Adam over at Knowledge Ecology has posted about the need for a pluralistic ontology in thinking the differences between nature and culture. I’ve copied my response to him below:
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Another stimulating post, Adam. I love the thinkers you are bringing into conversation. I have not yet read Carolan’s essay, but I have a few comments to share about your summary.

You write that “physical environments can exist without social environments, but not the reverse.” What do you mean, exactly, by “physical” in this context? I remain convinced that Whitehead’s organic realism is the most fruitful approach to take if we are trying to bring forth a cosmology without undue ontological divisions between human beings and every other kind of being, whether they be dolphin beings, flamingo beings, sequoia beings, or helium and hydrogen beings. To say that physical environments precede social environments suggests that molecules, atoms, protons, etc., relate to one another in fundamentally non-living, non-semiotic ways; which is to say, they hardly relate at all, they simply crash into and pull at one another blindly. If we are going to call these physical “environments,” then we are already implying that physical beings “live” in relation to one another, that they are each autonomous boundary generating systems that live amongst other such systems within larger communities of constitutive relations. What are stars but collectives of hydrogen and helium atoms whose gravitational, electronic, and magnetic means of semiosis bring them into emergent social relations, relations so tightly woven that, at least from our earthly perspective, these collectives become autonomous beings in their own right? Are there really physical environments that aren’t always already social? Perhaps you could speak of isolated quarks as asocial beings; but they are almost always artificially separated in human laboratories, and all indications are that even these sub-atomic forms of self-organization are constituted by social relations between even smaller beings. I am pretty sure you agree, it is ecosystems all the way down, which is why I was surprised to read this statement.

Of course, we don’t want to just collapse nature into culture, or physics into society. But as long we realize that “culture” and “society” have never been purely human endeavors, I think a panexperiential or pansemiotic approach is quite fruitful. DNA is, after all, a kind of language. I don’t think genes operate on an entirely different ontological plane then human symbolism and communication. They are both processes that obey the same semiotic logic, and though the latter may be associated with greater degrees of reflexivity and consciousness, the former is the ground and condition of the latter: if my cells stopped communicating with each other, I would very quickly lose the capacity to speak with you.

What I would want to suggest is that we need a stratified or layered ontology to distinguish the multiplicity of umwelts that make up the universe. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there are ultimately multiple ontologies, since this seems to me to be only another form of reductionism (just a reduction to the many, instead of to the one). There are many distinct umwelts, or worlds brought forth through differing modes of sensory relation. But hey all exist in and as the same encompassing sphere of Being as part of the same universe (at least unless we are going to say that there are some beings we will never, ever, even in principle, come into relation with–which is quite possible, but in that case, even to speak of them is already to assume some relation, thereby bringing them into our sphere). So we could say there are as many worlds, niches, or umwelts as there are kinds of organism, but that each overlaps to varying degrees within a single cosmos. Perhaps, instead of talking about “nature” as some monolithic category, we could speak of “Earth,” which is undeniably the common ground of all the middle-sized creatures threatened by technoindustrial capitalism. Earth is the singular body that houses multiple ecologies.

In terms of an OOO, I think this is where human beings start to become unique, since only we seem capable of thinking about how ‘real’ objects condition ‘sensory’ objects. In other words, only we worry about ontology. The ecological crisis is deeply related to our failed ontology, but I think it still makes sense to seek out a common ground of being with all lifeforms, since it is precisely our human inability to live in relation to other worldlings that has generated a mass extinction. I don’t think a sort of “live and let live” respect for irreducible difference is realistic anymore, we are too enmeshed with the rest of the Earth community for such enlightened ignorance to work. Beings may always withdraw from one another, but in this very quality of mutual mysteriousness, we have something in common.

ConferenceReport (or Fred in the meat-world) likes to take his visuoaudiences on a walk through metaphors of mind. In this video, he draws on the work of the cognitive scientists George LakoffThomas NagelAntonio Damasio, Thomas Metzinger, and William James, among others.

I’m most interested in what Fred has to say about the relationship between consciousness and the physical body. He provides helpful summations of the ideas of the neuroscientist Damasio (consciousness is “the feeling of what happens”), the philosopher Nagel (consciousness is “what it is,–or is like,–to be a thing”), and the neuroethicist Metzinger (consciousness is “nothing but a self-model, or phenomenal self”). In the end, it seems that Fred is most in agreement with Metzinger, since his approach best validates the scientific materialism each axiomatically assumes. Consciousness, for Fred, is rooted in and entirely explainable through a “carrier frequency of somatic-physiological operations…produced by the constant ticking away of our bodies.” But, he adds, this physiological being is not just a moving body, it is also an emoting somebody.

He then opens up an inquiry into William James’ phenomenology of emotion, describing it as an embodied approach to self-inquiry and the investigation of our own moods that recognized the goings on of physiology as constitutive of these same moods. I would want to flesh out what a Jamesian approach to consciousness might look like a bit more, since I think his paradoxically spiritual/psychological interests and pragmatic/realist orientation place his philosophy of consciousness in stark contrast to Metzinger’s reductionistic nihilism. In an interview with Susan Blackmore in Conversations on Consciousness (Oxford, 2006), she asks Metzinger what the scientific study of consciousness has done to his everyday life. He begins his response by talking about the fragility of our identities and the dignity they carry, since a clot in our cerebral tissue could dissolve them at any moment). His explanation for consciousness in terms of a neural illusion is self-classified as a “hard theoretical” issue, understood only by affluent secular Western scientists and philosophers; “hard” issues (like facing up to the implications of modern genetics and neuroscience–and, Metzinger adds, to the transformative effect of psychedelic technologies) are contrasted with”soft” issues, which those initiated into the “scientific image of man” only have to continue to bother themselves with because the “undeveloped world,” which makes up the vast majority of Earth’s population, continues to believe in a “metaphysical image of man.” I think there are better ways of thinking about the diversity of social imaginaries among human beings alive today than dividing them into “Scientific materialism” v. “anything else.” James’ A Pluralistic Universe might be a good place to start.

Metzinger goes on to offer us the sobering news of scientific materialism:

There is a new image of man emerging out of genetics and neuroscience, one which will basically contradict all other images of man that we have had in the Western tradition. It is strictly unmetaphysical; it is absolutely incompatible with the Christian image of man; and it may force us to confront our mortality in a much more direct way than we have ever before in our history. It may close the door on certain hopes people have had, not only scientists and philosophers but all of us, such as that maybe somehow consciousness could exist without the brain after death. People will still want to believe something like that. But just as people will actually still think that the sun revolves around the earth — people whom you basically laugh at and don’t take seriously any more. So there’s a reductive anthropology that may come to us, and it may come faster than we are prepared for it; it may come as an emotionally sobering experience to many people particularly in developing countries, who make up 80% of human beings, and still have a metaphysical image of man, haven’t ever heard anything about neuroscience, don’t want to hear anything about neural correlates of consciousness, want to keep on living in their metaphysical world-view as they have for centuries.

I actually don’t think the coming trauma of materialism is in any way incompatible with Christianity, at least not the images at work within the Christian unconscious. As I see it, the confrontation with death–and the challenge to love (or to be ethical) despite having become aware of the mortality of the physical body and the illusory (or sinful) nature of the ego–is the very heart of the Christian imaginary. The crucifixion comes before the resurrection, since, as the story goes, one must first die in the flesh in order to be born again in spirit. Scientific materialism has more in common with the the historical evolution of Christian consciousness than it often lets on (I explored this connection in a section of this essay called the “logic of extinction”).

Getting back to Fred’s video, he ends by suggesting that consciousness, or the feeling of self, is best understood, not as belonging to an immortal soul irreducible to the components of the visible universe, but as a metaphor, or “way of speaking that differentiates our internal state” from the external physical world that is conditioning it. “Consciousness,” he says, is rooted in a more fundamental process of biological differentiation that takes place “on the surface of our skin.” It is the result of a complex network of neuronal sensorimotor loops whose inputs are our bodily senses. This sort of an account of consciousness may be embodied, but it lacks a sense of world-embeddedness. Consciousness is not only physiologically realized, it is sociologically constructed and cosmically extended. It cannot be simply located anywhere, but must, finally, be rooted in the soul of the world. I feel with my skin, but my skin is full of pores! The world itself bleeds into me when I feel it, mixing with my felt sense of being.

Consciousness is no mere metaphorical division in Being, though it may only be articulable by talking animals: consciousness is the principle at work in every self-differentiating being in possession (or possessed by) the Word. A conscious being is a micro-creator, or microcosm, who recapitulates in finite form the Mind and Power of a transcendent Being, incarnating the Infinite in the space and time of living and dying.

Alan Watts can always say it better: