The Ecology of Ideas: Enacting Worlds Worth Living In

“Every scientific man in order to preserve his reputation has to say he dislikes metaphysics. What he means is he dislikes having his metaphysics criticized.”

-Alfred North Whitehead


Over at Knowledge-Ecology, Adam Robbert has thrown a few fantastic posts up unpacking his vision of the ecology of ideas. Concepts are capacities skillfully enacted in ecological contexts. There is no self or mental substance that “has” concepts–this is not the sort of “capacity” Adam is talking about. Rather, when “I” learn or unlearn a particular species of concept, “I” become other than I was. “No thinker thinks twice,” as Whitehead put it in Process and Reality. Concepts are everywhere swarming through our environments, infecting us like viruses, altering not only the content but the structure of our embodied minds.

In the comments beneath his post, a fascinating exchange continues to unfold between Adam and a few proponents of eliminativism, including the inventor of “Blind Brain Theory” R. Scott Bakker. As I posted there, the eliminativist’s attempt to erase 1st person experience is self-refuting–a performative contradiction!–since the scientific epistemology that is supposed to grant knowledge of 3rd person Nature out there already presupposes a Mind capable of knowing it.

Bakker responded by dismissing Mind and intentionality and experience, etc., as transcendental a prioris because ultimately their existence depends entirely on our willingness to believe in them. In other words, Bakker argues that my defense of 1st person experience amounts to just another religious faith, while his eliminativism is the result of “hard” scientific empiricism. Bakker’s way of demarcating science from religion is a telling one, since it highlights what is perhaps our core point of philosophical divergence. Like Adam, I see meaning as an intrinsic feature of our evolutionary context. All organisms enact worlds and are always already structurally coupled with their environments. They survive, when they do, because they have managed to communicate with their environments in a more or less coherent way. (As will become clearer below, it is important to remember here that “environment” means “other organisms”). The human organism is just one species of meaning-maker among many here on earth. Our form of meaning-making often goes under the name of “religion.” I’m not sure if Adam totally follows me here, but I’d argue that religious fabulation is in this sense inescapable. Adam prefers to speak in the secular terms of “cosmopolitics” instead of religion, but in the context of Bruno Latour’s Gaian natural theology, I think it becomes more clear that the “secular” is already a highly charged religious concept (and it becomes a fetish if we’re not careful). Adam writes that “philosophy must aim for self-care and not just self-knowledge; we must create a livable system of ideas in addition to pursuing critical denouncements of dogmatism.” Human beings have a biological need to create such a livable system of ideas. So, in this sense, religion (or cosmopolitics) has as much ontological significance as science; each is always already implicated in the other’s attempt to justify itself (as Whitney Bauman argues in his new book Religion and Ecology). This, to my mind, is the only way to meet the real challenge of post-Darwinian epistemology: to think truth in an evolutionary context is to give up our belief in the “true world” and to accept the apparent world as the real world (=aesthetics as first philosophy). This was Nietzsche’s challenge to the traditional consensus of Enlightenment philosophers.

I actually agree with Bakker that the transcendental and phenomenological approaches to defending experience are misguided. As I’ve discussed with Evan Thompson in the past, I think his enactivist extension of phenomenology to biology goes a long way toward the sort of experiential realism I’m after. But in the end, it still falls short and remains ontologically underdetermined in my opinion. Taking cues from Whitehead and Schelling, I think life (or a radically deanthropocized “experience” if you prefer) is the more general category than matter. (To be fair, Thompson also draws approvingly on Robert Rosen, who makes a similar argument regarding the generality of life.) Another way of putting this would be to say that ecology should replace physics as the most foundational science. Physical space and time would then not only be relativized, but pluralized: brought forth as various scales by enduring relations between organisms. The universal “space-time” known to physicists is not the pre-given, eternally imposed geometrical background within which the energetic transactions of actual entities takes place, but is itself brought forth by the energetic transactions of the most encompassing society actual entities (the electromagnetic and gravitronic societies?).  Space-time is enacted ecologically, brought forth by the creative intra-action of a cosmic community of actual occasions. (I go into this Whiteheadian conception of space-time in more depth in my essay Physics of the World-Soul).

In sum, I think it is important in a conversation like this to acknowledge off the bat that we are doing speculative metaphysics either way (whether we are eliminativists or panexperientialists). Bakker’s blind brain theory is science fiction, not science fact. But it is no less compelling for this! I appreciate the challenge he is raising, since it is clear to me that the only viable ontological options at this point in the history of philosophy are eliminativism or panexperientialism (as Steven Shaviro continues to argue).

Our philosophical options here are not simply the Scientific Facts of neuroscience versus the deluded fairy tales of metaphysics. Neuroscientific findings can and should inform our speculative grasp of the universe and its processes, but to my mind it is a regressive and forgetful maneuver to pretend neuroscience somehow “purifies” human understanding of metaphysics. This notion that positive science might somehow secure epistemological freedom from speculative imagination so as to deal only with the self-evident facts of physical reality, or whatever, is the worst kind of metaphysics because it is unconscious metaphysics.