Intensity of Satisfaction and Lowest Free Energy States (Thinking Abiogenesis with Bruce Damer)

See this link for context on Bruce Damer and David Deamer et al.’s abiogenesis hypothesis.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead articulates two methods for describing the universe. The first, and ontologically primary, method is what he calls “genetic analysis.” This mode of analysis looks at what transpires within each concrescing actual occasion of experience, abstractly dividing occasions into their component “prehensions” (or feelings of perished occasions from the past). The second method he calls the “coordinate” or “morphological” analysis, which has to do with the topological relations among the perished occasions of the contemporary world. This latter mode of analysis focuses on the extensive relations in time and space of objectified (because perished) occasions of experience, backgrounding their subjective feelings and aims. This is the domain of measurement of what has already become via what Whitehead calls “geometric strains,” whereas the genetic mode of analysis examines the concrete growth and becoming of reality, an attempt to catch Nature in the act, as it were. 

Whitehead uses the phrase “intensity of satisfaction” to describe the feeling of concrescence, which is the creative process whereby “the many become one and are increased by one,” or the process whereby the perished past is valued, remembered, and allowed to progress into the future with renewed evaluation. The past can pass into the future only through the present: experience is always a function of what William James called the “specious present,” which is not a solipsistic frozen slice cut off from its origins and destiny, but the tension between an inherited past and an anticipated future. For Whitehead, our perception of space emerges in the present. He calls it “presentational immediacy”: it’s Descartes’ res extensa. Time perception is a function of what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy,” which is the feeling of transition from moment to moment. Concrete reality is a complex relation of these two modes of perception, so we can only distinguish them for the purposes of intellectual analysis. Now, in Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the “extensive continuum,” the realm of extension or extensity, is only half the picture. And in fact, even to call it “half the picture” is already the privilege the domain of extensity over the other domain, that of intensity: to say it’s only half, as if 50% was external and 50% was internal, is already to privilege the quantifiable nature of extension. The quantitative dimension, the “extensive continuum,” is the mathematizable, computable, binary domain; it is what Tim Eastman calls the Boolean domain that can be measured in bits, rendered exhaustively in 1s and 0s. Only in this domain does it make sense to talk about 50% or half, or ratios of this kind. In the realm of intensity, the old rationality with its logical rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle doesn’t work anymore. The intensity of concrescence is a domain that cannot be measured, cannot be digitized. It is reality-in-process, something I’ve referred to as “creality” to prevent us from imagining it at some “thing” or “state.” It is the process whereby pure potentiality moves through probability to achieve final satisfaction in a complete occasion of experience or “actual entity.” Before a completed entity is achieved, an occasion is composed of many prehensions of its past, some initially in contradiction with one another. The process of concrescence resolves contradictory prehensions into complex contrasts, transforming clashes into some modicum of aesthetic harmony (these conflicts are why the principle of non-contradiction cannot be applied in the genetic analysis of concrescence, since a definite actuality has not yet been achieved; only once a concrescing subject has achieved its aesthetic aim and perished into objecthood can standard logic and measurements in spacetime be applied).  

When Whitehead discusses the satisfaction of an actual occasion of experience, the intensity of satisfaction in a concrescence, he is talking about feeling, he’s talking about something subjective and aesthetic, something which cannot be spread out in a coordinate grid because it is not yet part of extended spacetime. The realm of intensity or of prehension is not in extended space and time; rather, measurable spacetime relations are a secondary expression of or emergence from networks of occasions (Whitehead also uses the term “nexus” or “society” of occasions). Spacetime thus emerges out of the collective decisions of actual occasions of experience, a result of what these occasions of experience find satisfying, rather than a pre-existent container of some kind to which occasions are passively subjected and forced to conform. The extent of conformity to a measurable and predictable spacetime manifold is a function of the stubborn habits of past occasions being inherited in the present. The habits of what Whitehead calls “the electromagnetic society,” as well as the society of occasions associated with gravity (gravitonic society?) set the base notes for further cosmic evolution, though we cannot be sure that in the distant future our universe will not continue unfolding in more dimensions than what relativity has so far suggested.  

So, in other words, the very gravitational gradient of spacetime, and the energetic dynamics of light, are functions of feeling, functions of feelings of enjoyment, such that the the measurable shapes that the cosmos takes in the extensive domain are a result of or a precipitate of the achievements of the prehensive activities that are underway inwardly and so do not appear in the measurable domain. The concrescent activity of occasions of experience does not appear outwardly because it is what does the peering, it is the subject side of the equation governing cosmogenesis. When Whitehead refers to “intensity of satisfaction,” what he means to say is that there is an aesthetic achievement whereby the perished objects of the past are brought together under contrast with one another, “prehended.” The many objects of the perished past grow together into a new unity, a new whole of some kind, which has an associated experiential vector that launches it through the present into the future. It is telic, an aim, a purposeful unfolding that feels its way forward, or in thermodynamic terms, “falls forward” into the local minima free energy state (e.g., spherical liposomes). The achievement of stable thermodynamic morphologies, and the creative advance into more and more improbable morphologies at whatever scale of physical organization can be described in such experiential terms using Whitehead’s scheme. It is an account of the “why,” not the “how” (the latter is a matter of detailed scientific investigation of the extensive domain). 

Talk of energy in the extensive domain can, in Whitehead’s terms, be translated into the intensive domain in terms of experience or emotion—not conscious deliberation or imagination, or any of the high grade consciousness that we human beings experience—but a lower more basic form of feeling, a “vector feeling,” in Whitehead’s terms. At the most primitive level of physical process, these vector feelings are just gravitational gradients, or the inheritance of the vibratory frequency of a helium atom from moment to moment of its life-history, the repetition and enjoyment of the feeling of that particular frequency. What starts as extremely simply and relatively habitual feeling vectors amplify themselves as they cycle, as they become recursive, and especially as they develop means of reliable molecular memory and replication. When the geological and astrophysical conditions are right for an “ur-able”* planet to ripen into life, when various reliable rhythms in the environment afford the emergence of “improbability sinks” sheltered from a background of relative chaos by environmental conditions, then the emergence of chemical combinatorial selection becomes possible, eventually bootstrapping cellular evolution. The gradual emergence of living cells occurs in the cycling of these fragile progenitor communities. Not a single, heroic cell, but a heroic community gave birth to life. The progenitor hypothesis that Bruce is developing suggests it was a network of polymers at the edges of warm little ponds that would be drying out and refilling, drying out and refilling, with a crucial “gel-like” phase in between where complex cities of lipid sheaths allowed for the first sharing economy on Earth to emerge. Along the edges of these ponds, dehydration would catalyze the formation of longer polymers, of nucleic acids and peptides, complex chains or molecular worms that begin to manifest the first biological “functions” on planet earth, and perhaps in the universe. 

Bruce Damer likes to say that the universe before life—the atomic, astrophysical, galactic environments—gets a D for creativity, in the sense that at these scales relatively few stable forms of organization were found, and for billions of years they have been fixed in place and are basically just running down or wasting away now. No further evolution can transpire. The abiotic cosmis is thus ergodic. It wasn’t until the biological realm invented template copying and self-repairing complex adaptive cellular organization that the creativity of the cosmos ratcheted up again to find new, more complex energy states to “fall” into. Now, I agree with Bruce that the universe before life gets a D in creativity, but the important point here is that it is not an F. It is enough. A D is just enough creativity to keep the evolutionary process falling forward. Yes, it unfolds at a much slower rate than life is able to evolve with its more potent novelty producing engines, but at least some degree of aim and effective satisfaction was present from the beginning, otherwise atoms, stars, and galaxies could never have emerged (these are tremendous organizational achievements in their own right, considering the chaos from out of which they came!). 

To sum up, there is a lure toward deeper intensity operative at every scale of the universe, but which becomes qualitatively richer as evolution complexifies and new means of sheltering probability, affording interconnection, and storing memories are developed. With Whitehead’s help, we can correlate these experiential or aesthetic lures with the movement toward greater improbability: the lure toward intensity of satisfaction is a a lure towards improbability, toward the lowest free energy state relative to its environment. Whitehead offers us an answer as to “why” organized matter from the “least action principle” of the photon on up the scale of organizational complexity tends to adopt the lowest free energy state: because it feels good, because as Blake said “energy is eternal delight.”  This tendency is an aim toward order that is driven or goaded by the lure of enjoyment and satisfaction. It is the great cosmic “counter-agency” to entropy that Whitehead discusses in his book The Function of Reason. He is attempting to give physics animacy again. This language is not meant to discount the details of physics in the realm of extensity. It’s just an attempt at reintegrating the for too long neglected domain of intensity back into our modern understanding of the universe. Whitehead does prioritize the realm of intensity as the concrete reality, with the realm of extension being its secondary expression. But it is not like you could have one without the other, an inside without an outside. Both are required for the cosmic engine of evolution to creatively advance. Whitehead’s protest against the sort of scientific materialism that tries to explain away the inside by reduction to the outside is rooted in his claim that we cannot understand shapes taken in space without giving intensity its due. Intensity is Natura naturans (Nature naturing), and without this ingredient of creative process sprung from intensity of satisfaction, the Natura naturata (Nature natured) would make no sense. Explaining Nature’s external shapes requires making reference to such inward satisfactions. That, at least, is Whitehead’s wager. 

*”Ur-ability” is a new concept Bruce is developing with David Deamer to refer to the thermodynamic and chemical conditions necessary for life to emerge on a planet. We are used to thinking of the “habitability” planets, but “ur-ability” has to do with establishing not just habitability for existing life but the conditions for the origin (ur-) of life.

Emanation, Emergence, and Meaning: Thinking with Vervaeke and Kastrup

Here’s a link to an academic article laying out the significance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism for the hard problem of consciousness: https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/segall_ptsc_7_1_105-131.pdf

John Vervaeke and I recorded a dialogue a few days after I recorded the video above. View it here: Dia-logos with John Vervaeke: Emergence, Emanation, and Bernardo Kastrup’s Idealism