A new revised and expanded edition of my book Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology is now available in paperback and electronic versions.
Seb and I discussed the history and contemporary status of the natural sciences and their relationship to philosophy and metaphysics.
Had a great time with Gordon on Rune Soup a few days ago:
The following is an essay originally submitted for publication in a book on philosophy and psychedelics. After some feedback from the editors, I realized it is too long and includes too many (I hope interesting!) digressions. I’ll be thoroughly revising my submission for the book, so I figured I’d share this earlier version here. Feedback welcome!
Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.
I’m winding down a cross-country road trip and had the pleasure of talking about it in the context of America’s larger political predicament with Jeremy and Ryan on their “Growing Down” podcast.
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.
Thanks to Jeremy, Matt, and Ryan for hosting this dialogue!
Sean Kelly and I delivered this a few weeks ago at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA at our philosophy program’s annual retreat.
I’ve just finished drafting this article, which will hopefully be featured in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences focused on panpsychism. It still needs plenty of editing, but I’m sharing it here for those who want a sneak peak. Criticisms and suggestions definitely welcome.
Title: “Physicalism and Its Discontents: A Study in Whitehead’s Panexperientialist Alternative”
Abstract (150-200 words): This paper brings Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. This paper thus examines physicalism’s dominant strategies for explaining consciousness, including eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism, and concludes that the panpsychist alternative is superior. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.
Key words: panpsychism, panexperientialism, physicalism, emergence, experience, consciousness, process philosophy
The skull-crackingly hard problem concerning the place of consciousness in the physical universe has led an increasing number of analytic philosophers of mind to take seriously the panpsychist alternative to standard physicalism. Nonetheless, Brüntrup and Jaskolla note in their editors’ introduction to Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives that the usual response to the doctrine remains “an incredulous stare” (2017, 2). Perhaps the most forceful dismissal to date comes from Colin McGinn, who in a reply to Galen Strawson rejects panpsychism as “a comforting piece of utter balderdash” that only stoned hippies could believe (McGinn 2006, 93).
But an explanation for the emergence of consciousness in the universe known to physics has thus far proven elusive. Fundamental philosophical questions remain to be answered before the criteria for such a scientific explanation can even be established. For example, is consciousness essentially ‘real’ or ‘illusory’? That is, does it “have truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality,” as Alfred North Whitehead suspected (1929, 15), or is it a peripheral accident, a mere epiphenomenon emergent from blindly churning physiochemical processes that are otherwise well understood by natural science? Does consciousness evolve, and if so, does it intelligently influence the behavior of the organisms instantiating it? These questions are not merely theoretical or academic. They cut to the very core who and what we are, shaping our sense of what it means to be human.
Despite the initial incredulity it provokes, this paper argues that panpsychism—specifically Whitehead’s process-relational, panexperiential version—provides a viable alternative to scientific materialism while also avoiding the philosophical excesses of dualism and idealism. Strange as it may sound to modern ears, panpsychism has a long and rich history stretching back to the origins of Western philosophy. Heraclitus opposed Parmenides’ vision of unchanging Being with the doctrine that ‘everything flows’ (panta rhea). Heraclitus understood the universe to be “an ever-living fire” (pyr aeizoon), making him not only the first recorded process philosopher but the first panpsychist, as well (Skrbina 2005, 29). Even in the early modern period, thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Gottfried Leibniz, often lauded for their important contributions to the emergence of the scientific worldview, continued to uphold some version of the doctrine. “Lucretius tells us what an atom looks like to others,” writes Whitehead, “and Leibniz tells us how an atom is feeling about itself” ( 1967, 132). Skeptics may be tempted to excuse Bruno and Leibniz’s panpsychist eccentricity as an unthought residue of pre-modern animism. Once enlightened by the findings of contemporary physics and biology, surely these luminaries would happily have dispensed with the ‘primitive’ notion that atoms can feel? Perhaps not. What, after all, are we to make of Whitehead, another mathematical and philosophical genius who critiqued scientific materialism and arrived at his own variety of panpsychism not despite but because of the findings of contemporary physics and biology?
“There persists…[a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being…[This] is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived” (Whitehead  1967, 17).
This paper brings Whitehead’s “Philosophy of Organism” ( 1978) into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.
1. Why not Whitehead?: A Brief Historical Excursus
“Urge & urge & urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance & increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”
—Whitman (“Song of Myself”)
Understanding Whitehead’s process-relational approach to panpsychism (or panexperientialism, as David Ray Griffin has renamed it [Griffin 2008, 78]) first requires a bit of historical contextualization. While Whitehead’s early work with Bertrand Russell on the logical foundations of mathematics is widely acknowledged by analytic philosophers as seminal to the emergence of their school of thought, Whitehead’s later metaphysical speculations are for the most part either ignored or ridiculed. For example, W. V. Quine traveled to Harvard in the mid-1920s to study with the coauthor of the Principia Mathematica. After attending the lectures that became Science and the Modern World (1925), Quine acknowledged “a vivid sense of being in the presence of the great” but went on to admit that the notes he took were mostly full of doodles. “What [Whitehead] said,” Quine reports, “had little evident bearing on the problems that I recognized” (Quine 1985, 83). Another student of Whitehead’s at Harvard, Donald Davidson, was initially transfixed by his ideas, but later reflected that his encounter with Whitehead “set [him] back philosophically for years” by confirming his youthful “inclination to think that doing philosophy was like writing poetry” (Davidson 1999, 14). Not everyone was quite as sour on Whitehead’s speculations at Harvard. Ernest Nagel credited Whitehead with being one of the first to realize and attempt to address the metaphysical problems that were becoming “acutely pressing in the special sciences,” praising him for his “[sensitivity] to the advances of recent science as well to the ancient tradition that philosophy is the systematic study of being” (E. Nagel 1954, 154). But Nagel also noted “the severe abuse of language to which Whitehead is partial” (ibid.), a familiar (if not entirely fair) refrain among those who attempt to read him for the first time.
To round out this historical excursus, let us return to Nagel’s point about the special sciences. By the mid-1920s, the new quantum and relativity theories had already succeeded in demolishing the old mechanical philosophy of Nature by transforming matter into energy and merging space and time together with gravity. The classical explanations of Nature offered by a once confident scientific materialism no longer made any sense. A second scientific revolution was afoot. At the same time, Ludwig Wittgenstein led the logical positivists in a revolt against the excesses of British idealism by blowing up the bridge purporting to connect the metaphysical speculations of philosophers with the ultimate nature of things: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein 1922, 189). The physicists struggling to come to terms with the strange ontological implications of their discoveries could henceforth expect no help from philosophers. Whitehead’s own pathbreaking work on the application of mathematics to physics made him especially sensitive to Einstein’s relativistic revolution; he was also well aware of the concurrently unfolding quantum revolution. His sensitivity to the metaphysical earthquake underway in the physical sciences awakened Whitehead from the dogmatic slumber of the mechanistic paradigm. “What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation,” Whitehead asked, “when you do not know what you mean by mechanics?” (1925, 16). His Philosophy of Organism is a protest against the lifeless Nature imagined by Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, and a rejection of the narrow linguistic analysis and sterile logical positivism of his philosophical contemporaries. His is an attempt to make natural science philosophical again by asking whether physical causes and motions need be so violently segregated from the conscious reasons and emotions by which we apprehend them.
In Process & Reality: An Essay in Cosmology ( 1978), Whitehead aims for nothing less than the construction of an organic system of the universe that not only brings quantum and relativity theories into coherence, but gathers up scientific truths, aesthetic feelings, and religious values into an integral vision of reality. It is true that Whitehead found it necessary to invent many new turns of phrase to accomplish this feat. He thus contrasts his speculative philosophical method with that of the “critical school” (Whitehead  1968, 173), which for my purposes can easily be identified with the then just emerging analytic school of thought. This school assumes that humanity “has consciously entertained all the fundamental ideas which are applicable to its experience” and that “human language, in single words or in phrases, explicitly expresses these ideas” (ibid.). The critical or analytic school, Whitehead continues, “confines itself to verbal analysis within the limits of the dictionary” (ibid.). In contrast, Whitehead’s speculative method “appeals to direct insight, and endeavors to indicate its meanings by further appeal to situations which promote such specific insights. It then enlarges the dictionary” (ibid.). Whitehead credits analytic philosophy for its “delicate accuracy of expression,” but marks the main “divergence between the schools [as] the quarrel between safety and adventure” (ibid.).
Davidson worried about the adventurous Whitehead’s attempted alliance between speculative philosophy and mystical poetry. Both, according to Whitehead, make “reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words.” He continues: “If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken” (ibid., 174). Davidson’s complaint may be short-sighted, however, especially once one has acknowledged the profound metaphysical problems that after nearly a century of careful analysis continue to plague not only the physical sciences but the philosophy of mind, as well. Hamlet was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth…”
While getting to the bottom of Whitehead’s chilly reception among analytic philosophers is not the aim of this paper, a few conjectures can be offered. After a celebrated first career as a mathematician, Whitehead’s untimely entry into philosophy in the mid-1920s can be read as heralding the more recent return to metaphysics both in the analytic and Continental traditions. Philosophers are finally catching up to the problems Whitehead was pointing out nearly a century ago. Perhaps it is just because his cosmological ideas initially emerged in the wrong season that they have remained buried in the snow. In addition to the unfortunate timing, Whitehead’s lack of easy classification is probably another reason for his neglect. Neither an analytic philosopher, nor a phenomenologist, Whitehead’s approach generally confounds partisans of both schools. That said, his process-relational philosophy has been creatively taken up by a number of friendly thinkers on the Continent (initially Henri Bergson (1999, 47), later Gilles Deleuze ( 1994, 284-285;  1993, 76ff), and most recently Isabelle Stengers (2011) and Bruno Latour (2005). Whitehead’s thought also featured prominently in the Speculative Realism movement that swept through Continental philosophy beginning in late 2010 (Bryant et al. 2011; Harman 2018). He is perhaps best situated within the American pragmatist tradition stemming from Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, though even here the shoe pinches. Dewey is the only one who lived long enough to respond to Whitehead’s philosophy, which he praises for its organicism and experiential point of departure but criticizes for its mathematical residues (Schilpp 1941). In the end it must be admitted that Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is singular in its aims and conclusions. Any attempt to pigeonhole his thought into a school inevitably trivializes it. Of course, Whitehead himself generated a school, but there exist plenty of wild Whiteheadians who avoid any established orthodoxies, like Deleuze, Stengers, and Latour, or Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein (2017).
Finally, there is the issue of Whitehead’s inclusion of reformed conceptions of teleology and God in his cosmological scheme. For many philosophers and natural scientists, this rules out in advance any serious engagement with his ideas. Daniel J. Nicholson and John Dupré, for example, claim that the theological baggage of Whitehead’s process philosophy is a “liability” for thinkers with a naturalistic aim (2018, 7). But a closer look at Whitehead’s process-relational reformulations of purpose and divinity may reveal to those who rushed to dismiss them that Whitehead shares many of their criticisms of traditional natural theology. By the time God and teleology return from Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology, the former is no longer an omnipotent Creator but a creature of Creativity suffering with the rest of us, and the latter is no longer an eternal design imposed from beyond the world but an aesthetic lure immanent in the experience of each and every actual occasion in the world, whether that experience belongs to Shakespeare or “to the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Whitehead  1978, 28).
My hope is that this paper brings Whitehead out of cold storage and at least thaws his ideas enough to get those unfamiliar with his Philosophy of Organism to consider the alternative it represents, not only to physicalism, but to dualism and idealism, as well. Despite Quine’s first impression, it may turn out that Whitehead has much to say about the problems faced by contemporary analytic philosophers, especially those who, against all odds, now find themselves affirming the panpsychist heresy.
2. The Place of Consciousness in a Physical Universe
Serious conceptual difficulties await any philosopher attempting to understand the place of consciousness in the physical universe. David Chalmers’ well-known “hard problem of consciousness” (1995) is perhaps the most oft cited formulation of the impasse, but the basic problem goes back to Rene Descartes’ argument that a real distinction exists between a thinking or mental substance and an extended or material substance ( 1982, 21]. While many contemporary physicists would be quick to dismiss Descartes’ idea of an immaterial soul as unscientific, his correlate idea of extended matter continues to shape the scientific imaginary of Nature as something explainable without remainder in purely mathematical terms. While Descartes faced the difficult problem of accounting for the relationship between two entirely autonomous substances, contemporary physicalists face what is arguably an even harder problem: how can extended matter in motion ever give rise to the seemingly interior experience of conscious thought and emotion? As Galen Strawson has pointed out, even if this “seeming” experience ends up being some sort of illusion, the seeming itself still demands an explanation: “any such illusion is already and necessarily an actual instance of the thing said to be an illusion” (Strawson 2018).
Let us run through the various metaphysical options at play for those affirming standard physicalism, by which I mean any variation on the ontology that posits that the final real things (whether particles, fields, or some other mode of existence yet to be discovered by science) are passively enduring objects entirely devoid of subjective enjoyment and aim. When addressing the place of consciousness in Nature, physicalists generally draw upon three basic explanatory strategies: eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism. Many physicalists, in order to side-step patent absurdities, end up tacitly sliding back and forth between two or more of these positions in the course of their explanations of consciousness. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in how these terms are defined in existing literature, hence the need to offer accounts of each position as they are considered for the purposes of this paper.
Eliminativism tries to deny the reality of consciousness outright, arguing that our folk psychological intuitions and self-reports about it are hopelessly misguided and need to be replaced by more mature neurophysiological or computational accounts. While Paul and Patricia Churchland are perhaps the most prominent contemporary defenders of this position (P. S. Churchland 1986; P. M. Churchland 1988), its origins can be traced back to Wilfred Sellars (1956) and Quine (1960). Quine’s reflections on the matter are especially relevant. He raises the question of whether eliminativism truly “repudiates” conscious experiences as factually mistaken, or whether it is meant as a theory identifying such experiences with physiological facts (Quine 1960, 265). He decides that there is no real distinction to be made in this case between explanation and identification. If the elimination of consciousness in favor of physiological processes is the same as the identification of consciousness with correlated physiological processes, all the sudden eliminativism starts to sound a lot like panpsychism, with the crucial qualification that the panpsychist refuses to grant brain matter any special ontological status, as though it instantiated experiential capacities not found to some degree in all physical processes. In Whitehead’s terms: “There’s nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt” (Whitehead  1978, 310). In other words, if Quine’s reading is right, Whitehead is also an eliminativist about that sort of consciousness that is imagined to be something extra in addition to physical processes.
More recently, a quasi-transcendental version of eliminativism has been defended under the label of “illusionism” (Frankish 2016). The idea is that we suffer inextricably from what Daniel Dennett calls a “user-illusion” (Dennett 2017, 222). There is really no one home inside, but because we are constitutively blind to the neural basis of our user-illusion, we cannot help but keep knocking on the door. The answer to all our knocking comes only as a bunch of mouth-squeaks signifying nothing (other than more squeaks). We are just a bunch of neurons and chemistry playing out an evolutionary algorithm. “We’re all zombies” (Dennett 2004, 67). Despite his critics, Dennett denies that his version of physicalism is eliminativist (Dennett 2017, 224). His philosophy is a good example of the way the most inventive physicalists end up combining aspects of multiple positions, sliding from eliminativism for questions of ontology to emergentism when it’s a question of the practical functionality of conscious will (Dennett 2003).
Hard core eliminativists like the Churchlands, or like the speculative realist philosopher Ray Brassier (2007), can at least be credited with bitting the materialist bullet by accepting that any physicalism worthy of the name leaves absolutely no room in the universe for anything like what most people mean by consciousness. For Brassier, eliminativism is not just a promising neuroscientific theory of consciousness but a tremendous opportunity for speculative philosophy. Philosophers, rather than acting as “a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem” by continuing to seek the restoration of a meaningful connection between human consciousness and the cosmic processes that generate it, should instead follow the logic of eliminativism to its admittedly nihilistic conclusions (Brassier 2007, xi). Even if attempts to restore meaning succeed in increasing our quality of life, Brassier still calls upon self-respecting philosophers to reject them, since “thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living” (ibid.). The eliminativist position can be criticized as self-refuting, since it denies in theory what, short of suicide, one cannot deny in practice (though even the act suicide implies a conscious decision to kill oneself). How can one claim to hold to the view of eliminative materialism if the capacity for holding meaningful views of anything is precisely what the position purports to be eliminating? Brassier responds to the performative contradiction criticism by pointing out that the eliminativist project entails a rejection and replacement of the folk psychological view of ‘views’ or ‘beliefs’ assumed by its critics. Following Paul Churchland, Brassier reduces the propositional meanings and sentential beliefs of folk psychology to the “dynamics and kinematics” of neural activation patterns in the brain (Brassier 2007, 12, 15-17). What it is to hold a particular view (e.g., “Eliminativism is true”) is just for the relevant neural pathways to fire.
While panpsychism may initially affront the common sense of modern Western adults, eliminativism is an even bigger stretch. Of course, the common sense folk psychology of a particular era cannot be given the privileged position of determining metaphysical reality. Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism entails a radical revisioning of our common sense understandings of consciousness and propositional meaning. But it does not deny conscious experience outright. Philosophy can reform common sense without eliminating the very possibility of a meaningful life. According to Whitehead, “As we think, we live” (Whitehead,  1968, 63). Thinking is, after all, as natural to the life of a conscious organism as eating or breathing. If our philosophy cannot in the end be squared with the “overpowering deliverances” (Whitehead  1978, 50) of experience and the “concrete affairs of life” (Whitehead  1967, 80), it is a good sign that we have made a wrong turn somewhere in our abstract reasoning. This, at least, is how a pragmatic radical empiricist like Whitehead addresses the matter: “Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice” (Whitehead  1978, 13).
Epiphenomenalism claims there is room enough for consciousness to be somehow excreted by the brain, but only as a semi-transparent ghost or “inert spectator” (James 1890, 129) with no causal influence over the goings-on of the body or its proximal environment. As formulated most famously by Thomas Huxley, epiphenomenalism is the view that consciousness is “completely without any power…as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery” (Huxley 1875, 62). Epiphenomenalists at least acknowledge the irreducibility of our direct intuition of conscious experience. But assuming a broadly naturalistic and thus evolutionary framework (as Huxley and most contemporary defenders of the doctrine claim to) rules out accounts of epiphenomenal consciousness as sealed off from but nonetheless perfectly correlated with physical processes via a “pre-established harmony” (e.g., Leibniz). Any naturalistic account must explain the causal nexus between mental and physical processes, even if the causal relationships are said to move in only one direction, i.e., physical causes determining an epiphenomenal steam-whistle. Given the requirements of naturalism, the problem with epiphenomenalism is that it is incomprehensible how such a complex ghost-like consciousness could ever have evolved if it serves no function at all for the organism it haunts. If consciousness plays no active role in shaping an organism’s behavior, it cannot be selected for and thus has no role in biological adaptation (T. Nagel 2012, 44ff). As James argued more than a century ago, it is an absurd abuse of scientistic reasoning to assert in the same breath that, while consciousness exists, “all those manners of existence which make it seem relevant to our outward life are mere meaningless coincidences, inexplicable parts of the general and intimate irrationality of this disjointed world” (James 1879, 21). Not only is the view epiphenomenalist view incoherent, the opposed view, that consciousness to varying degrees depending on cerebral complexity “[exerts] a constant pressure in the direction of survival,” grants further plausibility to the Darwinian evolutionary story: “It is, in fact, hard to see how without an effective superintending ideal the evolution of so unstable an organ as the mammalian cerebrum can have proceeded at all” (ibid., 16).
The neuroscientist Michael Graziano attempts to avoid this problem with epiphenomenalism by redefining conscious awareness in neuroscientific terms as “attention” (Graziano 2019). While focusing on the ‘phenomenal properties’ of conscious awareness gives philosophers the impression that subjective experience is some sort of extra ethereal or nonphysical essence (e.g., private ‘qualia’), what Graziano calls an “attention schema” has been scientifically measured in brain-based computational terms (ibid.). The attention schema is the brain’s way of internally modeling certain aspects of its own activity, and our reports and claims about our own consciousness appear to correlate with it (ibid., 101). Graziano thus slides away from the hard problem of consciousness to ask a different question: what sort of neural computations allow us to make claims about supposedly conscious experiences? “In this theory,” writes Graziano, “the ghost in the machine, the consciousness inside us, is a topic of discussion among us only because our intuitions are informed by an attention schema, with its incomplete account of attention” (ibid., 103). While a supposedly ethereal essence would have no way of altering the behavior of an organism, the attention schema serves an adaptive function by monitoring, predicting, and controlling the brain’s attentional resources (ibid., 101). It performs this function in a purely physical way without the influence of any extra-physical consciousness.
While a Whiteheadian approach has its own reasons for being critical of the search for ethereal ‘phenomenal properties’ or private ‘qualia’ (see sections 3 and 4 below), Graziano’s neuroscientific slight of hand gets us no closer to understanding the place of consciousness in the physical world. To start with, consciousness is not merely “a topic of discussion” and cannot be reduced to the sentential claims we make about ourselves and our experience. Whatever else it is, conscious experience of oneself in a world is an immediately intuited concrete fact, not just a linguistic report about or computational model of a fact. Graziano admits he isn’t offering a philosophical answer for how consciousness arises in the brain, but he also implies that his properly scientific approach forces us to accept that “there is no meaningful answer to the question” (ibid., 97). We are just “a biological machine that claims to have a hard problem” (ibid., 96). We are brain networks running a linguistic program whose only power is that it can make claims about itself, statements about what it believes is going on and what its own and other people’s intentions are. These beliefs, claims, and intentions have no bearing on what is actually going on inside the skull or beyond it, since their meanings are epiphenomenal to computations in the brain and the motion of matter through spacetime.
A broader assumption baked into Graziano’s approach is that “the brain is an information processing device” (ibid., 95). This is stated as though it were a truth that neuroscience has discovered, but it is hardly that. It is a theoretical paradigm and a research program, that is, a framework for studying the brain as if it were a computer, not a fact about what the brain is. Other neuroscientists and philosophers of mind reject the computational approach and instead study brain activity from an enactive and embodied perspective (Varela et al.  2016, 44ff; Thompson 2007, 51ff). From an enactive perspective, speaking in terms of decontextualized and disembodied ‘information processing’ going on inside the skull neglects the extent to which meaningful information presupposes an experiential horizon within which it can be interpreted. Evan Thompson extends Gregory Bateson’s claim that “information is a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson  2000, p. 315), adding that information “is the making of a difference that makes a difference to somebody somewhere” (Thompson 2007, 57). Informational meaning is thus embedded not only in the complex dynamics of an experience-imbued brain, but in the sensorimotor networks of the body, and even extends out into the surrounding environment with which the organism is structurally coupled and has co-evolved.
Emergentism claims that consciousness suddenly appears in the universe whenever matter manages to arrange itself into the appropriate dynamical shapes. Some say a simple form of consciousness emerged with the first living cells (‘biopsychism’), while others claim these cells had to blindly organize themselves into large packs of neurons called brains before the light of consciousness could flicker on (‘cerebropsychism’). Still others insist that it was necessary for these brains to become sufficiently entangled in the symbolic network of a language before full-blown consciousness could explode onto the scene (‘anthropopsychism’).
There are weak and strong versions of emergence (Brogaard 2016, 131ff). The higher level capacities of a weakly emergent consciousness are at least in principle deducible from and thus in fact causally reducible to its lower level constituents. Once cognitive neuroscience discovers the relevant underlying brain mechanisms, complicated as they may be, the mystery of consciousness will be understood to have been only an artifact of our limited knowledge. Weak emergence thus presents an epistemological puzzle for physicalism to solve, rather than an ontological impasse forcing it to re-examine its premises. Of course, if weak emergentists do solve the engineering problem of how the brain makes the mind, it is difficult to see how they will avoid sliding back into epiphenomenalism.
Strongly emergent conceptions, in contrast, affirm the ontological novelty of consciousness above and beyond its physical components, even granting it downward causal influence upon the body and surrounding environment. Such a view at least refuses to explain away the evident facts and overpowering deliverances of conscious thought and intention, facts that law, politics, morality, religion, and practical life in general require; facts that even the endeavor to produce scientific knowledge itself necessarily presupposes, for what else is knowledge but a mode of consciousness? As Whitehead quipped, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study” (Whitehead  1958, 16). But unless it can explain how meaning and purpose arise out of mass and energy, strong emergentism lands us right back where Descartes left us nearly four centuries ago, with irreducible mind on one side, brute matter on the other, and no rational account of how they might relate to one another. Focusing on the gradual development of mental capacities from bacterial chemotaxis to Shakespearean poetry over the course of billions of years of biological evolution is an obvious strategy for narrowing this gap. But merely saying ‘evolution did it’ doesn’t cut it, since it wasn’t Darwinian evolution that gave rise to cellular life. Darwin’s theory of speciation by natural selection presupposes self-producing and reproducing organisms, it does not explain them. In Thompson’s terms, “natural selection is an emergent consequence of autopoiesis, not its cause”(2007, 212).
On the other hand, there is a wider definition of evolution than that assigned by Darwin. Whitehead was convinced that evolution had relevance for not just biology but all the sciences, including physics and cosmology. He imaginatively generalized Darwin’s theory such that evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations checked by environmental pressure became evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historical routes, whereby a particular occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the inheritance of efficient causes) are integrated with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the formal causes of variation) into some emergent enduring pattern of experiential value. Whitehead argued that materialism could not survive its encounter with evolutionary theory., since the former implies merely the “purposeless and unprogressive” rearrangement of externally related substances and their accidental properties, while “the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (Whitehead  1967, 101). “The doctrine,” Whitehead continues, “cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (ibid.).
Information theoretic accounts of the gap between matter and life provide some hope for a pathway forward, but without incarnating information into the meaningful horizon of experience enacted by living organisms, research programs seeking to analogize brain activity to computation end up having to conceive of information processing as some sort of quasi-conscious homunculus hovering above the neurochemistry of the brain and steering it around. For example, neuroscientists regularly describe information processing in the brain as “goal relevant,” “selective,” and “sensitive” (Sy et al. 2015, 122), all terms implying intentionality and purposefulness, even though the presuppositions of mechanistic biology upon which computational neuroscience rests says such powers are impossible. Luckily, taking information seriously does not require “assuming that abstract properties have physical potency,” as Terrence Deacon put it (Deacon 2012, 192).
Deacon is a strong emergentist who tries to dispel the homunculus and de-etherealize information by describing it not as an extra essence added to the physical but in terms of the “absential” features of an incomplete Nature:
“A counterintuitive figure/background reversal, focusing on what is absent rather than present, offers a means to repair some of the serious inadequacies in our conceptions of matter, order, life, work, information, representation, and even consciousness and conceptions of value” (Deacon 2011, 44).
Information is just what is absent from physically present matter. It is not involved in the push and pull of causal efficacy, but instead ‘constrains’ these physical interactions, acting as a formal and final cause that ratchets physics (thermodynamics) up a contragrade organizational gradient into chemistry (morphodynamics), biology (teleodynamics), and eventually full-blown conscious thought (intentionality). Like the enactivists, Deacon limits information processing to the living world, denying ententionality to the physical and chemical realms. He grants morphodynamic systems the ability to ‘fall up’ negentropic gradients of complexity toward the telic informational processes of living semiosis, but rejects the idea of any aim or value or elán implanted in matter prior to the emergence of life. Telos is added later and not baked in. Not the creative evolution of organisms, but vacuous bits of matter with no internal values…hurrying through space” (Whitehead  1968, 158) are fundamental for Nature.
It is here that the panpsychist integration of physics and experience goes further toward the naturalization of information by making sign interpretation, or in Whitehead’s terms, ‘prehension,’ an intrinsic part of cosmogenesis from the get go. Deacon criticizes Whitehead for projecting “micro humunculi” down to the level of quantum events, arguing that his panexperientialism obfuscates the need for an explanation of “why the [characteristics] of physical processes associated with life and mind [differ] so radically from those associated with the rest of physics and chemistry” (Deacon 2012, 79). Deacon admits that Whitehead in fact does offer an explanation for these differences in terms of the organizational complexity of enduring ‘societies’ of actual occasions of experience that emerge in the course of evolution. “Yet, if specific organizational complexity is what matters, then little explanatory significance is added by the assumption that some level of micro intentionality was suffused throughout all the component processes” (Deacon 2012, 78). While Deacon’s approach succeeds in narrowing the distance between physical causality and conscious intentionality, an explanatory gap still remains. Whitehead’s wager is that this gap is extreme enough to require fully undoing modern science’s “bifurcation of Nature” (Whitehead 1920, 30) by affirming that feeling or prehension is as intrinsic to natural processes as causality. Indeed, Whitehead’s experiential concept of prehension is meant to account for the very possibility of causal relation as such (Whitehead  1968, 164-165): prehension is what allows the real potentiality of the objectified past to pass back into the subjective immediacy of a new actual occasion of experience. Prehension is akin to the ‘information processing’ of computationalists, only it avoids the vagaries of their epiphenomenalism by rendering the detection of form as a process of feeling, thus embodying information in an experiential horizon. While his Philosophy of Organism does grant some degree of mentality to even the simplest of actual occasions, Whitehead’s panexperientialism doesn’t add anything extra to the natural world we find ourselves within: “the operation of mentality is primarily to be conceived as a diversion of the flow of energy” (Whitehead  1968, 168). In other words, mentality is an absential constraint upon energy’s otherwise entropic tendency. Were this entropic tendency the final word in Nature’s becoming, we would not be here to regret the fact. Whitehead is thus attempting to render the true nature of the physical universe transparent to us as the ongoing aesthetic achievement of a vast nexus of experiential occasions: “these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which in their collective unity compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance” (Whitehead  1968, 151). Quarks, photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and the like appear to be our most ancient ancestors, close to the “primate organisms” (Whitehead  1967, 132) of our cosmic ecology. Out of their co-evolution emerged atoms, stars, and galaxies, all examples of the complex social achievements of actual occasions.. The evolution of these physical organisms proves that Nature’s capacity for emergent value and organizational complexity long predates the arrival of biological cells. These particle and astronomical organisms may be minimally or maximally conscious. The point is that at whatever scale it occurs, information processing is an experiential process, with the intensity of experience depending on the degree of integration of prehended data achieved by any given society of occasions.
3. The Physics of Experience: Avoiding Inflationary and Deflationary Accounts of Consciousness
“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”
—Whitehead ( 1968, 150)
If physicalists are willing to take seriously the idea that human beings might not really be conscious, perhaps they can grant that it is no more absurd to entertain the possibility that stars and galaxies have minds. If Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative turns out to have philosophical advantages over scientific materialism, perhaps we can learn to live with its mind expanding implications. After all, if materialism is true, we aren’t really alive, anyway. Another advantage of panexperientialism is that it can help philosophy avoid the excesses of Absolute idealism by not expanding mind too much.
Whitehead’s panexperientialism is an attempt to take consciousness at face value without unduly inflating or deflating its significance in the universe. The most inflationary accounts tend toward Absolute idealism, while the most deflationary tend toward eliminative materialism. The Kantian transcendental or critical approach views consciousness (with its categories of understanding and forms of intuition) as an a priori condition for knowledge of anything, including the physical world. It is thus an important compromise position, holding materialism at bay by preventing us from ever knowing anything about a mind-independent reality, while also checking the mind’s tendency to declare itself the ground of being. Kant admitted that via introspection we can only ever access an ‘empirical me,’ but he nonetheless posited a ‘transcendental I’ or Ego as the necessary correlate of everything thought or experienced, whether in myself (temporal intuition) or outside (spatial intuition). Kant’s transcendental Ego is no longer a clear and distinct substantial reality, as Descartes had imagined when he declared “I am a thing that thinks” (Descartes  1996, 24). So what is it? From James’ radically empirical perspective, the Kantian Ego “is simply nothing: as ineffectual and windy an abortion as Philosophy can show,” for if it be granted any other status, given Kant’s transcendental premises, there is little to prevent the Fichtean and Hegelian move to “call it the First Principle of Philosophy, to spell its name in capitals and pronounce it with adoration, to act, in short, as if [we are] going up in a balloon whenever the notion of it [crosses our] mind” (James 1890, 365). The Kantian compromise is thus an inherently unstable position. It saves mind from ever being reduced to matter, but at the cost of leaving us in total ignorance regarding the transcendental ground of our own consciousness and the substantial reality of Nature. Philosophers are left poised in a vulnerable state of metaphysical indecision, only a moderate dose of nitrous oxide away from floating into the mania of Absolute idealism, and only a mildly depressive mood away from succumbing to eliminative materialism. Might Whitehead’s “organic realism” (Whitehead  1978, 309) put philosophy on more solid experiential ground?
Presented with the general panpsychist hypothesis of a “pervasive perhaps ubiquitous” (Seager 2016, 229) subjectivity inherent in Nature, the first thing the incredulous tend to ask is whether the view entails that stones are conscious, or that tables and chairs stand at attention before us contemplating existence, or that spoons enjoy the flavor of the tea they stir. Few panpsychist philosophers actually uphold such views about stones and human artifacts, at least not without all the necessary qualifications (alchemists and astrologers notwithstanding). The proper panpsychist response to the skepticism of physicalists about the extent of mind’s reach into Nature is to ask whether it is really possible for them to conceive of their own consciousness as an illusion. For if the computational model of mind is true and experience contributes nothing to the functioning of the brain, if our consciousness is really just a complex set of what William Seager calls “bare recognitional capacities” evolutionarily elaborated “into a rich but delusive system of beliefs,” then when it comes down to it we human beings “are actually no more conscious than rocks” (Seager 2016, 231).
Which is more believable? That you and I are no more ‘alive’ than a pile of stones? That we and the stones are merely finite appearances in the eternal substance of the Absolute? Or that stones are more ‘alive’ than we think? From the perspective of Whitehead’s panexperiential organic realism, deflationary materialism and inflationary idealism are equally out of line. What, after all, does contemporary physics tell us about the materiality of a stone?: “[Vanished] from the field of ultimate scientific conceptions is the notion of vacuous material existence with passive endurance, with primary individual attributes, and with accidental adventures”; in short, physics has “[displaced] the notion of static stuff by the notion of fluent energy” (Whitehead  1978, 309). Stones, understood scientifically, are thus more like attenuated energy events whose relative stability is the effect of reiterated vibratory patterns of activity. For Whitehead, “the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life” (Whitehead  1968, 168), though of course the emotional intensity realized in a stone is quite negligible due to the lack of any evolved organization for channeling and amplifying its scattered feelings into the more or less unified consciousness evident in animals. The physicist may retort that these patterns are merely mathematical equations and that we have no scientific basis for attributing experience or anything else concrete to the activity they describe. Indeed, many panpsychists are happy to admit that physics tells us only about the abstract aspects of matter and thus “can’t characterize the intrinsic nonstructural nature of concrete reality in any respect at all” (Strawson 2016, 85). In that case, it turns out ‘matter’ is among the most abstract ideas ever imagined by human minds. But in Whitehead’s way of thinking, this “divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character” (Whitehead  1968, 154). Energetic activity is not just a mathematical abstraction but an abstract description of something real: “Nature is full-blooded. Real facts are happening” (Whitehead  1968, 144). Further, unlike some panpsychist readings of Russell’s neutral monism (Russell 1927), Whitehead’s process-relational rendering doesn’t claim experience is a ‘primary attribute’ or ‘intrinsic property’ of matter. This is because in Whitehead’s view, physics has moved beyond the substantialist view of matter, and talk of essential or accidental properties only made sense given such an ontology. The twentieth-century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics dispensed with the ideas of “simple location” (Whitehead  1967, 51) and “nature at an instant” (Whitehead  1968, 145). There are no simply located, instantaneously present material particles or configurations of material particles, just as there are no simply located, instantaneous experiential states or properties. Both energy and experience are activities with fuzzy boundaries, and our panpsychist ontology should reflect this fact. Yet the substance-property ontology is difficult to shake, even for the physicists who know very well that it no longer captures what their equations are describing. The substance-property mode of thought is pervasive in Western philosophy. Descartes, so critical of Aristotle for other reasons, is fully infected by it, and many contemporary analytic philosophers who similarly consider their thinking to be free of any unexamined tradition nonetheless continue to construe reality in its terms. This mode of thought comes naturally since it is woven into the subject-predicate grammar of most of our languages. It is no surprise that Whitehead’s process-relational alternative is at first difficult to grasp.
While there was an “essential distinction between [substantial] matter at an instant and the agitations of experience,” with this conception of matter having been swept away, a door is opened to analogies between energetic activity and concrete experience (Whitehead  1968, 115). Experiences, like energy vectors, are intrinsically process-relational in that they always involve transition beyond themselves: they manifest in a “specious present” (Whitehead  1967, 104) as a tension between the actualized facts of an inherited past and the potential forms of an anticipated future. Whitehead turns to our own lived bodies for a more concrete characterization of physical process, since it is the human body that “provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature” (Whitehead  1968, 115). In addition to the grammar of our language, our visual experience of the immediately presented world reinforces the scientifically mistaken idea that reality is composed of substances with qualities. The grey stone is one of Whitehead’s favorite examples: ancient Greek philosophers perceived “the grey stone” and from that simple observation “evolved the generalization that the actual world can be conceived as a collection of primary substances qualified by universal qualities” (Whitehead  1978, 158). Modern natural philosophers beginning with Galileo elaborated this ontology into a conveniently bifurcated system of primary objective quantities (mass, velocity, dimensionality, etc.) and secondary subjective qualities (color, taste, value, etc.). Descartes’ mind/body dualism finished the job. Thenceforward it is not the stone that is grey, but the private quale of the perceiving subject that is grey. The stone itself is just an extensional lump obeying the fixed laws of gravity and chemical decay. Scrubbing Nature clean of all qualitative residues and tucking them safely away within conscious subjects allowed modern science to make truly remarkable progress explaining those aspects of Nature amenable to precise measurement and mathematical description (Goff 2017b, 12-14). But after a few hundred years of world-transforming progress, this powerful methodology still finds itself embarrassed by the hard problem. Consciousness appears to be “a strange intrusion into an otherwise well-behaved world” (Seager 2016, 234), though of course, it can hardly be said to have intruded if it was the methodology of modern science itself that initially excluded it from the physical world. Limited to the precise measurements afforded by strict sense-perception and to mathematical modeling, science finds no enjoyment, aim, or creativity in Nature, “it finds mere rules of succession” (Whitehead  1968, 154). But this is because, by design, science deals with only half the evidence of human experience.
In addition to the relatively superficial affordances of sense-perception granted us by the five outward facing senses, what Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy” (Whitehead  1978, 121), he also describes a more primordial form of bodily experience or “sense-reception” (ibid., 113-114) referred to as “perception in the mode of causal efficacy” (ibid., 120). It is this latter form of human experience that modern science has all but ignored. When our eyes are functioning normally, they are transparent to the world. Nonetheless, it is evidently true that we see with our eyes. Causal efficacy is the feeling of our eyes blinking when we pull back the curtains and the sunlight floods onto our face. Presentational immediacy is the view of the meadow out the window after our eyes adjust. While presentational immediacy grants us perception of the grey stone as a geometrically projected patch of color, causal efficacy grants us perception of the grey stone’s weight when we pick it up in our hand, of the way this weight influences the muscle fibers and nerve endings in our arm as, “by channels of transmission and of enhancement” (ibid., 119), its ‘weightiness’ is delivered to the presiding occasions of the brain wherein we consciously feel it. “It is the accepted doctrine in physical science,” Whitehead tells us,
“that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound doctrine, but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the physical universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (ibid.).
Modern physics tells us that “the quiet extensive stone” is more complex than it at first appears to be. Were we able to apprehend the stone in a more direct way than that afforded by visual perception, it would reveal itself as a “society of separate molecules in violent agitation” (Whitehead  1978, 78). Picking up the stone grants us no more insight into its inner life, but the feeling of its weight in our hand grants us a clue with profound metaphysical implications. Our consciousness is not separate from but “intimately entwined in bodily life” (Whitehead  1968, 21). We consciously feel the stone because the human body, acting as an experiential amplifier, transmits the stone’s energetic activity along coordinated routes of actual occasions, accruing interpretive enhancements along the way, until the activity achieves final integration in a central occasion of experience. “The human body is thus achieving on a scale of concentrated efficiency a type of social organization, which with every gradation of efficiency constitutes the orderliness” found in the wider universe (Whitehead  1978, 119). Transmission of feelings within the body can thus be understood as analogous to the transmission of energy occurring in the rest of Nature. The body, after all, is part of and continuous with the rest of the external world, “just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud” (Whitehead  1968, 21).
Those seeking a truly naturalistic account of consciousness needn’t rush to deflationary explanations, whether eliminativist, epiphenomenalist, or emergentist. Such deflationary accounts would be understandable if the only alternatives available were dualism or idealism. Panpsychism, especially Whitehead’s panexperiential version, provides another option. It avoids the metaphysical travesty of dualism, the inflationary conjecture of idealism that “nature is mere appearance and mind is the sole reality,” and the deflationary conjecture of materialism that “physical nature is the sole reality and mind is an epiphenomenon” (Whitehead  1968, 150). It begins its explanation of consciousness modestly by examining our intimate feelings of bodily inheritance, and it concludes that these feelings provide a clue as to the functioning of energy in the rest of Nature. The conclusion may seem strange at first, but the philosophical payoff might just be worth it.
4. The Combination and Decomposition Problems for Panpsychism and Cosmopsychism: Bugs, or Features for Whitehead?
The philosophical payoff of panpsychism is that it dissolves the hard problem of consciousness, giving experience its proper place in Nature without undermining the scientific image of the universe. Indeed, panpsychism may have important advantages over materialism for interpreting contemporary physical cosmology (Segall 2018). But substance-property panpsychists have their own problem to deal with: the combination problem. Does Whitehead’s process-relational approach help solve it?
The solution to James’ original statement of the combination problem is already in James’ own statement: there is a 101st feeling, a “totally new fact,” and “the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together” (James 1890, 160). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, in particular his genetic account of mutually sensitive prehensions (Whitehead  1978, 235ff), is an attempt to make good on James’ psychological insight by building it out into a coherent cosmological scheme.
Whitehead is neither a micropsychist nor a cosmopsychist exclusively. He tries to have it both ways. There is a universal soul, a psyche of the cosmos, a God of this world, and there are countless creatures creating in concert with it. Creativity transcends both, it is the source of all evolving parts, wholes, bodies, and souls. For Whitehead the combination problem becomes a logic of concrescence, a way of thinking change as more than just the rearrangement of pre-existing parts or the fragmentation of a pre-existing whole but as a genuine becoming, as an “emergent evolution” or “creative advance” (Whitehead  1978, 21, 30, 229) where neither wholes nor parts pre-exist their relations. Whitehead’s account of process is an account of combination and decomposition, of conjunction and disjunction. Process means the growing together of many objects into one subject, and the perishing of that subject back into many as a superject: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (ibid., 21). Concrescence is a cumulative process and not merely an additive one.
5. The Wonder Remains
“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”
—Whitehead ( 1968, 168-169)
Whitehead is thus clearly an emergentist rather than constitutive panpsychist (Goff 2017a, 114). But it’s not that human consciousness is breaking the laws of physics, it’s that Nature’s ‘laws’ are queerer than our mechanical models let on. Like Deacon (2012) with his absential constraints in an incomplete Nature, Whitehead’s knowledge of mathematical physics led him to reject the causal closure of physics. Laws are habits emergent from the social activity of actual occasions of experience, not divine decrees from heaven imposed upon dead matter. But unlike Deacon, Whitehead goes further by granting life and mind some subtle congress with things from the beginning of time. Indeed, without life and mind Nature would have no time to evolve. The laws of physics are indifferent to life, mind, and time, so the show would be over before it even began.
Human consciousness is the achievement of the human body. The human body is the organizational achievement of a nexus of experiential occasions stretching back billions of years through the evolution of life on Earth, the birth of our Sun and planetary system, and the fusion of quarks into baryons, back even to the birth of God (Whitehead  1978, 348). Consciousness is human physics. Our philosophical conceptions, moral decisions, aesthetic creations, and religious concerns are not violations of the laws of physics (which are really statistical habits, anyway), no more so than the emergence of stars and galaxies was a violation of particle physics, or the emergence of cellular life was a violation of geology. “[Nature] is never complete. It is always passing beyond itself” (Whitehead  1978, 289).
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Andrew Schwartz and I discussed Marx and Whitehead last week.
Below is a recording of my talk (a video first, then audio only that includes the discussion afterwards). I’ve also included an extended draft of some notes I took to prepare my talk. Finally, I’ve included my notes taken while listening to Jason Moore during yesterday’s opening lecture.
Fifth annual conference of the World-Ecology Research Network
“Planetary Utopias, Capitalist Dystopias: Justice, Nature, and the Liberation of Life”
California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA
May 30-June 1, 2019
Matthew T. Segall – “Whitehead and Marx: A Cosmopolitical Approach to Ecological Civilization”
A few words about the words in the title:
“Cosmopolitics” is an effort on the part of thinkers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway to think beyond the modern human/nature and fact/value divides, or what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.”
“Civilization“?!? This phrase, “ecological civilization,” comes from China’s Communist Party. Achieving ecological civilization is one of their stated goals for the 21st century. In China there are now about 35 graduate programs and research centers devoted to Whitehead’s thought and process studies.
What does it mean, to Whitehead, to be “civilized”? He does not use the term in an exclusivist sense and is even willing to consider that some animals some of the time (e.g., squirrels) may be capable of it (see Modes of Thought). But usually not. It means a conscious recognition of and participation in the creative power of ideas–like freedom or love–to shape history.
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality).
Whitehead is not an idealist, however. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat can support 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 scratched onto paper pages by human hands. Whitehead invites us to expand our conception so that we can sense that the idea of the Good generates 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 and 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.
“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.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Modes of Thought 151).
Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human being participating in society, 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.
Whitehead (in a conversation with his wife Evelyn and the journalist Lucien Price in 1944) was asked if the prior half-century or so had any political thinkers as daring as those who inaugurated the new relativistic and quantum physics, he answered “There is Marx, of course; though I cannot speak of him with any confidence.” But he goes on to describe Marx as “the prophet of proletarian revolt” and marks the singular relevance of the fact that the first practical effectuation of his ideas [Soviet Russia under Lenin] occurred in a society dominated by farmers. Here we see Whitehead was ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of food sovereignty. Any serious resistance to capitalism must begin with soil and seeds.
What is value? We can discuss the differences between use v. exchange value, objective v. subjective value, but ultimately Marx says value is a social relation determined by the amount of labor time it requires to produce a commodity. Humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.
Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extrahuman that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos there is no mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by something called Man.
Whitehead: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe” (Modes of Thought 111).
We can link value to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, or Marx, or Hayak, limit agency and thus value-creation to human beings.
According to Latour, the abstract, idealistic materialism of classical Marxism misses the activity/agency of the world.
Latour: “We have never been modern in the very simple sense that while we emancipated ourselves, each day we also more tightly entangled ourselves in the fabric of nature.”
Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters of nature.
“The fabric of our collectives has had to be radically transformed to absorb the citizen of the 18th century and the worker of the 19th century. We need a similar transformation now to make space for non-humans created by sciences and techniques.” -Latour (We Have Never Been Modern 185-6).
Latour’s Gifford lectures on Gaia invite us to transform our imagination of the earth as modern globe by turning it inside out, such that we come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the earth, we are enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding.
How are we to think human freedom and human-earth relations after modernity? Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic as moderns have imagined. Marx says that what distinguishes the worst human architect from the best honey bee is 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 creativity works? Is this really how bee creativity works? Architect Christopher Alexander discusses 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 order and 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.
Donna Haraway: “in so far as the Capitalocene is told in the idiom of fundamentalist Marxism, with all its trappings of Modernity, Progress, and History, that term is subject to the same or fiercer criticisms. The stories of both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene teeter constantly on the brink of becoming much Too Big. Marx did better than that, as did Darwin. We can inherit their bravery and capacity to tell big-enough stories without determinism, teleology, and plan” (Staying With the Trouble, 50).
What does Haraway propose we do instead? In place of deterministic teleology, she proposes process-relational creativity; and in place of a Big Plan from on high she proposes playful communal kin-making with the ecological beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise communicate with on the daily down here on planet Earth. She credits James Clifford (Return) with the notion of a “big enough” story, a story that remains “ontologically unfinished” and situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue” (Return 85-86).
How do we become sensitive to the values of nonhumans? We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help us become sensitive to the values of nonhumans. Indigenous peoples can help us develop these. I think something like this is going on even in major documentary films like the new Attenborough film “Our Planet” (problematic as its title is, and as Attenborough’s ecological politics are): e.g., the images of a mass suicide of walruses in northeastern Russia.
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 just justify our presence on Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society?
There are a number of ongoing polemics among anti-capitalist scholars, particularly metabolic rift theorists and world-ecology researchers (e.g., John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore; incidentally, Foster seems to get Latour all wrong), regarding the proper way to understand the relation between human beings and the rest of the natural world. I would want to approach these disputes in a diplomatic manner. I am not here to choose sides, and anyway I don’t even know the whole story. But at this catastrophic moment in geohistory, those of us resisting the mitosis of capital might do well to focus less on widening abstract semantic divisions and more on imagining and materializing the shared future we hope we one day achieve on this Human-Earth.
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 20 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development.
AP headline on May 6th, 2019 reads “UN report: Humanity accelerating extinction of other species.” The first line reads: “People are putting nature in more trouble now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals, scientists said Monday.”
NY Magazine headline also on May 6th, 2019 by Eric Levitz: “Humanity is About to Kill 1 Million Species in a Globe-Spanning Murder-Suicide.”
He concludes: “Earth’s ecosystems did not evolve to thrive amid the conditions that a global, advanced capitalist civilization of 7 billion humans has created. And that civilization did not evolve to thrive on a planet without coral reefs, wetlands, or wild bees — and with global temperatures exceeding preindustrial levels by 1.5 degrees. Bringing our civilization’s ambitions and modes of operation into better alignment with the environment’s demands no act of altruism. It merely requires recognizing our own collective long-term self-interest, and changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, on a global level, through international cooperation.”
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 is not unaware of our dependence upon the natural world, writing that: “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.”
Marx also writes in Capital 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” (https://isreview.org/issue/109/marx-and-nature).
Marx is dialectical in his understanding of the human-earth relation, but he still treats nature as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness.
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, as I noted above) but a cosmological or ecological power from which our human values, and our human power, derive.
Citations for the above:
Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead by Lucien Price, p. 220.
Thursday, May 30th
Notes on Jason Moore’s opening talk
-The planetary era began in 1492 (“the globe”) not in 1968 with earthrise photo
-the end of the world has already happened, many times.
-Man and Nature as “real abstractions” (non-European people and European women were considered part of nature); we must break down CP Snow’s two cultures, beyond “coupled systems” analysis, to a “flow fo flows” that integrates humans as earthlings
-“civilization” as a dangerous, colonial word? What is this term meant to denote? The opposite of savagery and barbarism?
-climate change as a “capitalogenic process” (what about Soviet and Chinese communist contributions?)
-“Nature is a class struggle” – “Nature” is part of the capitalist project
-we need more Marxist histories of climate change to avoid ceding the ground to neo-Malthusians
-the Earth has always been a historical actor; the present ecological crisis is not novel in this respect (see William Connolly’s “Facing the Planetary” and “The Fragility of Things”)
-climate is not exogenous to civilization and modes of production.
-Marx on labor as metabolic mediation between man and nature (man transforms nature, nature transforms man).
-from geology and history to geohistory
-Capitalism emerged out of late 15th century geographic expansion; credit, conquest, and coerced labor were essential (“capitalism’s triple helix in formation”)
-new world genocide led to regrowth of managed forests and CO2 dip, which led to little ice age; why didn’t this produce a terminal crisis in capitalism? Because of slavery frontier
-why is cotton gin not considered as important as steam engine as impetus for industrial revolution?
-“blue marble” photo of earth as “environmentalism of the rich”
-Marx acknowledged that human labor is itself a force of nature (?)
-alternative to collapse narrative (Jared Diamond)?
Below is the introduction of paper I presented at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April 2019. The conference aimed to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).
Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy
“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019
By Matthew D. Segall
“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside lived experience.
It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the stars above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.
The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):
“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”
As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I return later.
I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principal guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.
The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”
I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.
As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.
I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:
1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)
2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)
I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.
I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.
You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”
I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.
In what follows, I offer some reflections on the feminist process theologian Catherine Keller’s book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement (2015). Keller poetically folds her refreshingly open theological orientation into an array of important planetary topics,—including the ethical implications of quantum entanglement (chapter 4), the poststructuralist dissolution of substance (chapter 5) and of rigid gender binaries (chapter 7), the history of the Christian crusades and their relation to the rise of colonial modernity and global capitalism (chapter 8), the retrieval of Gaia as a more adequate name for God than “father” or “king” (chapter 9),—and unfolds from their implications possible sources of hope for our imperiled planet. She traverses these topoi with radical epistemological uncertainty while reiterating their, and our, ontological inseparability with every step.
Self-confident secularists may protest that turning to a theological mode of discourse like Keller’s in the face of our species’ present social, political, and ecological problems is only to regress into the very source of our problems! Why rehash the religious myths of the past if we modern, rational people now have the precision instruments of scientific knowledge, machines, and the capitalist market to guide us into a better future?
First of all, myth is not a childish embellishment upon sociopolitical reality, but the divine ground of individual and collective life. We don’t grow out of myth, we grow out of one myth and into another. Without myth, psyche and polis would have no way of attuning to cosmos. With no attunement to the cosmos, Thomas Berry would remind us that we will find no functional relationship with the ecosystems of the planet.1 Modernity’s rituals of certain knowledge, technological excess, and “progress” are themselves zealously drenched in mythic manna. As Latour taught us, we have never been modern.
Second of all, Keller’s theopoetics are not the divine fiats of Pope Urban II or the violent repressions of evangelical Christian capitalists. She talks God otherwise. She is a process theologian who learned her God-talk from Whitehead: God is “the poet of the world,” a “fellow-sufferer who understands” seeking “with tender care that nothing be lost” by luring the universe from utter loss toward complete love.2 Though in Cloud of the Impossible Keller draws heavily on “ancestral Christian sources” like Nicholaus of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, she explicates from them not the “militant ghosts of premodern omnipotence,”3 but a relational pluralism wherein God is the Supreme Complication, the dark Cloud wherein each is inseparably implicated in All. God is the “Non-Aliud” or non-Other whose name is infinite and so ineffable, and for this very reason enfolding infinitely many names. In Cusa’s terms:
“All the names are unfoldings of the enfolding one, ineffable name, and as this proper name is infinite, so it enfolds an infinite number of such names of particular perfections. Although there could be many such unfoldings, they are never so many or so great that there could not be more.”4
God has many names: Yahweh, Christ, Man, Machine, Capital. All more or less imperfectly convey the divine mystery. Keller performs her pluralism theologically not because she seeks to violently settle a diverse society on a new peace-instilling divine name, but because our “modern” scientific and political perspectives are “inexplicable apart from medieval theological presumptions of a creation good and open to reason.”5 We (the inheritors of European Christendom) can think God otherwise, but we cannot think without God.
In this lecture from a course on pluralism and political theory, I explored Plato’s ploy in the Republic to examine the soul by expanding it to the size of a city; in chapter 4, “The Physics of Nonseparability,” Keller invites us to examine the ethical entanglements of psyche and polis by way of a “contraction to the quantum point of view.”6 But why examine ethics by way of physics? What could be more irrelevant to untangling the ethical significance of human action than the strangely knotted world of quantum entanglement? Keller turns to the surprising and refreshing work of feminist philosopher Karen Barad to lure standard interpretations of quantum theory beyond their anthropocentric conceits. Barad reinterprets Neil Bohr’s more Kantian quantum transcendentalism (i.e., physics doesn’t tell us what Nature is, it only tells us what we can say about Nature) such that it becomes a new relational ontology. She makes no mention of Whitehead in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), but their projects are clearly convergent. Rather than understanding Bohr’s principle of complementarity as a reflection of the limitations of our knowledge of quantum phenomena, Barad asserts that the undecidability of the pre-observed nature of quantum events is in fact a constitutive feature of quantum reality. Einstein was unhappy with Bohr’s quantum universe, as it’s apparent indeterminacy stood in stark contrast to the strict determinism of his relativistic universe. Einstein went so far as to joke that he’d rather give up physics to become a shoe-maker or a poker dealer than accept that electrons had free will.7 During an evening walk with a close colleague of Bohr’s, Einstein once asked: “Do you really believe the Moon is not there if nobody looks?” From Barad’s perspective, it isn’t that the Moon isn’t there when we aren’t looking, it’s that when we do look, a new Moon, and a new me, emerge in the encounter. It turns out that the idea of separability itself was only ever a convenient fiction, whether we are talking about the level of protons or persons. The very notion of a isolated “thing” (a classical particle or body-bound observer) has been undone by Barad’s “agential realism,” wherein the final realities are “intra-active” agencies rather than isolable entities. These agencies or creatures (to use Whitehead’s favored term) are not dissolved into their relational intra-actions, “rather, the creature emerges within the creative field that it differentiates [such that] the attributes that make one creature different from another [are] acts of differentiation [and not] inherent properties of a discrete substance.”8 Acts or performances of differentiation are what individuate us moment by moment; our identities are always established through intra-active relationship.
Keller blames the instrumentalist Zeitgeist of the post-War US for keeping physicists from pursuing the full import of the quantum enigmas unveiled by Einstein, Bohr, and others. “Shut up and calculate” was the mantra.9 More recently, thanks to physicist-philosophers like John Bell, David Bohm, and Whitehead, the paradigm-shattering implications of quantum entanglement are now more widely acknowledged.10 In Keller’s words, “science…inherited from theology the metaphysics of separate substance, supernatural and natural.”11 But quantum physics has exposed “in broad scientific daylight [that] the minimum unit of the universe [is] a place of active relationship,” and that “each particularity is a distinct recomposition of its world.”12
In chapter 5, “The Fold in Process,” Keller folds together (but not without remainder) the work of Gilles Deleuze and Whitehead, who each in their own ways creatively unsaid the metaphysics of substance to instead celebrate the differential connectivity of the world. Deleuze, like Whitehead, was influenced by William James’ pluralistic and pragmatic orientation to philosophy. “In the Deleuzean work,” writes Keller,
“concepts themselves are multiplied and mobilized. They do not reflect, mirror, or subserve the real; they participate in its becoming. They do not cut the world into abstractions. They ply the world; they apply themselves to its practices.”13
In other words, rather than construing philosophy as a search for the true concepts that would accurately represent or mirror the nature of mind-independent reality, Deleuze engaged philosophy as the creation of new concepts capable of transforming reality, irrespective of any imagined boundaries supposedly separating mental from physical realities. Novel concepts resonate in the world, shaking up its settled order; or old concepts repeat endlessly, shoring up settled natural and social habits. Concepts are not mere mirrors, reflectively uninvolved in the workings of the world. Their value is derived from what they do or make it possible to do.
Keller skillfully unpacks the resonances and differences between Deleuze’s Spinozist pantheism and Whitehead’s thoroughly reformed process-relational panentheism. She wonders if the former’s insistence on pure immanence is the best way to overcome the separative transcendence so characteristic of traditional theology. Whitehead’s theology rejects the tendency so prevalent in the ontotheological traditions of the West to pay metaphysical compliments to God (all-knowing, all- good, all-powerful, etc.). His process-relational God is not the all-powerful exception to but the prime exemplification of creative flux. Whitehead’s God is described as a creature of Creativity. God a creature?: it would be hard to imagine a more heretical statement from the point of view of an orthodox Christian, Jewish, or Islamic theologian. Nonetheless, Whitehead is unwilling to jettison the divine function entirely, whereas Deleuze celebrates the death of God with Nietzschean zeal.
In chapter 7, “Unsaying and Undoing,” Keller enters into conversation with the Kant of Queer Theory, Judith Butler. She differentiates the 20th century social constructionist Butler, who brilliantly deconstructed falsely naturalized gender norms using the tools of poststructuralism, from the 21st century social ontologist Butler, who after exposure to Whitehead overcame her earlier ethical anthropocentrism by articulating a relational ontology that queered reality itself. Keller writes:
“Whitehead, attending to the exclusions wrought by closed systems, hearkens to the nonhuman universe, alive and participant in all our finite human decisions [“We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe”14]. An attention to the not yet known of the entire creaturely plenum, nurtured by his mathematical involvement in the natural sciences and his love of the romantic poets of his region, now carries the force of ancestral prophecy. The ethical anthropocentrism of Butler’s philosophy, even after the end of the last millennium, counts in this one way as the more traditional.”15
Keller celebrates Butler’s late turn to the queerness of a relational ontology. She criticizes poststructuralism’s prior tendency to over-focus on the way we are constructed by language, culture, and society, while downplaying or ignoring our relations to nonhumans. Poststructural approaches follow the relations and ruptures of linguistic signs with other signs in systems of signification with great precision and insight. Such an approach can and has called out oppressive social structures that shape culture by disguising it as Nature, thus opening pathways toward more ethical human relations. But what about our relations to such nonhuman diversities as fireflies, microchips, polar bears, influenza, plate tectonics, and starlight?
In addition to her encounter with Whitehead, Butler was motivated to undertake her ontological insurrection by way of a meditation on loss, precarity, and mourning. Mourning reveals to us what was always already the case before the loss of a loved one, that our selves are incomplete due to their constitutive relationality. “It is not,” Butler writes,
“as if an ‘I’ exists independently over here and then simply loses a ‘you’ over there, especially if the attachment to ‘you’ is part of what composes who ‘I’ am…Who ‘am’ I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do.”16
Just as with the entangled intra-actions of physical quanta, human souls are stitched together from the inside-out by threads of precarious and promiscuous influence. “Let’s face it,” writes Butler, “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”17 Keller links Butler’s still human-focused ethics of relationality to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology: “loss belongs to the ecology of becoming,” as all our relations are composed of prehensions of “perishing others as they pass into us.”18 By dying into one another, we create one another. This process of decomposition and recomposition is occurring at every scale of Nature, human and non-, and reiterates endlessly “to the crack of doom.”19 It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.20 It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”21
Butler, speaking directly to Whiteheadians eager to overcome anthropocentrism, warns of the risks of overlooking the profound singularity of loss. Keller amplifies Butler’s concerns: “celebrations of the cycles of life and death may not support the human ethic that suffers individual losses and honors grief…the human difference needs protecting from reductive indifference.”22 We ought to stay as close as possible to such concerns to attend radically to that which is not human. My hope is that it is precisely through recovering a sense of ethical relation with the nonhuman realms that our true humanness will become most apparent. Perhaps it is the very search for some supernatural identity apart from the planet of our birth that has so degraded our humanity.
In chapter 8, “Crusade, Capital, and Cosmopolis,” Keller traces the way the medieval Christian West overcame its internal divisions and discovered a unifying sense of identity through centuries of crusading against Islam. Western self-identity is thus constitutively Islamaphobic. “Let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.”23 Such was Pope Urban II’s rallying cry in 1095, on the eve of the first crusade to push back the Turks and retake the Holy Land.
Several centuries of crusading later, after the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Nicholas of Cusa, a Catholic cardinal, called for a conference of faiths instead of yet another religious war. In place of forced conversion to Christianity or to Islam, Cusa imagined a conversation among representatives of many faiths who, with help from the Logos, might come to agree that though there are many religious or cultural rites the world over (among them Christianity and Islam), there is only one infinite and thus ineffable God. Cusa articulates what could be Christendom’s earliest doctrine of inclusivism. To the Logos, he says: “rivalry [among faiths] exists for the sake of You, whom alone they revere in everything that all seem to worship.”24 While Cusa’s mystical inclusivism may fall short of the radical pluralism I’d prefer, in its time and place at the sunrise of Modernity, it, too, was radical. Perhaps even today, the two biggest religions Christianity and Islam still have much to learn from an inclusivist theology like Cusa’s, since both remain for the most part dead set on exclusivist interpretations of the truth of their own doctrines. Keller’s hope is that a relational pluralism might help exclusivists begin to feel what they share with other faiths: namely, a love of God—Cusa’s “Infinite Complication”—which enfolds all the world’s religious expressions.
Keller goes on to enter into dialogue with Enrique Dussel’s thesis on the origins of Modernity, not in northern Germany with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation (as Hegel argued), but in the Spanish conquest of the Americas. From Dussel’s perspective, Descartes’ ego cogito was preceded and sustained by an ego conquiro: “if the ego cogito doubts the world around him, the ego conquiro doubts the very humanity of conquered others.”25
In our hypermodern age, the crusader complex has taken the form of global capitalism, “in which oil —and therefore Islam—figures prominently.”26 Keller quotes political analyst Thomas Frank, who in his book One Market Under God argued that sometime in the 90s people came to believe that “there is something natural, something divine, something inherently democratic about markets.”27 What a strange litany of adjectives! The global capitalist market is entirely natural, a consequence of biological evolution, and yet at the same time it is also divine, the only source of human salvation? And “democratic”? Keller admits that capitalism’s “flexible interactivity captures something of the ontological process of entanglement,” and that attempted solutions to our planetary problems via top-down State imposition are doomed to failure.28 And yet, contemporary neoliberal capitalism does not advertise the pluriverse’s participatory matrix of “each-in-each”; rather, it asserts an ontology of isolable individuals counted “ego-by-ego,” pushing a new ruse of separability that stays ‘connected.’”29
From Keller’s process theological perspective, any effective resistance to the God of the global capitalist market must be a religious form resistance. She introduces the political theology of Carl Schmitt, who argued that all supposedly modern political theories of the state were really just secularized theological concepts. Schmitt’s approach led him to a theory of the State wherein political order is achieved through the exceptional right of an all-powerful sovereign. Keller asks instead if we “can have some transmodern rendition of political theology that does not take its cues from the militant ghosts of this premodern omnipotence?”30 She offers Whitehead’s panentheism as a truly democratic alternative to Schmitt’s totalitarian theism. For Whitehead, God is not the supreme exception, but the supreme example, the fellow-sufferer who understands.
In chapter 9, “Broken Touch: The Ecology of the Impossible,” Keller elucidates the hidden meaning of the Pergamon Altar depicting a groaning Gaia reaching out for one of her stricken children beneath a victorious Athena. She reads the scene as a metaphor for the origins of the polis or perhaps even civilization as such: “It would seem that we have to do here with an ancient complex… relation to the earth-home is sacrificed on the altar of civilization—driven into the civilizational unconscious…Might we recognize here a Gaia complex? It lends a face to the more ancient and diffuse fear of the nonhuman universe from which the human is inseparable: call it ecophobia.”31 Keller turns to the climate scientist James Lovelock to exemplify the way a new story of Gaia is being brought forth in our ecologically imperiled age. Lovelock has grown increasingly skeptical of humanity’s chances of averting the worst of climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The time to wake up and take responsibility for the destabilizing effects of human industry on the planet has passed. “I fear,” Lovelock writes, “that we still dream on and, rather than waking, we weave the sound of the alarm clock into our dreams.”32
What is still possible now that civilization has gone so far past the tipping point of planetary catastrophe? Humanity stands face to face with Gaia, and we are dumbstruck. “The entanglement of the human in the crowding nonhumanity of the species and elements of the earth…endlessly [overwhelms] speech—with wonder or horror.”33 Might a renewed attempt at ecotheology help shepherd our species through the coming evolutionary bottleneck? Might we–“we” earthlings, our collectivity delicately composed by our shared planetary fate—find in the face of Gaia a source of numinous meaning powerful enough to heal the ecophobic repression at the root of our civilization? Keller wonders aloud: “how on earth is the earth itself, Gaia, inclusive of all of us, a less apt God- name than the name of a mere bit of the earth, like a ‘father’ or a ‘king’?”34
1 Berry, The Great Work, 84: “ecology is functional cosmology.”
2 Whitehead, Process and R eality, Part 5.
3 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.
4 Cusa, De docta ignorantia, in N icolas of Cusa: S elected S piritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Paulist, 1997), 124-125.
5 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.
6 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 132.
7 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 134.
8 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 139.
9 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 154.
10 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 155.
11 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 131.
12 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 128, 142.
13 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 174.
14 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 111.
15 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 232.
16 Butler, Precarious Life (London: Verso, 2004), 22.
17 Butler quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 215.
18 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 225-226.
19 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 228.
20 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.
21 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.
22 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 235.
23 M edieval Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. Roberta Anderson and Dominic Aidan Belenger (New York: Routledge, 2003), 90.
24 Cusa, On Interreligious H armony: Text, Concordance, and Translation of DePace Fidei, ed. James E. Biechler and H. Lawrence Bond (New York: Edwin Mellen, 1990), 6.
25 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 257; Dussel and Barber, The Invention of theAmericas, 245.
26 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 253.
27 Quoted in Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.
28 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 255.
29 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 254.
30 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 260.
31 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 267-268.
32 Lovelock, The Vanishing Face of Gaia, 29.
33 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 269.
34 Keller, Cloud of the Impossible, 281.