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

The Imaginal Universe

Continuing this discussion with Archive Fire, and joining Knowledge Ecology here:

It seems like what we all want to say is that imagination is generated by the universe, but what we can’t seem to agree upon is whether the universe is therefore also imaginal.

We are seeking understanding of the nature of causality, and of the roots of animal perception and imagination in a supposedly pre-perceivable, pre-imaginable electro-magneto-physio-chemical process.

I myself would not want to suppose that anything precedes experience–no matter how proto-perceptual or proto-imaginal some forms of causality may seem from our evolved anthropic perspective. Electrons are the neurons of our cosmic brane. They are intimately involved in the cognitive activity of our brains. Human thinking appears in the world as chemically mediated electrical activity, which is also to say that the physical world appears to think. Panpsychism? No, this isn’t smearing mind all over everything indiscriminately. The thinking universe has a more differentiated form than that. Mind individualizes, drawing itself together into organized bodies of ever increasing complexity. Rocks are made of highly organized bodies, like crystals, and even smaller and more highly organized beings, like carbon, and gold. But the rock itself cannot properly be considered an individual organism; it is not an organized, self-organizing being. Its identity as that particular rock is far, far more accidental than the identity of an individual atom of gold or an individual bacterial cell or human person. These latter bodies have a deeper causal memory, and a more intense experiential relationship with their own identity than does the rock. Given the mineral structure of certain elements, and the plate tectonics of earth, rocks just happen. They don’t display purposive or organized behavior. They are the accidental result of more individualized, mentalized organic/organized activity taking place on a different scale. And they are only really individualized by cognitively proficient animals such as ourselves, who define that rock as distinct from this rock.

This is Teilhard’s law of complexity/consciousness, which lead him not to pantheism, but to a vision of the cosmos as the still gestating Body of Christ.

As Teilhard put it, “We humans cannot see ourselves completely except as part of humanity, humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe … True physics is that which will someday succeed in integrating the totality of the human being into a coherent image of the world” (The Human Phenomenon, Preface).







10 responses to “The Imaginal Universe”

  1. brendafraser Avatar

    What if I willingly surrender the urge to indulge the illsuion that I exist as a seprate being at all? What differentialtion remains if I no longer define myself as separate from anything else? Great post & picture:)

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      “If we survey nature we simply see separate letters and the word they form is the human being.” -Paracelsus

  2. Jason Hills Avatar


    While I might not agree with your specifics, I would say that the cosmos is “imaginal” insomuch as it is “temporal.” Imagination springs from temporality, though I disagree with Kant that time is the inner form of representation, as it is basic to the universe. However, the cosmos has the possibility for the emergence of human imagination, and it would be to equivocate to think that there is an identity between “cosmic imagination” and “human imagination.” However, the latter derives from the former.

    1. Jason Hills Avatar

      I have posted a short explanation of my view of imagination per the pragmatist and Americanist tradition.

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      If temporality is basic to the universe, isn’t that saying that the whole universe is haunted by interiority, that is it alive, ensouled, and self-moving? If we humans are to talk meaningfully about a “universe” at all (i.e, if we’re going to attempt cosmology and metaphysics), haven’t we already elevated the cosmos to an imaginal dimension?

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        The fundamental pretension of philosophy since Plato: we can claim to have imagined the universe only because we have deemed it, in its deepest truth, to be a moving image.

  3. Mark Crosby Avatar
    Mark Crosby

    While acknowledging that living beings might be different in kind from inorganic beings, like rocks, perhaps we’re not giving an adequate account of the complexity of the inorganic world (on which we living beings depend) because this inorganic world of minerals & crystallization requires multiple levels of production, over eons of time, beginning in the hearts of stars (see Amarilla at BROOKLYNOMETRY’s 2/7 “Full Sun” post on how “petroleum, if fossilized algae, is also in a sense fossilized sunlight. How generous is the sun? How many hearts does it have?” The answer is, MANY! generating all the elements on which life relies 😉 Take a look at Wilhelm Pelikan’s THE SECRETS OF METALS (1973 from Steiner’s Anthroposophic Press): “What you need in order to breathe, to form your blood, has its tasks also within the whole of outer nature”. Chemical logic, in its own way, becomes anticipatory when its products influence the vicarious orbits of cosmic dust, the accretion of planets, and the scrim of life that may, only then, arise.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Astrochemistry is fascinating. Clearly, human beings are awake amidst an endlessly complex theocosmic ecology.

      Rocks may be classified as inorganic, but only in abstraction from the larger living body of which they are an excretion: Gaia. If you zoom out a bit, rocks are at least the result of living activity, if not themselves alive.

  4. John Anngeister Avatar

    Matt, I’m glad you see rocks this way, but I don’t agree that an “individual atom of gold” with its 79 electrons and 118 or so neutrons is anything in and for itself and not a bit more of an individual than any other rock.

  5. Jason Hills Avatar

    We agree in spirit, Matt, if not specifics.

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