Pluralistic Panpsychism and Mystical Experience: a response to Kastrup (part 2 of 2)

[This is part 2 of my response to Bernardo Kastrup; part 1 is here].

Kastrup is confused by what I said in my original response to him regarding the room that ontological pluralism leaves for both the extraordinary experience of unity and the ordinary experience of plurality.

Ontological pluralism seems more true to experience (both common every day experience AND mystical experience), since it doesn’t deny the possibility of unity, it only denies that things are necessarily unified.

My claim here is pretty straightforward: everyday experience is multifaceted, while mystical experience is unitive. I’m not denying the testimony of mystics as to the unity of reality. Ontological pluralism grants the possibility of such unity. It just also incorporates the obvious fact of commonsense experience, as well. Mystical experiences are extraordinary precisely because they don’t happen all the time. So rather than ignore the plurality of the everyday experiences we spend almost every waking and dreaming moment of our lives in, I want to acknowledge that they, too, have ontological significance.

I’ll quote William James from the essay I mentioned in my original post, A Pluralistic Universe (available online in its entirety). As I said then, I think his arguments against monistic idealism are pretty convincing. They convinced me of the merits of pluralism, at least:

The sum of it all is that the absolute is not forced on our belief by logic, that it involves features of irrationality peculiar to itself, and that a thinker to whom it does not come as an ‘immediate certainty’…is in no way bound to treat it as anything but an emotionally rather sublime hypothesis. As such, it might, with all its defects, be, on account of its peace-conferring power and its formal grandeur, more rational than anything else in the field. But meanwhile the strung-along unfinished world in time is its rival:reality MAY exist in distributive form, in the shape not of an all but of a set of eaches, just as it seems to—this is the anti-absolutist hypothesis. Prima facie there is this in favor of the eaches, that they are at any rate real enough to have made themselves at least appear to every one, whereas the absolute has as yet appeared immediately to only a few mystics, and indeed to them very ambiguously. The advocates of the absolute assure us that any distributive form of being is infected and undermined by self-contradiction. If we are unable to assimilate their arguments, and we have been unable, the only course we can take, it seems to me, is to let the absolute bury the absolute, and to seek reality in more promising directions, even among the details of the finite and the immediately given. (lecture 3)

The cosmic unity intimated by mystics may indeed be the case. All the ontological pluralist argues is that this unity is not necessarily the case, that is, is not the end of the story metaphysically speaking. If we say it is the end of the story, we negate everyday experience, explaining it away as mere appearance. This, to my mind, is the worst kind of reductionism, in that it denies what is most obvious to our experience in favor of some hidden truth accessible only to a special few.

In light of the elitism implied by monistic idealism, a final word on the relationship between politics and metaphysics is in order. Kastrup worries that I conflate two entirely different categories when I say that a monistic ontology carries with it the risk of a totalitarian politics. “Does anyone seriously think that our (political) views and preferences bear any relevance to what nature is?” Kastrup asks. “Personally,” he continues, “I am interested in what is true, not what I’d prefer to be true.” I’d reverse his statement and point out that the way a society comes to terms with what reality is undoubtedly influences they way they compose a common world together (the composition of a common world is my definition of politics). I am not suggesting some sort of relativism wherein reality is decided by an opinion poll. But can anyone really deny the way metaphysical beliefs (consciously stated or not) correspond to the shape a society takes?

I unpack my thoughts on the relationship between politics and ontology in the videos below:

Pluralistic Panpsychism v. Monistic Idealism: another response to Kastrup (part 1 of 2)

Kastrup has responded to my post a few days ago. The topic? Panpsychism.

In any back and forth discussion like this, it is important to acknowledge that each of us has evidently written a great deal articulating our perspectives. Other than his brief essay on the threat of panpsychism, I have not read any of Kastrup’s work, nor do I believe he has read any of mine, aside from my even briefer response to him. So what we are going to be able to accomplish in these all too short responses to one another will, I’m afraid, be minimal. Certainly I do not expect to persuade him to give up his monistic idealism. My main motivation in responding is not to indisputably refute him, or to fully articulate my own pluralist ontology. Rather, I only hope to gesture toward the answers to the questions he raises by offering a somewhat more technical introduction to Whitehead’s panpsychism, by linking to longer essays on the subject, and other times by admitting I need to devote more thought to an issue. As a process philosopher, I seek wisdom with the understanding that I will never possess it. Truth is always in-the-making. Similarly, any relationship of knowing we attempt to enter into with Truth must remain open-ended. If reality itself is process, then we must remain always open to novelty and surprise in all our philosophizing, never claiming to have arrived at some final systematic grasp of it. Striving for systematicity is one thing: it helps us clarify our thinking and avoid contradiction; but let us never suppose our favored System has wrapped up and solved all metaphysical problems. Reality is too multifarious and creative for that. I suspect Kastrup has a drastically divergent methodological point of view, which I welcome him to share. I just thought I should be upfront about my own approach before responding to his specific criticisms. The above are among the most important premises I enter into the philosophical arena with.

Kastrup begins by admitting that yes, his definition of panpsychism comes largely from the work of Chalmers and Strawson. He faults me for misdirecting my criticisms at him when I should have been directing them at these two popular proponents of “panpsychism.” I must grant him this point. In fact, I have criticized Chalmers and Strawson in a post linked in my first response. I believe Kastrup is correct that when most scientists and philosophers hear the term “panpsychism,” they think of the variety articulated by these contemporary thinkers, rather than the process-relational variety articulated by Whitehead. This is unfortunate, since I don’t know of any other broadly “panpsychist” philosopher with such a well-developed metaphysical scheme (aside, perhaps, from Leibniz). But let’s not play name games here. There is no “correct” definition of panpsychism, there are only the various definitions particular philosophers construct to assist their positive or negative portrayals of a more or less vague school of thought. “Idealism” is no less vague because various a term.

So the task, then, is to carefully define exactly what Whitehead’s particular form of panpsychism entails. I’ve spent the last five or six years trying to do that on this blog and in several book length essays, most recently Physics of the World-Soul: The Relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology (2013) [PDF version here]. Kastrup is understandably left with many questions after my brief account of how, in the process-relational scheme, both plurality and unity can co-exist as ultimate metaphysical realities. So I’ll try again, this time with a bit more detail from Whitehead’s scheme. I’ll introduce three technical terms (Concrescence, Transition, and Prehension) that may at first sound even more baffling than what I’ve already said. But my intention here is to avoid the “vague handwaving” I was accused of by Kastrup and instead offer a technical account of the categorical structure of pluralistic panpsychism. Take what follows not as a definitive explanation for anything, but as an invitation to step deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysical imagination.

Whitehead differentiates the process of reality into two kinds (quotes from Process and Reality, 210):

1) Concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and

2) Transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe).

The continuity of the universe (it’s wholeness and unity) is preserved by the process of Transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions (their particularity and uniqueness) is preserved by the process of Concrescence. Unlike Transition, Concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds.” Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between Concrescence and Transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time and energy. 20th century physics was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe has a single continuous time flow. Whitehead’s is not a materialistic atomism, wherein reality is made up of bits of inert matter. His atoms are creatively emergent and interrelated actual occasions of experience.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic (or elsewhere referred to as “epochal”) discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The creative advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation. If everything, every drop of experience, was just one puddle of unity, nothing new could ever disrupt the sea of sameness. Creative emergence is part of our universe, but I don’t see how monistic philosophies leave any room for it.

I need to further unpack Whitehead’s concept of Prehension. Prehension is meant to integrate both causal and perceptual relations. He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought by scientific materialists to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension is Whitehead’s aesthetic account of causation, an account that subverts the false dichotomy between appearance and reality (or mind and matter) typical of materialism and idealism alike. It is appearance all the way down, if you like; or, if you prefer, reality is made of its appearances to itself.

The prehensional basis of all relations between “particles of psyche”/”drops of experience”/”actual occasion” implies that detached, self-contained existence (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since every prehension grants the environment entrance into the nature of the prehending particle of psyche. This is not to say that particles of “mind dust” (to use yet another, this time Jamesian, metaphor) have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a drop of experience or actual occasion is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual occasions do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions.

Forgive me for introducing yet more technical terms, but on Whitehead’s reading, without a concept of “prehension,” materialist and idealist philosophers alike have privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification. Perception in the mode of “causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present.

Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the pre-subjective because subject-generating capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming.

In this novel metaphysical context, the tired dichotomy between appearance and reality is no longer relevant or all that interesting. Whitehead’s process-relational approach to metaphysics is what we’re left with after “the twilight of the idols,” after “the True World has become a fable” (Nietzsche). (For more on the Whitehead/Nietzsche link, read part 1 and part 2 of my comparison).

If the nature of reality is processual and relational, then a diplomatic approach to truth is the only adequate way to respond to it. With every encounter with other psyches, we make the truth anew. Reality doesn’t just sit there waiting for the most clear-headed intellect to uncover. Reality is participatory and co-created, not just by human minds, but by minds of all shapes and sizes. Better to refer to it as a pluralistic creality than monistic reality.

There’s certainly more to be said, and I hope Kastrup and I (and whoever else wants to join in) can continue to unpack all of this. As I said in my first response to him, I find this a far more enlightening and helpful debate than that between materialism and everything else. In part 2, I’ll try to tackle the issue of mystical experiences of absolute unity.