Learning to die and teaching philosophy at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA

I’ll be spending more time at the South Yuba River for the remainder of the summer. I’ll be recording more videos thinking with rocks, water, air, and fire. I’ll keep adding them to this playlist below.

“What you thought was dead and inanimate betrays a secret life and silent, inexorable intent. You have got caught up in a hustle and bustle where everything goes its own way with strange gestures, beside you, above you, beneath you, and through you; even the stones speak to you, and magical threads spin from you to things and from things to you. … But if you watch closely, you will see what you have never seen before, namely that things live your life, and that they live off you: the rivers bear your life to the valley, one stone falls upon another with your force, plants and animals also grow through you and they are the cause of your death. A leaf dancing in the wind dances with you; the irrational animal guesses your thought and represents you. The whole earth sucks its life from you and everything reflects you again. Nothing happens in which you are not entangled in a secret manner; for everything has ordered itself around you and plays your innermost. Nothing in you is hidden to things, no matter how remote, how precious, how secret it is. It inheres in things. Your dog robs you of your father, who passed away long ago, and looks at you as he did. The cow in the meadow has intuited your mother, and charms you with total calm and security. The stars whisper your deepest mysteries to you, and the soft valleys of the earth rescue you in a motherly womb. Like a stray child you stand pitifully among the mighty, who hold the threads of your life. You cry for help and attach yourself to the first person that comes your way. Perhaps he can advise you, perhaps he knows the thought that you do not have, and which all things have sucked out of you.”

-C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Secundus 27/28).

Thanks to Bruce Alderman and The Integral Stage for putting this together!

In Episode 5, Matthew Segall discusses how entheogens or “ecodelics” have impacted him personally and philosophically, inspiring some of his deepest ontological insights and courses of inquiry — particularly in the areas of panpsychism, deep or integral pluralism, and process thought. He then offers some suggestions on how to work most profitably with psychedelics for personal and spiritual growth.


I wanted to see if you guys might help me think through Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic phenomenology, because I’m writing about it, preparing a draft of what will become a chapter in an anthology on the philosophy of psychedelics. I’m also writing about Descartes’ famous Meditations on First Philosophy and interpreting his experience as a bad trip, turning instead to the psychedelic phenomenology of Huxley but also, of course, Alfred North Whitehead, and seeing if there are other ways of perceiving space and time, other ways of perceiving selfhood or thinking in its relation to the world, or matter, or nature.

Descartes was in the course of his meditations forced into a corner, which then split him in two, where there was the world of extended things and there was himself: the inner activity of thinking, his own cognition. Descartes could see no way that these two things could be substantially or causally related, but he knew at least that both were real enough.

The thing about this dualism–I mean everybody has a critique of Descartes, right? So it’s not really much help for me to offer yet another critique of Descartes’ dualism. That critique has been done. I really want to try to reconstruct an alternative in Whiteheadian terms, and indeed in Huxley’s terms. The way that Huxley relativizes Euclidean space and linear time in his Doors of Perception (his recounting of his masculine experience), the way that he relativizes space and time is much like Whitehead’s own philosophy of organism, wherein space and time become abstractions from something more concrete. What is more concrete for Whitehead is our actual experience, which he described in terms of concrescence, or the growing together of the of inherited actual occasions that are objectified, that, in an efficient causal way, their intensity is received to provide us with momentum. Mechanical causality is perfectly real even in Whitehead’s organic cosmos, it’s just that it’s only half the picture. Efficient causation is this inheritance from the past, and it’s growing together in to the present through a process of concrescence. And there’s also the ingression of eternal possibilities (the lure of the future is another way to describe this). So to put it in a crude spatial way, on the front we’re receiving this river of lures from the future, and from behind we’re inheriting these pushes from the past, and in between concrescence occurs where concreteness unfolds and endures.

There is a some sort of an alchemical amalgamation, a synthesis or integration of these of these vectors of past and future such that an eternal present is continually born. The process of concrescence for Whitehead is not just eternal life, it’s also perpetual perishing. There is just as much death as there is a life in the eternal present. And for Whitehead to be able to surf this wave of concrescence is, well, it’s just as Socrates originally said: it’s to prepare to die. And it’s as Goethe said, we must die and become to fully participate in cosmic reality. You must die and become.

So death is not something we could avoid as living beings. We are made of death and we live by dying. What I want to try to say in my chapter that begins with Descartes is that, yes, his dualism is problematic, but there’s this other side of Descartes where he’s describing God, the infinite substance, that subtends or transcends (or maybe and transcends) his own finite ego. Descartes is leading us through this experiential gauntlet, he’s taking us on a journey. I’m saying it’s a bad trip, but it’s bad in the sense that we end up being severed from the world, severed from our own bodies, severed from one another by a gap that can only be closed by divine fiat. This is the limited letter of theological credit (as Whitehead puts it in Process & Reality) that Descartes uses to somehow tentatively tie the thinking activity of the soul back to the emotions and feelings of the body and the causal flows of the natural world. It’s a very tenuous connection that Descartes leaves us with. This is the bad trip! But when Descartes talks about God, often his discussion about God or the infinite is dismissed as merely another rehashing of Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence, that God is necessary being, etc., and that this is an idea that is greater than any idea which can be thought.

But this is not exactly what Descartes is saying. I think what he’s saying is, look, we each know that our knowledge of anything sensory, anything that exists in space or in time as we experience them phenomenologically, that we we lack certainty about it. We know that we make mistakes and errors when we try to interpret our sensory, bodily experience and our emotional experience. But when Descartes retreats a little bit from this outer world and into the realm of inner abstraction, he says we’re a little bit more certain at least about our ideas, since we can participate in them intellectually. Mathematics, for example, geometry and arithmetic: these are sciences of the mind where certainty is possible, where we can intellectually intuit truth in a more direct way. And Descartes wonders whether even here his Christian God, his Biblical Being, has such great power that He could even deceive us in our own thinking, that if God wanted to He could make two plus two equal five. That God’s power is greater than even the power of ideas.

So the question becomes: is God so powerful that God creates ideas, or is God sort of sharing power with ideas, co-eternal with ideas? The latter would be more Whitehead’s view, and I think probably also Huxley’s. They are both more Platonist in the sense that the Good is good intrinsically, not because God wills it or because God loves it. The Good is not good because God wills it; God wills it because it is good. It is then interesting to consider the theodicies that one could construct, where we’re able to deal with evil as something that isn’t eliminable, as if we could finally fight it off or defeat it, which some Biblical versions of the story seem to suggest. There are of course plenty of Christians who have alternative views: think of Origen who said that even Satan will one day be redeemed, that there are no people whose souls are eternally stuck burning in hell.

In Origen’s Christian cosmos, and in Whitehead’s, there are ways of dealing with evil that allow us to interact with it as the Trickster. And here’s the thing about psychedelic trips: often we can get pulled into the shadow, into the dark places of our psyche, into the demonic, during our psychedelic journeys because we imagine that the the dark might win. We lose contact with a deeper divine personality: it’s not Satan or Christ, it’s not Satan versus Christ. Rather, really Satan and Christ are two faces of the same Hidden God which is a God that’s more like a trickster than a pure light or a pure dark, a pure good or a pure evil kind of being. A trickster is more like a divine dramatist: S/He’s the comic-tragic poet who is able to move between light and dark to dance in the color. This would be the type of God the perception of which presupposes what Huxley referred to as mystical experience.

So the thing that I think makes psychedelic experience philosophically productive is precisely the way that it these these consciousness-altering chemicals reliably produce such experiences. There are a variety of them, and the set and setting within which one uses them are certainly co-constitutive of the experience. So when I refer to them as “chemicals” I don’t mean to simply locate their generative power in a molecule. The thing about the molecule is that it’s in vibratory resonance with the rest of the cosmos. So we’re talking about a field effect here, which is why anyone who’s ever walked into a room full of people on MDMA knows the sound or the vibratory frequency of the the voices of the group. In conversation with each other, even if you have not ingested the chemical, you can still feel it, you begin to get a contact high. So there is clearly a field effect going on here. So the reason these chemicals, these molecular frequencies, are philosophically productive, the reason that psychedelics have a place in philosophy, is that they reliably generate mystical experiences. This has been empirically proven by several psychopharmacology labs, at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, that these chemicals reliably produce mystical experience.

As William James and many others, including Huxley and Whitehead, have all said, mystical experiences are revelatory of reality. They are ontologically significant, not hallucinatory. It would appear, instead, that the rational Cartesian sense, the modern rational adult sense, of being fully autonomous and separate, absolutely free from the causal flows of extended nature, is the hallucination. As if there is truly a dualism between who and what we are as individual selves and what the world is, what matter is, what the universe is, who other people are… to think that there was actually an ontological rift, a bifurcation of the very fabric of becoming: that is the hallucination. This notion of a mind separate from nature that could come to have mastery over nature, or of a God separate from the the cosmos that could have created the cosmos out of nothing. These are the imaginary fantasies of a bad trip. There are other stories we can tell, other worlds we can build.

I think that’s some of what I want to try to weave together in this chapter. I’m curious what you guys think of all that.

Bruce Alderman of Integral Stage has been releasing a multipart video series called “The Future Faces of Spirit.” Other participants include John Vervaeke and Bonnitta Roy.

Here is Alderman’s description of the series and my contribution:

“What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity’s ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

In episode 6 of The Future Faces of Spirit, Matthew Segall draws on the work of Robert N. Bellah and Alfred N. Whitehead to argue for vision of spirituality rooted in play; reintegrated with art, science, and politics; open to transcendence; and inspired by an immanent theology of creaturely divinity.”

Here is my segment:

In Whitehead’s scheme there is no equivalence with regard to the temporal ontology of past and future. There is no space-time block. There are multiple timelines in Whitehead’s relativistic pluriverse. His metaphysical scheme is perspectival, meaning that any statement about the cosmos must be situated in some actual occasion (this is Whitehead’s “Ontological Principle”). There is no view from nowhere. Each actual occasion brings forth its own space and time. Each occasion has its own world-line (to use the Einsteinian term), and these lineages or historical routes of becoming are complexly interwoven with one another. There is no “cosmic now” that moves like a sheet of glass out of a single past into a single future. There is no cosmic calendar that tracks the linear progression of a single system from beginning to end. Whitehead’s is a chaotic or nonlinear dynamical cosmogenesis rather than a closed mechanical universe.

Each occasion is individual, self-creating, atomically arising out of its past and launching itself into its future. Each occasion must appropriate time for itself, and it must do so in relation to every other occasion’s appropriations. We become individually without being divided, and we need divine help to do so, even though not even God knows where we are going. There is an eternal intention, a perfect “real potentiality” forming a virtual continuum and granting spatiotemporal solidarity between all occasions (Whitehead calls it “the extensive continuum” on PR 286), but this continuum’s holy character is always incomplete and forever in process, jointly realized by the decisions of the democracy of creaturely occasions composing the pluriverse, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond. The single, unified whole is never finished but is continually made whole again and again with each concrescent pulse of creativity occurring within it.

We can try to understand ourselves by looking backward at our origin, “downward” into bodily perception in search of its efficient causal essence. Whitehead pursued this vector and at the ground of physical becoming discovered God’s primordial nature, the real potentiality informing every actuality. But we can also partake in God’s consequent vector, in the final cause of this our cosmogenesis, realizing the divine future ideal as though it were already, eternally, present.

To make this all perhaps a bit more concrete, here is William James (perhaps Whitehead’s most important philosophical influence) speaking to the efficacy of prayer:

“The religious phenomenon, studied as in Inner fact, and apart from ecclesiastical or theological complications, has shown itself to consist everywhere, and at all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. This intercourse is realized at the time as being both active and mutual.  If it be not effective; if it be not a give and take relation; if nothing be really transacted while it lasts; if the world is in no whit different for its having taken place; then prayer, taken in this wide meaning of a sense that SOMETHING IS TRANSACTING, is of course a feeling of what is illusory, and religion must on the whole be classed, not simply as containing elements of delusion–these undoubtedly everywhere exist–but as being rooted in delusion altogether, just as materialists and atheists have always said it was.  At most there might remain, when the direct experiences of prayer were ruled out as false witnesses, some inferential belief that the whole order of existence must have a divine cause.  But this way of contemplating nature, pleasing as it would doubtless be to persons of a pious taste, would leave to them but the spectators’ part at a play, whereas in experimental religion and the prayerful life, we seem ourselves to be actors, and not in a play, but in a very serious reality.“

Varieties of Religious Experience

I hope bringing James’ statement about prayer into the fold makes the metaphysical problem Whitehead is trying to address that much more concrete and close to home. Unless we finite creatures can have some form of transaction with God,—unless God is receptive, moved, by what happens to us,—then what’s the point of religion? 

God’s reversal of the polarity of experience is, I think, both one of Whitehead’s most ingenious moves as well as one of his most enigmatic. He is emphatic that he does not want his process theology to succumb to the age old habit of paying metaphysical compliments to God as the supremely exceptional being that breaks all the rules governing the rest of reality. The reversal of polarity (such that the mental pole is first, followed by the physical) is the one exception he grants to God.

But is this really exceptional? After all, are not we as human metaphysicians somehow also partaking in this reversal when we contemplate the divine nature? I think we are! 

This is the deeply participatory dimension of Whitehead’s thought that he does not always explicitly foreground. His theologizing is in this way a lot like the theurgizing of the Neoplatonists. When we think Whitehead’s God, we are in effect uniting with God, partaking of the divine nature, experiencing infinitely rather than finitely (with the mental pole first). 

Of course, in Whitehead’s view, religion, prayer, and God-thinking/talking are not about petitioning God for miracles. “God’s power is the worship God inspires.” Rather, prayer is more about learning to shut up to listen for God, sensitizing ourselves to the prime feeling or initial Eros that shepherds cosmic becoming. 

Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus

by Matthew Segall

What follows is a brief paper outlining a path forward for post-pandemic humanity. It attempts to integrate Marxist critiques of capitalism with the efforts of contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers to compose an alternative ecological civilization. 

Audio of this blog post.

A specter is haunting modern civilization—the specter of Gaia. All the powers of the global capitalist market have been entering into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. The name “Gaia” is borrowed from the scientific hypothesis of James Lovelock, who himself borrowed it from author William Golding, who in turn borrowed it from Hesiod’s telling of ancient Greek cosmogony. Do not imagine an anthropomorphized goddess, “Mother Nature,” when you hear this term. Imagine instead a gigantic, even monstrous assemblage of coevolving lifeforms precariously perched upon a complex, self-organizing set of geochemical feedback loops necessary for maintaining the habitability of this planet. For several hundred years, this living Earth has been treated as a mere background to human activity, a storehouse of raw materials to be violently exploited, a passive stage upon which our technological progress could unfold indefinitely. But Gaia could not be dispelled by the industrial might or monetary magic of global capitalism. Gaia has only been further provoked by it. 

Despite the wishful thinking of capitalist economists, the market is not a “perpetual motion machine” insulated from the biophysical inevitabilities of entropy and extinction. Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, the human economy has always existed at the grace of the Earth’s ecology. Whether agricultural, industrial, or informational, our species has undertaken each new mode of production with tremendous Promethean creativity, but also with increasing ignorance of the geophysiological conditions making it all possible.

“Gaia’s intrusion,” as the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has referred to it, has always been inevitable, but until very recently, it was for the most part only decipherable scientifically through complex data sets and computer simulations of global temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and many other relatively abstract metrics detailing the fraying of its feedback loops. Timelines stretching to the end of this century warned of the dire consequences of failing to take bold action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reverse other ecologically unsustainable practices. Insurance companies were beginning to feel uneasy about the increasing severity of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, but surely Gaia could wait for the market to adapt. 

With the rapid and virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic (likely a spillover effect of habitat loss*), the situation is just as it was before, only massively accelerated. After a decades-long trial period, planetary transformation is now no longer optional: “we do not have any choice, because [Gaia] will not wait.” 

What remained a specter only a few weeks ago—a barely perceptible threat safely hidden behind the noise and smog of business as usual—has now brought the entirety of modern human civilization to its knees. The immediate public health threat posed by the virus is potentially catastrophic on its own. And with most of the world’s human population unable to consume or produce at the ever-increasing rates required of a capitalist system, the economic fallout threatens to become even more severe. 

Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Jameson’s statement was borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin, whose original utterance was composed as a question: “What could [our species] create if [we] were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?” With the old world now on the brink as humanity is brought to its knees by Gaia,—the for too long taken for granted ground beneath our feet,—our species has a fateful decision to make. Will we continue to pray to the God of the Market by imposing another round of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or might we invoke an older god? 

To Marxist ears, the invocation of a god, especially one with the mythic residue of “Gaia,” resounds of ideology. Why leave our capitalist chains behind only to succumb to a new, or ancient, opiate of the masses? Worse, my narrative account of our current situation as the disruption of the human political economy due to the intrusion of a seemingly outside natural power appears to be a textbook case of the process Roland Barthes warned about more than half a century ago, whereby “the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature”; this, according to Barthes, is “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature.”

But Gaia has not come in any form recognized by the terms of the modern constitution, signed by Marxists and capitalists alike, which placed a metaphysical chasm between human society and physical nature: the historical realization of freedom on one side, mere matter to be mastered by it on the other. “If man is shaped by the environment,” Marx wrote, “his environment must be made human.” Even Marx’s dialectical materialism remains insensitive to Gaia’s non-modern mode of composition. Gaia is not “the environment,” not “Nature” as modern people have conceived of her. Gaia does not passively suffer our historical projects. Nor has Gaia come in the ancient form imagined by our ancestors. Gaia is not natural and not mythical. Gaia is a geohistorical hybrid, to use Bruno Latour’s favored definition. Latour asks us to face Gaia not as a transcendent mythical or immanent natural unifier, but as a call to return to concrete, earthbound existence as members of a Whiteheadian “democracy of fellow creatures.” Gaia is just as much a historical agent as we are, if not more so.

Finding ways to get along with the bizarre biological neighbors modernity has for several centuries prided itself on ignoring will not be easy, as the still unfolding COVID-19 crisis exemplifies. Human survival in this new/old Gaian reality will require reimagining our political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms. Our concept of “society” will need to be expanded to include non-humans. Time itself will need restorying: History has always been ending; myth endlessly beginning; and creation forever ongoing. We are not the rational animal capable of calculating profit and loss in advance of our exchanges. We are not lords of the land and owners of private property. We are coevolving creatures like all others, bound by a single atmosphere, of a kind with the bacteria that fertilize the soil, with the wheat and fruit trees, with the bees that pollinate their flowers, with all the other plants and animals. Becoming Gaian is not so much a matter of reinventing ourselves as “merely” biological organisms as of shedding our god-like Promethean ambitions, of learning to settle down here on the earth beneath the sky instead of setting sail once more, this time beyond all finite horizons, as if Mars, too, could be colonized and capitalized. Contrary to the dualisms of the modern world view, the capitalist economy cannot float above its material conditions like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, our species is not destined for space capitalism. All that is solid has not melted into air. Even the “cloud” that hosts our digital economy depends upon massive super-cooled server farms and undersea cables to power its invisible network. 

Marx and Engles could not have foreseen the specific condition—a viral pandemic—that would finally initiate the dialectical self-overcoming of capitalism. But they did predict that capitalism, by expanding the market over the entire surface of the globe and establishing connections everywhere, would at last compel each of us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our true relations to others of our kind. Our conditions of life, and our shared vulnerability, have never been been more apparent than during this planetary quarantine. Millions of people will soon find themselves in need of medical care, and billions more will need an economic lifeline. All humanity, despite our social distancing and our cultural diversity, must now unite against a common enemy. But who is this enemy? COVID-19? If we are no longer modern, we cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from this viral agent, as though “Nature” had raised a microscopic army against us. After all, maybe we are the virus. Maybe COVID-19 is a Gaian antibody. Nonsense: we, too, are Gaians. We, too, have a place on this planet, if only we would learn to inhabit it more humbly. 

What would it mean to be civilized in a humbler non-modern, or ecological way? Alfred North Whitehead was willing to consider that even some squirrels may be capable of it. For Whitehead, civilization implies conscious participation in the creative power of ideas—like freedom or love—to shape history. Whitehead is not an idealist, however. He is an organic realist. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat is capable of supporting their ingression.

Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or typed into computers by human hands. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an invitation to consider the possibility that the idea of the Good participates in generating the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks, butterflies, and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.

Whitehead: “The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human laboring in the economy, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.

What is value? Debates continue to rage among economists about the differences between use and exchange value, or between objective and subjective value, but ultimately Marx locates value in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity. So far so good. But the implication is that only humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.

Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extra-human that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos—and the Gaian reality we moderns are falling into—there is no more mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by someone called Man. “We have no right,” Whitehead admonishes us, “to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe.” Value is typically linked to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, Marx, or Hayek, have limited agency and thus value creation to human beings (or worse, as within capitalist social relations, value creation is even further delimited to those lucky enough to be owners of capital). 

Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination.” The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was techno-scientific: to become masters of nature. 

Gaia’s intrusion in the form of a viral pandemic is turning our lives upside down and inside out. Perhaps now, from the perspective it has granted us, we will come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the Earth, enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding. 

We must re-think human freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered. Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic. Marx said that the worst human architect is distinguished from the best honey bee by the fact that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human or bee creativity works? Organic architect Christopher Alexander studied how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.

Where to go from here? In place of deterministic teleology, we need processes of relational creativity. In place of individual competition and class hierarchy, democracy and social solidarity. In place of a Big Plan from on high, playful kin-making with the community of nonhuman beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise share this planet with. Instead of providential history, we must settle for what anthropologist James Clifford calls “big enough” stories that remain “ontologically unfinished” and “situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue.”

We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to respectfully recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help sensitize us to the values of nonhumans. Our survival depends on it. 

Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we to justify our presence on the Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society? These are questions any civilization hoping to survive the next century is going to need to answer.

Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 30 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development. Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.

Marx, of course, was not unaware of our profound connection to the Earth: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In Capital, he writes of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.” I do not mean to downplay the extent to which Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-earth relation goes a long way toward describing our new Gaian reality. But he still could not shake the all too modern tendency to treat Earth as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness. So with Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this) but a cosmological power from which our human values, and our human power, derives.


* “horseshoe bats are the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-like virus and that civets are the amplification host highlight the importance of wildlife and biosecurity in farms and wet markets, which can serve as the source and amplification centers for emerging infections” (from a meta-analysis of medical studies on coronaviruses).


Neil Irwin, “One Simple Idea That Explains Why the Economy Is in Great Danger” in the New York Times, March 17th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/upshot/coronavirus-economy-crisis-demand-shock.html?referringSource=articleShare

Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, Jamie R. Oaks. “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover.” Trends in Parasitology, 2019; 35 (6): 399 DOI: 10.1016/j.pt.2019.03.010

Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 50. https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/978-1-78542-010-8_In-Catastrophic-Times_Stengers.pdf

Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), 76. 

Franklin, “What are we to make of J.G. Ballard’s Apocalypse?”; https://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/ballard_apocalypse_1979.html; credit is due to Matthew Beaumont for pointing out Jameson’s sources (see “Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion” in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader (2014). 

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007)

Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), 141, 129.

Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Whitehead, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought

Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” (1844). 

Idealism and panpsychism seem to me to make easy friends in the debate against materialism. They both affirm that consciousness or experience or mind in some generic sense are intrinsic to Nature. There are important differences between idealism and panpsychism, of course, and there are a variety of ways one can be an idealist or a panpsychist. More on that another time.

Materialism fails to account for the unity of consciousness (this is also a problem for the “constitutive” variety of panpsychism, the so-called “combination problem” that James is credited with recognizing in the “mind-dust” chapter of Principles of Psychology). This is problematic for materialism because physical science is premised on the unity of Nature: unless Nature forms a system, we can have no scientific knowledge of it, material or otherwise. Where does this unity come from, though? Certainly no material cause can account for it. Even the materialists admit that matter can only scatter; it cannot unify. The matter of the materialists has no purposes or ideals in mind, no holotropic archetypal movements, no emergent evolutions.

The materialist story goes like this: matter just mutely extends, it falls in the void. But at least on this planet, due to a strange swerving in the velocities of the void, or by some accident of natural selection, self-producing and reproducing membranes have arisen (a miracle!), followed by complex brains that learn from experience and, at least in one species, have developed into an immensely powerful symbolic consciousness that now dominates every life-system on the planet (a curse?). 

If matter is all there is, there is no unity to Nature or to consciousness. Eliminative materialists try to retrieve unity/monism by arguing that there is just no such thing as consciousness, there is only the functioning of physical and biological algorithms: we are a language-generated “user-illusion” in Dennett’s terms. But most materialists remain reluctant dualists. They do not deny the reality of their own experiential existence, but they see no intrinsic relation between their inner experience and the material world projected outside them. They say Nature has absolutely nothing in common with human consciousness. Nature is utterly mindless and entirely blind, just a prison of colliding particles for all eternity. Human minds are a freak accident in an otherwise entropic universe, granted our few precious centuries of civilizational activity, we like every material thing are destined for chaos and destruction. 

James is not at all dismissive of the materialist position. Large sections of his Principles of Psychology are devoted to brain anatomy and physiology. He insists that “the brain is the one immediate mental condition of the mental operations,” that “no mental modification ever occurs which is not accompanied by or followed by a bodily change.” 

It would not be unfair, I think, to speculate that James’ well-known struggle with depression resulted from the seriousness with which he considered the materialistic doctrine. For a time, the doctrine robbed him of his will to live, of any sense of freedom or possibility in life. But he came to recognize the irreducibility of the feeling of freedom in himself, and thus of necessity was led to reject the materialist doctrine and to search for an alternative ontology of unity, not as in Nature or Mind exclusively, but in the continuous stream of “pure experience.”

James is not a systematic thinker; he assembles ideas and theories as needed to solve the problems that arise in the course of his thinking. But in each act of assembly he always recognizes the need for metaphysical coherence, that is for continuity of thought. Mind and body, whatever else they are, cannot be coherently conceived of as separate substances. Of this James is absolutely certain. While James acknowledges the diaphaneity of consciousness, unlike the eliminative materialists, he refuses to reduce mind to matter. Further, unlike the absolute idealists, he refuses to reduce matter to mind. He is neither a materialist nor an idealist. What is he left with? A sort of “neutral monism” as it came to be called once Bertrand Russell got a hold of it? I think there is something Russell missed, something untamed and wild in James’ “radical empiricism” that had to wait for Whitehead to give it wings.  James recognized that consciousness is not a thing, it is a relational process. And he understood that all our scientific knowledge of matter in external Nature is itself of an experiential nature, of a kind with our inner sensations and imaginings. The type of experience called “physical” forms the core of our perceptual world, it is the group of experiences that forms our behavioral habits, that obeys Newton’s laws and accrues energetic consequences along its route through spacetime. It is nonetheless of the same experiential kind as that sort of experience that hovers on the fringes of our consciousness, where “laxly connected fancies and mere rhapsodical objects floats like a bank of clouds” (“Consciousness Exist?”, p. 489). Physical experience and mental experience are both modes of experience.

But James may not fully have dissolved the ontological boundary between thought and thing, subject and object, inner and outer… He may need Whitehead’s help here. Whitehead generalizes James’ psychology of “pure experience” into a cosmology of concrescing prehensions.

William James (from “A World of Pure Experience,” Part 2, p. 568):

“With this we have the outlines of a philosophy of pure experience before us. At the outset of my essay, I called it a mosaic philosophy. In actual mosaics the pieces are held together by their bedding, for which bedding the Substances, transcendental Egos, or Absolutes of other philosophies may be taken to stand. In radical empiricism there is no bedding; it is as if the pieces clung together by their edges, the transitions experienced between them forming their cement. . . The metaphor serves to symbolize the fact that Experience itself, taken at large, can grow by its edges. That one moment of it proliferates into the next by transitions which, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, continue the experiential tissue, can not, I contend, be denied.”

What are we to make of this mystery of mysteries, consciousness? Is it thing or process? Entity or function? Origin or terminus? Who knows

In a qualified sense, I agree with the transcendental idealists that consciousness, as a condition of possibility, cannot itself be objectified. But nor can it be simply subjectified! James dissolves the false choice with his insistence on a pure experience without any fixed -jections, a flow or stream or living tissue of experiential connection that always grows at its edges, only terminating temporarily, for as long or as briefly as we, the knowing agent, remain satisfied with the relay linking this with that. 

Who am I in this flowing, growing tissue of relational experience? James does not mean to rob us of our agency in the process of de-entifying consciousness. The lack of solid subject or object need not leave us wallowing in dejection. On the contrary, James’ aim is to eject us from the solipsistic implications of a supposedly transcendental or substantial subjectivity. Experience is no longer mine or yours exclusively (though not to worry, we may still be afforded moments of privacy!), it is the world’s way of weaving itself together. For Whitehead, togetherness is always togetherness in experience; there is no other way to be together. One can easily detect the resonances with James in the following excerpt, from Process & Reality, p. 189: 

“All metaphysical theories which admit a disjunction between the component elements of individual experience on the one hand, and on the other hand the component elements of the external world, must inevitably run into difficulties over the truth and falsehood of propositions, and over the grounds for judgment. The former difficulty is metaphysical, the latter epistemological. But all difficulties as to first principles are only camouflaged metaphysical difficulties. Thus also the epistemological dif­ficulty is only solvable by an appeal to ontology. The first difficulty poses the question as to the account of truth and falsehood, and the second difficulty poses the question as to the account of the intuitive perception of truth and falsehood. The former concerns propositions, the latter con­cerns judgments. There is a togetherness of the component elements in individual experience. This ‘togetherness’ has that special peculiar meaning of ‘togetherness in experience.’ It is a togetherness of its own kind, ex­plicable by reference to nothing else. For the purpose of this discussion it is indifferent whether we speak of a ‘stream’ of experience, or of an ‘occasion’ of experience. With the former alternative there is togetherness in the stream, and with the latter alternative there is togetherness in the occasion. In either case, there is the unique ‘experiential togetherness.’

“The consideration of experiential togetherness raises the final metaphysical question: whether there is any other meaning of ‘togetherness.’ The denial of any alternative meaning, that is to say, of any meaning not abstracted from the experiential meaning, is the ‘subjectivist’ doctrine. This reformed version of the subjectivist doctrine is the doctrine of the philosophy of organism.”

So neither Whitehead nor James is rejecting the importance of subjectivity; rather, they are dissolving the subject’s hard edges, making its boundaries porous to the world, allowing it to partake in the tissue of experience that makes the togetherness of things possible. Consciousness, after all, is a knowing with, essentially it is a withness, perhaps the witness of withness!, not a substantial bedding but a relational field of pure experience. 

Is there a place for theory in James radical empiricism? How do we make sense of the scientific knowledge claimed by astronomers or biologists of times and spaces seemingly far removed from the instant field of the present? We may need Whitehead’s help here. There is a certain approach to modern science that Whitehead calls “scientific materialism” that has tended to bifurcate Nature into its “primary” and “secondary” characteristics, the “primary” being the quantifiable aspects of objective, extended physical stuff, and the “secondary” being the qualitative, subjective aspects of this stuff: colors, scents, aesthetic value, etc. Galileo is perhaps the first modern thinker to formalize this bifurcation, and it proved immensely useful in the further elaboration of the new scientific method, which simplified dramatically the blooming, buzzing confusion of Nature so as to abstract those aspects that could be measured and mathematically modeled. While the early founders of the scientific method and world view (Galileo, Descartes, Newton, et al.) did not yet pretend that the subjective side of reality, our consciousness, could be reduced to the objective side, matter, they did insist upon positing a rather incoherent fissure fracturing the universe right down the middle. In Whitehead’s terms, this left us with two Natures, the subjective dream-image and the objective scientific conjecture. We only directly experience the former, while the latter is a speculative construction (i.e., we do not have any direct experience of electrons, rather we perceive their effects and speculate upon their nature based upon experimental tests). In the 20th century, largely as a result of the invention of microprocessors and computers, scientific materialists did start to argue that the mind is reducible to the brain, nothing more than the software running on physiological hardware. For scientific materialism, there is thus, in Whitehead’s terms,

“the Nature apprehended in awareness and the Nature which is the cause of awareness. The Nature which is the fact apprehended in awareness holds within it the greenness of the trees, the song of the birds, the warmth of the sun, the hardness of the chairs, and the feel of the velvet. The Nature which is the cause of awareness is the conjectured system of molecules and electrons which so affects the mind as to produce the awareness of apparent Nature.”

The Concept of Nature, p. 30-31

James’ radical empiricism is an intervention upon this way of conceiving of our relation to Nature, whereby a speculative conjecture is given causal and explanatory priority over firsthand concrete experience. But does James go too far? How are we to make sense of the obvious power of the scientific method if we are limited to the “instant field of the present”? 

James himself would not deny the validity of scientific explanations, he would just caution against holding scientific truths as final. Rather, the theories which for now continue to work, i.e., to make accurate predictions, are “true enough.” Not true in some objective or universal sense, but pragmatically true, as good as we can do for now. James ends up reducing knowledge of Nature to instrumental knowledge. 

Whitehead goes further, building on James’ important criticisms and insights to produce what has been called a “speculative empiricism.” Whitehead is still pragmatic and radically empirical in orientation, but he recognizes a way forward to secure an open-ended form of metaphysical systematicity that James, the mosaic philosopher suspicious of all system, was not willing to follow. Whitehead sought out the “all-embracing relations” that might allow us to understand how the feelings of warmth and visual apprehension of the red glow of a fire might hang together with the agitated molecules of carbon and oxygen that science tells us are the cause of these qualities. 

“Time and space would appear to provide these all embracing relations  which the advocates of the philosophy of the unity of Nature require. The perceived redness of the fire and the warmth are definitely related in time and in space to the molecules of the fire and the molecules of the body.” 

The Concept of Nature, p. 33

Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysical scheme is thus an attempt to make good on James’ return to experience while also leaving room for the systematic relations in time and space of those aspects of Nature formerly divided into subjective and objective, or qualitative and quantitative, dimensions by scientific materialism. Whitehead, like James, sought to understand Nature in terms of pure experience. But Whitehead makes more explicit than James the fact that this tissue of pure experience exhibits a certain texture or systematic structure that mathematical intuition can unveil and understand. Thus, in Whitehead’s terms, 

“It is by reason of this disclosure of ultimate system that an intellectual comprehension of the physical universe is possible. There is a systematic framework permeating all relevant fact. By reference to this framework the variant, various, vagrant, evanescent details of the abundant world can have their mutual relations exhibited by their correlation to the common terms of a universal system. Sounds differ qualitatively among themselves, sounds differ qualitatively from colors, colors differ qualitatively from the rhythmic throbs of emotion and of pain; yet all alike are periodic and have their spatial relations and their wave-lengths. The discovery of the true relevance of the mathematical relations disclosed in presentational immediacy [i.e., sense perception] was the first step in the intellectual conquest of nature. Accu­rate science was then born. Apart from these relations as facts in nature, such science is meaningless, a tale told by an idiot and credited by fools. For example, the conjecture by an eminent astronomer, based on measure­ments of photographic plates, that the period of the revolution of our galaxy of stars is about three hundred million years can only derive its meaning from the systematic geometrical relations which permeate the epoch. But he would have required the same reference to system, if he had made an analogous statement about the period of revolution of a child’s top. Also the two periods are comparable in terms of the system.”  

Process & Reality, p. 327

So, we can have direct experience of the spinning top on the table before us, and we can link by analogy the experienced rhythms of its motions to the revolution of the galaxy, dimly apprehended via sense perception of the night sky, but speculatively grasped via mathematical reflection. This can be achieved without severing the tissue of experience.