10th International Whitehead Conference – “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization”

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dualism between morally responsible human souls and a morally neutral mechanical nature has, in the late modern period, been replaced by a pseudo-materialistic monism.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.

17 Replies to “10th International Whitehead Conference – “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization””

  1. “Without Descartes and those who followed in his wake (especially Locke and Kant) there would be no Modern philosophy,” True, and Hobbes was the first to draw the political consequences for ‘natural rights’ from this modern natural science. Perhaps then, Hobbes is the first modern ‘political’ philosopher.

  2. Great intro, Matt. I look forward to a great track and many insightful and provocative talks, as well as contentious discussions to get juices flowing. One small critique: I’ve always been, and remain, uncomfortable with the idea of “soul.” We can of course define this however we like, but it seems like you use this term in your piece in a nod to essentialism. Personally, I find any notion of essentialism a very difficult pill to swallow for a variety of reasons. If by “soul,” however you mean recognizing interiority behind the universe’s multitude of surfaces, no matter how limited that interiority is for the majority of surfaces, I can certainly endorse this meaning.

    1. Hi Tam,

      Yeah I was expecting the word “soul” to raise some eyebrows. Mostly I was just harkening back to the more noble side of Descartes substance dualism, in that at least when the West thought humans had some sort of soul-essence it provided a way to justify individual rights and democratic self-governance. But I agree, the notion of a substantial soul or soul-essence is highly problematic, whether we’re coming from a Buddhist phenomenological point of view or from a Whiteheadian ontological perspective. From Whitehead’s perspective, I’d be more inclined (if we want to keep using the word “soul” at all) to borrow John Keat’s turn of phrase “soul-making.” There is no fixed or substantial self, there is only an ongoing creative process of soul-making, or psychopoiesis if you prefer Greek to Latin. We don’t have eternal souls, we must continually bring forth soul by way of a variety of cultural and linguistic practices. I get more into this in this post: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/12/08/soul-making-vs-the-blind-brain-theory/

      1. Great, thanks for the thoughtful response. Here’s a different but related question for you that I’ve been batting around with another colleague: does panpsychism, to be scientific, need to be identist panpsychism in terms of positing an identity between specific physical (external) states and specific experiential (internal) states? It seems to me that if we don’t accept this identism/correspondence that we are left with an even deeper mystery in terms of explaining how specific experiential states come about. Whitehead’s dipolar actual entities seem to imply this kind of identism.

      2. Hi Tam, I’m excited by your question, to which I’ll respond more in depth later today. For now, I’ll leave you with a link to a post where I discuss the identity varient of panpsychism defended by Strawson and taken quite seriously by Chalmers: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/07/01/panpsychism-and-philosophy/

        In short, I’d answer no to your question. I don’t think panpsychism needs to be identist to be scientific. I think talk of “states,” whether physical or mental, does more to obscure what’s going on than clarify it. Whitehead’s process varient of panpsychism would seem to me to align better with quantum theory and with lived experience. More soon…

      3. OK, so to further elaborate… I don’t think Whitehead’s process-relational ontology implies the sort of external/internal correlation or identity you’re describing here. This is what makes his varient of panpsychism different from that articulated by Strawson and Chalmers, who remain stuck in the classical “subject-predicate” mode of thinking, with its concomitant “substance-accident” ontology. As I understand Whitehead’s approach, it makes no sense to simply locate experience in this or that physical entity. Macrophysical entities (like baseballs, mice, mountains, and neurons), from the perspective of W.’s process-relational ontology, are not solid state substances, but assemblages of microscopic occasions of experience, or actual occasions. These actual occasions are misleadingly (IMO) called “entities” by Whitehead, which lends itself to the “identist” interpretation you’re suggesting, where the mental/internal and the physical/external are just two ways of looking at the same “thing.” I think W.’s dipolar ontology of actual occasions is an attempt to suggest an alternative view of ultimate reality, one that is in some sense groundless in that there is no “stuff” of which macroscopic entities are made of; instead, at the most basic level, the world around us is a network of creative and experiential processes. The very notion of a space and time (or a space-time) “in” which things happen is radically inverted, even turned inside out, as for W. (following Leibniz), space-time is in some sense an abstraction brought forth by the relations among actual occasions. The physical space-time geometry studied by astrophysicists as though it were simply “out there,” a sort of stage upon which physical objects dance, is treated by Whitehead as an emergent effect of a microscopic society of organisms (called fundamental particles, like electrons, photons, and gravitons, by physicists). What is finally real for Whitehead is not space-time itself, but the experiential relations (or prehensions) between these organisms. And at different scales of organization, new forms of space-time are brought forth. In some sense, each species of organism on earth enacts its own form of space-time (as zoologists like von Uexkull mentioned by Louis below also argued). So while it makes sense to refer to “space-time” in general (since at the cosmic scale we are all part of the larger society of gravitational and electromagnetic events), it also needs to be said that this universe is a densely textured more or less overlapping quilt-work of multiple space-times. So in some weird way, space-time is not external to the experience of organisms, but internal to it.

        Given this radical reading of the ontology of space-time, it becomes clear that any sort of identist theory becomes highly problematic from Whitehead’s perspective. What we normally call “mind” and “matter” can no longer be related in spatial terms. We must try to think their relation temporally, though not in the physical time entered as “t” into dynamical equations, but rather the creative time of durational process described by Whitehead as “internal” to each actual occasion’s atomic becoming (occasions are not “in” physical time, but bring forth physical time as a result of their historical routes of rhythmical becoming and perishing).

        I discuss all of this in more detail in Physics of the World-Soul.

  3. Descartes draws the conclusions of Galileo”s geometrical dynamic method and enunciated the modern science project of the geometrization of the world. But Descartes saw the limits of geometry and so splitted the world between what can be reduced with this method and what cannot be: the actor. His dualism is not ontological but epistemological. Descartes had to know that life on earth evolved from chemistry given that he proposed the nebula hypothesis. Leibniz is the first who tried to conciliated the geometrical method with living actors and posited a monadic theory of organisms. It borrowed a lot from Aristotle”s theory of organism and from Spinoza. Kant with his copernician revolution re-centered the observer which had been removed by the geometrical method. Von Uexkull took the Leibnizian and Kantian insights in order to create a new monadic biology with each agent at the center of a sense-acting loop forming an umwelt/monad. We are still far from the new organistic actor based science but we will get there.

  4. Dear Matthew,

    I know you must be busy, so thank you for your quick reply 🙂 I also see that there is another Louis here.

    Perhaps I ought to have a been a bit more specific. I think we both trace the source of the problem to the reconceputalization of nature and the cosmos that resulted from the death of the geocentric universe. I’m sure you’ve discovered along the way that the vast complex of medieval
    and ancient cosmological structures that once supported the sublunar world( but was uprooted by the Copernican Revolution)provided a set of correspondences that gave meaning and a place to nearly everything in human and natural life. The wholeness of religion and the cosmos, from the very highest of the heavens that declare the glory of God, to the lowest peasant working the fields, is what made nature truly ‘alive’ for those premoderns. But as we moderns are acosmic and a a-religous, deprived of our place in that chain of being, our thought has become dichotimised to such a degree that our concept of self is posited over and above the world, unable to find an integrated relation to this “other” we call nature. All these contemporary attempts to bridge this gap through the “return” thesis are , I think, problematic to say the least. How can you find a way to redeem man’s status in a post-Copernican world whilst remaining true to the spirit of philosophy(reason). Echoing Nietzsche, are we no more free to walk
    backwards than a crab? Ah, our lives have become very small indeed compared to the premoderns 😦

    Anyway, I digress. Accepting the premise, we could say there are two focal points, or rather, modes of entry into the problem. You can make the return to nature as a theorist of being (Heidegger) or qua political philosophy (Rousseau?) The source of the crisis, according to political philosophy, lays less in a scientific transformation of the world, but rather in an alteration of how political and moral things came to be understood. And yes, while politics shares in this modern scientific world, it believes that the problem of the new conceptualization of nature is best seen through the prism of politics, where the loss of an objective standard which once grounded our moral and political self understanding gives way to all kinds of horrible relativism.


    LouisManet (not Louis Brassard)

  5. Below in an except from a review of Jacob Klein’s ‘Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra’ which I meant to give you awhile ago. The author was unable to contribute himself to your site because he has since passed away. Nevertheless I hope it whets your appetite

    “No matter how a modern physicist explains what the universe is, in the end that understanding cannot be expressed in any way except in a formal mathematical language. One might theorize about something in the universe, but in the end it was to be put in a mathematical language.
    The physical contents of the universe and their motions cannot be explained in any other way. Klein’s work points to a very great difference between the ancients and moderns. The ancient Greek mathematicians, including Plato and Aristotle, when thinking about number, always thought of number as a number of things. There is no three, but there are three elephants, three daisies, three gulls, three triangles. You count off things, three objects. A number is always a definite number of things. There is no three that lives in a conventional Platonic heaven. Of course, one can say that the three young girls and three young men and that the three are somehow equivalent, but they are only equivalent insofar as the two sets of three are of three objects, girls and young men.

    When one understands that numbers are the counting off of objects, we understand that individual objects and things are inherently countable, because the cosmos is both an indeterminate unlimited as well as determined units. There is no such thing as an infinite number, because infinity is an indeterminate and every number is a specific determination of how many objects there are. The ancients would not make an equation in which the symbol of infinity would be placed. Moreover, the world is such and objects are such that the unified being of things of each number is possible.

    When the new science started in Europe in the late 1500s and into the 1600s, a great change occurred in mathematics. It was to put in the simplest form that a number could be separated from objects as if it existed solely in the mind. Three existed as a pure concept. As Hegel said, the ancients begin with things, the moderns begin with concepts. That allowed for a pure general algebra where symbols alone are used. For example, I can write a+b=c and that takes on an objective reality even though we have no idea what the quantities are. Where once the species unity of things enabled the individual numbers of objects to be counted, the moderns made the symbol species an object itself. In other words, abstractions of the mind (like a+b=c) became real objects in and of themselves, even though they have no reality except the one we give it arbitrarily. With that change Descartes was able to create a duality where the symbols made real were part of the mind while the substance of the world, its corporeality, was thought of as extension. The mind of man has only knowledge of mathematics and what man makes, and the world is a mechanical extension whose true physics works through the imagination of the physicist. The scientist imagines and the pure intellect of man, full of symbols and symbolic mathematical procedures, sorts out the various elements of the imagination to give them mathematical form. There is no real reference to the world at all, only to images of the world in the head of the mathematician. What is critical is that what the mathematician does is to create what we call a virtual world or “virtual reality” today. Oddly, in this scheme of things, the virtual world is actually more real than the sensible world. In fact, it is Cartesian geometry that enables us to use our computers for everything from games to word processing, all in a virtual world. What is real is what is abstract in the mind, while the rest of the world is a machine or works mechanically, including living beings. Animals are machines. It is a mechanical, not an electronic view, so to speak.”

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