“How does matter give rise to consciousness?” (response to Sam Harris)

Harris seems to presuppose the old Cartesian framework, with consciousness being that which is indubitable and which can in no way be reduced to matter. I wonder, though, what concept of matter Harris is working with here? That “matter” is a concept should go without saying, since on his Cartesian view of consciousness, we are locked in a mental prison with no way of perceiving anything outside our own minds. We can have knowledge of matter, but only as a mathematical abstraction (see my review of Latour’s Modes of Existence, where he deconstructs the modern “idea of matter”).

Harris admits that, from within the materialist ontological paradigm, consciousness may always appear to be a miracle, its origins a mystery. Rather than rest content with this sort of quasi-dualist materialist obscurantism, I’d rather follow the heretical panpsychist (broadly construed) stream dating back to Spinoza, Leibniz, and Schelling, later emerging in the organic realism of Whitehead. For a fuller treatment of why an evolutionary panpsychism provides a more coherent account of the place of consciousness in nature, see my article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020).

A review of Michael Hogue’s “American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World” (2018)

MICHAEL S. HOGUE, American Immanence: Democracy for An Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018: 238 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

Michael Hogue has written a timely theopolitical intervention drawing from (and contributing to) the American stream of philosophy in service of democratic and spiritual renewal. By the time American Immanence was published in 2018, humanity’s longest running national experiment in democracy was already embroiled in what Hogue (following Robert Bellah) calls “its fourth major trial” (2). Each of the last four centuries has seen the United States thrown into an epochal crisis of identity and destiny that tests and transforms our bonds as a people. The great trial of the eighteenth century was formative: the Revolutionary War. The nineteenth century crisis, the Civil War, was seeded by the moral contradictions implicit in the first: American colonists won political freedom from the British Crown on the basis of Enlightenment values only to turn around and build a society that not only tolerated native genocide and African enslavement but actively engaged in them as a matter of official state policy. The twentieth century brought the rise of America’s nuclear powered global military empire in the wake of the world wars as well as the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, which finally gave legal and political substance to the nominal freedom won in the prior century. As America stumbles into the second decade of the twenty-first century, its citizens continue struggling to responsibly inherit the unresolved collective traumas of their history. The fourth national trial is also challenging us to develop a new consciousness of our shared future vulnerabilities. All the old moral contradictions are still making the news. But something wickedly novel has emerged that recontextualizes everything.

Hogue’s book takes a step beyond current partisan divides by reminding us of the emergent planetary context of our shared political life. Whether first marked by the appearance of symbolic consciousness, agriculture and cities, colonization, industrialization, nuclear energy, or the microchip, there can be no doubt that we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by human modes of production and their unintended climatic blowback. The wave of reactionary nationalism that carried Trump into office is but the latest symptom of a more all-encompassing spiritual and ecological emergency.

For Hogue, the Anthropocene brings an end to the era of human exceptionalism, as all who had been externalized (poor and marginalized people, as well as the climate, the soil, the rainforests, etc.) are now rushing back to reclaim their agency. Gaia (or the Earth System, if you prefer) is not passive before the industrial projects of global capital. The reasons and desires shaping our political and economic lives are inescapably entangled with and thus limited by the flow of energy around the Earth, such that there are thermodynamic conditions of human freedom. Humans are evolved and evolving mammals who make useful tools that remake us in turn. Our moral ideals and social order did not arise ex nihilo from Zeus’ forehead. The history of human cultural evolution cannot be told in abstraction from its energy extraction regimes (foraging, farming, fossil fuels, etc.) (70). Concomitant with the increased awareness of the material and biotic conditions making human consciousness possible, fissures in the ideological matrix of modern liberal secularism are widening. While some may feel suffocated by the deluge of dire factors weighing upon the human future[i], Hogue seeks to fill the postliberal, postsecular gaps in the social imaginary with new theopolitical possibilities (10).

Drawing upon what he calls the American immanental tradition (particularly William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and their more recent interpreters), Hogue reimagines the social and political role of theology in more pragmatic and world-loyal terms, shifting away from traditionally religious obsessions with the afterlife and more recent “death of God” theologies to focus instead on “natal concern for the complex creativity immanent within the world and emergent through nature” (14). Defining the political as the domain of ongoing, open-ended negotiations of power and value in the context of common life (15), Hogue sets to work in chapter 1 demystifying the “redeemer symbolic” that has functioned throughout American history to legitimize certain theopolitical conceptions of power and value rooted in a dual logic of exception and extraction. This moral logic is typified by the elevation of a savior (human, divine, or both) to a special ontological status exempt from the normal conditions, contingencies, and constraints of creaturely coexistence and authorized to extract value and externalize cost in service of the redemption of a chosen people (29). Hogue traces the destructive effects of this symbolic constellation through its colonial, national, imperial, and neoliberal phases. While historians may prefer thicker descriptions of the events described, Hogue’s sketch suits his insurrectionist purposes. He begins by using the political theory of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to elucidate the anti-democratic decision-making and environmental racism of former Michigan governor Rick Synder, which precipitated a still ongoing humanitarian crisis in the impoverished, mostly Black city of Flint. The tragedy in Flint provides a synecdoche for the longer historical arc of American exceptionalism, from America’s Biblically coded ex nihilo creation story (31) to Trump’s election as the “apotheosis of [neoliberalism],” such that “capitalism has become a sacred crusade, [with] the market as the model of all other social relations” (50). 

Chapter 2 unpacks the wicked entanglements characterizing the Anthropocene, detailing the intimate but until recently unacknowledged bonds between humans and the Earth. Among the most striking entanglements is that European colonization of the Americas may have left a mark on the atmospheric record: after disease ravaged and displaced indigenous populations were no longer able to manage the forests, a precipitous reforestation of the Western hemisphere concentrated enough CO2 to at least contribute to the emergence of a mini-ice age in Europe (57). Hogue favors interpretations of the Anthropocene that identify it as primarily a colonial phenomenon driven by industrial growth capitalism. Hogue amplifies scholars like Eileen Crist (61), Jason W. Moore (62), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (64) who challenge the name chosen by geologists to mark this epochal transformation. Moore’s proposal of “Capitalocene” better captures the historical reality (and is no more infelicitous than the current misnomer) (63). 

Chapters 3 and 4 are the theoretical heart of the book. Hogue brilliantly reconstructs viable concepts of power and value in the context of Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, James’ radical empiricism, and Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy. These chapters warrant deep engagement from process-oriented thinkers. I only have space to critically address one issue: Hogue’s treatment of God as both concept and symbol. While he champions Whitehead’s aesthetic and “grassroots” (97) approach to metaphysics as “a blueprint for deep social change” (99), Hogue questions whether Whitehead’s process theology obeys its stated embargo on ontological exceptionalism. While Whitehead demotes God to the status of a creature of Creativity like all others, God’s creatureliness retains a special status in the universe as the most ultimate (in its primordial role as valuer of eternal possibilities) and most intimate (in its consequent role as fellow sufferer and tragic poet). For Hogue, Whitehead’s insistence upon a God who is “constantly concrescing, never satisfied, and nonperishing” (111) raises the suspicion that he may be smuggling ontotheological contraband. But rather than offering a sustained rebuttal of the “metaphysical necessity” of Whitehead’s God concept or divine function, Hogue focuses instead on the “pragmatic religious sufficiency” of such a God symbol (112), determining that contemporary political theologians are better off inheriting “Whitehead without God” in service of “a fuller, more vital, religiously world-loyal appreciation for the creative process of reality” (113). 

While pragmatic considerations of the individual and social function of religious symbolism are essential, I do not think we can so neatly divide metaphysics from social praxis. There is some risk in overapplying Deweyan instrumentalism in search of a “useful” image of God that we end up reinstituting the very anthropocentrism Hogue means to overcome. Hogue nowhere mentions the essential role of Whitehead’s divine function in granting relevant novelty to finite occasions of experience, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the onrush of unfiltered infinite Creativity. It is not clear that Whitehead’s scheme of prehending and concrescing actual entities remains coherent if “the primordial created fact”[ii]has been excised (or misunderstood as a “metaphysical necessity”). While the contingency of cosmic and earthly evolution cannot be denied, it is just as evident that the course of nature’s creative unfurling displays a tendency toward organized complexity. Where does this tendency to self-organization originate? Surely not in human symbol systems, which are rather an expression of it. Hogue suggests the creative advance can be sustained merely by the combinatory effects of finite occasions of experience, without any need for God or eternal objects. He goes on to argue that “the potential for novelty [would then be] ontologically distributed through the cosmos rather than concentrated within God’s primordial aspect” (111); but on my reading, Whitehead’s divine function is already radically distributed in the form of an “initial Eros” providing “the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.”[iii] It is also not clear how reference can still be made to “potential” (and in particular, relevant potentials) in a universe composed only of actual entities and sealed off from the ingression of eternal objects and divine lures.

Nor am I convinced that Hogue’s pragmatic emphasis on natality in the face of death adequately addresses the practical and existential concerns of the growing masses of people suffering through the current multiform planetary catastrophe. While it is true that some sects of Christianity verge on the status of death cults for their overemphasis on crucifixion, sin, and the need for otherworldly redemption, our religious imaginaries would be equally diminished by an exclusive focus on natality without regard for the moral import of death and the afterlife (or our images of it). Our religions must integrally address the miraculous facts of birth and death in their symbolic formations lest the encompassing divine mystery of human life be obscured. It is not clear to me that, on pragmatic grounds, belief in some kind of afterlife necessarily diminishes world-loyalty. A belief in reincarnation, for instance, can be construed as superlatively loyal. 

In the closing chapter, Hogue turns to Grace Lee Boggs in an effort to inspire a theopolitics of lasting annunciatory revolution in place of more short-lived denunciatory rebellions (153). Hogue’s book makes an important contribution to the task of disrupting and demystifying the dominant symbolic complexes that have shaped our collective emotions and habits for centuries. Whitehead warned almost a century ago that “societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows”[iv] (quoted by Hogue, 98). Hogue has deftly heeded this warning by showing how reverence and revisioning can coexist. 


[i] A team of Israeli scientists recently calculated that the total “anthropogenic mass” (overall material output of human activities) has now reached or exceeded the total living biomass of Earth at approximately 1.1 teratonnes. See Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5

[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

[iii] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 139. 

[iv] Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 88. 

Who are we? (thinking w/ Berry and Swimme)

‘Who are we’? Always a good question to ask. Ecologically speaking, this might be the most important question humanity can ask: ‘How wide does the we reach?’

Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme point to the stars, but their point is not that scientific abstractions explain human life down here on earth. Their point, as I understand it, is just that the Earth and the entire cosmos is a community of subjects. The ‘we’ extends all the way to the edge of the galactic supercluster and beyond. Spiritual bypassing? Perhaps, especially if ‘the star-reaching we’ or cosmic consciousness forgets to tend to the suffering and impoverishment in the more local here and now. But maybe we are always at risk of spiritual bypassing, whether we are buried underground colliding atomic nuclei or swimming naked in an alpine lake or self-immolating in protest of the American oil economy. Berry wasn’t escapist or avoidant of the need to inhabit a place. He seemed well aware of the ultimate value of particular places (see e.g., his essay in The Great Work “The Meadow Across the Creek”).  

Thinking with Carlo Rovelli: The Physics of Consciousness

Last summer, I traveled to the Gran Sasso Institute in L’Aquila, Italy to participate in a conference bringing physicists and philosophers together to rehash the famous debate in 1922 between Einstein and Bergson. My paper (which should be published soon) brought quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli and Whitehead into the mix.

Yesterday I came across this recent lecture by Rovelli offering some thoughts about the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness (a framing Rovelli dismisses).

I shared some initial thoughts in response on Twitter:

Then shared more in a series of YouTube videos:

In short, I applaud Rovelli’s brilliant analysis of the ways in which biological and psychological phenomena are perfectly compatible with physical processes. But there is some ambiguity in his account, as it is unclear whether he believes he is offering some sort of causal explanation of consciousness in physical terms, or just a correlation between, e.g., conscious information-processing or decision-making and free energy/negentropy in the brain. When he speaks as a physicist, he seems to think he is explaining consciousness in physical/efficient causal terms. But when he praises Spinoza the pantheist philosopher, he would seem to be acknowledging a mere correlation or parallelism between material and mental phenomena.

Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Concrescence and the Implicate Order: Whitehead and Bohm in Dialogue

“In our experience there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.”

Alfred North Whitehead (Science and Philosophy, 1948)

“When we look into the depths of the clear sky, what we actually see is an unspecifiable total ground of movement, from which objects emerge. Particular ideas or thoughts coming to the mind may similarly be perceived as being like particular objects that arise from an unspecifiable ground of deeper movement. What we call ‘mind’ may be this deeper ground of movement, but if we think of the particular thoughts as the basic reality, we miss this.”

David Bohm (from a chapter in Cobb and Griffin’s edited volume Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy, 1977)

“There is very little left on the earth that has not been effected by our thinking.”

Bohm (on a panel with the Dalai Lama and others, 1990)

“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study. It moulds our type of civilization.”

Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 1938)

On Tuesday, I’ll be doing another event for friends of the Cobb Institute, this time joined by plasma physicist Tim Eastman. We’ll lead a discussion on the relationship between David Bohm’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s cosmological visions. I’m sharing some notes below.

First, the obvious: there is a deep congruence in their thinking. Both men emphasized the need to out grow the reductive mechanistic account of the universe that was ushered in by the first wave of scientific geniuses in the 17th century. They were among the first to recognize that the early 20th century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics demanded a new metaphysics. While both made important contributions to the mathematical physics of their day, they also set to work re-imagining the metaphysics of materialism in search of a more coherent explanation of our cosmological situation. The old mechanistic worldview of 17th century science was based on certain key presuppositions that the new quantum and relativistic paradigms showed to be inadequate. Both Bohm and Whitehead agreed on what the faulty presuppositions were: 1) the notion of “Nature at an instant”; 2) the notion of “simple location; and 3) the notion of the “bifurcation of Nature.” 

Similarities

-Both Bohm and Whitehead want to understand quantum physics as more than just a calculus, but as having profound worldview implications for our civilization. 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, advocates for a shift away from point-instants to moments or events as the primary facts of physical reality. There is no “Nature at an instant.” This implies that space-time measurement is only ever “close enough” and can never be absolutely precise. 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, views each microcosmic moment or event as including the whole cosmos in enfolded or concresced form. There is no “simple location.” 

-Bohm, like Whitehead, rejects the separation of mind and matter. There is a deeper layer of reality, a creative process or holomovement, from which both derive. There is no “bifurcation of Nature.”

-Bohm and Whitehead view novel forms as entering or ingressing into the actual world from an enfolded or unactualized domain of possibilities.

But there are also some important divergences in their respective approaches. 

Differences

-Whitehead’s actual occasions feel, relate to, and take up one another directly (horizontal causality), rather than relating only through the mediation of the implicate order. 

-How are we to make sense of the creative advance of emergent evolutionary value and social order in the concrete physical world? Bohm’s understanding of ultimate reality would seem to privilege the implicate eternal whole over the temporal relations of individuals. Whitehead sought to avoid the reduction of individuals into secondary appearances projected out of a unified higher-dimensional order. He wanted to preserve the possibility for creative action influencing an open-ended future. It is not clear that Bohm’s implicate order leaves room for freedom (which is why Einstein preferred his deterministic rendering of quantum theory).