Death Denial in a Panpsychist Cosmos: A Dialogue with Corey Anton

Partially edited Transcript (if you feel inspired please do feel free to finish the editing of this transcript and post it as a comment below!):

Matt Segall: Well, good to see you.

Corey Anton: Great to see you

Matt Segall: So how’s it going

Corey Anton: It’s going really great and thank you so much for making this time I’m really happy to talk with you, you really, You know you’re you’ve always been one of my favorite YouTubers going all the way back in some way. You were the inspiration for me, opening the channel. I mean, I really enjoyed your channel. Way back you know over 10 years ago now. Uh, you know what I wanted to do today. And, well, it started with the politics of death video that you had posted a while back. Maybe about a week or so ago. Yeah. And I was going to post a response. And then Spirit Science had posted up a video on near death experiences. You’ve done a couple of video responses to David Long on this issue of emergentism versus panpsychism. I would like to go back to this original issue that you raised in the politics of death and see if we can talk a little bit about some of what’s going on there and then see sort of where it takes us.

Matt Segall: That’s great. Yeah, I’d love to try to tie all those things together, they are intimately connected, and to be able to that draw out

Corey Anton: Yeah, that

Matt Segall: Would be a lot of fun. So

Corey Anton: I am offering this up as I think, you know, in the spirit of, you know, of open inquiry and honesty about what I seem to think what seems to be the case. And what you know. I guess we really don’t know. I mean, there’s all kinds of different ways that we could come at some of these, you know, these different questions and concerns. But it would be, I mean, one way that I would want to come into it is in response to your politics of death, I would say, yes, there is a great concern over the meaning of death as it gets caught within an overly circumscribed individualism as once people have they’ve misunderstood organismal integrity with something like radical independence of the organism like as if the organism is independent of an environment, just because it maintains something like an organismal integrity. And I think for me the question would be, you know, to maximize one’s, we’ll call it spiritual potency or one’s recognition of the sacredness of existence. It has to do with this discovery of who one really is and that one is as a place and moment of everything that’s ever existed. And so as I think as soon as one sheds the false ego, the false sense of self that comes from a visual bias of trusting that the eyes are the true register of what boundaries are. As soon as you start to realize that the word, the spoken word, opens one up to historical dimensions, to dimensions of depth that are unseen. Words are not really material in the same way that we think about something that is visual that can be put on a scale that can be subject to compositional analysis and it’s materiality is basically subject to, again, this kind of reductivism. And let me say one last thing about this and I’ll sort of see what you want to say to any of that. But it’s that I think you know one of the simple ways to come at it, even from like a rudimentary biological orientation is to say to someone, okay, what will you do with the fact of genitalia? Because now you can look at your body and ask how does your genitalia relate to the rest of the body. And how are the hormones related and all of the organs relate to one another, which you’re never going to understand genitalia by just looking at the isolated individual separated at the skin. I mean, that kind of empiricism is going to wholly miss the kind of deep, profound sociality that’s etched in our body, not only with the fact that we have navels but the fact that we’ve come into the world by coming out of another person, like literally come into the world by coming out of another person. And we call these “private parts,” but they are really the ultimately social parts of our being. And it’s sort of, you know, it’s a statement that we call them our private parts, because we were older sociality. Because we try to define ourselves as these kind of atomistic individuals located, you know, again, inside the boundaries of the skin or something like that.

Matt Segall: Yeah, that’s a wonderful sort of preamble to enter into this conversation and I really appreciate everything that you’re saying, and would want to echo it, you know, there’s deep agreement here. And so I think what you’re describing how I would maybe rephrase it would be to say that in the modern period where individualism became basically the religion for modern societies, liberal society I guess, since communism was an alternative which had more of a sense of collective identity. But even there, there was a sense of the individual life as ceasing at death and that whatever we are is somehow limited to the individual body. I think in the whole history of human culture, the changing relationship to death and understanding of what happens when you die is one of, it seems to be at the core, you know, as Ernest Becker and other anthropologists have said our relationship to death seems to be at the base of our cultural, of our culture’s and our of our own sense of what is meaningful. Ultimately, and so how we respond to the fact of death is what gives us our sense of meaning and purpose and death is the end of human life in many senses of “end,” as in, it is only through death and engaging with the mystery of death that we can find purpose, and in the modern individualist context, it becomes difficult to find meaning in the face of death that isn’t just based in greed. And so what what you’re pointing to is the deeper social ground that, for example, if we even just look at our bodies, our sex organs. So they’re not our private parts. I love that they’re actually the most transpersonal of our organs. And actually there’s an interesting symmetry here that I think, you know, it may make modern Protestant but also all patriarchal culture blush and feel shame, but there’s a profound symmetry in the body developmentally between the the genitalia and the face, and like the sensory organs of the face and the sexual organs. The way that the bottom half of the body is structured, these are sprung from the same growth forms that shape the human body.

Corey Anton: You’re right. Okay, now that I think that’s exactly right. So let’s chase that down. Okay, that’s a good way to come out and this is where when people try to reduce it all down to the brain, it gets all confusing. And not only is the brain multi-modular, but the body has an array of different sensory-motor capacities and it includes the different senses traditionally defined like sight and hearing and touch but it includes the kind of space and time dynamics of the possibilities of reproduction. Or the fact that we need to sleep, or that we always have to have food chains at a certain distance from ourselves and we metabolize things at a certain rate. I mean, like the boundaries of the skin are illusory, but the eye is so easily fooled. This is how you get people thinking they’re going to galavant around the stars. You know they’re they’re missing all the ways in which you need the atmospheric pressure. The gravitational constants that are here. Relative to this massive, this planet like when you jump up and down, you’re actually affecting the gravity of the earth. We do the equation. I mean, it’s actually in there, you know, We’re more cosmic, then I think we we recognize and there isn’t integrity to the body, but what we need to go to is this kind of world-openness that comes from the different sense modalities. So this would be a different way to sort of echo what you were saying. But I would try to further it out this way so you know, Archimedes’ great discovery of how you can measure the volume of a complex object, like the crown right he sets it in the water and then it displaces a certain amount of water. He says, look, this is the volume that this thing occupies. But if I asked about a living body. See, this is where the panpsychism starts: When I talk about the the crown, I can understand that object that is subject to a kind of reductive compositional analysis and I can say I comprehend the whole of the crown by submerging it and then showing the amount of water displaced and saying, that’s how it’s occupying space. But me, my body, all of us, not only did we grow out of another person through nutritive commerce and metabolism and really very complicated processes, unlike that crown. I say that I occupy space. I don’t occupy space in a way that a thing does like I could take this pen and I can put it in a drawer, but it doesn’t feel the confinement of the space whereas a living organism, through its sensory capacities, its motor capacities… And it’s not just representational. This is absolutely crucial. I think is one of the biggest failures is for people to imagine that everything is just representational, you know, once you move to the difference between seeing, hearing, and touch you realize that okay like my eyes right now are registering and they’re representing the distances I am from the wall, but my legs do a lot more than represent that distance. They’re the source of those distances that I can take myself closer to or further away from that and to that extent, motility, the fact that my body has a directionality that my hands have things within certain reach and there’s a sort of spatial temporal dynamics of that and then hearing has a dynamic that intersects with that and then vision has an intersect and then once you get language that comes back in and then communication technologies start looping back and double backing over…You get this massive intersecting dynamic of modes of space and time, and we ask this question about consciousness and where does it start. How did it begin, that part of us, which is asking that question is a highly mediated social historical accomplishment it already depends upon calendars, all sorts of media technologies…

Matt Segall: So let me, I want to get to the panpsychism issue. Because I certainly don’t think that a crown or any artifact is conscious or has a soul or anything like that. But what you’re saying about space-time and the way that living organisms sort of bring forth their own space-time envelopes and that the organism and the environment are actually part of, they’re one system. Life is the system of relationship between organism and environment. And organisms and one another. But so the sex organs, right!? There’s something about the sex organs that connect us to a transpersonal past and future. And there’s something about the sense organs that connect us more to a personal sense of here and now. And then language allows us then to reconnect consciously to the way that our sex organs connect us to a deeper past and a future. Language, then, I think in a way is, again, if these, if you think of the top and the bottom half of the body as just grown from the same root and in a way fractally repeating one another, language takes on a profound fucundity as the Logos. Logos has this erotic and sexual dimension to it that is connecting us through time in a way that I think is closer to the way that our genitalia are connecting us through time than it is to the way that our sense organs are connecting us to the here and now. Language takes us out of the here and now of the sensory present and puts us in touch with, I think, that deeper dimension of reality that are our sex organs connect us to, that our genes connect us to, but unconsciously.

Corey Anton: Speech and sperm. They come from common roots. Oh for sure there’s, you screw with people’s heads when you talk with them, literally, there’s a fecundity that comes from the sowing of seeds, meaning dissemination, you know, these are all skills that are, you know this, there’s some way to talk about communication in these terms.

Matt Segall: Doesn’t it feel like culture in general, but like, especially modern individualist cultures have reacted against this in sort of like shame or the sense of like an unwillingness to to recognize the way in which we are not just ourselves? Yeah, and that we are constantly involved in these acts of generation with one another?

Corey Anton: Yeah, let’s get at it. So, I mean, I think I’m going to go back to the touch stuff and the sight versus hearing, and then language. I do have a new book that’s coming out hopefully in December and I’m trying to bring the cost down right now haggling with the publisher, at any rate, I’m really excited about it, but it’s about how non-being. Let me give some examples: These things that I’m talking about are from the book, you know, like this genitalia stuff, but I mean, one of the ways to get at it is to show that there are differences between actualities and possibilities and the different senses have different domains and ranges of possibilities, and language opens up even, you know, a wider range of kinds of temporal possibilities, rather than just like organisms’ possibilities in space. The way that like, in the ear, as the predator and prey sense allow for hunting down of prey and or eluding a predator. But you know when you try to think about something like touch, you know it sounds crazy to say it, but think about it. Touch has no possibilities. Touch is absolutely actual at all points. It’s that part of you which is wholly fully actual and you’re always standing somewhere, you’re always sitting somewhere, you’re always in contact. Now, you could see like right now I can see this pen in my hand. But see possibilities of where I can move it with my hand, but my hand moves wherever it moves! Somone might to to force this and will say that sight is just nothing more than a field of actualities as much as the field of action is. And I say blah! Those ideas are not good phenomenology, these are people overly obsessed with neuromania. They’ve way reduced the complexity of human experience down to the way it comes out in the brain scan and not really registered the phenomenological differences between those spatial-temporal horizons of sight, those of hearing, and those are touch. So, as I say, you know, I think sight offers this vast expanse of possibilities. It’s why it makes athletic competition so fun to watch. You can see all the possibilities that people are managing, you know, when you throw a dart, you are the dart! In the world of touch, this leaves your hand and it lands wherever does, but you can see all the places where you wanted it to land or where it didn’t land… You know, so I think once once you deal with the issue of possibilities, now you have a non-materialist, non-reductive move. And I think this is one of the real accomplishments of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature is that he does deal with possibilities, being part of what makes things up and that is, you know, a possible state a goal or an intended state, even if it’s never actualized can be part of what made the thing do it, as we say. One last thing on this. I think one of the ways to bring it to a head is the difference, I go out in the sun and I close my eyes. Now the sun overcomes the actual photons are overcoming great lengths to tan my skin and that is they’re touching my skin. The skin tan is one of actuality it’s because I’m they’re exposing my zone, the zone, but soon as I opened my eyes. Now there’s a field of possibilities. I mean, even though they’re both amount to chemicals and different photons, you know, in one sense, interacting with my eyes and once they’ve interacted with my skin, and both can be reduced to chemical analysis. But the phenomenological difference between seeing this, if I open my eyes, my eyes are going to be one of the few senses, they’re going to give me a quick place of where I can locate shade and not die from the sun. So, I mean, my eyes clearly afford a realm of possibilities. And if there’s possibilities that means it’s not a concatenate chain of just everything unfolding. There has to be something like, at the very least, organismal complexity looping in upon itself, the more organisms have, more and more. So this is sort of a Strange Loop stuff of Douglas Hofstadter. As soon as you start to get to touch and then smell and then taste and then hearing and then sight and then forms of language and then communication technologies. It’s this multifolded very, very complex horizonal field of different possibilities. So, I mean, I think that’s where you’d have to get out a lot of the non-reductionism.