After speaking at the 9th International Whitehead Conference last fall in Krakow, Poland, I was invited to help organize a track for the 2015 IWC in Claremont, CA next summer (June 4-7). The 2015 conference is called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization” and is largely the brain child of process theologian and environmental philosopher John Cobb, Jr. Plenary speakers include Cobb, Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Brian Swimme, Catherine Keller, Herman Daly, and David Ray Griffin. The conference will be divided into 12 topical sections, with each section including 4 or 5 tracks. My track is in section 3, “Alienation from Nature: How It Arose,” and is called “Late Modernity and Its Reductive Monism.” For a brief description of the proposed focus of this section and its sub-tracks written by Cobb, click HERE.
In his proposal for my track, Cobb writes:
Rene Descartes, who developed the Enlightenment vision most profoundly and influentially, is known especially for his radical dualism of the human soul, on one side, and mere matter in motion on the other. Although this carried the alienation from nature to its extreme, it gave dignity to human beings. It supported the ideas of human rights and even of a fundamental equality of all. However, in the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin showed that human beings are a product of evolution, so that they are fully part of nature. This opened the door to re-thinking nature as having some of the properties Descartes attributed to the human soul. But the commitment of the sciences to methods associated with nature’s purely objective existence was very strong. Instead of changing the approach to the rest of the natural world, scientists chose to study humans in the way they had previously studied the objects of human experience. Enlightenment dualism was replaced in late modernity by reductionist monism. The Enlightenment led people to understand themselves as responsible citizens. The new reductionistic monism represents us as laborers in the service of the economic system.
To re-phrase, my track will focus on the way that the classical Enlightenment dualism between morally responsible human souls and a morally neutral mechanical nature has, in the late modern period, been replaced by a pseudo-materialistic monism. Descartes was the first to articulate this dualism in its modern form. His attempt at a clean break from traditional dogmas by re-grounding human rationality on our own self-evident powers of reflective self-consciousness was an essential factor in the Western world’s later revolutionary struggles for individual political freedom. Without Descartes and those who followed in his wake (especially Locke and Kant) there would be no Modern philosophy, obviously, but nor would there have been a French or American Revolution. The dualistic ontology of spiritual human vs. mechanical matter, though unsuited for (and in some sense the cause of) our present ecological nightmare, was for an earlier epoch a catalyst for democratic liberation from the oppressive theocratic monarchies of the medieval world. Nowadays, since the dominant ontology has devolved into a confused monist materialism (which Latour deconstructs and re-assembles in AIME), the democratic political ideals of the Enlightenment are increasingly being called into question by neoliberal economists and reductive neurobiologists, among others. If there is no such thing as a soul, there is no such thing as freedom, no such thing as moral responsibility to other human souls, and so no real justification for democratic self-governance. If we are really just selfish desire-machines blindly designed by the Darwinian struggle for consumption and reproduction called Natural Selection (nature’s “invisible hand”), then, following the neoliberal capitalist approach, the best form of governance is that orchestrated by well-trained technocrats and social engineers, those who know how best to keep the civilizational machine running smoothly.
The discoveries of deep time and biological evolution that emerged during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries dealt the death blow to substance dualism, forcing humanity to make a fateful ontological decision: either, as Cobb puts it, (1) re-imagine nature as in some way ensouled, or (2) re-think the human soul as somehow mechanical. In the 20th century, Western techno-science committed itself to the second project: human society and the earth itself were to be re-made in the image of the machine (if ancient cosmologies suffered from anthropomorphism, modern cosmologies suffer from mechanomorphism). Our early 21st century world, with its exploding economic inequality and ecological unraveling, is the near ruin lying in the wake of that decision.
Whitehead stands out among 20th century philosophers, not for his revolt against techno-scientific reductionism (certainly, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty were just as dedicated to resisting it), but for his decision to have a go at project #1. As I describe in my essay on Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (2013), Whitehead’s response, not only to 19th century evolutionary theory, but to 20th century quantum and relativity theories, was to re-imagine, in process-relational terms, the relationship between the interior psychical and exterior physical worlds. That conscious human experience is continuous with the rest of an evolved nature is clear enough; but Whitehead argues that we cannot think coherently of this continuum in an eliminatively materialist way, as though consciousness could be explained by reduction to something entirely dumb and numb, unintelligent and unfeeling. If we are to remain civilized, we must take knowledge and love seriously as having a real effects on the course of human history. To take human knowledge and love seriously requires that we root these powers ontologically, that we ground them in the energies of cosmogenesis itself. Otherwise they are mere passing fantasies, cultural figments to be reduced to the neurotic mechanics of our brains and controlled by techno-scientific specialists.
The results of the modern world deciding in favor of project #2 are detailed by Whitehead toward the end of Science and the Modern World (1925):
[All] thought concerned with social organization expressed itself in terms of material things and of capital. Ultimate values were excluded. They were politely bowed to, and then handed over to the clergy to be kept for Sundays. A creed of competitive business morality was evolved…entirely devoid of consideration for the value of…life. The workmen were conceived as mere hands, drawn from the pool of labor. To God’s question, men gave the answer of Cain– “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; and they incurred Cain’s guilt (181).
Participants in my track will have an opportunity to draw on Whitehead, as well as other congenial thinkers, in an effort to both critique late modernity’s reductive monism and to re-construct a more viable ontology for a future ecological civilization. I’ll continue to post updates about the shape of the track as the conference date approaches.