Several of us got into a discussion on my FaceBook page regarding panpsychism and emergentism. On some accounts, if a philosopher rejects dualism and so desires to ontologically integrate what common folks normally call mental with what natural scientists understand to be material, her only option is to develop either a panpsychist or an emergentist account, broadly construed.

The emergentist philosopher (again broadly speaking) denies that mental qualities are ontologically basic and so must explain how a material universe consisting of only mass bearing particles in changing spatial relations could have generated not only abstract ideas and concepts (like those employed by the scientists in their knowledge of said particles), but concrete bodily feelings (like those seemingly experienced by many if not all living organisms). In other words, emergentists are burdened with the rather hard question “How did matter become mind?”

The panpsychist philosopher, on the other hand (my final broad generalization, I promise!), affirms that mental qualities are just as ontologically basic as the material entities studied by physicists. Mind is not said to emerge from matter, since in a manner of speaking mind is just the “inside” of matter and matter the “outside” of mind. The mental aspect of a thing is understood to intensify as its material aspect increases in complexity. The panpsychist is tasked with the somewhat more tractable (but still undoubtedly difficult) problem of explaining how exactly the “inside” (measured in intensity) and the “outside” (measured in complexity) of a thing relate.

If the two positions are construed in this over-generalized way, I’m more sympathetic toward panpsychism, but with reservations. My reservations arise because I think a more coherent ontology is possible that recognizes the fundamentality of both emergence and experience. I’ve turned increasingly to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism during the course of my graduate studies because I think he created an open system of concepts capable of constructing such an ontology. Instead of arguing on the extremes–either that psyches or that particles are fundamental to reality–it is possible to think the most fundamental entities in a process-relational way as neither self-identical minds nor externally related physical particles. Entities–things themselves–can be thought of as emergent products of an underlying relational nexus of creative experience. Experience is not a attribute of a thing; it is never “had” by a self-identical entity; it is not a secondary property adhering to a primary substance. Experience is always relational, it is always between entities rather than “inside” them. It is hard to speak clearly about experience, since it tends to confuse things, to mix them up with one another.

In a discussion of the fundamentality of experience in Modes of Thought (110-111), Whitehead writes:

The sense of totality obscures the analysis into self and others. Also this division is primarily based on the sense of existence as a value experience. Namely, the total value experience is discriminated into this value experience and those value experiences. There is the vague sense of many which are one; and of one which includes the many. Also there are two senses of the one–namely, the sense of the one which is all, and the sense of the one among the many.

The fundamental basis of this description is that our experience is a value experience, expressing a vague sense of maintenance or discard; and that this value experience differentiates itself in the sense of many existences with value experience; and that this sense of the multiplicity of value experiences again differentiates it into the totality of value experience, and the many other value experiences, and the egoistic value experience. This is the feeling of the ego, the others, the totality. This is the vague, basic presentation of the differentiation of existence, in its enjoyment of discard and maintenance. We are, each of us, one among others; and all of us are embraced in the unity of the whole.

The basis of democracy is the common fact of value experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole. This characterizes the meaning of actuality. By reason of this character, constituting reality, the conception of morals arises. We have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe. Existence, in its own nature, is the upholding of value intensity. Also no unit can separate itself from the others, and from the whole. And yet each unit exists in its own right. It upholds value intensity for itself, and this involves sharing value intensity with the universe. Also either of these aspects is a factor in the other.

We have been considering the dim foundation of [conscious] experience. In animal experience there supervenes a process of keen discrimination of quality. The sense experiences, such as sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and so on, are distinguished. Also within each such species of quality, clear distinctions are discerned, for example, red and green, distinctions of note, distinctions of taste.

With the rise of clear sensations relating themselves to the universe of value-feeling, the world of human experience is defined.

Whitehead draws a distinction between two modes of experience that are crucial to the success of his conceptual scheme: experience in the mode of presentational immediacy and experience in the mode of causal efficacy. The former is generally conscious and allows us to distinguish each of the five channels of sensation, and within each of these channels to clearly identify the distinct qualities of our surrounding environment. The latter is generally unconscious and provides us with a felt-sense of bodily reference, or energetic inheritance emerging out of our own organism’s recent past. I say “generally” for each mode because we often make highly refined distinctions in and evaluations of our environment without consciousness, and because the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness in experience cannot be clearly drawn.

As I said above, it is the nature of experience to be confusing, and so to cause things to “grow together” (or concresce), though in the higher animals and especially humans, experience reaches tremendous clarity. This clarity is won at the cost of massive elimination, and in some cases repression, of the temporal horizons of consciousness (i.e., birth and death, sleeping and waking).
If we deliberately turn our attention to perceptual experience in search of its limit, doesn’t this limit seem to recede into an infinite fractal of “little perceptions”? To everyday consciousness, sensory perception of the external world appears to have a finite resolution (i.e., it resolves itself in certain definite qualitative patterns). But if we follow Whitehead by turning attention to our feelings of bodily reference, the clarity and distinctness of experience dissolves into a vague swarm of actual occasions (e.g., try closing your eye-lids and pressing on them).

Related posts

Wordsworth’s Poetic Vision in Light of Whitehead’s Theory of Perception

Discussion has continued beneath my last post about Bakker. Below are a few of my comments there:

rsbakkar writes:

I advert to common idiom when discussing theoretical incompetence, but it certainly doesn’t turn on any commitment to representationalism – even less correspondance! The fact is, people regularly get things wrong in what appear to be systematically self-serving ways. You don’t need to subscribe to assertion conditions or truth conditions or anything speculative to commit to this.

People generally get things “wrong” in what respect? How are you defining “wrong” here? Upon what scientific criteria do we determine “right” from “wrong”? I assume you mean to speak of “falsity” and “truth,” rather than right and wrong? Even so, the scientific enterprise is not a scantron test where we bubble in T or F after each experiment. Experimental facts are always underdetermined by the theory framing them, which means there is always some degree of extra-scientific hermeneutic, aesthetic, or intuitive selection going on to determine which theory is “best.” For example, even given all empirically verified neuroscientific evidence to date of a brain-mind correlation, brain-based reductionist accounts of what we call “consciousness” represent only one possible causal explanation: it remains entirely possible that the brain functions more like a radio antenna and that the causes of “consciousness” are non-locally distributed beyond the skull (see my reflections on cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger and cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, for example). If the scientific enterprise were simply a matter of confirmation or falsification (either a theory is true or it is false) then there’d be very few if any viable scientific theories. That most of our theories fail to account for all the evidence (or if they do, fail to definitively disqualify competing theories which also account for the evidence) suggests either that humans are theoretically incompetent, or that nature/matter is more complex than our mechanistic models generally allow.

rsbakkar writes:

The life sciences are mechanistic, so if subjective experience can be explained without some kind of ‘spooky emergence,’ as I fear it can, then all intentional philosophy, be it pragmatic or otherwise, is in for quite a bit of pain.

I’d dispute the statement that the life sciences are mechanistic, depending on what you mean by the machine metaphor. There are major unresolved controversies within the life sciences concerning the status of life, whether mechanism can really account for the self-organizing, biosemiotic, and phenomenological dimensions of even a single living cell (See the cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela’s 2002 paper “Life After Kant,” or his colleague cognitive scientist Evan Thompson’s book Mind in Life, for good run downs concerning this controversy). There is no reason to conceive of “emergence” as spooky. This way of thinking about the place of wholes in nature is terribly misleading. There’s no reason to make emergence seem supernatural now that science has the conceptual tools to deal with complexity, chaos, non-equilibrium systems, etc (see Terry Deacon’s recent book Incomplete Nature for the cutting edge attempt to account for intentionality in a non-reductive way).

Where I entirely agree with you is that classical philosophical “metacognition” is over-matched by the complexity of the experiential universe. I don’t take much stock in theories like supervenience, functionalism, or anomalous monism for this reason. They are too abstract and cogni-centric and pay too little attention to the complex textures of lived, embodied reality, textures that unfold at or below the threshold of what usually gets called “consciousness.” I turn instead to philosophers like James and Whitehead who sought to correct for the rationalist biases of so much Western philosophy by turning philosophy’s attention to an investigation of feeling and bodily reference, pushing back against the pretensions of disembodied thought and transcendental deduction.



“The machinery of the brain does all the work–after all, what else is there? What [Cain] calls ‘thinking of science in normative terms’ is a mechanistic enterprise, something our brains do. Since metacognition is all but blind to the mechanistic nature of the brain, it cognizes cognition otherwise, in nonmechanical, acausal, magical terms. Normative judgements, intentional relations, and so on: these are simply ways our brain naturally mischaracterizes its own activity.” -R. Scott Bakker


“Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” -Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (16).

Those who have been tracking my last few posts (HERE and HERE) will know I’ve been enjoying Ben Cain’s philosophy blog Rants Within the Undead God. It was in a guest post on fantasy author R. Scott Bakker‘s blog Three Pound Brain that I first encountered Cain’s mind. Bakker has just published a critical reply to Cain’s guest post a few days ago on the philosophical difficulties facing scientism. I’m as new to Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (BBT) as I am to Cain’s “existential cosmicism,” but I’ve been reading Cain and Bakker’s recent exchange concerning the ontological status of consciousness in our scientific age with tremendous interest. I agree with Bakker that we ought to be extremely disturbed and existentially unsettled by BBT’s implications, just not for the reasons he thinks.

Like Cain, I find Bakker’s BBT threatening not because it is true in some matter of fact sense, but because it is becoming increasingly true (in the American pragmatist sense) as the values of techno-scientific imperialism continue to infect secular societies (techno-capitalism has done a fabulous job marketing these values thus far). It is indeed becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish ourselves from machines. As Cain suggests:

 Maybe our imagination, emotion, intuition, and creativity will atrophy as our habits continue to be shaped by our artificial environments. Then again, we’d be looking not so much at a scientific revelation of what we’ve always really been, but at a transformation of human nature for the worse.

While Bakker cognitively mobilizes unexplained explainers like “scientific accuracy” (achieved by a disinterested res cogitans?) and “natural mechanism” (mathematizable res extensa?), I’d prefer to call upon the non-modern powers of creative imagination and cosmogenesis in my speculative fantasies (in Hillman’s sense of fantasy). I take my speculative risks on behalf of philosophical inquiry and creative intuition attempting to attune with the logos of the chaosmos. This is an infinite task, it must be admitted. But then philosophy is full of infinite tasks, as Husserl taught us“Scientific accuracy” is also an infinite task, is it not? I suppose only if the universe is an infinite fact. 

Bakker is not happy about the loaded labels of “scientism” and “absolutism” fired at him by Cain. I think its true that these labels tend to carry negative connotations, but I’m surprised that Bakker doesn’t just own up to BBT’s philosophical allegiance to those very connotations (i.e., science as the only valid way of knowing because philosophical intuition is bosh, etc.). Neuroscientists like the “hardheaded devotee of aggressive-exterminative scientism” (as Graham Harman referred to himThomas Metzinger and eliminativist philosophers like Ray Brassier don’t shy away from the term but seem rather to wear it as a badge of honor.

Wanted to share this before going to bed. Here are a few words about “the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner” from Bellow’s Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction Humboldt’s Gift:

It wasn’t that I minded giving information to honest scholars, or even to young people on the make, but I just then was busy, fiercely, painfully busy–personally and impersonally busy: personally, with Renata and Denise, and Murra the accountant, and the lawyers and the judge, and a multitude of emotional vexations; impersonally, participating in the life of my country and of Western Civilization and global society (a mixture of reality and figment). As editor of an important magazine, The Ark, which would probably never come out, I was always thinking of statements that must be made and truths of which the world must be reminded. The world, identified by a series of dates (1789-1914-1917-1939) and by key words (revolution, Technology, Science, and so forth), was another cause of busyness. You owed your duty to these dates and words. The whole thing was so momentous, overmastering, tragic, that in the end what I really wanted was to lie down and go to sleep. I have always had an exceptional gift for passing out. I look at snapshots taken in some of the most evil hours of mankind and I see that I have lots of hair and am appealingly youthful. I am wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit of the Thirties or Forties, smoking a pipe, standing under a tree, holding hands with a plump and pretty bimbo – and I am asleep on my feet, out cold. I have snoozed through many a crisis (while millions died).            This is all terrifically relevant. For one thing, I may as well admit that I came back to settle in Chicago with the secret motive of writing a significant work. This lethargy of mine is related to that project–I got the idea of doing something with the chronic war between sleep and consciousness that goes on in human nature. My subject, in the final Eisenhower years, was boredom. Chicago was the ideal place in which to write my master essay on Boredom. In raw Chicago you could examine the human spirit under industrialism. If someone were to arise with a new vision of Faith, Love, and Hope, he would want to understand to whom he was offering it–he would have to understand the kind of deep suffering we call boredom. I was going to try to do with boredom what Malthus and Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill or Durkheim had done with population, wealth, or the division of labor. History and temperament had put me in a peculiar position, and I was going to turn it to advantage. I hadn’t read those great modern boredom experts, Stendhal, Kierkegaard, and Baudelaire, for nothing. Over the years I had worked a lot on this essay. The difficulty was that I kept being over come by the material, like a miner by gas fumes. I wouldn’t stop, though. I’d say to myself that even Rip van Winkle had slept for only twenty years, I had gone him at least two decades better and I was determined to make the lost time yield illumination. So I kept doing advanced mental work in Chicago, and also joined a gymnasium, playing ball with commodity brokers and gentleman-hoodlums in an effort to strengthen the powers of consciousness. Then my respected friend Durnwald mentioned, kiddingly, that the famous but misunderstood Dr. Rudolf Steiner had much to say on the deeper aspects of sleep. Steiner’s books, which I began to read lying down, made me want to get up. He argued that between the conception of an act and its execution by the will there fell a gap of sleep. It might be brief but it was deep. For one of man’s souls was a sleep-soul. In this, human beings resembled the plants, whose whole existence is sleep. This made a very deep impression on me. The truth about sleep could only be seen from the perspective of an immortal spirit. I had never doubted that I had such a thing. But I had set this fact aside quite early.            I kept it under my hat. These beliefs under your hat also press on your brain and sink you down into the vegetable realm. Even now, to a man of culture like Durnwald, I hesitated to mention the spirit. He took no stock in Steiner, of course. Durnwald was reddish, elderly but powerful, thickset and bald, a bachelor of cranky habits but a kind man. He had a peremptory blunt butting even bullying manner, but if he scolded it was because he loved me–he wouldn’t have bothered otherwise. A great scholar, one of the most learned people on earth, he was a rationalist. Not narrowly rationalistic, by any means. Nevertheless, I couldn’t talk to him about the powers of a spirit separated from a body. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had simply been joking about Steiner. I was not joking, but I didn’t want to be thought a crank. I had begun to think a lot about the immortal spirit. Still, night after night, I kept dreaming that I had become the best player in the club, a racquet demon, that my backhand shot skimmed the left wall of the court and fell dead in the corner, it had so much English on it. I dreamed that I was beating all the best players–all those skinny, hairy, speedy fellows who in reality avoided playing with me because I was a dud. I was badly disappointed by the shallow interests such dreams betrayed. Even my dreams were asleep. And what about money? Money is necessary for the protection of the sleeping. Spending drives you into wakefulness. As you purge the inner film from the eye and rise into higher consciousness, less money should be required.            Under the circumstances (and it should now be clearer what I mean by circumstances: Renata, Denise, children, courts, lawyers, Wall Street, sleep, death, metaphysics, karma, the presence of the universe in us, our being present in the universe itself) I had not paused to think about Humboldt, a precious friend hid in death’s dateless night, a camerado from a former existence (almost), well-beloved but dead. I imagined at times that I might see him in the life to come, together with my mother and my father…hough I was about to leave town and had much business to attend to, I decided to suspend all practical activities for one morning. I did this to keep from cracking under strain. I had been practicing some of the meditative exercises recommended by Rudolf Steiner in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment. As yet I hadn’t attained much, but then my soul was well along in years and very much stained and banged up, and I had to be patient. Characteristically, I had been trying too hard, and I remembered again that wonderful piece of advice given by a French thinker: Trouve avant de cher-cher – Valery, it was. Or maybe Picasso. There are times when the most practical thing is to lie down. …

Boredom is an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death.            There were even profounder questions. For instance, the history of the universe would be very boring if one tried to think of it in the ordinary way of human experience.            All that time without events! Gases over and over again, and heat and particles of matter, the sun tides and winds, again this creeping development, bits added to bits, chemical accidents–whole ages in which almost nothing happens, lifeless seas, only a few crystals, a few protein compounds developing. The tardiness of evolution is so irritating to contemplate. The clumsy mistakes you see in museum fossils. How could such bones crawl, walk, run? It is agony to think of the groping of the species–all this fumbling, swamp-creeping, munching, preying, and reproduction, the boring slowness with which tissues, organs, and members developed.            And then the boredom also of the emergence of the higher types and finally of mankind, the dull life of paleolithic forests, the long long incubation of intelligence, the slowness of invention, the idiocy of peasant ages. These are interesting only in review, in thought. No one could bear to experience this.            The present demand is for a quick forward movement, for a summary, for life at the speed of intensest thought.            As we approach, through technology, the phase of instantaneous realization, of the realization of eternal human desires or fantasies, of abolishing time and space the problem of boredom can only become more intense. The human being, more and more oppressed by the peculiar terms of his existence – one time around for each, no more than a single life per customer–has to think of the boredom of death. O those eternities of nonexistence! For people who crave continual interest and diversity, O! how boring death will be! To lie in the grave, in one place, how frightful!            Socrates tried to soothe us, true enough. He said there were only two possibilities. Either the soul is immortal or, after death, things would be again as blank as they were before we were born. This is not absolutely comforting either. Anyway it was natural that theology and philosophy should take the deepest interest in this. They owe it to us not to be boring themselves.            On this obligation they don’t always make good.            However, Kierkegaard was not a bore. I planned to examine his contribution in my master essay. In his view the primacy of the ethical over the esthetic mode was necessary to restore the balance. But enough of that. In myself I could observe the following sources of tedium: 1) The lack of a personal connection with the external world. Earlier I noted that when I was riding through France in a train last spring I looked out of the window and thought that the veil of Maya was wearing thin. And why was this? I wasn’t seeing what was there but only what everyone sees under a common directive.            By this is implied that our world-view has used up nature. The rule of this view is that I, a subject, see the phenomena, the world of objects.            They, however, are not necessarily in themselves objects as modern rationality defines objects.            For in spirit, says Steiner, a man can step out of himself and let things speak to him about themselves, to speak about what has meaning not for him alone but also for them. Thus the sun the moon the stars will speak to nonastronomers in spite of their ignorance of science. In fact it’s high time that this happened. Ignorance of science should not keep one imprisoned in the lowest and weariest sector of being, prohibited from entering into independent relations with the creation as a whole. The educated speak of the disenchanted (a boring) world. But it is not the world, it is my own head that is disenchanted. The world cannot be disenchanted. 2) For me the self-conscious ego is the seat of boredom. This increasing, swelling, domineering, painful self-consciousness is the only rival of the political and social powers that run my life (business, technological-bureaucratic powers, the state). You have a great organized movement of life, and you have the single self, independently conscious, proud of its detachment and its absolute immunity, its stability and its power to remain unaffected by anything whatsoever–by the sufferings of others or by society or by politics or by external chaos. In a way it doesn’t give a damn. It is asked to give a damn, and we often urge it to give a damn but the curse of non-caring lies upon this painfully free consciousness.            It is free from attachment to beliefs and to other souls. Cosmologies, ethical systems? It can run through them by the dozens. For to be fully conscious of oneself as an individual is also to be separated from all else. This is Hamlet’s kingdom of infinite space in a nutshell, of “words, words, words,” of “Denmark’s a prison.”

Maybe these sudden illuminations of mine were an effect of the metaphysical changes I was undergoing. Under the recent influence of Steiner I seldom thought of death in the horrendous old way.            I wasn’t experiencing the suffocating grave or dreading an eternity of boredom, nowadays.            Instead I often felt unusually light and swift-paced, as if I were on a weightless bicycle and sprinting through the star world. Occasionally I saw myself with exhilarating objectivity, literally as an object among objects in the physical universe. One day that object would cease to move and when the body collapsed the soul would simply remove itself. So, to speak again of the lawyers, I stood between them, and there we were, three naked egos, three creatures belonging to the lower grade of modern rationality and calculation. In the past the self had had garments, the garments of station, of nobility or inferiority, and each self had its carriage, its looks, wore the sheath appropriate to it. Now there were no sheaths and it was naked self with naked self burning intolerably and causing terror. I saw this now, in a fit of objectivity. It felt ecstatic.

I had no book to read, I took this opportunity to meditate briefly. The object I chose for meditation was a bush covered with roses. I often summoned up this bush, but sometimes it made its appearance independently. It was filled, it was dense, it was choked with tiny dark garnet roses and fresh healthy leaves. So for the moment I thought “rose,” “rose” and nothing else. I visualized the twigs, the roots, the harsh fuzz of the new growth hardening into spikes, plus all the botany I could remember: phloem xylem cambium chloroplasts soil sun water chemistry, attempting to project myself into the very plant and to think how its green blood produced a red flower. Ah, but new growth in rosebushes was always red before it turned green. I recalled very accurately the inset spiral order of rose petals, the whitey faint bloom over the red and the slow opening that revealed the germinating center. I concentrated all the faculties of my soul on this vision and immersed it in the flowers. Then I saw, next to these flowers, a human figure standing. The plant, said Rudolf Steiner, expressed the pure passionless laws of growth, but the human being, aiming at higher perfection, assumed a greater burden–instincts, desires, emotions. So a bush was a sleeping life. But mankind took a chance on the passions. The wager was that the higher powers of the soul could cleanse these passions. Cleansed, they could be reborn in a finer form. The red of the blood was a symbol of this cleansing process. But even if all this wasn’t so, to consider the roses always put me into a kind of bliss.            After a while I contemplated something else. I visualized an old black iron Chicago lamp post from forty years back, the type with a lid like a bullfighter’s hat or a cymbal. Now it was night, there was a blizzard. I was a young boy and I watched from my bedroom window. It was a winter gale, the wind and snow banged the iron lamp, and the roses rotated under the light. Steiner recommended the contemplation of a cross wreathed with roses but for reasons of perhaps Jewish origin I preferred a lamp post. The object didn’t matter as long as you went out of the sensible world. When you got out of the sensible world, you might feel parts of the soul awakening that never had been awake before.

Whenever Thaxter and I met we had at least one intimate conversation. I spoke freely to him and let myself go. In spite of his eccentric nonsense, and my own, there was a bond between us. I was able to talk to Thaxter. At times I told myself that talking to him was as good for me as psychoanalysis. Over the years, the cost had been about the same. Thaxter could elicit what I was really thinking. A more serious learned friend like Richard Durnwald would not listen when I tried to discuss the ideas of Rudolf Steiner.            “Nonsense!” he said. “Simply nonsense!            I’ve looked into that.” In the learned world anthroposophy was not respectable. Durnwald dismissed the subject sharply because he wished to protect his esteem for me. But Thaxter said, “What is this Consciousness Soul, and how do you explain the theory that our bones are crystallized out of the cosmos itself?”

A lover in the lockup gave Renata a classic floozy opportunity for free behavior. Because of my habit of elevating such mean considerations to the theoretical level it will surprise no one that I started to think about the lawlessness of the unconscious and its independence from the rules of conduct. But it was only antinomian, not free.            According to Steiner, true freedom lived in pure consciousness. Each microcosm had been separated from the macrocosm. In the arbitrary division between Subject and Object the world had been lost. The zero self sought diversion. It became an actor. This was the situation of the Consciousness Soul as I interpreted it. But there now passed through me a qualm of dissatisfaction with Rudolf Steiner himself.            This went back to an uncomfortable passage in Kafka’s Diaries pointed out to me by my friend Durnwald, who felt that I was still capable of doing serious intellectual work and wanted to save me from anthroposophy. Kafka too had been attracted by Steiner’s visions and found the clairvoyant states he described similar to his own, feeling himself on the outer boundaries of the human. He made an appointment with Steiner at the Victoria Hotel on Jungmannstrasse. It is recorded in the Diaries that Steiner was wearing a dusty and spotted Prince Albert and that he had a terrible head cold. His nose ran and he kept working his handkerchief deep into his nostrils with his fingers while Kafka, observing this with disgust, told Steiner that he was an artist stuck in the insurance business.            Health and character, he said, prevented him from following a literary career. If he added theosophy to literature and the insurance business, what would become of him? Steiner’s answer is not recorded.            Kafka himself of course was crammed to the top with this same despairing fastidious mocking Consciousness Soul. Poor fellow, the way he stated his case didn’t do him much credit. The man of genius trapped in the insurance business? A very banal complaint, not really much better than a head cold.            Humboldt would have agreed. We used to talk about Kafka and I knew his views. But now Kafka and Steiner and Humboldt were together in death where, presently, all the folk in Stronson’s office would join them. Reappearing, perhaps, centuries hence in a more sparkling world. It wouldn’t have to sparkle much to sparkle more than this one. Nevertheless, Kafka’s description of Steiner upset me.

the view, if you cared for views, was remarkable. I was very good myself at putting other people on to views for the purpose of absenting myself. Below, Fifth Avenue glowed with Christmas decorations and the headlights of the jammed traffic, solid between the Seventies and the Thirties, and shop illuminations, multicolored, crystalline, and like the cells in a capillary observed through a microscope, elastically changing shape, bumping and pulsatory. All this I saw in a single instant. I was like a deft girl, scooping all the jacks before the ball bounced back. It was as it had been with Renata last spring when we took the train to Chartres, “Isn’t that beautiful out there!” she had said. I looked and yes, it was indeed beautiful. No more than a glance was necessary. You saved yourself a lot of time that way. The question was what you were going to do with the minutes gained by these economies.            This, I may say, was all due to the operation of what Steiner describes as the Consciousness Soul.

“Trying to keep up with your interests,” said Thaxter, “I’ve been reading your man Rudolf Steiner, and he’s fascinating. I expected something like Madame Blavatsky, but he turns out to be a very rational kind of mystic. What’s his angle on Goethe?”            “Don’t start that, Thaxter,” said Renata.            But I needed a serious conversation. I longed for it. “It isn’t mysticism,” I said. “Goethe simply wouldn’t stop at the boundaries drawn by the inductive method. He let his imagination pass over into objects. An artist sometimes tries to see how close he can come to being a river or a star, playing at becoming one or the other–entering into the forms of the phenomena painted or described. Someone has even written of an astronomer keeping droves of stars, the cattle of his mind, in the meadows of space. The imaginative soul works in that way, and why should poetry refuse to be knowledge? For Shelley, Adonais in death became part of the loveliness he had made more lovely. So according to Goethe the blue of the sky was the theory. There was a thought in blue. The blue became blue when human vision received it. A wonderful man like my late friend Humboldt was overawed by rational orthodoxy, and because he was a poet this probably cost him his life. Isn’t it enough to be a poor naked forked creature without also being a poor naked forked spirit? Must the imagination be asked to give up its own full and free connection with the universe–the universe as Goethe spoke of it? As the living garment of God? And today I found out that Humboldt really believed that human beings were supernatural beings. He too!”            “There he goes,” said Renata. “What did you want to start him spouting for?”            “Thought is a real constituent of being,” I tried to continue.            “Charlie! Not now,” said Renata.            Thaxter who was normally polite to Renata spoke stiffly to her when she barged into these higher conversations. He said, “I take a real interest in the way Charles’s mind works.” He was smoking his pipe, his mouth drawn wide and dark, under the big Western brim.            “Try living with it,” said Renata. “Charlie’s kinky theorizing puts together combinations nobody else could imagine, like the way the US Congress does its business, with Immanuel Kant, Russian Gulag camps, stamp collecting, famine in India, love and sleep and death and poetry. The less said about the way his mind works, the better. But if you do have to be a guru, Charlie, go the whole distance–wear a silk gown, get a turban, grow a beard. You’d make a hell of a good-looking spiritual leader with a beard and those paisley nostrils of yours. I’d dress up with you, and we’d be a smash. The way you carry on and for free! I sometimes have to pinch myself. I think I’ve taken fifty Valiums and am hearing things.”            “People of powerful intellect never are quite sure whether or not it’s all a dream.”            “Well, people who don’t know whether they’re awake or dreaming don’t necessarily have that powerful intellect,” Renata answered. “My theory is that you’re punishing me with this anthroposophy. You know what I mean. That blonde runt introduced you to her dad, and since then it’s all been really spooky.” “I wish you’d finish what you started to say,”            Thaxter turned again to me.            “It comes to this, that the individual has no way to prove out what’s in his heart–I mean the love, the hungering for the external world, the swelling excitement over beauty for which there are no acceptable terms of knowledge. True knowledge is supposed to be a monopoly of the scientific world view. But human beings have all sorts of knowledge. They don’t have to apply for the right to love the world. But to see what goes on in this respect, take the career of someone like Von Humboldt Fleisher?            “Ah, that guy again,” said Renata.            “Is it true that as big-time knowledge advances poetry must drop behind, that the imaginative mode of thought belongs to the childhood of the race? A boy like Humboldt, full of heart and imagination, going to the public library and finding books, leading a charmed life bounded by lovely horizons, reading old masterpieces in which human life has its full value, filling himself with Shakespeare, where there is plenty of significant space around each human being, where words mean what they say, and looks and gestures also are entirely meaningful. Ah, that harmony and sweetness, that art! But there it ends. The significant space dwindles and disappears. The boy enters the world and learns its filthy cutthroat tricks, the enchantment stops. But is it the world that is disenchanted?”            “No,” said Renata. “I know the answer to that one.”            “It’s rather our minds that have allowed themselves to be convinced that there is no imaginative power to connect every individual to the creation independently.”            It occurred to me suddenly that Thaxter in his home-on-the-range outfit might as well have been in church and that I was behaving like his minister. This was not a Sunday, but I was in my Palm Court pulpit. As for Renata, smiling–her dark eyes, red mouth, white teeth, smooth throat-though she interrupted and heckled during these sermons she got a kick out of the way I delivered them. I knew her theory well. Whatever was said, whatever was done, either increased or diminished erotic satisfaction, and this was her practical test for any idea. Did it produce a bigger bang? “We could have been at the Scala tonight,” she said, “and part of a brilliant audience hearing Rossini. Instead, do you know what we were doing today, Thaxter? We went out to Coney Island so Charlie could collect his inheritance from his dear dead old pal Humboldt Fleisher. It’s been Humboldt, Humboldt, Humboldt, like “Figaro, Figaro.” Humboldt’s eighty-year-old uncle gave Charlie a bunch of papers, and Charlie read ’em and wept. Well, for a month now I’ve heard nothing but Humboldt and death and sleep and metaphysics and how the poet is the arbiter of the diverse and Walt Whitman and Emerson and Plato and the World Historical Individual. Charlie is like Lydia the Tattooed Lady, covered with information. You remember that song, “You Can Learn a Lot from Lydia”?”

Now Renata was, as a biologically noble beauty, in a false category–Goya’s Maja smoking a cigar, or Wallace Stevens’ fretful Concubine who whispered “Pfui!” That is she wished to defy and outsmart the category to which she was assigned by common opinion. But with this she also collaborated. And if there is one historical assignment for us it is to break with false categories. Vacate the personae. I once suggested to her, “A woman like you can be called a dumb broad only if Being and Knowledge are entirely separate. But if Being is also a form of Knowledge, one’s own Being is one’s own accomplishment in some degree…?            “Then I’m not a dumb broad after all. I can’t be, if I’m so beautiful. That’s super!            You’ve always been kind to me, Charlie.”            “Because I really love you, kid.”            Then she wept a little because, sexually, she was not all that she was cracked up to be. She had her hang-ups. Sometimes she accused herself wildly, crying, “The truth! I’m a phony! I like it better under the table.” I told her not to exaggerate.            I explained to her that the Ego had emancipated itself from the Sun and it must undergo the pain of this emancipation (steiner). The modern sexual ideology could never counteract this. Programs of uninhibited natural joy could never free us from the universal tyranny of selfbood. Flesh and blood never could live up to such billing. And so on.

…I devoted long hours to Steiner meditation and did my best to draw close to the dead. I had very strong feelings about this and could no longer neglect the possibility of communication with them. Ordinary spiritualism I dismissed. My postulate was that there was a core of the eternal in every human being. Had this been a mental or logical problem I would have dealt logically with it. However, it was no such thing. What I had to deal with was a lifelong intimation. This intimation must be either a tenacious illusion or else the truth deeplyburied. The mental respectability of good members of educated society was something I had come to despise with all my heart. I admit that I was sustained by contempt whenever the esoteric texts made me uneasy. For there were passages in Steiner that set my teeth on edge. I said to myself, this is lunacy. Then I said, this is poetry, a great vision. But I went on with it, laying out all that he told us of the life of the soul after death. Besides, did it matter what I did with myself? Elderly, heart-injured, meditating in kitchen odors, wearing Renata’s cloak in the biffy–should it concern anyone what such a person did with himself? The strangeness of life, the more you resisted it, the harder it bore down on you. The more the mind opposed the sense of strangeness, the more distortions it produced. What if, for once, one were to yield to it? Moreover I was convinced that there was nothing in the material world to account for the more delicate desires and perceptions of human beings. I concurred with the dying Bergotte in Proust’s novel. There was no basis in common experience for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And I was too queerly haughty to take stock in the respectable empiricism in which I had been educated. Too many fools subscribed to it. Besides, people were not really surprised when you spoke to them about the soul and the spirit.            How odd! No one was surprised. Sophisticated people were the only ones who expressed surprise.            Perhaps the fact that I had learned to stand apart from my own frailties and the absurdities of my character might mean that I was a little dead myself. This detachment was a sobering kind of experience. I thought sometimes how much it must sober the dead to pass through the bitter gates.            No more eating, bleeding, breathing. Without the pride of physical existence the shocked soul would surely become more sensible.            It was my understanding that the untutored dead blundered and suffered in their ignorance. In the first stages especially, the soul, passionately attached to its body, stained with earth, suddenly severed, felt cravings much as amputees feel their missing legs. The newly dead saw from end to end all that had happened to them, the whole of lamentable life. They burned with pain. The children, the dead children especially, could not leave their living but stayed invisibly close to those they loved and wept. For these children we needed rituals – something for the kids, for God’s sake!            The elder dead were better prepared and came and went more wisely. The departed worked in the unconscious part of each living soul and some of our highest designs were very possibly instilled by them. The Old Testament commanded us to have no business with the dead at all and this was, the teachings said, because in its first phase, the soul entered a sphere of passionate feeling after death, of something resembling a state of blood and nerves.

I linked to Cain’s essay on Darwin in my last post on his theory of the psychedelic origins of religion. I wanted to comment on what he tries to do in the Darwin essay. His claim is that, post-Darwin, the old distinction between life and matter no longer holds; therefore, we are all more like undead zombies than living creatures. He even goes so far as to argue that Nature in its entirety must be some kind of Super Zombie.

What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural spirit. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features–its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains–as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next so that their distant ancestors migrate and occupy other niches, becoming more complex and specialized in the process.

I wonder what Cain makes of Kant’s argument in the Critique of Judgment (sec. 75) about the impossibility of explaining living organization according to mechanical causes alone. He (famously or infamously, depending on your philosophical persuasion) claimed that natural science could never understand how even a mere blade of grass grew–that there could never be “a Newton of the grass blade.” Darwin, of course, has been championed by many biologists as precisely such a “Newton of the grass blade.” Many of a more scientistic persuasion have argued that, after Darwin, natural science definitively surpassed philosophy as the superior (if not the only genuine) mode of knowledge production.

Were Kant still alive, I imagine he would dismiss the triumphant claim of scientistic biologists to have explained life mechanistically as but a transcendental illusion. This despite all that has been learned since Darwin about biochemistry and genetics. Organisms display a form of circular causality that is not applicable to machines: in the case of organisms, the cause and the effect are both internal to the organism in question, whereas a machine’s cause is external to its effects. I’ve argued on many occasions that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has more in common with William Paley’s argument from design than most modern biologists are willing to let on. Both Paley and Darwin understood organisms to be machines assembled by an outside “agent”; Paley believed the agent was God, while Darwin showed how Nature could do the same job (at least when analogized to human selection). But Darwin never claimed his theory could explain how organisms themselves were possible. The last paragraph of The Origin of Species defers to a Creator to account for how life may have been originally breathed into the first organism/s. His theory offers an account of organic speciation, not origination. Which is to say that he had to assume the existence of biological individuals for Nature to do the selective work he showed it could.

Post-Kantian thinkers like Goethe and Schelling took Kant’s transcendental claims about organisms to the next level by attempting to articulate how self-organization could be intrinsic to the universe (Kant had only shown that the human mind could not know how organisms were possible in the absence of self-organization, not that such organization was necessarily intrinsic to Nature). Alfred North Whitehead also developed an organic conception of the universe. Cain’s argument in favor of a zombie universe is one possible direction to take after Darwin’s erasure of the life/matter dichotomy. The other direction would be to accept something like Whitehead’s panexperientialism, whereby material bodies at every level of organization (from the atomic to the astral and galactic) are in some sense “alive.” I argued as much in my essay on Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.

See below for more in depth arguments about this topic…

After commenting on his guest post over on Three Pound Brain, I decided to spend some time on Benjamin Cain’s blog Rants Within the Undead God. I really like the way his mind works, even if I’m a bit more philosophically skeptical of scientistic claims to total knowledge of matter (whether “dead” or “alive”). I especially enjoyed his post “the psychedelic basis of theism.” Here is an excerpt from the end of his essay:

You might think that metaphysical idealists are rare nowadays and aren’t worth discussing, but that’s because you’re likely reading this on the internet and are thus a full participant in the postmodern secular monoculture. Never forget that most members of our species have been theists and thus metaphysical idealists who believed that mind (God) is ontologically deeper than matter; moreover, most people currently alive are likewise theists. Instead of dismissing theism as based on trivial fallacies and small-mindedness, we should be aware of the power of theism that derives from the very real religious experience. If you think the experience is bogus, just take up Terence McKenna’s challenge and smoke some DMT; as he says, the only long-term danger of doing so is the risk of death by astonishment. The psychiatrist Rick Strassman conducted a clinical study of DMT trips and the participants reported having life-altering experiences. The religious/psychedelic experience is no joke: if you drastically alter your consciousness you’ll naturally interpret the world very differently. This is, of course, why visionary plants tend to be banned in secular societies, since religious experiences are bad for business.
It’s worth recognizing, though, that the dubious secular answer to the existential question likewise transforms the self: instead of becoming a flaky theist, the alienated ghostly ego can take on the role of the obsessed consumer, throwing herself so far into the material world, which she longs to possess, that she willingly dehumanizes herself to become just another material object–typically one owned effectively by the corporations that brand her. Whether we merge with organic biotechnologies, such as entheogens (or inherit our compromised religion from the ravings of those who so merged), or with the lifeless technologies that depend on applied rationality, we transform ourselves in the process: we spare our detached consciousness the horror of being estranged from the sensible world and we preoccupy ourselves with one dubious mission or another. While the religious delusion seems to end in fundamentalism and zealotry, the secular one seems headed for so-called posthumanity, for our complete takeover by technoscience and by the sociopathic oligarchs who profit most from the science-centered industries. We should hope that there’s a third path.
I, too, hope for a third path. I’ve written about the connection between religious experience and psychedelics before, as well: Participatory Psychedelia: Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness 

Go read Benjamin Cain’s fascinating and tightly argued essay posted at Three Pound Brain (the blog of author R. Scott Bakker). Below is my comment to him:

That was a thoroughly enjoyable read.


I agree with what may be your most important conclusion: that the real danger “we” face as auto-poetic “minds” is that techno-science is systematically disassembling the “cultural”/”folk psychological” conditions necessary for human ensoulment. The built-environments and electronic media we have surrounded ourselves with are not simply made in “our image”; the machines have also been making us, from the very beginning, into something other than human. The techno-evangelists call this the “transhuman,” but I’m not so sure we in the “developed” world are taking a step “beyond” our “natural” state as pre-scientific social animals.


Whether or not scientific knowledge can really transcend its biocultural conditions in order to speak transparently on behalf of the Facts of Nature, simply believing such a thing were possible has lead in a few short centuries to a total re-visioning of the purpose of human life (=consumerism) and civilization (=techno-capitalism).


Even if our pre-scientific ancestors really partook of something called “life” and had individual “souls” which found themselves in relation to “gods,” this became impossible the moment the techno-scientific utopia finally arrived. Once science dispelled every supposedly meaningful quality in the observable universe, “we” didn’t need “souls” anymore, or at least, we forgot how it was that our ancestors managed to ritually invoke them.


Mythic culture traditionally allowed for collective ceremony and celebration of the sacred marriage of earth and sky. It oriented primal humans to the rhythms of the cosmos upon which they depended (agriculturally for food and spiritually for existential orientation). We are wrong to assume that the imaginations of early humans “projected” meaning onto the patterned movements of earth and sky. Just like modern day machines shape us as we interact with them, impressing their digi-logic into our neuro-logic, the seasonal rhythms of earth and the cosmic revolutions of heaven projected their astro-logic into the imaginations of early humans. True myth was not “made up” by humans; the first human stories were learned by paying very close attention to the language of nature itself. Nowadays, with the stars drowned out by the light of our cities and the animals driven nearly to extinction by other industrial activity, human language has become far more arbitrary, far less archetypal. If nominalism was still entirely false in Plato’s day, it has since become truer in ours.


A few days ago, I decided to re-read Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom (1809). It’s a reasonably short text of about 75 pages, so I’ve read it 3 or 4 times in the past year. The text’s key conceptual innovations regarding the essence of freedom (which Schelling defines as the scission between good and evil) are as difficult to understand this time as they were when I first read it. Reading Heidegger’s treatment of it a few months ago was helpful (HERE), but perhaps also somewhat misleading given my preference for Iain Grant’s reading, which emphasizes the priority of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie (HERE). Schelling’s obscurity regarding human freedom does not seem to be just an accident of his presentation. Rather, obscurity is constitutive of his topic. Indeed, you might say Schelling’s task in this text is the impossible one of bringing darkness itself to light.

“All birth is birth from darkness into light; the seed kernel must be sunk into the earth and die in darkness so that the more beautiful shape of light may lift it and unfold itself in the radiance of the sun” (29).
I will continue to read this text again and again in search of its deeper, occult meanings, but it has already had a major impact on my conscious worldview. One of the reasons I feel so compelled to reach to the very bottom of Schelling’s inquiry into good and evil is that his text as much as any other has helped me come to philosophical terms with the single most powerful spiritual experience I’ve ever had. It happened when I visited Jerusalem back in 2005 during a “birthright trip” organized by the Hillel Foundation at my university (UCF in Orlando, Fl): an all expenses paid 16-day adventure across the entire country of Israel. At the end of it, they offered all the college aged American Jews in my group Israeli citizenship right then and there. They even offered to pay for our wedding if we met our sweetheart on the trip! That is, if only we were also willing to be conscripted by the Israeli Defense Force. I was 19 years old at the time, immersed in (and inflated by) the California Buddhism of Alan Watts, the depth psychology of Carl Jung, and the anarchist politics of Chomsky and Zinn. I was living in suburban Orlando, a city almost entirely surrounded by the scariest aspects of post-war America: theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios on one side of town, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman on the other. In between there were endless subdivisions of prefab houses with identical SUVs in their driveways all linked together by shopping center parking lots. Which is just to say that Israel felt like a dangerously mystical desert island that I might escape to, thereby saving myself from the nihilistic void at the core of suburban life. My desire for a spiritual home (a god, a people, and a land to call my own, and to belong to) made living in Israel very appealing to my meaning-seeking survival instincts. I thought of finding a kibbutz, though it seems they aren’t what they used to be. In part it was the geopolitical situation, and the Israeli state’s role in that situation (something I separate from the Jewish religious tradition: prophets are not politicians), that kept me from accepting citizenship there. Mostly though it was my spiritually formative experience at Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial on the outskirts of Jerusalem, that made taking sides in any nationalist war impossible for me.

The trigger for the experience was the children’s memorial. I descended by stairway into a dark space, within which I first encountered a dozen or so photographs of children who had been killed in camps, followed by a wall of candles fitted with mirrors that reflected each flame’s image hundreds of times as it receded into the infinite darkness. The name and place of birth of murdered child after murdered child was read over a speaker.

As I climbed the stairs at the other end of the long, dark hall, my mind was racing, desperately questioning “How? How is such evil possible?! How could human beings do this to one another??!!” My initial question was not “why?” mind you, it was “how?” I wanted to know the metaphysical conditions of evil; that is, I wanted to know the nature of the structural flaw in creation that clearly must exist in order for something so heinous to be permitted to take place. It wasn’t long before I realized there was no answer to my question. I saw that my sailing off into the abstractions of theory was only a thinly veiled attempt to avoid and repress the swelling emotional turmoil that had been stirred up within me as a result of being confronted with the systematic murder of 1.5 million children. My question changed to “why?“—a question of immanent meaning rather than metaphysical possibility. I quickly found myself shamanically merging with the soul of a Nazi guard at Auschwitz, experiencing his wavering degrees of self-justification and self-doubt, realizing that he was just as human as me, just as capable of love and friendship, of deceit and jealousy, just as flawed and complex… “But this can’t be!,” I thought. “Nazis must be evil, how else could they murder so many children, how else could they send so many tiny faces to their deaths?
As I left the memorial and returned again to the sunlight, I found that I could not help but sob, not only because of my feelings of overwhelming remorse for so many murdered children, but because I couldn’t find a suitable scapegoat to hold accountable for such evil. I inhabited as many Nazi souls as I could manage, searching for someone who might take responsibility for the Holocaust. I found no one. Only other fragile human souls like me, most of whom were already dead. Tears welled up in my eyes. Why? why did humanity do this?… Or, was it God’s fault?
Just then I caught the gaze of another person and was immediately torn out of my inward struggle with theodicy. I took in the living faces all around me. That each could be so externally unique and yet also hide something so universal just beneath the surface—that each could be so individual and yet also so God-like (see p. 47)—overwhelmed me even more than the photographs of the murdered children had.
I became somewhat embarrassed when I remembered I was still crying, so I turned away from my fellow humans and looked down at the grass below my feet. I couldn’t help but notice the individuality of each separate blade. I noticed each blade’s infinite difference from the one next to it. I realized how much beauty was being destroyed every time I took a step. I was overwhelmed again. The unending originality of reality swallowed me in that moment. I like to think that it was then and there that I first became responsible for myself, for my freedom, for my goodness and for my wretchedness. I saw immediately (perhaps through a kind of intellectual intuition) that evil is in all of us, that it is a necessary by-product of our creative freedom as individuals. Without the possibility of evil, there would be no opportunity for love, for the free decision to love. Schelling writes that “whoever has neither the material nor the force in himself to do evil is also not fit for good” (64). The creative struggle between individuals and communities, between me and we, is the engine of evolution. It’s as true for humans as it is for any other living being. But for the human, the creature who “stands on the threshold” between good and evil, the stakes of the struggle are infinitely higher. “It would be desirable ” writes Schelling, summarizing Franz Baader, “that the corruption in man were only to go as far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals” (40).
Life itself, as Schelling understands it, depends upon struggle and opposition. “Where there is no struggle, there is no life” (63). Without continual crisis to disrupt the very ground of our existence, all creative activity would cease, all the whirling worlds would slow and sink into the silent ocean of indifference (a dark night, yes, but without cows of any definite shade).
“The whole of nature tells us that it in no way exists by virtue of a merely geometrical necessity; in it there is not simply pure reason but personality and spirit…God himself is not a system, but rather a life” (59-62).
Kant was right after all about the singular blade of grass (see sec. 75 of his Critique of Judgment). Its life exceeds finite understanding. How much more so the life of God. For Schelling, the divine life reveals itself in the evolution of the universe, both through its cosmic phase (the primordial struggle between gravity and light) and its anthropic phase (the spiritual battle between good and evil). “The birth of spirit is the realm of history as the birth of light is the realm of nature” (44). Our humanity depends for its existence on the abyssal depths of nature, the same groundlessness that first called even God into consciousness. But unlike God, the human being “never gains control over his condition, since it is only lent to him” (62).

Here’s a video of me describing my experience at Yad Vashem:
Integral philosopher and poet William Irwin Thompson has posted a response on his blog: THOUGHTS ON EVIL, June 11, 2013

“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead

Four of us met a few days back to discuss the first 75 pages of Ed Casey’s The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (1998). I’ve heard there will be more of us next time. We talked about several ancient texts: the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Plato’s Timaeus, and Aristotle’s Physics.

We discussed the potential efficacy of ancient place-making rituals, such as that of the Australian Achilpa tribe (Fate of Place, 5). Can a single staff really found entire worlds? If a society’s world-staff were to break, would the people of that society’s world end? Would they all fall to the ground and die?

What is the modern scientific equivalent of a place-making staff stuck into the center of an aboriginal nomadic campsite? Perhaps it is geometry, the mathesis of points, lines, and planes used to draw the modern map of the globe? But what then is calculative science to make of the incalculable?: of perfect circles, infinite curves, and evolving spirals?; of real black holes and spiral galaxies?; of living organisms?

The modern scientific earth-measuring staff, the Cartesian coordinate grid, was meant to raise the human animal beyond erotic imagination into the heights of disinterested reason. But this staff has broken and can now only be used for firewood. Once turned to ash it should be scattered in a plurality of places. Chaos is the place-maker (not the place-made or the place-less), and its unruliness now and forever rules upon the earth beneath the sky. Chaos is the generative source of each and every topocosm, the place from which all order emerges.

Plato notwithstanding, the demiurge’s perfect forms of geometrical reflection have proven themselves unable to supplant geology and astrology as the philosophical foundations of cosmology. The volcanic instability of the earth and the angelic stability of the sky forbid our human pretenses to cosmic wisdom. We can only love wisdom and follow her; we cannot measure her. She is too deep.

The outer motions of earth and sky always already shape the inner emotions of humanity. We learn the God-poet’s ways first of all from Gaia and Ouranos. All other happenings are their child. We cannot invent geometry inside our heads ex nihilo, measuring the earth in some invented pseudo-space or Void, until we have first marked out our territory in the dirt and built a hut to block out the stars overhead. Only then can we place such heavy concentration on such airy abstractions.

Geometry need not lead to misplaced concreteness, of course. We need only remember that the staffs we plant in the sand can never stand the test of infinite time. Staff planting is a creative gesture, but every such planting already assumes sunlight and warm soil to feed the hand who hammers it. Staff planting is never ex nihilo.

Catherine Keller’s The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003) is a great example of how one might try to weave the living Word into place without getting tied in the literalistic knots of monolithic meaning. When speaking of angels, for example, we can follow her in drawing upon the rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics who turn to angelology in order to refute ex nihilo creation theories. Keller dwells rhapsodically upon the meaning of Elohim (Face of the Deep, 173-182), which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.” Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Angelic/Elohimic plurisingularity:

Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).

Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase that begins the Biblical book of Genesistohu vabohu, to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder.

The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller, like Casey, reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating. The God-poet, no matter how genius, always sings with a chorus, remaining forever placed in the chora, located in cosmic imagination. No creative act is ever from nothing.

Several months ago, Michael (who blogs at Archive Fire and contributes to synthetic_zero) posted a comment on a post of mine about philosophical vitalism.

I’m just now getting around to responding to what for me were really helpful questions as I try to further flesh out my thoughts on etheric imagination.

Michael writes:

I like your point about a root image of a root, but from my view I think part of our problem to begin with is that we rely too heavily on metaphors when we should be attending to the particular characteristics of things and strata and complexity as they occur. That is to say, why do we need a root image? What cognitive work gets done by understanding everything as “machines” or “objects” or “organisms” beyond what particular situations express naturally?

My desire to encounter and interact (cope?) more or less directly (in terms of consequence) with the brute actualities of life and the possibility spaces afforded among such contingencies (differences) comes from a deeply unsettling realization of the limits of language and signification. I think there is a philosophy or three of embodiment and ethics that could be gleaned from a closer relationship with matter-energy and its emergent orders as it continues to evolvebeyond the effects and masks and affordances of decisional philosophy.

In response, I suppose I don’t see an alternative to working with the play of metaphor and imagery. It’s not that we need “root images” (Goethe called them Ur-Phänomen; Jung and Hillman called them archetypes; Tarnas calls them planetary aspects), its that we could not do and never have done without such images. It isn’t possible to ‘need’ a root image because we are always already being imagined by the root images of the cosmos. Its a matter of inverting what we usually think has creative agency, of turning the neoliberal concept-wielding subject inside out so that a new kind of non-representational, imaginative cognitive regime comes to discover the way real images (imago vera) are rooted in and grow out of the things themselves. The subject cannot choose root images like it might choose concepts; rather, root images chthonically emerge from the vitality of matter-energy itself.


The ur-images of earth and sky always already encompass us, as the ur-images of light and warmth always already pervade and enliven our bodies, as the ur-image of the (n)one cosmic life, or world egg, expresses itself as this or that particular body. The life of the cosmos is not just The Tree of Life but every single twisting vine, every leaf, every flower, every fallen petal and rotten fruit and freshly planted seed in the soil.

These images are the necessary roots–not only the transcendental but also the physical conditions–of our coming to consciousness of an agential self or a lawful world. How else can a speaking animal understand its sensori-motor intra-enaction with all the other living bodies around and inside it without dwelling in the play of imagery? If it’s the particular characteristics of complexly stratified matter-energy processes that we are hoping to depict accurately and to transact with compassionately, through what medium but imagination could we possibly hope to do so? Is the real creative chaos underlying the ideal cosmos accessible to deductive reason, to scientific observation, to mathematical computation, or even to Zen meditation alone? Perhaps sometimes it is. Perhaps on those occasions, its because reason, or science, or math, or meditation has been mixed with a strong dose of imagination? I would say that without the underlying play of images (whether explicit or unconscious) like “machine” and “organism,” no cognitive work can be done at all, period. Without the play of imagination, the understanding falls limp and goes to sleep. This is Kant’s really important discovery, the discovery it took him three critiques to make.

So I’m all for direct encounter and immediate coping. But not because I think language/signification is limited. Perhaps this is because I don’t think language is primarily a matter of signs and signals. Rather, language is symbolic. Language does not and cannot designate things, though it can pretend to. It is precisely in this pretense that the symbolic intensity of language erupts into physical expression. A symbol points only to itself; it is “tautagorical,” as Coleridge put it. So root images are not propositional signs pointing at things, nor are they transcendental concepts conditioning the categorical possibilities of things. They are not ghostly forms traced upon solid materials or mere human abstractions projected onto earthly realities. The root images described here are not meant to stand in for, or to represent, the flow of actual matter-energy. What I’m claiming is that the spatial flow of matter-energy has a naturally occurring imagistic dimension, and that by experimenting in this mundis imaginalis we may discover new forms of embodied praxis in congruence with the universe, new ways of being-on-the-earth and materially-energetically transacting with one another.

I don’t know what you mean by decisional philosophy, exactly. But I know I try to stay as far away from philosophical decisiveness as I can. I prefer experimental philosophy to decisional philosophy, in the sense that I reserve the right to change my mind about anything at any time if it turns out I was wrong or that a more creative or compassionate response is possible. I’m not here to complete the absolute system or to publish the encyclopedia of philosophy. I’m here to try to uproot the conceptual sources of misplaced concreteness and to re-plant the most resilient image-seeds I can find growing in my earthly habitat (image seeds, or root images, like trees, sunlight, flowing water, etc.).