“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Beyond the Bifurcation of Nature

I’ve been struggling through Isabelle Stengers‘ newly translated book Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The first quarter of the book focuses primarily on Whitehead’s first explicitly philosophical text, The Concept of Nature (1920), in which he sets for himself the task of avoiding an account of nature based in a bifurcation between objective and subjective, or primary and secondary characteristics. On the one hand, there is the real world of atoms and molecules studied by physicists, while on the other hand, there is the apparent world of beautiful rainbows and delicious strawberries experienced by creatures lucky enough to be in the possession of something called a “mind.” This bifurcation is easily spotted in the abstractions mobilized by a number of contemporary scientific thinkers, especially Richard Dawkins. Listen to what he had to say earlier this year at a panel discussion on the essence of life (I’m particularly interested in what he says about “purpose” between the 4th and 5th minutes of the talk):

Dawkins’ on the essence of life

Purpose, from Dawkins’ point of view, is not a natural phenomenon, but an illusion produced by nervous systems, which themselves are the result of the differential selection of randomly mutating genetic molecules. Until brains evolved, nature was entirely without purpose or value, “a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colourless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly…” (Science and the Modern World, 1925). According to this story, only once neural tissue came to be arranged in just the right way could the meaningful world celebrated by poets suddenly spring into existence (however illusory, or secondary it is). In what seems a miraculous flash, mind emerges out of nature: the sky becomes blue and the wind is no longer mute.

An evolutionary geneticist, Dawkins is trained to view the world through the abstractions of his particular discipline. As a result, his reasoning concerning the more general phenomenon of life succumbs to what Whitehead would later come to call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Living organisms, with all their spontaneity and experiential valence, become swarms of genetic algorithms blindly vying for passage into the next generation. The human world of aesthetic and ethical ideals becomes irrecoverably divided off from the physical world of mere mechanical motion. Whitehead laments the radical inconsistency underlying such an impoverished perspective on the nature of nature. For him, this inconsistency is characteristic of much modern thought, serving to distract and enfeeble it from the task of attaining a harmony of understanding.

We have “become content with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points…”

…the enterprises produced by the individualistic energy of the European peoples presuppose physical actions directed to final causes. But the science which is employed in their development is based on a philosophy which asserts that physical causation is supreme, and which disjoins the physical cause from the final end. It is not popular to dwell on the absolute contradiction here involved. It is the fact, however you gloze it over with phrases (SMW).

In the final chapter of what is perhaps his best known book, The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins hammers home his bifurcated view of nature: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Only human beings, that is, are capable of rising above the purposeless mechanism to which all other entities are chained.

Dawkins was, until very recently, the professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford, and most non-academicians come to understand evolution and the relation between science and religion by reading his books. The challenge for Whiteheadians, I think, is to make his “wild” ideas digestible by a wider audience. Our civilization is in desperate need of a less muddled and self-contradictory cosmology, one that can offer a robust alternative to the consumerism that neo-Darwinism implicitly legitimates.

Brian Swimme, author of The Universe Story with the late Thomas Berry, has done a tremendous job domesticating Whitehead’s metaphysical approach, and I think his understanding of the role of science and the place of the human in the universe offers a sorely needed alternative to still reigning perspectives like that of Dawkins’.




8 responses to “Beyond the Bifurcation of Nature”

  1. Gary Smith Avatar

    You shouldn’t be so hard on Dawkins. His renouncing the world, his drive toward The Nothing, is no doubt a type of mysticism.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      You don’t get a free pass just for being a mystic! Though I must say, I don’t think his scientistic bent and need for rational certainty about the purposelessness of life is all that mystical.

  2. Gary Smith Avatar

    I will venture to say that it is very common for a mystical writer to feign scientistic rationality, even when thinking quietly to himself. Indeed, he probably thinks he is the most sensibly rational. But in the end others will see what he does not see and draw out the mystical thread. The philosophical imagination will devise ways. Look what happened to Heidegger and to the Buddhist logicians. The path of thought is unpredictable.

  3. Leland Avatar

    Matt wasn’t very hard on Dawkins. In fact, Matt was quite gentle with Dawkins. I have no hesitation to be harder, to be very hard, indeed. Dawkins is a strident champion of a scientific paradigm which he has unhesitatingly and confidently stretched to apply to every aspect of human experience and activity, while at the same time trying to make man “unique” — and, I would say, he’s done this not very humbly. From whatever viewpoint his world-view derives (whether mechanistic materialism, or its little brother, genetic determinism, or Darwinish, or his own, “meme-ism,” or some other ‘ism of that ilk), he has never seemed truly willing to entertain for long, if at all, the spiritual sensibilities that have marked many other scientists (including, e.g., Einstein). In fact, he has decried religions without very much respect for the spiritual foundations and mystical underpinnings of them. He has attacked faith and the sense of wonder. He has depreciated if not denied any value to spiritual belief, other than the possibly cynical atheistic view that religion may, occasionally, serve a political or sociological purpose (he’d probably couch this as “sociobiological purpose,” within his extended paradigm).

    Whether he has feigned or does feign anything and whether in the inner sanctum of his private thoughts he entertains a mystical vision is, I think, an impossible inference to make. No, I’ll go further — it would be a preposterous inference to make, although in some remote frame of reference, perhaps psychotic delusion, it could be true even for him. But, if true, without psychosis, then WHO IS HE? If true, then why would he be unwilling to offer up at least a humble measure of doubt and back away from the extremity of his atheistic positions?

    Moreover, why would any scholar, in some retrospective of Dawkins’ life, be tempted to try to tease out some threads to turn the fabric of his anti-spiritual work product into some other cloth than he has consistently woven? Such would be a hard sell in academia. Whether there is any way short of a “willing suspension of disbelief” to turn him into a closet mystic is beyond me. I humbly decline to accept such a fiction. He authored “The God Delusion,” right? And I think not even a lawyer acting with the utmost in skillful casuistry could argue that that work was the product, even slightly, of mystical contemplation or experience, or contained any threads of thought tending in that direction. I have never seen anything in his writing or public utterances that would lead me to believe he has a smidgen of the mystical in him — but I haven’t read every word, and I suppose that some phrasing, here and there, taken out of immediate and extended context, could be construed as something spiritual. And, there is always that possibility of some 180-degree-turn-death-bed-conversion, ala Constantine. But, in this man’s opinion, even that would not redeem him from the consequences of his unremitting assault on faith and faith-based beliefs. If this is hard on Dawkins, I stand convicted, willingly, of going there — unless someone can show me something I haven’t seen or heard.

  4. Gary Smith Avatar

    Let’s say that Dawkins is a hard-nosed nihilist. Total destruction. Let’s say he has handed us a ruin. A place where there is no sweet contemplation of spiritual things. And we look over at this giver of dark gifts and wonder if perhaps there is something in that ruin that attracts him. Has he, by intellectually destroying the world, found something else? If you will not be too offended, let’s suppose he has. And let’s look around for someone else who might have done the same. Who might he be following?

    I think we will also have to get this man’s image out of our heads. Pretend that you don’t know anything about him. If you find him to be a vile human being, forget it. Consider only the core of his ideas. The massive destruction. A living soul has invited you to walk with him at the end of time. A soul that is no soul and is not alive. The void. Just pretend.

    What do we see? I propose that the thing X before you now matches the Catuskoti of the Madyamikas:

    1. It is not the case that X is Φ.
    2. It is not the case that X is not- Φ.
    3. It is not the case that X is both Φ and not- Φ.
    4. It is not the case that X is neither Φ nor not- Φ.

    For Φ you can substitute eternal or finite or existing or aware or living or anything else. Our dark mystic has encountered the unthinkable. Is it simply nothing at all? That is the great question of Nagarjuna. Mystical contemplation is not always sweet love. It is sometimes the Blank.

    Is Dawkins really like that? It is not important.

  5. dmf Avatar

    not my thing but thought this might be of interest here:

  6. Marcos Strobl Avatar

    I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

  7. Whitehead’s Radically Empirical Theory of General Relativity – Footnotes2Plato Avatar

    […] 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 […]

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