On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Economics

I’m posting a revised version of a long essay I wrote a decade ago. It draws on thinkers including Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William Irwin Thompson, Francisco Varela, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alf Hornborg in search of a more integral approach to economics. I had not yet encountered the social ecology of Murray Bookchin when I wrote this essay, so my approach has shifted in emphasis even more strongly toward decentralization and localism, though as readers will see these values were already at the heart of my argument.

You’ll notice that in the first footnote, I left un-revised the world population as I recorded it when I originally composed this essay back in late 2009  (it was ~6.8 billion on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau). Today (February 2019), there are already a billion more people in existence (~7.8 billion total). It took all of human history until the year 1800–that is, hundreds of thousands if not millions of years–for the first billion people to inhabit the Earth. It took only a decade to produce a billion more people.

The table of contents, preface, and introduction are included below. You can find the whole essay as a PDF here: Towards an Integral Economics PDF (2019)


Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction: What is Life?

  1. The Irruption of Time
  2. Ancient Biology
  3. Modern Biology
  4. Teleology as Regulative
  5. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive
  6. Concrescence and Bodily Perception
  7. Concrescence and Autopoiesis
  8. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
  9. Integral Thought and Market Cosmology
  10. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity

Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life

Works Cited

 

Preface

The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population1 and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on Earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.2 In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.

This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity, but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but Earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy3 into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.

The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on Earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).4 But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and Earth.

Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics5 by devouring the remaining resources of the Earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to

“give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noösphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).

Only with the full emergence of the noösphere can humanity become integral with the Earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).

Human societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued,

“…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).

I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by the dualistic ontology and fetishized mythology intrinsic to the industrial mode of consciousness. Powerful forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving and ruthlessly competing for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our natural capacity for empathic relationality is the psycho-social precursor that primed modern scientific consciousness for its reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution, and which consequently led to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic theory.

The mechanization of biology is typical of the deficient mental mode of consciousness. So long as our understanding of life remains deficient, our planetary civilization will continue to ignore humanity’s integral relationship with the Earth, and probably destroy itself within a century. In the chapters to follow, I argue that modern science’s mechanical theory of life is inseparable from the economic ideology of modern capitalism. The hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching our planet’s living population to the edge of extinction is given ideological steam by the mechanistic theory of life. My purpose in writing this book is to break through the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo and to plant the seeds of an alternative, living biology. I hope these seeds will aid humanity in our Great Work of becoming integral with the Earth, a partner in Gaia’s dance through the heavens.

 

Introduction: What is Life?

Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an

“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).

The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying as earthlings. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate a clear concept of life, which ambiguously straddles the apparent boundary between matter and spirit. The conscious human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life, and between matter and spirit, is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which

“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (177, ibid.).

Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present

“everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.).

But how are we to conceive of life’s wholeness or integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence, while an overly triumphant definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature.

My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” (p. 320, Dennett).6 This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all connection whatsoever between human consciousness and the evolutionary adventure that generated it. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.

My critique of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism and reconstruction of an alternative conception of life on planet Earth draws upon the process-relational ontology of Alfred North Whitehead and the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.

The approach of these two thinkers is an expression of what cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). The time element, repressed by the deficient mental structure’s exclusively spatial orientation, burst into consciousness in various ways during the past few centuries, including Hegel and Marx’s dialectical theory of history, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s relativity theory. But the mental structure, convinced it has reached the pinnacle of our species’ evolution, has not relinquished its hold on our consciousness. Now in its deficient phase, mental consciousness retards the emergence of the integral by continuing to falsely spatialize time, thereby reducing its qualitative creative intensity to a measurable quantity. The ideology of modern capitalism is an expression of the deficient mental structure’s repression of the time element, of creative becoming. Instead of recognizing the importance of the dialectic of history and the ongoing and entangled processes of natural and social transformation, capitalist economic theory insists that the present arrangement represents the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama has claimed): no revolutions in or improvements to social relations or in human-earth relations are necessary. Capitalist economists thus search for invariant laws supposed to apply universally to all human societies in all historical epochs. In contrast, an ecologized Marxist economic theory, building on the dialectical acuity of Hegel’s historical method, is better prepared to integrate the time element into its understanding of human society and the wider economy of Earth within which our economy is embedded. As the eco-Marxists Foster, Clark, and York describe it, Marx’s approach invites us to

“highlight the dramatic changes in social structures and patterns that have occurred throughout human history and [argues] that what appear to be invariant laws to observers in any particular period, may in fact be transient tendencies unique to that historical era, emerging from the dialectical interaction of an ensemble of social and natural processes” (The Ecological Rift, p. 27).

In addition to the repression of time, Eco-Marxists also critique the techno-optimistic “human exemptionalism” that leads to fantasies about a future “dematerialization” of economic production such that

“the capitalist economy can then walk on air (or create a ‘weightless society’), thereby continuing its relentless expansion—but with a rapidly diminishing effect on the environment” (The Ecological Rift, p. 34, 43).

Such fantasies ignore both the zero-sum thermodynamic reality of the Earth system (thereby “[going] against the basic laws of physics” [ibid., 43]) and the inequality of human society (thereby going against the democratic principles of life, liberty, and happiness).

Gebser also points to the need to heal the rift, both ideological and metabolical, between humanity and the Earth. In the chapters to follow, I offer the beginnings of a more integral biology whose account of the biosphere includes human society as one of its expressions. “The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur,” according to Gebser, “at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384). The time element can only be authentically grasped by an integral consciousness. Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness and in particular the irruption of time in the mutation from deficient mental to integral consciousness thus provides the context for much of the discussion to follow.

 

Footnotes

1 ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.

2 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.org) estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.

3 i.e., energy available to do work.

4 Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law. I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.

5 Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).

6 For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).

Notes on Deleuze’s “Bergsonism”

  1. Intuition as Method
    1. Stating and creating problems
    2. Realizing that we are the creators of our own problems gives us “semi-divine power”; those who accept ready-made problems of society are slaves (15)
    3. Deleuze: “the history of humanity, from the theoretical as much as from the practical point of view, is the construction of problems. It is here that humanity makes its own history, and the becoming conscious of that activity is like the conquest of freedom.” (16)
    4. two types of false problem (17)
      1. nonexistent problems- the very terms contain a confusion of the “more” and the “less”
        1. example: nonbeing/disorder/possible- there is not less, but more in the idea of nonbeing/disorder/possible than being/order/real (the idea of disorder only appears because we refuse to see two or more irreducible orders) (19)
        2. asking “why is there something rather than nothing?” is to mistake the more (nothing) for the less (something)
      2. badly stated problems- the terms represent badly analyzed composites; arbitrary grouping of things that differ in kind
        1. 2nd problem related to the 1st, in that the most general error of science and metaphysics is to see everything in terms of difference in degree (nonbeing is more or less than being, etc.) rather than differences in kind (20)
    5. only intuition can decide true from false problems, thereby throwing intelligence back upon itself (Kant: the critical mode: reason constructs its own problems)
    6. discovering genuine differences in kind
      1. Bergson (in)famous for dualism: “Intuition as method is a method of division, Platonic in inspiration” (22)
      2. Even so, Bergson recognizes that experience offers nothing but compositions, with kinds mixed together
      3. Science and metaphysics have become forgetful of the distinction between space and time; they become mixed as one kind of representation where two “pure presences” of duration and extensity are lost
        1. They then confuse space-time for a deteriorated opposite of eternity
      4. Kinds are tendencies or movements
          1. Duration = contraction
          2. Extensity = expansion/relaxation
      5. Example: the brain’s function is not different in kind from the reflex functions of the body–the brain does not manufacture representations (24)
        1. the brain complicates the relationship between excitation and response by establishing an interval
          1. the interval is the interest of the organism
          2. Deleuze: “Perception is not the object plus something, but the object minus something, minus everything that does not interest us.” (25)
          3. Bergson’s thesis: “Perception puts us at once into matter”- there is no difference in kind between perception of matter and matter itself
        2. The mixture of the two tendencies pure memory and pure perception (or “matter-perception-memory”) is our representational experience (26)
          1. the method of intuition leads us beyond the turning point of representational experience to the conditions of experience (27)
          2. these conditions are not general or abstract, not the conditions of all possible experience (which would the Kantian method), but rather the conditions of actual experience
        3. Deleuze: “Dualism is only a moment, which must lead to the re-formation of a monism”
          1. differences in kind, established in the first turn beyond experience to its concrete conditions of actuality, intersect at another point, converging on the same ideal virtuality in the returning point of experience (28-29)
        4. Philosophy is not about human wisdom, but about opening us to the beyond, to what is inhuman and superhuman (durations that are inferior or superior to our own)
      6. apprehending real time/solving problems in terms of duration (31)
        1. time/duration (heterogeneous, varying qualitatively within itself) v. space/extensity (homogeneous and quantitative, varying only according to degree)
        2. Plato formulated method of division, but also criticized it for lacking a middle term (32)
        3. Bergson avoids the need for a middle term by reducing degrees of space to the kinds of time by way of intuitive method (i.e., space emerges from relations between the durations of things (49))
  2. Bergson’s evolution as a thinker
    1. early phase: treated duration in psychological way
    2. later phase: came to see duration as the essence of all things and the theme of a complex ontology (34)
      1. He came to see space, not as a fiction separating us from the psychological reality of duration, but as grounded in being, one of its two tendencies
      2. absolute being has two tendencies: “spirit imbued with metaphysics” and “matter known by science” (35)
      3. Absolute = Difference (between degree and kind)
  3. Duration as Immediate Datum
    1. Intuitive method decomposes experiential composite of extensity and duration (space-time) to reveal two types of “multiplicity”
      1. space with its differences of degree and juxtaposition of simultaneous instants (actual and discontinuous)
      2. duration with its differences of kind and fusion of successive heterogeneous occasions
    2. Bergson v. Riemann on the issue of “multiplicity” (39)
      1. Bergson was opposed to the theory of Relativity because of its interpretation of “continuous multiplicities”
        1. Riemann (and Einstein) mistakenly interpret temporal multiplicities as though it they could be measured according to a single metrical principle
        2. Bergson argues that temporal multiplicities belong to the sphere of duration, where divisions cannot be measured by differences in degree but can only be marked by differences in kind (40)
        3. Bergson’s multiplicities are subjective, qualitative, and continuous; Riemann’s/Einstein’s are objectified, quantitative, and numerical
          1. subjective sphere of duration holds its differences in reserve (in virtuality)
          2. objective sphere of extensity has no virtuality; everything is already actualized as matter (mere surface hiding nothing)
          3. Deleuze: “with duration, we speak of indivisibles at each stage of its division.” (42)
            1. Duration is the virtual in the process of actualization.
      2. Virtuality v. Possibility  (43; see also 96-98)
      3. Critique of Negation and Dialectic
        1. Bergson condemns Hegel’s “false, abstract” dialectical movement as failure to track real, concrete movement (44)
        2. Hegel’s logical concepts of Being and nonbeing are like baggy clothes, too big to fit their intended realities- “a net so slack that everything slips through” (45)
        3. “Never, with concepts or points of view, will you make a thing”
        4. Dialectic is only the beginning stage of philosophy, which progresses to the method of intuition (124n16)
        5. There are only different kinds of being, there is no negation of being
          1. negation always involves abstract concepts (nonbeing, disorder, possibility, etc.), giving them a force and a power to effect reality
          2. negation leads to the consideration of the deterioration, by degrees, of being until it reaches nonbeing (as in emanationist schemes of creation)
  4. Memory as Virtual Coexistence
    1. in Matter and Memory, Bergson decomposes the composite of representational experience into two kinds of tendency (53)
      1. matter/perception/objectivity
      2. memory/recollection/subjectivity
      3. (with affectivity as the blurred meeting point between matter and memory)
    2. Asking “where is memory?” creates a false problem! (i.e., a badly analyzed composite) (54)
      1. The brain is an object and so cannot hold the subjective memory contents
      2. Recollection preserves itself; the past is indestructible, never ceasing to be (55)
    3. Critique of Presentism
      1. We tend to confuse being with being-present.
      2. The present is precisely what is not, what is always moving outside itself, always in the process of falling beyond itself, always caught in the act of presentation: in a word, the present is ecstatic.
      3. The past, though it has ceased to act, has not ceased to be; it always still is. The past is always already present.   
      4. Deleuze: “Only the present is ‘psychological’; but the past is pure ontology.” (56)
        1. the past is universal and eternal, “the condition of the passage of every particular present”
        2. “ontological Memory” takes Bergson beyond psychological duration (57)
        3. When I remember something, I dip into the virtual past as it exists in itself (impersonally) in order to retrieve and actualize it in a particular way, relevant for me.
        4. The past is the condition of the present’s passage. (59)
    4. Deleuze: the only equivalent to Bergson’s account of ontological Memory is Plato’s doctrine of Anamnesis.
      1. Plato’s account of Recollection serves as the foundation for the unfolding of time.
    5. Deleuze’s Cinematographical method of composition
      1. The past coexists with the present, just as recollection coexists with perception
        1. experience is the composite of repetition and difference (i.e., virtual and not actual repetition)
        2. the experiential composition of memory-matter is like the frames in a cartoon movie, each one only slightly different from the last, but still just different enough to successfully generate the appearance of continuous animation.
        3. See Bergson’s Time Cone diagram (60)
          1. Each “plane” (or “frame” in the movie analogy) of the virtual/pure memory, though different in kind from other planes and from the present, nevertheless coexists with them in the passage of the present.
        4. Deleuze’s VCR analogy: “The whole of our past is played, restarts, repeats itself, at the same time, on all the levels that it sketches out.” (61)
    6. False problems/questions about time lead to:
      1. the notion that we can reconstitute the past with the present
      2. that we pass gradually from present to past
      3. that past and present are before and after
      4. that the mind works through the addition of elements, rather than jumps between levels (61-62)
    7. True problem regarding time = “How can pure memory take on psychological existence?” (62)
      1. Memory can translate-contract, and/or rotate-orient itself so as to improve useful action and image-recall in the present (64)
      2. Picture yourself embedded in a transparent lattice-work that is constantly rotating/contracting around you to provide you with proper access to relevant memories stored within its network of heterogeneous planes.
      3. Deleuze: “The past literally moves toward the present in order to find a point of contact with it.” (70)
      4. Psychologically, accessing the past feels to us like a “leap” or “jump” to a level beyond the present; but ontologically, it is first of all the past that comes to meet experience.
      5. Are Bergson/Deleuze trying to give a properly posited account of Einstein’s space-time [this time as virtual (real time), rather than actual (spatialized time)]?
        1. contraction = temporal gravitation?
        2. rotation = spatial acceleration?
  5. One or Many Durations?
    1. Bergson’s early dualism is finally resolved in a monism (but doesn’t this repeat the mistake of reducing things that differ in kind to those that differ only in degree?)
      1. Deleuze: “The present itself is only the most contracted level of the past.” (74)
      2. Deleuze: sensation is “the operation of contracting trillions of vibrations onto a receptive surface” (i.e., quality emerges from the contraction of quantity)
      3. The dualism of differences in kind between extensity and duration becomes, in the later Bergson, the difference in degree between contraction and relaxation (75)
      4. Bergson’s thought moves through a series of hypotheses regarding time:
        1. generalized pluralism- completely different rhythms of duration coexist
        2. limited pluralism- material things only gain duration by participating in duration of living beings
        3. monism- there is really only a single duration, that of the universe, in which everything participates (78)
      5. Deleuze wonders if Bergson has forgotten his posing of the problem of time as “multiplicity”?
    2. implications of Einstein’s interpretation of Relativity Theory (79):
      1. movement entails a contraction of bodies and a dilation of their time
      2. simultaneity is dislocated
      3. rest and movement are relative
      4. space and time are reciprocal
      5. there are multiple flows of time each with different rates of passage relative to the others.
    3. Bergson critiques Einstein’s “time” as a false time, a mere “numerical multiplicity” (80)
      1. Einstein has confused (through bad analyzation of a composite) time with space
      2. Bergson also posits multiple/different flows, but they coexist in the triplicity of simultaneous duration (the flow of the river, the movement of wind-blown leaves, the duration of my experience) (81)
        1. the duration of my experience of duration is always the privileged time-system
        2. Einstein negated lived time by insisting upon the lack of a privileged time-system (83)
      3. Bergson insists that other time-systems (i.e., non-simultaneously/non-coexisting time-systems) can only be symbolic; in reality, there must be a single, universal, and impersonal time flow, accessed by us via the method of intuition (which necessarily takes beyond ourself and is inhuman/superhuman) (82)
      4. Einstein’s “simultaneity” is only applicable to mechanical clocks: it may be true that this clock-simultaneity is variable and relative, but only symbolically
      5. Einstein confuses the virtual for the actual, leading Bergson to condemn “the whole combination of space and time into a badly analyzed composite, where space is considered ready-made, and time, in consequence, as a 4th dimension of space.” (86)
      6. Bergson’s theory of simultaneity confirms the conception of duration “as the virtual coexistence of all the degrees of a single and identical time.” (85)
        1. expansion/relaxation and contraction are relative to one another
          1. therefore: there is always extensity in our duration, and always duration in matter
        2. Deleuze: “Matter is never expanded enough to be pure space, to stop having this minimum of contraction through which it participates in duration.” (88)
          1. therefore: pure space is an abstraction, a concept that has been made too baggy to fit anything concrete
          2. intelligence pushes matter to its extreme, which is space; but intelligence then adapts itself to space/matter by means of duration/memory (89)
  6. Élan Vital as Movement of Differentiation
    1. Search for the next true problem begins with “How are we to resolve the difference between the dualism of differences of kind and the monism of differences in degree?” (91)
      1. Deleuze asks aloud whether Bergson contradicts himself on this point, or if his method move through successive moments (92)
      2. reflexive dualism v. genetic dualism (96)
        1. reflexive dualism- results from decomposition of impure composite
        2. genetic dualism- results from differentiation of pure virtual
    2. Virtual v. possible- the virtual is “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract” (97)
      1. virtual actualization = divergence and creation
      2. possible realization = imitation and limitation
    3. the “possible” is the source of false problems
      1. in Einstein’s space-time bloc, the idea of the possible is reducible to reality, such that the real is understood to come about on its own as if everything were already given and pre-made
        1. the possible is reduced to a fictitious image projected backward by the real
        2. this backwards projection obscures the true process of creation (=the living differentiation of the simple virtual) 
    4. Deleuze: “Evolution takes place from the virtual to the actuals” (99)
      1. Duration becomes life (élan vital) when it appears in the movement of differentiating matter
        1. duration is simple virtuality that becomes actual/alive by way of self-differentiation.
      2. The actualization of the virtual through differentiation refutes the reductionist notion that chance variation guides the process
        1. chance variations would only ever remain external and indifferent one to the other
        2.   the process of evolution proceeds rather through internal differentiations, leaping all at once to new planes
      3. Deleuze: “Differentiation is never a negation but a creation; difference is never negative but essentially positive and creative.” (103)
        1. living beings, in relation to matter, appear primarily as the stating of problems
          1. for example: “The construction of an eye is primarily the solution to a problem posed in terms of light.”
          2. sometimes living beings state false problems and lose their way, becoming trapped in a particular level, no longer open to further differentiation (mollusks, insects) (104)
        2. Deleuze: “Life as movement alienates itself in the material form that it creates… every species is thus an arrest of movement.”
    5. Mechanism v. Finalism-both spatialize time, deceiving us into thinking the whole is given (even if only from a God’s eye view)
      1. mechanism- everything is calculable in terms of its state
      2. finalism- everything is calculable in terms of its program
    6. Bergson’s “open” finalism
      1. Creation has a purpose, but it is only discovered in the act (106)
      2. Human being is the purpose of evolution in the sense that in her, the actual becomes adequate to the virtual
        1. Human “brings about in [herself] successively everything that, elsewhere, can only be embodied in different species.”
        2. Human is able to leap beyond her plane (plan) as nature natured in order to reach nature naturing
        3. Deleuze quoting Bergson: “On man’s line of differentiation, the élan vital was able to use matter to create an instrument of freedom, ‘to make a machine which should triumph over mechanism.’” (107)
    7. Instinct v. Intelligence
      1. even though instinct and intelligence diverge as they actualized, each was able to recapture the advantage of the other side
        1. Humans possess virtual instinct in their actual intelligence
          1. This virtual instinct is the “story-telling function” (“the creation of gods,” “invention of religions,” etc.) (108)
          2. this virtual instinct causes human societies to close in on themselves, just like other animal species (109)
          3. How are we able to go beyond our condition? – the interval or hesitation between the instincts of society and the intelligence of the individual ruptures the closed circle, generating an open soul and an open society
            1. intuition appears in this interval as creative emotion
            2. this emotion is different in kind from both intelligent egoism and quasi-instinctive social pressure
            3. this emotion is “like the God in us…making us adequate to the whole movement of creation” (111)
        2. Deleuze: “Great souls do not contemplate, they create.” (112)
          1. “It is the mystic who plays with the whole of creation, who invents an expression of it whose adequacy increases with its dynamism. Servant of an open and finite God, the mystical soul actively plays the whole of the universe, and reproduces the opening of a Whole in which there is nothing to see or to contemplate.”

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Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

Below is the introduction of paper I presented at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April 2019. The conference aimed to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy

“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019

By Matthew D. Segall

“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside  lived experience.

It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the stars above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.

The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):

“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”

As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I return later.

I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principal guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.

Foreword to an upcoming anthroposophical book on twelve ways of seeing the world

Below is the draft of a foreword I’ve coauthored with Robert McDermott. The book, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World by Mario Betti, should be out later this year via Hawthorn Press. Betti’s book builds fruitfully upon the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. You can read Steiner’s original lectures on the topic of the 12 human worldviews here: https://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA151/English/RSP1991/HCT991_index.html


DRAFT

Foreword to Mario Betti, Twelve Ways of Seeing the World

By Robert McDermott and Matthew T. Segall

February 4, 2019

 

Rudolf Steiner was one of the 20th century’s few true Renaissance men. While modern science, art, religion, politics, and philosophy continued to fall into increasing specialization, fragmentation, deconstruction, and narrow-minded conflict, Steiner labored tirelessly to create new integral approaches to education, agriculture, medicine, architecture, social reform, banking, visual and performance art, esotericism, and more, all inspired by a deep commitment to humanity’s spiritual potential. Mario Betti, a lifelong practitioner of Steiner’s anthroposophical method, has written a book that succeeds not only in its clear interpretation of a sometimes enigmatic thinker’s ideas but in its brilliant amplifications and applications of these ideas to our present day circumstances.

Betti offers his book as a stimulus or seed to support the growth of a still fledgling pluralistic society. Achieving a planetary humanity guided by freedom and love out of the ashes of the modern pathologies of fascism, totalitarianism, nationalism, oligarchism, and terrorism (the list goes on) will require more than a shallow, relativistic multiculturalism that settles for mere tolerance. Betti draws on Goethe to remind us that tolerance can only be a temporary position. Genuine pluralism, Betti shows, requires more than toleration: it requires a willingness to engage the whole of our being in deep communication with and mutual affirmation of other worldviews. We must strive to reach across our differences through an inner development that is capable of seeing their holistic interdependence. Betti’s amplification of Steiner’s twelve worldviews is a profound aid in this effort of inner development. Significantly, it shows the dignity and merit of each way of seeing the world at the same time that it reveals the danger of exclusivism. Every worldview becomes false the moment it claims to be the whole of the world.

Albert William Levy’s Philosophy and the Modern World, a particularly expert and readable account of 20th century philosophies, summarizes our present situation well:

…philosophical movements of the recent past are to be viewed as waves of successive reform beating upon an infinite shore, with each group of partisans committed to a conception of philosophy which assure them a virtual monopoly of its legitimate practice.… And to pragmatists, logical empiricists, and linguistic analysts alike, any alternative conception of what philosophy is rests upon a tragic mistake.1

Who would dare an attempt to overcome such differences of opinion, each supported by knowledge and powerful arguments? An ideal candidate would be a teacher whose thinking is lifted by creative pedagogy and artistic imagination. Mario Betti would appear to be such a teacher. Every page of this book reveals an author who teaches thinking as a contribution to individual lives, to relationships, and to a sane society. He is invested not in scoring philosophical points but rather in helping his readers cope with intellectual confusion and conflict.

Betti succeeds in his purpose by giving a positive account of twelve worldviews. He takes as his model Goethe who held in one view both universal harmony and plurality (8). We are led to appreciate that each worldview is convincing up to a point. His treatment of Idealism, for example, invites the reader to see that all reality is, or at least emerges from, ideas, from a realm that Plato described so convincingly. But then Betti draws on Aristotle, an equally brilliant and equally influential philosopher, to show the need for a more positive account of particulars, whether moments, thoughts, or objects. Betti refers to this combination of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy as Realism, the philosophy that occupies the topmost spot on the philosophical compass (more on this below).

In a similar way, the way of showing polarities, Betti makes a case for Rationalism, the philosophy of ethical order and proportion, and then shows how it virtually solicits its polar complement, the philosophy of Dynamism: structure needs process to be effective and process, in order to avoid chaos, needs structure. As an introvert needs at least a little extroversion to get through the day, and as melancholic and phlegmatic temperaments need at least a touch of choleric and sanguine temperaments, so does Psychism, a philosophy ready-made for psychology, need a little Phenomenalism, a philosophy that emphasizes the reality of external objects and events but is not sufficiently affirmative of the interior depths of the soul. “Psychism is the inner version of phenomenalism” (110). These pairs, furthermore, are not only complementary, as in two static halves that make a whole; rather, they need and benefit each other but also oppose each other—like individual and community, inner and outer, and of course, like gender. The twelve views are also like gender in that they exist not only as pairs of clearly demarcated opposites but as a spectrum with fluid boundaries, a perspective that contemporary social justice movements have made increasingly clear (134).

In addition to an emphasis on the conflict of worldviews, Betti emphasizes the importance of mutually enhancing polarities: “Each worldview is both a genuine opposite and an enhancement of its opposite” (110). By plunging downward into the domain of gravity, the Materialist worldview has produced marvels of human understanding like the periodic table of elements, just as the Spiritualist worldview has revealed its own “’levitating’ periodic table of spiritual elements”: the angelic hierarchies (151). While Materialism risks digging itself ever deeper into the sand like a crab, Spiritualism risks fleeing the Earth entirely. Such polar tensions are the engine of the evolutionary adventure that has produced all that we see around us and feel within us.

As was mentioned above, despite insisting on the equal value of each of the twelve views, Betti follows Steiner in giving pride of place to Realism. “All worldviews rest like a bud within [it],” as it is “the fundamental human outlook par excellence” (197). “Cognition,” Steiner tells us in his autobiography, “is not the depiction of intrinsic being but rather the soul living its way into this intrinsic being” (quoted by Betti on 205). In other words, an act of knowing is not an internal mental representation of an external physical world; rather, knowing is a participatory event that is immanent to the world-process itself. “If knowledge did not exist,” Steiner continues, “the world would remain incomplete” (quoted by Betti on 206). This is obviously not a naïve realism: it is a higher realization rooted in Steiner’s participatory approach to knowledge and reality. This higher or participatory Realism is a developmental culmination of the other eleven worldviews, whereby through a sort of alchemical transfiguration the distinct capacities of thinking, feeling, sensing, and willing (each emphasized by their respective worldviews) are etherialized into what Betti calls “a new earth substance” (209). In this primordial etheric life substance, Betti tells us, the opposition between spirit and matter is overcome so that human consciousness can be raised and transubstantiated by the power of the Logos-Christ.

Some readers may have trouble following Betti and Steiner at this point, as these are rather mysterious matters, to say the least. But Betti’s book succeeds at least in leading all spiritually striving individuals to the point where they are able to perceive the intrinsic value of all worldviews. At that point, it is up to each of us to discover the true integral potential of our human existence. “The whole world, apart from the human being, is an enigma,” Steiner tells us. “And the human being is its solution” (quoted in Betti on 206).

Footnote

1 Albert William Levy, Philosophy and the Modern World (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1959), 444-45. 

 

Who is Alfred North Whitehead & What is Process Philosophy?

Environmental lawyer, philosopher, and fellow Whitehead enthusiast Tam Hunt and I started an email exchange a few weeks ago after I stumbled upon his interview with the physicist Carol Rovelli. Our emails grew into a pretty extensive conversation on all things Whitehead, which I am sharing below. We discuss the importance of Whitehead’s ideas for a future ecological civilization, his philosophy of time (including critiques of Einstein), the role of God and eternal  objects in his cosmology, and more. 


Tam: Why is Whitehead relevant today, to both the layperson, and in physics and the philosophy of physics?

Matt: Whitehead was one of the first initiates into the new cosmological story that, with any luck, will help us build an ecological civilization in the coming decades. The advances in philosophy of nature and discoveries in natural science that occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Schelling, Humboldt, Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Bergson, Whitehead, et al.) were even more revolutionary than those made by Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries.

If we take a Whiteheadian lens on the contemporary natural sciences, it becomes clear that 21st century people are living in an entirely new world, a self-organizing cosmogenesis that is nothing like the mechanical clockwork universe imagined by 17th century scientists. The problem is, hardly anybody—laypeople or physicists—realizes that we are living in this new universe! We are so mesmerized by the old mechanical model of Nature and by the technological toys it has allowed us to invent and surround ourselves with that we’ve lost touch with the nonhuman world that is literally dying for us to remember it.

Tam: Would you describe yourself as a Whiteheadian traditionalist? Or are there any aspects of Whitehead’s system that you would change?

Matt: I think Whitehead understood metaphysics as an open-ended project, so I engage with his work in the spirit of a co-inquirer. I would describe myself as a Whiteheadian, but there are plenty of ways that I diverge from “traditional” readings of Whitehead. If something in his scheme of abstractions doesn’t fit with my own experience and understanding, I first interrogate his writing more deeply just to be sure I am not misinterpreting him. But once I’m satisfied that I am not misunderstanding, I am perfectly willing to adjust his scheme accordingly. For example, his concept of God’s function in the universe is, by Whitehead’s own admission, incomplete. In my dissertation, I took some liberties in re-interpreting the process God in more pluralistic terms, such that each cosmic epoch has its own divine occasion, with certain characteristics being inherited by subsequent epochs.   

Tam: Who do you regard as the most helpful intellectual descendants/students of Whitehead, thinkers who can both help us understand what the heck Whitehead meant in his sometimes opaque prose, or thinkers who have helpfully extended Whitehead’s system?

Matt: John Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin should be mentioned first. They have and continue to contribute tremendously to Whitehead’s legacy, and to helping us make sense of his sometimes difficult ideas. I have not spent much time myself with Charles Hartshorne’s work, but he has also been very influential. More recently, thinkers as diverse as Catherine Keller, Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and William Connolly have taken up Whitehead’s work and applied it in illuminating and important ways to, e.g., mystical theology, geopolitics, and the sociology of science. The philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H has also done some fascinating work on the relevance of Whitehead’s philosophy to the interpretation of psychedelic experience.

Tam: Whitehead’s process philosophy is so named because it focuses on process, a succession of states, as the central feature of reality. Yet there are some aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy that are largely and perhaps wholly outside of time, such as “eternal objects” that are akin to Plato’s forms. How would you (succinctly) describe the nature of time in Whitehead’s philosophy in relation to the time of human experience?

Matt: I’ll be as succinct as I can be, but this is a complicated question! Whitehead was one of a number of early 20th century thinkers (including William James, Edmund Husserl, and Henri Bergson) who zeroed in on time, process, or becoming as a crucial nexus point that might help reconnect human experience with the natural world known to science. Whitehead was not influenced by Husserl so far as I know, but he was certainly an inheritor of James’ radical empiricism and Bergson’s vitalism. But he did not inherit from them uncritically. I hope it is not an unfair summary of his criticisms to simply say that he rejected James’ nominalism and Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. That said, he inherited enough from Bergson that he would likely be uncomfortable with your characterization of process as “a succession of states,” since such a characterization may fall prey to what Bergson called the “cinematographic” tendency of the intellect, whereby the continuous flow of time is broken into discrete states, instants, or still frames that are then supposed to generate a sort of cartoon illusion of movement in the flip book of our conscious experience.

Like Bergson, Whitehead entirely rejected the materialistic idea of “Nature at an instant.” This idea is as central to Newton’s absolutist view of space and time as it is to Einstein’s relativistic conception of space-time. Whitehead follows James and Bergson in denying that it has any reality whatsoever. It is a mere abstraction used for convenience in the measurements and equations of physical models. Concrete time cannot be captured by such models because it always has duration. All attempts to measure duration necessarily erase what is essential to it. Duration is pure succession, in Bergson’s terms, which is to say that it is a continuous transformation and not merely a series of translated spatial states.

The point here is not to give up measuring and calculating. Science can go on doing what science does. Following Bergson, Whitehead simply wanted to remind scientists that they should avoid committing his famous “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” by never forgetting that the measurements made by clocks, though convenient for physical models and for the coordination of civilized life, falsely spatialize the flow of temporality.

All that said, Whitehead had more hope than Bergson that the scientific intellect could be reformed so as not to falsify the creative becoming of Nature in its abstract models. His notoriously complex metaphysical system, the so-called “philosophy of organism,” is the result of his effort. I can understand why you would characterize Whitehead’s view of process as “a succession of states,” since he does in fact articulate an “atomic” or “epochal” theory of time, whereby a historical route of atomic “actual occasions” or “drops of experience” constitutes the continuous flow or stream of our consciousness. These occasions “arise and perish” in Whitehead’s terms and are not simply identical to the unbroken flow of conscious time, nor are they static instants. Whitehead thus challenged Bergson’s idea, mentioned above, of duration as “pure succession,” since the duration of Whitehead’s actual occasions is not pure but a mixture of spatial and temporal (as well as eternal, as we will see) ingredients. Whitehead asks us to imagine two distinct types of process: the first is “transition” (roughly equivalent to Bergson’s “duration”), which is the continuous time of our conscious experience, and the second is “concrescence,” which is the epochal or punctuated becoming of actual occasions.

Concrescence is Whitehead’s neologism for what occurs within each drop or occasion of experience as it arises and perishes. Whereas transition provides an empirical account of what we experience in consciousness, concrescence is a speculative idea that is supposed to provide an explanation of the metaphysical conditions necessary for conscious experience. In other words, concrescence is Whitehead’s account of what is going on under the hood of consciousness.

It is in concrescence that Whitehead’s “eternal objects” come into play. They are the “forms of definiteness” or “pure potentials” that constitute the character of what each occasion experiences. Eternal objects can be mathematical or sensual in nature (e.g., circularity, twoness, a particular shade of redness, and saltiness are all examples of eternal objects). Whitehead tells us that they are required for our experience of Nature and not emergent from it. So far, they sound identical to Plato’s forms, but Whitehead actually inverts Plato’s theory of forms. While for Plato, eternal forms are the preeminent realities while physical creatures are derivative copies or pale imitations, for Whitehead, eternal objects are “deficient in actuality” and depend entirely on the decisions of actual occasions to make any difference in the world.

Tam: Can we achieve an improved version of Whitehead by eliminating eternal objects, as some thinkers have aspired to do? Or does the whole edifice fall apart if we remove this concept from Whitehead?

Matt: There have been several attempts to eliminate eternal objects from Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In my opinion, the two most interesting recent examples are Ralph Pred’s Onflow (2005) and Mark Hansen’s Feed-Forward (2015). Along with eliminating eternal objects, they also try to eliminate Whitehead’s concept of God. Let me clearly state that these are both excellent philosophical works worthy of close study by all Whiteheadians and by anyone interested in the deepest questions we can ask about human consciousness and the technological environment we find ourselves increasingly embedded within.

And let me state just as clearly that Whitehead’s process-relational ontology falls into incoherence as soon as eternal objects and God are removed. Eternal objects and actual occasions are the magnetic poles powering the explanatory dynamo that is Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. I’ve argued at length elsewhere that those who attempt to do without eternal objects (perhaps because they believe they have no place in a supposedly “processual” ontology) while still deploying Whitehead’s other categories only end up re-inventing the wheel and calling it something else. It’s like trying to break a magnet to remove the negative pole: you just end up with a new negative pole at the broken end. I have no problem whatsoever with thinkers who want to develop their own process ontology, but if they want to build on Whitehead’s work, it just doesn’t make sense to talk about actual occasions without eternal objects.

Tam: You stated that actual occasions (Whitehead’s atoms of actuality) are “not states or static instants,” but isn’t it the case that the passage of time in Whitehead’s system is indeed a series of actual occasions, at every level of reality, which are states but not static instants (I didn’t invoke any static features in my question)? This is the shared character of Whitehead’s concrescence, “perpetual perishing,” the “creative advance” and more generally Whitehead’s strong emphasis on becoming [PR, xiv, 22]. As such, shouldn’t we characterize the passage of time in Whitehead’s system as a result of a series of instants or snapshots, at every locus of the universe, which are always changing, but still instantiating as “actual” in an eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality?

Matt: I don’t think it is Whitehead’s intention to say that the passage of time is a series of instants or snapshots. Such instantaneity can be approached via mathematical abstraction, but actual passage or creative advance is a process that moves from occasion to occasion in a network of relations, not a series of point-instants on a graph. Actual occasions are just that: occasions, or in Bergson’s terms, durations. I don’t see how a static instant could be experiential. Whitehead’s actual occasions of experience each exist “stretched out” in a sort of sublime tension, what James called a “specious present,” wherein the already actualized past is inherited and subjectively synthesized with potential futures. An actual occasion’s final phase of becoming is called its “satisfaction,” which is the decisive moment wherein the occasion collapses the field of potentials into a unique form of actualization. This actualization is the achievement of a novel experience of value, “novel” in that with the becoming and perishing of each actual occasion a perspective on the universe is achieved that has never existed before. This perspective, once perished, becomes “objectively immortal” and is taken up by subsequently concrescing actual occasions. This arising and perishing of actual occasions forms what Whitehead calls a historic route or “society,” and it is at this level that what we consciously experience as the flow of time emerges. I do like your characterization of this process as an “eternal oscillation between actuality and potentiality,” but I don’t think the occasional beats composing the oscillation are instantaneous. 

Tam: Building on our agreement that the passage of time may be characterized as an oscillation between actuality and potentiality, an instant in modern physics can have some minimum duration, such as the Planck time (5.4×10^-44 s), in the same way that energy or space can have a minimum quantity (this is the “quantum” in quantum mechanics). So is time for Whitehead not built as a nested hierarchy of these minimum instants, with each actual occasion constituting an instant or multiple thereof, and the universe built from the set of all actual occasions concrescing in each phase of the creative advance into novelty [PR 29 “The ancient doctrine that ‘no one crosses the same river twice’ is extended”]? Whitehead does posit non-temporal aspects of each concrescence, as you point out, but each concrescence itself is temporal through and through, right? So I think we’re generally saying the same thing?

Matt: There is a lot here to unpack. I would want to distinguish the physics of Planck time and Planck space from Whitehead’s metaphysics of actual occasions and their extensive connection. Whitehead would want us to tread very lightly in identifying his actual occasions with quantum events, since it may very well be the case that the latter are a special case of the former. Regarding the notion of the universe as a “set of all actual occasions,” we also need to be careful. In their brilliant text The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism (2017), Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein are careful to distinguish between two approaches to logically formalizing our thinking about such matters. While Whitehead did often use the term “set” in his writing about collections of occasions or of eternal objects, this should not mislead us into a “set theoretical” way of thinking about the relations among actual occasions and eternal objects. Instead, Auxier and Herstein point to what has come to be called “category theory” as an alternative, and more Whiteheadian, way of thinking about the extensive relations among occasions, particularly when we try to think the cosmic socius as a whole. In short, while set theory focuses on abstract collections of entities and membership in groups, category theory allows us to think in terms of functions and relations, and in terms of the topological transformation of wholes and parts (i.e., mereotopology). Auxier and Herstein argue that category theory, as a form of spatial or topological reasoning, has a more empirical or experiential character, thus granting it deeper relevance in questions of ontology. So instead of thinking of all actual occasions as though they existed side-by-side as members of the set called “universe” advancing along some universal timeline, we must think of the cosmic socius of occasions as a complex network of open-ended activities, all internally related but also differentiated along multiple timelines. It is difficult if not impossible for our 3-dimensional imagination to picture a topological network of activities wherein each node or occasion is both a whole in itself, prehending the whole universe in its concrescence, and a part within the concrescence of other occasions. This is the sort of situation that category theory can formalize mathematically.

Concrescence is neither wholly eternal nor wholly temporal. It is an amphibious concept meant to account for the way potentiality becomes actual. Concrescence is Whitehead’s explanation for how potentials achieve actualization through the portal of a sort of temporal eternity or eternal moment, the creative repetition or oscillation of which is responsible for generating the spatial and temporal world as we normally experience it. It is also important to remember that the universe as a whole is, in Whitehead’s terms, an “essential incompleteness,” as it is never finished or fully present but always advancing into novelty. To capture this, I sometimes expand and reform Einstein’s space-time “fabric” analogy by saying that space-time is always fraying and needs to be continually re-woven with each concrescence.

Tam: Isn’t Whitehead’s system in key ways in opposition to Einstein’s notion of spacetime? Isn’t this a key point of the “process” in process philosophy, that we need to accept the very real passage of time? Reconciling the experienced passage of time with the “block universe” and combined “space-time” of Einstein’s physics is, of course, a large outstanding problem with modern physics. One reason I find Whitehead’s approach appealing is that it presents a way out of this conundrum that Einsteinian physics has gotten us into.

Matt: Whitehead accepted Einstein’s extension of some of the formulae related to electromagnetism to the concept of gravity. As a scientific theory, he was not disputing the usefulness of Einstein’s space-time model. His dispute with Einstein concerned the latter’s metaphysical interpretation of said model. Whitehead was concerned not only about the reduced status of time in Einstein’s eternal vision of the cosmos, but with the possibility of measurement in a space that, according to Einstein, was heterogeneous as a result of being warped by contingently arrayed mass. Accurate measurement requires rigid rulers. Unless we know in advance where all the mass in the universe is, we cannot be sure how our ruler (or its equivalent, light rays) may be bending in any attempted measurement, particularly if we are talking about astronomical distances. Problem is, we cannot know in advance how mass is arrayed in the cosmos since that would require measurement. We are stuck, as Whitehead puts it, having to know everything before we can know anything. As part of his attempt to articulate precisely why he disagreed with Einstein, Whitehead produced his own tensor equations that did not rely on the idea of “curved” space but that nonetheless made equivalent empirical predictions as Einstein’s model (i.e., Whitehead’s formulae make the same predictions about Mercury’s perihelion, etc., and its variables could be easily modified to fit with any new observations resulting from more sensitive instruments).

As for time, Whitehead was in agreement with Bergson (who debated Einstein on this issue in 1922) that Einstein’s metaphysical interpretation of relativity mistook the abstract units of mechanical clock-time for the ontology of temporality. But unlike Bergson, who sometimes seems to have imagined that some universal flow of time underlies everything, Whitehead was perfectly clear that relativity theory destroys the idea of global simultaneity or universal time. Contra Einstein, he argued that time was perfectly real and not an illusion, but it is real only in a local sense related to unique historical routes of actual occasions of experience. So the Whiteheadian universe includes many distinct (more or less overlapping) time-systems. For this reason, I sometimes refer to a Whiteheadian pluriverse instead of calling it a universe.

Tam: Can you elaborate on why you think that Whitehead’s system would become incoherent without the inclusion of eternal objects?

Matt: Without eternal objects, there would no longer be any potential ingredient in the passage of Nature. The past and the future would become ontologically indistinguishable. Everything would already be actualized and there’d be no room for genuine creativity. All process would become locked in habit and repetition. Further, eternal objects are part of what allows actual occasions to be individual creatures rather than being indiscriminately merged together with every other occasion. Whitehead does view actual occasions as “internally related” and thus in some sense each occasion is dependent on every other occasion to be what it is, but it is the mediating role played by eternal objects in characterizing the “how” of experience that allows actual occasions to decide on unique subjective interpretations of the world rather than just directly inheriting the world as it is objectively given. Occasions can consider possible alternatives by ingressing novel eternal objects, thus inviting new potentials into settled actuality. Finally, eternal objects are what allow us to recognize and identify stable entities in what is otherwise a world of flux. What is it that you recognize in a friend or loved one as their distinct personality or character, something that sticks with them through many years of life despite other changes to their appearance?

Tam: You suggest that without eternal objects the past and future could not be distinguished. But if we eliminate eternal objects and ingression from Whitehead’s ontology we are left with actual entities and Creativity (as a general principle of potentiality or novelty [PR 21 “’Creativity’ is the principle of novelty”]). Isn’t concresence of actual entities, the sum of which is the creative advance into novelty, in addition to Creativity as the principle of potentiality becoming actual in each actual occasion, enough to provide all of these aspects of our experienced reality: 1) the experienced passage of time; 2) a physical passage of time more generally; 3) novelty; 4) a clear arrow of time that distinguishes between past and present?  

Matt: No, I don’t think so. To fully answer this question, I need to bring in Whitehead’s concept of God again. If we eliminate the notion of ingressing eternal objects and God from Whitehead’s ontology, preserving only prehending actual occasions and Creativity, I am no longer sure what we could possibly mean by “concrescence.” God’s function in Whitehead’s ontology is to provide relevance to each occasion as it concresces out of Creativity. Without this mediating or filtering role, each occasion would be overwhelmed by the sheer infinity of potentials available for actualization in any given moment. God is Whitehead’s principle of limitation or concretion, and the graded hierarchy of eternal objects is Whitehead’s way of describing how infinite possibility is made relevant to each finite occasion’s experience. Further, it is precisely through the contrast granted by contact with eternity in each concrescence that an experience of passage arises. Without the contrast, without the punctuation of process by eternality, time would be experientially undetectable.

Tam: Why can’t physical prehensions of surrounding actual entities, in each moment of the creative advance, be sufficient for limiting the “infinity of potentials available for actualization”? I’ve suggested this kind of notion in my work on the mind-body problem, inspired by Whitehead, and it is based on the uncontroversial notion that actual entities can only include in each instantiation information that they can receive within the duration of each concrescence, limiting the actual entities that form each set of data available to the new concrescing entity. Under this framework, each actual entity is still an ordering of Creativity, an actualization of pure potentiality, but there is no need to posit what seem like more religious notions of God or eternal objects beyond the pure potentiality of Creativity.

Matt: Whitehead did not include a concept of God in his metaphysical scheme for religious reasons. His God is a concept to be reflected upon and not a personal being to be worshipped (though of course God may become this secondarily for those who fully inhabit and live into his cosmology). Noting this up front is important, as it allows us (hopefully) to just focus on the philosophical issues at stake without dragging in all the emotional controversies associated with the battle between religious belief and secularity, etc. Whitehead specifically says in Process & Reality that he wants to “secularize the concept of God” and that this is one of the most important tasks for modern philosophy.

That said, it  may be possible to account for the provision of relevance to each concrescing occasion of experience in the way that you suggest, via the physical prehension of past actualities in its environment. But then we are left with another problem, which is how to account for the novelty added by each occasion. If there is just physical prehension of the actualized past and no conceptual prehension of potentia (i.e., eternal objects), what prevents actual occasions from just repeating the experiences of the past ad infinitum? The question is not just about the relevance of each newly concrescing occasion to its inherited past, but the relevance of this past to potential futures. The provision of this relevance is necessary for a concrescence to decide how to actualize the potential value it is incubating. Even if we eliminate the role of God and eternal objects in determining the relevance of a concrescent occasion to its past, we still have to account for the determination of the relevant possibilities open to that occasion given its past. While the realm of actuality is finite, the realm of potential is infinite. So again, actual occasions would seem to need a little divine help here to avoid being overwhelmed by unlimited creative potential.

Tam: Various thinkers have tried to “naturalize” Whitehead by removing eternal objects, God or other aspects of his system that seem to some to be out of place or unnecessary. Donald Sherburne, one of the editors of the standard corrected edition of Process and Reality, and a serious Whitehead scholar, has proposed “Whitehead without God.” You are clear so far in rejecting attempts to eliminate eternal objects or God from Whitehead’s system, but what about substituting Creativity for more non-religious notions of God like Source/Brahman/akasha, as thinkers like Huston Smith have argued (see, e.g., the great debate between Griffin and Smith in the book-length dialogue Primordial Truth and Postmodern Theology)? Under this amendment to Whitehead’s system, we retain Whitehead’s Creativity as the Ultimate and we can call it Source/Brahman, etc., as well as Creativity, since it is the ontological ground of being in Whitehead’s system. But we can eliminate God in its primordial nature (which is comprised of the set of all eternal objects), while retaining God in its consequent nature, as the high/highest level of a nested hierarchy of concrescing actual entities.

Matt: I am fine with folks coming up with whatever cosmological scheme they feel best captures the reality of their experience and understanding. But I don’t think we are talking about Whitehead’s scheme anymore if we remove God. Creativity is Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, while God is said to be the first creature of Creativity. God’s function here is to limit the unlimited. So strictly speaking, Creativity is not the ground of Whitehead’s ontology; rather, the primordial nature of God, as the principle of concretion or limitation, provides this ground. Creativity itself is a groundless abyss of pure potential, more a fountain than a foundation.

Tam: In terms of the discussion about mathematical discovery vs. invention, this is as you point out a longstanding debate. Many thinkers have taken the view that it is invention, which means that mathematical and similar truths are based on concepts that we create in our minds and manipulate to find new insights. So twoness, to use your example, is in this view an invented generality based on the observation that many things in our experienced world can be enumerated and compared, and in doing so given labels. A human 100,000 or more years ago probably realized that using her fingers to keep track of things in the real world was useful and then eventually gave labels to each numbered finger and by extension items in the real world labeled similarly. In this evolutionary approach to the development of language and mathematics there is no need to posit discovery of eternal objects in a realm only accessible to human reason. We also have good evidence that other animals have basic concepts of number; crows, for example, can count at least as high as three, with specialized cells in the brain, similar to how primates like us count. Are crows discovering transcendent mathematical truths or only using their evolved brains to create useful tools mapped on to their experienced worlds?

Matt: Whitehead’s eternal objects are not sequestered in a realm accessible only to human reason. They were ingredients in the creative advance of Nature long before humans showed up. Indeed, Whitehead tells us, “in the most literal sense the lapse of time is the renovation of the world with ideas” (Religion in the Making, 100). In Whitehead’s view, human reason does not even begin to comprehend the full breadth of the realm of ideal possibilities from out of which it has emerged and toward which it is passing.

Whitehead does not deny that other humans and animals exist on a cognitive spectrum, with some animals possessing very basic conceptions of number. In Modes of Thought, he describes watching a mother squirrel remove her young ones from a nest that had grown too small. She becomes distressed when she sees her children outside the cramped setting of the nest for the first time, running back and forth to make sure she hadn’t left anyone behind. This is because, according to Whitehead, she had only an indefinite or vague sense of how many children she had. She had no definite sense of number, in other words. Perhaps crows, clever as they are, have the ability to count higher than squirrels. Granting the cognitive continuum here, Whitehead still points to the advance achieved by humans, likely due to language: “Mankind enjoys a vision of the function of form within fact, and of the issue of value from this interplay. That day in the history of mankind when the vague appreciation of multitude was transformed into the exact observation of number, human beings made a long stride in the comprehension of that interweaving of form necessary for the higher life which is the disclosure of the good” (Modes of Thought, 77). So while eternal objects were ingredients in the evolutionary process long before humans showed up on the scene, our linguistic capacities do indeed grant us more definite conceptions of their distinct forms and mathematical relations. But our symbolic languages do not invent mathematical relations, they discover and express them.

Tam: In terms of your suggestion that it is eternal objects that allow us to identify loved ones over time, I don’t understand what you mean so can you elaborate on this further? Isn’t the constancy of their person and your recognition of that person the same as any changing pattern in nature in terms of steady change over time but with a general commonality over time (in Buddhist thought, this notion is a “continuant” as described in the Milindapanha)? Or are you suggesting there is some eternal essence that each individual enjoys that is an eternal object?

Matt: Whitehead wanted to give some explanation for how it is that in a world of process we nonetheless are able to recognize and identify definite characters or entities. We are out at sea and glimpse a whale just before it dives under the surface. A moment later, it explodes into the air. “There it is again,” we say. A simple enough observation, but Whitehead finds it metaphysically perplexing. Why are we justified in saying it is the same whale? I am not certain of the exact physiological details here, but scientists tell us that after some number of years every single atom in our body is replaced. Despite this complete material renewal, we are still somehow justified in claiming a sense of stable identity. Our matter changes, but our form endures. Whitehead talks about societies of actual occasions with “personal order,” and here he does not just mean the persistent identities of human persons but the persistent “serially ordered” identity of everything from rocks and trees to whales and skyscrapers. The serial personal order of a human being or a whale is constituted by especially intimately related historical routes of actual occasions of experience that repeatedly and collectively ingress a complex constellation of eternal objects. This unique constellation of eternal objects grants an individual human or whale its definite character or personality, experienced from within and recognized by others as in some sense a consistent identity despite its continual passage. Whitehead does not accept substantial notions of identity (“no thinker thinks twice,” he reminds us in Process & Reality), so he is forced to invent a processual account of this continuity, and the ingression of definite possibilities through historical routes of socially ordered actual occasions is how he attempts to pull it off.

Tam: But can’t a society of actual entities, as you and Whitehead discuss, accomplish this continuity over time (but always changing in each moment) without eternal objects? More generally, isn’t this kind of continuity over time what Whitehead means by “enduring objects” (which are different from eternal objects and are societies with “personal order”) [PR p. 34, 109]?

Matt: Whitehead is pretty clear, it seems to me, that what defines a society of actual occasions as an enduring object with personal order (personally ordered societies are a special case of enduring objects) is the complex constellation of eternal objects that these occasions repeatedly ingress through a historical route of genetic inheritance. The common form of any society of occasions, including personally ordered societies, is provided by the inherited constellation of eternal objects that sustains its definite characteristics.       

Tam: More specifically, what does it mean to you that “saltiness,” an example you provide of eternal objects, is an eternal something that exists in a different realm than our manifest world? Aren’t these features of reality far more likely to be biologically evolved features of our universe that arose out of the specific conditions found on our planet? I personally have a hard time with positing such features of human reality and of reality more generally as unchanging “eternal objects”?

Matt: Saltiness is probably a complex eternal object, rather than a simple one that cannot be further decomposed. So it is not the best example to convince you of the metaphysical role of eternal objects. Mathematical objects almost certainly provide the strongest case for the necessity of something like Plato’s forms. You’ll never find “twoness” anywhere in the physical world. You’ll find endless examples of twoness participating in the physical world: two birds, two stones, two people, two fingers, two very different objects that you decide to group together for whatever reason, etc. But the idea of “twoness” itself is not captured by any of these specific instances. Where does it come from? Nominalists would say twoness, like other mathematical ideas, is just a name whose meaning derives from the conventional use of an arbitrarily invented symbol. But in my experience the majority of mathematicians, including Whitehead, would strongly contest this notion and claim that the history of mathematics is full of genuine discoveries that cannot be reduced to invented symbolisms. Yes, mathematicians need symbols to express their ideas, but there is more to the mathematical patterns and relations they discover than just these symbols.

A complex eternal object like saltiness is dependent upon the crystalization of sodium chloride molecules and the evolution of sensory organs and many other factors in order to ingress. Whitehead isn’t denying the importance and indeed the priority of these factors, but he was unable to conceive of a coherent metaphysical scheme that didn’t do justice to the realm of potentiality alongside that of actuality. “Coherence” for Whitehead means that neither potentiality nor actuality can be understood in isolation from the other.

Tam: How do we help spread a wider interest and understanding of Whitehead’s ideas? Are there any attempts to spread his ideas through, for example, primary school education (at a kid-friendly level)?

Matt: This is a really important question. I believe that the most developed effort on this front is coming from the Pando Populus organization, which emerged from the huge International Whitehead Conference held in Claremont, CA back in 2015 called “Toward an Ecological Civilization.” Most of their work is focused locally in Los Angeles at this point, but they also have plans aiming at a more global impact and already have a foothold in China (where there are something like 30 graduate programs devoted to Whitehead’s ideas).

I don’t know of any attempts to bring his ideas into primary school classrooms, but that sounds like a great idea! I would even be happy with just the story of philosophy and its most basic questions being taught in primary school. Whitehead’s panpsychist outlook is only a philosophically refined and attenuated form of animism, so it may already be common sense to most kids. That it is animate is an obvious fact about the world for childhood consciousness (and for most of our species’ 200,000+ year history: the disenchanted mechanistic view is only a few hundred years old). Kids have a much more intuitive grasp of basic metaphysical questions. Unfortunately, our innate curiosity about the hidden causes of everyday facts (“But why?”) is beaten out of us pretty early on by impatient adults. Bringing philosophy into primary school classrooms would really just be about encouraging the wonder and curiosity that is already everpresent in childhood. Sharing the best historical articulations of the Big Questions so that they take root in the imaginations of children might help shape them into more intellectually flexible adults who are capable of avoiding ideological fixation in the face of an overwhelmingly complex world.