Regular readers of my blog probably already know about the 2015 International Whitehead Conference next summer in Claremont, CA. It is being called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization.” I am organizing a track on late modernity’s reductive monism. In this track, I’ll be presenting a paper laying out what may be the most pressing problem faced by philosophers living in our increasingly anthrodecentralized epoch: the crossroads between evolutionary panpsychism (or process-relational panexperientialism, in Whiteheadese) and eliminative materialism. This crossroads is a decisive crisis for the modern mind’s self- and world-understanding. Some are calling the present (or just past?) epoch the Anthropocene, which began as early as 8,000 years ago and ended around 1945 (about when the atom bomb and LSD were first detonated before or behind human eyes), at least according to Tim Morton. In naming the period after ourselves, we are also sentencing our species to extinction, placing a period at the end of our existence, noting that humanity, too, will one day be but fossilized bones buried in rock strata. If we ever were “human” (in the sense of being more than animal, supernatural, etc.), we are not so anymore. Perhaps our primal and ancient souls were already participants in a wider cosmic drama. In the modern period, there is no doubt that our socioeconomic system has become inextricably bound up with the dynamics of the entire earth ecosystem. Human and earth have become partners in life and in death. There is no turning back now.
“It may be,” says Whitehead,
“that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop” (Science and the Modern World, 181).
Also presenting in my track will be cosmologist Brian Swimme and philosopher Richard Tarnas. This semester (Fall 2014) they are teaching a course at CIIS called “Radical Mythospeculation: Cosmic Evolution and Deep History.” Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial is providing much of the intellectual backdrop. Swimme has written (with Thomas Berry) about the 13.8 billion year evolutionary journey of universe, while Tarnas has written about the 2500 year history of the Western world (from ancient Greece and Israel to postmodernity). In the course they aim synthesize their approaches with Bellah’s while speculating about the emergence of a 2nd Axial Age. Also presenting in my track is Sean Kelly (author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era), who will present on the emergence of a Gaian planetary consciousness in the wake of modernity.
I’ll also be presenting in another track at the International Whitehead Conference called “Unprecedented Evolution: Human Continuities and Discontinuities with Animal Life.” My paper in this track will seek a synthesis between Whitehead’s philosophy of religion (especially as laid out in Religion in the Making) and Robert Bellah’s sociology of religion (especially as presented in his last book, Religion in Human Evolution).
My main goal with this paper is to convincingly portray human religious activity today and in the past as a fact not only relevant to but illustrative of the nature of the universe. In one sense, I want to explain religion as a natural phenomenon by linking it to play and ritual, behaviors seen throughout the animal kingdom. But unlike Dennett (who used this line as the subtitle to Breaking the Spell), I am not seeking to explain it away by describing its evolutionary genesis out of the earth. Rather, I want to take human religious experience seriously as part of the data that must be included in any adequate account of the cosmos. What must our universe be like such that human religious expression is possible? From Whitehead’s perspective, religious experience is not to be explained away or reduced, but “considered as a fact.” Religious experience “consists of a certain widespread, direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (RitM, 74). Religion, then, is not just man-made make-believe. Its imaginations can have cosmic origins.
Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).
As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).
The prehensional basis of all object-relations implies that “detached, self-contained local existence” (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since in each act of prehension “the environment enters into the nature of” the prehending thing. This is not to say that things have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a thing or actual entity is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual entities do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions. It is regarding the issue of the interrelation of all things that Whitehead and Harman begin to part ways. While Whitehead defends an image of the universe as a creatively evolving nexus of interpenetrating events, Harman paints the picture of “a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums” (GM, 76). Shaviro neatly sums up the disagreement: “Whitehead opposes correlationism [and anthropocentrism] by proposing a much broader–indeed universally promiscuous–sense of relations among entities,” while “Harman opposes correlationism by deprivileging relations in general” (tUoT, 30).
Harman rejects Whitehead’s relationalism for two reasons: 1) he worries it reduces ontology to “a house of mirrors” wherein, because a thing just is a unification of its prehensions of other things, there is never finally any there there beneath its internal reflections of others; and 2) he claims that an ontology based exclusively on internal relations, wherein entities are said to hold nothing in reserve beyond their present prehensional relation to the universe, cannot account for change or novelty. In such a universe, there would be “no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed,” as Levi Bryant puts it (The Democracy of Objects, 209). As Shaviro is quick to point out, however, Whitehead was well aware of this potential objection (see page 35 of PR, for example), which is exactly why he amended his ontology sometime between his final editing of Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929) so that becoming was understood to be atomic rather than continuous. A fair reading of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical scheme should acknowledge (despite a few inconsistent statements here and there) that his goal was to strike some balance between internal and external relations, precisely for the reasons put forward by Harman and Bryant.
In response to Harman’s first worry regarding an infinite regress of prehensions, I’d call his bluff and say that a truly aesthetic ontology (which he also claims to be seeking) would leave us with just such an infinite regress of appearances. A thing’s “style” or “allure” doesn’t need to be understood as emanating from some substantial core or fixed essence; we can also understand a thing’s “style” as Whitehead does in terms of the “enduring characteristic” realized by a historical route of actual occasions. There is nothing hidden from view by such outward qualities other than the occasion in question’s moment-to-moment subjective enjoyment of these characteristics. Which brings us to Harman’s second (I believe unfounded) worry about relational reductionism. Whitehead’s dipolar account of the process of experiential realization includes both a public moment of display and a private moment of withdrawal. Every drop of experience begins by taking up the “objectively immortal” data of its past. It then unifies this data into its own singular and private perspective on the world. It is this moment of privacy that most closely resembles Harman’s doctrine of withdrawal. The occasion in question is in this moment entirely independent of its relations. But as soon as this private, never before experienced perspective on reality is realized, it perishes into objective immortality, becoming publicly available for the next occasion of experience to inherit as it moves toward its own novel concrescent realization. “The many become one, and are increased by one.” Whitehead is able to make sense of change and novelty while at the same time preserving a non-reductive account of internal relations. It seems to me that Harman’s insistence on the irrelevance of evolutionary time for ontology is part of the reason he is unable to make sense of Whitehead’s attempted compromise (“The ontological structure of the world does not evolve…which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure” [GM, 24]). In effect, Whitehead’s entire process ontology can be understood as an imaginative generalization of evolutionary theory.
This difference regarding the metaphysical status of evolutionary time represents a deep divide between Whitehead’s and Harman’s otherwise similar ontologies. Shaviro, following Stengers (who was following Deleuze), reminds us that “the concepts a philosopher produces depend on the problems to which he or she is responding” (tUoT, 33). It seems as though the deep divide between Harman’s ontology of vacuum sealed objects and Whitehead’s ontology of interrelated organisms comes down to a question of taste. There is no going behind aesthetic taste to find some more rational justification to prefer one account over the other. As Fichte put it in his Wissenshaftslehre (although in the context of morality and not aesthetics), the kind of philosophy one adopts ultimately depends on the kind of person one is. Harman’s personal problem is to account for how relation is possible in a universe of vacuous actualities, while Whitehead’s was to account for how individuality is possible in a universe of interpenetrating actualities.
In the spirit of attaining to some wider point of view inclusive of both perspectives, Shaviro sums up the situation thusly:
“Harman’s difference from Whitehead, and his creative contribution to speculative philosophy, consists in the ‘translation’ of the deep problems of essence and change from one realm (that of relations) to another (that of substances). These two realms, oddly enough, seem interchangeable–at least in an overall anticorrelationist framework. Given that ‘there is no such thing as transport without transformation,’ the only remaining question is what sort of difference Harman’s transformation of ontology makes” (tUoT, 41).
Given the state of our present world, wherein “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them…where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales,” Whitehead’s problematic appears more and more relevant to our actual condition (tUoT, 33, 42).
Leon Niemoczynski (here) and Adam Robbert (here) have been having a productive back and forth regarding the prospect of an ecological metaphysics. Speculative Realism is not far afield of their conversation, with subslogans like “dark vitalism,” “new materialism,” and “bleak theology,” and key influences like Plato, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, all hovering in the background. They gave Whitehead’s scheme in particular the most attention as perhaps the best equipped to prepare philosophy for its ongoing ecologization. I’d agree, which is why I wrote Physics of the World-Soul about Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology. In that essay I try to replace the materialist ontology of modern science with the ecological ontology underlying Whitehead’s evolutionary panentheism. In other words, I attempt to show how Whitehead’s cosmological scheme allows for the replacement of physics with ecology as the most philosophically fundamental science, as the most ontologically basic reality. In an ecological rather than a materialist science, for example,
physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. (from p. 3)
As Leon put it, an ecological ontology suggests that what finally exists are creatures and relationships. Nature is not a finished Whole, nor is it made up of finished parts. Nature is incomplete (as Terry Deacon would say), which is to say that it is not a static set of particles, not a law-abiding order/cosmos, but an open-ended and radically inter-related cosmogenesis. Its wholeness is always yet to be achieved, an ideal and not a reality. A more metaphysically precise account of this incompleteness would suggest that there is more to the universe than what is already actualized: potentiality is also ingredient in the Real, playing a role in how each creature experiences the present and in what each creature decides to do next.
Ancient and modern ontologies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological ontology acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to evolve. Ecology is a pluralistic and historical science. There is nothing–no creature and no relationship–that did not come to be. Our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarming masses of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged actors enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. These actors not only co-create one another, they co-create the various arenas of space and time “in” which their relations play out. The preposition “in” is employed here only in a grammatical and not in an ontological sense. Space-time is not a pre-existent, universally distributed container within which externally related creatures are simply located; rather, there are various more or less overlapping space-times brought forth by relations between a variety of internally related creatures. The interwoven textures of our pluriverse’s space-times do not precede their respective creaturely relations. Each specific form of relation between each species of creature constitutes a unique spatiotemporal context. Space-times are woven out of relationships.
Another way of getting at this gestalt shift concerning the emergent plurality of space-times (creatures are not “in” space-time, but enactively provide it) is to turn to Adam’s definition of an ecological ontology as implying a breakdown between structure and content, between the transcendental and the empirical, or again, between appearance and reality. If I understand him correctly, it is not that the distinction is canceled, but rather that it must be historicized. We might say, then, that the a priori conditions providing the possibility of human knowledge brought into focus by Kant, while they may seem universal and necessary for individuals, are in fact evolutionarily emergent at the species level and so remain contingent features of our consciousness open to cultural and/or biotechnological transformation. It is not just human forms of intuition of space-time that can alter over time, but also non-human forms of prehension, like that belonging to the members of the ecology of electromagnetic creatures which, according to Whitehead, provide the widest or most general context of systematic inter-relationship in our cosmic epoch. “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?”
…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim
future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged. (Modes of Thought, 57).
I want to hold out for the possibility of the ecologization of philosophy, rather than suggesting that the present crisis signals the death of philosophy, or its culmination in technoscientific materialism. Many pre-eminent thinkers have argued that philosophy has failed and needs to be replaced with something else (Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, the Heideggerian task of thinking Being’s openness, Deleuze’s plane of immanence, Laruelle’s non-philosophy, …). I’d argue otherwise, not so much against the clear genius of these conceptual personae, but against the idea that somehow what they accomplished wasn’t just a renewal of philosophy. Philosophy should be defined by its ability to live the question rather than to solve it, to participate in truth as a quest undertaken in love). Philosophy doesn’t need to be brought to an end by ecology. It can be saved by it, resuscitated, if only it is willing to swallow the speculative pill curing it of the correlationist anthropocentrisms weighing down ancient and modern philosophy alike. If there is to be a future ecozoic civilization, it will require an ecological philosophy.
John Cobb, Jr. gives his own argument for Whitehead’s relevance last year in Claremont:
A colleague at CIIS presenting on Process Philosophy in Whitehead, Bergson, and Teilhard last Friday.
Originally posted on The Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Forum:
If a pushy philosopher were to back me into a corner and force me to choose one or the other, naturalism or supernaturalism, I would choose naturalism. But I’d find myself wanting to ask, as Socrates might, what is meant by “nature”?
Physics becomes metaphysics as soon as the word–”nature”–is pronounced. The logos of language of its own accord compels conscious creatures like us to ask the fateful question: “What is nature?” I’ve heard many definitions, each with its own interesting implications for any attempt to interpret experiential reality. Plato suggested that nature was the life of the All. Aristotle posited that nature was the sum total of phenomenal/physical beings. Descartes thought it was energetic vortexes circling in an extended plenum. Newton thought it was atoms colliding in the void of space (space, meanwhile, he considered to be the omniscient sensorium of God).
We might also reframe the question by asking about the proper relationship between the logos which asks and the nature which responds. From this there may emerge important epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical queries, none of which are anything like the pursuits of the specialized natural sciences. These methods of inquiry pose their own kinds of problems and devise their own kinds of solutions, solutions which, though they are relevant (we hope!), still differ greatly from the kinds of solutions sought out by physicists and chemists.
“The recourse to metaphysics,” says Whitehead, “is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena” (The Concept of Nature, 29).
Once the question of nature has been asked, it seems we come to find ourselves in a strange and imaginal land. Appearances can no longer be taken for granted as real. Knowledge comes to seem unfounded. Plato wrote from such a mythical place of not-knowing in the Timaeus, even daring to offer several names for it including chora, matrix, receptacle, nurse, and nurturer. He depicted this matrix hovering between the being of invisible forms and the becoming of visible matter, able to take on any definite form and thereby grant it birth into the physical realm, while itself always remaining formless. I interpret Plato’s nurturing “third kind” between the eidos and chaos not as a fantasy land, but as the event-place of reality’s eruption into concrete experience. Necessary ideas and contingent matter are both abstractions from the real. The real comes to be always in-between.
To even frame a polemic around the dichotomy “naturalism v. supernaturalism,” no matter whether one’s aim to choose the atheistic or theological option, is already to implicate oneself in a logic of transcendence, since each term is defined only by its exclusion of the other. A more friendly inquiry (born out of intellectual philia rather than intellectual polemos) was that of Spinoza, who thought not in the exclusive terms of either God or Nature, but in the integral terms of both God and Nature.
Approaching the metaphysical problems posed by naturalism philosophically, rather than polemically, allows one to delight in the multiplication of possibilities and in the intensification of wonder, rather than in the rush to simplify and explain.
Levi Bryant recently offered some thoughts, and some fighting words, on behalf of the naturalistic interpretation of reality (Skholiast has responded in a way that contextualized Bryant’s remarks for me quite nicely). Bryant’s real enemy in these posts is the Continental tradition of philosophy, which he suggests was founded in the 19th century as an anthropocentric reaction against the tremendously technologically successful (but psychologically traumatizing) scientific naturalism first developed in the 16th century. Bryant’s naturalism has three major requirements: 1) no supernatural causes, 2) no metaphysical telos, 3) culture must be natural. A implication of these requirements is that materiality and insensate efficient forces are to be the only real factors operating anywhere in the natural world. Bryant also rejects the idea of nature constructed in the imaginations of reductionists, eliminativists, and positivists, preferring his own “machine-oriented ontology.”
As I said at the beginning, if the dilemma were posed as such, I’d also want to pursue naturalist over supernaturalist accounts of reality. I think Bryant has rightly avoided the blunders of the other ideas of nature floating around among materialists. His alternative materialist ontology is of great interest to me, if only because on some level I do enjoy the creativity that can be unleashed by polemic (“War is the father of all things…” Heraclitus). For the past four of five years of my graduate study at CIIS, I have had a handful of guides helping to shape my initial approach to questions concerning the nature of nature. Of this handful, I’ve grown most familiar with the voices of Alfred North Whitehead and Friedrich Joseph Schelling. As far as naturalisms go, I’d toss as many of their books into my metaphysical wagon as my horses are able to carry. Spare me your universal acids and logics of extinction, I’ll take an originally duplicitous nature animated by a mytho-logic of creativity.
Of course, the journey through the dessert of the real cannot be completed only by imbibing the spilt ink of dead names. Thoughts must boil up from out of the heat of my own blood and words must be uttered from out of the air of my own lungs. I’m working on it… But let us not forget this is also a conspiracy. Though we wage war with symbolic soldiers on paper battlefields, we still think our thoughts, breathe our words, and take our earthly steps together. There need be no polemic between a machine- and an organic-orientation toward reality if we are able to approach their proper relation in a friendly (i.e., a philosophical) way. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to account for both the appearance of mechanism and the reality of organism. He writes:
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists (On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and DevelopmentVI, 70.)
Similarly, from the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, physics and chemistry do not study the non-living components of living ecologies; rather, they are themselves the study of living ecologies at scales other than the biological, tracking the migratory behavior of electrons and protons rather than gnats and zebras. I hearken back to the original meaning of the Greek word physis here, which did not refer to the motion of dead stuff through empty space, but to the growth of living form in teleological time. “Life,” in the context of the organism-oriented ontology I’m trying to construct, is not bios but zoö, where the latter comes to designate existence as such. What exists as such are living organisms.
Bryant denies to naturalism anything but material and efficient causality. I am not aware of any coherent interpretation of quantum physics based solely on material and efficient causation. Nor am I aware of any coherent explanation for biological phylo- or ontogenesis that does not employ at least formal if not also final causes. Unless we are willing to ignore much of “what we are aware of in perception” (Whitehead’s definition of the nature studied by science), it is hard not to grant more than the blind conveyance of forces to nature. To be fair, Bryant does think biological purposes can emerge on accident out of the evolutionary algorithm. Human ideals are emergent realities, new features of the world. I’d argue that telos is no accident, but rather, like life, it is of the very essence of existence. To exist is to be a reason. Nature is not aimless, but nor is its telos designed by a transcendent demiurge. Nature is a creative process of birth and perishing persuaded into enduring patterns of harmony by a participating Eros. Harmony is not a metaphysical necessity, though both Creativity and Eros are. Cosmic harmony is an achievement, the contingent result of the values of a society of organisms characteristic of a particular cosmic epoch. Cosmos need not always emerge from chaos; yet it tends to.
Bryant leaves open the possibility that the world’s great religious teachers might have important metaphysical lessons to teach us. One of my projects has been to try to argue for the relevance of religious imaginaries in combatting precisely the sort of anthropocentrism that Bryant claims naturalism vanquishes (see for example this essay on a Christian spiritual response to the social and ecological crises of our day).
I stumbled upon this great essay on Schelling and process metaphysics recently published in the journal Cosmos and History by Prof. Arran Gare. He really makes it clear how compatible Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is with Whitehead’s cosmological scheme.
Here is a sample:
Schelling’s work is now more relevant than ever before. The situation we are in was very succinctly summed up by Richard Tarnas: “In the absence of any viable, embracing cultural vision, old assumptions remain blunderingly in force, providing an increasingly unworkable and dangerous blueprint for human thought and activity.” By overcoming the limitation of Kant’s philosophy, Schelling has provided the basis for definitively transcending scientific materialism, in doing so, overcoming the opposition between science and the humanities and enabling people to understand themselves as culturally formed, socially situated, creative participants within nature. Most importantly, Schelling confronted and charted a path to overcome the nihilism into which European civilization was and is descending, a nihilism that is reaching its apogee in the deification of the global market, postmodern fragmentation and the specter of global ecocide. In his later work on myth and revelation Schelling noted that “through the virtually unrestricted expansion of world relations… the Orient and the Occident are not merely coming into contract with one another, but are being compelled … to fuse into one and the same consciousness, into one consciousness that should for this reason alone be expanded into a world-consciousness.” While overcoming the parochialism of the European Weltanschauung, this will also necessitate breaking free from past forms of religion; but what is true in mythology and revelation should be preserved, providing a religious dimension to this world-consciousness. To this end, Schelling argued, it will be necessary to develop a “philosophical religion”, addressing and integrating the freedom of existence, historical phenomena and nature into an expanded Weltanschauung inclusive enough to overcome philosophy’s compulsive tendency to splinter off into mutually exclusive schools of thought. Schelling noted that at the time of his lecture this philosophical religion did not yet exist. Lovelock’s notion of Gaia, transcending the parochialism of particular civilizations, concurring with Schelling’s philosophy of nature and offering a religious dimension to scientific theory, can be seen as a significant contribution to the development of this philosophical religion. By recognizing Schelling’s place in the history of philosophy and in science we can now appreciate the process metaphysicians and the scientists influence by them not merely as isolated thinkers of brilliance, but as part of a powerful tradition of thought working towards the creation of a global civilization. This tradition is continuing Schelling’s struggle against nihilism and his integral view of humans as creative historical agents within nature, in which philosophy, science, the arts and the humanities are playing a crucial role in the self-creation of humanity and of life on Earth. We can now see the lineaments of this new civilization emerging in response to the global ecological crisis as the ecological civilization being called for by Chinese environmentalists, a call now being taken up internationally.
Michael/Archive Fire has just written a gracious and astute response to my recent comment about Whitehead’s reformed Platonism. He has made me aware of the fact that my referring to Whitehead or to Plato in the hopes that they offer some sort of authoritative disambiguation is insufficient to support the arguments I am trying to make. I cannot expect Michael to read a large portion of Whitehead’s, or Plato’s corpus, nor guarantee that if he were to read these, he’d interpret them in the same way that I do. If I have any hope of adequately responding to Michael, its because I will be able to translate my reformed Platonism into forms of expression that he finds interesting (if I do draw on authority, maybe Schelling’s will be more rhetorically effective… He also is inevitably mixed up in any philosophical pie I may try to bake). Philosophical adequacy means keeping the conversation going, i.e., keeping the logos flowing.
My process philosophy is rheological, like Michael’s; but it is not just that, not just a scientific study of the flow of matter in the world. It is also a love of the way of wisdom in the world. Philosophy–at least as it was known when the word, and the way of life, was brought forth and developed in the pre- and post-Socratic philosophers–is concerned not only with contingent flows but with the “becoming of being,” the way of eternity, the living unity of the temporal universe.
Unity is the first form, the universal archetype, of philosophy; its first task is to express this unity in the multiplicities of its logoi and to discover it in the differentiations of its cosmoi. There are many important philosophical questions, among them (1) Why do things fall apart? Why Chaos? and (2) Why do things rise to attention? Why Order? I would not privilege (1) over (2), not only because both questions lead in interesting directions, keeping the logos flowing, but because I would not know what chaos was unless I had order to compare it with (and vice versa). Natural science itself already assumes the unity of the universe, that it is cosmos despite its chaos, even where it seems to methodologically require that intelligent freedom be kept distinct from a contingent and purposeless reality (i.e., that some mixture of mentality not be assumed to exist already in all materiality). This seeming methodological requirement of a modest witness to objectify neutral matter cannot be metaphysically justified. Philosophy, if it is to be anything more than an apology for nominalistic materialism, is the attempt to think the complex unity of intelligence and nature, to participate in the One Life organizing the whole. Schelling described the character of this complex unity as follows:
“Is it not manifest, that the tendency to posit the infinite in the finite and conversely the later in the former, is dominant in all philosophical speech and investigations? To think this form is [as] eternal as the essence of that which is expressed in it, and it has not just now begun, and nor will it ever cease; it is, as Socrates in Plato says, the immortal, never changing characteristic of every investigation” (from Bruno, Or on the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1802), I/4).
But what about Michael’s concern to bring forth a philosophy afresh? He called for “anarchic re-engagement” with tradition to avoid the tried and true pitfalls of ontotheological metaphysics. I share his concerns, even while I find tradition important (even if it is a pre-scientific and aristocratic tradition). When Whitehead wrote that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, I believe he meant to say that he thought in the spirit, if not always in the letter, of Plato. After all, as Whitehead also suggests, most of the best criticisms of what has come to be called Platonic philosophy are in Plato’s own dialogues. Further, though Plato’s political views have come to seem oppressive to us today, in his own time, his critiques of myth and attempt to establish a society based on true merit, rather than tyrannical power, were rather progressive.
I’d prefer not to have this post turn into a defense of Plato, since Michael asked to know what I think, not what I’ve read. But then again, if I’m honest, it is hard to tell where what I’ve read and who I’ve conversed with ends and what I think or who I am begins. A kind of alchemical hermeneutics would seem to be at play here, making it impossible for me to disentangle my identity from my influences.
On to some of Michael’s specific comments:
We only have limited access to the contingencies of nature as they have unfolded so far but there is nothing that leads me to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” won’t change barring some future cosmic event.
Eternity’s participation in time does not imply the erasure of contingencies or the permanence of physical laws. Laws are cosmic habits. They could have been otherwise. What couldn’t have been otherwise is that cosmic memory (i.e., intelligence as it acts in time) would form habits of some kind. Meillassoux’s absolute contingency–hyperchaos–is an interesting thought experiment, but as a cosmological principle I just can’t bring myself to accept it. In reality, there is no pure contingency, just as there is no pure necessity: there is only a mixture of each. Laws, as habits, can and do change, but as a moving image of eternity. Like Harman, I refuse to give up on the principle of sufficient reason, even while I (following Schelling) find it necessary to think reason without the law of non-contradiction (thinking reason with contradiction is where I think a process ontology is most helpful).
Michael goes on to speak of the
“anarchistic expansion, diversification, and complexification…inaugurated by the primordial expression of potency in our cosmos, otherwise known as the ‘big-bang.'”
The “big-bang” theory is surely one of the strangest and most wonderful ideas to emerge from scientific investigation of the universe. Here, I think Michael and I have the most in common, though I’d again emphasize that I am lead by such an idea to a sense of the profound unity of the universe (i.e., all matter-energy and space-time shares a common origin) no less than to its capacity for differentiation.
There remains, finally, an important discussion to be had regarding the nature of qualities and quantities, but alas, I’ve run out of time and energy tonight and will have to take up that challenge later.
- Formal Causality and Materialism (footnotes2plato.com)
- Whitehead, Eternal Objects, and God (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy (footnotes2plato.com)
- Withdrawal: Ancient and Modern Accounts (footnotes2plato.com)
- Time as Creative Potency (footnotes2plato.com)
- Hylomorphism: The Myth of Formlessness (larvalsubjects.wordpress.com)
Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology recently responded to After Nature’s (Leon Niemoczynski) post on anthrodecentrism in Object-Oriented Ontology. I’ve visited this topic several times lately, but I’d have to admit that I seem to have failed to fully develop my own position in regards to the place of the human in the universe.
What I have suggested thus far is that we make a distinction between the particular earthly species we call Homo sapiens and a universal anthropic evolutionary potential, or Anthropos, characterized by its archetypal intelligence and compassion. The Anthropos is not yet an actual being, but remains a possible being. Teilhard de Chardin calls this being the Omega toward which cosmic evolution inevitably tends. I am not always able to muster the same metaphysical optimism that Teilhard does, but I am unable to shake the sneaking suspicion that the continuity of human civilization ultimately depends upon each individual’s faith in the possibility of realizing the absolute wisdom and love of the Anthropos. Civilized life is predicated on the assumption that our species, at least at its scientific and spiritual best, represents a unique example of a universal anthropic tendency intrinsic to cosmogenesis. Without faith in this highest human potential, I believe we simply lose the will necessary to live together peacefully on earth. Without an anthropic orientation, in other words, our ethicality and zest for life (as Teilhard calls it) would shrivel and die within a generation or two. Indeed, I think European civilization is growing precariously close to the death of belief in the Anthropos, just as it has already killed God. Perhaps now, in our thoroughly disenchanted historical moment, all that is left to us as a “live option” (as William James would say) is the Cosmos; but even there, late industrial capitalism continues to man the helm of an economic system pushing the earth into ever-worsening mass extinction and global climate change.
“[OOO] reveals that the human has not been traumatically ‘decentered’ by the triple revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud (feel free to add to this list your favorite ‘traumatic’ decentralists…). This decentering, we can now see, was actually only a traumatic event from a particularly eurocentric, dualist, and transcendentalist perspective. I think its time we stop whining about the poor european psyche’s ‘displacement’ and realize that immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology actually center us within the context of things.”
I am all for immanence, ontological parity, and evolutionary cosmology; but I affirm the importance of these principles right alongside those of transcendence, ontological depth, and involutionary metaphysics. There are cross-cultural parallels in the philosophies of India and of various indigenous traditions for these three notions; they are not simply anomalies of a deranged European mentality (e.g., the Indian Vedas and the Mayan Popul Voh). The modern scientific “displacement” of humanity is unavoidable, but if our civilization is to survive the 21st century, I think we must also seek out and discover some sort of cosmotheandric re-orientation. Instead of understanding Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos as ontologically dissociated and isolable substances as the ancients often did, and instead of annihilating each one-by-one as the moderns have, we must enact a weltanschauung wherein this trinity becomes complexly interpenetrating and dependently co-arising.
Adam goes on to suggest that OOO may be the first substance-based and anti-essentialist philosophy. I’m still not convinced of the linguistic utility or metaphysical validity of returning to a substance ontology. I remain committed to the process-relational paradigm. If we consider the main thrust of the scientific displacement of human beings from the center, most of its momentum seems to come from the discovery of the deep time of evolution and thus the developmental nature of the universe. As Teilhard conveys it, 19th and 20th century cosmology has made it clear that the Anthropos is not the static center of a hierarchically arranged Great Chain of Being, but the “axis and arrow” of a complexly organized creative process of unfolding. In other words, our species, as a result of a longing for the anthropic ideal, is near the leading edge of the cosmogenic rush toward deeper interiority. Everything actual possesses a degree of interiority (and so withdrawnness) precisely because it is a process of becoming (I’ve developed the reasons why here and here).
In my last post in response Bob Woodard/Naught Thought‘s thoughts concerning the ontological fuzziness of process philosophy, I referred to Whitehead as an “occasionalist” without explaining exactly what I meant. After reading Steven Shaviro/The Pinicchio Theory‘s insightful commentary on the function of God in Whitehead’s cosmology, as well as Levi Bryant/Larval Subject‘s dismissive opinion that Whitehead is “a priori to be excluded” from consideration by academic philosophy (unless his concept of God can be shown to be superfluous to an otherwise coherent system), I felt I should say a bit more about how I’ve tried to integrate Whitehead’s open-ended panentheistic scheme into a livable image of the world.
Stengers’ suggests in Thinking With Whitehead that God is the keystone of his entire system. She also points out that he remained unsatisfied throughout his life with the adequacy of his own thinking concerning the nature of a divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent because I do not assume it is finally complete. His understanding of divinity was always a work in progress. It is open-ended, meant to be picked up and re-worked by students who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating divinity matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God. It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy, psychological and societal, of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the appearance of something in the soul, called by it “God,” implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But they must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God was not a conceptual hypothesis meant to explain the appearance of the world, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially).
When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life and the formation of earth and larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness; it means considering the conditions making possible a world where consciousness can come to be. These conditions are cosmogenic (not simply cognitive, as in Kant). Whitehead’s ontology is as concerned with objects as it is with subjects, and though his is a generative scheme, it gives temporal priority to neither. They are each to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. Objectivity doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether subjectivity is able to respond to the objectifications of itself and the world constituting the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. Truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.
To the extent that a concept functions to increase the intensity of subjectivity’s process of self- and world-objectification (=concrescence), that concept is of value to the universe’s ongoing adventure of ideas. Whitehead’s telos, which is neither wholly immanent or wholly transcendent, is Beauty. Its causal engine in the world is Eros, that which allows for the mutual penetration of every actual occasion (including God). Eros is also a sensible sign of world-transcendence, a moving image of an eternal God. Beauty is loved by actuality not only for what it is, but for what it means, even if this meaning remains sublime and so forever withdraws from comprehension.
In his response to Shaviro’s anti-occationalist defense of Whitehead, Graham Harman writes:
“The point is, prehension is always mediated by the eternal objects, and the eternal objects are in God. It’s hard to be more of an occasionalist than to say that God is the mediator of all relations and that entities exist only as occasions. It’s textbook occasionalism, in fact.”
I think Harman is leaving out some important elements of Whitehead’s admittedly obscure thinking on these matters. It would seem more appropriate to me for Harman to criticize this obscurity than to mischaracterize the struggle for coherence evident in a more charitable reading of Whitehead’s work. Whitehead always characterizes eternal objects as deficient in actuality, which is why they exist both virtually in God and actually as ingredients in the experiences of finite occasions. Outside the dipolar relation between God and the world, there are no definite ideas, no eternal objects. So yes, eternal objects do mediate prehension, but God’s prehension of finite actual occasions is as necessary for God’s as it is for each occasion’s concrescence. So unlike in traditional occasionalism, God is not just the cause of the world, God is also caused by the world. As Shaviro has argued, finite actual occasions are indeed in direct erotic contact with one another. I would only add that this mutual contact also always includes God.
This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Bryant, are lead to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to speculative metaphysics. So far as it goes, I’m willing to say I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the pure possibilities and perfect generalities of absolute reality abstracted from concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate, making God its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize–when I seek out participatory knowledge (i.e., wisdom) of the order and harmony of the actual world.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the Cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my Soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for thought. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that the Soul has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its Cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the Soul experienced no separation between the world’s logos (=meaning) and its existence (=factuality), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.
Horkheimer and Adorno from Dialectic of Enlightenment:
“In Homer, Zeus controls the daytime sky, Apollo guides the sun; Helios and Eos are already passing over into allegory. The gods detach themselves from substances to become their quintessence. From now on, being is split between logos–which, with the advance of philosophy, contracts to a monad, a mere reference point–and the mass of things and creatures in the external world. The single distinction between man’s own existence and reality swallows up all others. Without regard for differences, the world is made subject to man…The awakening subject is bought with the recognition of power as the principle of all relationships. In face of the unity of such reason the distinction between God and man is reduced to an irrelevance, as reason has steadfastly indicated since the earliest critique of Homer. In their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the command. Myth becomes enlightenment and nature mere objectivity. Human beings purchase the increase in their power with estrangement from that over which it is exerted” (p. 5).
Whitehead’s panentheistic theology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.
Without a faith in the world’s ability to continue hanging together as a whole, the Soul has no reason but to affirm amoral chaos as the root of all things.