Social Threefolding

“The Times are the masquerade of the eternities; trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise; the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history; the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future. The Times—the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes, are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves, whereon a weighty sense is inscribed, if we have the wit and the love to search it out.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson 

In 1919, amidst the revolutionary turmoil of the post-war period in Europe, the Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner applied his anthroposophical understanding of the human being to the challenges facing modern society. He called his program “Social Threefolding.” Those interested in the details of the campaign should read Albert Schmelzer’s The Threefolding Movement, 1919, A History: Rudolf Steiner’s Campaign for a Self-governing, Self-managing, Self-educating Society (2017). For Steiner’s explications, see this archive. After initially winning widespread support from workers and some liberals and leaders of industry in Stuttgart, Germany, the effort came under attack from left, right, and center alike. The movement’s failure was due in large part to Steiner’s refusal to succumb to partisan ideological factions. “We have to admit,” Steiner wrote at the time, “that party programs are drifting about among us like the dried corpses of now dead creeds” (The Threefold Social Order (1920), p. 11). Threefolding is not simply a program for political reform. Its success depends first and foremost on the spiritual awakening of free thinking human beings capable of willingly and lovingly engaging in social life beyond the partisan half truths that divide us. As Whitehead put it, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil” (Dialogues by Lucien Price).

I cannot do justice to the scheme in this short blog post. But I want to share some of the basic ideas. I hope to find others interested in developing them further, as Steiner was explicit that his approach needed to be reconfigured for application to different times and places. Despite the need for updates and adjustments, I believe his approach can aid us in our present social predicaments.

Social Threefolding is rooted in Steiner’s perception that, over the course of its collective evolution, humanity has produced three basic semi-autonomous spheres contributing to the health of the social organism. All three spheres of activity are necessary for societal well-being. Problems arise when one sphere swallows or is allowed to dominate over the others.

Forgive the poor translation from German to English in this graphic. Source: https://socialnew.goetheanum.org/threefolding/

The economic sphere corresponds to willing and has to do with the metabolism regulating human-earth relations. The political sphere corresponds to feeling and has to do with the rights and laws regulating human-human relations. The cultural sphere corresponds to thinking and has to do with all that springs from individual personalities for the sake of the social whole.

When the cultural sphere is allowed to dominate over economic and political life, the result is some form of theocracy. When the political sphere is allowed to dominate over economic and cultural life, the result is some form of state communism. With a few important exceptions, humanity’s present social (dis)order stems from the domination of the economic sphere over cultural and political life. We call this system of domination “global capitalism.”

Now, 30 years after its triumphant victory against Soviet communism, the global capitalist system looks more fragile than ever. The social and ecological ills produced by the capitalist growth imperative are impossible to deny. It may be that majorities on the left and right now agree that the current global capitalist order needs at least major reform if not total replacement. But with what? It is in response to this latter question that bitter divisions arise.

Speaking as a politically active American who canvased for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, I find myself increasingly dismayed by the abstract and unrealistic utopianism of progressive left and conservative right alike. The former seems to believe government can solve all our problems, while the latter seems to believe government is the source of all our problems. Much of the confusion stems from a lack of proper differentiation among the social spheres. For example, while the political sphere has a crucial role to play in securing the rights of all people (e.g., by reforming policing and the legal system, securing voting rights, etc.), it simply is not possible to legislate racism away. Racial biases are a perennial cultural issue and must be dealt with as such (there are plenty of examples of the right trying to legislate cultural issues, as well). Trying to legislatively control education or free speech only exacerbates the problem by allowing the political sphere to overreach and dominate the cultural sphere. That said, dealing with racist cultural biases is impossible without addressing racialized political and economic injustices. That the three social spheres are to be given some autonomy is not to say that they can function independently.

What political rights are citizens of a democracy due? Certainly, in the context of the US Constitution, these include the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, the freedom of speech, of religion, and of association, etc. But how can one secure their right to life without basic housing, nutrition, and healthcare? And what good is abstract liberty if it does not include access to quality education and cultural life? Without these, liberty loses its concrete meaning and efficaciousness. Under our capitalist political economy, the basic conditions required for life, liberty, and happiness are paywalled, and differentially so depending on historically entrenched racial and class inequities.

Under the current global capitalist system, everything from housing to healthcare to human labor is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold for the private profit of an increasingly small cohort of billionaires. From a Threefolding perspective, the economic sphere has in these instances far overreached its proper charter, infringing upon the political rights of individuals. While corporate capitalism has increasingly embraced cultural progressivism, this rebranding amounts to no more than equal opportunity exploitation.

The claim that food, shelter, education, and healthcare are foundational political rights due to all citizens may make threefolding sound like a form of left wing utopianism. But this claim simply asserts the concrete conditions necessary for realizing the abstract rights enshrined in the constitution. While Steiner certainly sympathized with the plight of factory workers, supporting their call for the abolition of the wage system and for greater self-management, he completely rejected the idea of a state-centralized economy. Instead, he imagined an associative economy of cooperative firms seeking to harmonize their interests:

“The regulation of the production, circulation, and consumption of goods will not be done by laws, but by the persons concerned, out of their own direct insight and interests. The necessary insight will be developed through people’s own share in the life of the associations, and the fact that the various interests are obliged to arrive at a mutual balance by contract, will guarantee that the goods circulate at their proper relative values.”

Steiner, The Threefold Social Order (1920), p. 9.

In sharp contrast to the materialism of Marxist political movements, Steiner rejects the critique of cultural and spiritual life as mere ideology. On the contrary, Steiner felt that Marxists were blinded by the ideological weight of materialism from recognizing the spiritual content of their own impulses. He sought to affirm their sense of economic injustice while also inviting them to participate in the cultural life which to that point had been largely reserved for the upper and middle classes. This is not to say, however, that Steiner was blind to the impact of bourgeois ideology. During his campaign for social threefolding in Stuttgart, he reminded upper middle class theosophists and anthroposophists that the comfortable homes they withdrew to in order to contemplate spiritual ideas were heated with coal mined by children. He sought both to awaken the upper classes to the plight of workers, and to awaken workers to the spiritual ground of human life, with the aim of seeding the social soil so as to foster a truly free cultural sphere (including education, arts, religion, science, and media), genuine legal equality for everyone regardless of gender or race, etc., and a cooperative, regenerative economy that aims to contribute to the flourishing of humanity and the earth, rather than to profit from their exploitation.

Zombie Evolution (reply to Sean Carroll)

The physicist Sean Carroll was recently on the Mind Chat podcast hosted by the philosophers Keith Frankish and Philip Goff. Watch it here.

I uploaded a brief interpolation of my own on YouTube, which among other things calls out the model-centrism at play in Carroll’s “Core Theory.”

Earlier today, Carroll uploaded a blog post to tie up some loose ends after his discussion with Goff and Frankish: “The Zombie Argument for Physicalism (Contra Panpsychism).

Contrary to the intent of most philosophical zombie arguments, Carroll attempts to “ZAP” the credibility of panpsychist accounts of consciousness by arguing that, ironically, the well-wrought thought experiment only ends up strengthening the case for physicalism.

Philosophical zombies would, of course, insist that they have 1st-person introspective acquaintance with their own inner lives. They would claim to enjoy colors and sounds, and to feel deeply insulted by our opinion of them as mere mindless automatons. But they would be completely mistaken. Their verbal objections to our genuinely conscious judgements about them would amount to nothing more than the causally determined motion of lips, tongue, vocal cords, diaphragm, and neurons. No one would be making the claims, as they would amount to no more than the auditory outputs of a complicated machine.

Carroll correctly claims that the traditional zombie argument, if it challenges the credibility of physicalism at all, leaves panpsychists with a merely epiphenomenal sort of consciousness, a witness with no will, a ghost with no way to actively participate in physical processes. Admitting that consciousness is epiphenomenal leaves the panpsychist with way less explanatory leverage against physicalism, since if consciousness makes no difference to the goings-on of the physical world, then scientifically speaking it’s just not worth bothering about. Carroll admits that dualists could still argue for the irreducibility of epiphenomenal consciousness to physics, but due to the incoherence of the dualist ontology (i.e., two entirely distinct types of substance with no clear way to interact), we can set this position to the side.

If, on the other hand, consciousness does have some strongly emergent, downward causal role to play in how the body behaves, then according to Carroll that would mean that the very well-established Core Theory of physics is wrong. Electrons can’t break the laws of physics just because the mind haunting my brain tells them to.

In the background is Carroll’s claim to possess a complete theory by means of which the behavior of the physical world can be deduced.* The problem with this sort of model-centrism is that it entirely neglects the historicity of our universe, implying some sort of outside “God’s eye view.” Carroll’s emphasis on timeless imposed laws begs the question of their status in an otherwise entirely materialistic cosmos. Like Lee Smolin, and earlier philosophical scientists like C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead, I find it more coherent to recognize the cosmos as an evolving process, with “laws” arising as widespread habits alongside the emergent entities exemplifying them. As the cosmos complexifies, emergent entities like atoms, stars, and galaxies take shape to progressively constrain the future course of evolution. But nothing in the Core Theory, as I understand it, predicts the emergence of life or mind. This is not to say that the Core Theory somehow rules out the possibility, just that it renders these phenomena exceedingly unlikely, even miraculous. For the Core Theory to be considered a truly complete theory of everything, it would need to account for its own conditions of possibility, which is to say it would need to describe a universe wherein creatures capable of developing a Core Theory could evolve. Short of this, the best we cay say about the theory is that it accurately describes the goings-on of its particular domain of relevance. It is an abstract model that describes the physical world as if life and mind did not exist. Bracketing these higher level phenomena for the purposes of developing workable models of simpler phenomena is perfectly fine. Physics has been wildly successful in doing so! But turning around to try to explain away the consciousness doing the explaining as though it were nothing but a “successful way of talking” about physical behavior reeks of model-centrism.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that conscious agency in any way contradicts the account of particles and fields offered by the Core Theory. Electrons, for instance, need not disobey the equations of physics to nonetheless be subject to different probability distributions resulting from the unique, highly evolved physiological environment of the mammalian nervous system. The point is that context matters. Laws are not imposed on nature from some eternal mathematical heaven. They are descriptions of the statistical behavior of entities in various environments and at various levels of organization.

But back to the zombie argument. The point of this thought-experiment, as I understand it, is not to prove that consciousness is necessarily something extra above and beyond physics. Nor am I convinced by Carroll’s ironic reversal, that somehow it cements the strength of the physicalist account. I think it is helpful to cut to the chase by putting the zombie argument in an evolutionary context. If consciousness evolves, then it cannot be epiphenomenal, since in that case it would play no role in an organism’s behavior and thus offer nothing for the evolutionary process to select and enhance. So, if we put dualism and idealism to the side (I know this is not entirely fair to idealists, but that discussion will have to wait for a later post), then consciousness must somehow be causally efficacious, i.e., it must be a real feature of the physical world. But if matter/energy is construed in the abstract terms that model-centrists insist upon, then it is not at all clear how to bridge the gap. Hence Chalmers’ “hard problem.”

The solution, I’ve argued, is to first admit that physics offers a highly predictive but nonetheless abstract account of the isolated behavior of fields and particles. There is nothing in this model that suggests the universe should ever come to life or wake up and start consciously reflecting upon itself. Thus, the model needs to be placed in a broader cosmological context. To resolve the hard problem of consciousness, what we have traditionally meant by “matter” and by “experience” needs to be rethought, such that the two are understood as the “outside” and the “inside” of one and the same unfolding reality. This allows us to make continuous what would otherwise remain a rather glaring ontological chasm.

That simpler forms of self-organization, like electrons, protons, or the atomic elements they symbiotically compose, follow extremely regular and predictable patterns of behavior does not rule out the possibility that these behaviors are the expression of what Whitehead described as “vector-feelings.” What physicists describe in mathematical terms as gravitational fields may be experienced by the particles in question as gravitational feelings.

*For a logical and philosophical critique of Carroll’s “Core Theory,” see pgs. 126-130 of plasma physicist and process philosopher Tim Eastman’s book Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020).


For an article length treatment of these issues, see “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020)

On Whitehead’s Sociological Theory in “Adventures of Ideas”

Whitehead’s goal is these pages to elucidate the concept of civilization. He operates under the assumption that human civilization has profound cosmological significance. The fact that civilized beings have emerged in the course of the evolution of the universe tells us something important about the nature and perhaps even the purpose of that universe. His hypothesis is that the rise of human civilization exemplifies the effective lure of ideas in the adventure of cosmogenesis. While the issue of novel ideas into practical consequences may be slow, the upward adventure of life on Earth testifies to their power. 

He begins by reminding his readers that history is not just a collection of facts. Were we to be presented with the bare facts, devoid of any theoretical interpretation, we would have merely sound vibrations and the motion of colored shapes (3). History is a story told in the present, often to serve as material for the formation of our own self-understanding. Our imaginations of history are inseparable from our metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. 

Whitehead claims that the study of history reveals a general dichotomy, that between senseless, often violent, compulsion and consciously formulated aspiration. People “are driven by their thoughts as well as by the molecules in their bodies, by intelligence and by senseless forces” (46). Whitehead lists environmental conditions and the brute necessities of technological production (e.g., the socially transformative effects of coal, steam, electricity, and oil) among the senseless forces, and Axial religion and democratic humanitarianism as examples of intelligent aspiration (7).  

While Whitehead was himself a progressive (he was involved in the women’s rights and educational reform movements of his day), he cautions against the impetuous insistence upon imposing new ideas in the wrong season. Sometimes in the rush to implement social improvements, attendant complexities are ignored, and the attempt to remove an evil ends up releasing further evils (20). “A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good [people] to carry it into practical effect…The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification” (21). Ideals may be well-intentioned, but given the complexities of both nature and culture (and the complex interplay and continual overlap between them), the actual effects of their implementation often far outrun their conscious intent.

Whitehead dwells on the institutions of human sacrifice and slavery, long accepted among supposedly civilized peoples, as examples of the power of inherited instinctive behaviors to override higher ideals. “Freedom” was almost a meaningless notion for earlier societies, such as the Egyptian or Babylonian (49). Whitehead tasks philosophy with seeking to consciously entertain and articulate those ultimate intuitions, obscured by habitual customs, that nonetheless guide human beings toward civilized order, that is, toward a world wherein the persuasion of free beings has emerged victorious over coercive force as the prime agent of history (25). Whitehead offers an updated rendering of Plato’s suggestion in the Republic—that the ideal state would be run by philosopher-kings: “today, in an age of democracy, the kings are plain citizens pursuing their various avocations. There can be no successful democratic society till general education conveys a philosophic outlook” (98). 

Such a philosophical outlook would marshal wisdom as a “modifying agency” upon the two streams that feed into our consciousness, that is, inherited instincts/routines and intellectual ferment/spontaneity (47). Wisdom functions to coalesce these streams into some self-determining (i.e., free) and holistic judgment. Wise decision-making is limited by the limitations of our consciousness: “We do not initiate thought by an effort of self-consciousness. We find ourselves thinking, just as we find ourselves breathing and enjoying the sunset.” Nonetheless, few are willing to deny the role of knowledge and freedom in human life, though admittedly they tend to come in brief and unexpected flashes. Civilization advances, if it does, because wisdom kindles these flashes so as to melt and make malleable inherited customs and to light the way toward juster futures. 

Whitehead sees little evidence that humanity’s inborn mental capacities have increased during the historical period. Rather, he points to “the outfit which the environment provides for the service of thought,” that is, to the impact of various media technologies (e.g., literary and mathematical symbolisms, communication methods, etc.). The downside is that technologically mediated intelligence is liable to get locked into its favored abstractions, “[dismissing] the baffling aspects of things” in favor of the certainty provided by logical system. “Wisdom,” Whitehead suggests, “is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions…The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes” (47-48).

Writing in the early 20th century, Whitehead thought that the economic sphere constituted the “most massive problem of human relationships” (62). He maintains high hopes for commerce, since ideally “it is the great example of intercourse in the way of persuasion,” while “war, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force” (83). But difficulties stand in the way of realizing the ideal. Whitehead discusses the invention of corporate personhood, which he believes totally undermined classical liberal political philosophy, wherein freedom belonged to individual human beings, rather than to fictional corporate entities. He also discusses the hazy notion of private property, which with the expansion of monopolistic corporate rule and competitive market dynamics has come to signify little more than “the will of the stronger” (63). But Whitehead admits that the classical liberal idea of “absolute individuals with absolute rights” is both metaphysically and politically inadequate: “The human being is inseparable from its environment in each occasion of its existence.” Whitehead’s process-relational understanding of reality has it that individuals, while they constitute real loci of aesthetic and moral value, are nonetheless emergent from their social relations; similarly, societies are shaped by the mutual transactions of their members. The emergence of individuals from their social relations means that custom forms the instinctive basis of our behavior. But determination by custom is not total, as individuals are also free to emphasize novel intuitions of alternative courses of action, and to consciously agree to mutually beneficial contractual transactions with one another, thus allowing for the possibility of a genuinely free marketplace. In the end, “nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance. Sporadic spontaneity is composed of flashes mutually thwarting each other. Ideas have to be sustained, disentangled, diffused, and coordinated with the background. Finally they pass into exemplification in action” (64). Thus, much work remains to be done to translate the ideal of freedom into the economic domain.

Whitehead traces the rise of the ideal of freedom in the history of human societies. Once a negligible fancy, it has gradually become the founding value of democratic nation-states. But Whitehead warns us against conceiving of freedom in purely cultural terms, as freedom of thought and speech, of the press, or of religious practice; that is, it is shortsighted to conceive of restraints on our freedom as stemming merely from the conflicting desires of other human beings. It is not our fellow human beings, but the “massive habits of physical nature” that constrain our freedom and set the scene for our suffering: “birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease…all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men” (66). Political philosopher William Connolly’s book The Fragility of Things (2013) begins by recounting the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which provides as striking an example as we could ask for of what Whitehead means. Connolly describes how the senseless shock of this terrible natural disaster fed into the emergent Enlightenment mentality represented by Voltaire, who in his satirical book Candide ridiculed both traditional religious consolations as well as Leibniz’s conception that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. In Connolly’s terms, the event exemplifies the way “the human estate is both imbricated with and periodically over-matched by a cosmos composed of multiple, interacting force fields moving at different speeds” (7). But rather than adopting an atheistic position in light of nature’s vicissitudes and the fragility of human life, Whitehead affirms the role of Ideas in history, believing that we can directly intuit an eternal Good beyond all changing circumstances. Without such ideal intuitions to stir the soul toward higher life, he sees no reason why civilized beings should have come to exist in the first place.

Whitehead then turns to critique the socioeconomic consequences of the Malthusian doctrine and the attendant Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest,” which he believes are at best an over-simplification and, at worst, when compared with the recent facts of European history, demonstrably false. The doctrine naturalizes the inequalities of capitalist society, with “the fortunate few, and…the semi-destitute many,” forcing us to abandon “hope of improving the social system by a humane adjustment of social…conditions” (73). Connolly goes into more detail regarding the continued effect of these doctrines in his discussion of neoliberalism, which is an ideology seeking to use state power to inject market dynamics into all domains of human life (21). The assumption is that the self-organizing dynamics of the market will result in the best of all possible worlds. Neoliberalism is thus a kind of capitalist Panglossianism (6) (Pangloss, remember, is Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz).

Though Whitehead emphasizes the selective agency required for the evolution of civilization out of raw nature, he rejects the prevalent dichotomy between humanity and nature. “Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature” (78). He goes on to claim that life itself is about more than mere survival, as living beings are constantly playing offense, groping toward novelty and expansion of their powers. In the human sphere, it follows that “a policy of sociological defense is doomed to failure” (81). “In a live civilization, there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change” (83).

“Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances” by Catherine Keller

Let us first recall why Keller has chosen to “dreamread” John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. As a process theologian, it is no surprise that she would be interested in a Biblical text. But her purpose is not merely to read John’s missive back into its 1st century CE historical context. Nor is her intent to read it as a literal prediction of a divinely determined future. Her aim, rather, is to unveil the eternal patterns of history that reverberate through John’s day into our own. Keller is dreamreading the “ancient future” of humanity, imperiled by imperial excesses and injustices then as now. She turns to Revelation as a polysemic source of dis-closure, that is, as a reminder that the future remains open-ended, its promise or peril awaiting our response to the signs of the times. Keller reads the book’s many internal contradictions as a call to liberate ourselves, through the work of shared mourning and collective uplift, from any sense of scripts already written so that we may arrive fully in the potent present, capable of facing what MLK, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” The book she dreamreads remains relevant to our situation today because, with both oppressive and progressive effects, it has inspired martyrs, emperors, and enslaved alike to shape and reshape the course of civilization for millennia. 

In Chapter 5, Keller interprets John’s misogynistic vision of the luxuriously adorned “Whore of Babylon” astride a seven-headed, ten-horned scarlet beast as a metaphor (or “metaforce”) expressive of the unholy matrimony of imperial power and global economy. The beast is said to turn on the “Mother of Whores,” just as imperial superpowers have been known to contradict themselves by “devouring the very flesh, resources, [and] labor, [they] live from” (111). John details the commodities that the “merchants of the earth” of his day buy and sell along their Mediterranean sea routes. These include not only wine, pearls, silk, and spices, but “human bodies and souls” (Rev. 18:11-13). Keller reminds us that “Rome two thousand years ago operated the largest market in chattel slaves on the planet,” adding the disturbing facts that “civilization as we know it is based upon the labor of unthinkable numbers of slaves,” and, even today, long after the institution has been outlawed in most nations, tens of millions of mostly women and children remain in chains, with billions more stuck in what amounts to wage slavery (114). 

Keller then turns to a critique, informed by Revelation, of our insatiable neoliberal/neo-imperial capitalist political economy. In our day, as in John’s, the power of unchecked consumerism does not simply fulfill desires, it produces them—or in terms of John’s pornographic metaforce, it “seduces”: “the graphic of the great whore signifies a commodification of self, body and soul, on the part of imperial subjectsnot just their objects” (117). In other words, the power of capitalism is not simply “out there,” imposed upon us as the will of an imperial army may be. The truly insidious thing about an economy of greed is how it infects our very selves, our sense of self-worth and well-being. The engine of our economy depends upon knowing no limits, on the feeling of lack, the constant need of more income, more land, more labor, more stuff. The political representatives elected to protect our democratic rights and assure social stability by checking the power of transnational corporations have failed to fulfill their duties. Under the neoliberal order which has held sway since the 1970s (when declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt put an end to the post-war alliance between capital and democracy), the role of the state has been coopted, so that it now “[offers] political support, tax benefits, police and military backing for the economy, which in return rewards the politicians it rides” (121). Capital cannot help itself, it commodifies everything: land, labor, politicians, and like John’s Porn Queen, even itself, undermining its own conditions of continuance. 

Building on the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streek, Keller introduces the situation in present day Western democracies as a struggle between two constituencies, the “nation state people” and the “international market people” (122). Tensions are rising as inequality reaches levels not seen since ancient Rome (Keller cites studies showing that, within the US, the ratio between the richest 100 households and the bottom 90% is about 108,000 to 1, roughly equivalent to that between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman empire). The rise of Trump and other demagogues around the world is symptomatic of income inequality and a growing rift between “nationalists” (who are mostly white and often rural) and “globalists” (often urban and somewhat more diverse). Rather than demonize the supporters of Trump (many of whom are evangelical Christians inspired by their own, albeit more spurious readings of Revelation), Keller acknowledges the ambiguities and contradictions of our times. Trump’s presidency was itself an outcome, and perhaps signals also the ending, of American neoliberalism (126). The anger that helped lift him into office stemmed from racist animosity but also the complete lack of concern shown by (neo)liberals for many working class people as the post-war industrial economy was dismantled and its jobs sent over seas. Keller admits that John’s visions are indeed suggestive of a great battle against the global elites who profit from such outsourcing. But the contradictions intensify, as Republicans blame wildfires in the Western US on environmentalists instead of climate change, while Democrats blame Trump’s election on Russian memes instead of acknowledging the impact of global trade on the lives of those Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables.” Keller also warns against conflating jet-setting cosmopolitan neoliberalism with the radically intersectional cosmopolitics that resists with equal vigor both the “aspirational fascism” of nationalists and the insatiable extractivism of globalists (124). 

In the end, Keller returns to the beginning, to the “dominion” clause in the Genesis creation narrative that has stirred so much debate among environmentalists and religious scholars. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that “the matter of the earth will not neatly reduce to the stuff of dollar signs…Matter Strikes Back” (130). In other words, all of humanity is beginning to experience the blowback from centuries of unchecked extraction and pollution. Witness “Gaia’s Revenge,” as James Lovelock put it. All of humanity suffers from this blowback, the conspicuously consuming and technologically insulated wealthy Western peoples as well as the Global South, where billions of people are eager for justice to be restored despite being first in line to face rising sea levels and changing climates.

The drive to dominate the Earth among the Biblical peoples has deep roots in a perhaps partial reading of the story of creation: “What a beastly irony: somehow human-godlikeness got taken as ‘go for it, godly world masters: use up the earth, waste its creatures” (131). Keller closes chapter five by offering a re-reading of the first book, reminding that Elohim creates not from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but from “the deep” (creatio ex profundis). Further, God says that every creature, and creation itself, is good, indicating to Keller that we who are made in God’s image “are called to emulate that love of the material universe” (131). (For more on Keller’s theopoetic reading of Genesis, be sure to check out her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming). 

In Chapter 6, Keller explores the “poetics of Hebrew hope” that shaped John’s 1st century religious context and that have continued to reverberate through the millennia. The earliest Christian communities suffered disappointment after their messiah was crucified by the empire they so despised. They waited for a second coming, but Keller points out that no such “coming again” is mentioned in the Bible. Rather, despite the persistence of imperial rule and the increasingly violent persecution of his followers, Christ is signaled as “present” (parousia) rather than still to come (135). Keller goes on to chronicle the uses and abuses of Revelation. In the 2nd century CE, the African theologian Tertullian, emboldened by John’s text, attempted to create some breathing room between politics and religion by calling upon Rome to protect religious freedom (144). Eventually, Emperor Constantine would answer this call, but only at the cost of the imperialization of Christianity. The anti-imperialist egalitarian community Jesus had inspired thus transformed into the official religion of Rome. Still, Tertullian’s call would ring true thousands of years later, inspiring the liberation of slaves in the Americas. In the 11th century CE, Pope Urban II’s holy crusades, inspired by the bloody battles of John’s visions, unified a war torn Europe against a common Muslim enemy. A century later, European Christendom would face internal dissensions again, as heterodox communities perceived the growing wealth of the Vatican through the lens of John’s Great Whore (149). The monk Joachim of Fiore declared the coming “Age of Spirit” when the Church hierarchy would be dissolved, all property would be held in common, and everyone would have direct access to the divine. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant revolt against the excesses of the Catholic Church. Luther memed scenes from John’s Revelation by portraying the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Included in his German translation of the Bible was a drawing of the Mother of Whores wearing the papal tiara (151). The Thirty Years War to follow was the bloodiest in European history. 

Colored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible

Keller chronicles these events to make clear that “the history of collective resistance to oppression is no less an effect of the Apocalypse than is the oppression itself” (155). Indeed, Jewish messianism leaves its traces in all modern progressive movements on behalf of justice. Keller says that the progressive left must grieve the “totalitarian traumatisms” and “messianic disappointment” of 20th century state communism, turning elsewhere for its (more intersectional, more cosmopolitical and multispecies) political projects (158). While the right appears more unified, and thus more poised to take power, it is “precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities [that] the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities” (161). She councils our “cosmically entangled, dangerously gifted, achingly diverse” species to take time for griefwork, to mourn all that has been and is being lost. And she warns us to remain ever vigilant against the temptation to allow the rage that arises in us to forego its righteousness by collapsing into a vengeful “we-good, you-bad” dichotomy. The split between good and evil people only fuels more cycles of revenge. If God is love (as the other John said in his gospel), and if justice is what love looks like in public (as Cornel West puts it), then only our love of each other (enemies included) and of all creation can hold open the possibility of a future worth living in. What kind of future will that be? In the final chapters of her book, Keller offers some possibilities… 

“Another End of the World is Possible” by Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle

“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
—Bruno Latour

“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.” 
—David Graeber

Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.

The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies. 

We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).

The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).  

The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here. 

The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”

Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195). 

“How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” by Servigne and Stevens

Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens cover a lot of territory in this book. It is clear enough to anyone open to even consider reading it that climate change and other ecological catastrophes are already occurring and will only intensify. This book was published in French in 2015, well before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the origins of this virus are not yet known, it is widely understood that the effects of climate change and attendant habitat loss make “spillover events” more likely. So pandemics may be the new normal, with Covid-19 serving as a deadly but relatively merciful dress rehearsal (relatively merciful because the next novel virus that spills over into human circulation may have a much higher infection fatality rate). We have also learned from the explosion of conspiratorial thinking during the pandemic just how right Servigne and Stevens are to warn that collapse will not come with any homogenous vision of what is happening (153): “almost everything will be played out on the ground of the imaginary, of our representations of the world” (154). We are in the midst of a total information war with as many fronts as there are screens. Such a situation finds us in desperate need of shared understandings, of a common (even if multiply culturally inflected) story, since “stories give birth to collective identities,” and thus, foster awareness of our shared planetary destiny. 

In addition to the threat of pandemics which we have all grown familiar with, Servigne and Stevens list other catastrophes that are likely to intensify: biodiversity loss, chemical spills, resource wars, droughts, wildfires, migrations, terror attacks, financial crises, and social unrest, to name a few. They raise the question of how we are to maintain belief in the urgency of our situation given that disasters are becoming so common. Jerry Brown, former governor of California, remarked back in 2018 that mega-wildfires are “the new abnormal.” The authors discuss the difficulties and moral hazards of assessing risk in the context of ever-evolving hypercomplex systems, like Gaia or the global economy. Often, an “inverse temporality” only allows catastrophes to be recognized as possible in retrospect. Also, complex systems are understood to be resilient only up to certain unknown thresholds, at which point they can suddenly collapse. In light of the uncertainties, they recommend that we switch from an “observe, analyze, command and control” approach to risk assessment to a “probe, act, sense, adjust” mode. The latter is a better alternative to just waiting for catastrophe to strike before taking action. 

Despite the uncertainties, Servigne and Stevens discuss a few attempts to mathematically model collapse, including the “HANDY” (human and nature dynamics) model and the “World3” model. The HANDY model is unique in including economic inequality among its parameters. It factors in not only accumulated wealth but also its distribution through society. The model shows that societies with inequalities in wealth distribution will collapse even with low levels of overall consumption (112). Part of the reason is that “wealth buffers” in such societies allow elites to continue business as usual, thus locking in the very sociotechnical routines that eventually deplete the resource base, triggering collapse. The World3 model, originally developed by a group of systems scientists at MIT, has been around longer than HANDY. Based on the modeling of parameters including population, industrial production, agriculture, pollution, and resource use, it predicts the collapse of thermo-industrial civilization at some point in the 21st century. One of the designers of the model, Dennis Meadows, remarked in 2012 that “It is too late for sustainable development, you have to prepare for shocks and urgently build small resilient systems” (122). 

At this point, the question of how to define collapse may have arisen. How would we recognize it if and when it actually occurred? Yves Cochet’s definition is cited, which states that collapse is “the process at the end of which basic needs can no longer be provided at reasonable cost to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision” (126). The authors also cite Dmitry Orlov, who studied the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lists five stages of collapse (133), including 1) financial collapse (future investments become impossible because faith in business as usual is lost), 2) commercial collapse (money itself becomes devalued or scarce, supply shortages, rationing, etc.), 3) political collapse (faith in functioning and legitimacy of government is lost, municipal services like water and trash collection begin to shut down, etc.), 4) social collapse (loss of faith in existing institutions and organizations, leading people to regress to clan and gang allegiances), and 5) cultural collapse (faith in the goodness of humanity is lost). As Cochet’s and Orlov’s accounts make clear, in many parts of the US and around the world, collapse is very much already upon us. 

Despite the possibility of social and cultural collapse, Servigne and Stevens try to check the Hollywood movie driven fear that human beings become savage killers whenever catastrophes occur. The evidence suggests quite the opposite: “after catastrophe…most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm, and composed ways” (150). Such behaviors challenge the founding myth of our liberal societies, that prior to the “social contract” that gave rise to states, humans existed as autonomous, greedy individuals ruthlessly competing in a “state of nature.” The truth is we are profoundly relational creatures, with the ability to fluidly shift identities between “I” and “We” as the moral circumstances require. Nonetheless, emergent networks of mutual aid rest upon a “fragile alchemy,” and without the restoration of basic needs like food and water, cooperative altruism may quickly shift into violent competition and selfish hoarding. There is an urgent need to rebuild vibrant local social fabrics and to create collective practices and aptitudes for living together (all things that modern consumer culture and individualism have methodically destroyed) (155). 

Towards a Mycological Metaphysics

The mycologist Merlin Sheldrake recently published Entangled Life (2020). The book revels in the power of fungi to “make us question our categories,” thereby “[changing] the way we think and imagine” (14, 214). A few pages in, Merlin defines mycelium as a process, rather than a thing (6). I am inclined to agree. As a process philosopher, I could not help but ally myself with his project. He goes even further later in the book, insisting that all life-forms are relational processes inhabiting a natural world best understood as “an event that never stops” (53). He encourages us to wonder how our scientific image of nature would be transformed by the adoption of mycelial rather than mechanical metaphors. What would it mean to take seriously the many examples of “basal cognition” and “problem-solving behavior” evident in brainless fungi (15)? If even microscopic hyphae are capable of such feats as “decision,” “improvisation,” and “interpretation” (44), then perhaps conscious agency, or something akin to it, is not the exclusive property of human heads. In that case, “culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy, and independence” would need to be revised (18). Perhaps fungi can inspire more humility in big-headed humanity?

Perhaps. A powerful word, especially for philosophers seeking to gain permission to peek beneath the measurable facts into the plenum of possibilities from out of which such facts precipitate. Despite the feelings of embarrassment that years of disciplinary training had instilled in him, Merlin, too, found it necessary to embrace the power of speculative imagination in order to make sense of what fungi were teaching him. 

“Thousands of my samples passed through expensive machines that whisked, irradiated, and blasted the contents of the tubes into strings of numbers. I spent whole months staring into a microscope, immersed in rootscapes filled with winding hyphae frozen in ambiguous acts of intercourse with plant cells. Still, the fungi I could see were dead, embalmed, and rendered in false colors. I felt like a clumsy sleuth. While I crouched for weeks scraping mud into small tubes, toucans croaked, howler monkeys roared, lianas tangled, and anteaters licked. Microbial lives, especially those buried in soil, were not accessible like the bristling charismatic aboveground world of the large. Really, to make my findings vivid, to allow them to build and contribute to a general understanding, imagination was required. There was no way around it” (19).

Most of us think of mushrooms when we hear the word “fungi”—but they are just the surface-dwelling fruiting bodies of much larger underground networks.  The task of the metaphysician, who is compelled to inquire into the hidden underbelly of reality, is not unlike that of the mycologist, since “[mycelial] relationships are conducted out of sight” (138). Given this similarity, Merlin and I are hoping that an “academic symbiosis” (215) will be possible between philosophy and mycology. This sort of transdisciplinary collaboration may help stitch the modern image of nature back together again. 

While reading Merlin’s book, the overlaps with Alfred North Whitehead’s “organic realism” were impossible to miss. Whitehead is best known as a mathematician and collaborator with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. Lesser known is his later work in natural philosophy and metaphysical cosmology. His entrance into philosophy took the form of a critique of the modern “bifurcation of nature,” a thought-habit which insists that a strict separation be maintained between the objective causal factors thought to be “in nature” and the subjective feelings and perceptions imagined to be “in the mind.” On the one hand, there’s the conjectured system of molecules and electromagnetic radiation formulated by physicists, and on the other, the warmth and color of a sunrise celebrated by nature poets. Mocking the incoherence of this bifurcated image of nature, Whitehead writes: 

“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, 56). 

Whitehead would go on to articulate a thoroughly unbifurcated vision of the cosmos as an evolving ecology of organisms. He understood processes of emergent evolution as unfolding at all scales in nature, such that something like Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis transpires not just in the biological realm as more complex cells arise by incorporating formerly free-living organisms, but also in the physical domain, as early in cosmic history independent protons, neutrons, and electrons forged enduring associations to bring forth the first hydrogen and helium atoms. This vision is not meant to conflict with natural science, but to support and enrich it: he criticized the classical ontology of inert particles governed by arbitrarily imposed mechanical laws as entirely unsuited to the new findings of relativity and quantum theories. In addition to constructing a new metaphysical background for these early 20th century revolutions in the scientific understanding of space, time, matter, and energy, Whitehead also sought to overcome what philosophers nowadays refer to as “the hard problem of consciousness”: in short, how could mind ever arise out of matter if the latter is defined a priori as purely extended and thus entirely devoid of interiority? This is not just a hard problem. According to a growing cadre of panpsychist philosophers, it is impossible. It cannot be solved as stated. It can only be dissolved by rethinking the materialist premises upon which it is based. Despite scientific anxieties about anthropomorphism, Whitehead urged us to come to see our capacity as knowers to be part of the universe we are trying to know. While some physicists lean on randomness in lieu of explanation by making anti-empirical postulates about an infinite supply of other universes without life or mind, the only universe we actually know about is quite obviously anthropogenetic. After all, here we are. Instead of insisting that mind and life are freak accidents in an otherwise well-behaved mechanical world, perhaps (there’s that word again) the emergence of mind and life reveal something about the nascent potentials of matter that classical physics missed? 

Maybe the real danger to proper scientific understanding is not anthropomorphism, but mechanomorphism. Mechanism implies a mechanic, an outside designer; in contrast, Whitehead’s organic cosmos is understood to be self-organizing. Laws of physics become more like widespread habits that evolve with the organisms composing the cosmos, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond, as deistic early modern scientists supposed. While Whitehead restricts conscious experience to highly complex organisms with nervous systems, he insists that the vast majority of experience comes in the form of non-conscious feeling and emotion. It is here that many skeptics like to throw rocks at Whitehead and other panpsychists: “So you’re saying stones can think?!” No, but contemporary physics tells us that rocks are in fact composed of complex societies of vibrating molecules. In Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, the vibratory frequencies of molecules, and of atoms composing molecules, express forms of aesthetic harmonization with attendant feelings of experiential satisfaction. Particles are no longer conceived of as point-like geometric abstractions, but vector-feelings whose local subsistence depends upon the reiteration of their vibratory patterns. Thus, what appear as wave-lengths and vibrations to infrared spectrometers, for the molecular occasions in question are felt as “pulses of emotion” (PR, 163; see also my Physics of the World-Soul [2021], 76). Some mineral societies vibrate into highly ordered crystals, while others are more haphazard. 

Sober-minded scientists may balk at such speculative renderings of physical processes. Merlin quotes Whitehead’s statement to Russell, which speaks to his scientifically unorthodox interpretation of the facts of nature:  “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep” (112). Whitehead philosophizes at dawn, while dreams still halo consciousness and the separative outlines of objects remain blurred. In contrast, the speculatively-averse Russell preferred the clarity and distinction afforded by shadowless light. 

Mycological metaphors run even deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysics. “Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form,” in Merlin’s words (51). Their networks form “streams of embodiment” (55) that act as “ecological connective tissue” stitching the rest of the living world into relation (46). Do these networks form a single organism, or a plurality? A plurisingularity? According to Merlin,  “a hyphal tip would be the closest one could come to defining the unit of a mycelial swarm” (47). Relating the growth of hyphae to our human experience of becoming, Merlin writes:

“The growing tip is the present moment—your lived experience of now—which gnaws into the future as it advances. The history of your life is the rest of the hypha, the…lines that you’ve left in a tangled trail behind you. A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history” (53).

The equivalent of hyphal tips in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology are called “actual occasions.” Actual occasions are buds of experience that grow out of their relations to the past, achieve some novel aesthetic value in the subjective immediacy of the present, and perish into objective immortality so as to influence the future, contributing whatever value they’ve garnered to the ongoing creative advance of nature. Occasions tend to organize themselves into “societies”: swarm-like historical routes that sustain and amplify an enduring collective form by faithfully reiterating some shared pattern of potentiality.  

Merlin and I are beginning work on a longer paper to draw out the underground connections between process philosophy and the science of fungi. Our suspicion is that the findings of mycology serve as a special example of the more general categories articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. More to come! 

—————–

*Image credit: Aimee Cornwell (Instagram: @peggyfarmandforage)*

Notes on Whitehead’s Analysis of Abstraction in Science and the Modern World

Science and the Modern World (1925) is not only a historical treatment of the rise and fall of “scientific materialism” in the modern period. It also records Whitehead’s turn to metaphysics in search of an alternative cosmological scheme that replaces matter in motion with organic process as that which is most fundamental in Nature. 

Perhaps the most difficult chapter in Science and the Modern World is “Chapter X: Abstraction.” Whitehead puts aside the peculiar problems of the special sciences that he has treated in earlier chapters (e.g., the quandaries of quantum and relativity theories), and directs attention instead to a dispassionate consideration of the nature of things as such (158). He aims to justify his metaphysics in three ways: 

  1. experientially by way of a descriptive account of the actual occasions composing our immediate awareness of ourselves and the natural world; 
  2. systematically by bringing many types of such occasions into categorical harmony; and 
  3. onto-epistemically such that the account of what there is to be known reveals also how we can know it (i.e., knowledge in Whitehead’s scheme comes to be understood “as an adjunct within things known,” rather than as a view from nowhere).

“In any occasion of cognition, that which is known is an actual occasion of experience, as diversified by reference to a realm of entities which transcend that immediate occasion” (158). In his chapter on “Abstraction,” Whitehead is seeking to unveil the metaphysical conditions of finite knowledge. What must the metaphysical situation be such that limited minds like ours can reflect upon particular truths? His so-called “organic realism” is radically empirical, but unlike prior empiricists, Whitehead argues that the proper understanding of actuality requires that reference also be made to ideality, that is, to a realm of “alternative suggestions” or unrealized potentials. Thus, actuality cannot be made sense of without some reference being made to alternative possibilities; and, at the same time, infinite possibility cannot be made sense of without some reference being made to definite matters of fact.

Any given occasion of experience may include within its aesthetic synthesis various untrue propositions about the actual world. It frequently occurs that we entertain delusive perceptions, say, mistaking a balloon at the edge of our field of view for a stop sign, or an airplane in the night sky for a star. These untruths represent alternative possibilities that are not but may be. They ingress into occasions of experience not only to paint them with definite characteristics (e.g., “red” or “brightness,” etc.), but to aid occasions in their interpretation of the given facts by availing alternative possibilities. Whitehead calls these possibilities “eternal objects” in order to distinguish them from the classical philosophical conception of “universals.” Like universals, eternal objects are abstract, meaning they can be understood independently of their ingression into particular concrete occasions of experience. “Red” or “sphere,” as eternal objects, may be realized together in an actual entity, say, a balloon; but they could also ingress separately into other actualities, like a stop sign or the Sun. But Whitehead wants to avoid further association with the philosophical baggage of “universals,” especially Aristotle’s system of logical classification in terms of genera and species, which while useful for the analysis of actual fact distorts the analysis of abstract possibility that he seeks to undertake. Rather than a classificatory logic, Whitehead analyzes the realm of eternal objects in a more mathematical way. 

Whitehead thus begins his analysis of the metaphysics of possibility. He admits that many may find the procedure “irksome,” and advises those without the patience for such an inquiry to skip the chapter entirely. He tells us that eternal objects have both an individual and a relational essence. The relational essence is the object’s determinate internal relation to every other object in the infinite realm of possibility. This means that each eternal object is systematically and necessarily constituted by its relations to every other eternal object. “Red,” for example, has a perfectly definite relationship not only to other colors but to all other eternal objects (the internal relations among colors considered abstractly is an interesting issue that I hope to go into in a subsequent post*). These relationships come in the form of “abstractive hierarchies,” with simpler objects (like colors or geometric points, which cannot be further decomposed) at their bases, more complex objects at their vertexes, and objects of proximate complexity in-between. There are many such hierarchies in the realm of possibility. The Platonic solids offer one example of an abstractive hierarchy. The tetrahedron is the simplest regular solid, and so if the abstractive hierarchy we are analyzing is defined as that of regular solids, it forms the “base,” with the octahedron, hexahedron/cube, and icosahedron as proximates, and the dodecahedron as the “vertex.” But we could also define a hierarchy more broadly as that of regular shapes: then the tetrahedron can be analyzed into flat triangles, which are themselves composed of lines, themselves composed of points. The point is then the simple “base” of a new abstractive hierarchy. (For purposes of illustration, I am ignoring the fact that the Platonic solids are depicted as colored below, as including this feature would complicate the example too much; just note that, at least for human perception and imagination, without color there can be no such thing as a definite shape or solid).

As internally related among themselves, eternal objects remain “isolated” within their abstractive hierarchies from the definite values achieved by particular actual occasions. It is this isolation that allows incompatible possibilities to coexist. Eternal objects considered in abstraction have contraries in their relational essences which cannot be simultaneously actualized. Thus, in the realm of possibility, the law of non-contradiction cannot be applied. 

The individual essence of an object, then, is its unique contribution or mode of ingression into a particular occasion. Once ingressed, eternal objects are liberated from their isolation by way of the “realized togetherness” achieved in the aesthetic synthesis of an actual occasion. In contrast to the determinate internal relations among eternal objects in abstraction from particular actualities, relations between these objects and actual occasions are indeterminate and so external. In Whitehead’s terms, objects have “patience” for many possible relations or modes of ingression into occasions. While an eternal object in its isolation remains internally determined by its place in one or more abstractive hierarchies, when and where it ends up ingressing into particular spatiotemporal situations remains open-ended, a problem awaiting its solution, as it were. 

Each actual occasion is a prehensive synthesis of the entire infinite realm of eternal objects, with an aesthetic gradation determining the relevant value of each eternal object for its experience. Every occasion is thus a self-creative synthesis of positively prehended “being” (i.e., those eternal objects that are valued and thus individually effective in its aesthetic synthesis) and negatively prehended “non-being” (i.e., the systematic substratum of unfulfilled because unvalued alternatives). The synthetic prehension, or concrescence, achieved by a particular actual occasion is thus the solution of the indeterminateness of its relation to the realm of possibility into the determinateness of spatiotemporal actualization. “Every actual occasion is the solution of all modalities into actual categorical ingressions: truth and falsehood take the place of possibility” (161). In other words, upon ingressing into the “realized togetherness” of a particular actual occasion, eternal objects must conform to the law of non-contradiction. An actual entity cannot be both a square and a sphere. 

It becomes apparent at this point that a further general fact about our universe must be acknowledged: that is, the systematic mutual relatedness inherent to the character of the possibilities with patience for actualization. This general fact is the spatiotemporal continuum, which for Whitehead “is nothing else than a selective limitation within the general systematic relationships among eternal objects” (161). Space-time limits how possibilities can ingress into actualities. Space-time is thus “the locus of relational possibility” (162). Whitehead reserves further discussion of this selective limitation for the subsequent chapter on “God.”

Whitehead next clarifies that he has so far been focusing on actual occasions as natural events (i.e., their physical poles), which is only half the picture. In their full concreteness, occasions also include a mental pole (i.e., “that which in cognitive experience takes the form of memory, anticipation, imagination, and thought”). While in the physical pole, eternal objects and their infinite associated hierarchies have full concrete ingression, in the mental pole there is only partial ingression of a finite associated hierarchy, which terminates in a definite complex concept. Whitehead further characterizes this partiality in terms of its “abruptness.” These partially ingressed eternal objects, in that they lack the infinite individuation that comes from complete ingression, can be grasped in conceptual terms: “There is a limitation which breaks off the finite concept from the higher grades of illimitable complexity” (172). This is in contrast to the ingression of eternal objects in the physical pole, which due to their individual essences and infinite associated hierarchies remain indefinable in terms of anything other than themselves, and so also cannot be described completely by means of concepts.

The finitude and abruptness of conceptual prehensions is significant because it provides a basis for the correspondence theory of truth and thus the possibility of finite knowledge (173). An eternal object, no matter its mode of ingression, is just itself. Any change to its individual essence would produce a new eternal object. Thus, we can justify the notion that our cognitive experience of knowing something corresponds to that which is known: the conceptually prehended eternal object is (at least in true propositions) the realization of the same object in the knower as in the entity known. Whitehead calls this the “principle of the translucency of realization” (172).

It is necessary to say a few words about the next chapter on “God” to round out Whitehead’s metaphysical account of abstraction. He begins by discussing Aristotle’s theology. Whitehead has criticisms of Aristotle, but he does not hesitate to declare him the greatest metaphysician. He adds that Aristotle was the last European philosopher to dispassionately consider the topic of theology. “It may be doubted whether any properly general metaphysics can ever, without the illicit introduction of other considerations, get much further than Aristotle” (174). That said, Aristotle’s “Prime Mover” was based on an erroneous physical cosmology. So his exact argument fails. But despite all the progress in physics and in logic, Whitehead still believes an analogous metaphysical problem remains to be solved. The problem to be solved in Whitehead’s world of becoming is not the source of motion, but the source of limitation: “Every actual occasion is a limitation imposed on possibility” (174). Whitehead therefore replaces God as “Prime Mover” with God as “Principle of Concretion” or of “Limitation.” 

“Actuality is through and through togetherness—togetherness of otherwise isolated eternal objects, and togetherness of all actual occasions” (174-5). Whitehead conceives of God as as the source of the concrete togetherness of the universe, which would otherwise remain in indeterminate disjunction. God is that by reason of which there is concrescence. God is the instigator of aesthetic synthesis. To the extent that there is unity in the universe (whether the unity of the whole of that of any of its parts), God is its efficient and final cause. God is the generic fact ingredient in all experiences by virtue of which metaphysical description is possible for finite minds like ours. 

We are capable of metaphysical description in terms of categorical determinations of otherwise unbounded possibility because in addition to our physical prehensions of the temporal past and spatial present, we also conceptually prehend the full sweep of eternal relatedness through our participation in God’s “graded envisagement.” “This graded envisagement is how the actual includes what (in one sense) is not-being as a positive factor in its own achievement. It is the source of error, of truth, of art, of ethics, and of religion. By it, fact is confronted with alternatives” (177). In Process and Reality, Whitehead will refer to this envisagement as “the Primordial Nature of God.” 

Whitehead compares his scheme to Spinoza’s, identifying his “substantial activity” (what he later calls “Creativity”) with Spinoza’s “one infinite substance.” But he makes significant alterations to Spinoza’s scheme: “[Creativity’s] attributes are its character of individualization into a multiplicity of modes, and the realm of eternal objects which are variously synthesized in these modes. Thus eternal possibility and modal differentiation into individual multiplicity are the attributes of the one substance” (177). Whitehead is clearer on his differences from Spinoza in Process and Reality (81): “Spinoza bases his philosophy upon the monistic substance, of which the actual occasions are inferior modes. The philosophy of organism inverts this point of view.”

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*Typically when philosophers have tried to think through the abstract relations among colors, they think of them in terms of the Newtonian spectrum, as though the relation was simply a continuous gradient, with all the colors on the same “base” level of an abstractive hierarchy. But if we consider the Goethean color theory, dark/black and light/white have to be considered primal or basic, with blue and yellow the proximate result of their mixing, followed by green which arises when blue and yellow mix, etc. So the Goethean understanding of color as an archetypal process of metamorphosis implies a totally different understanding of the relation of the colors to one another. It’s a qualitative/emergent rather than a quantitative/continuous relation. For more see this presentation on Goethean science (timestamped).

HomeBrewed Christianity podcast with Tripp Fuller

Had a great time discussing Whitehead’s cosmology with Tripp. Check it out here: https://trippfuller.com/2021/09/13/matthew-segall-cosmology-consciousness-and-whiteheads-god/

We discussed topics including:

  • the allure of Whitehead’s vision of mind in nature (knowledge as ‘an adjunct within things known’)
  • the potential of a process engagement with different natural scientific problems, including the origins of life
  • the problems with reductionism
  • what is in the concept of a ‘world-soul’?
  • how does Whitehead help one think of life after physical death?
  • how Whitehead came to affirm God…
  • My own wrestling with Christianity and reflections on the future of the faith (‘a non-denominational non-institutionalized Christian’)
  • what to make of the power and problems that come with a religious tradition?

Psychedelics Today podcast on Consciousness, Capitalism, and Philosophy

I had a great conversation with Joe Moore of Psychedelics Today a couple months back, and the podcast was just released today. Have a listen.


In this episode, Joe interviews philosopher, author, and assistant professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco: Matthew D. Segall, Ph.D.

Segall discusses the relationship between consciousness and neuroscience: how science is helpful, but ultimately amounts to just one of many different tools towards describing consciousness (not truly understanding it), and how science, philosophy, and religion need to focus on their specialties but also work together towards better defining the human experience. And he talks about the importance of philosophy in trying to make sense of non-ordinary states of consciousness. 

As this is a very back-and-forth, philosophically-based conversation, they talk about a lot more: William James, David Ray Griffin’s concept of “hardcore common sense presuppositions,” Richard Dawkins, scientism, positivism, how we’re slowly thinning the line between technology and humanity, Timothy Leary and whether or not anyone really “dropped out,” German idealism, how capitalism co-opts everything, John Cobb, Alfred North Whitehead, Universal Basic Income, the death denial in capitalist life, and how to use the relationship between the internet and capitalism to improve society. 

Notable Quotes

“The thing about capitalism is that it lives inside each of us at the level of our desires and our drives because we’ve been shaped by it. So we can’t pretend like it’s this big, bad monster out there that other people believe in. The problem with capitalism is that it’s not just a worldview you decide to believe in or not; it is the very structure, again, of your desires and your sense of identity. It’s inside of you.”

“They say cannabis causes problems with motivation. Well yea, once you see through the value structure of our society, you lose motivation to participate because it’s no longer appetizing to you to engage in the rat race.” 

“Fifty years later, after Leary was saying ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out’, a lot of people thought that they followed his instructions, but again, capitalism co-opted the whole hippie movement, and by the 90s, they were selling Che Guevera t-shirts at the shopping mall and Apple was using the Beatles to sell computers.” 

“The way that liberals tend to think about these questions [is that] they get really mad at Facebook for being biased in what ads they allow and not censoring certain things and selling ads to Russians and stuff. …A publicly traded corporation has one purpose: to maximize shareholder profits. And that’s the business model for Facebook, and so they’ll take money from anyone who wants to sell ads. They’re a private company. They’re not a public utility that has anywhere in its corporate charter as part of its mission: ‘improving civil society’ or ‘helping America maintain its democracy.’ Why would we expect a private corporation to do that? There’s no incentive in capitalism for that. And yet we get mad and blame Mark Zuckerberg. Why aren’t we blaming capitalism? That’s where the source code for this problem is.” 

“Psychedelics aren’t necessarily going to wake us up, but I think that’s why we need philosophy. These substances and these experiences need to be contained within a meaningful story and a meaningful theory of reality so that we can make sense of what we’re experiencing and integrate it, and not only come out of those experiences with a profound sense of what’s wrong with our society, but with at least a good idea for what we’d like instead.”