What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is” implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?
Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one. The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight for us to rest our heads on solid certainty. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. If anything is certain, it is that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on experiential reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are (or can be) effectual as agents, as participants in the makeup of reality.
So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One Substance, a singular unified system. But what if there is not one reality? What if there are many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we humans are but a part.
One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality. For now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. In all our talk of a supposedly already finished nature, we neglect the living network of naturing natures going on all around and within us. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our capital projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an Earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.
My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.
What are we to make of the metaphysical thesis of multiple worlds, multiple natures? This is not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. What if reality itself is made of perspectives, such that there is no underlying and pre-established unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer and return to. Instead of the monistic and dualistic substance ontologies of modernity, what would be the consequences of a nonmodern pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology? What would be its effects on our cosmopolitics (=our human attempt to compose a common world together with all the other creatures we inhabit this planet and universe with)?
Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for this post), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, moderns are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Modern Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted moderns access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath religious superstitions and cultural projections. Buried, that is, until moderns came along. Modern Science sent its anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, modern Westerners also have their subjective quirks, their psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only they had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside their cultural idiosyncrasies (at least in the laboratory and law court) so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became their sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:
“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).
Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference. So for instance, some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza, etc. Global capitalism embraces the consumerist excesses of all religions equally.
The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, multicultural tolerance no longer seems possible. Westerners can no longer take seriously their attempts to force feed enlightened free market democracy to the rest of the world. If only the Rest would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. The modern West can no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our kind of person (racial, gender, age, ability, etc.) on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are deeper than “culture,” but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” “technology,” “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all those special activities which were supposed to make moderns superior by giving us access to a higher truth—it should be clear enough to everyone now that these are no less constructed, no less fragile and in need of constant re-investment by the human socius, than what, for example, the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency, a war of worlds. The question is, what new order can emerge from our chaotic situation?
“Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)
What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our constructed identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but acceptance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship and commonality requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, that my very identity as a self is always constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”
Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and practice of techno-science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is awash in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged out of an eternal heaven; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of the organisms which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.
Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances of our chaosmos. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it or explain it away. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.
Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Overlord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through James’ each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.