Lectures on Timothy Morton’s “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People”

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

My Spring course at CIIS.edu finishes up this week with a set of modules on Timothy Morton’s book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). Earlier in the semester, we read works by Plato, William James, Catherine Keller, William Connolly, Bruno Latour, Anne Pomeroy, and Donna Haraway. Below, I am sharing a series of lecture fragments about Morton’s book, as well as a panel discussion formed around the course topics.

Pre-Defense Dissertation Draft Completed

My dissertation defense is on Monday morning. I’ve just finished the “pre-defense” draft. I have until April 11th to finalize the published version. Below are the abstract, table of contents, and acknowledgements. 


  • Jacob Sherman, PhD, Chair
    Associate Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies


  • Sean Kelly, PhD
    Professor, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies



  • Frederick Amrine, PhD
    Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, German Department, University of Michigan




In this dissertation, I lure the process philosophies of F.W.J Schelling and A.N. Whitehead into orbit together around the transcendental philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I argue that Schelling and Whitehead’s descendental aesthetic ontology provides a way across the epistemological chasm that Kant’s critiques opened up between experience and reality. While Kant’s problematic scission between phenomena and the thing-in-itself remains an essential phase in the maturation of the human mind, it need not be the full realization of mind’s potential in relation to Nature. I contrast Schelling and Whitehead’s descendental philosophy with Kant’s transcendentalism by showing how their inverted method bridges the chasm—not by resolving the structure of reality into clear and distinct concepts—but by replanting cognition in the aesthetic processes from which it arises. Hidden at the generative root of our seemingly separate human capacities for corporeal sensation and intellectual reflection is the same universally distributed creative power underlying star formation and blooming flowers. Human consciousness is not an anomaly but is a product of the Earth and wider universe, as natural as leaves on a tree. Through a creative interweaving of their process-relational orientations, I show how the power of imagination so evident in Schelling and Whitehead’s thought can provide philosophy with genuine experiential insight into cosmos, theos, and anthropos in the aftermath of the Kantian revolution. The two—anthropos and cosmos—are perceived as one by a common sense described in this dissertation as etheric imagination. This etheric sense puts us in touch with the divine life of Nature, which the ancients personified as the ψυχὴ του κόσμου or anima mundi.

Table of Contents

Abstract iv
Acknowledgements vii
Prologue — Imagining Cosmos, Theos, and Anthropos in Post-Kantian Process Philosophy 2
Chapter 1 — Kant as Guardian of the Threshold of Imagination 9
1.1 Whitehead, Schelling, and the Aftermath of Kant 16
1.2 The Kantian Mode of Thought 24
1.2.1 Thinking 27
1.2.2 Desiring 38
1.2.3 Feeling 42
Chapter 2 — Descendental Philosophy and Aesthetic Ontology: Reimagining the Kantian Mode of Thought 55
2.1 Aesthetic Ontology and Nietzsche’s Confrontation with Nihilism 70
2.2 Aesthetic Ontology in Sallis’ Elemental Phenomenology 95
2.3 Aesthetic Ontology in Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism 99
Chiasmus — Schelling and Whitehead’s Descendental Aesthetic: Crossing the Kantian Threshold 111
Chapter 3 — The Inversion of Kant: From a Mechanistic to an Organic Cosmology 132
3.1 The Refutation of Kant’s “Refutation of Idealism”: From Subject-Substance Correlation to Process-Relational Creativity 150
3.2 From Geometric Conditions of Possibility to Genetic Conditions of Actuality 167
Chapter 4 — Etheric Imagination in Naturphilosophie: Toward a Physics of the World-Soul 177
4.1 Traces of the Ether in Kant’s Opus Postumum 181
4.2 Etheric Imagination in Schelling and Whitehead 192
4.3 Nature Philosophy as “Spiritual Sensation” 201
4.4 Etheric Imagination and Vegetal Metaphysics 209
Epilogue — Incarnational Process Philosophy in the Worldly Religion of Schelling, Whitehead, and Deleuze 230
References 254


Without the intellectual encouragement and personal friendships of Jake Sherman, Sean Kelly, Fred Amrine, Brian Swimme, Robert McDermott, Eric Weiss, Elizabeth Allison, and Rick Tarnas, this dissertation could not have been written. Thanks to each of them, and also to the entire community of students in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program for sharing their philosophical passion and for the conversations that helped spark many of the ideas expressed in what follows. Thank you, finally, to my fiancée Becca for her inspiring imagination, for her encouragement, and for her patience as I labored over drafts of this text for so many consecutive weeks.

Lecture at CIIS by Eric Voegelin scholar Dr. Paul Caringella this Friday

For those who are in the San Francisco Bay Area, please join us at the PCC Forum this Friday at the California Institute of Integral Studies (1453 Mission St.) where Dr. Paul Caringella will speak about Voegelin‘s philosophy of history. Also on the menu will be Levinas, Hegel, Buber, and Plato. The lecture is free of charge and begins at 6:30PM in room 212 (2nd floor).

Immanent Law, Transcendent Love, and Political Theology

I’m going to attempt to clarify my own position in relation to that of Levi Bryant’s on the issue of the potential role of religion in revolutionary politics. Bryant has toned down the diatribe, offering two substantive posts over at Larval Subjects, as well as several comments to me here at Footnotes. I’ll try to lay out the way he has framed the problem first, then offer my own position. There seem to be areas of overlap, but also of friction.

In his first post, “Some Theses on Religion, But Not Really: A-Theology,” Bryant begins by suggesting that what is at stake in this discussion is not ontological, but logical. That is, the core issue is not whether reality is finally material or divine, natural or supernatural. The issue is whether we employ a logic of immanence or transcendence. This focus on logic follows from Bryant’s distinction between the structure and the content of a worldview. There are plenty of worldviews structurally organized around a logic of transcendence that nonetheless remain secular or naturalistic in content.  Bryant prefers to utilize the abstract notation of the Lacanian matheme when describing the structure of a worldview, since it minimizes the potential for diverse contents to distract us from the underlying logic at work. The independence of structure from content is mirrored by the independence of the intention or belief from the function of a person’s actions. Bryant gives the example of going to a grocery store with the intention of providing food for one’s family: though one’s intention is not to re-enforce the structure of capitalism, that is in fact how one’s intention ends up functioning. The same is true of those who attend church with the best of intentions: from Bryant’s perspective, they only re-enforce the structure of oppression that any institution founded upon a logic of transcendence is fated to create. Why is any social structure founded upon such a logic fated to be violent and oppressive? Because, argues Bryant:

it is formally impossible to generate a totality or a whole, yet this is precisely what such structures aim for. Every attempt to generate a totality or a whole generates a remainder or an accursed share– what Lacan calls an “objet a” –that marks what the structure cannot integrate or the failure of the totality. Participants within these systems see this remainder not as an ineluctable and necessary consequence of attempts to form a social and intellectual totality, but as a contingent accident. The next step is then to eradicate this remainder as that which prevents the social order from being instantiated so that social harmony might be produced. In other words, structures of transcendence, exception, or sovereignty necessarily generate a friend/enemy logic.

The aim of political transformation, then, should be to establish anarchical forms of social organization not premised on the insider/outsider logic of transcendence. Transcendence, according to Bryant, is the first form of violence, since it denigrates the world by claiming it is not enough. Such a logic leaves all worldly things vulnerable to exploitative violence. So far as it goes, I can’t disagree with Bryant’s reasoning here. He goes on to suggest that religion need not necessarily obey the logic of transcendence as he has laid it out. Even some variants of Christianity are able to

see Christ as an ordinary man (not the son of God), who died on the cross showing that God, the patriarch, is literally dead, and who was not resurrected, and where the holy spirit is nothing but a metaphor for the activity of a community based not on law, but love, and not on a label or tribal identification (“Christian”), but where anyone– atheist, Hindu, Jew, pagan, etc. –could participate.

Bryant is here moving a bit closer to the possibility I am trying to argue for, but I must take issue with his dismissal of spiritual metaphor as “nothing but” (see my post last year on Graham Harman’s ontologization of metaphor). The spiritual power of metaphor–that is, the way metaphorical language can function to carry beyond or transfer both its speaker and her listeners into another world–is precisely why I take issue with Bryant’s complete rejection of transcendence. The religious significance of logics of transcendence need not necessarily be predicated upon a rejection of worldliness per se, but rather upon the rejection of the present state of the world in the service of bringing forth another world. In Faith of the Faithless, Critchley contrasts the spiritualities of Paul and Marcion to bring into relief the sense in which Paul’s rejection of the fallen world as it existed under the rule of the Roman Empire was simultaneously a Messianic hope in a future world redeemed by Christ’s love. The future world would be one in which human beings existed in societies of free association, not because they had overcome their fallenness and achieved some transcendent state of guiltless self-mastery. Quite the contrary, the society of love envisioned by Paul was the result of each human being realizing their helplessness before God. The conversion brought about by faith reveals that the transcendent love that Jesus called us to practice is an infinite demand that remains entirely beyond our ability to achieve on our own. It forces a realization upon us: “You are not your own,” as Paul put it (1 Cor. 6:19). Critchley reads Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein as a phenomenological translation of Paul’s religious metanoia, but stops short of Heidegger’s seeming aspiration towards the totalized wholeness and autarchy of the authentic Self. Critchley writes:

The human being is essentially impotentialized in its relation to the Messiah. The decision about who I am is not in my power, but only becomes intelligible through a certain affirmation of weakness. Authenticity is not so much a ‘seizing hold’ as the orientation of the self towards something that exceeds oneself, namely the hetero-affectivity of an infinite demand that calls me. Freedom is not something I can confer upon myself in a virile assertion of autarchy. It is something that can only be received through the acknowledgement of an essential powerlessness, a constitutive impotence. Freedom can only be received back once one has decided to become a slave and attend in the endurance of love–for love endures all things. (p. 182)

The Marcion heresy, on the other hand, must be rejected for precisely the reasons that Bryant lays out. Unlike Paul, who saw how the whole of creation was “groaning in travail” alongside the human community, waiting together with us for redemption, Marcion rejected creation as irrevocably evil. Critchley retells the story of an elderly Marcionite who used his own salvia to wash himself each morning so as not to be contaminated by the evils of the created world (p. 198). As Critchley argues: “[Marcion’s] dualism leads to a rejection of the world and a conception of religion as a retreat from creation…[becoming] a theology of alien abduction” (p. 202). Critchley goes on to draw inspiration for his thesis concerning the revolutionary potential of faith from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes the difference between the Old Testament conception of law based on “worldly love,” wherein “you do unto others what others do unto you and no more,” and the New Testament conception of love without law, wherein, as Critchley describes it, one “engages in a kind of transcendental epoche of what others owe to me, and instead [quoting Kierkegaard] ‘makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship'” (p. 248). Kierkegaard continues:

Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term. (WL 112-113).

In this sense, divine transcendence is made to participate in the down to earth ethicality of face to face engagements. When I truly love someone–truly in that I engage them according to the logic of a gift rather than the logic of exchange–it is because I have transcended myself, making room within my soul for the divine to act in the world through me. “Not I, but Christ in me,” as Paul put it (Gal. 2:20). Is this just a metaphor? Perhaps it is metaphorical, but let us not underestimate the power of words to re-imagine worlds.

My own attempts to re-imagine the way religion functions by arguing that 1) there is no neutral ground outside religion from which to critique it (we are all ineluctably mythic creatures, our individual and collective identities being necessary narrative in structure), and 2) faith can and has functioned as the motivating factor underlying revolutionary political action lead Bryant to accuse me of being what Deleuze called a “state thinker,” someone who attempts to both naturalize and sanitize hierarchical religious social structures by (even if unintentionally) justifying the logic through which they operate. Bryant singles out theologians (those for whom the logic of transcendence is operative) as especially guilting of “state thinking,” since they always idealize how faith could operate without paying due attention to how it has actually functioned in the world among lay people. While I think there are plenty of real life examples of faith operating as a tremendously effective weapon in the fight against state violence and oppression (e.g., Gandhi and MLK in the 20th century), I will still admit to idealization. I find it extremely important to defiantly journey beyond the walls of my city of residence, like Socrates in the Republic, not only to critique the obvious injustices of the day, but also to “dream another city in dialogue,” as Critchley puts it (p. 93). Critique of existing structures is not enough. We must also construct a new view of the world. Further, as Plato also discusses in the Republic, I believe the city (the collective) and the soul (the individual) must become transparent one to the other. If we are to become capable of enacting a genuinely anarchic society not ruled by any exceptional sovereign, super-rich class, or miraculously representative body (Madison’s “refined democracy”), we must find a way to relate to one another collectively that is no longer bound by the self-serving capitalist logic of exchange. Is the “logic” of love engendered by faith is such a way?

In his second post, “Transcendence and the Problem of Boundaries: A Confession,” Bryant asks the most pressing and all-important question: “is it possible to form a community of strangers without identity and to still really have a community?” “Without identity,” because if a community names itself, it creates outsiders, reproducing the logic of remainder and leading to the violent elimination of that remainder as discussed above. Bryant suggests that the social form practiced by the historical Jesus may have been such a community. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of Christianity lead it to become “the greatest of conspiracies against Christ (we fetishized his death to obscure the trauma of the socio-political philosophy he proposed).” I couldn’t agree more. But what of the form of transcendence I defended above? I don’t think it is unique to the teachings of Jesus, but like Bryant, this is the tradition I know best: Jesus’ teaching that love supersedes the Mosaic law broke open the closed community of Israel, with its unique relationship to a transcendent deity, such that all peoples, regardless of class, creed, or color, were to be treated as friends, as fellow members of the communal body of Christ. This universalization was so far reaching that Jesus said even those who wish to do us violence should be treated as friends: “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), “Love thy enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus realized that this would be the only way to break the cycle of violence and revenge characterizing human history back to its origins.

But again, a love as transcendent as that taught by Jesus just doesn’t appear to be a realistic possibility for normal human beings. Those who are members of oppressed and colonized communities would seem almost to have a psychological need to seek vengeance upon their oppressors. Is there any other way for them to reclaim their stolen humanity? “It is through violence against the colonist,” writes Critchley, “that colonized subjects can rid themselves of their deformed inferiority and liberate or literally remake themselves” (p. 238). Critchley grants that the case of the colonized makes any sort of a priori pacifism seem entirely inadequate, but he still remains skeptical of the glorification of violence by thinkers like Slavoj Žižek. Critchley examines the meaning of the commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” asking whether it should be interpreted as an absolute prohibition or “impersonal, coercive law.”

The commandment is a more fragile, but insistent, guideline or plumb-line for action, addressed in the second person…[C]rucially, the force of the commandment is non-coercive and requires our assent…[I]t is an ethical demand that requires approval. By virtue of its non-coercive force, the commandment of nonviolence is a guideline for action with which we are obliged to wrestle in solitude, and, in certain exceptional cases, to take responsibility for ignoring. (p. 16)

Following Critchley’s Levinasian analysis of the ethics of violence, I’d want to argue that the transcendent character of divine love is never something that can be easily put into action by finite human beings. It remains beyond our individual power to actually follow Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” in every case. This doesn’t mean we are off the hook, however. Political engagement is messy and requires taking responsibility for the difficult process of negotiation regarding the commandment not to kill. But what of the role of faith in allowing for the possibility of “mystical love,” a faith described by Critchley (p. 20) as “that act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being”? Perhaps this form of transcendence–namely, self-transcendence–remains ineluctably violent. But it is a violence done only to oneself, to one’s selfish ego, such that genuine love for one’s neighbor becomes possible.

[Update: further thoughts…Perhaps holding the immanent and transcendent together requires an imaginative logic, or logic of imagination. As Schelling suggested, it is only through imagination that “we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory” (System of Transcendental Idealism, 1800). Infinity may be the better word than transcendence here, since, as Schelling and Hegel realized, one cannot oppose the infinite to the finite without thereby limiting the infinite. The finite is not other than the infinite, just as the immanent is not other than the transcendent. Better yet, the geologian Thomas Berry coined the term “inscendence” to describe the way the world itself is bathed in noumenal light, its immanence pierced every so often by ecstasies. This raises the question as to whether logic and ontology, thought and reality, can be as neatly separated as Bryant has done. What, exactly, is the relationship between politics and ontology? It is the question with which all of this began earlier in the week. It remains to be answered.]

Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging

The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.

Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.

All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide

an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).

A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.

Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).

“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).

Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.

Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on

the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).

Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby

the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).

Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).

“To the artist,” writes Wilde,

expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).

Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.

Critchley continues:

Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).

A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.

I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.

*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:

My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.

Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).

Related articles

Audio from “Here Comes Everything”: A Speculative Realism Panel @ CIIS (4/8)

Conference put on by the Interdisciplinary Dialogue Forum, a student group in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS.

The History of Access: An Introduction to the Speculative Turn – Sam Mickey and Adam Robbert

Ganga – River, Goddess, Thing – Elizabeth McAnally

The Astonishing Depths of Things – Sam Mickey

Objects in Action: Promiscuous Applications of an Ecological Realism – Adam Robbert

SR in 3 minutes – Sam Mickey

Wizards, Corpses and Ferris Wheels: The Ever-Weird Frontiers of Enlightened Activity – Aaron Weiss

Schelling’s Naturephilosophy: Platonic Lessons for Speculative Realism – Matt Segall

Participatory Realism: Two Cheers for Meillassoux – Keynote speaker Professor Jacob Sherman

Final Q&A

Consciousness: Problem, Paradox, or Practice?

A quick contextualizing note for those who are just joining the tangled thread of my recent blogalogue concerning the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the nervous system and surrounding cosmos: Last month, Steve Ramirez, a PhD candidate at MIT, posted an entry on his blog (http://okaysteve.wordpress.com/) concerning neuroscience’s supposed successes explaining the “problem” of consciousness purely in terms of electrochemical behavior in the brain. My name and some of the ideas I have expressed on YouTube were mentioned in his victory speech, so I decided to respond with a video. You can find his original entry, along with my short comment in response, here. Steve has since posted a follow-up rebuttal, to which I will respond in what follows.

Perhaps it would be best to begin by making my interests in this philosophical discussion about neuroscience clear. As a philosopher, I am not so much interested in the experimental results of neurophysiology labs across the world (which are only occasionally surprising), but in the paradigms that are employed to design and frame their research programs (i.e., to define “problems,” or what Thomas Kuhn called the “puzzles” of normal science).

Take the so-called “problem of consciousness”:  Is, or is not consciousness entirely reducible to/explainable in terms of  intracranial collisions between molecules? I will argue it is not, for philosophical reasons. Many neuroscientists, including Steve, believe it is. This belief informs the design of conceptual models and experiments, making it no surprise that results typically confirm the original hypothesis. The puzzle for neuroscience was never “what is the nature of consciousness?”, but “how is consciousness represented in the brain?” I think there are institutional reasons for this. The continued existence of the neuroscientific discipline as currently conceived depends upon framing the “problem” of consciousness in a reductionistic manner from the get go (this is not true of more interdisciplinary approaches, like neurophenomenology).

Steve sums the classical neuroscientific paradigm up well:

Your conscious thoughts really, and I mean really, are “just” the sum total of patterns of neurons firing.

My interest in claims such as this is existential, even emotional, rather than scientific. Thinking is the source of my very identity, the fount out of which all I know and am pours forth. I am unable to conceive of myself, or anyone else, as a bundle of neurons without first sterilizing my thinking, so that it gives birth only to abstractions and generalities, losing sight entirely of concrete, embodied life. Ethics is, for me like for Emmanuel Levinas, first philosophy. Only a sociopath could take literally the idea that thinking is “just” the mechanical interaction of neurons, because to do so would be to entirely ignore the radical ethical responsibility that comes immediately upon conscious recognition of another consciousness. Human beings are not objects, or the result of the activity of many tens of billions of tiny objects. No amount of objectifying knowledge about another consciousness could ever cancel his/her irreducibility as a consciousness. Thankfully, no scientist I know of actually does take literally the idea that consciousness is “nothing but” the brain. Something more complicated is encoded in their brazenly reductionistic rhetoric.

Science is not the disinterested pursuit of truth absent the emotions and feelings associated with goodness and beauty, or at least it can only be fallaciously conceived of as such. Sam Harris’ neo-Aristotelianism (or maybe neuro-Aristotelianism?–I discuss it again below) is a sign that science is beginning to realize that its findings have always had sociopolitical implications, and even Richard Dawkins gives an almost spiritual significance to the aesthetic value of science, calling it “the poetry of reality.”

So what underlies the seemingly absurd claim that thought is merely the movement of molecules? Not the truth of any empirically demonstrable theory. The reason I take issue with neural reductionism has nothing to do with a disagreement about scientific facts, and even if it did, “mountains of evidence” can easily be reduced to an ant hill by a shift in paradigmatic perspective (there was plenty of evidence for the Ptolemaic solar system for thousands of years; it took the Copernican metanoia to see it otherwise).

Then what leads some neuroscientists to claim in theory what they could never and would never live up to in practice? I believe it is a rather philosophically unreflective commitment to certain outmoded Enlightenment values (like the desire to rationalize and control all of life). The social imaginary associated with scientific materialism and the technologization of society has shown itself historically to be both dangerous and ultimately impossible.

It’s no secret. I’m an Idealist and a Romantic and am proud to carry forward, as adequately as I can, the spiritual and intellectual lineage of figures like Plato, Plotinus, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Coleridge, and Emerson. I also champion science and the vastly expanded cosmological picture it continues to paint for humanity. But I conceive of science as another cultural activity alongside the likes of art, spirituality, and philosophy. These other spheres of cultural meaning approach the truth independent of the puzzle-solving of scientists. Consciousness in particular is a sort of ultimate issue, since it is, as far as we can tell, what makes us human. Steve nominally agrees that we need a multi-dimensional (or what I’d call a transdisciplinary) approach, though I think his choice of language says a lot  about how he’d like to go about collaborating (i.e., the “problem” of consciousness must be “attacked” from all sides). What if consciousness is neither a problem nor something best understood by way of assault?

The shortcoming of an overly scientistic approach to consciousness is precisely that consciousness’s paradoxical and participatory nature (paradoxical and participatory in that it manifests in different modes as both subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon) is artificially framed as a “problem” to be solved by way of reverse-engineering. But consciousness and its trinitarian panoply of thinking, feeling, and willing cannot be understood in the same way a mechanic understands an engine.

Steve writes:

A person’s (mis)understanding does not necessarily depend on how many “evident facts” they know – it depends on their ability to properly interpret a finding independent of their emotional state.

To approach an understanding of consciousness, you must fully participate in it. It is the living, breathing matrix within which everything we do and know and feel arises and subsides. Being conscious must be practiced and developed to be known, otherwise it remains not a problem but an insoluble intellectual paradox. In other words, emotional involvement is of the essence if it is our own and others consciousness we hope to understand. (Even from within the neuroscientific paradigm, research like Harris’ on the neural correlates of moral decision-making shows that the recognition of seemingly objective truths like 3-2=1 depends upon activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, associated with emotion and taste. I mention this study with some reservations about the notion of “neural correlates of consciousness” that I will explain below.)

I am not interested in the “problem” of consciousness, though I may on occasion philosophize about its paradoxicality as such. In the end, however, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I’d like to close by offering a take on the research program geared toward discovering the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCC). Steve cites Crick and Koch’s research often, and writes the following in support of the general theory:

Specific qualia are evoked  from the interaction of the specific [neural] regions…depending of course on the properties of that of which we are aware. So if you’re reflecting on a painting in front of you, it involves the interaction of thalamo-visual-prefrontal networks, which transform and encode the painting (i.e. the stimulus) as a specific pattern of neural firing that you experience.

This approach to the study of consciousness conceives of brain activity as a kind of internal representation of the surrounding world. The basic idea is that some sort of isomorphism exists between the structure of things in the environment and the pattern of neural firing in the brain. The brain, it is said, generates a mental picture of the external world. This is where the paradox begins… On the face of it, the NCC approach claims that all we are finally aware of is the neural activity inside our skull, which is an encoded version of what our senses were able to perceive regarding the features of the mind-independent world. In theory, this neural activity should be sufficient enough on its own to convince a conscious subject that they were having an experience of the mind-independent world. In other words, even a brain in a vat, fed the proper electrical impulses to mimic sensory inputs, could be conscious (albeit of an entirely virtual world). The paradox is that if the neuroscientist is right about the neural basis of consciousness, he simultaneously calls into question the substantiality of the world he believes he inhabits.

But regardless of any hypothetical situation reminiscent of Descartes evil demon, the NCC approach ignores the extent to which consciousness is fully embodied and augmented by various cultural practices and artifacts (language, first and foremost). As Evan Thompson makes clear in his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, to claim that the content of a neural state and the content of an experiential state are identical is simply a category mistake.

Thompson writes (p. 350):

Experiential content and neural content are different kinds of content…Experience is intentional (world-presenting), holistic (constituted by interrelated perceptions, intentions, emotions, and actions), and intransitively self-aware (has a nonreflective subjective character). Neural content as standardly described has none of these features. Although there are various sorts of systematic relations between experiences and neural processes, we need not assume that these relations include any content match.

Thompson goes on to criticize the “building block model” of consciousness (a phrase coined by John Searle) upon which the NCC approach is based. It is an aggregative model wherein the full richness of actual experience is analyzed into separate sensory modalities so as to isolate the specific neural regions that these modalities may be associated with. Thompson follows Searle in problematizing the the assumption that consciousness is the summation of distinct sensory events that are somehow bound together into the unity of our experienced world. Instead, he suggests a different approach, which Searle called the “unified field model.”

Thompson again (p. 351):

According to this model, the neural substrates of individual conscious states should not be considered sufficient for the occurrence of those states, for those states themselves presuppose the background consciousness of the subject. Any given conscious state is a modulation of a preexisting conscious field. An individual experience of conscious state (such as visual recognition of a face) is not a constituent of some aggregate conscious state, but rather a modification within the field of a basal or background consciousness.

With the unified field approach, consciousness is recognized to be an embodied process always already engaged with and interested in the world. Consciousness is understood not to be locally produced in specific neural regions, but brought forth through the ongoing dynamic interaction of brain, body, and world. Thompson’s approach to neuroscience is phenomenological, meaning it has roots in a Husserlian tradition where empathy, intersubjectivity, and the irreducibility of the lifeworld take precedence over the abstractions of scientific materialism. If you’re curious to know more about his approach to issues surrounding consciousness and neuroscience, read this essay about ecologically-informed epistemology, or an older blog entry about enactivism.

Here’s a clip of that ol’ rascal Alan Watts that seems relevant after all this headiness: