Plasticbodies has posted another volley in the theism-nihilism discussion, this time drawing attention to causality.

He asks:

What does process theology give us that a (process) naturalism cannot? Or, put otherwise, how does one get from nature to divinity without begging the question?

I’ll paste my comments in response here:

I have written quite a bit about what you could call naturalistic process panentheism.

I think you’ve uncovered the real issue underlying this “theism-nihilism tango” (as Tim Morton called it): causality. Atheistic naturalism (which we might also call “scientific materialism,” after Whitehead) almost always entails a denial of formal and final causes. I think it still holds on to a version of Aristotle’s material cause, even if “substance” is no longer an adequate concept in physics. The material cause has become the randomness of quantum fluctuation, which is at the root of some variations of the Big Bang theory. I remain unconvinced that this “reason” actually explains the “What” of this Universe, since randomness seems to me to be the exact opposite of a reason. Scientific materialism becomes nihilistic only if it overcomes the correlational dualism implicit in its perspective that otherwise allows it to maintain formal and final causality in humans while denying it to everything else. If the metaphysical first principles of atheistic naturalism are carried to their logical conclusions, the reality of ideas (formal causes) and of meanings (final causes) must be denied out right to humans and nature alike. I think something like this is what Ray Brassier is up to, since for him, the illusion of human freedom provides ideological support for the continuance of capitalist social relations. I have argued that mechanistic biology and scientific materialism generally, because of their implicit correlationism and “bifurcationism,” provide ideological support to capitalism (or at least fail to provide adequate and convincing critiques of it): On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics.

I think chapters 2-6 are most relevant to the discussion surrounding causality. I’ve drawn heavily on the work of biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela in these chapters, wherein I give a brief history of biology from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant, Darwin and Paley, and on to Monod, Mayr, and Dawkins. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 5:

“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).

Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.”

This last sentence (“…there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with…”) is where Whitehead’s God comes in. The Universe has the character it does “because” God values certain creative possibilities over others; but at the same time, only the actual Universe has value, which is to say that only finite actual occasions can decide what form Creativity takes in any given instance. God has a polarized, dynamic nature for Whitehead: his primordial nature has a deficit of actuality, and so is complemented by his consequent nature, which becomes with the Universe, is internal to the Universe, suffering with it in order to “save” it. God “saves” the world by allowing it to hold together as a whole despite the individual freedom of its many finite occasions to decide their own fate. This is why God is necessary based on Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme for cosmology to be possible. Without God, there is no Cosmos, only Chaos. And without the possibility of cosmology, there is no possibility of rationality. As Meillassoux makes so clear in “After Finitude,” without hypostasizing the correlation as thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead do, the principal of sufficient reason goes right out the window and Chaos reigns.

Platicbodies then responds:

It seems that for God to appear in a philosophical discussion nondogmatically, he/it must be needed to explain something that cannot be explained without him. It seems like you’re saying that the what of the world is inexplicable without God. You reject the notion that the Big Bang, or presumably some other aleatory event (the Epicurean swerve, for instance) can explain the emergence of the universe. Again, that seems like a matter of assertion: either we believe in the swerve (an uncaused cause) or we don’t.

Are you saying that atheistic naturalism entails the nonexistence of ideas and meanings?

To which I responded:

Whitehead’s God is not an explanation for anything, since actual occasions are their own reasons. I don’t think allowing randomness the possibility of “swerving” explains anything, either. It just begs the question. Where does the swerve come from, and how is it capable of producing so much beauty and coherence? In Whitehead’s scheme, “explanation” takes on a novel meaning, since “to explain” cannot mean for him the reduction of one kind of society of actual occasions to a more fundamental kind (his explanations must avoid over- or undermining objects, as Harman puts it).

I don’t think the “What” of the world (the material cause) is inexplicable without God. The material cause becomes Creativity in a process ontology, a cause to which even God remains subject. The “How,” or efficient cause, and the “Why,” or final cause, are inexplicable without God. God, as the primordial “How,” is the agent initiating the selective valuation of certain ideals, which then seek realization in finite actual occasions (through persuasion, rather than force). God as the consequent “Why” is the enjoyer of Beauty and Goodness resulting from the ongoing concrescence of the Universe. In other words, the end of Whitehead’s Universe is to increase the intensity of divine experience: God is less interested in judging good and evil, and far more interested in transforming conflict into aesthetically pleasing contrasts. The “Who” (which includes the “When” and the “Where”), or formal cause, is the subjective form of each actual entity, its individual decision regarding how to actualize the possibilities envisioned by God.

I think many atheists are able to continue contradicting themselves by preserving ideas and meanings as human realities. But if they follow their naturalistic reductionism through to its metaphysical requirements, ideas and meanings must be erased from both human beings and nature at large, reduced to some kind of “transcendental illusion,” as Bryant put it.

Plasticbodies responds:

I completely agree that the swerve begs the question. But assuming it is just as plausible as assuming that God got things started. Astrophysicists may have more evidence for their origin story. So if Whitehead’s God doesn’t explain anything, what’s the point of it? I mean, what makes it more than a superfluous postulate if it isn’t doing any metaphysical work? If you’re implying that only a God could create so much “beauty and coherence,” I’d suggest that a tiny swerve in a complex material system is sufficient to cause unimaginable variation (think of biological evolution, computer algorithms, digital art–check out this TED Talk by Stephen Wolfram

The idea of God as subject rings contradictory to the very concept of God, I think. The rest of what this God does–enjoys, creates, selects, persuades–remains anthropomorphic and, despite its radical presentation, subject to the same criticism leveled by Spinoza in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. Even if he is not a judge of good and evil, God seems to do a lot of things that cannot be apprehended (at least I can’t) by the human intellect. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot to subscribe to without any evidence in support of it. I’d rather admit to the reality of Aristotle’s four causes and leave it at that.

Are you claiming that atheists cannot find meaning in the world? If so, are you saying that it is metaphysically impossible or psychologically? Perhaps your saying that atheists *believe* there is meaning in their lives, but this meaning is an illusion or *merely* psychological. Which is it? This notion really needs to be spelled out more, as it’s hard to believe that an atheist cannot have ideas (if that’s what you mean). If an atheist cannot have ideas, then they cannot have the idea that God does not exist, in which case they cannot really be an atheist. Does this mean that there are no atheists?

Let me just add that when I say that there is no ‘evidence’ for this God, I’m not saying that since I don’t see him, he’s not there. I’m saying that if you want to get people on board with this God, you don’t drag him out into plain sight, you show why he is necessary for a coherent metaphysical view of the universe. But if he does not explain anything, then he seems to be superfluous.

To which I responded:

God didn’t “get things started”; it would be more accurate to say that God actively initiates each moment of an ongoing cosmogenesis. God is both “in the beginning” and “in the end,” but in a logical, rather than a temporal sense. From Whitehead’s perspective, creation didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. Creation is still happening. God participates in, but does not determine, the ongoing process of creation. The actual world is not yet finished, though in God’s consequent nature, each actual occasion finds objective immortality.

Whitehead’s God does do metaphysical work, but for Whitehead, this is the work of producing coherence and adequacy rather than “heroic feats of explaining away.”

Your argument that attributing such characteristics to God (he enjoys, he selects, he persuades, etc) is anthropomorphic is well taken; but it could also be argued that the attribution of these characteristics to humans alone is anthropocentric. Part of the project of secularizing God is breaking down the ontological gap between humans and divinity (this would seem to be the presupposition of any object-oriented theology).

I am saying that it is psychologically possible for atheists to have ideas and make meanings (this much is obvious), but that according to their own metaphysical commitments, such higher order phenomena are epiphenomenal at best, and given enough social criticism and neurophysiological research, should be replaced by causal language scrubbed clean of “folk psychology.”

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.

I posted the following as a comment to Bryant’s short response. Adam Robbert has a nice comment there, too.

There is no necessary relationship between OOO (or ontology generally) and theology or morality, but certainly every ontology has theological and moral implications. To the extent that OOO has something in common with Whitehead’s process ontology, the possible role of a panentheist God should remain an open question. In Whitehead’s system, according to Stengers, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (Thinking With Whitehead, p. 424). Perhaps OOO differs sufficiently from the Whiteheadian scheme to avoid this requirement. But I don’t think it is fair to dismiss “God” in ontological discussions just because many believers have a philosophically immature picture of God (and I do agree with your criticisms of such pictures, Levi). Whitehead’s God is first a construction meant to solve a philosophical problem, and only secondarily an object of religious feeling.

“The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the Universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

God’s function in the Universe may have very little to do with the way the majority of humanity has felt or believed that God relates to the Universe. The desire for personal immortality and for an all-powerful deity who insures that the good and the evil are properly sorted at the end of time is an example of our initial excess of subjectivity demanding something unreasonable. The function of Whitehead’s God is not to actively intervene in the course of natural events, but to gently influence the free decisions of actual occasions as an element in their prehension of the actual world. God allows actual entities to experience the relevance of eternal objects for their situation as temporal subjects. Without God, Reason would remain a floating abstraction, an ideal without reality; Whitehead argues that actual entities are the only reasons, and so God is that actual entity embodying Reason.

Also, keep in mind that God is not ultimate in Whitehead’s system. God is a creature of creativity like every other creature, though unique in that the poles of God’s concrescence are reversed (finite actual occasions move from a physical to a mental pole, while God begins with a conceptual envisagement of the definite possibilities for actuality before moving on to physically feel and integrate the resulting decisions made by actual occasions).

So in short, there are philosophical reasons to think God and there are sociological/psychological reasons to believe in God. There are plenty of bad ideas about God, and as you point out, Levi, plenty of bad beliefs about God that lead to unethical behaviors. But I remain convinced that religious feelings, in one form or another, are here to stay. Humanity, it seems to me, will always be a spiritual animal. The question then becomes how we are to bring religious feelings into harmony with the demands of rigorous philosophical reflection and with scientific facts. I think Whitehead comes very close to doing both.

I’ve already posted a short response to Harman, but I wanted to re-visit the issues explored in that post concerning the difference between Homo Sapiens, as an object among objects, and the Anthropos, as an ideal toward which every object tends. I will also try to disentangle my own “cosmotheandric” position from the generic anti-nihilism Levi Bryant has rightfully critiqued.

I should preface this by saying that Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology excites me a great deal. I think it puts philosophical heat on many of the right places in contemporary phenomenology and naturalism, where the residue of dualism and anthropocentrism is still too thick for my post-secular taste. When I suggested in an earlier post that SR/OOO needs to unpack its theological and anthropological implications, I did so with the hopeful expectation that, were an object-oriented theology, psychology, or anthropology developed, it might provide a viable alternative to the philosophical exaggerations of Creationism and Nihilism alike.

When I refer to nihilism in the context of SR/OOO, I am thinking in particular of Ray Brassier‘s eliminative materialism. As far as Brassier is concerned, the “manifest image” of the human as an ensouled organism participating in an intrinsically meaningful world should be replaced by the “scientific image” of the human as a biological machine competing for survival in an uncaring material universe. Brassier’s nihilism has several main characteristics: 1) it denies the cognitive role of myth, imagination, and intuition in human consciousness, since 2) it asserts that truth is available to scientific rationality alone, and 3) it asserts the contingency of thought for matter, and matter’s priority to thought.

I’ve written on the relation between Mythos and Logos, or story and science, before. I agree with Donna Haraway, when she writes in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. (1997), that “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44). Myth provides the cognitive and imaginal condition necessary for the emergence of logic and empiricism. You cannot think about ideas until after you’ve contemplated the gods; this is true in terms of both the collective history of our species and the development of an individual. Haraway makes the case that, without the Christian mythos as its cultural background, the Scientific Revolution never would have happened. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser makes a similar case in his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser offers an archeology of human consciousness, depicting the emergence of de-mythologized rationality (beginning with Plato, and ending, perhaps, with Hegel) as a necessary, but not sufficient phase in the evolution of consciousness. Somehow, consciousness must find a way to integrate each phase of its own evolution (Gebser distinguishes 4: archaic, magic, mythic, and mental), or face annihilation.

Bryant says he is unable to understand why one might assume SR/OOO has anything to do with nihilism, since an flat ontology doesn’t mean humans can’t still relate ethically and meaningfully with one another.

Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear?

I don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology, but it all depends on how we do the flattening. Alan Watts wasn’t exactly a systematic philosopher (he usually preferred to refer to himself as a spiritual entertainer), but he did articulate his own flavor of a flat ontology, wherein every object is essentially God in disguise:

God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama… And, so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many, many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming. To use a verse from G. K. Chesterton:

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

 It is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
I think Watts’ sense that everything is God pretending not to be God is similar to what I want to say about the Anthropos, which is not to be simply identified with Homo sapiens, but is rather a cosmic principle at work to shape the becoming of every actual entity. I take the speculative risk of suggesting that the evolution of the Cosmos is influenced by divine lures, the Anthropos being among the most pre-eminent of all such lures, or archetypes, with a taste for actualization. I’ve been influenced  here both by Carl Jung’s modern interpretation of Alchemy and Hermeticism, and Whitehead’s process theology.

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

I think Whitehead was struggling to secularize theology, such that science and religion–the study of nature and the worship of divinity–could mutually enhance one another, rather than being placed in irremediable conflict on either side of a universe bifurcated between Nature and Spirit. Bryant questions whether any good evidence exists for believing in God, but it seems that he is imagining a God who issues decrees and determines the future course of the universe in advance. Whitehead’s God has no such power, but rather is alike in kind to all other actual entities. God is with the world, not above it. God does not guarantee anything but the possibility of relevant and meaningful experience to every actual occasion. It is up to each actual occasion to decide upon its future based on its own subjective ends. There is little scientific evidence for the existence of a transcendent, law imposing God like the one Bryant is critiquing (I say “little” evidence only because of the way some physicists remain rutted in a non-historical paradigm that conceives of physical laws as arbitrarily imposed upon nature from beyond nature); but from Whitehead’s panentheistic perspective, the evidence for God is aesthetic and moral, not just scientific. That there is a Cosmos at all, rather than chaos, is evidence of Beauty’s participation in bringing the cosmic democracy of objects into (a still evolutionary and open-ended!) harmonization. That human beings are capable of struggling for Justice (even if it remains largely an ideal imperfectly realized) is evidence that God’s infinite love for each and every entity is ingredient in our more limited experience of entities. And finally, that human beings are capable of doing metaphysics and philosophy so as to reveal the inner workings of reality is evidence that a deeper Intelligence is involved in bringing forth both the knower and the known.

Last month, Bryant articulated what he calls a “wilderness ontology.” I’m very sympathetic to the idea that humans not be given special status, and would like to extend it into new terrain. I can’t fully unpack its implications at the moment, but what of the possibility of a “wilderness theology,” wherein God is considered as a metaphysical scheme’s chief exemplar, rather than its ultimate explanation or unique exception? Whitehead’s God, immanent and responsive to the creative decisions of each and every other actual entity, is a good starting place for the development of such a wilderness theology. Theology doesn’t necessarily require inserting some vertical scale of values into the universe, such that humans rank higher than animals and animals rank higher than plants in some Great Chain of Being. From the perspective of a panentheism (or cosmotheandrism) like Whitehead’s, values are neither horizontally constructed by human society nor vertically imposed by divine will; his theology is an attempt to upset this neat dichotomy between nihilism and deism so that the Being of God’s mind manifests itself here and now in the twists and turns of the forest path of Becoming.