern scientific thought,” says Hornborg, “its social and ecological failures pose a challenge to that mode of thought” (p. 130). The global techno-industrial machine will continue to hollow out the heart of the earth until the human organism regains its own alienated labor.[34] Land (earth), too, must come to be experienced as more than a mere spatial extension of property or standing reserve of raw materials awaiting manufacture. The living earth is the primordial producer of life whose generativity is overshadowed only by the radiant generosity of the sun (p. 123, Hornborg). The humanist productionism discussed earlier (see p. 12) is a gross distortion of our species’ actual energetic relation to the biosphere.

Hornborg goes on to suggest that “…a more profound understanding of the machine must rest on the recognition that ‘technology,’ ‘society,’ and ‘cosmology’ are inseparable: as a socio-technical artifact, the machine simultaneously embodies and reproduces a specific configuration of cultural categories” (p. 127).

These deficient cultural categories are dominated by the notion of materiality. Hornborg argues that the word “material” is used prescriptively in modern Western discourse to refer to those aspects of life that are unquestionable (p. 130).[35] The result of this materialistic obsession is that thought begins to obediently kneel before the power of the machine (p. 116, ibid.), helpless to avert its thermodynamic trajectory toward ever more efficient conversion of exergy into entropy for the sake of disproportionate monetary accumulation.[36] The machine is “a material object of our own making which we seem to have lost control” (p. 147).

Nonetheless, “intensities, unless we mistake them for pressure or tension, are not measureable” (p. 310, Gebser), and so cannot be successfully mechanized/monetized. The materialism and mechanization still in vogue in contemporary economics and biology are, in part, a result of a failure to assimilate the transformation occurring in physics over the past century.

As was discussed earlier (p. 13), Darwin’s reduction of the apparent design of species to the accidental mechanism of random variation under natural selection was based on the fundamental assumption that space, time, and matter were Newtonian in nature. While his theory was undoubtedly empirically sound, it is often the case that “we have to rescue the facts as they are from the facts as they appear” (p. 155, Whitehead, 1967) by metaphysically reorienting the mind in its relation to things. Darwin selected from among the facts appearing to him only those most salient to his thoroughly Newtonian and bourgeois mind. As a result, the animate presence of the creatures he sought to understand was ignored, overlaid by the abstract rationalizations favored by the deficient mental structure of consciousness (p. 387, Gebser).

Time, for Newton as for Darwin, played merely a quantitative role: it was the space, conceived as a fourth dimension of extension, that allowed one moment, a fixed instant, to pass into the next, equally as instantaneous and having no intrinsic relation to the one prior to or following it but for the exchange of forces by way of efficient causation.[37] This collapse of time into a spatial sequence, each snap shot externally and accidently related to the next, vanquished the concrete temporal intensity required to understand how formal and final causes participate in living organization.

As Whitehead puts it:

“…the old conception  [of time] allows us to make an abstraction of change and to conceive the full reality of nature at a given moment…an abstraction is made of all temporal duration” (p. 195, 1934).

From Darwin’s point of view, the admission of teleology in evolution was absurd because it implied that the future had causal influence on the past. Time, conceived as purposeless and entirely accidental renders the future a mere result of forces determining it from the past—an aggregate of instants piled one on top of the other, species gaining their form along the way from the accumulation of chance mutations surviving the differential selection of a pre-given environment. This may be a partial explanation for the diversity of species[38], but not for the origin of life itself (see p. 16: the process presupposes self-organizing creatures that reproduce). This inadequate explanation retards a full account of life by neglecting the formal and final causes of autopoiesis, which become occluded when the “opposed doctrine of internal relation [is] distorted by reason of its description in terms of language adapted to the presupposition of external [i.e., spatial] relations of the Newtonian type” (p. 157, Whitehead, 1967). It should be noted in Darwin’s defense that his theory of variation under natural selection wasn’t designed to explain anything but the origin of species. The neo-Darwinism of Dennett, Dawkins, Ridley, and others is the source of the epistemic over-extension of Darwin’s more modest proposal.

Darwin imagined that all relations between occasions were external, but concrete/integral time is not decomposable into the static and exclusionary categories of past, present, and future—nor space into “here” and “there”: every point is the center.[39] Teleology is not a matter of the future causing the past, but of the future and the past being immanent in the concrescence of every occasion. Formal and final causation are relevant only for the internal relations within and between organisms and their environments, which Darwin assumed could only be related externally because of his commitment to mechanistic materialism.

“Evolution for the materialistic theory,” says Whitehead,

“…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, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modem doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (p. 107, 1925).

The doctrine of matter as merely externally related “stuff” in a continual process of purposeless re-arrangement according to arbitrarily imposed preconditions is no longer tenable, for reasons discovered in both the biological, as well as the physical sciences. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, though its discoverer does not take it this far, was the first crack in the foundation of Newton’s cosmological edifice.

The final sentence of Darwin’s Origin reads:

“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” (p. 384).

Darwin’s mistake was to assume that the law of gravity is fixed. He fails to extend the formative influence of evolution far enough. But worse for the implications of his theory within his own field of biology, he assumes that living organization is just an anomaly in nature[40], having been imposed upon matter from without by a capricious God, “breathed…into a few forms or into one” at the dawn of life. Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species” tells us nothing of scientific value about the origin of life. For natural selection to be of any use as a theory of biological form, we must presuppose the self-creation and natural purpose of individual organisms. Only given self-organizaion and Eros does Darwin’s theory shed any light on the subsequent development and diversification of the biosphere. Mechanistic attempts to account for the organization of the living fail because they employ too abstract and disembodied a conception of space, time, and matter, mistaking the quantities of Newtonian equations for the durations of lived experience, where each actual occasion, though continuous with the past, can anticipate novel futures. Newton’s conception of space and time was that each was a vast container indifferent as to what filled it, and even indifferent one to the other. Matter shuffled through, blindly obeying arbitrarily imposed laws.

But contemporary physics no longer understands time and space, nor matter and energy, as separate or absolute. Each shares a common history, having co-emerged and reciprocally conditioned the other throughout the process of cosmogenesis. Matter, similarly, is intimately related to the development of space and time—not in space-time as a kind of inert “stuff,” but integrally woven with it into a physio-psycho-spiritual process of inconscient yearning gradually flowering into luminous awareness, compassion, and bliss.

Emerson suggests there is “a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms” and that “The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world” (p. 25). Matter is not lifeless, but intrinsically animated by an enfolded spiritual destiny always and everywhere calling it toward higher forms and ideals. Its motion is not accidental or imposed upon it from without, but manifest by an indwelling spiritual longing for wholeness.[41]

Most contemporary physicists are still unwilling to grant that spirit pervades matter because the deficient mental structure of consciousness prevents its presence from being transparently apprehended. Having gained a better handle on the potential for the emergence of thermodynamic order found throughout nature, however, physics is now in a position to supplement the “aimless, aloof, and external power of natural selection” with the “willful, self-sufficient, and internal power of self-organization” (p. 128, Barlow). Evolution really is what arch-mechanist Daniel Dennett calls a “universal acid” (p. 63). It leaks out of biology and dissolves traditional ways of thinking in every field it comes in contact with. But it cannot be understood as a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” unless we somehow exempt the Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm (Gebser’s deficient mental structure of consciousness) from evolution’s transformative reach. Evolution is a theory that points to the common origin of the many forms of matter, life, and mind—not just at some distant moment in the past, but as a present reality, as every living creature owes its continued existence to its ecological (material-semiotic) relationship with others. Evolution (in a more cosmological sense than Darwin intended) is incompatible with the doctrine of external relation, which is the foundation of materialism.

The progress in the field of thermodynamics over recent decades, specifically the work of Ilya Prigogine, has established that the irreversibility of time is essential to the emergence of order in nature. This is a direct break with all of the mechanistic attempts to account for time, which did not recognize anything essential whatsoever about its direction. Newton’s equations give the same results no matter which direction time flows. This is also true for all equations expressing relativistic or quantum mechanics. Einstein himself once remarked that “time [as irreversible] is an illusion.” For Prigogine, however, the directionality of time is essential for any account of non-equilibrium systems and the creative advance into novelty that they make possible.

Whitehead’s notion of concrescence, derived from the Latin verb meaning “growing together,” is, according to Prigogine, an attempt to “reconcile permanence and change” (p. 59). Whitehead recognizes the essential role played by time in the creative unfolding of the universe, and his analysis of concrescence allows us to understand what was said at the outset (p. 6), that life is a moving image of eternity. Living organization cannot be accounted for in terms of the stuff of which it is made because its processual and experiential essence always transcends the mind’s attempt to decompose it into a spatially rationalized mechanism or totalized system.

Life perpetually recedes from the mind’s attempts to conceive of it materially because the mind’s materiality (i.e., its life) is the very source of its limiting spatialized modes of conceptuality. Life sustains the dynamic and evolving interplay of mind in matter, liberating mentality from its material slumber by increasing the sensitivity and reactivity of its concrescence. Only integral consciousness becomes aware of life as a transparent and purposeful whole, whose autonomous individual parts naturally tend toward symbiotic mutuality. Deficient mental consciousness, disillusioned by the disembedding forces of the techno-industrial market, is forced to explain life away as the naturally selected product of accumulated genetic algorithms. This supposedly scientific story about the reduction of life to DNA only carries metaphorical weight when imbued with mythological significance in the biological guise of Dawkins’ capitalistic “selfish genes.”

Logically, the neo-Darwinian mechanism is tautological: it says only that genotypes continue to survive today because they survived in the past. The only way to turn this from a meaningless non-statement into the founding principle of deficient mental biology is to mythologize it by metaphorically transferring English socio-economic ideology onto natural processes. Self-interested genes compete for resources in order to reproduce themselves indefinitely, much like middle-class industrial consumers and corporations compete for money (via sale of labor, land, products, and ideas) in order to generate the highest possible profit. Each instance ignores the concrete reality of its situation: the notion of selfish genes is a fetishized reduction of the teleology of whole organisms, just as the notion of general-purpose money and profit are fetishized reductions of the purposes of interpersonal relationship.[42]

Transparently apprehending the spiritual meaning underlying nature’s evolutionary unfolding requires new modes understanding and perception. Only an integral way of seeing and being can break the ideological spell techno-industrial capitalism has cast upon the human imagination. In the next section, I will recount Gebser’s attempt to bring forth understanding as systasis and perception as synairesis, comparing these to the deficient modes caused by what Heidegger has called the “enframing” of nature.

IX. Integral Thought-Perception and Market Cosmology

“Integral reality is the world’s transparency, a perceiving of the world as truth: a mutual perceiving and imparting of the truth of the world and of man and of all that transluces both.” –Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin

In the Ever-Present Origin, Gebser introduces two terms he feels exemplify the transparency and wholeness typifying the integral structure of consciousness. The first is systasis, “the conjoining or fitting together of parts into integrality” (p. 310). Gebser contrasts systasis with system, not to imply that they are opposites (as a thesis to its antithesis), but rather to make explicit the fact that systematization is still the method of a consciousness stuck in the three-dimensional, predominantly spatial world of parts. When one refers to a system, he describes the effect of some quantitative process of addition, thereby draining that process of any intrinsic life. Viewing an organism as a system converts it into a lifeless collection of objects, whereas systasis grants the parts a transparency allowing the organism to be understood as a subject perpetually becoming whole.

The second term, synairesis, refers to the mode of perception adequate to the integrality of reality. Gebser says that synairesis

“fulfills the aperspectival, integrative perception of systasis and system…[and is] a precondition for diaphany, which is able to be realized when, in addition to systasis and system, the symbol—with its mythical effectivity—and magic symbiosis are included, that is to say, present” (ibid.).

Varela and Whitehead display a clear understanding of the need for a synairetic mode of perception that breaks free of the spatial categories and systematization endemic to the mental structure. Whitehead’s analysis of concrescence is precisely an attempt to come to terms with living organization systatically. Systasis is Greek for “put together,” with the connotation of “forming” (Gebser, p. 292), linking it closely with the meaning of concrescence.

As Whitehead says,

“We have to discover a doctrine of nature which expresses the concrete relatedness of physical functionings and mental functionings, of the past with the present, and also expresses the concrete composition of physical realities which are individually diverse” (p. 157, 1967).

The related processes of concrescence and autopoiesis bring together each of the structures of consciousness in their attempt to make clear the organization of the living, uniting the systematic categorization and empirical attention to detail of the mental (through an appreciation of the dynamics of genetic inheritance), the circular polarity of the mythic (through an appreciation of cellular autopoiesis), and the vital synchronicity of the magic (through an appreciation of the concresent interpenetration of subject and object) without becoming fixated upon any in particular. The transparency of the whole is thus made evident.

It was not until the 20th century that time became fully apparent to human consciousness. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, participated directly in the scientific revelation that our sensory experience of the heavenly bodies is delusory until we have an appreciation of eternity. That is, because light takes time to travel from distant stars and galaxies to our eyes, we can only appreciate them as actual occasions if time has become transparent to us. Then we presentiate them without having to see them, bringing forth a “[reality] in which the present is all-encompassing and entire” (Gebser, p. 7).

Gebser continues:

“The synairesis which systasis makes possible integrates phenomena, freeing us in the diaphany of ‘a-waring’ or perceiving truth from space and time. Space and time are, after all, merely conditional realities and as such realities with a double relation. They are in the first place ‘objective’ as the transitory structure of our universe, and in the second, ‘subjective’ as the transitory structure and mirroring of our consciousness. This transitory character refers us to origin, which, with respect to consciousness, becomes space-and-time-free when we fulfill and complete synairesis, the aperspectival imparting-of-truth. In this are consolidated the clarity and transparency of man and universe in which origin becomes present, inasmuch as origin, which ‘lies’ before spacelessness and timelessness, manifests itself in consciousness as space-time-free present” (p. 311-12).

Absent such integration, those fixated within the mental structure will continue to reduce all factors of living organization to spatial-material components, thereby negating not only the natural purposes of the organisms around them, but “denying [their] own status as sentient beings who have a right to the pursuit of an undisturbed life” (p. 111, Varela, 2002). We cannot afford to ignore what Whitehead, after Shelley and Wordsworth, refers to as the “values [arising] from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (p. 88, 1925).

Thinking nature as concrescence and bios as autopoiesis prepares the conceptual alembic necessary for an integral cosmology that not only re-ensouls the world, but makes the ideas at work in the heart of the universe transparent to the human spirit. Human and universe are an anthropo-cosmogenesis, a whole in the process of intelligently forming itself; in its human mode, the universe not only forms, but performs the story of its evolution through cultural expression and civillizational ideals.

“Our image-building,” says Hornborg, “actively participates in the constitution of the world…Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (p. 10). Market cosmology conceives of the world as a fragmentary heap of raw materials awaiting technological production, a standing reserve of objects devoid of instrinsic worth or self-enjoyment. This leads to the mistaken idea that industry produces real value, when in thermodynamic fact, it operates deceptively by generating symbolic value (money) with no intrinsic relation to the actual earth processes it is degrading at evermore efficient rates (p. 32, ibid.). An integral perception and understanding of human-earth-cosmos relations grasps the inseparability of mind and nature, as “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (p. 24, Emerson). Space-time is not an objective container to which the rational human mind is subject, but the outermost reaches of the living tissue of an evolving consciousness.

The systematicity so characteristic of techno-industrial capitalism drains the earth of its vitality by fragmenting its symbiotic diversity of eco-semiotic valuations into a uniform, general-use currency such that “resource nations are economically forced to trash their ecologies to promote foreign exchange” (p. 174, W. I. Thompson). “Money in itself,” says Hornborg, “is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged” (p. 10). Hornborg understands general-purpose money (especially fiat currency) to be an “algorithm of destruction” because it is symbolically accumulated at the industrial centers even while the actual means of production underlying its profits on the periphery systematically render useless the truly generative potential of the planet.[43] “Industrial sectors of world society,” says Hornborg, “subsist precisely on that discrepancy between the material and the symbolic” (p. 47). This exploitative techno-socio-economic situation has resulted from a dissociation of human symbolic valuation from earthly productivity, and is principally responsible for the ecological crisis. Deficient mental attempts to commodify the ecopoietic processes[44] of nature (biosphere) and culture (noosphere) are given traction by abstract, quantitative measures of energy. Such hyper-perspectivalism severs all lines of possible contact between the raw state of natural energy and the qualitative and purposive temporality of human life.[45] In the next section (X), Lockean notions of labor, property, and the common state of nature will be re-imagined in an attempt to enact an integral “Gaian politique” (p. 174, W. I. Thompson, 1985).

A systatic understanding of earth as a whole awakens the knower to his or her participation in a complex physio-bio-noospheric concrescence that is intrinsically purposeful and generative. Integral consciousness perceives synairetically the co-emergence of ideas and images in a living cosmos that always already involves the human being in processes beyond his or her ability to rationally dissect and control (though spending great amounts of energy “tying nature to the rack”[46] may temporarily make the mechanization of life seem possible –witness the so-called Petroleum Interval[47]).

Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because the mechanistic conception of energy already systematically enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our monetary ends.

Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such” (p. 320, Heidegger, 1977).  Technology seems to be the means to this end.  However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (p. 317, ibid.). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature.  The danger in relating to earth in such a way—as a “calculable coherence of forces” (p. 326, ibid.)—is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry[48], which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense (p. 321. Ibid.).

Energy becomes, for the mechanistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth’s poïesis has been falsely monetized and thermodynamically exploited. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.

Humanity seems afraid to recognize that its technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. Ours is a crisis not only of the environment, but of the human souls dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, human beings will become batteries bio-powering the machines that have enslaved us, homeless upon a dying earth.

Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” -p. 340, ibid.), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger, scientific materialism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought forth technology. The great success of the empirico-rational disciplines is not the result of their metaphysical truth or correspondence to reality, but rather of the practical, economic value of their methods. These methods, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, have depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for humanity’s, and all life’s, continued existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given our species the opportunity to truly stand watch over the earth as the only home we’ll ever have.

The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the Garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. Humanity cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny has had to be lived out—our process of maturation cannot be reversed. In a typical enantiodromic reversal, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen synairetically, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of saving the earth from the techno-industrial monster that has been strangling it. For the first time, the noosphere can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath its feet.

As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (p. 351, ibid.). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars and the sun, whose diviner energies grant life to we mere earthly mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute” (p. 167, Rilke). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say (i.e., systasis and synairesis), and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.

X. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity

“The revolution cannot come in time for us to quit out jobs or cancel our debts, and the end of the world cannot come in time to eliminate the mess we have made of history; nothing smaller than the earth is large enough to express the revelation, and nothing smaller than this instant is vast enough to contain all the future that we need” -p. 182, W. I. Thompson

John Locke articulated the social foundations of market cosmology by defining property as anything human labor has taken out of “the state nature leaves it in” (p. 330, 1965). Human labor is said to produce property and value, the first of its proclaimed properties being itself. Once I have monetized my own ability to do work, the reduction of nature to a standing reserve of raw materials to be exploited is an afterthought (see pgs. 12, 44, 48, and 57).

“In our informational society,” says William Irwin Thompson, “property is no longer simply land; it is consciousness” (p. 177). Thompson suggests we think with Gregory Bateson by understanding matter, not as a “state of nature” awaiting human production, but as “unconscious Mind, or Gaia” raised to consciousness by the labors of the soul (ibid.). Such a shift in economic ethos reverses the relationship between mind and matter currently informing industrialism: the former is epiphenomenal to the latter. In a Gaian polity, Mind is understood to be united with the living earth, whose value is determined by the intensity of consciousness associated with the particular product in question (179, ibid.).

Thompson continues:

“If autonomy is the fundamental recognition of the distinction of life, and if autopoiesis is the fundamental narrative process of life, then the biological politics that derive from these descriptions are radically different from sociobiology or scientific socialism. This is what I see as the Gaia Politique, a politics that is radical in the sense that it is deeply rooted in the understanding of life [and] is truly…ecological and not simply the old industrial Marxist critique newly decorated with sun-flowers and green paint” (p. 180, ibid.).

Thompson goes on to suggest that, autonomy being essential to life and consciousness, the evil of market cosmology consists in its “failure to recognize the [distinct] living [performances] of autonomous unities” in their “narrative process of self-description” (p. 179). A Gaian polity would evoke the “counterdrive to total commoditization” that Hornborg identifies as culture (p. 172). Culture’s main resistances to the homogenizing tendencies of market exchange are the processes of singularization and sacralization that reverse money’s “tendency to render social [and human-earth] relations increasingly abstract” (p. 166, ibid.). Sacred or spiritual forms of culture are also abstract, but still rooted in narratives of “local resonance,” unlike the disembedded abstractions of science and money (p. 171, ibid.).

“The ecological crisis of modern society,” says Hornborg,

“has two connected aspects: one objective and generated by the general-purpose market and its axiom of universal inter-changeability, the other subjective and founded in the alienation of the disembedded, modern individual” (p. 160).

The challenge of enacting an integral cosmology hinges upon a transformed sense of narrative and the construction of meaning, which, according to Hornborg (p. 120) and Thompson (p. 101), is motivated by a fear of chaos and the desire to establish order through the ritualized performance of myth. Even the culture-eating techno-industrial worldview is made to function ideologically by way of deficient mythic narratives depicting the march of progress toward total control and rationalization of life.

Thompson defines narrative as a uniquely human way of responding to time, “an attempt to escape the infinity of the present as duration by reifying time into a past” (p. 100). Our narratives bring forth the worlds we inhabit, and enacting worlds of ecological resilience and diverse cultural expression requires respecting the autonomy of both Gaia and her many children. While only humans seem capable of knowing they tell stories, all creatures unconsciously bring forth their own cognitive domains of significance. The reduction of human consciousness to wage labor (measured by falsely spatialized clock-time) is a symptom of modern technology’s tendency to dissociate formerly integrated facets of reality, “namely tool/body, physical work/mental work, means/ends, work/agency, use/meaning, production/art, and work/life” (p. 130, Hornborg). Techno-industrial life leads to meaninglessness and existential anxiety precisely because money (and the social relations it establishes) alienates consciousness from its own powers of creative response to the overflowing meaning of each and every moment. Money is understood by Hornborg to be a “communicative disorder”; empty signs of arbitrary value are shown to be the very heart of market cosmology (p. 170-171). While general-purpose money can reinforce power relations, it cannot itself convey meaning, which depends on difference (p. 167, ibid.).

Thompson sees “the recognition of differences as the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 163), which is to say that cultural diversity is paramount to the establishment of resilient forms of meaning capable of providing spiritual nourishment for the whole human family. “Regional devolution,” says Thompson, “is part of planetary evolution; so it is the larger entity that nourishes the emergence of the smaller identity” (p. 166). Hornborg recognizes the need for a similar return to local valuation to “domesticate the market,” calling for the creation of dual currencies “so as to render local subsistence and global communication two parallel but distinct and incommensurable domains” (p. 34).

The living earth is the new stage upon which all human interaction must take place, but not in the decontextualized fashion typical of global capitalism. The move to a Gaian Politique deconstructs the Western division between person and thing, human and nature (p. 195, Hornborg).[49] Hornborg points out that, the more tied up with global networks of exchange we become, the less “outreaching” we become as persons. A return to local material and cultural subsistence would involve taking up forms of reciprocity that have been increasingly marginalized by market forces. Marshall Sahlins (1972) has articulated three forms of reciprocity, including generalized reciprocity (a “pure gift” with no expectation of return), balanced reciprocity (a fair trade), and negative reciprocity (an impersonal exchange where each party seeks to get something for nothing via symbolic persuasion) (p. 201, Hornborg).

An integral cosmology functions on “the basic intuition [of a] shift from industrial work, abstraction, and materialism to play [and] sensual consciousness” (p. 161, Thompson). Enjoyment of subjective community becomes the primary value of life, replacing the market cosmology of atomistic competition of each against all to accumulate quantities of money whose value is appraised based upon how successfully it can disembed meaning and material from its local, inter-personal and inter-bodily instantiation. A return to the experiential depth of the places where we live and the faces who we live with is the only way to reverse industry’s destruction of earth and money’s inversion of the Sacred (p. 171, Hornborg). The disenchantment and alienation resulting from the monetized mechanization of life are rectified only through a renewed authenticity capable of bringing forth the specificity and non-interchangeability of individual expression and inter-personal relation that resists being appropriated by the abstract and impersonal values of the market.

Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life

“The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself [and with woman and humanity]. He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit.” –p. 47, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aurobindo lists death and mutual devouring, hunger and conscious desire, and the struggle to increase, expand, conquer, and possess as the basic truths of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (p. 199). But this theory defines life only by its relation to the mechanisms of matter, forgetting the arc of evolution extends also toward mind and spirit. As mind emerges to overtake the vital striving of life, the “law of love” replaces that of death, and the fittest become those “who harmonize most successfully survival and mutual self-giving” (p. 203).

Mind, according to Aurobindo, “does not need to devour in order to…grow; rather, the more it gives, the more it receives and grows” (p. 204). The global economy has thus far been guided by Darwin’s overemphasis on the aggressive principle of life, devouring the very vitality of the planet it depends upon for its continued existence. Humanity is struggling to give birth to the higher principle of mind, to the love of conscious joining and interchange that might forestall our entropic rush to convert the common earth into private property.

The biosphere is experiencing the pains of labor as it struggles to give birth to its enfolded destiny, the noosphere. “We can hope for no progress on earth,” says Teilhard, “without the primacy and triumph of the personal at the summit of mind” (p. 297). Teilhard reminds us that even an interiorized and involuted universe labors, sins, and suffers (p. 313). Such are the demands of the spirit working through this anthropo-cosmogenesis, which, as Teilhard says, even from the perspective of a biologist, “resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross” (ibid.).

“Eros (love) does not occur only in the human soul,” says Eryximachus in Plato’s Symposium,

“It is a significantly broader phenomenon. It certainly occurs within the animal kingdom, and even in the world of plants. In fact, it occurs everywhere in the universe. Eros is a deity of the greatest importance: he directs everything that occurs, not only in the human domain, but also in that of the gods” (186b).

The personalization of earth and the cosmos is essential to any renewed engagement of humanity with its ecological context, as “persons and landscapes are mutually constitutive [and] co-evolve” (p. 3, Hornborg, 1998). The deficient mental separation of mind from nature has shattered the wholeness of the biosphere and of human society by translating the living intensity and particularity of the relationships holding each together into quantities of money and raw materials.

“Driven by the forces of love,” says Teilhard, “the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being” (p. 264-265). Teilhard urges humanity to overcome the “anti-personalist” complex paralyzing our techno-industrial civilization, and to at least grant the possibility, under the heightened pressure of our infolding world, that the earth has a face and a heart (p. 267). Life is not a machine, nor the human being a consumer. A human being, like all creatures, is alive because a great cosmic creativity stirs its very atoms into autopoietic e-motion.

“Whatever happens on the earth,” says Gebser,

“man [who is the consciousness of earth] must share the responsibility…On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s” (p. 541).

An integral biology of economics brings to light the wholeness of life and makes transparent the law of love luring even the materiality of the earth toward its center. The mutation of consciousness into its integral mode requires enduring a violent birth, as the industrial process has made quite evident. But the end of consciousness’ unfolding is not the annihilation of earth—rather, it is to participate with earth in the regeneration of Eden by learning to face the universe with an open heart and a mind transluced by the spirit of origin.

Works Cited

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[1] ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.

[2] The International Union for the Conservation of Nature ( estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.

[3] i.e., energy available to do work.

[4] Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law.  I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.

[5] Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).

[6] For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).

[7] Criticism is not my only task, however. Like Emerson, I desire “an original relation to the universe” and to behold God and nature face to face, rather than through the eyes of tradition (p. 7).

[8] Gebser characterizes the mythic structure as predominantly psychic and spaceless, as the intimate bond between soul and nature had not yet been severed. As a result, “Man’s lack of spatial awareness is attended by a lack of ego-consciousness, since in order to objectify and qualify space, a self-conscious ‘I’ is required that is able to stand opposite or confront space, as well as to depict or represent it by projecting it out of his soul or psyche” (p.10).

[9] In the closing centuries of the 2nd millennium, the mechanical clock would become the dominant model used by science to understand the physical world (quantitative, symmetrical time), the biological world (organisms are gene survival/propagation machines), and the economic world (“Time is money” –Ben Franklin). See also p. 122, Hornborg: “The clock has been advanced as the prototype for all machines…The idea of the machine has…generated a web of cross-references by which nature and the machine are engaged in a reciprocal metaphor.”

[10] Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, is littered with observational evidence in support of the plausibility of his theory. No scientists can deny what Darwin found without first reworking his metaphysical assumptions.

[11] Time, in this context, is to be understood as the falsely spatialized time of the mental structure: as quantitative magnitude, rather than qualitative intensity as for the integral.

[12] “…a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff…from which a materialistic philosophy begins is incapable of evolution” (p. 107, Whitehead, 1925).

[13] “Descola (p. 88, 1996) defines animism as the use of ‘the elementary categories structuring social life to organize, in conceptual terms, the relations between human beings and natural species” (p. 200, Hornborg, 2001).

[14] “In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus’ Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence [a phrase used by Malthus] which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be a new species. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work.” –Charleas Darwin (The Zoology of the Beagle, 1840).

[15] Karl Marx, through Hegel, was certainly influenced, even if he rejected Kant’s critical system.

[16] Such as a tacit acceptance of Hume’s sensationalist doctrine (see p. 29).

[17] Kant’s Aristotelianism is evidenced here. Darwin and Paley were more influenced by Plato’s dualism between form and matter than Kant, who was able to conceive of the purposes of an organism as immanent, thereby avoiding the machine/organism analogy. However, Kant imposed a dualism of a different sort, which will be explored below.

[18] This is a variation of Plato’s separation between spiritual and superficial experience mentioned on p.10 above.

[19] Kant’s bourgeois ethos no doubt also influenced his reluctance to imbue nature with life or soul (as constitutive), as capitalism depends upon a fetishized productionist account of value where nature is worth only what human labor and inventiveness can add to it. An ensouled earth could not be as guiltlessly exploited.

[20] In his last philosophical text (Opus Posthumum), Kant realized that his thinking on this matter was incomplete. Varela (after Jonas, 1973) argues that “without invalidating the a priori categories that had been the possibility of all knowledge, Kant finds an entirely new foundation for them: the lived body. The moving forces of matter—prime subject of natural science—are not deduced from or ‘dictated’ by the a priori categories of reason but themselves are a basic experience underlying all a priori categories” (p. 109, 2002). Thus we know an organism is intrinsically purposeful and self-organizing because we extrapolate as much from our own experience as organisms.

[21] See The Blind Watchmaker, 1986

[22] As has already been discussed on p. 16.

[23] A dissipative structure is an energetically open system that emerges in non-equilibrium conditions (ex: tornado, whirlpool, etc). The key difference between a dissipative structure and an autopoietic system is that the former usually does not produce a boundary that establishes it as a unity, nor does it produce the components on which it depends. Instead, it is more structurally dependent on its local environment and so lacks a degree of autonomy present in organisms.

[24] This concept was first developed by Jakob von Uexküll (1940). Hornborg writes that “Each organism lives in its own subjective world (Umwelt) largely defined by its species-specific mode of perceiving its environment…The implication is that ecological interaction presupposes a plurality of subjective worlds…ecological relations are based on meaning; they are semiotic” (p. 183).

[25] Descartes needn’t take all the blame: We could also point to Plato’s dualism of form and substance, to Aristotle’s subject-predicate logic, to Parmenides’ separation between being and non-being, or indeed to more the modern separation between culture and nature.

[26] “Philosophers have disdained the information about the universe obtained through their visceral feelings, and have concentrated on visual feelings” (p. 121, 1978).

[27] Indeed, as we already mentioned (see footnote, p. 21), Kant recognized this possibility late in his life, but was unable to rework his entire philosophical system to reflect it prior to his death.

[28] Incoming solar radiation is approximately 5800 Kelvin and outer space approximately 2.7 Kelvin (p. 46, Margulis, 2003).

[29] While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6).

[30] Margulis points to the “geometry of the universe’s expansion” to account for its ever increasing creative possibilities for gradient reduction (p. 48), while Whitehead suggests “…the expansion of the universe in respect to actual things is the first meaning of ‘process’; and the universe in any stage of its expansion is the first meaning of ‘organism’” (p. 214-15, 1978).

[31] “…both biomass and ‘technomass’ represent positive feedback processes of self-organization, where the system’s use of harvested resources is ‘rewarded’ with new resources in a continuing cycle. Both are dissipative structures, requiring inputs higher than outputs and subsisting on the difference. A crucial difference is that biomass is a sustainable process whereas technomass is not. For biomass, energy resources are virtually unlimited, and entropy—in the form of heat—is sent out into space. For technomass, resources are ultimately limited, and we are left with much of the entropy in the form of pollution” (p. 17, Hornborg).

[32] “The neoclassical concept of growth was borrowed from…Newton, to whom it would simply have meant a process of aggregation. Whereas natural science has moved on to a more organic or systematic perception of growth, that is, as appropriation of order (Schrodinger, 1944), mainstream economists remain confined within the old, mechanical version” (p. 94, Hornborg); “Nineteenth-century scientists materially constituted the organism as a laboring system, structured by a hierarchical division of labor, and an energetic system fueled by sugars and obeying the laws of thermodynamics” (p. 97, Haraway, 1997).

[33] And money (see p. 23). The whole world is supposed in the capitalist scheme to be encompassable, at least in promise, by a sufficient quantity of general-purpose money.

[34] “The relationship between human labor and technology is clearly ambiguous in terms of which serves which” (p. 103, Hornborg).

[35] Rudolf Steiner had a similar understanding of the psycho-spiritual causes of materialism: “The concept of matter arose only because of a very misguided concept of time. The general belief is that the world would evaporate into a mere apparition without being if we did not anchor the totality of fleeting events in a permanent, immutable reality that endures in time while its various individual configurations change” (p. 174, 2000).

[36] Hornborg suggests that “general-purpose money was the universal solvent that gave Western industry access to the resources of its global periphery” (p. 105).

[37] Henri Bergson refers to this way of understanding time as the “cinematographical method.” “Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially” (p. 204).

[38] Though Margulis’ theory of the origin of species via symbiogenesis may provide more robust an account, as the mere accumulation of chance mutations, even given billions of years, does not provide a means of phylogenic change quick and resilient enough to have done the necessary organizational work (see Acquiring Genomes, 2003).

[39] “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” –Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century; “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere” Blaise Pascal, 1670. In a Whiteheadian metaphysics, both God and nature participate in the integral becoming of every actual occasion.

[40] i.e., accidental, rather than essential.

[41] “…when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, Whence is matter? and Whereto? many truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn…that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound, it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves: therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (p. 41, Emerson).

[42] “Fetishism is about interesting “mistakes”—really denials—where a fixed thing substitutes for the doings of power-differentiated lively beings on which and on whom, in my view, everything actually depends…Without question, contemporary genetic technology is imbricated with the classical commodity fetishism endemic to capitalist market relations” (p. 135, Haraway, 1997).

[43] “An item produced from oil and metal ores must be priced as if it were more valuable than the oil and the ores that were destroyed in making it, or the process could not go on. This in turn amounts to a constant rewarding of the continued destruction of oil and ores by giving industry access to increasing amounts of oil and ores to destroy” (p. 14-15, Hornborg).

[44] “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).

[45] The implications of the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics were so contrary to mechanistic expectations, that Niels Bohr once remarked, “It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we say about nature” (p. 291, McEvoy, 2001).

[46] “My only earthly wish is… to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds… [Nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”(p.viii); “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations” (p. 21, Francis Bacon, 1980).

[47] “’The Petroleum Interval’ [is] the brief interlude of 200 years where we extracted all of this amazing material from the ground and burnt it” (p. 20, Hopkins, 2008).

[48] Hornborg makes similar aspects of technology transparent: “Industrial technology does not simply represent the application of inventive genius to nature but is equally dependent on a continuous and accelerating social transfer of energy organized by the logic of market exchange” (p. 45).

[49] “Such a distinction…is alien to hunter-gatherer groups like the Algonquian-speakers of northeastern North America, who tend to view all living beings as undivided centers of awareness, agency, and intentionality” (p. 195, Hornborg).

“Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë

It’s probably not news to most people that philosophers have a tendency to get stuck in their heads. This is especially true in the field of cognitive science, where for several decades the dominant paradigm has lead philosophers (and scientists) to look in the brain for evidence of thought and consciousness. The core metaphor guiding this paradigm is that human cognition is computational—in other words, that the brain is a computer.

While it may still be mainstream, this disciplinary matrix has a growing number of critics. Those philosophers, like David Chalmers, who take consciousness seriously point out that even a complete computational account of brain activity (which is itself still far from feasible) would fail to explain why said activity should be accompanied by experience. If the brain is merely a computer processor—if it is capable of performing all its tasks in a mechanical, algorithmic fashion—why should a world have to show up for it at all?

Proponents of computationalism, like Daniel Dennett, claim that we have too inflated a view of conscious experience. Dennett points to certain visual inadequacies likechange and inattentional blindness as proof that our consciousness of the world is far less complete than we are lead to believe. In fact, Dennett goes so far as to argue that our first-person experience of a richly textured environment is largely an illusion. We don’t see what is there; rather, we see the choppy, low-resolution fantasy the brain clumsily constructs for us.

One might begin by criticizing Dennett for his reduction of consciousness first to perception, and then to visual perception specifically, but even supposing he was right about the over-inflation of consciousness more generally (an insight of Jungiandepth psychology as well as contemporary mind science), the claim that conscious experience is a phantom still hasn’t even begun to explain why we (the brain) should experience such appearances at all. Why can’t the brain perform its functions without “our” having to be aware of the illusion of a world? The computationalist theory of cognition would be true even on an earth populated entirely by zombies or robots. It therefore fails to adequately account for the world we actually live in, that of purposeful projects and meaningful, moral relationships with others.

Dennett’s is one of a family of greedily reductionistic views criticized by Alva Noë in his new book. The book is made not merely of ink, glue, and paper—at least if what he argues for in it is true. If he is right, and consciousness is not lodged in the skull, then his book is literally a piece of his mind. “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness” presents Noë’s case that the dominant paradigm within the cognitive sciences is off the mark.

Rather than looking for consciousness within the confines of the skull by supposing the brain’s job is to internally represent a world it has access to only through the filters of five fallible senses, Noë reminds the forgetful philosopher and scientist alike that thought and perception are tied to action, and that the mind is embodied and embedded in the world. The senses are not windows through which a pre-existing world is mentally reconstructed. Rather, sensory perception is always already motoractivity, always already participating in the appearance and subsequent course of worldly events. We see the horizon not because of “information” encoded by neurons in our visual cortex, but because we are living bodies that can stand upon the earth, turn our heads, and look.

Noë does not believe that Chalmers’ so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is a problem at all. He and Dennett are in agreement about this much, but for entirely different reasons. Dennett believes the word “consciousness” is nothing but a cultural idol that continued neuroscience will soon call down off its pedestal. Eventually, he assures us, the “hard problem” will go away because we simply won’t recognize our conscious experience as anything other than an illusion generated by unconscious neural activity.

Noë is of the opinion that though the brain is necessary for consciousness, it is not sufficient for it. He dismisses the “hard problem” as the product of misplaced concreteness: it asks how brain matter might be in the possession of mind and experience, when really these emerge through the dynamic relationships between brain, body, and world and are never “possessed” (or simply located) in the first place.

I am conscious not merely because my brain is doing something special, but because it is coupled to others and the world via language, various levels of emotiveintentionality, and a series of sensorimotor (or perception-action) loops. From Noë’s point of view, a brain in a vat would not be conscious. Only contact with and access to an actual world is sufficient for conscious experience. Being conscious is something we must do, something we constantly achieve together with others and the help of the world itself. Organisms and their environments can only be studied in the abstract as separate systems. To fully understand the evolutionary process of phylogenic adaptation, or the ontogenic process of skillful coping (learning), one must develop a sense for the dynamics of whole organism-environment systems [my essay, “Unearthing the Earth” investigates what the implications of this approach are for our being-on-the-earth].

Noë writes:

We are, to use Merleau-Ponty’s phrase, empty heads turned to the world. The world is not a construction of the brain, nor is it a product of our own conscious efforts. It is there for us; we are here in it. The conscious mind is not inside us; it is, it would be better to say, a kind of active attunement to the world, an achieved integration. It is the world itself, all around, that fixes the nature of conscious experience. (p. 142).

The computational approach to consciousness assumes that consciousness is equal and reducible to intra-cranial neurochemical processes. Noë’s rejoinder is a refreshing reminder that such solipsistic misplaced concreteness is, ironically, a product of the same Cartesian tradition most mainstream theorists rail against. That consciousness is located in the brain, that it has no direct access to the real world but through some internal language of ideas (or mental representations)… these are thoroughly Cartesian presuppositions. Noë suggests we begin not with the abstract thought experiments of lonely philosophers, but with the lived body and its everyday being-in-the-world among others (life-world).

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation of our Being-on-the-Earth

By Matthew Segall

“Eco-phenomenology offers a methodological bridge between the natural world and our own, or rather the rediscovery of the bridge that we are and have always been but—thanks to our collective amnesia—have forgotten, almost irretrievably. It is not enough to disguise our forgetting; there is also a matter of remembering—remembering the earth.”

-Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine (“Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself,” p. xx).

Phenomenology was laid down by Edmund Husserl as a path for thinking deeper than the superficial thought of objective natural science. It could be said that thought opens the world to human consciousness; thought, when spoken, builds the home I dwell in. Naturalism, on the other hand, prevents the blossoming of thought as the flower of the mouth by alienating consciousness from the body, from the earth, from the sky, and from the divine.

Heidegger says, “Being-on-the-earth…remains for man’s everyday experience that which is from the outset habitual…we inhabit it…” (MHBW, p. 349). It is, in other words, as easy to forget one’s earthly situation as it is to forget one is breathing. Earth is often taken for granted, becoming the unthought background of daily life. Commonsense is therefore naturalistic, paying attention only to the surface while forgetting the hidden face that lies beyond the horizon. As technological “advancement” swallows more and more of the lifeworld, consciousness finds itself falling deeper into exile from Being. Naturalism is a framework that conceives of the world, including the human body, as “consisting entirely of extensional properties related to each other within a causal matrix,” (EP, p. 3). There is nowhere for me—for consciousness— in the nature of naturalism.

The early Husserl was as of yet unaware of his embodiment and being-on-the-earth and so concerned himself not so much with saving nature as such from naturalism, but with saving human consciousness from its nihilistic implications. As Brown and Toadvine put it, for many, Husserl’s phenomenology “is a reduction of the world to meaning, and of meaning to [human] subjectivity,” (ibid, p. xiv). While Husserl’s early work may be a noble attempt to preserve human freedom and values from the onslaught of scientism, it offers only a point of departure when it comes to bridging the gap between humanity and nature that lies at the root of the ecological crisis (perhaps his later work, explored below, goes further). It is clear that if a true eco-phenomenology is desired, it must reject naturalism not only to recover the meaning of human existence, but to recover the meaning of humanity’s being-on-the-earth.

I will attempt in this essay to uncover the roots of human consciousness in the earth—to recontextualize the human being as a being-on-the-earth. This excavation will require both a conceptual examination of the four most general categories of nature as conceived of by naturalism (space, time, matter, and energy), and an experiential exploration of how these abstractions are originally revealed to us as embodied earthlings. Before I actually begin, however, I must establish the possibility of the unearthing of experience by way of the phenomenological method by responding to an important criticism.

Phenomenology may be described, after Heidegger, as a mode of speech (logos) that lets things (phenomena) show themselves. Any return to the things themselves is thus always already in relation to language. Gregory Nixon (after Derrida) has argued, that “outside of language there is nothing to which we can directly refer, since all language is indicative only of itself,” (VFW, p. 258). If Nixon is correct, it would seem that all attempts to bridge the nature/culture gap in the service of alleviating the alienation of consciousness from earth must fail, as “knowledge outside of language [or culture] is literally unthinkable,” (ibid). Nixon’s view is that human conscious experience is the result of linguistic reflection, that “the consciousness we experience is possible only because we have culturally invented language and subsequently evolved to accommodate it,” (ibid, p. 257). He admits to the possibility of pre-linguistic, pre-cultural experience, but maintains that bringing it to consciousness has already changed it: to consciously experience anything, I must already have “drawn it into the inescapable web of the hermeneutic enclosure of language,” (ibid, p. 258).

Such a grim picture of language as “enclosed,” I believe, neglects its poetic potential to let things show themselves by opening us to an originary experience of our being-on-the-earth. Language need not be a sticky, solipsistic web of self-referential signs, but can, by re-establishing its relation to the body and what Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” of embodied meaning, become a bridge that carries us back to the earth itself. Gendlin argues that “bodily experience cannot be reduced to language and culture…[because] our bodily sense of situations is a concretely sensed interactional process that always exceeds culture, history, and language,” (UE). Experience is always more intricate than language, and while language can never contain the whole of our experience, it can aid in, as Gendlin puts it, “carrying forward” our meaning. Nixon’s sharp distinction between conscious human experience and unconscious pre-linguistic experience neglects the possibility of a liminal space in between, where a bodily feeling of what Gendlin calls the “responsive otherness” of implied meaning gives rise to the sentences we speak (NPCF). The implied meaning is never fully transformed into the words, but the words nonetheless carry it forward, thereby allowing meaning to develop and expand as new words come. In Gendlin’s view, “Words mean the change they make when they are said… The change happens implicitly in the situation,” (ibid.). Instead of reducing the meaning of a word to the other linguistic signifiers it points to, Gendlin’s way into language reveals that meaning arises out of the “implicit intricacy” of the bodily and inter-bodily situations in which words are spoken. Our knowledge of any given situation comes not from the words we use to describe it, but from the meanings these words imply for our sentient, situated bodies.

In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin,” (VI, p. 102). Philosophy must, if it hopes to remain alive in our dark age of amnesia, forego the habit of representing experience abstractly with arbitrary signs and instead rediscover a way of speaking poetically from experience, such that what is said sheds light on the subtleties of existence heretofore covered over by the sedimentary layers of language long dead.

Having thus established that language, despite the fact that its inauthentic and naturalistic use can and has obscured the life-world, nevertheless possesses the potential to become what Heidegger, after Hölderlin, called “the flower of the mouth” (thereby re-connecting human experience with the soil out of which it was born and will return), I can now proceed to uncover the earthly roots of consciousness by phenomenologically grounding the naturalistic abstractions of space, time, matter and energy in bodily (and earthly) experience. If I succeed, consciousness will no longer seem a transcendental ego precariously, if at all, related to an objective, external nature, but will have become a unique flower blossoming out of a living planet.


Rilke, speaking of those in poverty—of the homeless—writes:

“Has the earth, then, no room for them?

They need only, as a tree does,

a little space in which to grow.”

(RBH, p. 229).

If we follow a Cartesian (or early Husserlian) path of thought, pure consciousness “in here” comes to be directed toward extended objects “out there.” Consciousness is always of or about objects. The shortcoming of this way of thinking is that it covers over an original experience of the spatiality of our being-on-the-earth. As a Cartesian ego, extended space seems to be an object “out there.” Yet, as Kant realized, space cannot be conceived of objectively, but functions for the ego as a form of intuition pre-structuring all experienced objects. It might be said that Kant took the first steps toward a phenomenological account of space by showing how extension is not simply given to an entirely aloof subject; rather, the subject actively provides space as a form of intuition. But Kant’s account remains an abstract conception too tied up in the tired language of tradition to let space show itself originally in experience. While he reveals the necessity of space for experience, he fails to adequately account for the relationship between space, the body, and the earth.

Returning to immediate experience, space appears as the possibility for bodily movement. I do not at first encounter space, but rather sense the possibility of moving from here to there. Any such movement of my body from one place to another, before it is travel through empty space, is walking across stable ground. This ground is the earth. As David Abram says, paraphrasing the later Husserl, “the earth itself is not in space, since it is the earth that, from the first, provides space,” (SS, p. 42). So much is implicit in this most radical of statements that it would pay to dwell upon it, dwell in the double sense of think it deeply and live within it. How is our experience of space transformed by remembering the constitutive role played by the ground beneath our feet?

Before exploring the answer, it should be made clear just how radical Husserl’s claim is in comparison to the naturalistic attitude of science, which sees earth as one among many planetary objects suspended in the void. Since the Copernican Revolution, the centrality of earth has come into question and the lifeworld has given way to a concept of nature as independent of experience. No other scientific finding is more responsible than the heliocentric theory for creating the apparent disagreement between perception and reality. Descartes would, a century after Copernicus, reify this disagreement into an ontological chasm separating subject from object, rational intellect from experiencing body (SS, p. 43).

Returning again to the question posed above, it appears that the scientific conception of space as a container is groundless, the product of uprooted reflection. Space is not that which provides the possibility of extended matter; rather, the earth provides the “un-get-around-able” materiality that makes space a possibility (EP, p. 157). Space is not simply given, but is born out of the earth and our experience as earthlings dwelling on its spherical surface.

Husserl writes that, “the original ark, earth, does not move,” (SS, p. 42). By this, he seems to imply that earth, as the source of both space and life, provides the basis out of which later scientific abstractions are derived. The earth provides the unmoving mark (unmoving only because its movement carries us) that allows the body to perceive motion relative to itself. Though it is undoubtedly true that the earth orbits the sun, the ability to understand such a truth rests in a more primordial experience of being-on-the-earth. As our bodies are of the earth, so too is space of the body. As Heidegger says, “I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it,” (MHBW, p. 359). Distance depends on where we stand in relation to one another, and is not a function holding true of any “space” independent of our relation. The earth is not in space with the other planets and the sun, but participates with them in providing space for one another.

As an example of the relativistic space articulated here, it should be pointed out that the appearance of the sun and the other planets from the surface of the earth remains the same regardless of our conception of how they are actually related to earth. There is, therefore, no conflict between perception and reality so long as it is acknowledged that any explanation of experience arises out of that experience. The discovery of earth’s position in the solar system does not contradict our experience as earthlings; it merely deepens our experience of the dimensional possibilities of space as provided by earth. We say the sun rises as we say the eye sees, and neither is wrong even while both are incomplete. It must be added that the earth shows itself to the sun and that the eye is seen.


“You are the future,

the red sky before sunrise

over the fields of time.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes

that rise from the stuff of our days—

You are the deep innerness of all things,

the last word that can never be spoken.”

-Rilke (RBH, p. 177)

Before moving on from space to time, it should be noted that each of the categories under examination are only separable in the abstract. Space and time form a single continuum in lived experience, and though space alone was considered in the prior section, time was implicated in every step.

Time is perhaps the most elemental of experiential elements, not easily covered over by the forgetfulness of the naturalistic attitude. The physical conception of time as a linear series of causally symmetrical instants entirely neglects what, after David Wood, may be called the “plexity,” or complex relationality, of our embodied experience (EP, p. 213). Time-as-lived is asymmetrical, meaning it flows irreversibly from past to future, unlike the equations of physics.

Lived time, when situated on the earth, becomes not only an irreversible unfolding, but an unfolding coordinated by a variety of interwoven planetary rhythms, such as the day/night cycle and seasonal shifts. The rhythms give time a certain experiential texture, such that it becomes tied up in the very substance of existence, rather than being an arbitrary measure of homogenous change.

Clocks measure, but it is not time that they catch—for the clock itself is aging, too embedded in the stuff of time to provide a fixed point of reference. Time knows no fixed points, as experience endures: the body moves not from one discrete moment to the next, but carries with it the events of the past into a present always opening to the possibilities of the future. The present is not a bare “now,” an instantaneous “here,” nor is it a rudderless raft pushed along by the current of the past. The present is endlessly pregnant with the past, perpetually giving birth to the future. What is born becomes again the seed for further unfolding.

Space and time reunite in our being-on-the-earth not through a spatialization of time, but a temporalization of space. Space finds its origin in place, and place in the temporality of an event. I am here, breathing with/as the rhythms of time, in what is always a place becoming, a happening. Never does my being here cease to become in time, as my situation is temporal before it is spatial. I arrive at a café as I have the same way on many a day, but because the past I carry with me today differs, so too does my experience of the café. Similarly, the earth as spherical place provides spatial depth only thanks to the tempo of time. The earth was once a cloud of dust, and only after time allowed it to take shape could it provide a place for space to surround.


Rilke writes, again of the homeless:

“Is there by the banks

of the pond’s deep dreaming

no where they can see their faces reflected?”

(RBH, p. 229).

The aforementioned formative influence of time in the shaping of the earth should not be taken to mean that the substance of the earth, matter, is merely a passive recipient of spherizing form. This conception of matter as raw stuff shaped by immaterial ideas has a long history in Western thought. The ordinary naturalistic attitude conceives of matter as inert and objective, something that exists extended in space. But as we saw above, matter is not “in” space, but when given time and present in sufficient mass (relative to sensate beings arising from its body), provides space. The formative influence of time should be understood as being of the same substance as the materiality of the earth itself. The spherical shape of the earth is an echo of the primordial “un-get-around-able” essence of materiality.

Materiality conceived naturalistically appears as the flat, extended surface of earth (at least until recently when a view of earth was revealed “from” space) and the closed surfaces of all the bodies upon it. The interior of surfaces (i.e., the sentience of bodies) is neglected by such a forgetful way of thinking (and dwelling in) the world.

Perceived via the self-sentience of the body, materiality is the weight of our own inner existence—that which embeds us in what would otherwise remain a world of mere surfaces but for the fold that is our face and the clearing it opens for us to behold and be held by the earth. The human body is not the whole of our mass, or even wholly our own, but a temporary gift from the mass of the mother earth to which we belong. The reason matter and mind, or the body and human consciousness, have been so opposed to one another for much of the history of philosophy may be uncovered in the precarious relationship between our identity (our face) and materiality conceived naturalistically (surfaces as such).

Jacques Lacan described the human ego as the human being’s internalized image of itself as reflected in a mirror. The ego is, in other words, my idea of what I look like from the outside, as a surface. But if it is true that matter is the “un-get-around-able,” then this egoic identity always remains a fantasy. I cannot fully identify with my skin-bounded body, because there is always a topological gap that prevents my internalizing it as a complete body. Materiality cannot be fully thought precisely because we are ourselves material.

Though Lacan’s mirror stage may be necessary for further development, our perspective on ourselves may become more authentic if the locus of identity widens from our individual body to the earth-body. Only recently have photographs of the earth from space given humanity the opportunity to inhabit it as our own body, just as the infant is given the opportunity to identify with its body after being placed before a mirror. The difference is that identification with the sphericality of the earth requires embracing the “un-get-around-able” materiality of our existence, unlike identification with a planar image reflected upon a mirror. The mirror image gives a false impression of wholeness, as its flat surface shows only as much as can be shown to it. The earth, on the other hand, provides a genuine face (not a surface) that more authentically grounds identification in a sense of wholeness not found in flattened images. In this way, my bodily identity can come primarily from the face of the earth, and only secondarily from my image of myself as an earthling living on its surface.

Questioning who I am is first a question of Being itself, and as such has an undisclosed origin that can never be fully articulated because it is always already assumed (the “is” in the question “what is Being?” must already be understood). But we are forgetful of this implicit understanding, and so we are lead, in answering the question, to settle on identifying with our own inverted image (an outside, made superficially because incompletely, inside). Objectifying nature alienates consciousness from its own naturalness, hampering its ability to fully be. But the very same naturalistic attitude that covered over our relationship to Being and lead to the false identification with the ego also ignited the rockets that took us beyond the senses to the stars, turning our eyes back upon the body of the earth for the first time so that we might rediscover the meaning of being home.

Being-on-the-earth is also being of the earth, identifying with its living materiality. Earth becomes Gaia when we become again as children, regaining our primordial attunement to the life of things, though now an attunement that is expressed through speech like flowers reaching from the soil to the sky. In this way, language becomes a bridge built to carry we mortals back to the earth, and from earth, with creative inspiration, to the divine. As Rilke says to the earth, “There is no image I could invent that your presence would not eclipse,” (RBH, p. 121).


“And weapons against all that breathes,

In an incessant pride, the human being carries;

In torment he consumes himself

And the flower of his peace,

The tender one, does not bloom long.”

- Hölderlin (from “Das Mench”)

Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because to think in terms of the naturalistic conception of energy already enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our ends.

Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such,” (MHBW, p. 320). Technology seems to be the means to this end. However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (ibid, p. 317). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature. The danger in relating to earth in such a way (as a “calculable coherence of forces,” ibid, p. 326) is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry, which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” (ibid, p. 321).

Energy becomes, for the naturalistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth is inhabited instrumentally. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.

We do not realize that our technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. We risk losing touch with our own poetic roots in the soil and with the inspiration that lifts our language to new heights. Ours is a crisis not only of the ecosystem, but of the humanity dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, the human being will become a mere battery for the machines that replace us, homeless upon a dead earth.


“This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly.

-Rilke (RBH, p. 173).

Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” MHBW, p. 340), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger (as well as Husserl), scientific naturalism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought-forth technology. The great success of the scientific/naturalistic approaches is not the result of the metaphysical truth of their objectivism, but rather of the practical value of their methods. This method, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, has depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for our human existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given us the opportunity to truly stand watch over this earth as the only home we’ll ever have.

The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. We cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny had to be lived out—our process of maturation could not be prematurely reversed. But in a typical enantiodromic twist, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of either destroying or saving the earth. For the first time, we can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath our feet.

As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (MHBW, p. 351). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars, whose divine energies remain forever out of reach of we mere mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute,” (RBH, 167). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say, and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.


SS -Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage. 1997.

EP – Brown, Charles S. and Toadvine, Ted (Ed.). Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. SUNY Press: Albany. 2003.

NPCF – Gendlin, E.T. (2004). The new phenomenology of carrying forward. Continental Philosophy Review, 37(1), 127-151. From

MHBW – Krell, David Farrel (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Harper: San Francisco. 1977.

RBH – Macy, Joanna and Barrows, Anita. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Penguin Group: New York. 1996.

VI – Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press: Chicago. 1969.

UE – Roger Frie (Ed.). Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, pp.100-115, Routledge. 2003

VFW – Varela, Francisco and Shear, Johnathan (Ed.). The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness. Imprint Academic: Bowling Green. 1999.

Enactivism, Integral Theory, and 21st Century Spirituality

The following is lifted from my old blog at, which has since shut down. Sorry of some hypertext doesn’t work!

I first want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. The intersection of integral spirituality and enactive cognitive science is, for whatever reason, one of my passions, and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to engage others about these ways of thinking and living.

I’m going to begin this essay by breaking down the topics of enactivism and integralism (specifically Ken Wilber’s integralism) as they relate to one another. I’ll do so in two separate sections, the first on the biology of cognition and communication as described within the enactive paradigm, and the second on biology and enactivism as perceived and appropriated by Wilber. I hope to highlight a few areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, and to lay down what I think the most promising path of synthesis might be. If you are not too keen on abstract philosophical discourse, please bear with me, as these sections may qualify as exactly that (feel free to skip to part 3 if you must!).

The last section will be more concrete and, hopefully, poetically evocative. It will focus on what an embodied and integral spirituality might look like, contrasting it with the unfortunate developments in the contemporary New Age community. Popular but shallow spiritual salesmen (and women) have developed clever marketing campaigns geared toward convincing people that they can “create their own reality.” While this idea is not entirely false in some contexts, it is grossly misleading and requires quite a bit of unpacking before it begins to bear any resemblance to reality. With the help of some of Varela’s ideas, I hope to offer a vision of the potential of being human in the creative cosmos we all call home.

Circularity (Escher)

Part 1: Enactivism and the Biology of Cognition

1-A: Co-gnosis, or “Knowing-with”

If one had to distill the central tenet of enactivism, as developed by Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela, it would be that “everything said is said by an observer” (Maturana, 1988, p. 27). An observer is any language-using being, specifically a human being. We human beings use language to describe the world we inhabit with others. Typically, we describe without explicitly referencing ourselves as observers. Enactivism (I’ll use this term even though it is Varela’s; Maturana, though not directly associated with it, would probably not be opposed to the label) suggests that self-referentiality is always implied, as to speak a language with others is to bring forth a world of shared significance whose relation to an independent reality outside the one we constitute with and for each other is irrelevant.

This holds true for all modes of language, whether colloquial or scientific. When molecular biologists investigate the structure of cellular organelles, they come to know what they see through their microscopes by agreeing upon appropriate linguistic abstractions and relations between abstractions. These abstractions designate the important features of reality as distinguished by those with the skills and training required to do so. Even when the science being practiced is physics, our descriptions amount to consensual agreements about the nature of the world under investigation (shaped also by our biological structure and organization, which are not arbitrary choices but historical necessities resulting from our evolutionary inheritance; more on this below). This may be hard for materialists to swallow, but one of the core suppositions of enactivism is that science, as a form of languaging, is indeed a social activity embedded in a particular historical situation bearing the marks of the prejudices that affect every other human sphere of life, whether political, religious, or otherwise.

“A physicist will say that we’re made of atoms,” says Varela. “Such statements, while true, are irrelevant… There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions” (

The reality of life and death that Varela here refers to is that of our embodied existence as conscious observers. There is a tendency in the sciences to assume that the knowledge brought forth by the scientific method amounts to an objective representation of reality as it exists independent of human subjectivity. Maturana and Varela want to replace this notion with that of “objectivity-in-parenthesis.” Their aim is to avoid the transcendental objectivism which results when the observer “…implicitly or explicitly assumes that existence takes place independently of what he or she does, that things exist independently of whether he or she knows them, and that he or she can know them, or can know of them, or can know about them, through perception or reason” (Maturana, 1988a, p. 28).

Remember, for enactivism, “everything said is said by an observer.” This is to remind us that all of our descriptions come from a particular perspective. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as pure objectivity. As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, pure objectivity amounts to a “view from nowhere,” which, when taken literally, is contradictory. Conceptually, we can certainly imagine reality and ourselves outside our embedded perspectives; but such mental exercises remain a function of ouroperationally closed (more on this later) nervous systems. In other words, our imagined objectivity is still a product of our embodiment, and so remains an “as if” objectivity; or, as enactivism suggests, an “objectivity-in-parenthesis.”

To be clear, though, as Bruce pointed out last week, Varela and Maturana do not mean to replace objectivity with a form of solipsistic idealism, nor a form of complete social constructivism. On the contrary, they want to call our attention to empirical biological realities. We will now shift from what has primarily been a discussion of language into a discussion of the “bio-logic” underlying it.

1-B: Bio-logic

There is a bit of a scandal in the biological sciences. After nearly 400 years of what might be considered modern scientific investigation (and 3,000 years of natural philosophy), a widely agreed upon definition for the central object of study, life, has yet to be produced. There are plenty of qualities that have been ascribed to living systems, but (arguably) the only serious attempt to define it was Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis. Briefly, an autopoietic system is a unity easily distinguishable from its surrounding environment, containing components that continually produce and maintain both themselves and the unity. The term is a literal translation into Greek of “self-producing.”

There is a more technical definition of the term, but for the purposes of this paper, I won’t get into it. Click the hypertext above if you are interested. The reason the autopoiesis –or self-producing organization— of organisms is important for this discussion is the extent to which it helps us see how the nervous system brings forth both our individuality and our world. The term is meant to apply specifically to the organization of a cell, but it applies equally well (with a few caveats) to multicellular organisms, which biologist Leo Buss has appropriately called “somatic ecologies.” Why the term is appropriate may need some unpacking. From the point of view of autopoietic theory, the process of living is synonymous with cognition. So even a single bacterium flagellating up a sucrose gradient is bringing forth a world based on its own internal dynamics. When evolution gives rise to multicellulars, the worlds of each cell must somehow be coordinated such that “…potential conflicts between cells and the individual [are mediated], while the organism is simultaneously interacting effectively with the extrasomatic environment” (Buss 1987). Varela was fascinated by just how this mediation was pulled off. It drew him into immunology, where he attempted to improve upon the traditional understanding of the immune system as a kind of military defense against intruders by redefining it as a “self-referential, positive assertion of a coherent unity” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 9). But what interests us is his investigation into the “somatic ecology” of the nervous system, which along side the immune system allows a network of trillions of cells to function as a coherent whole.

Varela put it thus: “The fundamental logic of the nervous system is that of coupling movements with a stream of sensory modulations in a circular fashion” (Ibid.). Let’s break this down. The first thing to notice about this “neuro-logic” is that perception becomes an active process. We know the world by moving around within it. Bruce alluded to an experiment with kittens validating this in a comment under his essay. In this sense, the term “perception” is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies the passive reception through the senses of an already constituted reality. This brings us to the second important feature of Varela’s neuro-logic, which is that perception is a circular process generated by ongoing sensorimotor coupling. This is true both at the level of individual neurons (dendrites are sensors, axon terminals are motors) and at the level of the whole organism (eyes, ears, skin, etc. are sensors, muscles, tendons, etc. are motors).

This circularity is why enactivism posits the “operational closure” of the nervous system mentioned earlier. We know only the world the structure and organization of our nervous systems allow us to know. As Varela says, “The neuronal dynamics underlying a perceptuo-motor task are… a network affair, a highly cooperative two-way system, and not a sequential stage-to-stage information abstraction” (Ibid.). In other words, the typical linear notion of information picked up by the senses from a pregiven world, processed into perceptions, and then translated into appropriate motor responses is not just a simplification, but is actually wrong. What we perceive is based more on the ongoing operations already taking place in our nervous system prior to any perturbations by the environment. If we now reconsider the first point about active perception, we see that “all doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela, 1992, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, p. 27).

This concludes the section on enactivism, but we will revisit and further explore some of the concepts discussed above, as well as introduce a few other important features of the enactive paradigm (such as intersubjectivity and groundlessness) as we go along.

(Click here for a video of Evan Thompson, co-author of The Embodied Mind, on 1st personal consciousness, and a much younger Varela speaking about objectivity.)

Part 2- Wilber, Biology, Enactivism

I’ll assume that most of you are already familiar with Ken Wilber’s work. For our purposes, a general grasp of his AQAL model will suffice.

As Bruce has already pointed out last week, Wilber embraces Varela et al.’s attempt to move beyond the gross reductionism of the representational paradigm in cognitive science, which sees the mind as essentially identical to a sophisticated computer. As Wilber says, “From the field that claims to be the final authority on such matters, what we learn about consciousness and lived experience is this: basically, it doesn’t exist” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 564). Part of Varela’s project is to find a place for conscious experience in the scientific worldview. But Wilber’s support for enactivism as presented by Varela et al. is not without a few important reservations. While he applauds them for deconstructing and replacing the notion of a pregiven world found in the representational paradigm, he argues that they fail to fully appreciate the subjective dimensions of organisms. To be more specific, I refer you to the diagram below:

Wilber’s drawing

We see above in what is labeled figure 3 that each quadrant has both an interior and an exterior aspect, each with its own appropriate epistemological methodology. Varela is credited with rightly correcting the traditional Darwinian idea that something called “Nature” is responsible for singlehandedly sculpting the evolution of species, selecting which traits live on and which don’t. This idea, while not entirely wrong, fails to appreciate the degree to which organisms participate in their own evolution based on their autopoiesis, or self-organizing properties. Varela’s is a biology that emphasizes the autonomy of the organism, whereas most evolutionary biology sees the organism as the victim of a pregiven environment. In other words, organism and environment (or Nature, in Darwin’s terms) co-determine one another. Wilber further explains: “… autopoietic theories remind us that the objective organism is not merely a strand in a Web, but also a relatively autonomous agent enacting its environment, an environment that is not a pregiven Web but is rather brought forth in part by the autopoietic regime of the organism itself” ( Wilber suggests, though, that Varela “…escapes the crude mirror of nature paradigm (monological and pregiven), but only by attacking the pregiven part, not the monological part: the paradigm shifts from the monological mirror of a sensorimotor world to the monological enactment of a sensorimotor world” (Ibid., p. 714).

Wilber is here arguing that Varela’s approach remains focused only on the upper right, objective quadrant. Autopoietic organization represents the inside of the exterior of organisms, but according to Wilber, fails to fully appreciate the subjective, phenomenological experience of organisms.

I don’t disagree with Wilber’s analysis here, as I think Varela’s work could certainly benefit from a more in depth exploration of subjective development. Nonetheless, I think Varela is very much aware of the lifeworld of organisms, which is evidenced by his exploration of Buddhist meditation in The Embodied Mind, as well this statement which directly acknowledges the role of agency in organisms: “[an organism] isn’t related to its environment ‘objectively,’ that is, independently of the system’s location, heading, attitudes and history. Instead, it relates to it in relation to the perspective established by the constantly emerging properties of the agent itself and in terms of the role such running redefinition plays in the system’s entire coherence” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 11). Granted, this description is still a third person account of a lived reality, which can only be directly accessed with “I” language. “The habits of intimate touching of prehensive unification tend to be reduced to the mechanics of structural coupling and exterior-cognitive enactment,” as Wilber says (

Wilber accuses enactivism of being “heavily grounded in a biologistic bias” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 712). To the extent that Varela et al. were aiming to remain scientific, this is true. But I wonder if Wilber has fully appreciated the scientific realities brought forth by a thorough investigation of the biological world…? As Julian discussed in one of his blogs earlier this year, Wilber seems to look to theorists associated with the intelligent design movement when asked about what an integral biology might look like. In one of his books, he makes the following specious argument: “It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg–a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing–you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal–also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings” (Wilber, 2000, A Brief History of Everything, p.20). If you showed this passage to a biologist, after they finished laughing, they’d explain that wings most certainly could evolve gradually.

It’s not that I don’t share Wilber’s distaste for the neo-Darwinist paradigm in evolutionary biology. I just think he would be more respected in scientific circles if he did not make outrageous claims without any supporting evidence whatsoever. There are plenty of other approaches to understanding evolution in a non-reductionist way that are entirely scientific and don’t require any such exaggeration, among them Varela’s co-determining theory, which Wilber seems to know well but so often neglects to mention when asked about evolutionary biology. If anything like intelligent design is true, science would become impossible, as positing a demiurge as the designer of nature makes any human attempt to know reality akin to a cartoon character suddenly realizing they are an artist’s drawing. It ain’t gunna happen.

To sum up this section, we can say that Varela’s ideas would definitely benefit from a greater appreciation for the depth and developmental scope of subjective experience, as Wilber has rightly argued. But Wilber, on the other hand, could equally benefit from a more realistic engagement with the findings of objective biological science. Varela is no longer with us, and so we will never know how he may have appropriated Wilber’s criticisms; but hopefully Wilber will reevaluate his seeming support for intelligent design by fully embracing the truths brought forth by an empirical, systems-oriented approach to biological evolution.

Part 3- Embodied Spirituality

I’d like to begin this section with a few words from Varela himself. This video was shot just before his death in 2001 as part of a documentary entitled “Monte Grande” released in 2005.

It pretty well speaks for itself, reiterating several points I hope were adequately made in the first two sections of this essay about the co-emergence of subject and object. What struck me as significant, though, was what Varela said towards the end about abiding in the questions that strike us as especially mysterious, rather than rushing to pass judgment for or against them. Maybe it is just a reflection of my and Varela’s Buddhist frame of reference, but it has always seemed to me that being spiritual essentially means being unattached. This doesn’t mean we should not love deeply those we share our lives with, quite the contrary. Letting go of our attachments allows us to relate to others more genuinely than when we have specific ends in mind. What non-attachment suggests is that we be constantly on the lookout for the various manifestations of certainty that tend to crop up in our thoughts about the world. Almost always, an unyielding conviction about this, that, or the other is the result of some kind of repression or psychological wound we have yet to fully face and allow to heal.

In The Embodied Mind, Varela repeatedly emphasizes the groundless nature of existence. Even that most universal of spiritual values, love, so often eludes all our attempts to possess or comprehend it. Whether it is our own personal experience of being conscious, or our sense of the world around us, a penetrating investigation reveals no firm foundation upon which to rest our tirelessly seeking minds. The path seems endless, not necessarily because it is long and filled with difficult challenges, but because it is constantly swallowing itself like an Ouroburos.

Holding this image in mind, what are we to make of the many New Age belief systems offering “secrets” (for a fee) that supposedly give us anything we desire? I see in these systems only clever advertising and predation upon those with weak minds. There is not even the hint of anything genuinely spiritual, in the sense that spirituality means letting go of our own wants and desires to focus instead upon compassion and loving kindness. Seeking great spiritual insights from something like the “law of attraction” tarnishes the meaning of the word “insight.” To genuinely see into our condition, we have to forgo the “Cartesian anxiety” that compels us to chase after various forms of security and stability, be they a grandiose sense of self, a youthful appearance, a six-figure salary, or transcendental knowledge of and control over reality itself. When we turn our attention inward, we discover that the self we think we are, with all its desires and wishes and ideas, is rather fragile and impermanent.

Realizing this can lead in one of two directions:

Either we avert our introspective gaze and distract ourselves with kitschy offers of instant enlightenment for 3 easy payments of $19.95, or we go deeper and realize that our lack of an essential self is an opportunity to engage reality on a level more rewarding than anything we could have dreamed of before.

I quote Varela at length:

“The more the fragile self-subject deploys itself, the more compassion deploys itself because that’s what it is. The more there is the opening into space to accommodate or to take care of the other, there is kind of an intrinsic decenteredness, and therefore the other appears closer. Solidarity, compassion, care, love –all of the different modes of being together– appear when the self is decentered. Now that, to me, is a great gift of the universe. Since we are not solid and private and centered, the more we get close to all our reality, the more we are who we are. That is, both you and I. Not just me, but the ‘us-ness’ in us. Which is another way of saying that my mind is not my mind. It is a mind that requires that interbeing. There is naturally that kind of concern and care and solidarity. But it is not just how nice I am, or how good a guy I am. It has nothing to do with this. It has to do with how real things are, in reality, that non-distinction between the intersubjective network of things” (

Varela is here suggesting that our true nature is to be compassionate, not because we are “nice guys,” but because our very identity as individuals arises out of our transactions with others. This, and not the possibility of magical powers, is what an integral and embodied spirituality offers.

To even believe for a moment that our thoughts will bring us whatever we want, we have to already be completely encased and blinded by a lonely solipsistic shell, not recognizing that every other person around us is also hoping and wishing for their own fantasies to be fulfilled. Who is going to end up on top in this struggle for personal happiness? There can only be so many lottery winners… Again, maybe it is just my Buddhist bias, but who can deny that life is suffering? We are made through an act of carnal love in the pursuit of fleeting bliss, grown in the womb at the behest of the crystalline death records of untold generations prior, and born as naked, delicately woven bodies, our intricate dynamics hardly noticed until something goes wrong. And when it does, we’re faced with that ultimate uncertainty– with the completely unknowable, unfathomable reunion with that from which we came.

But could it be any other way? Could our bodies be so capable of deep feeling and intimate contact without also being so prone to disease and decomposition? Life is suffering, but so is suffering bliss. It is our perpetual lack that moves us to love, that guides us into the future where unending forms of life will result from the creative spark that is our being-towards-death. We cannot overcome the circle of becoming, of continual rebirth, but we can embrace it, celebrating the opportunity we so easily forget we have.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Zen koans entitled, “Hyakujo’s Fox,” with a comment at the end by Zen master Mumon. Zen is great for cutting through spiritual excess and getting right to the point:

Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?’

The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: “The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation.” For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?’

Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.’

At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. `I am emancipated,’ he said, paying homage with a deep bow. `I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk.’ The he disappeared.

The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. `No one was sick in the infirmary,’ wondered the monks. `What does our teacher mean?’

After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.

That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.

Obaku, upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: `I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I was to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?’

Hyakujo said: `You come here near me and I will tell you.’

Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher’s face with this hand, for he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.

Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed at the discernment. `I thought a Persian had a red beard,’ he said, `and now I know a Persian who has a red beard.’

Mumon’s comment: `The enlightened man is not subject.’ How can this answer make the monk a fox?

`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.’ How can this answer make the fox emancipated?

To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.

Controlled or not controlled?

The same dice shows two faces.

Not controlled or controlled,

Both are a grievous error.

Phenomenology and Science

Science (empirical observation coupled with logical deduction), as a way of thinking, has undoubtedly made more out of mankind than any other mode of thought in his historical arsenal. In both the material and mental spheres, man has used the knowledge and technology that he has gained from science to make many great practical advances. He has accumulated a wealth of useful ideas and inventions since the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. However, science, and all the progress which accompanied it, has yet to provide a satisfying answer to any of reality’s most fundamental mysteries, one of which being the nature of consciousness. While allowing man to logically breakdown and then symbolically map the world so as to better understand it, the scientific approach provides little insight into the nature of the mind that gives rise to those symbols in the first place. This scientific oversight of the primacy of consciousness has affected many fields of study, including philosophy. Philosopher-mystic Alan Watts laments the results of this influence: “This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence, it’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what” (Watts LHG). Watts adds that “he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it,” mocking the typical academic philosopher’s desire to be considered scientific. Author Aldous Huxley had a similar view: “In a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions. There is always money for, there are always doctorates in, the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important problem: Who influenced whom to say what when? Even in this age of technology the verbal humanities are honored. The non-verbal humanities, the arts of being directly aware of the given facts of our existence, are almost completely ignored” (Huxley 76). In other words, because the characteristic philosopher deals only in logical abstractions (usually the same abstractions that are the basis of the metaphysics of the scientific method), he deals only with a third person view of reality. He finds this approach comfortable, though, because it is the view of the objective scientist safely cut off from the field of reality going on outside his mind, from the “given facts of [his] existence.” This detached perspective helps to maintain the illusion that some progress toward understanding ultimate truth is being made, as if truth were out there in the world and the scientist/philosopher need only to observe and record it. Of course, it may never have been the goal of science to provide us with such truth, but its undeniable usefulness seems to have distracted the greater part of humanity from that pursuit altogether. Put simply, the modern philosopher has lost his sense of wonder and become hypnotized by the easily acquired half-truths of science. He may still marvel at the outside world, but he has been made ignorant of the inside world, that of his own mind, and of consciousness, that indescribable sense of being which arises when the outside and inside unite and interact. Alan Watts agrees: “Consciousness is the background to all that we know” (Watts LHG). If we don’t first look deeply into our own direct perception, how can we derive any knowledge from a world we know only through its filters?

In light of this shortcoming of science, Phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the necessity of reevaluating the worth of a purely scientific view of reality: “The whole universe of science is built upon the world as directly experienced, and if we want to subject science itself to a rigorous scrutiny, and arrive at a precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by reawakening the basic experience of the world, of which science is the second-order expression”(Merleau-Ponty). So the basic metaphysical assumption made by science—that the subject/object distinction between the mind and the body, or between man and his world, is fundamental to reality itself—is being called into question. Before one can reliably describe the outside world, one must understand the nature of his direct experience in that world. Understanding this direct experience by relating it to the state of unity consciousness (typically referred to as mystical awareness) by bridging the gap between science and religion and incorporating the insights such integration provides into a coherent phenomenological theory of embodiment will be the objective of the remainder of this essay.

To begin drawing parallels between what Merleau-Ponty means by “direct experience” and what a mystic means by “unity consciousness,” I offer the following comparison. Here is Merleau-Ponty’s description of the origin of experience: “[It is] the mysterious tissue or matrix that underlies and gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” and further, “that primordial being which is not yet the subject-being nor the object-being and which in every respect baffles reflection. From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break; it has neither the tight construction of the mechanism nor the transparency of a whole which precedes its parts” (Merleau-Ponty viii). Now, here is philsopher-mystic Ken Wilber describing the nature of Spirit, that which is apprehended during unity consciousness: “In its immanent aspect, Spirit is the Condition of all conditions, the Being of all beings, the Nature of all natures. As such, it neither evolves nor involves, grows or develops, ascends or descends. It is the simple suchness or isness—the perfect isness—of all that is, of each and every thing in manifestation. There is no contacting immanent Spirit, no way to reach It, no way to commune with It, for there is nothing It is not. Being completely and totally present at every single point of space and time, It is fully and completely present here and now, and thus we can no more attain immanent Spirit than we could, say, attain our feet” (Wilber xvi). Merleau-Ponty speaks of a state of being that has “not yet” spontaneously divided into a subject and an object. That is, this state has not developed into time and space; it exists in its undivided state. It is space-time itself, or, as Wilber termed it, Spirit. We see then that in these two descriptions of the creative force of the universe, two seemingly disparate thinkers have realized one and the same truth, that at the root of consciousness lay a direct experience of reality which transcends all categories and dualities. Wilber’s Spirit is Merleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” of reality mystically renamed.

To illustrate why any attempt to conceptualize this direct experience “baffles reflection,” a detailed account of the limits of language must be undertaken.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asserted that because the goals of philosophy are not lofty but illusory, its problems are not difficult but nonsensical. What exactly he meant by this is of greater importance to humankind’s pursuit of truth than perhaps any other philosophical aphorism in its history. This is so precisely because the statement casts such a shadow on all types of philosophical knowledge regardless of the conclusions they may appear to draw.

The mind/body problem, then, when viewed in light of Wittgenstein’s doubts about philosophy’s goals, must be evaluated in a fundamentally new way. The majority of the popular philosophies thus far conceived by past great thinkers have failed to produce a convincing theory because they’ve failed to properly bring to the surface the language-based barriers standing in their way. Even Merleau-Ponty’s description of direct experience, as near as it comes to dissolving these barriers, remains creatively tied down by the grammatical structure of its language. He is forced to describe a state without a subject-object duality through the medium of a language which only makes sense when subjects can act or be acted upon by objects. So to understand what Marleau-Ponty means when he says your direct experience “gives rise to both the perceiver and the perceived as interdependent aspects of its spontaneous activity,” you have to take a step beyond the mere words and actually feel it for yourself.

The thus far insoluble problem of other minds provides a great example of what happens when words get in the way of reality as we directly experience it. Every proposed solution to the dilemma remains frustrating unverifiable. Behaviorists claim that only what can be outwardly observed need be considered real, thereby negating the necessity of mind altogether. This seems quite silly, though; such an assertion seems contradictory being that the theory itself requires a mind for its manifestation and subsequent application. To prove, though, that other minds exist would require that a solution be spelt out here on the page, that some logically coherent intellectual argument be voiced so that you might read it and somehow understand that it were true. But Wittgenstein would say that such an answer was impossible, as proving that other minds exist cannot be accomplished using any conventional linguistic means but rather that the question itself ought to be unasked before anything might be settled. It is impossible to know that other minds exist because knowing implies that you can provide logical reasons in support of your knowledge, and reasons can only be expressed using language, which at its roots remains a fundamentally contradictory medium of expression. Surely, though, it is quite possible to feel that other minds exist, to feel without words or reasons the truth inherent to your direct perception of the human condition of another. As Wittgenstein put it, “[See the] consciousness in another’s face. Look into someone else’s face, and see the consciousness in it, and a particular shade of consciousness. You see on it, in it, joy, indifference, interest, excitement, torpor, and so on. [It’s] the light in other people’s faces” (Wittgenstein 225). Intuitively, then, the problem of other minds is no problem at all, but a farce—an unnecessary intellectual abstraction of a reality that is easily grasped by anyone willing to admit that proof is the burden of language and not the burden of reality as we experience it. In reality, the proof is in the pudding: taste it and you’ll understand. There is no reason another person ought to have a mind, there is only the truth that they do, a truth arrived at through a purely intuitive and non-rationalized experience of reality.

Of course, this conclusion is not final, as it is contingent on the definition one assigns to such an abstract word as “mind.” Here is a sample of John Locke’s view concerning the nature of mind as self: “[It is] impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive” (Locke 335). It is indeed impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive, but notice the necessity of the premise “for any one.” This one is the “mind,” the “I,” the individual person, the illusory place holder given to each human entity by the grammatical structure inherent to his way of describing reality. So it is true then, at least “true enough” in Wittgenstein’s words, that one cannot perceive without knowing he perceives, as it is said “I perceive” such that the perceiving is in fact performed by me and therefore separate from me. But am “I” a real entity, a real perceiving substance, or merely a product of the functional conventions of language (i.e. Wittgenstein’s suggestion that the meaning of a word is derived from its use)? As Huang Po, a Zen Buddhist master, once remarked to a student, “Let me remind you, the perceived cannot perceive” (Blofeld 26). If I am aware of my own perception of myself, which is the real me: my perception or my perception of my perception, or my perception of my perception of my perception, and so on? This infinite regress appears to be unavoidable, however it arises only because of the dualistic nature of language, because an “I” must “have” perceptions instead of there just being perception alone. (Of course, the illusion of separate mental existence is an undeniable experience for all those who are members of a language-crazed society, so in this sense and this sense only, it is, again, “true enough” that other minds exist even when the ego or mind is, from the ultimate perspective, not an individual’s truest identity.)

This “perception alone” is the only real quality that can be assigned to consciousness. It is synonymous with Marleau-Ponty’s “direct experience” and Wilber’s apprehension of Spirit. We all intuitively feel this perception at the deepest level of our experience all the time. It reveals what there is. It is our total current experience, our body’s complete awareness of our environment as it exists in its entirety before the names and descriptions the ego superimposes upon it become our only way of thinking about it or describing it to others. This total bodily awareness with the environment also dissolves the illusory barrier between the two so that our current experience becomes an identity with the universe in its entirety, organism and environment as one. This is a step Marleau-Ponty may or may not have been willing to take, although it seems to follow naturally from the conclusions drawn by his philosophy. If the mind is embodied, then it is no great step to realize that the organism is also embodied by its environment. This hierarchical relationship between the mind and the body, and between the body and its environment, forms the center piece of Wilber’s theory of the spectrum of consciousness.

Wilber’s spectrum of consciousness is a formalization of what is known to mystics as the Great Chain of Being. While there are many forms of this chain, each of which being divided into its own special categories with their own original names and designations, the basic core of the concept remains the same in all cases. Wilber explains: “Consciousness is not, properly speaking, a spectrum—but it is useful, for purposes of communication and investigation, to treat it as one. We are creating, in other words, a model, in the scientific sense of the word… [This model incorporates] the revelations of psychoanalysis, Yogacara Buddhism, Jungian analysis, Vedanta Hinduism, Gestalt therapy, Vajrayana, and Psychosynthesis, among others” (Wilber 6). The rationale behind creating such a detailed account of consciousness was best summed up by Psychologist William James: “Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, while all about it parted from it by the flimsiest of screens there lay potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (Wilber 3).

Wilber’s spectrum begins at the level of Mind. This is the level at which consciousness embraces the whole of the universe and becomes aware of, as Huxley once put it, “everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (Huxley 24). It is as if during one’s “normal waking consciousness” this “Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system, [and] what comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet” (Huxley 23). So then it is only the filters of our nervous system—the brain’s special ability to concentrate on specific stimuli while ignoring other less practically valuable stimuli—that prevents the average person from realizing their real identity with the universe as a whole.

Before we can progress to the next level of consciousness, it must be made clear exactly how each level comes to appear separated from the other. It is important to remember, first of all, that the level of Mind is both the source which creates and the substance which makes up all other levels on the spectrum. If the other levels of the spectrum are waves traveling through the ocean, Mind is the water itself. Like its namesake, Spirit, Mind is all that there is. The other levels are then said to arise as illusory boundaries are spontaneously erected which separate the universe from itself. That is not to say, however, that these boundaries are useless and destructive; quite the contrary. They provide the supporting structure of evolution, or as Wilber refers to it, the process of spirit returning to Spirit, as well as the basis for each individual consciousness’ development through life. In other words, the spectrum of consciousness develops both ontogenically and phylogenically. The first boundary, created one level above Mind, gives rise to what Wilber terms the Existential level of consciousness. At this level, the totality of the universe as a whole is divided into an organism and its surrounding environment. This is the level at which the consciousness of lower order animals appears to operate. Their daily concerns are usually finding food, avoiding death, and reproducing. The next level is the Ego level, and it is here that things begin to get more complicated. At this level, the mind begins to separate itself from the total organism and the mind/body duality is born. This step is the direct result of the development of language and the subsequent ability of the organism to form abstract concepts, including the concept of self. Without language, the realization of such a separation between the mind and the body would be impossible. The organism would have no way to bypass its present experience of momentary, embodied existence in favor of the symbolic abstractions derived from memory that create the sense of a continuous individual being separate from its decaying body. It is also clear that time plays a large role in the maturity of this level, as developing an understanding of time first requires the ability to record past and predict future events which are nowhere to be found in the directly experienced present. It must be pointed out that human beings are, as of yet, the only species on Earth to have developed the biological apparatus necessary for this level of consciousness. The final boundary is the level of the Shadow. On this level, the ego itself becomes fragmented and divided into a persona and a shadow, or a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. The persona includes all the thoughts and feelings an individual is not ashamed to identify with, while the shadow refers to anything forbidden or taboo that the conscious mind finds unacceptable or is incapable of expressing. No further division of consciousness is deemed possible, so it is at the Shadow level that the spectrum ends, or rather, that it collapses in upon itself. Here is a diagram of the spectrum:

(Wilber 131)

One can see that at each level on the spectrum, a larger part of the universe is divided from itself and that, as a result, a self/other distinction is created. At the existential level, the skin of the organism separates it from the environment it inhabits. At the Ego level, the mental abstractions of the mind separate it from the organism. And finally, at the Shadow level, the meta-mental abstractions of the formally unified ego divide it from itself.

Assuming this spectrum is accurate, which is no great assumption considering the many experiential reports gathered from mystics and other explorers of consciousness throughout human history that are in perfect agreement with its fundamental structure, then what can it tell us about the nature of the mind/body problem? It would appear to suggest that the basic theory of embodiment, that the mind and body need to be somehow reunited, is a step in the right direction. But to stop short at the barrier of the skin is to make the same mistake Descartes made when he thought himself out of his body. As Wilber’s spectrum makes evident, the separation of an organism from its environment is only an apparent separation. There can be abstract distinction between organism and environment but there can be no real division. “From this primordial being to us, there is no derivation, nor any break,” as Merleau-Ponty reminds us. A biologist would agree, “[claiming] that a man’s self—his ‘real’ being—is the entire organism-environment field, for the simple reason that [he (the biologist)] can find no independent self apart from an environment” (Wilber 13). This identification of the self with the organism-environment field is the dissolution of all barriers to consciousness and the realization of the level of Mind. All filters are turned off and consciousness of the All is allowed to flow freely through itself.

All this talk of mysticism and states of unity consciousness has probably made the dedicated scientist or logic-bound philosopher queasy. This adverse reaction to incorporating the wisdom of the various contemplative religions into the academic research on the nature of consciousness should be no great surprise at all. Scholar Alan Wallace tells us why: “Especially since the Scientific Revolution, the Western mind has sought to know what is out there, in the objective world, while ignoring discoveries of what is in here, in the subjective world… We have commonly regarded the history of discovery as being principally a Western pursuit; and religion is commonly presented as a principal foe of discovery… Such ethnocentric biases concerning the history of discovery must be abandoned if we are ever to learn from the insights of the world’s contemplative traditions” (Wallace 179). This bias has many philosophers working tirelessly to produce a workable science of consciousness unaware that one may already exist. Mystic Ananda Coomaraswamy explains: “It would be unscientific to say that [unity consciousness is] impossible, unless one has made experiment in accordance with the prescribed and perfectly intelligible disciplines… That [mystical awareness is possible] cannot be demonstrated in the classroom, where only quantitative tangibles are dealt with. At the same time, it would be unscientific to deny a presupposition for which an experimental proof is possible. In the present case there is a Way [i.e., an experiment] prescribed for those who will consent to follow it” (Coomaraswamy 69). So it becomes clear that it is not the scientific desire for experimental results that hinders progress in this area, but rather science’s refusal to fully acknowledge the primacy of direct subjective experience. If this rejection of first person experience can be overcome, what better body of wisdom is there to draw from concerning the nature of direct experience than the world’s contemplative religions? What is needed then is not a denial of either science or religion, but integration—a science of religion.

In his book The Fiction of a Thinkable World, Michael Steinberg uses the insights provided by the theory of embodiment to remind us that “We are not thinking beings at all, but bodies that think, and without the body, thinking wanders into irrelevance” (Steinberg 23). The philosopher who agrees with Steinberg’s statement is also just such a thinking body, and it would seem that often times he forgets this, allowing his thinking to wonder beyond his body and into abstractions that turn out to be quite irrelevant. Most of these irrelevant abstractions rest on his sense of being an individual self, the same sense that leads the scientist to deny direct experience in favor of a third person, subject/object duality, as to objectify the world one must first assume that they are separate from that world. But Steinberg again reminds us that these separations are not real but merely apparent: “The life of the body is part of an intricate weave of relations in which all things ceaselessly change each other. Its transformative interactions make no distinction between inner and outer or human and animal. There is no boundary within which we can point to a “me” apart from anything else. It is only when we isolate those parts of the process which we experience as conscious discourse that we look to ourselves like conscious beings” (Steinberg 24). This “conscious discourse” is language, and, as was pointed out earlier, language is what fools the mind into feeling separate by erecting boundaries within itself. Mind, or Spirit, or “direct experience” can only know itself if it hides from itself, if it creates duality and draws a line between inside and outside. Steinberg again: “…the human subject is not an isolated percipient. Each of us is instead a unique node in a network of interactions, and there is nothing other than that network. You cannot cut off a fragment and say, this is mine; nor can you leave the rest and say that it is not” (Steinberg 25). The subjective realization that there is “nothing other than that [objective] network” is the attainment of unity consciousness. This level of awareness is its own truth, but no amount of second-hand vetting will ever convince the skeptical scientist that this is so. The scientist must, as Coomaraswamy says, “consent to follow [the Way],” which is nothing more than the experimental procedure laid out for him by the various mystical traditions the world over.

In closing then, the implications of the current neurological research and philosophical discussion pointing academia toward the union of mind and body into one embodied being cannot be understood to there full extent until the scientific perspective becomes humble enough to turn the microscope inward upon itself. Only then, after examining the metaphysical assumptions lying behind its worldview, can science begin to appreciate reality in the only way we ever actually come into contact with it; that is, through direct experience. When this most basic level of experience is acknowledged, the theory of embodied consciousness is necessarily extended beyond just the layer of skin that marks the boundary between my body and my world. Consciousness becomes embodied, instead, by the universe in its entirety. One may ask at this point, “But what does that mean? What does this add to the current debate? How can we incorporate this idea into further research on the topic?” It means only itself, as the universe can point to nothing but itself, and the realization of this, when practically applied, can tell us only that all forms of scientific knowledge are relative. That is, while they may be quite useful, they can never be truthful, at least not ultimately so.

“Tao is beyond words and beyond understanding. Words may be used to speak of it, but they cannot contain it. Tao existed before words and names, before heaven and earth, before the ten thousand things. It is the unlimited father and mother of all limited things. Therefore, to see beyond boundaries to the subtle heart of things, dispense with names, with concepts, with expectations and ambitions and differences. Tao and its many manifestations arise from the same source: subtle wonder within mysterious darkness. This is the beginning of all understanding” (Lao Tzu 1).


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2.Huxley, Aldous. 1956. The Doors of Perception. New York, New York: Harper & Brothers.

3.Locke, John. 1975. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. London: Clarendon Press.

4.Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

5.Pech, G. N.D. Accessed: Oct. 10, 2005.

6.Steinberg, Michael. 2005. The Fiction of a Thinkable World. New York: Monthly Review Press.

7.Tzu, L. Trans. by Walker, B. B. 1995. Tao Te Ching. New York

8.Wallace, Alan B. 2000. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

9.Watts, Alan. 1965. Learning the Human Game (live lecture). Electronic University Publishing.

10.Wilber, K. 1998. The Marriage of Sense and Soul. New York, New York: Random House.

11.Wilber, K. 1977. The Spectrum of Consciousness. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.

12.Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1976. Zettel. Berkeley: University of California Press.