Several weeks ago, I submitted a proposal for a Templeton Foundation research fellowship called “God and the Book of Nature: Science-engaged Theology of Nature.”
I just heard back from the review committee that my proposal was not selected.
Oh well. I thought I’d share my cover letter and shelved (for now) research proposal. I do still hope to collaborate with Dr. Bruce Damer (we already have an event scheduled at CIIS this October, about which I’ll share more details soon).
May 28th, 2019
Matthew T. Segall, PhD
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion
California Institute of Integral Studies
1453 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
To the Research Fellowship Review Committee:
Enclosed please find my application for the “God and the Book of Nature” research fellowship. I aim to build a science-engaged theology of nature by applying the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead to newly emerging research into the origins of life. Along with my mentor XXX, I will be collaborating with the origin of life biogeochemist and computer scientist Dr. Bruce Damer. In collaboration with his colleague at the University of Santa Cruz Prof. David Deamer, Dr. Damer has developed the “hot spring hypothesis” of biogenesis that has now become the chief rival to the deep-sea hydrothermal vent hypothesis. In August 2017, Damer and colleagues’ work was the cover story for Scientific American. Empirical research to further test their hypothesis is being undertaken by university teams worldwide. The work is also being presented and discussed at numerous meetings as it may herald a revolution in evolutionary theory, but also carries implications for philosophy and spiritual inquiry. Specifically, the hypothesis suggests that the common ancestor of all of life was not an autonomous individual cell emerging through competition but instead was a common community of collaborating proto-cells. My research proposal involves deepening my understanding of the theoretical and empirical details of Damer’s work and contributing to the articulation of the philosophical and theological implications of this exciting new approach to biogenesis.
I have studied Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism” for more than a decade and have long believed that his critique of the mechanistic abstractions of a by now outdated scientific materialism and his novel understanding of mind’s (and God’s) relationship to nature have much to contribute to contemporary scientific theory and practice. He shows that another kind of naturalism is possible, one that, while remaining fully consistent with the scientific picture, still leaves room for divine action (and passion) and, crucially, makes sense of the possibility of something like scientific consciousness/knowledge emerging in the course of cosmic evolution (whereas most standard naturalisms are forced to conceive of consciousness and scientific knowledge, not to mention religious consciousness, as some kind of improbable anomaly).
In addition to contributing to the academic study of the relationship between science and theology, I would like to shape part of my scholarly output so as to reach a public audience and to influence the wider culture. Our increasingly imperiled civilization desperately needs new sources of meaning if it hopes to survive the fast approaching evolutionary bottleneck caused by modern techno-scientific industrialism. We cannot simply return to traditional religious outlooks, but nor can we jettison these traditions in favor of the new religions of scientism or technologism. Through this research project, I would like to contribute in some small way to the imagination of a new story that integrates spiritual wisdom and scientific knowledge, such that humanity can come to see itself as a participant in a grand evolutionary adventure whose final chapters have not yet been written.
Thank you for considering my application.
Matthew T. Segall
God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature
Research Fellowship Application
Applicant: Matthew T. Segall, PhD
Scientific collaborator: Bruce Damer, PhD
Since his death in 1947 and until quite recently, the impact of Alfred North Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism”1 has been felt predominantly in American theology departments. John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin and their Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California have played a particularly important role in carrying forward the legacy of Whitehead’s thought in the form of process theology. Whitehead’s innovative approach to theological questions has plenty of merits of its own (e.g., its religious pluralism and inclusivity, its intimate panentheistic vision of divine participation in cosmogenesis, Earth evolution, and human life, and its resolution of the problem of evil, etc.), but many students of his thought have long lamented a lack of serious engagement on the part of natural scientists. Whitehead, after all, began his career as a mathematician with a strong interest in physical applications and was right at the center of the relativistic and quantum revolutions of the early 20th century. In the aftermath of these and other paradigm-breaking discoveries across multiple disciplines (in addition to relativity and quantum theory, there was also evolutionary theory and the early phases of what came to be called complexity theory), Whitehead realized the deistic mechanistic materialism science had inherited from the 17th century had become completely inadequate. Science needed a new metaphysical foundation. Whitehead thus threw himself into natural philosophy in search of an alternative ontology more attuned to the universe being described by the latest scientific research. He emerged with a cosmological vision that rejected tired dualisms (e.g., between God and nature, mind and matter, and creation and evolution) and instead affirmed panentheism, panexperientialism, and the creative advance of nature. Re-imagining God’s relationship to nature turned out to be a necessary part of his metaphysical efforts, but Whitehead’s aim was first and foremost to influence the theory and practice of natural science.
In more recent years there has been a surge of interest in Whitehead’s “process-relational ontology” among physicists, biologists, and philosophers of science.2 The most recent application of the process perspective to natural science is John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson’s edited volume Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (2018). Unfortunately, after acknowledging their debt to Whitehead’s process philosophy, they are quick to distance their project from the larger scope of his cosmological vision. They characterize Whitehead as a “liability” due to the “panpsychist foundations” and “theological character” of his work, which they believe are difficult to reconcile with scientific naturalism.3 It is in response to such concerns that the present research proposal gains its relevance.
Research Proposal’s Theoretical Aims:
This proposed research project will focus on the application of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, as well as process-oriented historical precursors like Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, to emerging research in theoretical biology. Our aim is twofold: 1) to counter charges like Dupré and Nicholson’s that Whitehead-inspired panpsychism and theology are a liability to serious research in the life sciences by making the case that a naturalistic account of the existence of biological organisms in fact requires a re-imagination of nature in process-relational, panentheist, and panexperiential terms; 2) by collaboratively engaging with biochemist and computer engineer Bruce Damer to demonstrate the relevance of Whitehead’s scheme to Damer’s research (with David Deamer) into the origins of life in the wet-dry cycling of geyser-fed thermal pools.4 Not only does the geochemical cycling process described by Damer et al. provide a specific exemplification of Whitehead’s general metaphysical description of the process of concrescence, Damer’s first person accounts of the visionary experiences and thought experiments that underlie his scientific discoveries are suggestive of a new understanding of divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation in a panpsychist cosmos.
Our research will be situated primarily within the “Mind and Nature” sub-theme looking at relevance of Whitehead’s process-relational, panpsychist ontology to scientific research on biogenesis. The argument is that closing the gap between physics/chemistry and properly living organization requires coming to see some modicum of mind, experience, and aim as fundamental ingredients in the evolutionary creativity of the universe from the beginning.5 In addition to our already secured collaboration with Bruce Damer, we will seek further collaboration with complexity scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, especially Stuart Kauffman (whose work on autocatalytic chemical systems and evolutionary exaptation dovetails nicely with our Whiteheadian approach).
Given the transdisciplinary scope of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme it will be impossible not to touch on all three of the project sub-themes. Regarding the God and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s panpsychism entails a novel interpretation of divine action in terms of an “initial aim” immanent in the moment to moment experience of creatures at every scale of cosmic and biotic organization (from protons and neutrons, to stars and galaxies, to cells and animals); his approach re-opens the possibility of a new kind of immanent and open-ended teleology in nature that is unlike the deistic design paradigm rightly rejected by evolutionary biology. Regarding the Naturalism(s) and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s cosmology obviously requires a complete re-imagination of the metaphysical underpinnings of science. We will be explicit about this and spell out the changes that are necessary to naturalism as it is typically conceived within the materialistic and atheistic mainstream of contemporary science.
Our research will philosophically contextualize both Damer’s novel method of discovery and his theory of biogenesis by critically examining and subverting the generally Kantian strictures of the philosophy of science and much natural theology by drawing on Schelling and Whitehead (both of whom called for a “critique of feeling” to replace Kant’s critique of pure reason). Schelling and Whitehead articulate what Segall has called a descendental aesthetic ontology.6 Whereas Kant imagined mind as the transcendental condition of a merely apparent nature, a descendental aesthetic ontology replants mind, and thus scientific knowledge, within the living processes it attempts to know. Rather than bracketing ontology (and thus accepting critical idealism in place of realism about nature) and resting satisfied with a transcendental epistemology that exempts mind from the laws governing the rest of nature, Whitehead and Schelling’s approach makes clear that many of the epistemological problems plaguing modern philosophy are in fact just disguised ontological issues stemming from the incoherent dualism originating with Descartes. One way of overcoming this dualism entails going back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and imagining what becomes possible if his analogy between aesthetic judgments of art and teleological judgments of organisms holds constitutively for the objects of scientific cognition. What if artistic geniuses tap into and express the same creative power responsible for organizing the nonhuman natural world? This is of course exactly the move that Schelling makes, but the methodological and epistemological justifications for such a move have not been adequately spelled out, which has allowed it to be dismissed as merely Romantic excess. Whitehead’s detailed systematic treatment of experience, perception, propositional feelings, judgment, etc., makes such dismissals far more difficult. The philosophical groundwork for our Whiteheadian interpretation of Damer’s discovery of a new theory of biogenesis includes articulating a justification of what might be called an “aesthetic turn” in ontology. This framing is another way of getting at what Whiteheadians mean by panexperientialism. Such an ontology would open up novel approaches to both theology and natural science, and perhaps even a cultural renewal of natural theology in our increasingly post-secular age. The evolving, self-organizing cosmos revealed by contemporary natural science is exactly what we would expect from a God who is more like the “poet of the world” (Whitehead) than its transcendent designer. Damer et al.’s approach to biogenesis implies a process of creative evolution that does not involve the implementation of divine plans designed in advance but rather a gradual creaturely groping toward more intense modes of experience goaded by an immanent divine Eros.
- A two-day public conference in October 2019 at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA featuring Bruce Damer, cosmologist Brian Swimme, Matt Segall and others focused on establishing initial points of contact between Damer’s biogenesis theory and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
- The submission of a co-authored journal article to a leading journal in philosophy of biology or a more popular outlet that articulates the philosophical and/or cultural implications of Damer’s biogenesis theory in Whiteheadian terms.
- A book on Whitehead’s relevance to scientific research on the question of life’s place in the universe.
Funding will be requested (~10,000 Euros) to support: 1) travel between mentor home institute in Madrid and Segall and Damer’s institutions in Northern California, 2) collaborations with Bruce Damer, including research seminars and tutorial sessions to convey the geochemical details and computer modeling grounding his theory, lab time at his home institution UC Santa Cruz, travel expenses for on-site field studies related to ongoing empirical research, and 3) scientific conference-related expenses.
1 See Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929).
2 See for example these recently published works linking aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy to contemporary physics and biology:
–Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, ed. by John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
–Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003).
-Michael Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004) and Foundations of Relational Realism (with Elias Zafiris) (New York: Lexington Books, 2013).
-Life and Process: Towards a New Biophilosophy, ed. Spyridon Koutroufinis (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014).
-Shimon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012).
3 “Introduction” to Everything Flows by Dupré and Nicholson, 7.
4 See the cover story of the August 2017 issue of Scientific American, “The New Origins of Life: did volcanic hot springs harbor the first living organisms?” See also a collection of scientific papers at https://www.researchgate.net/project/Origin-of-Life-6
5 For more a more detailed account of the trajectory of this argument, which includes engagements with the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas, Robert Rosen, Francisco Varela, and Evan Thompson, see Matthew T. Segall’s “On the Place of Life in the Cosmos: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and Contemporary Theoretical Biology” in Intuiting Life: Process Ontology for Biophilosophy (New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2019); https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/on-the-place-of-life-in-the-cosmos-mts-revision-march-18-2019.pdf
6 See Segall’s dissertation “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” (2016); https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1803306347.html?FMT=ABS
Auditors are welcome, though space is limited. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
One of our core texts in this course will be my Physics of the World-Soul (a new third edition soon to be published).
Continuing the discussion about “panpsychist physicalism,” I’m sharing another one of my replies over at The Skeptical Zone (click here to read what I am responding to).
Thanks for the reply, keiths. Of course, everything depends on what we mean by physicalism. “Scientific materialism” is a phrase I borrow from Whitehead to refer to an outdated sort of physicalism that has not yet fully internalized relativity, quantum, and complexity theories. Despite these 20th century paradigmatic revolutions in physics, most popular accounts of physicalism still describe matter as “stuff” with simple location in space that is fully present at an instant in time and that can be exhaustively explained by reduction to its parts. Following a full reckoning with relativity, quantum, and complexity theories, this view of matter must be entirely rejected. Do we agree so far?
You say there is no evidence of purpose in physics. I would agree that there is nothing like deliberative decision-making of the sort most of us believe human beings are capable of. However, right at the base of physics in what Eddington called “the supreme law among the laws of nature”–namely, entropy–we see that energy displays a clear directionality and thus a form of teleology toward greater global disorder (Stan Salthe makes the case for this sort of interpretation). As complexity theorists studying far from equilibrium systems have argued (e.g., Ilya Prigogine, Eric Smith), this tendency toward global disorder can actually facilitate the local emergence of greater organization (e.g., the temperature gradient between the Sun, deep space, and Earth’s surface leads inevitably to the emergence of life, which dissipates this gradient way more efficiently than would non-living chemistry).
So I challenge the idea that physics shows no evidence of telos. There is plenty of empirical and theoretical evidence for it if it hasn’t been ruled out a priori by a metaphysical distaste for final causation.
The idea that special arrangements of fundamentally purposeless, inert, insentient particles could give rise to even non-conscious feeling, experience, or an inward perspective on the world (i.e., something it is like to be a thing) strikes me as nothing short of a miracle. The idea that such arrangements could give rise to living creatures with conscious intelligence capable of understanding the fundamental nature of the universe strikes me as absolutely absurd. It’s not just that I find these notions incredible, it’s that I have never seen a causal explanation for how this sort of emergence (even if “weak”) might work. I cannot even imagine what such a causal explanation might look like.
Thanks for pointing out the relevance of N. Taleb’s distinction between randomness and an agent’s exposure to randomness for the question of “life.” Much to ponder here…
My friendship with the idea of autopoiesis is about as old as my friendship with you. I’ve felt a deep kinship with the scientific scheme and the phenomenological/philosophical method developed by Maturana, Varela, Thompson, et al., since my first exposure to them in Mason Cash’s Philosophy of Mental Representation course back at UCF in 2006ish. In the decade since, I’ve fallen in love with Schelling and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. I have not fallen out of love with autopoiesis (or enactivism) in all this time, but I have found myself entering into a (friendly!) polemic with Evan Thompson about whether or not autopoietic biology and enactive cogntive science remain ontologically underdetermined. I’ve argued that the Chilean school (and its inheritors) can find an elucidating metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy of organism.
From my perspective, the initial sites of inquiry whenever we ask about the essence of life must be agency and intuition. The only reason physical science needs a special science called “biology” is because when human knowers observe living organisms, they cannot help but intuit an agency in them. This “living” agency is understood by physicists to be absent in “merely” physical (i.e., “non-living”) processes.
Accept for a moment, if you will, my parody of the polemic between a reductive physicist and an emergentist biologist:
The physicist argues that whatever “life” is, and whatever our experienced “intuitions” of it might be, all of its apparently living agency, and all of our apparently “inner” intuitive experiences of it, are really just external mechanical processes that have not yet been fully understood and explained in terms of the equations of physics.
For the emergentist biologist, in contrast, “life” has real effects on physical processes. Life is a cause, even if secondarily (and improbably!) emergent from primary physical causes. Life makes a difference in how things happen. Life is not a passive passenger on planet Earth. The “laws” of physics may provide life’s primary environmental condition, but to say life slavishly “obeys” these laws is to dramatically downplay the extent to which life uses these laws as a stage upon which to innovate. Earth is not a dead rock with a few patches of slime growing in scattered crevices. Earth–better, Gaia–is a living community composed of multifarious organic agents whose eco-semiotic entanglements have made them evolutionary players since day one in the +4 billion year formation of the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Earth is an ecopoietic process (h/t Lovelock). “Not only is life a planetary phenomenon, but the material environment of life on Earth is in part a biological construction” (Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 119).
The biologist thinks of life as something irreducible to physics. Life is something special, perhaps unique in all the universe, present only on our pale blue dot. We should feel lucky to be alive.
The reductive physicist endeavors to resolve what appears to be “life” into something more generic, to explain it away as a local anomaly temporarily afloat amidst a sea of total randomness.
But what if life is more generic than matter, organism more generic than mechanism? If Robert Rosen is right, the biologist and the physicist both have inadequate ideas of life. Whitehead would say this is because both have unquestioningly accepted the modern bifurcation of nature into physical causes and psychical excitations. Why must we bifurcate nature? Is there a good philosophical argument for doing so?
The biologist’s idea of life isn’t radical enough: it doesn’t get to the root of our intuition of the agency of organisms. The physicists idea of life isn’t revolutionary enough: it doesn’t fully embrace Giordano Bruno’s Copernican intuition that the center of the cosmos is everywhere because life pervades the cosmos.
I wonder if we might re-examine your claim that “a hurricane is not alive because there is a missing ingredient”… Are we sure that a hurricane doesn’t feel to us in some way living? We may have learned a scientific rationale for why we should not think of hurricanes as alive. Ignoring this rational norm could be professionally hazardous for an academic! But if we look again at a hurricane through the eyes of a child, without all our smart ideas about it?
Is there really a missing ingredient here? Obviously there is a long chain of auto-catalytic chemistry (etc.) separating a dissipative structure like a hurricane from a human person. But again, what if biological life is a special case of a more generic or cosmic tendency toward organizational complexity? Could it be that we have too deflated a view of the teleodynamics of hurricanes and too inflated a view of human consciousness? Do we know that hurricanes are not sometimes capable of following ocean temperature gradients? Might some sort of “structural coupling” or “concern” emerge in the creative tension between differentially heated water and air? Obviously, plenty of hurricanes don’t follow the temperature gradient and thus unravel into chaos. But some hurricanes, the one’s which grow and thrive, do follow the gradient. They do so with gusto. In the satellite image you can literally see Erma’s heartbeat as she eats evermore heat and grows and thrives. Isn’t this a kind of natural selection at work (even if only at the level of self-production or autopoiesis, without the help of reproduction)? From one perspective, hurricane Erma’s teleodynamic behavior is blind chance. From another perspective, this is a sentient cloud. And anyway, isn’t the human mind a lot more like a cloudy sky than a self-regulating free agent? Aren’t we constantly pulled in circles by love and strife (heat and cold in hurricanese), swayed this way and that by fortune and fury? Conscious reflection and intention are the rolling thunder of the mind. They come loudly, but late, always after organic intuition in a flash brings new worlds into view. Life lives in this flash of intuition prior to reflection upon objects over and against subjects. This is Stu Kauffman’s “poised realm” of adjacent possibilities. This is the capacity to ingress novelty, and it is not specific to biological organisms. Life is the aim toward the future enjoyed in the present. It is essential to the whole of cosmogenesis.
This way to panpsychism.
For more from Smith, see this co-authored essay “The Origin of Life”:
“As we see it, the early steps on the way to life are an inevitable, incremental result of the operation of the laws of chemistry and physics operating under the conditions that existed on the early Earth, a result that can be understood in terms of known (or at least knowable) laws of nature. As such, the early stages in the emergence of life are no more surprising, no more accidental, than water flowing downhill.”
Seems to me to be a contemporary example of how complexity science is overcoming Whitehead’s fallacy of the bifurcation of nature. Another science is possible.