There have been a flurry of responses recently to an exchange between Michael/Archive Fire and I regarding formal causality (also, be sure to read Adam/Knowledge Ecology‘s comments over on Archive Fire for a nice defense of Whitehead). Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted some of his reflections, relating the issue to the old debate between realists and nominalists. Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects also chimed in, arguing that my Whiteheadian articulation of formal causation is just hylomorphism in drag. In my exchange with Michael, however, I explicitly rejected the notion that forms are imposed by a transcendent God upon passive matter. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an attempt to preserve formal (and final) causality while jettisoning the unhelpful notion of a transcendent designer. His ontological principle prevents us from conceiving of eternal objects/forms as the causes of anything. Forms are said to “ingress” into actual occasions, though not as a potter’s design is imposed on formless clay, but as a poet’s verse might invite new possibilities into manifestation. The decision to actualize any such possibility remains always in the hands of the actual occasion in question.

Here is my second response to Michael:

Occasions decide which forms will ultimately come to characterize the actual world of their experience. Forms are not ‘imposed’ upon actual occasions from outside. Much of the character of experience, especially for lower grade occasions like electrons and photons, is decided unconsciously through conformal prehension of past decisions. Physical science concerns itself with the general habits of such low grade occasions. But higher grade occasions like ravens, coyotes, and primates, are not so determined by physical prehensions of past actualities, since they have a heightened experience, through conceptual prehension, of future possibilities. In human occasions of experience, this futural perception reaches its near apogee. In Process and Reality, Whitehead discusses our conceptual prehension of eternal objects in terms of consciousness’ capacity for negation–to see the facticity of not only of that grey rock there and to know it could have been otherwise, but to see the whole of the visible universe and know the same. The contingency of nature is not mere chance, but the result of will–will which leans toward more degrees of freedom as moves through the series of natural kingdoms, at first an unconscious flow of emotion, only later rising to the level of the symbolic and intellectual articulation of emotion.

You argue that ‘pure difference’ is at the base of materiality, but I am uncertain what you mean. Wouldn’t its supposed ‘purity’ already be a sign of contamination by identity? Its the old (“archaic”?) problem of the one and the many, of cosmos and chaos. Plato, you’ll remember, did not conceive of form in abstraction from matter, but sought to understand how eternity and time, permanence and process, come to be mixed up into the Living Thing that is the Universe. Eros and metaxy, and not ideal purity, are at the core of the Platonic philosophy, at least as I understand it. The challenge Plato left for philosophy is how to think the in between. Contemporary physics, so far as I understand it, no longer studies nature as substance, but as interlocking processes of formation. This is not all that different from the Schellingian interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus, as unpacked by Iain Hamilton Grant.

You write: ‘Sunsets are not “eternal possibilities” but immanent actualities generated through the emergent activities and collaboration of photons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, oxygen, earth, etc., etc., as they are “stacked” into particular living ecologies. World-flesh is self-sufficient complexity.’

In my prior post, I wasn’t referring to sunsets as eternal possibilities, but to a particular shade of red realized in the sunset. “Red” certainly cannot be explained by reference to the physical bodies you’ve listed, though I would agree about its ecological origins. “Red” is what Whitehead called a subjective eternal object, capable of realization in any number of actual occasions though not reducible to any one in particular or to all in summation. Qualities like redness, and quantities like the number 17, cannot be explained by reference to materiality, since materiality itself would be meaningless without reference to quality and to quantity (which for Whitehead, unlike Kant, are not categories of the human mind, but forms of definiteness characterizing prehension in general).