The Place of Life in the Cosmos (draft of 11th International Whitehead Conference paper)

Below is the draft of a paper I’ll present at next week’s International Whitehead Conference in the Azores. Feedback appreciated!

2017 International Whitehead Conference  

Matthew T. Segall


The Place of Life in the Cosmos: Feeling the Origin of Organism


“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study.  It moulds our type of civilization” —Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 87).

“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”—Whitehead (Modes of Thought, )

“We must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature, whereby [God’s] infinity is acquiring realization.” —Whitehead (Adventures of Ideas, 277)

“To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet…such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots. It is an emotion that defines in the organism as a dynamic structural pattern, a stepping stone to interactions that may lead to the operational coherences of social life.” —Maturana and Varela (The Tree of Knowledge, 248)


This paper has been prepared for the “Whitehead and biology” track, but I will argue that a proper understanding of biology requires situating it, not only in relation to physics, but also in relation to psychology, anthropology, and indeed, theology. The universe, Whitehead recognized, does not come neatly packaged into the disciplinary silos of the modern research university. In addition to the cosmological scope of his organic realism, Whitehead also recognized the need for what today we might refer to as a participatory approach[1] to studying the universe. The other thinkers I draw into conversation with Whitehead in this essay, including Friedrich Schelling, Hans Jonas, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Robert Rosen, are similarly participatory or enactive in orientation, as they recognize that, as Aaran Gare put it, “scientists must see themselves as part of the world they are striving to understand.”[2] We are participants within the creative cosmos we are studying, participants who are actively contributing to or retarding the ongoing evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. What there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it. According to Varela and Maturana, ignoring this intimate connection isolates the human knower from the living world he or she is trying to know, as though “knowledge” existed in some transcendental realm beyond or before our concrete experience of embodied action in Nature: “to disregard the identity between cognition and action, not to see that knowing is doing…is not to see human beings as living entities.”[3] It is not only in biology, psychology, and anthropology that researchers must become attuned to the interactive effects their own methods and attitudes have on the subjects of their study. The same attunement is required in physics and in theology. I will argue that a proper understanding of the place of life in the cosmos requires a way of studying Nature and even God that places ourselves within what we are trying to study (i.e., an endophysics and an endotheology). Whitehead allows us to see that even God lacks a “God’s eye view.” “There is an essence to the universe,” Whitehead tells us, “which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.”[4] To rationally study the cosmos, then, is not to study it “objectively,” as if “from outside,” but rather to study it relationally, as we embodied minds find ourselves always in media res “in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”[5] There is, in Maturana and Varela’s words, an “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing,” such that “every act of knowing brings forth a world” and “everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence…We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth[6]


Life: Special Anomaly or Generic Principle?

With the founding of the modern, secular research university, biologists have for the most part come to approach life as an object of neutral scientific investigation.[7] But now that the existential threat of planetary ecological collapse has dawned on our species, the study of life can no longer remain a merely theoretical affair. It must also become an ethical and spiritual concern of central importance to everything we do. Modern humans have technologically transformed the planet at every scale we are capable of measuring, forever altering the complex feedback loops that integrate geological, chemical, meteorological, and biological processes into a self-regulating Gaian superorganism. Our species now finds itself in a rather paradoxically tragic situation: humans, originally creatures of Earth, have created a second Nature, an artificial Earth that we thought made first Nature passive before our economic projects. Moderns assumed first Nature would patiently endure modern, industrial progress, but alas, we are witnessing “Gaia’s revenge” (Lovelock): our presumed status as creators is being rudely revoked as we realize we are just as vulnerable to extinction as any other of Earth’s creatures.

A properly cosmological and participatory study of organisms has now become a matter of life and death, something that of course still requires plenty of theorization, but which can no longer be approached in a disinterested or objective way (if it ever truly could be). The question, “What is life?,” is itself a rather recent invention in the history of humanity’s inquiries into the nature of things. Jonas argued that the inverse question, “What is death?” preceded it by many millennia. Primal people perceived the blooming, buzzing world around them as incontrovertibly animated, ensouled. They felt embedded within a generative cycle, wherein death surely existed, but as an interval between life and rebirth, rather than as life’s complete and utter annihilation. Jonas thus suggested that “panpsychism,” or the view that the world is alive, “is really the most natural view.”[8] “To the extent that life is accepted as the primary state of things, death looms as the disturbing mystery. Hence the problem of death is probably the first to deserve this name in the history of thought.”[9] All culture—all religion, art, science, and technology, and indeed our very humanness—may be a result of our becoming conscious of and responding to the problem of death. Our sense of who we are as human organisms and the driving force of all our meaning-making endeavors may be rooted in a desire to overcome the contradiction of death by somehow integrating it into the more primary process of life. Every human society, primal or modern, to the extent that it remains viable finds some cultural means of integrating death back into the life process.

Archaeological anthropologists know for sure they are dealing with human remains when they find them buried in graves. Burying the dead, preparing them for an afterlife of some kind, appears to be an essential feature of our species. Jonas describes the paradox by which the anomaly of death stood out for the primal, panpsychist imagination: “This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground.”[10] It was only after the Copernican revolution, according to Jonas, that the “proportional place of life in the scheme of things” began to be questioned. Prior to this cosmological displacement of the living Earth from the center of things, it had never occurred to human beings “that life might be a side issue in the universe,” rather than “its pervading rule.”[11] Galileo, Descartes, and Newton wielded the weapons of mathematical analysis to vanquish the central intuition of pre-modern cosmology—an indwelling World-Soul—thus ushering in a new world view, that of the clock-work universe designed by a transcendent demiurge. To the modern question, “What is life?,” came the modern answer: life is a mechanical corpse.[12]

Five hundred years later, the emergence of the Anthropocene—a perspective on our planet that is perhaps even more consequential than Copernicus’ revolution[13]—invites us to consider Jonas’ problem anew. It is no coincidence that just as we find ourselves entering the 6th great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, one which may claim our own species as one of its victims, philosophers are once again beginning to take seriously the prospect of panpsychism. Jonas was himself familiar enough with the Whiteheadian variety of panpsychism to remind his readers that taking the idea seriously does not mean setting aside centuries of scientific discovery by returning to Aristotelean physics.[14] Whitehead was led to articulate his philosophy of organism in the early 20th century because physics itself had begun to outgrow the old mechanical world-picture (e.g., no more “simple location” in absolute space, no more “nature at an instant” in durationless time, no more “laws” of physics imposed from eternity, etc.). Unfortunately, many biologists continue to conceive of the object of their study as a rare anomaly within the physical universe, a universe otherwise empty of value, devoid of purpose, and governed by randomly imposed laws. Organisms, while exceedingly complicated, are thus thought to be ultimately reducible to their simpler component parts. They appear to be animate agencies, but really organisms are just another lucky combination of atoms falling in the void (or genes falling through the fitness gradient), the orphaned children of randomness and law, of Monod’s chance and necessity. Biologists are wary of letting go of the mechanical metaphor, as to do so puts them at risk of being dismissed as unscientific Romantics by their colleagues.[15] Whitehead admitted that “the appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena”; “But,” he continues (writing in 1925), “at present there is no such system of concepts.”[16] Even Albert Einstein, in a letter written to nuclear physicist-turned-biologist Leo Szilard, admitted that it was in dealing with living things that he most felt the primitiveness of contemporary physics.[17] Robert Rosen refers to Einstein’s feeling about physics to amplify the feelings of another physicist-turned-biologist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger’s hunch, elaborated in his famous essay What is Life?, was that the study of organisms would teach us a new physics.[18] In Rosen’s terms, the old physics, that of mechanistic reductionism, was not generic enough to account for living organisms:

organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.[19]

Rosen’s theoretical biology, when allied with Whitehead’s process philosophy, re-establishes a place for the organism not only in biological science, which has contented itself too long with reductionistic methods, but in physics, too. Rosen’s theory of life’s place in the cosmos hearkens back to the intuition of another kindred thinker, Friedrich Schelling:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.[20]


Toward an Organic Ontology

Schelling, who Gare has pegged as a process philosopher rather than an idealist,[21] developed his organic Naturphilosophie in the wake of Kant’s transcendental critique of metaphysics. Organism, for thinkers like Schelling, Whitehead, and Rosen, must be understood not as a special kind of entity contingently emergent from an inorganic Nature, but rather as a universal speculative principle characterizing Nature at both micro- and macrocosmic scales.[22] Organism functions as a mediating concept integrating the modern dualisms of such seeming opposites as process v. substance, identity v. relationality, and body v. mind. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the dualism between Nature and freedom running throughout his system approached but did not finally achieve resolution in the idea of organism. Unlike merely mechanical Nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living Nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without the application of formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts (in this, organisms are analogous to Reason itself). Kant famously argued that mechanistic physics could never in principle explain the internal possibility of organic, that is, self-organizing, beings:

So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd…to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws…how even a mere blade of grass is produced (the ‘Newton of the leaf’).[23]

Kant was in the end unable to overcome the epistemological dualism between conceptually determined phenomena and unknowable noumena that shaped his transcendental method. He thus applied organism merely as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to posit it as constitutive of Nature itself. He thought applying the concept in a constitutive way would require genius of a scientific sort, which he regarded as impossible. Only artists could attain the status of genius, according to Kant. Artists create art through intuitively participating in the creativity of organic Nature, expressing form by intuitively leaping to its wholeness without having to assemble it out of separate parts. In contrast, the reflective and objectifying mind of the scientist, transcendentally cut off from the living organization of the natural world, can only study and conceptually describe organisms piecemeal as dead mechanisms.

Schelling followed the spiritual potential if not the dead letter of Kant’s third critique by articulating an intuitive science capable of knowing organism as constitutive of Nature. According to Schelling, “the less merely reflective [that is, objectifying] thought we give Nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”[24] Schelling re-imagined Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a new inauguration of the transcendental method, releasing philosophy from the dualistic determinations and duties of pure and practical reason by rooting it instead in the aesthetic feelings of living organization. Philosophy, for Schelling, became “nature itself philosophizing/autophusis philosophia.”[25] Rather than the categories of transcendental logic, Schelling saw living Nature as a priori. His question was no longer “What must mind be such that knowledge of phenomenal Nature is possible?,” but “What must real Nature be for a knowing mind to have emerged from it?” Toward the end of his life, despite his own best efforts, Schelling had to admit that feeling, “the so-called inner sense of the emotions and the changes that take place within ourselves…still very much needs a critique.”[26] Whitehead’s philosophy of organism took up Schelling’s task: “to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”[27] The few pages Kant devotes to this in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” are, according to Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic.”

There is an intimate connection between such a critique of feeling and the construction of an organic or panpsychist cosmology. Though the essence of life cannot be known in a logically determinate way (i.e., what Rosen refers to as a Turing-machine simulable way[28]), it can be felt intuitively in our own experience of being alive, of being a living being among other living beings. In his earliest writings on the philosophy of Nature (~1797), Schelling wrote:

So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living Nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from Nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.[29]

The modern, mechanistic world-picture, which physics itself has outgrown, nonetheless continues to shape the imagination of many biologists. Biological organisms are understood to be reducible to their mechanical parts, as though living things are not really alive, but rather amount to little more than highly improbable chemical reactions. From Rosen’s perspective, the collapse of mechanistic cosmology means we must dispense with the idea that

the gradient from simplicity to complexity is only a matter of accretion of simple, context-independent parts, and the analysis of more complex systems is merely a matter of inverting the accretions that produced them.[30]

Instead, in Whitehead  terms, we must “reverse the process” typical of reductionistic explanation by construing the evolutionarily earlier forms of physical organization by analogy to the later, biological forms.[31] There is now a new “physics of irreversible, non-equilibrium processes,”[32] as Ilya Prigogine described it, allowing biologists to re-imagine organisms, not as dead machines, nor as machines imbued with an immaterial “vital force,” but completely natural, thermodynamically open, historically emergent, and irreducibly complex[33] energetic events. It turns out that such self-organizing energetic events pervade the physical universe (e.g., atoms, stars, galaxies, etc.). This is what I take Rosen to mean when he says complex self-organization is generic and not specific. Following Whitehead’s analogical reversal of the typical form of evolutionary explanation, if biological organisms are alive, then ontological coherence requires that physical and chemical events also be understood as already somehow lively:

Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.[34]

Organisms at every scale, whether particle, astrophysical, or biological, are precariously poised on thermodynamic gradients, surfing inner depths of feeling and lured by erotic potencies toward ever-more intense modes of existence. We might then say that ecology—the study of organisms and their co-evolutionary dynamics—should replace physics as the most generic science.


Whither Panpsychism?

Whitehead’s organic realism is not without its critics, even among those who sympathize with major aspects of his project. Jonas, despite stating that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism

is the only rational alternative open to naturalism after the loss of the transcendental counterpole provided by dualistic metaphysics, in whose shelter alone an unadulterated ‘materialism’ in physics was rationally possible,

nonetheless remained concerned that Whitehead’s panpsychism leaves no room for the reality of death because it denies “the deep anxiety of biological existence” by telling “a story of intrinsically secured success.”[35] Contrary to Jonas, I do not believe Whitehead’s metaphysics is just another elaborate denial of death. Whitehead’s panpsychism, on his own account, “is entirely neutral on the question of immortality,” understood in its traditional Christian sense as a personal afterlife.[36] His account of biological organisms fully acknowledges that such complex forms of organization are fragile and dependent upon the “patience” of their environment for their enduring stability.[37] Whitehead doesn’t simply establish life as the foundation of existence; rather, his dipolar account of process in terms of subjective immediacy and superjective immortality could be described as affirming the life-death-rebirth cycle itself as the central cosmic mystery.[38] Jonas’ fascination with Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is not misplaced: Dasein’s being-toward-death is indeed constitutive of our being human. Death opens us to the heart of Being. Whitehead’s unapologetic return to metaphysics is not necessarily in conflict with Heidegger’s turn toward Existenz, since he engages in philosophical speculation not in order to master or cover over death, as ontotheology does, but instead to seek some reconciliation between life and death via a coherent account of their integration in and as creative process, or what he termed Concrescence. Whitehead described an actual occasion’s concrescence in terms of three cumulative phases of feeling: first, the creative intensity of many objectively given past actualities initiates a new actual occasion or throb of experience; second, this occasion seeks its own form of aesthetic satisfaction in an immediately enjoyed presentation of the objective manifold by unifying this manifold into its own unique subjective perspective on the universe; finally, the occasion, having achieved satisfaction of its subjective aim toward unity, perishes into superjective immortality, becoming another objective expression to be prehended in the concrescence of subsequent throbs of experience. This process, whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one,”[39] is iterated endlessly “to the crack of doom.”[40] It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.[41] It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”[42] Note that while Whitehead’s ontological account of concrescence does include a kind of “immortality,” this should not be confused with the distinct, cosmological question of the status of the ontogeny of individual biological organisms after death. As mentioned above, Whitehead philosophy of organism is decidedly neutral on the question of ontogenetic or personal immortality.[43]

But it cannot be denied that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of some modern and much postmodern philosophy. For Whitehead, beauty is the teleology of the universe. The concrescence of each actual occasion is goaded toward beauty by an indwelling Divine Eros. This Eros, also called the “primordial nature of God,” is inherited by the initial feelings of each occasion. But because actual occasions are still self-creative, the Divine Eros cannot determine the direction of Nature’s creative advance. Rather, by contributing to the initial phase of each concrescent occasion a graded envisagement of Creativity’s infinite value-potential as relevant to its finite situation, the Divine Eros lures occasions toward more intense actualizations of value-experience or beauty. Such actualizations are never assured, and any achievement of order is accomplished amidst a background of chaos that is forever threatening to shipwreck the endeavor. Whitehead rejects as fallacious the narrow religious conception of the universe as determined by some final order imposed by a transcendent, omnipotent God.[44]

Despite its reformed, evolutionary character, Jonas, Varela, and Thompson do not go as far as affirming the cosmic teleology of Whitehead’s panpsychism. They restrict the scope of teleology to biological phenomena, arguing for a kind of immanent purposiveness at work at least in the self-production and sense-making of individual living organisms down to the level of single cells. Self-production or autopoiesis is said to differentiate an organism from an “indifferent physicochemical” environment, while sense-making turns this environment into a world of “biological significance.”[45] They allow teleology entrance into nature only through the emergent centers of “concern” and need whereby biological organisms “affirm and reaffirm [themselves] in the face of not-being.”[46]

Jonas, Varela, and Thompson here oppose the “otherwise neutral events” of external physics and chemistry governed by deterministic laws to the “internal norms” of biological organisms.[47] Biological organisms, as sense-making, self-producing beings, are not posited as by any means exempt from the laws by which science understands the physical world, but nonetheless they are thought to add something not found in or entailed by these laws. From Thompson’s perspective, the new sciences of complexity, unavailable in Kant’s day, allow contemporary theoretical biologists to grasp this extra something in a more rational, scientific way.[48] Jonas, Varela, and Thompson thus go further than Kant in affirming immanent teleology as constitutive of at least biological organisms.

Thompson (a former student of Varela’s and the only living member of this triad) has followed one line of the post-Kantian tradition’s development through Husserl to its culmination in Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology. He also draws on Jonas’ discussion of biological space and time, which is in effect an evolutionary extension of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic beyond the human to the subjectivity of biological organisms. Whitehead, on the other hand, tried to go back to Kant and invert his founding principles. As I’ve shown, Whitehead’s process-relational ontology is an attempt to construct a critique of pure feeling in place of Kant’s critique of pure Reason. Something very similar ended up happening within the Kantian tradition itself, not just via Schelling, but via Merleau-Ponty, whose late ontology of the flesh could be described as a transition from Kantian disembodied reason as epistemically foundational (with ontology bracketed) to embodied feeling as the ground of knowledge and existence. Perhaps Schelling, Whitehead, and the embodied phenomenologists end up converging in the end.[49] Nonetheless, Thompson remains suspicious of claims that the relations between even the most microscopic physical events are somehow experiential. He worries that this sort of speculative claim overshoots the transcendental limitations Kant placed on human knowing.[50] I am compelled to follow Whitehead, however, in seeing Kant as having prematurely limited our intuitive capacity to participate in Nature’s inner life.[51] Whitehead, perhaps with Kant or some of his transcendentalist inheritors in mind, rejected “the philosophic tradition” which has it that “there are set limitations for human experience, to be discovered in a blue-print preserved in some Institute of Technology.” He grants the usual limitations set by the social habits that happen to be dominant in each epoch, and by the difficulty of verbally expressing, and thus recalling or communicating, unusual experiences; but in principle he cannot “discern any reason, apart from dogmatic assumption, why any factor in the universe should not be manifest in some flash of human consciousness.”[52] After all, though the task be difficult, the main task of philosophy is precisely that of translating into language what such flashes of insight reveal about the nature of the penumbral background encompassing our normal consciousness. In this way, philosophy strives to increase the generality of our metaphysical categories beyond their applicability to the tables and tea cups of our everyday experience. Hidden in ordinary experience, continues Whitehead,

there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.[53]

The normally dim background of our embodied experience, that which our sensitive membranes are supposed to put us in touch with, is evidently not a mere neutral “not-being.” Whitehead beseeches us not to be too quick to artificially limit our capacity to experience the deeper causal vectors animating the cosmic life from which we derive and to which we return.

Despite its tendency to impose such limits, there remains much that is of value in the transcendental orientation, particularly when it has been transformed into embodied phenomenology. Thompson’s approach invites reductionists to become more reflexive about how their objective way of knowing brings forth a specific, limited domain of significance, a domain wherein only the mechanical aspects of living phenomena are detectable, and wherein all value, meaning, and purpose evaporates from view. By epistemically ruling out a “feeling for the organism”[54] as unscientific, mechanistic biologists become numb to the physical purposes at work within the living processes of Nature. If, as Thompson puts it, “empathy is a precondition of our comprehension of the vital order,” where empathy means the “spontaneous and involuntary resonance of two living bodies with each other,”[55] then knowing the living interiority of Nature requires coming to aesthetically resonate with it, to sense it, or sense with it, from the inside out. Whitehead, like Schelling, arrived at his organic realism by inverting Kant’s transcendental idealism so that intuitive feeling and aesthesis came to ground conceptual reflection and Reason.[56] “The reaction of our own nature to the general aspect of life in the universe”[57] is thus the primary experiential datum of and epistemological justification for Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Thompson agrees that a more generic view of nature than the mechanical one is possible. In his more recent work, he has pursued a post-physicalist, non-dualist perspective, arguing that “physical being and experiential being imply each other [and] derive from something that is neutral between them.”[58] He explicitly leaves the door open to panpsychism and neutral monism and suggests they may have advantages over neurophysicalist reductionism.[59] Neutral monism is a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had an important influence on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of a “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s panexperientialism. But how can something “neutral” give birth to a creative cosmos of living organisms? It is this problem that led Whitehead to generalize the insights of James’ radically empirical psychology (which has much in common with embodied phenomenology) into a panpsychist cosmology. If experience goes all the way down, the challenge is to find some description general enough to avoid anthropomorphism but vectored and telic enough to still count as experiential. Whitehead threads the needle with his concept of prehension. Physical prehensionality, where memory and anticipation are present already in germ, thus becomes the precursor of biological intentionality (which itself is the precursor of conscious reflection).[60] There is thus no neutral reality: for Whitehead, to be real is already to be the realization of some modicum of value, as “aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realization.”[61]


Placing Life Back in the Cosmos

There are clear parallels between Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and the new paradigms of theoretical biology put forward by thinkers like Jonas, Rosen, Varela, and Thompson. There are also important differences regarding physical ontology, panpsychism, and the proper scope of teleology. My main motivation for bringing these thinkers into conversation with Whitehead is to lure those already critical of the idea that mechanistic reductionism offers an adequate account of life into the more constructive project of imagining a viable metaphysical alternative. If living organization is taken seriously and given its proper place in the cosmos as ontologically generic, then our scientific conception of the universe requires a thorough re-imagining. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image or cosmic metaphor guiding natural scientific investigation. Epistemologically, feeling (in the expanded, Whiteheadian sense) must be granted an enhanced status as our primary mode of relation to the life of the cosmos, such that a rational cosmology comes to mean the same thing as a relational one.



[1] See Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001) or Participation and the Mystery (2017). See also Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn (2008)

[2] Arran Gare, “Approaches to the Question ‘What is Life?’: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology” (2008), Cosmos and History Vol 4, No 1-2.

[3] The Tree of Knowledge, 248

[4] Process and Reality, 4

[5] Process and Reality, 50.

[6] The Tree of Life: The Biological Roots of Human Cognition by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (Shambala, 1998), 25-26.

[7] Under the political and economic conditions of late capitalism, theoretical understanding has itself largely taken a backseat to instrumental manipulation with an eye toward military applications or corporate profits.

[8] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas (Northwestern University Press, 2001), 7.

[9] The Phenomenon of Life, 8.

[10] The Phenomenon of Life, 9.

[11] The Phenomenon of Life, 8-9.

[12] The mechanistic world-picture is rooted in a Faustian bargain, that where religious worship of God had apparently failed to defeat death, technological mastery of Nature might succeed. Ernest Becker famously argued that all human culture is ultimately in service to an elaborate “immortality project.” While pre-modern societies had religious means of achieving a sort of symbolic immortality, modern societies have replaced appeals to God with science and technology, which are, we are told by Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists, on the verge of providing us with real immortality. For Becker, both theologically and technologically oriented societies are driven by the same denial of death. Pre-moderns sought the shelter of the Church and the grace of the Mass to grant them some taste of transcendence, while moderns dream of terraforming Mars or, less grandiosely, surf Amazon and Facebook and through the miracle of transubstantiation turn data into a consumable goods. The “thoughtless Prometheanism” of modern techno-capitalism is for Becker only a turbocharged version of the premodern “immortality project.” It is rooted in the same “rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creaturely limitations” (The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1975, 85).

[13] In Clive Hamilton’s terms, the Anthropocene marks the discovery of a new phenomenon hitherto unknown to science: “the appearance of this new object, the Earth System, has ontological meaning. It invites us to think about the Earth in a new way, an Earth in which it is possible for humankind to participate directly in its evolution by influencing the constantly changing processes that constitute it. It therefore brings out the conception of a joint human-earth story” (Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, 21).

[14] The Phenomenon of Life, 2. Though of course there is plenty to be gained through a careful study of many of The Philosopher’s ideas, Whitehead decisively rejects Aristotle’s substance-quality ontology in favor of a process-relational one.

[15] I would ask my scientific colleagues, perhaps already tempted to dismiss the panpsychist cosmology I am peddling, to provide me with even a single example of a scientific theory that does explanatory work without invoking metaphor. Quantum and relativistic phenomena are notoriously difficult to explain in common language, since they appear at first to do violence to our habitual ways of perceiving and conceiving of visible nature. Many modern physicalists therefore prefer to treat them as purely mathematical theories. I ask my scientific colleagues again, what is the meaning of a mathematical equation without that most powerful of metaphorical symbols, “=”?  See Logos of the Living Earth: Toward a Gaian Praxecology for more on the place of metaphor in science:

[16] Science and the Modern World, 97.

[17] Quoted in Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 7.

[18] Essays on Life Itself by Rosen, 9.

[19] p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000

[20] On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

[21] “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics” by Aaran Gare, Cosmos and History, Vol 7, no. 2, 2011.

[22] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 128-129, 215.

[23] Quoted by Rosen, Essays on Life Itself, 35.

[24] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988), 35.

[25] Quoted in Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 188.

[26] Grounding of Positive Philosophy, Schelling, 168.

[27] Process and Reality, 113.

[28] Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 268.

[29] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

[30] Essays on Life Itself, 36.

[31] The Function of Reason by Alfred North Whitehead, 15.

[32] The End of Certainty (1996) by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 3.

[33] To be complex is not just to be “complicated,” but, in Rosen’s terms, to be noncomputable or nonsimulable (Essays on Life Itself, 17, 37).

[34] Science and the Modern World, 150.

[35] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas, 96.

[36] Religion in the Making, 107.

[37] Science and the Modern World, 119.

[38] This mystery is affirmed in most primal world views, as well as in Vedic and Buddhist traditions. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rather unique in its denial of any form of rebirth, though there are exceptions (e.g., Origen, Rudolf Steiner). Thompson made the following comparison of panpsychist conceptions of creaturely death to Buddhist conceptions of death: “Panpsychism implies that, as an entirely natural matter of fact, aspects or elements of consciousness—not creature consciousness but more primitive or basal, constituent forms of consciousness—remain present after biological death. Indeed, the idea that creature consciousness at death undergoes a kind of phenomenal dissolution into constituent phenomenal elements—an idea central to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of the dying process—may make more sense from a panpsychist perspective than from a neurophysicalist one” (“Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989.

[39] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[40] Process and Reality, 228.

[41] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.

[42] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.

[43] One form of immortality an individual can possess is achieved through its participation in and contribution to the larger cosmic personality or the divine milieux which shelters its experience. In the end, Whitehead and Jonas converge rather intimately on the question of the possibility and nature of immortality. Indeed, Jonas was deeply influenced by Whitehead’s processual account of God’s relationship to the world (see The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas by Christian Wiese, p. 126). Interested readers should compare the final pages of The Phenomenon of Life in the chapter “Immortality and the Modern Temper” to Whitehead’s late essay “Immortality.”

[44] Process and Reality, 111.

[45] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[46] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[47] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 152-153.

[48] Mind in Life, 129.

[49] Hamrick and Van der Veken’s Nature and Logos argues as much

[50] Blog exchange on July 16, 2013:

[51] Even Kant, in his last writings before death (published as the Opus Postumum), acknowledged that we do have intuitive access to the interiority of nature, since we ourselves, as natural beings, have immediate access to our own interiority. Kant’s late re-consideration of the limitations his earlier critiques had placed on knowledge may have been a result of Schelling’s influence.

[52] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 134-135.

[53] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 132.

[54] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, referring to Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of biologist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism (1984).

[55] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 165.

[56] I referred to this Schellingian-Whiteheadian reversal as “descendental” philosophy in my dissertation, Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.

[57] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Immortality,” 102.

[58] Waking, Dreaming, Being, 105.

[59] Thompson, “Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989.

[60] For  more on the difference between prehensionality and intentionality, see my dissertation Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead, 143.

[61] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 94.


3 Replies to “The Place of Life in the Cosmos (draft of 11th International Whitehead Conference paper)”

  1. I haven’t read your Phd dissertation so I am assuming this may be a continuance of your thought there, in fact an assemblage of historical and contemporary thought converging on the necessity of of forming an organic, conscious participatory approach to knowledge (sciences) versus the arbitrary, mechanistic, supposedly objective approach that currently characterizes the sciences, which if continued, threatens the mass extinction of our own species though its neglect of our place in nature.

    To that end, you have invited Whitehead, Jonas, Varela and Thompson into a discussion of the development of a proposed new approach to knowledge, its viability, and some glimpse of how it may proceed. I congratulate you on your mastery of facts and of their triangulation to the stated purpose of the paper. Of course, this is a rich topic for discussion, and could always be added to were it not for the limitations of its introductory nature as a topic for presentation. Therefore, I only wish to share some hopefully interesting side notes of my own.

    Concerning prehistoric burying the dead, the fossil record may now show that we can move this practice back to the very beginnings of human development, possibly 2.5 million years earlier: (

    As far as biologists current propensity to categorize their subject as empty of value, devoid of purpose, and governed by randomly imposed laws, the emerging scientific discipline of quantum biology may utilize more panpsychic friendly terms to describe reality at a more fundamental scale than current classical mechanistic conceptions, i.e., chemical, molecular, mechanistic, etc.

    As far as progress toward constructing a critique of pure feeling, we may already be witnessing the emergence of a new critique based on a current fixation with the “hard problem” identified by Chalmers.

    Concerning the affirmation of an immanent teleology as constitutive of at least biological organisms, conclusions reached by biologists Lipton, Sheldrake and Tanzi draw attention to a tendency of cells toward intelligent design via self-organizing protein iteration loops, etc.

    I’ll leave it there.
    Best Regards

    1. Thanks, Roy. This paper is a sort of application of my dissertation to the field of theoretical biology.

      I have only just scratched the surface of Rosen’s work, but I believe he was also involved in quantum biology.

  2. To pick up on Shroedinger’s hope that biology might teach us a new physics – here’s an article you might find interesting:

    New models of “dissipation-driven adaptation” show that self-replicating, evolving systems can evolve through the same thermodynamic processes that govern the dissipation of heat in a cup of coffee cooling to room temperature.

    Rather than a deterministic biology, it looks like we’re headed towards a more vital physics – the “desire” to form complex, self-replicating structures that (seemingly, locally) defy entropy is in the nature of the universe from the very ground up.

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