Genes v. Organisms in Biological Explanation (responding to the Dawkins v. Weinstein debate)

Here’s the recent debate between Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein on the relationship between cultural and biological evolution:

Here are two response videos from me arguing for the relevance of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson et al.’s theory of autopoiesis and Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism:


Some relevant essays that expand on the ideas I shared in the video:

“Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future”

“The Origin of Organism: The Place of Life in the Cosmos”

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

The Schelling & Hegel Tapes

I’m sharing some clips from a live video conference session a few days ago with students in my online course this semester, “Mind and Nature in German Idealism.”

Integrating Space-Time: Non-Dual Idealism, or Physics of the World-Soul?

Metaphysics is serious play. Serious because (if done well) it demands a reckoning with death, with limit as such, with finitude and necessity. Play because (if done well) it frees us from our perceived finitude to partake in the process of realization itself.

Materialism and idealism, though mutuality exclusive as metaphysical positions, are nonetheless symbiotically dependent on one another at a psycho-social level: their opposition is a symptom of a deeper dis-ease, an archetypal knot that thousands of years of philosophical inquiry has failed to untangle. The ideological battle between materialism and idealism is a split in the species mind. Materialists define their own courageous adherence to facts in opposition to the inflated fantasies of idealism. Similarly, idealists define their own enlightened God’s eye view in opposition to the naive confusions of materialism. Neither captures the totality on its own. The totality is itself torn asunder by their very opposition, twisted into conflict with itself.

Metaphysics (if done well) calls us toward an integral realization: we are body and spirit. Death is a necessary phase in the process of Life. Life has no meaning without death. We are logos incarnate, not simply minds in bodies or bodies in minds.

Bernardo Kastrup is a rising figure in the online philosophy world. I first encountered his thought back in 2015 when someone shared his blog post “The Threat of Panpsychism: A Warning.” I posted a response, and we were off and running (Bernardo’s response to me, my response to his response). I won’t recount what we discussed back then, but it remains relevant to what I want to discuss below.

In response to a recent post of mine on Whitehead and relativistic cosmology, an adherent of Kastrup’s non-dual idealism (@MishaRogov) engaged me in an interesting exchange. I’ve pasted it below (the link I share in my first reply is to Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology):

Footnotes2Plato on Twitter_ _Plenty of folks have argued at length that Whitehead_s cosmology offers one of the few coherent integrations of quantum and relativity theory. Eg, https___

On @MishaRogov’s suggestion, I read some of Kastrup’s more recent writings on space-time. In “The Linguistic Demon of Space-Time,” Kastrup characterizes the materialistic conception of an objective space-time as a culturally invented “demon.” He writes:

“We are—or so the demon screams—limited beings lost in the vastness of the cosmos, destined to oblivion at the moment of death. We’ve been eaten by the demon and completely lost touch with our own inherent transcendence. It is critical to realize this: it is the demon of objective space-time that robs us of our felt sense of transcendence and creates all suffering.


Kastrup’s view of space-time is a helpful foil for me. It brings my own alternative understanding of the significance of the physical cosmos into greater relief. So much of my philosophical writing is guided by what begin as vague but insistent intuitions. I only gradually work out these intuitions into what (I hope!) are consistent, coherent, adequate, and applicable ideas. Interacting with deep thinkers on the blogosphere has played a crucial role in my own philosophical development and self-understanding. I’ve tried to work out my own version of process-relational panpsychism in conversation with materialists, idealists, realists, theists, skeptics, magicians, and more. I learn something from every encounter. I have been, in a non-exclusive sense, converted to each of these perspectives at some point. I try to hold to a plurality of truths, transmuting contradictions into contrasts wherever possible.

In contrast to Kastrup’s transcendent view of space-time as illusory, my own take on space-time (elaborated in the Chiasmus of my dissertation) is descendental or incarnational. I remain unsatisfied with both the objective materialist view of space-time as a mind-independent “thing” and the subjective idealist view of it as a mental projection. Space-time is real, bot not actual, which is to say its mode of existence is as potentiality, specifically, the potentiality to relate. All the percipient actualities in the universe are internally related. Space-time is the nexus of potentiality housing these relations. Space-time is not an illusion to be dispelled; it is the royal road to the realization of ultimate relationality. We encounter the Real not by attempting to escape space-time, but by diving more deeply into it. Space-time, concretely experienced, is not as finite as it at first appears. The descent into the spatiotemporal underworld may indeed crucify our ego. But dying into the apparent finitude of space-time may open a doorway into the sublime renewal of a more integrated Self.

Whitehead’s Radically Empirical Theory of General Relativity

“The doctrine of relativity affects every branch of natural science, not excluding the biological sciences. . . . Relativity, in the form of novel formulae relating time and space, first developed in connection with electromagnetism. . . . Einstein then proceeded to show its bearing on the formulae for gravitation. It so happens therefore that owing to the circumstances of its origin a very general doctrine is linked with two special applications.”
–Whitehead (The Principle of Relativity, 3).

One of the biggest surprises for me upon reading Auxier and Herstein’s book The Quantum of Explanation was learning that Whitehead’s theory of extension (or “mereotopology” as it has come to be called) has been taken up by computer scientists working in the field of robotic vision (see for example the work of Ian Pratt-Hartmann).

“It is a widely acknowledged fact in this sub-discipline that Alfred North Whitehead’s work on extension is foundational for their enterprise. Our experience has been that Whitehead scholars are simply astounded to learn of this fact. Yet we should have expected and even predicted such a connection” (QE 90).

Guilty as charged. While I think I got things mostly right in section 3.2 of my dissertation (“From Geometric Conditions of Possibility to Genetic Conditions of Actuality”), the promising application of Whitehead’s topological scheme to robotic vision certainly brings this aspect of his project into sharper focus for me. As a radical empiricist, Whitehead was searching for a formal account of our concrete experience of projectively related extensa. We are finite creatures with limited sensory organs and processing capacity. We do not experience the world of spatial relations in terms of infinitesimal points or the geometrical schemes built up from such points. Rather, what we encounter in our immediate experiential field are the intuitive whole-part relational structures formalized by non-metrical projective geometry.

Following Einstein’s articulation of the special and general theories of relativity (in 1905 and 1916, respectively), and his problematic “mono-metric” identification of a 4-D geometrical model with physical space-time*, Whitehead pursued his theory of extension with renewed urgency. Somehow, the uniformity of spatial geometry had to be preserved, else scientific measurement would become impossible. Einstein did not appear to realize that allowing the contingent warping of space by massive objects undermined the fundamental logical requirements of measurement: that space have a necessary and universal structure (or, as Auxier and Herstein put it, “we must have a standard unit of spatial comparison for conjugacy…and standard(s) of spatial projection” so as to bring this unit into comparison with whatever we are trying to measure [QE 102]). By collapsing the difference between physical space and his favored geometrical scheme, Einstein made the structure of spatial geometry contingent upon randomly arrayed masses.

“We must know the complete distribution of matter and energy in the universe prior to knowing its geometry. But we must have a comprehensive grasp of this geometry in order to discover this distribution. As Whitehead pointed out, with General Relativity as our theory of space and gravity, we are saddled with a situation where we must first know everything before we can know anything” (QE 104).  

Einstein’s “mono-metric” model has been one of the most successful in the history of science. But because of the unexpected observations of the rotational velocity of galaxies and of cosmic inflation rates, its theoretical supremacy has begun to be seriously questioned. Some astrophysicists have attempted to save the theory by inventing “dark matter” and “dark energy” to explain the missing mass that would bring observations back into agreement with Einstein’s theory. Auxier and Herstein refer to these inventions as “an especially unhappy piece of nonsense” (QE 20). I’m sympathetic, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. To my mind, these invented entities are akin to the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy. In other words, these exotic and invisible forms of mass/energy (which supposedly compose ~96% of the universe) are postulated ad hoc in an attempt to “save the appearances” (as ancient astronomers used to say). Ancient astronomers were tasked by Plato with explaining the seemingly erratic motion of the planets in terms of a theoretical model composed only of uniform circular motions. When new planetary observations conflicted with the model, more circles were added (epicycles) to bring the model back into alignment with appearances. One view of science is that it is just about refining existing theoretical presuppositions to fit new observations, gradually approaching a perfect identity between model and reality. In this sense, the addition of epicycles to match observations could continue indefinitely. After all, Ptolemy’s geocentric model was more accurate than Copernicus’ heliocentric model (which itself still required epicycles until Kepler and Newton updated his math). The geocentric model is still accurate enough that modern planetarium projectors (invented in the 1920s by a company in Jena, Germany) continue to utilize it, reproducing Ptolemy’s deferents and epicycles with their internal gears and motors (see also).


But as Karl Popper taught us, scientific theories must be subject to empirical falsification. The eternal circular orbits of Ptolemy’s model fall out of phase with the long-term evolution of planetary orbits, while the (updated) heliocentric model accommodates this evolution well. As Thomas Kuhn, another great philosopher of science, taught us, the history of science is not just about the gradual refinement of old theories to fit new observations in an asymptotic convergence of model to reality; rather, this history is also characterized by periods of revolutionary crisis as aging paradigms are supplanted by deeper, wider, more elegant and inclusive explanatory perspectives. Einstein’s genius was to bring the reigning Newtonian theory of gravity into alignment with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. A deeper theory of space was born. But in a sense, despite many other successful observational predictions, empirical falsification is exactly what happened to Einstein’s gravitational theory when it failed to accurately predict the observed rotational velocity of galaxies. However, because this darling model had made a number of other accurate predictions, and because no widely accepted alternative paradigm was on hand, astrophysicists decided to fudge the numbers by inventing new free parameters, new epicycles, to bring the theory back into alignment with observations. Appearances were thereby saved, but at the cost of conjuring into existence an entire universe (or 96% of one, at least) of cold and dark, that is, unobservable, matter/energy.

Even though he did formulate a “bimetric” alternative in 1922 (QE 109), Whitehead’s problem is not with Einstein’s model. This isn’t a “scientists have been wrong before, so why should we trust them now?” argument. Science is about modeling. In some sense, scientific models are always wrong. That’s the name of the game, after all: build a model and throw it against reality until it breaks. Then study why it broke until you find a new model that doesn’t break as quickly. Gradually, more robust, inclusive models emerge. Rather, Whitehead’s problem is with the philosophically naive “model-centrism” that leads scientists to equate their favored model with reality in a dogmatically literalistic way. We should never assume the reigning physical models of the universe offer a final account of the way things are (especially when today’s two most successful models, relativity and quantum theory, remain irreconcilable). Science is not ontology: science is a method of inquiry involving the making and breaking of toy models.

The dogmatic equation of a favored geometrical model with physical reality not only undermined the logical basis of measurement, it led Einstein to dismiss our concrete experience of an irreversible flow of time as nothing more than a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” This is Whitehead’s famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” writ large. Einstein’s unquestioned commitment to the classical “spectator theory of knowledge” prevented him from grasping the profoundly relational implications of his new theory of space. He upheld the old Galilean-Cartesian view of a bifurcated Nature, construing our consciousness as somehow external to a cosmos that we can only ever confusedly experience. Whitehead offers an alternative, fully relational epistemology and ontology that re-embeds experience in the cosmos: we are creative participants in a cosmogenetic relational nexus.  

Instead of rushing to eliminate experience from our understanding of a relativistic (or relational) reality, Whitehead carefully examined the hidden epistemic presuppositions and metaphysical requirements of Einstein’s more specific application of relativity to the physics of light and gravitation. The result of his examination was eventually assembled in Process and Reality as the fourth category of explanation, a truly general principle of relativity: “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming'” (PR 22). Obviously, the importance of Whitehead’s fourth category of explanation (of which there are 26 others) can only be understood within the total gestalt of his categoreal scheme (which includes the category of the ultimate: Creativity; eight categories of existence, among which the most important are eternal objects and actual occasions; and nine categories of obligation). Whitehead’s categoreal scheme is laid out in Part I of Process and Reality as something like an opening credit roll listing the conceptual dramatis personae who, in Part II, will take the stage to exemplify their adequacy. But I’m not going to run through the whole dress rehearsal right now (for a helpful exegesis of Whitehead’s first four categories of explanation, see pgs. 108-110 of QE). Suffice it to say that Whitehead’s principle of relativity expresses the truth that everything co-exists in a web of relatedness, whether actually or potentially. 

Auxier and Herstein:

This is the principle that Einstein and his devotees have abandoned: not the mathematical expression of their physical model; that model is itself only an application of what has become the standard dogma of orthodox cosmology, with its narrowly defined approach to the interpretation of a truncated representation of experience. Rather, physical cosmology has left behind the full principle of relativity and its unqualified commitment to the incurable relatedness of the real. That abandonment comes in the truncation of experience at the root of their largely unexpressed theory of experience [i.e., the theory of the bifurcation of Nature]. For one cannot have a universal principle of relativity—applicable to all that is real—unless one takes experience in its real, relational totality. Experience—both actual and potential—is exactly the kind of reality that falls under the principle of relativity. One cannot take the metaphysical principle of relativity seriously unless one is a radical empiricist” (QE 110). 

In The Quantum of Explanation, Auxier and Herstein have brilliantly succeeded in elucidating the features of a radically empirical cosmology. As Whitehead reminds us early and often in Process and Reality, the purpose of philosophy is not to explain away the existence of the concrete by reduction to the abstract, but to explain the emergence of abstraction from concretion. The proper questions are: how does concrete fact participate in general form and how are general forms exemplified in concrete facts?

For a longer discussion of Whitehead’s radical empiricism a.k.a. relational realism, see my essay “Retrieving Realism: A Whiteheadian Wager.”

*It has been brought to my attention that the matter of whether Einstein thought the physics of gravitation is reducible to the geometry of space-time is not so clear cut. See for example: “Why Einstein did not believe that general relativity geometrizes gravity” by Lehmkuhl. The research continues… 

Whitehead’s Quantum of Explanation: Thinking with Auxier and Herstein

“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein

“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein

Those looking for a proper review of their book should read George Lucas’ in NDPR. My thoughts are somewhat self-referential, as I am trying to sort through the intellectual earthquake unleashed within my mind as a result of reading this text.

Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.  

Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).

Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch. 

“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).

The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?

In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:

“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”

Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge [1919], The Principle of Relativity [1920], and The Concept of Nature [1922]) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”

My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds. 

In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks. 


* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).

** see pgs. 101 and 180 of my dissertation

the nature of consciousness and what to do about it, a dialogue

Here I am with Aaron Weiss, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and doctoral candidate at CIIS, talking about the nature of consciousness and what to do about it. The first talk was filmed back in April; the second was filmed in September as a follow-up.