Below are parts 1 and 2 of my dialogue with toxinologist and evolutionary philosopher Timothy Jackson. We discuss everything from the philosophy of science and evolutionary epistemology, to the social and cultural impact of evolution, to the full-blown evolutionary cosmologies of thinkers like Whitehead and Peirce.
I just sent a draft of this coauthored essay off to the editors. Astrobiologist Bruce Damer and I have been building toward this for a few years. I’m thrilled to have gotten it to this point, and looking forward to peer review! The essay will be featured in a book coming out of this conference to be held in May: “Astrobiology, Exo-Philosophy, and Cosmic Religion: Toward a Constructive Process Cosmotheology.”
“The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis” by Segall and Damer:
Dr. Torday is Professor of Evolutionary Medicine at UCLA: https://www.evmed.ucla.edu/torday/
For more on the cellular theory of evolution: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4447538/
More about the Cobb Institute Science Advisory Committee: https://cobb.institute/science-advisory-committee/
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.
Thanks to John Vervaeke for hosting me on his channel. It was a wonderful conversation. As you’ll hear, we are planning to do a few trilogues soon with Jorge Ferrer and Evan Thompson.
Thanks to Bruce Alderman at The Integral Stage for moderating.
UPDATE. Here’s a video of our dialogue:
Next Tuesday, October 22nd at 7pm, I’ll be in dialogue with astrobiologist Bruce Damer about his hot spring hypothesis of the origins of life. For Bay Area locals, the event will take place at the Mission Street campus of California Institute of Integral Studies and is free and open to the public. For those who can’t make it in person, here is a link to the livestream on Zoom. After the event I will post a recording here.
My contribution will be to explore from a speculative philosophical perspective what Dr. Damer’s biogenesis hypothesis might mean for contemporary cosmology. Can physicalism/scientific materialism adequately explain the emergence of life and consciousness? My answer is no, it cannot, and that some form of naturalistic panpsychism or panexperientialism does a better job. I will ask what “emergence” might mean for materialist accounts of life and consciousness and critique the idea that conscious living agents could ever “emerge” from inert matter. My sense is that even prior to biological life, physical and chemical processes were already in the business of selecting and remembering improbable possibilities on the way to enhanced complexity and more intense modes of experience and agency. The arrival of progenotes and then living cells certainly ramps up this enterprise, which Damer describes so compellingly in terms of the “PIM” (probability-interconnection-memory) cycle (see his essay on the extended evolutionary synthesis webpage); but I think really making sense of biogenesis will require a new physical ontology that finally leaves dualism and the Cartesian idea of matter behind.
Here are some related reflections after attending a lecture Damer recently gave for the Consciousness Hacking Collective in San Francisco:
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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I’m posting a revised version of a long essay I wrote a decade ago. It draws on thinkers including Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, William Irwin Thompson, Francisco Varela, Alfred North Whitehead, and Alf Hornborg in search of a more integral approach to economics. I had not yet encountered the social ecology of Murray Bookchin when I wrote this essay, so my approach has shifted in emphasis even more strongly toward decentralization and localism, though as readers will see these values were already at the heart of my argument.
You’ll notice that in the first footnote, I left un-revised the world population as I recorded it when I originally composed this essay back in late 2009 (it was ~6.8 billion on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau). Today (February 2019), there are already a billion more people in existence (~7.8 billion total). It took all of human history until the year 1800–that is, hundreds of thousands if not millions of years–for the first billion people to inhabit the Earth. It took only a decade to produce a billion more people.
The table of contents, preface, and introduction are included below. You can find the whole essay as a PDF here: Towards an Integral Economics PDF (2019)
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is Life?
- The Irruption of Time
- Ancient Biology
- Modern Biology
- Teleology as Regulative
- Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive
- Concrescence and Bodily Perception
- Concrescence and Autopoiesis
- Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
- Integral Thought and Market Cosmology
- Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity
Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life
The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population1 and technological mastery, has been won at the cost of widespread suffering for much of the rest of the community of life on Earth. Life is not just a quantitative affair, but is everywhere striving to deepen the qualitative intensity of its existence. Industrial civilization has emerged amidst this vital striving, violently shifting the biosphere into the terminal phase of the Cenozoic era by initiating the first mass extinction event in 65 million years.2 In the deep geological past, saurian giants and cycads flourished where long stretches of highway now carry automobiles fueled by their fossilized remains. Should our species continue to ignore the psycho-spiritual wounds responsible for instituting and maintaining our ritualized techno-industrial sacrifice of future generations, we will soon find ourselves joining the dinosaurs.
This essay is my attempt to reveal the metaphysical causes and energetic effects of industrial capitalism such that its inhumane and ecologically ignorant foundations are brought fully into consciousness. Consciousness is our most creative human capacity, but in its fragmented and anxiety-ridden deficient mental mode, it has become the agent of the most powerful strategy of thermodynamic gradient dissipation the planet has ever known. Should human consciousness fail to awaken in time to forestall the inevitable conclusion of the industrial process, not only will capitalist profits continue to be squeezed out of the alienated labor of workers and commoditization continue to homogenize cultural expression, but Earth will become a toxic wasteland eaten alive from the inside out by the mechanical transformation of extropy3 into the fetishized value of money and use-and-dispose consumables.
The emergence of life on earth around 4 billion years ago can be understood as an expression of the same natural tendency to dissipate free energy that is driving the extractive economy of industrialism. The complex activities of living creatures on Earth’s surface work to bring the extreme temperature gradient between sunlight and space toward equilibrium by radiating back more heat than would an inert planet, as per the 2nd law of thermodynamics (p. 46, Margulis, 2002). The industrial organism has brought this process of gradient reduction to new heights by technologically freeing exergy trapped in places no other form of life could reach (like hydrocarbons and radioactive elements).4 But as has been learned from the many identity crises to come before on this planet (i.e., five prior mass extinctions) more of the same leads eventually to extinction because conditions are always evolving: humanity must mutate or perish. Our industrial presence to the biosphere represents a deficient and so unsustainable relationship between mind and life, culture and nature, humanity and Earth.
Unless the as yet unrealized spirit of integration lying dormant in human consciousness can blossom, our species will continue to instinctually play by the entropic rules of thermodynamics5 by devouring the remaining resources of the Earth. Like the ever-optimistic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I am hopeful that we will learn to
“give [our lives] to [being and to knowing], rather than to [possession],” because though “human vision is still diffuse in its operation, mixed up with industrial activity and war…it will not be long now before the noösphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955).
Only with the full emergence of the noösphere can humanity become integral with the Earth, achieving what Jean Gebser has referred to as a transparent aperspectival a-waring of human and universe together in a space-time-free presentiation of origin (p. 312, 1985).
Human societies are not inherently exploitative and selfish, nor is the rest of the biosphere a pitiless struggle for existence guided only by the invisible hand of natural selection. We have not always been capitalists. As Alf Hornborg has argued,
“…there are undoubtedly social metaphors that transfer meanings from relations in the human world to relations with the nonhuman one, committing societies to specific trains of thought” (p. 197, 2001).
I will argue in this essay that our integral potential has been ideologically distorted by the dualistic ontology and fetishized mythology intrinsic to the industrial mode of consciousness. Powerful forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving and ruthlessly competing for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our natural capacity for empathic relationality is the psycho-social precursor that primed modern scientific consciousness for its reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution, and which consequently led to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic theory.
The mechanization of biology is typical of the deficient mental mode of consciousness. So long as our understanding of life remains deficient, our planetary civilization will continue to ignore humanity’s integral relationship with the Earth, and probably destroy itself within a century. In the chapters to follow, I argue that modern science’s mechanical theory of life is inseparable from the economic ideology of modern capitalism. The hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching our planet’s living population to the edge of extinction is given ideological steam by the mechanistic theory of life. My purpose in writing this book is to break through the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo and to plant the seeds of an alternative, living biology. I hope these seeds will aid humanity in our Great Work of becoming integral with the Earth, a partner in Gaia’s dance through the heavens.
Introduction: What is Life?
Life, for Sri Aurobindo, is the mutual commerce connecting matter and mind in the manifest universe, an
“intermediate energizing of conscious being [that] liberates into sensitive action and reaction a form of the creative force of existence which was working subconsciently or inconsciently, absorbed in its own substance; it supports and liberates into action the apprehensive consciousness of existence called mind and gives it a dynamic instrumentation so that it can work not only on its own forms but on forms of life and matter” (p. 186-187, The Life Divine).
The knowing mind is always supported by embodied experience. Any scientific stories told to explain the cosmos must have some relation to our personal and inter-personal experience of living and dying as earthlings. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate a clear concept of life, which ambiguously straddles the apparent boundary between matter and spirit. The conscious human being is always already in life, thrown between matter and mind, and so cannot entirely breach the eternal realm of unchanging ideas, nor totally fathom the depths of material flux and impermanence—at least this side of death. But Aurobindo is not wrong when he writes that “the natural opposition we make between death and life, and between matter and spirit, is an error of our mentality” (p. 176, ibid.). He urges us to become aware of a more integral life, which
“is nothing else than the Force that builds and maintains and destroys the forms in the world…that manifests itself in the form of earth as much as in the plant that grows upon the earth and the animals that support their existence by devouring the life-force of the plants or of each other” (177, ibid.).
Death is a part of life’s dynamic wholeness, a life present
“everywhere, secret or manifest, organized or elemental, involved or evolved, but universal, all-pervading, imperishable; only its forms and organizings differ” (p. 179, ibid.).
But how are we to conceive of life’s wholeness or integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence, while an overly triumphant definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature.
My exploration of the issues surrounding the pursuit of an organic ontology will require a thorough critique of mechanistic biology, whose aim is the reverse of my own: to define life such that it is reducible to a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” (p. 320, Dennett).6 This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all connection whatsoever between human consciousness and the evolutionary adventure that generated it. If we are going to attempt a scientific account of life, it must recursively include the knowing mind of the living scientist in its explanations.
My critique of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism and reconstruction of an alternative conception of life on planet Earth draws upon the process-relational ontology of Alfred North Whitehead and the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela. Varela’s account of life in terms of autopoiesis will be compared with Whitehead’s analysis of the process of concrescence in the hopes that the affinity of their ideas becomes clear. It will be argued that Varela’s science demands a new metaphysical scheme not available within the confines of mechanistic materialism. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, I suggest, is up to the task.
The approach of these two thinkers is an expression of what cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). The time element, repressed by the deficient mental structure’s exclusively spatial orientation, burst into consciousness in various ways during the past few centuries, including Hegel and Marx’s dialectical theory of history, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Einstein’s relativity theory. But the mental structure, convinced it has reached the pinnacle of our species’ evolution, has not relinquished its hold on our consciousness. Now in its deficient phase, mental consciousness retards the emergence of the integral by continuing to falsely spatialize time, thereby reducing its qualitative creative intensity to a measurable quantity. The ideology of modern capitalism is an expression of the deficient mental structure’s repression of the time element, of creative becoming. Instead of recognizing the importance of the dialectic of history and the ongoing and entangled processes of natural and social transformation, capitalist economic theory insists that the present arrangement represents the “end of history” (as Francis Fukuyama has claimed): no revolutions in or improvements to social relations or in human-earth relations are necessary. Capitalist economists thus search for invariant laws supposed to apply universally to all human societies in all historical epochs. In contrast, an ecologized Marxist economic theory, building on the dialectical acuity of Hegel’s historical method, is better prepared to integrate the time element into its understanding of human society and the wider economy of Earth within which our economy is embedded. As the eco-Marxists Foster, Clark, and York describe it, Marx’s approach invites us to
“highlight the dramatic changes in social structures and patterns that have occurred throughout human history and [argues] that what appear to be invariant laws to observers in any particular period, may in fact be transient tendencies unique to that historical era, emerging from the dialectical interaction of an ensemble of social and natural processes” (The Ecological Rift, p. 27).
In addition to the repression of time, Eco-Marxists also critique the techno-optimistic “human exemptionalism” that leads to fantasies about a future “dematerialization” of economic production such that
“the capitalist economy can then walk on air (or create a ‘weightless society’), thereby continuing its relentless expansion—but with a rapidly diminishing effect on the environment” (The Ecological Rift, p. 34, 43).
Such fantasies ignore both the zero-sum thermodynamic reality of the Earth system (thereby “[going] against the basic laws of physics” [ibid., 43]) and the inequality of human society (thereby going against the democratic principles of life, liberty, and happiness).
Gebser also points to the need to heal the rift, both ideological and metabolical, between humanity and the Earth. In the chapters to follow, I offer the beginnings of a more integral biology whose account of the biosphere includes human society as one of its expressions. “The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur,” according to Gebser, “at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384). The time element can only be authentically grasped by an integral consciousness. Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness and in particular the irruption of time in the mutation from deficient mental to integral consciousness thus provides the context for much of the discussion to follow.
1 ~6,798,504,820 on Nov. 21st, 2009 according to the US Census Bureau. High population is hardly an adequate measure of success, just a reflection of unsustainable rates of resource consumption. And even if population were the true gauge of success, surely insects and bacteria would be the real winners in this world.
2 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.org) estimates that 21 percent of all known mammals, 30 percent of all known amphibians, 12 percent of all known birds, 28 percent of reptiles, 37 percent of freshwater fishes, 70 percent of plants, 35 percent of invertebrates assessed so far are under serious threat of extinction.
3 i.e., energy available to do work.
4 Lynn Margulis goes so far as to argue that “[Technological evolution], whether [expressed in the] human, bower bird, or nitrogen-fixing bacterium, becomes the extension of the second law to open systems” (p. 47, 2002). She means to imply that the proliferation of entropy producing techno-industrial products and their social ramifications is the result of natural law. I will argue in this paper that she is correct only if consciousness fails to become integrally transparent to itself, liberating humanity from the tamasic impulse toward increasing entropy production.
5 Ilya Prigogine defines thermodynamics as “the study of the macroscopic properties of a system and their relations without regard to the underlying dynamics” (p. 205, 1996).
6 For Dennett, an algorithm is any set of conditions tending to produce a certain outcome. He sees Darwin’s conditions (random variation under natural selection) as completely explanatory of the present state of the biosphere. Dennett argues that a “cascade of mere purposeless, mechanical causes” is entirely responsible for the “gradual emergence of meaning” (p. 412).
Here’s the recent debate between Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein on the relationship between cultural and biological evolution:
Here are two response videos from me arguing for the relevance of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson et al.’s theory of autopoiesis and Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism:
Some relevant essays that expand on the ideas I shared in the video:
Here I am with Aaron Weiss, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and doctoral candidate at CIIS, talking about the nature of consciousness and what to do about it. The first talk was filmed back in April; the second was filmed in September as a follow-up.
Schumacher College has decided to make my week on Schelling and Whitehead a stand alone course called “Physics of the World-Soul.” It will take place June 18-22. More information available at the link above.
A dialogue with Aaron Weiss last week at our graduate program retreat.
An organic realism would suggest that some processes within rocks do have varying degrees of agency. Crystallization is telic. Atoms are self-organizing ecopoietic agents. The periodic table of elements is a taxonomic hierarchy that sorts different species of living organism.
What turns aggregation into agency? I guess we call that “soul” or “psyche,” “life” or “consciousness.” But what is it and where does it come from? Is it really just an illusion (=Dennett)? Does it somehow “emerge” out of non-living matter (=Deacon)?
Or, is soul active cosmically from the get go? Is space-time/matter-energy intrinsically experiential? Is cosmic becoming concernful? Is the universe aesthetically invested in what comes next?
If not, if no soul holds the cosmos whole, then what are our alternatives for resisting exposure to randomness, that is, to vain meaninglessness? Can we make meaning of a story about the emergence of mind from matter? I mean, can we derive our sense of purpose from the idea that birth was the absolute beginning and death the absolute end of what I call me myself? Can we see the human being as a civilized creature, a rational animal, if we also believe that our mind is ultimately nothing more than an aggregation of cells? Plenty have tried. Here is an excerpt from Nabokov’s poem Pale Fire (recently featured in Blade Runner 2049; http://www.shannonrchamberlain.com/palefirepoem.html):
The Crashaw Club had paid me to discuss
Why Poetry Is Meaningful To Us.
I gave my sermon, a full thing but short.
As I was leaving in some haste, to thwart
The so-called “question period” at the end,
One of those peevish people who attend
Such talks only to say they disagree
Stood up and pointed his pipe at me.
And then it happened–the attack, the trance,
Or one of my old fits. There sat by chance
A doctor in the front row. At his feet
Patly I fell. My heart had stopped to beat,
It seems, and several moments passed before
It heaved and went on trudging to a more
Conclusive destination. Give me now
Your full attention.
I can’t tell you how I knew–but I did know that I had crossed
The border. Everything I loved was lost
But no aorta could report regret.
A sun of rubber was convulsed and set;
And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
I realized, of course, that it was made
Not of our atoms; that the sense behind
The scene was not our sense. In life, the mind
Of any man is quick to recognize
Natural shams, and then before his eyes
The reed becomes a bird, the knobby twig
An inchworm, and the cobra head, a big
Wickedly folded moth. But in the case
Of my white fountain what it did replace
Perceptually was something that, I felt,
Could be grasped only by whoever dwelt
In the strange world where I was a mere stray.
And presently I saw it melt away:
Though still unconscious, I was back on earth.
The tale I told provoked my doctor’s mirth.
He doubted very much that in the state
He found me in “one could hallucinate
Or dream in any sense. Later, perhaps,
but not during the actual collapse.
No, Mr. Shade.”
“But, Doctor, I was dead!
He smiled. “Not quite: just half a shade,” he said.
Ecclesiastes tells another story. Yes, from dust we come and to dust we shall return. And yet, so the story goes, those who love God walk a path that leads beyond this world:
“For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.
Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”
Panpsychism is an alternative to materialism, emergentism, and traditional theism. It sees life running up and down this world from top to bottom. It grants spiritual dignity to all beings, not just humans, not just God, not even just animals, plants, and cells, but to planets, stars, and galaxies, to protons and electrons. It roots meaning-making at a cosmic level, rather than limiting meaning to humanity, or to the sense-making of biological organisms. None of which is to say that panpsychism makes everything everything. It isn’t panpanism. There is a complex hierarchy, a differentiated holarchy (Koestler), a cosmic tree with roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds. And all of it is sensitive in degrees.
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.