Theology of Nature Templeton research proposal, shelved : (

Several weeks ago, I submitted a proposal for a Templeton Foundation research fellowship called “God and the Book of Nature: Science-engaged Theology of Nature.”

I just heard back from the review committee that my proposal was not selected.

: (

Oh well. I thought I’d share my cover letter and shelved (for now) research proposal. I do still hope to collaborate with Dr. Bruce Damer (we already have an event scheduled at CIIS this October, about which I’ll share more details soon).


May 28th, 2019

Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion

California Institute of Integral Studies

1453 Mission Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

To the Research Fellowship Review Committee:

Enclosed please find my application for the “God and the Book of Nature” research fellowship. I aim to build a science-engaged theology of nature by applying the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead to newly emerging research into the origins of life. Along with my mentor XXX, I will be collaborating with the origin of life biogeochemist and computer scientist Dr. Bruce Damer. In collaboration with his colleague at the University of Santa Cruz Prof. David Deamer, Dr. Damer has developed the “hot spring hypothesis” of biogenesis that has now become the chief rival to the deep-sea hydrothermal vent hypothesis. In August 2017, Damer and colleagues’ work was the cover story for Scientific American. Empirical research to further test their hypothesis is being undertaken by university teams worldwide. The work is also being presented and discussed at numerous meetings as it may herald a revolution in evolutionary theory, but also carries implications for philosophy and spiritual inquiry. Specifically, the hypothesis suggests that the common ancestor of all of life was not an autonomous individual cell emerging through competition but instead was a common community of collaborating proto-cells. My research proposal involves deepening my understanding of the theoretical and empirical details of Damer’s work and contributing to the articulation of the philosophical and theological implications of this exciting new approach to biogenesis.

I have studied Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism” for more than a decade and have long believed that his critique of the mechanistic abstractions of a by now outdated scientific materialism and his novel understanding of mind’s (and God’s) relationship to nature have much to contribute to contemporary scientific theory and practice. He shows that another kind of naturalism is possible, one that, while remaining fully consistent with the scientific picture, still leaves room for divine action (and passion) and, crucially, makes sense of the possibility of something like scientific consciousness/knowledge emerging in the course of cosmic evolution (whereas most standard naturalisms are forced to conceive of consciousness and scientific knowledge, not to mention religious consciousness, as some kind of improbable anomaly).

In addition to contributing to the academic study of the relationship between science and theology, I would like to shape part of my scholarly output so as to reach a public audience and to influence the wider culture. Our increasingly imperiled civilization desperately needs new sources of meaning if it hopes to survive the fast approaching evolutionary bottleneck caused by modern techno-scientific industrialism. We cannot simply return to traditional religious outlooks, but nor can we jettison these traditions in favor of the new religions of scientism or technologism. Through this research project, I would like to contribute in some small way to the imagination of a new story that integrates spiritual wisdom and scientific knowledge, such that humanity can come to see itself as a participant in a grand evolutionary adventure whose final chapters have not yet been written.

Thank you for considering my application.

Sincerely,
Matthew T. Segall

God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature

Research Fellowship Application

Applicant: Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Scientific collaborator: Bruce Damer, PhD

Proposal Background:

Since his death in 1947 and until quite recently, the impact of Alfred North Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism”1 has been felt predominantly in American theology departments. John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin and their Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California have played a particularly important role in carrying forward the legacy of Whitehead’s thought in the form of process theology. Whitehead’s innovative approach to theological questions has plenty of merits of its own (e.g., its religious pluralism and inclusivity, its intimate panentheistic vision of divine participation in cosmogenesis, Earth evolution, and human life, and its resolution of the problem of evil, etc.), but many students of his thought have long lamented a lack of serious engagement on the part of natural scientists. Whitehead, after all, began his career as a mathematician with a strong interest in physical applications and was right at the center of the relativistic and quantum revolutions of the early 20th century. In the aftermath of these and other paradigm-breaking discoveries across multiple disciplines (in addition to relativity and quantum theory, there was also evolutionary theory and the early phases of what came to be called complexity theory), Whitehead realized the deistic mechanistic materialism science had inherited from the 17th century had become completely inadequate. Science needed a new metaphysical foundation. Whitehead thus threw himself into natural philosophy in search of an alternative ontology more attuned to the universe being described by the latest scientific research. He emerged with a cosmological vision that rejected tired dualisms (e.g., between God and nature, mind and matter, and creation and evolution) and instead affirmed panentheism, panexperientialism, and the creative advance of nature. Re-imagining God’s relationship to nature turned out to be a necessary part of his metaphysical efforts, but Whitehead’s aim was first and foremost to influence the theory and practice of natural science.

In more recent years there has been a surge of interest in Whitehead’s “process-relational ontology” among physicists, biologists, and philosophers of science.2 The most recent application of the process perspective to natural science is John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson’s edited volume Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (2018). Unfortunately, after acknowledging their debt to Whitehead’s process philosophy, they are quick to distance their project from the larger scope of his cosmological vision. They characterize Whitehead as a “liability” due to the “panpsychist foundations” and “theological character” of his work, which they believe are difficult to reconcile with scientific naturalism.3 It is in response to such concerns that the present research proposal gains its relevance.

Research Proposal’s Theoretical Aims:

This proposed research project will focus on the application of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, as well as process-oriented historical precursors like Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, to emerging research in theoretical biology. Our aim is twofold: 1) to counter charges like Dupré and Nicholson’s that Whitehead-inspired panpsychism and theology are a liability to serious research in the life sciences by making the case that a naturalistic account of the existence of biological organisms in fact requires a re-imagination of nature in process-relational, panentheist, and panexperiential terms; 2) by collaboratively engaging with biochemist and computer engineer Bruce Damer to demonstrate the relevance of Whitehead’s scheme to Damer’s research (with David Deamer) into the origins of life in the wet-dry cycling of geyser-fed thermal pools.4 Not only does the geochemical cycling process described by Damer et al. provide a specific exemplification of Whitehead’s general metaphysical description of the process of concrescence, Damer’s first person accounts of the visionary experiences and thought experiments that underlie his scientific discoveries are suggestive of a new understanding of divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation in a panpsychist cosmos. 

Research Sub-theme:

Our research will be situated primarily within the “Mind and Nature” sub-theme looking at relevance of Whitehead’s process-relational, panpsychist ontology to scientific research on biogenesis. The argument is that closing the gap between physics/chemistry and properly living organization requires coming to see some modicum of mind, experience, and aim as fundamental ingredients in the evolutionary creativity of the universe from the beginning.5 In addition to our already secured collaboration with Bruce Damer, we will seek further collaboration with complexity scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, especially Stuart Kauffman (whose work on autocatalytic chemical systems and evolutionary exaptation dovetails nicely with our Whiteheadian approach).

Given the transdisciplinary scope of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme it will be impossible not to touch on all three of the project sub-themes. Regarding the God and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s panpsychism entails a novel interpretation of divine action in terms of an “initial aim” immanent in the moment to moment experience of creatures at every scale of cosmic and biotic organization (from protons and neutrons, to stars and galaxies, to cells and animals); his approach re-opens the possibility of a new kind of immanent and open-ended teleology in nature that is unlike the deistic design paradigm rightly rejected by evolutionary biology. Regarding the Naturalism(s) and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s cosmology obviously requires a complete re-imagination of the metaphysical underpinnings of science. We will be explicit about this and spell out the changes that are necessary to naturalism as it is typically conceived within the materialistic and atheistic mainstream of contemporary science.

Our research will philosophically contextualize both Damer’s novel method of discovery and his theory of biogenesis by critically examining and subverting the generally Kantian strictures of the philosophy of science and much natural theology by drawing on Schelling and Whitehead (both of whom called for a “critique of feeling” to replace Kant’s critique of pure reason). Schelling and Whitehead articulate what Segall has called a descendental aesthetic ontology.6 Whereas Kant imagined mind as the transcendental condition of a merely apparent nature, a descendental aesthetic ontology replants mind, and thus scientific knowledge, within the living processes it attempts to know. Rather than bracketing ontology (and thus accepting critical idealism in place of realism about nature) and resting satisfied with a transcendental epistemology that exempts mind from the laws governing the rest of nature, Whitehead and Schelling’s approach makes clear that many of the epistemological problems plaguing modern philosophy are in fact just disguised ontological issues stemming from the incoherent dualism originating with Descartes. One way of overcoming this dualism entails going back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and imagining what becomes possible if his analogy between aesthetic judgments of art and teleological judgments of organisms holds constitutively for the objects of scientific cognition. What if artistic geniuses tap into and express the same creative power responsible for organizing the nonhuman natural world? This is of course exactly the move that Schelling makes, but the methodological and epistemological justifications for such a move have not been adequately spelled out, which has allowed it to be dismissed as merely Romantic excess. Whitehead’s detailed systematic treatment of experience, perception, propositional feelings, judgment, etc., makes such dismissals far more difficult. The philosophical groundwork for our Whiteheadian interpretation of Damer’s discovery of a new theory of biogenesis includes articulating a justification of what might be called an “aesthetic turn” in ontology. This framing is another way of getting at what Whiteheadians mean by panexperientialism. Such an ontology would open up novel approaches to both theology and natural science, and perhaps even a cultural renewal of natural theology in our increasingly post-secular age. The evolving, self-organizing cosmos revealed by contemporary natural science is exactly what we would expect from a God who is more like the “poet of the world” (Whitehead) than its transcendent designer. Damer et al.’s approach to biogenesis implies a process of creative evolution that does not involve the implementation of divine plans designed in advance but rather a gradual creaturely groping toward more intense modes of experience goaded by an immanent divine Eros.

Research output:

  1. A two-day public conference in October 2019 at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA featuring Bruce Damer, cosmologist Brian Swimme, Matt Segall and others focused on establishing initial points of contact between Damer’s biogenesis theory and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
  2. The submission of a co-authored journal article to a leading journal in philosophy of biology or a more popular outlet that articulates the philosophical and/or cultural implications of Damer’s biogenesis theory in Whiteheadian terms.
  3. A book on Whitehead’s relevance to scientific research on the question of life’s place in the universe.

Research plan/budget:

Funding will be requested (~10,000 Euros) to support: 1) travel between mentor home institute in Madrid and Segall and Damer’s institutions in Northern California, 2) collaborations with Bruce Damer, including research seminars and tutorial sessions to convey the geochemical details and computer modeling grounding his theory, lab time at his home institution UC Santa Cruz, travel expenses for on-site field studies related to ongoing empirical research, and 3) scientific conference-related expenses.

Footnotes

1 See Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929).

See for example these recently published works linking aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy to contemporary physics and biology:

Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, ed. by John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003).

-Michael Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004) and Foundations of Relational Realism (with Elias Zafiris) (New York: Lexington Books, 2013).

-Life and Process: Towards a New Biophilosophy, ed. Spyridon Koutroufinis (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014).

-Shimon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012).

“Introduction” to Everything Flows by Dupré and Nicholson, 7.

See the cover story of the August 2017 issue of Scientific American, “The New Origins of Life: did volcanic hot springs harbor the first living organisms?” See also a collection of scientific papers at https://www.researchgate.net/project/Origin-of-Life-6

For more a more detailed account of the trajectory of this argument, which includes engagements with the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas, Robert Rosen, Francisco Varela, and Evan Thompson, see Matthew T. Segall’s “On the Place of Life in the Cosmos: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and Contemporary Theoretical Biology” in Intuiting Life: Process Ontology for Biophilosophy (New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2019); https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/on-the-place-of-life-in-the-cosmos-mts-revision-march-18-2019.pdf

See Segall’s dissertation “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” (2016); https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1803306347.html?FMT=ABS

Burning Man and the Seeds of a New Story

Mission at Tenth special supplement

Vol. 7, 274-279 (2018)

“Carnival of Consciousness: Practice as Research in Black Rock City”

A Submission by Matthew T. Segall, PhD

“Burning Man and the Seeds of a New Story”

“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” –W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940)

As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press, 2010), the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the human population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis that are normally associated with traditional forms of religious practice. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being too self-centered and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality.The growing popularity of Burning Man, defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.

Human beings are order-seeking, meaning-making, story-telling creatures. For our species, meaning is at least as important as eating, and in some cases, more so. We construct cosmologies to orient ourselves in a mysterious and ever-shifting reality. No cosmology can hold chaos at bay forever, nor can it grant us complete understanding of the more than human powers that inspire all our mortal efforts to order, interpret, and narrate reality. Just as secularization led to the breakdown of the authority of traditional religion in the early modern period, it is becoming increasingly obvious at the start of the 21st century that the myth of the market (i.e., the modern story of individual competition fueling techno-industrial progress toward a consumerist utopia) is now also failing to properly situate human beings in our actual time and place on planet Earth. According to geologists, Earth is now entering a new geological era as a result of human industrial activity: the Anthropocene. The dominant values of the global economy are unraveling the life systems of the planet at a faster rate and a larger scale than anyone could have imagined a few centuries ago. Modern industrial humans have become a geological force, but so far our technical power continues to overshadow our knowledge of the planet’s fragile life systems.

We are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of Earth’s ecosystems, so much so that ecological entropy now threatens to destroy civilization itself.

It may be that our species is already doomed to extinction within the next century. In some sense, this message of doom has woven itself into our official civilizational narrative. Apocalypse is one of the bestselling plots in today’s mass media market. Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this fact is too much for any individual to face alone, the majority of us continue to sit in front of our screens watching, as though it were all just another form of entertainment.

Of course, fantasy and imagination are no mere trifle for our species: our meaning-making capacity is precisely what is at issue. How are we to conceive of our human presence on this living planet? Are we a cancerous growth or self-forgetful gods and goddesses? Are we capable of re-storying our industrial mode of meaning-making with a more life-enhancing cosmology? Must we be motivated solely by passive and isolated consumption, or might the celebratory and participatory communal values fostered by Burning Man signal a newly emerging possibility?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we compose our societies and how those societies come to inhabit the Earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its physical existence: the mechanistic and disenchanted worldview underlying industrial capitalism, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. A million years from now, even if our species is long gone, the biosphere will still show the scars caused by the industrial mode of life. Clearly, industrial cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that monetary profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the Sun, which thanks to photosynthesis produces and sustains all life on Earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured from the heavens by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes political ecologist Alf Hornborg, “the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them.”

Modern industrial cosmology has dissociated the human economy from the Earth’s ecology. Earth is a diverse tapestry of organisms delicately woven together by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Consumer capitalism homogenizes culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. Humanity, and many other species besides, are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values abstract profitability (the replication of money) over concrete productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, Hornborg continues,“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project.”

Burning Man provides our species with a precious opportunity to step out of the “default world” in order to reimagine our purpose as individuals and re-story our collective existence as members of a planetary community of life. Modern industrial cosmology is disenchanted, such that each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of ultimately tragic identity lost in an immense sea of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrial capitalism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue his or her own selfish ends in the hope that their sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

The Burning Man festival, in contrast, resituates human beings in the ritual context of communal meaning-making. It invites modern people to participate in the co-creation of an initiatory experience that re-awakens us to the possibility of an enchanted universe. It is inspiring the birth of a new story, a new way of being human, based not on alienated labor and the mindless replication of money, but on ritual play and the joyful recreation of life.

That said, according to the festival’s founder, the late Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. It is undoubtedly true that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism. As alchemists have known for millennia, initiatory transformations often unfold by way of enantiodromia, whereby taking something to its extreme ends up catalyzing a metamorphic transition into its opposite.

Gilmore’s book, mentioned earlier, makes the case that the growing popularity of the annual desert pilgrimage is forcing religious scholars to “reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience.” Having attended the festival myself many times (the first in 2010), I would agree with Gilmore and others thatBurning Man represents the emergence of a novel, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and technology into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful creativity. A strong strain of critique of the dominant culture pervades the event, standing in stark contrast to Harvey’s rather strange claim that Burning Man somehow represents “old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism.” The event can represent many things for many people, but there’s little doubt that Burning Man’s gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world,” and its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the present planetary crisis.

2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change indicating Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of its existence. No longer is it simply about burning The Man and reveling in the destruction of the patriarchal (and industrial) status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly thematize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace the dominator culture. 2011 also marked the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after an earlier iteration of the festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee welcomed Burning Man back to the city of its birth.

Despite its encouraging seepage back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, and that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in this participatory project are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, geeks, techies, welders, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and general purpose weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a welcome committee or interdimensional portal of sorts for a new kind of consciousness to incarnate upon the Earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future may be being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.