Something of a response to Levi Bryant/LarvalSubjects on “hylephobia.”
I had a friendly exchange yesterday with the cognitive scientist and philosopher Evan Thompson about his debate earlier this year with another cognitive scientist Owen Flanagan. The two distinguished thinkers disagreed about whether physicalism as currently understood can provide an adequate account of consciousness. I wanted to revisit several of the themes Evan and I discussed in our comment exchange. I suggested in a comment that, while I agree the transcendental/phenomenological perspective provides a knock-down argument against any sort of objectivist explanation of subjectivity, I’m not as certain that, having laid such dogmatism to bed, Husserlian phenomenology is capable of helping us re-construct a less naive, more robust form of ontological realism (although I do try to push the late Husserl toward such realism in this paper on ecophenomenology).
Maybe Evan isn’t as interested as I am in a post-transcendental attempt at realism. I have a lot of sympathy for the more constructivist enactive paradigm he, Francisco Varela, and Eleanor Rosch first articulated in The Embodied Mind (1993). But since my fateful encounter with the thought of Alfred North Whitehead [which occurred just about the same time I was reading Evan’s next book, Mind in Life (2007)], I realized I needed to think constructivism ontologically, rather than epistemologically. Which is to say, I needed to think being as a process of self-construction, rather than being constructed by thought.
Now to be fair, as I understand the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy that Varela and Thompson draw upon in their articulation of enactivism, nothing is to prevent us from interpreting the “dependent co-arising” of all things in ontological terms. Whitehead himself acknowledged that in certain respects his “process-relational” ontology bears more resemblance to certain stains of Indian and Buddhist than to Western thought (see Process and Reality, pgs. 244, 342-343). For Whitehead, every actual occasion of experience is internally related to every other actual occasion. This means that there is nothing in the universe that can exist independently of anything else (for Whitehead, this includes even God). Everything there is emerges in concert with everything else. On the other hand, I’ve repeatedly argued against the over-simplification that Whitehead reduces individual occasions of experience to their global relations (HERE, HERE, HERE). Like Varela, who attempts to displace the old substantialist self with a more flexible conception of an emergent “virtual selfhood” or “subject-pole” (as he describes it in this paper just before his untimely death in 2002), Whitehead articulates individuality in terms of the “subjective form” of each occasion–an occasion’s unique feeling-toned concern for and response to the data it receives from the past occasions out of which it emerges. In this sense there is a lot of overlap between a process ontology and enactivism.
Here is what Evan had to say in a comment under my last post about his debate with Owen Flanagan:
…in my own work I follow the trajectory that arises in the later Husserl and continues in Merleau-Ponty, and that calls for a rethinking of the concept of “nature” in a post-physicalist way—one that doesn’t conceive of fundamental nature or physical being in a way that builds in the objectivist idea that such being is intrinsically or essentially non-experiential. But, again, this point doesn’t entail that nature is intrinsically or essentially experiential (this is the line that panpsychists and Whiteheadians take). (Maybe it is, but I don’t think we’re now in position to know that.) All I want to say for now (or think I have grounds for saying now) is that we can see historically how the concept of nature as physical being got constructed in an objectivist way, while at the same time we can begin to conceive of the possibility of a different kind of construction that would be post-physicalist and post-dualist–that is, beyond the divide between the “mental” (understood as not conceptually involving the physical) and the “physical” (understood as not conceptually involving the mental). This is what I had in mind when I invoked “neutral monism” or “neutral non-dualism” in the exchange with Owen.
Evan also mentioned that he plans to read Isabelle Stengers‘ recently translated book Thinking With Whitehead, at which point he’ll have a better sense for exactly what prevents him from following Whitehead all the way. I look forward to his reflections on that front. For now, I’m encouraged by his invocation of “neutral monism,” a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had a tremendous impact on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of some substratum of “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s own brand of panexperientialism.
I’ll leave you with this lecture by David Kleinberg-Levin on Merleau-Ponty’s late thought, including his understanding of the elemental flesh of the world. Thinking with Whitehead, I’d argue, can help us follow the late Merleau-Ponty’s desire not only to unify the mind with the flesh of the body, but mind and body with the flesh of the world. In this way, as Levin puts it, things become a prolongation of my body, just as my body becomes a prolongation of the world. (The authors of the recently published Nature and Logos: A Whiteheadian Key to Merleau-Ponty’s Fundamental Thought agree with the tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of these two thinkers).
- Is Physicalism Enough? Can Consciousness be Naturalized? – Owen Flanagan in dialogue with Evan Thompson (footnotes2plato.com)
- Panpsychism and Its Emergent Discontents (footnotes2plato.com)
Discussion has continued beneath my last post about Bakker. Below are a few of my comments there:
I advert to common idiom when discussing theoretical incompetence, but it certainly doesn’t turn on any commitment to representationalism – even less correspondance! The fact is, people regularly get things wrong in what appear to be systematically self-serving ways. You don’t need to subscribe to assertion conditions or truth conditions or anything speculative to commit to this.
People generally get things “wrong” in what respect? How are you defining “wrong” here? Upon what scientific criteria do we determine “right” from “wrong”? I assume you mean to speak of “falsity” and “truth,” rather than right and wrong? Even so, the scientific enterprise is not a scantron test where we bubble in T or F after each experiment. Experimental facts are always underdetermined by the theory framing them, which means there is always some degree of extra-scientific hermeneutic, aesthetic, or intuitive selection going on to determine which theory is “best.” For example, even given all empirically verified neuroscientific evidence to date of a brain-mind correlation, brain-based reductionist accounts of what we call “consciousness” represent only one possible causal explanation: it remains entirely possible that the brain functions more like a radio antenna and that the causes of “consciousness” are non-locally distributed beyond the skull (see my reflections on cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger and cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, for example). If the scientific enterprise were simply a matter of confirmation or falsification (either a theory is true or it is false) then there’d be very few if any viable scientific theories. That most of our theories fail to account for all the evidence (or if they do, fail to definitively disqualify competing theories which also account for the evidence) suggests either that humans are theoretically incompetent, or that nature/matter is more complex than our mechanistic models generally allow.
The life sciences are mechanistic, so if subjective experience can be explained without some kind of ‘spooky emergence,’ as I fear it can, then all intentional philosophy, be it pragmatic or otherwise, is in for quite a bit of pain.
I’d dispute the statement that the life sciences are mechanistic, depending on what you mean by the machine metaphor. There are major unresolved controversies within the life sciences concerning the status of life, whether mechanism can really account for the self-organizing, biosemiotic, and phenomenological dimensions of even a single living cell (See the cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela’s 2002 paper “Life After Kant,” or his colleague cognitive scientist Evan Thompson’s book Mind in Life, for good run downs concerning this controversy). There is no reason to conceive of “emergence” as spooky. This way of thinking about the place of wholes in nature is terribly misleading. There’s no reason to make emergence seem supernatural now that science has the conceptual tools to deal with complexity, chaos, non-equilibrium systems, etc (see Terry Deacon’s recent book Incomplete Nature for the cutting edge attempt to account for intentionality in a non-reductive way).
Where I entirely agree with you is that classical philosophical “metacognition” is over-matched by the complexity of the experiential universe. I don’t take much stock in theories like supervenience, functionalism, or anomalous monism for this reason. They are too abstract and cogni-centric and pay too little attention to the complex textures of lived, embodied reality, textures that unfold at or below the threshold of what usually gets called “consciousness.” I turn instead to philosophers like James and Whitehead who sought to correct for the rationalist biases of so much Western philosophy by turning philosophy’s attention to an investigation of feeling and bodily reference, pushing back against the pretensions of disembodied thought and transcendental deduction.
- Life After Darwin (another response to Benjamin Cain) (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Danger of Scientism? (response to Benjamin Cain) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Reflections on Deleuze’s Engagement with Natural Science in D&R (footnotes2plato.com)
For a PDF of the entire essay, click The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.
Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences
Schelling’s almost complete absence in Anglophone natural philosophy for more than 150 years (aside from his powerful effects on Coleridge,168 Peirce,169 and Emerson,170 and through the intermediary of Naturphilosoph Alexander von Humboldt, his influence on Darwin171) cannot be accounted for based solely on the popular reception of Hegel’s philosophical caricature of intellectual intuition as “the night in which all cows are black.” The more probable reason for his absence, as Bowie suggests, is that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie “was effectively killed off…as part of the overt praxis of the natural sciences” beginning in the 1840s as these sciences “[began] to fall under the spell of materialism and positivism.”172 Prior to the current resurgence in interest, historians of science tended to dismiss Naturphilosophie as a “strange and nearly impenetrable offshoot of the Romantic movement,” an offshoot that is “safely ignored.”173 So long as postkantian positivism (of the sort that refuses to make organism rather than mechanism constitutive of nature) holds sway over the scientific imagination, Schelling’s thought will continue to languish on the fringes of philosophical activity. Fortunately, “the dangers of a scientistic approach to nature” are becoming increasingly well recognized,174 and alternative histories are being told that challenge the standard Enlightenment account of the dominance of mechanistic physics and biology.175 The fundamental incoherence of the postkantian positivist approach is such that, despite itself resting upon an implicitly postulated speculative dualism between mind and matter, it at the same time denies that there can be any scientific validity to philosophical speculation. “It is only then,” says Arran Gare,
when the original practical engagement as an active force within the world is forgotten, that the illusions of dualism…appear.176
Many natural scientists unpracticed in the methods of philosophy are quick to dismiss Schelling’s speculative physics for what they perceive to be a lack of respect for the empirical facts. Several scholars, including Gare,177 Robert Richards,178 Joseph Esposito,179 Frederick Beiser,180 and Iain Hamilton Grant181 have convincingly argued that Schelling painstakingly studied and significantly contributed to the natural sciences of his day. Richards characterizes Schelling’s natural philosophical works not as the wild frenzy of mystical analogizing that its positivist critics saw, but as “[groaning] with the weight of citations of the most recent, up-to-date experimental work in the sciences.”182 Grant, while he acknowledges Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a precursor of the new natural sciences of self-organization and complexity, warns us not to
positivistically reduce [Schelling’s] philosophical interventions into nature to a theoretical resource to be raided as and when the natural sciences deem it necessary.183
Keeping Grant’s desire to protect Naturphilosophie from such a positivistic reduction in mind, it is nonetheless interesting to note that Schelling shared the “aether hypothesis” with most of his scientific contemporaries.184 The aether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetism until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.185 The quantum revolution of the early 20th century, with its hypothesis of a non-local field or immaterial quantum vacuum underlying the extended universe, began to raise doubts about Einstein’s dismissal.186 After the recent tentative discovery of the related notion of a Higgs field, it would appear that “a new aether” is front and center again in physical science.187 Where this discovery will lead contemporary physicists remains to be seen, but for Schelling, the elastic properties of the aether were identified with the original duplicity of forces animating the common soul of nature, or World-Soul.188
The two conflicting forces conceived at the same time in conflict and unity, lead to the idea of an organizing principle, forming the world into a system. Perhaps the ancients wished to intimate this with the world-soul.189
In the context of the aether hypothesis, it is important to remember that the main intent of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was not merely the “application of abstract principles to an already existing empirical science”:
My object, rather, is first to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically, and my philosophy is itself nothing else than natural science. It is true that chemistry teaches us to read the letters, physics the syllables, mathematics Nature; but it ought not to be forgotten that it remains for philosophy to interpret what is read.190
In other words, Schelling’s aim was never to produce hypothetical models of how the hidden mechanisms of phenomenal nature may or may not work. His philosophy of nature is an attempt to re-imagine the metaphysical foundations of natural science, such that the theorizing subject, as part of nature, is understood to be an active factor in the organic construction of the objective facts. For Schelling, the aether was less a scientific hypothesis than it was an organizational principle justifying scientific activity in the first place, since, following the ancient epistemic principle that “like is known by like” (Plato’s “syggeneity”), it granted the human soul participatory knowledge of the invisible substructure of the universe.191 Or, as Schelling put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”192
When Schelling says that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature,”193 it should not be collapsed into the prima facie quite similar statement by Kant, that “He who would know the world must first manufacture it–in his own self, indeed.”194 Kant’s approach to the study of nature is grounded in subjective voluntarism, wherein the philosopher fabricates “nature” as his own object according to the transcendentally deduced categories delimiting his experience.195 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, on the contrary, re-interprets the epistemic position of the natural scientist: where the postkantian scientist can only grasp himself as thinking about nature from beyond nature, Schelling’s scientific method involves awakening to oneself as “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia)”196 As Grant describes it, “What thinks in me is what is outside me.”197 If the Naturphilosoph is able to think as nature, she becomes “a new species equipped with new organs of thought.”198 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to know nature unconditionally, i.e., not as the sum total of its created products, but as the creative activity giving rise to them.199 The question is no longer, as it was for Kant, “how do I make finite nature appear?”, but “what is the essence of nature’s infinite activity?”
Schelling’s philosophy of unthinged (Unbedingten) nature is the necessary counter postulate to Fichte’s absolutely free ego, the next logical turn on the dialectical wheel that makes known the presence of an unthought background, a dark abyss (Ungrund) before which the conscious ego can at first only mumble as it meets its long forgotten maker. Schelling’s discovery is that absolute spirit and absolute nature dependently co-arise as the polarized personalities of a natural divinity. The finite human ego is not a priori; rather Absolute nature is prioritized,200 since
Everything that surrounds us refers back to an incredibly deep past. The Earth itself and its mass of images must be ascribed an indeterminably greater age than the species of plants and animals, and these in turn greater than the race of men.201
“Philosophy,” according to Schelling, “is nothing other than a natural history of our mind.”202 The philosopher of nature “treats nature as the transcendental philosopher treats the self”203 by coming to see how
the activity whereby the objective world is produced is originally identical with that which is expressed in volition.204
Schelling’s is akin to an enactive, rather than representational account of scientific cognition. According to Evan Thompson, from an enactive perspective,
a natural cognitive agent–an organism, animal, or person–does not…operate on the basis of internal representations in the subjectivist/objectivist sense. Instead of internally representing an external world in some Cartesian sense, [it] enact[s] an environment inseparable from [its] own structure and actions.205
Schelling’s enactive account of natural science thereby recursively grounds the production of scientific knowledge in the living bodies, funded laboratories, invented technologies, and specialized communities through which it emerges. What science knows is not a passively reflected copy of objective nature as it appears before an aloof subject; rather, the scientist’s experiential facts co-emerge with his experimental acts:
Every experiment is a question put to Nature, to which it is compelled to give a reply. But every question contains an implicit a priori judgment; every experiment that is an experiment is a prophecy.206
That every experimental design contains implicit a priori synthetic judgments (e.g., “every event has a cause,” “nature is an organized system”) is not to say that Schelling believed the natural scientist should try to deduce the structure of nature from a priori principles alone. He maintained that we know nothing except through and by means of experience,207 and therefore that synthetic a priori knowledge, though dialectically constructed, is subject to experimental falsification, theoretical revision, and replacement.208 Whereas for Kant, there exists an unreconcilable opposition between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, for Schelling, acts of cognition and facts of experience recursively condition one another in the endlessly spiraling pursuit of the unconditioned.209
Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is more relevant to contemporary natural science’s vision of a creative cosmos than ever before. The classical mechanistic, entropic paradigm is being replaced by the new sciences of self-organization, which depict the universe as a progressive unfolding of kaleidoscopic activity; given this new context, Schelling’s dynamic evolutionary philosophy of nature can go a long way toward philosophically generating the underlying organizing principles “needed to supplement the laws of physics.”210 Contemporary natural science demands a firmer foundation for its theoretical and empirical discoveries than that given it by 17th century Cartesian metaphysics. Paradoxically, Schelling’s contribution to a more adequate metaphysical foundation for science involves destroying the long held belief that reality has any necessary foundation at all. Schelling’s is a process metaphysics that grounds the visible universe in infinite freedom and creativity.211
Unlike the mechanistic paradigm, which assumes the necessary existence of inert corporeal matter and so cannot explain how creative activity and the emergence of organized form are possible,212 for Schelling, such creative organization is the driving force of nature, inert matter being one of its later products. The source and common medium of nature’s creative activity according to Schelling is universal “sensibility,” making his Naturphilosophie a variety of panexperientialism.213 The ability to feel is what makes all apparently mechanical motion possible, since without such a universal experiential aether, no force could be felt and so exchanged between or across material bodies.214
By making sensibility the ultimate condition of nature’s dynamic organization, Schelling reverses the Kantian and Newtonian prioritization of external relations (i.e., linear mechanism, where causes are always external to effects) and instead understands nature as a holistic system of internal relations (i.e., reciprocal organism, where cause and effect are circular).215 The former externalist approach is unable to account for the origin of motion and activity in nature, since it deals only with secondary mechanical effects.216 Schelling’s dynamical approach does not assume the existence of corporeal bodies that exchange mechanical forces, but describes the construction of these bodies as a side-effect the originally infinite activity of nature’s fundamental forces of organization.217 Viewed from the height of nature’s fundamental organization, according to Schelling,
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.218
What needs explaining from the perspective of Schelling’s self-organizing aether is not creative activity, but the appearance of inhibition, habit, and permanence.219 Schelling accounts for inhibitions in the cosmic flow by positing an “original duplicity in nature” as two infinitely active forces striving in opposition to one another.220 Nature is, in itself, infinite, and so only it can inhibit itself. Were there no such polarized self-inhibition in nature, space would have immediately expanded into emptiness and all time would have passed in the flash of an instantaneous point.221 The natural products of gradual cosmic evolution–whether atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, cells, animals, or humans–are the visible expressions of a determinate proportion of these polarized forces, each one a temporary configuration of nature’s infinite process of formation.222 That is, each product is really a recapitulation of one and the same archetypal organism, only inhibited at a different stage of development and made to appear as a finite approximation of the infinite original.223 Nature’s rich variety of organic products only appear to be finite entities, when in reality, they contain within themselves, as though in a mirror image, the infinite whole of living nature’s creative activity:
…a stream flows in a straight line forward as long as it encounters no resistance. Where there is resistance–a whirlpool forms. Every original product of nature is such a whirlpool, every organism. The whirlpool is not something immobilized, it is rather something constantly transforming–but reproduced anew at each moment. Thus no product in nature is fixed, but it is reproduced at each instant through the force of nature entire.224
Schelling’s attempt to ground the emergence of the physical universe in an unstable abyss (Abgrund) of dynamic forces and to re-conceive nature in terms of becoming rather than being makes it a philosophical precursor to Ilya Prigogine’s work on the physics of non-equilibrium processes.225 Prigogine’s Nobel Prize winning discoveries lead him to announce the birth of a new science,
a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend present at all levels of nature.226
Like Prigogine, who called for “the end of certainty” and of the Cartesian/Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, Schelling sought to give an account of the physical universe that does not irrevocably separate the human observer from the nature observed. Scientific objectivity, as a merely reflective method, can prove useful; but there is no coherent metaphysical justification for treating the subject-object split as a reality. “I absolutely do not acknowledge two different worlds,” says Schelling,
but rather insist on only one and the same, in which everything, even what common consciousness opposes as nature and mind, is comprehended.227
The natural scientific consequence of insisting on a polar unity between subject and object is that nature can no longer be conceived of as a heap of objects or a giant machine, but becomes rather a universal organism in whose life all finite creatures participate.228 Cartesian science, which searched for objective matters of fact independent of the values of life and society, comes to be replaced by cosmopolitical science, which foregrounds what the Whiteheadian philosopher Bruno Latour has called “matters of concern.”229 Such a replacement re-knits the frayed edges of cosmos and anthropos back together, allowing for the composition of a new planetary constitution more inclusive of the diverse community of species that call earth home. In the next section, the anthropological and political consequences of re-situating the human being within such a universe are unpacked.
168 According to Owen Barfield, “…as the law now stands, Schelling could have sued Coleridge in respect of one or two pages in the Biographia Literaria.” Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 6.
169 When asked about his influences by William James, Peirce pointed to “all stages of Schelling, but especially his Naturphilosophie.” See 2n2 above.
170 Emerson referred to Schelling as a “hero.” See 14n58 above.
171 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 134, 514.
172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.
173 Timothy Lenoir, “Generational Factors in the Origin of Romantische Naturphilosophie,” Journal of the History of Biology, 57; Barry Gower, “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 320; Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 67.
174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.
175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.
176 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 58.
177 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics.”
178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.
179 Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature.
180 Beiser, German Idealism.
181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.
182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.
183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.
184 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul,” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.
185 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.
186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.
187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.
188 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384.
189 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 74.
190 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 5.
191 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 126-127, 169.
192 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.
193 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Keith Peterson, 14.
194 Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Eckhart Förster, 240.
195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.
196 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 11:258.
197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.
198 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, 57.
199 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.
200 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.
201 Schelling, Die Weltalter: Fragmente, in den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813, ed. Manfred Schröter, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11-12.
202 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Harris and Heath, 30.
203 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.
204 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath, 11-12.
205 Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, 59.
206 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 197.
207 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.
208 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 45.
209 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 20-21.
210 Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 2-5, 203.
211 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 28.
212 Usually, the emergence of life and consciousness are explained by mechanists as random chance occurrences–the opposite of a theoretical explanation, since they are said to emerge for no reason.
213 “Panexperientialism” is a term coined by Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin to refer to any philosophy of nature that affirms that every actual occasion in the universe enjoys some level of experience; see Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, 99.
214 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 137.
215 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 52.
216 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 195-196.
217 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 196.
218 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.
219 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17.
220 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 11.
221 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17, 187.
222 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 35, 159.
223 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 48-50.
224 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 18.
225 See Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 175; Late in his life, Prigogine collaborated with the Whiteheadian philosopher Isabel Stengers regarding the philosophical implications of his work.
226 Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, 7.
227 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 4/102.
228 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 138.
229 Adrian Wilding, “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology,’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6: 2010, 19.; http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/148/278 (retrieved 8/7/2012). Wilding argues that many of Latour’s contributions were prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.
A week and a half ago, Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted the first volley of our summer reading group on chapter zero of Terence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). In that chapter, Deacon introduced the key conceptual locus of the book, what he calls the absential features of living and psychic systems: “phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence” (p. 3). The research programs of scientific materialism (neodarwinian biology, evolutionary psychology, neuro-eliminativism, etc.), he says, leave out the absential features of living and psychic systems, and so cannot account for the constitutive purposiveness and/or consciousness of these systems. Deacon is proposing to take the first steps toward a science capable of accounting for the absent elements of natural systems, elements I think it is safe to think of along the lines of Whitehead’s eternal objects (though Deacon doesn’t agree with me–I expand upon this already in conversation with Deacon HERE and in response to Jason HERE).
Since reading the first few chapters of Deacon’s book, I’ve come across several very critical reviews published in prominent places: HERE is Colin McGinn in the NY Review of Books getting Deacon back for ruining his vacation; HERE is Tom Bartlett nearly accusing him of plagiarism; HERE is Evan Thompson‘s slightly less damning review, but even he can’t help but finger-wave at Deacon for failing to even cite texts that clearly influenced him (like Thompson’s own Mind in Life (2007)), and for exaggerating the differences between his and Varela‘s solutions to the same problems. Deacon dismisses Varela’s (and Maturana’s) autopoietic philosophy of biology early on in chapter zero:
“in their effort to make the autonomous observer-self a fundamental element of the natural sciences, the origin of this self-creative dynamic is merely taken for granted, taken as a fundamental axiom” (p. 6).
Deacon cites Maturana and Varela’s work from 1980, and later (p. 311) cites Varela in 1992, which makes me wonder why he didn’t consider Varela’s work during the last 10 years of his life. The last paper he wrote (with Andreas Weber) before his death, “Life After Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuals” (2002), goes a long way toward offering a solution to the same problems Deacon is exploring in his book. I think part of the problem here is that Varela, especially in his later work, is trying to uncover the ontological ground of nature, which is to say he is philosophizing, while Deacon refuses to accept a philosophical answer to the philosophical questions he is asking. He wants to find a way for natural science to answer it, since otherwise, the answer can only be “taken for granted…as a fundamental axiom,” as he puts it. Deacon will dismiss Whitehead’s cosmology for similar reasons by saying Whitehead sneaks mind and ententionality in at the beginning without explaining it. He “takes it for granted.” This strikes me as a refusal on Deacon’s part to think behind Descartes’ bifurcation of nature into thinking and extension. He fails to phenomenologically bracket the natural attitude in the way that Varela, Thompson, and Whitehead in his own way, are able to. They are just better philosophers, to put it bluntly. Natural science alone isn’t enough to think beyond substance dualism; it can’t possibly!, since natural science, as a mode of thought, is in fact founded upon a Cartesian ontology. As far as I can tell so far, Deacon seems to want an explanation in terms of extension alone, such that absential phenomena can be said to emerge out of a nature that remains essentially external. If we’re going to really do philosophy, which is to say, if we’re not going to shy away from the obscurities of ontology and the dark powers of cosmology, then we need to think our way behind the Cartesian construct of dead external “nature” observed by a physically absent intelligence. He claims to want to find a way to bring purpose and consciousness back into the scientific world-picture, but can Deacon really do this precisely by removing them from a now incomplete nature?
It remains to be seen…
As Jason already admitted, it is tough to continue plowing through 400 more pages of Deacon’s book having now plainly seen the problems pointed out by his reviewers. But I’m still willing to keep reading: at page 90, I remain interested to see where Deacon is headed. I’d like to understand the details of his argument regarding the emergence of life. If a few more chapters in it turns out that the writing becomes as torturous as McGinn alleges (“Deacon’s prose style can only be described as abominable”), or if it seems he is only repeating Varela and Thompson, then I might call it quits.
As I’ve agreed to do, let me turn now to a brief summary of chapter 2, titled “Homunculi.” A homunculi, as defined by Deacon, is
“a form of explanation that pretends to be offering a mechanistic account of some living or mental phenomenon, but instead only appeals to another cryptically equivalent process at some lower level” (p. 47).
Deacon goes on to discuss the explanatory use of homunculi in pseudo-scientific theories like preformationism and vitalism; but he also shows how even contemporary neuroscientists purporting to be reductionistic still ultimately rely upon homuncular rhetoric to frame their theories (see p. 52-53). Deacon admits that it is extremely difficult to explain anything living or ensouled without slipping in a “man-analogue,” or homunculus, at some lower level in order to get the ententional work done. Scientists should admit when they do this, says Deacon. Some do, offering explanatory “promissory notes” where particular mechanisms aren’t yet understood.
Deacon then moves into a discussion of final causality, cautioning us not to take the misstep leading to Intelligent Design, where unexplained phenomena (e.g., life and mind) are explained by reference to an absent designer. While it is standard practice for scientists to create homuncular “black boxes” to stand in for not-yet-understood physical mechanisms, these are regarded as I.O.U’s, not permanent solutions. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it posits a designer as “a permanently unopenable black box” (p. 62). Deacon rightly sees such a position as an attack upon “the very logic and ethic of the scientific enterprise” (p. 61). As I recently suggested in a comment to Levi Bryant, I’d say the I.D.ers are wrong in what they (attempt to scientifically) affirm (i.e., “God did it”), but right in what they deny (i.e., that scientific materialism can ever explain life or consciousness).
Deacon then makes some important comments about the popular oversimplifications regarding the biological role of DNA. See, for example, Dawkins’ recent book review, where he continues to argue that organisms are just survival machines for selfish genes (as he has done for almost 40 years, despite major conceptual shifts in mainstream biological science), as though the DNA molecule were the only real level of causal agency in the biosphere (see also Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s review of Dawkins and our exchange in the comments). As Deacon makes clear, homuncular explanation is alive and well in contemporary neodarwinian accounts of life. Neodarwinian fetishizations of DNA ignore the fact that the “information” involved in living organization cannot be simply located in specific molecules, since in metazoan creatures, this information is
“ultimately embodied in the elaborate patterns of interaction among cells and how these affect which genes get expressed. The vast majority of structural information is generated anew in each organism as an emergent consequence of a kind of ecology of developing cells…patterns of gene expression depend on patterns of embryo geometry, and changes of gene expression influence embryo geometry in cycle upon cycle of interactions” (p. 69).
This is not a new critique of genetic reductionism (Thompson offers a nearly identical critique of DNA in Mind in Life, only he argues DNA can’t even play the role of “programmer” in single-celled organisms; Richard Lewontin offers another similar critique in this lecture from 2004). Still, it remains an important criticism worth repeating.
After briefly beating the dead horses, Fodor, Chomsky, and Pinker, for their blatantly homuncular account of cognition in terms of a “language of thought,” Deacon moves on to express his dissatisfaction with the panpsychism that some quantum-information theorists have been lead to. He then all too briefly unpacks Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, a scheme he says is “probably the most sophisticated effort to make twentieth-century physics compatible with teleological principles” (p. 77). Deacon agrees that something like a process ontology is necessary to solve the problem of ententional phenomena in nature: all physical events must be understood to be in some sense “incomplete” in themselves, and therefore dependent upon absential causes. But he doesn’t think Whitehead finally explains why life and mind seem so different from inanimate matter.
As I’ve attempted to articulate elsewhere, it all depends what we mean by explanation. Whitehead’s philosophizing, if we are willing to follow him, shifts the problem set, such that the universe is understood as always already alive, always already intelligent. The scientific materialist’s questions: from where comes life, from where mind?–become irrelevant. A new set of questions arise, questions Deacon hits on, concerning specific organizational differences between grades of societies of actual occasions. (Dis)solved are old questions arising only from a Cartesian picture of the world. From Whitehead’s point of view, it makes no sense to ask where experience and value come from. Without them, there would simply be nothing, so we may as well ask where matter comes from. It is no less mysterious a question from Whitehead’s point of view. Whitehead’s universe is bound up in a single soul, not bifurcated into intelligent scientists looking out upon extended bodies for the ateleological mechanisms that might explain them. Deacon is asking questions that cannot be answered from the ontological paradigm within which he is asking them. His questions, should they be solved, can only lead him to a cosmological re-orientation along the lines offered by Whitehead.
Earlier in the chapter, Deacon writes that “since the Renaissance, the concept of efficient cause has become the paradigm exemplar for all fully described conceptions of cause in the natural sciences” (p. 59). Perhaps he should have said “since the Scientific Revolution.” More characteristic of the Renaissance are accounts of nature in terms of the anima mundi by alchemical thinkers like Ficino and Paracelsus (James Hillman explores this theme masterfully). If we’re going to preserve formal and final causes in nature, I don’t see any way around recognizing it as ensouled. Either the universe itself thinks and wills (serving as the participatory ground of any organism’s thinking and willing), or, as Jason has been pointing out for a while now, we’re left with a form of nominalistic anthropocentrism, where special human consciousness projects general structures/forms and purpose/finality onto an otherwise dumb, numb nature.
Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-
Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness
Photo: Tree of Life by Ron Barnett
Preface: Take it and eat it.
Walking alone on a quiet beach at dawn, I found an old, leather-bound book half buried in the sand whose title, once stamped with golden letters, was now too worn to decipher. I opened it, discovering inside that a cavity had been carved out of the pages to make room for its pharmacological contents: seven nearly dried psyilocybe cyanescens mushrooms. I removed and ate them one by one, leaving behind a bluish-purple outline on the page. As I swallowed the last mushroom, I noticed the text beneath the blue stains and realized I must be holding the Bible. The text, from Revelation, chapter 10, read:
Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land…Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.
I looked up from the page and was immediately struck by the first beam of light from the Sun as it rose above the ocean horizon. Its light carried with it a powerful sound, like a cosmic trumpet, which knocked me to the ground. I dropped the book and laid in the sand with my hands covering my face to shield me from the synesthesic storm. A sinkhole opened beneath me, as though I were passing through an hourglass. My body descended into darkness. In a moment, all was silent and still, until suddenly, my consciousness was turned inside-out.
I awoke to find myself in bed, the first gentle glow of sunrise gleaming through a crack between the curtains. It had been a dream. As I rubbed my eyes to greet the new day, all sorts of metaphysical questions occurred to me. The dream was vivid and visceral enough that I wondered if I should expect the onset of a psychedelic experience in the next 15 or 20 minutes as a result of the placebo effect having lead my pineal gland to release a bit of its own secret stash of DMT.1 Might my psyche find a way to blend my psychedelic dream with what “I” call “reality”—“I,” the “normal waking, rational consciousness” that William James so eloquently relativized in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Alas, no such alteration of my consciousness was forthcoming, but I was left wondering, like James, what the meaning of this abrupt transition could be. As James put it, reflecting upon his psychedelic encounters with nitrous oxide:
No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.2
As James well knew, consciousness is not easily made into an object fit for scientific study, if it can be so studied at all. The nearest approach to such a study appears most effective when one pays close attention to alterations in consciousness, to the transitions between dreaming and waking, or indeed, to the transformations brought about by the ingestion of one of many psychedelic chemicals. These peculiar chemicals, found throughout the plant and fungi kingdoms, and often close cousins of mammalian neurotransmitters, provide the fields of consciousness and transpersonal studies with the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or Hooke’s microscope.3 The effect of psychedelic instruments has been variously described by experimenters as an expansion and/or an intensification of everyday consciousness. But these are metaphors: unlike normal scientific instruments for observation of the very large or the very small, consciousness has no size and cannot be measured. As transpersonal instruments and participatory technologies, psychedelics call into question the very identity of the scientist doing the observation. In such experiments, the “object” of study, consciousness, becomes both observer and observed. These recursive effects make psychedelic experiments an especially fruitful method of participatory spiritual inquiry.
Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Alchemical Consciousness
Transpersonal theory emerged in the wake of the radical political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s, finding its principle expression in the work of Abe Maslow and Stanislav Grof. As Gregg Lahood has argued, the so-called Philosophia Perennis functioned for this first wave of transpersonalism
as a masking device, or a prestigious, protective, and seemingly authoritative sacred canopy with which to wheel a marginal, subversive, and unimaginably anomalous psychedelic epistemology into the heart of what William Blake called Newton’s sleep, or the hyperrational West.4
In other words, through what Lahood calls the “post-rational sorcery”5 of countercultural figures like Aldous Huxley,6 Timothy Leary,7 and Alan Watts,8 the psychedelic experience became sutured to a precariously universalized but nonetheless rhetorically powerful hybridization of the world’s great religious traditions. According to Lahood, transpersonalism is “still evolving through a major conceptual crisis in its worldview.”9 The second wave of transpersonalism could be said to have emerged with Jorge Ferrer’s publication of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (2002). Ferrer deconstructs the explicitly universalist and residual Cartesian assumptions of the first wave of transpersonal thinkers in order to reconstruct the discipline within the context of “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.”10
The principal aim of this essay is to explore the influence of chemically-altered, or alchemical consciousness, not only on the founding and ongoing articulation of transpersonal theory, but on the origins of spirituality more generally. Alchemical consciousness has been intimately bound up with religious innovation for thousands of years. Accordingly, I argue that the emergence of transpersonalism out of the foment of the 1960s is just the most recent example of the radical rhetorical effects of psychedelics on spirituality. I also attempt to support and expand Lahood’s notion of psychedelically-induced cosmological hybridization by drawing upon Richard Doyle’s thesis that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the evolution of spiritual discourse,11 as well as Michael Rinella’s study of the interplay between speech (the logistikon) and psychedelics (the pharmakon) in ancient Greek spirituality.12 From Doyle’s perspective, rhetoric is not simply persuasive speech leading one astray from the truth, but, due to its role in sexual selection, the engine of biological novelty; rhetoric, in other words, is an ecological practice.13 Just as flowers evolved as rhetorical devices for getting the attention of bees, and male peacock plumage for getting the attention of female peacocks, human rhetorical strategies have been evolutionarily selected for their eloquence.14 The degree to which such rhetoric truly or falsely corresponds to reality is biologically irrelevant, since it is precisely the creative appearance of beauty and its boundary dissolving effect as an “attention sink” that has guided the evolution of life on earth, determining through genetic and symbolic inheritance the bodily and behavioral patterns that shape our lives.15 What begins as appearance can in the future become reality. Psychedelics function as “rhetorical adjuncts” for many species,16 and for humans in particular
are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect…they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical…[such that] language…becomes the occasion for a feedback loop, where utterances and writings that seem to enable the endurance and enjoyment of psychedelic experience are replicated, programming further ecodelic investigations…17
Rather than seeking some form of authoritative disambiguation,18 as Lahood argues the first wave of transpersonalism did by turning to Perennialism, the “anomalous,” ineffable, and participatory nature of alchemical consciousness are affirmed as a fertile source of open-ended rhetorical strategies for both consciousness transformation and cosmological (re)construction. Before tentatively defining religion with help from Robert Bellah, and exploring the rhetorical influence of psychedelics on religious consciousness, I unpack Ferrer’s participatory contribution to the study of human consciousness and spirituality.
The Participatory Turn and the Representational Paradigm
Ferrer’s major contribution to the field of transpersonal studies was to defend the validity of spirituality without basing this validity upon the authority of the Perennialist tradition, at least as this tradition has been interpreted through the subjectivist and scientistic biases of modern Western culture. These biases are rooted in the representationalist paradigm that has held sway, consciously or not, since the time of Descartes. As Richard Tarnas notes in his foreword to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, despite the radical intensions of the first wave of transpersonalism, its theoretical framework “[retained]…certain essential and usually unexamined assumptions” carried over from the historical background out of which it emerged.19 From within the representationalist paradigm, truth is thought to consist in a correspondence between a subjective picture or concept in the mind and an objective state of affairs in the world. Both the Myth of the Framework (subjectivity constructs reality) and the Myth of the Given (reality is objectively pregiven) are potential symptoms of this representationalist dualism.20
For the initial Perennialist wave of transpersonalism, every genuinely mystical or spiritual experience, despite potential differences in its explicit description, must implicitly refer to a single underlying and so pregiven spiritual reality. The research program for transpersonal theorists within the Perennialist paradigm is therefore to seek scientific validation of spiritual experiences by applying a broader form of the empirical method than that used in the natural sciences, one that includes not only outer, but also inner experience.21 According to Ferrer, though appeals to scientific verification were perhaps “historically inevitable,” and even “methodologically crucial” in establishing the academic legitimacy of transpersonal theory at the time of its founding, such an approach “has become today problematic and detrimental.”22
There are many reasons a representationalist/scientistic approach is problematic for transpersonal studies, several of which have been singled out and skillfully deconstructed by Ferrer in Revisioning. One of the crucial problems with the representationalist paradigm for psychedelic studies in particular is that interpreting alchemical forms of consciousness from such a perspective leaves them especially vulnerable to dismissal as subjective misrepresentations of a pregiven objective reality. Despite the attempts of transpersonal theorists to expand the epistemology of empirical correspondence so as to include inner realities, contemporary academic research on altered consciousness by those outside the field of transpersonal studies has tended to argue for precisely such a dismissive characterization. For example, Revonsuo et al. recently argued that, while during a “normal state of consciousness…the mechanisms of conscious representation in the brain…carry accurate information from ‘world’ to consciousness,” during an “altered state,” “consciousness…deviate[s] from the natural relation in such a way that the world and/or self tend to be misrepresented.”23 Revonsuo et al. go on to explicitly dismiss what they call “higher and mystical states of consciousness”:
…despite their intensely positive emotional tone and significance for the subject, these states…tend to induce a variety of misrepresentations for the subject’s conscious experience.”24
There are many question-begging assumptions here, not the least of which are the dogmatic reduction of consciousness to neural mechanisms, and the substantialist reading of consciousness in terms of experiential “states.” It would appear that transpersonal theorists cannot beat natural scientists at their own representationalist game, since it is all too easy for the latter to reduce “inner experience” of spiritual realities to some kind of neurological malfunction. Instead, it is necessary to change the rules of the game by shifting the critique to the epistemological and ontological foundations of modern scientism.
Ferrer’s remedy for the representational residue in first wave transpersonal studies is his participatory, or enactive, vision of spirituality. Enactivism was first articulated as a paradigm shift in the cognitive sciences by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991).25 As Ferrer describes it,
Participatory knowing…is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions cocreated by the different elements involved in the participatory event.26
Rather than rooting the foundation of knowledge in a secure, unaffected and largely aloof subject who modestly witnesses the behavior of an external world (as natural science tends to pretend), Ferrer’s participatory approach to human consciousness uproots knowledge from the the solid self, such that the act of knowing is transformative of both self and world.27 Alchemical forms of consciousness are accordingly best understood, not as “states” of the mind, but as world-transfiguring events. As Ferrer suggests:
…this transfiguration of the world is not…a mere change in our individual experience of a pregiven world, but…the emergence of an ontological event…in which our consciousness creatively participates.28
Religion as Participation in Non-Ordinary Realities
In his study of religion in human evolution (in a book of the same title), sociologist Robert Bellah attempts to define “religion” in the context of a wider discussion about non-ordinary realities, like those encountered in quantum physics, cinema, dreams, play, after ingesting a psychedelic chemical, or when approaching death.29 He contrasts such non-ordinary realities with the ordinary (or at least culturally dominant) reality of “waking, rational consciousness,” or what he, following Alfred Schutz,30 calls “the world of wide awake, grown up men.”31 Unlike the participatory consciousness of religious realities brought forth through ritualized symbolic play and/or chemical alteration, the solid self of the “grown up” world of instrumental rationality tends to bracket the ontological implications of such “offline” activities, while attending instead to everyday practical needs and desires.32 In this everyday world, a world Bellah connects with a felt sense of lack or deficiency, space is experienced as discretely separating my body from every other body (and so my mind from every other mind), and time passes in a linear fashion according to the minutes and hours of a clock and the days and weeks of a calendar. The world of rational consciousness is the world of isolated bodies colliding in a crowded container, bidding for survival in the course of neutral (i.e., non-teleological) time, all the while haunted by a fundamental anxiety rooted in the fear of death. But, as Bellah is careful to point out, “nobody can stand to live in [such a world] all the time.”33 Ordinary reality is inevitably interrupted and overlapped by non-ordinary realities, typically with dramatic effects:
It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that…bracketing [the vague sense on the fringes of rational consciousness that other forms of reality are possible] is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life.34
In the case of religious realities, the distinguishing feature is that they emerge from what Bellah refers to as “unitive events.”35 Such events bring forth worlds of non-standard space and time, where the boundaries between bodies and minds becomes porous and the flow of events is inherently creative and meaningful. Accordingly, unitive events are notoriously difficult to describe in a predominantly representational language, which tends to construe such events after the fact as subjective experiences. Bellah, like Ferrer, is sensitive to the modern Western tendency to speak of experience in terms of something “had” by a private, inner self, and so chooses the term “event” deliberately to avoid the implication that religious realities are somehow not “objective” or real. It is also important to note that by designating non-ordinary religious consciousness as “unitive,” Bellah does not mean to equate all such non-ordinary events with the realization of some nondual ultimate reality. Rather, “unitive” refers to the way in which the dichotomous subject-object consciousness of ordinary space and time is transformed, such that formerly sharp boundaries become relativized in a whole variety of ways.
As for a simple and unambiguous definition of religion, Bellah admits that cultural biases make this difficult. Following George Lindbeck,36 he lists three current alternative approaches to defining religion: 1) the propositional, 2) the experiential-expressivist, and 3) the cultural-linguistic.37 The propositional theory of religion holds that religion is essentially a series of conceptually stated beliefs concerning what is true. Bellah argues that this approach is inadequate since, while the conceptual/propositional aspects of religion are important, they are not essential to religious practice. The experiential-expressivist theory holds that a universal human potentiality for religious experience underlies all particular cultural manifestations of religion. The perennialist, quasi-empirical approach of first wave transpersonalism owes much to this theory. Finally, the cultural-linguistic theory holds that the symbolic forms of religion are primary, though
not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.38
This theory emphasizes the irreducible plurality of religions, and so also tends to bracket the ontological significance of religious symbolism. Bellah does not believe it is necessary to choose one approach over the other, but suggests that both the experiential-expressivist and cultural-linguistic theory can be utilized as “coordinate approaches.”39
In their introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008), Ferrer and Jacob Sherman construe the field of religious studies in a way similar to Bellah. They critique the “linguistic Kantianism” of postmodern scholars who would deny the possibility of real religious knowledge by pointing out the ethnocentric presuppositions underlying such dismissals.40 There is no privileged neutral ground from which to judge the metaphysical claims of religious practitioners, since academic scholars are no less ambiguously situated within their own cultural and historical contexts. In keeping with the participatory approach, Ferrer and Sherman gesture beyond the scholar/practitioner dichotomy by suggesting that
some kind of personal engagement or even transformation…may be required for both the apprehension and the assessment of certain religious truth claims.41
The “linguistic rationality” of ordinary consciousness simply is not capable of judging the non-ordinary unitive events at the generative core of the world’s religions. Ferrer and Sherman’s approach to the issue nicely complements Bellah’s, in that while none of them want to dismiss the experiential component of religion all together, all three call attention to the ways in which language and experience mutually transform one another. “In short,” says Bellah, “we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form.”42 Rather than seeing this entanglement as an unescapable epistemic limitation, Bellah argues that religious symbolism is potentially a way of knowing capable of reaching beyond the “dreadful fatalities…[of the]…world of rational response to anxiety and need.”43 In a similar vein, Ferrer and Sherman call into question the skeptical postmodern claim that non-ordinary religious consciousness is “overdetermined by cultural-linguistic variables” and therefore cannot possibly refer to “translinguistic” realities.44 At the same time, they call for a “resacralization of language,” such that religious symbolism is understood to carry its own “creational weight,” since it arises out of the semioticity of reality itself.45
Alchemical Consciousness and Cosmological Hybridization
The entangled relationship between symbolic formation, alchemical consciousness, and the generation and regeneration of religious realities has been fruitfully explored by a number of thinkers, to whom I now turn. As mentioned above, Lahood has argued persuasively that, by aligning themselves with a hybrid form of “psychedelic perennialism,” the “sorcerers and shamans” of first wave transpersonalism effectively participated in “the emergence of a novel mutating religious process on the West Coast of the United States.”46 While Lahood praises Ferrer for “re-booting” transpersonalism by destroying the perennialist “idol” worshipped by its first wave of theorists, he criticizes Ferrer’s “Ocean with Many Shores” metaphor for its “tacit appeal to religious purity”:47
Ferrer’s redeployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores…may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity [the nondual One of Perennialism] we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other).48
Following cultural theorists like Bhabha, Rosaldo, and Roof, Lahood articulates an approach to religious studies and transpersonal theory within which the default condition of every human culture is to be in open-ended transcultural mutation. In this sense, orthodox purity cannot be opposed to heretical syncretism, since there has never been a time when hybridity did not go all the way down.49 As Roof has argued:
…religions are anything but immaculately conceived; purity is a fiction…they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.50
Such redrawing of boundaries remains especially pronounced in the “contact zone of late capitalism’s religious borderlands,”51 lands like the West Coast of California, where for more than half a century, psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” bringing forth novel forms of hybridized spirituality. First wave transpersonalism, though helpfully deconstructed by Ferrer for its universalist assumptions, can nonetheless be read as “an early attempt at coming to terms with globalization and its related phenomena.”52 This first wave’s psychedelic perennialism was “a legitimate but largely culturally contextual project”53 whose major shortcoming was failing to recognize the extent to which it had cocreated a novel form of cosmological hybridization, rather than simply rediscovered a pure traditional source.
Historically, psychedelic consciousness has a marked tendency to generate rhetorical strategies for
…blurring…religious boundaries; breaking apart while, at the same time, binding together multiple cosmological postulates.54
This is what happened in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s among the “educated theory-making literati,”55 as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece,56 which almost certainly involved chemical alterations of consciousness57 and represent
the most important religious experience of anyone who could speak Greek…for close to a thousand years.58
In his study of the tension between Plato’s development of the dialectical logistikon and the ecstasy-producing pharmakon of the Eleusinian rites, Rinella describes Plato’s discovery of the psychedelic qualities of language itself:
…the spoken word does not simply effect the audience–it has a ‘feedback’ effect that affects the rhetor himself.59
Plato, an alchemical initiate, was also one of the most literate and rhetorically skilled men of his age. Like later intellectual sorcerers of the 20th century, he was empowered by both the alphabetic and psychedelic technologies available to him to bring forth a novel, countercultural religious reality.60 Unlike later sorcerers, however, he did so not just by making new theories, but by disentangling theory itself from a heretofore polytheistic and mythic consciousness.61 He stepped out of the cave in which the rites were performed in an attempt to integrate what he had learned into the “waking” world of daily political life. All subsequent attempts to theorize our human participation in religious realities are, in one way or another, indebted to Plato’s original form of participatory cosmological hybridization.62
If, historically and logically, alchemical experimentation has been closely wed to participatory transpersonal research, then it is to be expected that new forms of more relaxed spiritual universalism will continue to emerge from its theorization. These forms will be “more relaxed” because researchers who adopt the participatory approach become more self-aware of the way their ambiguously situated bodies and the languages they speak have the potential to cocreate hybrid worlds with others.
As Doyle has suggested, psychedelics (or as he prefers to refer to them, “ecodelics”) function as “transhuman technologies,” or again as “deeply participatory media technologies.”63 By this he means that they intensify the everyday “problem” of awareness, a problem that waking, rational consciousness tends to repress, namely, “its inability to narrate its own conditions of emergence [and submergence]”:
This difficulty of observing the conditions of observation…leads to a further difficulty of observing the conditions of observing the observation, and so on into an infinite regress of observation, until observation forms the entirety of both the subject and the object of observation and all other objects disappear from consciousness and only a mandala…can orient the attention.64
Though often characterized as ineffable, Doyle notes the paradox encountered by many alchemical experimenters, that the rhetorical challenge of psychedelics–“the continual disavowal of language in language”–itself becomes an endlessly fertile site of open-ended cosmological inquiry.65
Ferrer’s metaphorical Ocean with Many Shores is a crucial corrective to the Perennialist longing for the One Destination. Adding the psychedelic “trip trope”66 to this oceanic analogy may open up even more possibilities for spiritual exploration. The origins of the rhetorical trope of a psychedelic “trip” can be traced back to analogies made in ancient Homeric Greek culture between drinking alchemically-enhanced wine and setting out on a nautical journey.67 Norman Mailer may have been the first to use the noun “trip” in an attempt to describe his indescribable encounter with mescaline published in 1959.68 By the mid-60s, it had spread throughout the psychedelic counterculture to become the trope of choice.
According to Doyle, the trope succeeds in that it
…[maps] the whorl of space-time characteristic of psychedelic experience…[and thereby] recuperates a psychonaut’s capacity to articulate by compressing a thoroughly distributed experience into a serial one. 69
Alchemical consciousness is “thoroughly distributed,” straddling sea and shore at once. Psychonauts are never again able to plant both their feet on the seemingly solid ground of everyday, rational consciousness. The trip trope functions not simply to describe psychedelic events to others, but to relativize one’s own consciousness by rendering into language recipes for self-transformation.70
Logos itself–that which, following Aristotle, has been said to define the human71–is, according to Corey Anton, best described as “a never ending tide of ambiguous merger and division.”72 Anton, building on the work of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, brilliantly explores the way our human capacity for speech and so self-consciousness implicates us in an anxious search for some prevailing authority who might relieve our fear of dying, of becoming permanently lost at sea:
Logos transforms an otherwise submerged transpiring of organismal [birthing and dying] and vegetative [dreaming and sleeping] processes into a highly abstract, complex, and agonizingly lived-through drama enacted by personae whose lives play out within bids for cosmic relevance.73
But even these submerged biological processes are recognized by Anton to participate in the ambiguous mergers and divisions of non-conscious logos, as when a sperm merges with an ovum, which then divides within itself before merging with the uterine wall on its way to becoming a baby that will eventually divide itself from the mother through the process of birth. In other words, “logos [is] already rooted in the body.”74 Or, as Ferrer and Sherman put it:
In our poetic powers, we do not leave the world behind but create after the manner that nature herself creates.75
When logos becomes routinized in the form of instrumental rationality, it tends not only to estrange us from our earthly embodiment, but to struggle to authoritatively disambiguate the ineradicable mystery of our cosmic situation. However, logos can also, given the right religious or alchemical conditions, “reunite us with nature on a higher realm of contact”76 by granting conscious participation in unitive forms of space-time, or even participation in eternity. Rational consciousness, of course, can never,
with one summative and eternal word, say all of our different mergers and divisions.77
But research on chemically-altered, spiritually-attuned consciousness suggests at least the possibility of “rhetorical patterns consistent with…an epic eloquence,” verging on “eternal speech.”78 According to Doyle, participating in alchemical experiments to “[listen] for the logos” requires
subjects…willing to be healed, perhaps even subjects willing to be healed of being subjects.79
As much contemporary research is also suggesting, psychedelics provide the spiritual practitioner with a potent technology for overcoming the fear of death responsible for the fundamental anxiety dominating the world of ordinary rational subjectivity.80 Alchemical consciousness has the “disorienting ability to negate any essentializing voice by merging its symbols,”81 and so unlike an exclusively rationalistic consciousness, need not continually seek out authoritative forms of death denial. Their role in the ancient mystery traditions of Greece, not to mention the Vedic traditions of India,82 the shamanic traditions of South America,83 and perhaps even the Biblical tradition of Israel,84 shows that their influence upon the birth and development of transpersonalism in the 1960s is hardly a new religious phenomenon. As more scientific research is conducted, legal barriers restricting the free expression of psychedelic religion are sure to be broken down, and the open-ended cosmological hybridization so characteristic of transpersonal theory has the potential to blossom even more, gently grafting various branches of the world’s spiritual traditions together with its own creative discoveries into some as yet unrealized form of planetary mystery religion, a single cosmic tree producing an endless variety of salvific fruits.
Postface: A Book Sweet as Honey
After the dream with which this essay opened, I came across Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina’s identification of psilocybin mushrooms with the logos, referring to them as “a Book”:
A book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.”85
May these new words continue to be learned in dialogue with sacred chemicals, with a multiplicity of unique others, and with the universe itself.
1 Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 21, 33.
2 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1982), 388.
3 An analogy that many psychonauts have found appropriate, including Stanislav Grof [in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, ed. Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 125], Ralph Metzner [Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), 81] and Alan Watts [preface to The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965)].
4 Gregg Lahood, “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007): 4.
5 Gregg Lahood, “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008): 159.
6 See The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945) and The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).
7 See The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel, 1964).
8 See The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965).
9 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.
10 Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),183.
11 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy.
12 Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012).
13 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 121.
14 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 127-173.
15 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 146, 170.
16 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 165-166.
17 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 114-115.
18 Corey Anton, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010), 28.
19 Richard Tarnas, preface to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, vii.
20 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 156-157.
21 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 69.
22 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 70.
23 Antii Revonsuo, Sakari Kallio, and Pilleriin Sikka, “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 194.
24 Antii Revonsuo et al., “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” 200.
25 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).
26 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 123.
27 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 122.
28 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 118.
29 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-43.
30 Alfred Schutz, “Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), 207-259.
31 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2.
32 “Offline” activities take place outside the strictly biological context of Darwinian survival. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xx-xxi.
33 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3.Italics are Bellah’s.
34 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 4.
35 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12-13.
36 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984), 31-41.
37 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution,11.
38 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 11.
39 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.
40 Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (New York: State University of New York, 2008), 26.
41 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 26.
42 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.
43 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 9.
44 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 29.
45 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 17.
46 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160-161.
47 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 163, 179.
48 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.
49 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 167.
50 Wade Roof, “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998), 5.
51 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.
52 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 182.
53 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.
54 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 161.
55 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160.
56 Camille Paglia has compared the “transnational mystery religions” of the ancient world, like that at Eleusis, to the marginalized and subversive psychedelic movement of the 1960s (see “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.
57 Rinella, Pharmakon, 85-87.
58 Rinella, Pharmakon, 137.
59 Rinella, Pharmakon, 214.
60 See Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 29-31, where Doyle analogizes the co-evolution of writing and human consciousness to the co-evolution of plant and fungi-based psychoactive chemicals and consciousness. See also Rinella, Pharmakon, 192-195, where Rinella discusses Plato’s mobilization of philosophy as a form of counter-magic.
61 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 387-398.
62 As Alfred North Whitehead suggested, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato” [Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 39]. See also Jacob Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, 81-112.
63 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 43, 51.
64 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 77.
65 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 45.
66 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 21.
67 Rinella, Pharmakon, 9.
68 “…a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe.” Norman Mailer, Advertisements For Myself, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 245.
69 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 49.
70 “Trip reports are fundamentally rendering algorithms, clusters of recipes to be tried out, sampled, and remixed by psychonauts.” Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 50.
71 Humans are the zoon logon echon, “the speaking animal.”
72 Anton, Sources of Significance, 28.
73 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.
74 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.
75 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 20.
76 Anton, Sources of Significance, 42.
77 Anton, Sources of Significance, 43.
78 Doyle cites an international study (Beach et al., 1997) wherein “over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called ‘the logos’” (Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 109).
79 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 110.
80 Lauren Slater, “How Psychedelics Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012, accessed April 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html?pagewanted=all
81 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 176.
82 The Rigveda describes a psychedelic drink named “Soma”: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (8.43.3, transl. by R. T. H. Griffith).
83 Archaeological evidence of psychedelic sacraments being used in South America dates back to at least 1500 BCE. Dennis McKenna, “Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History,” in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999), 42.
84 See Benny Shanon, “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.
85 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 108; and “The Vaults of Erowid,” accessed April 23, 2012, http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_quote1.shtml
Anton, Corey. Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010.
Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 7, 1:12-17 (1997).
Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Doyle, Richard M. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Ferrer, Jorge. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Ferrer, Jorge and Sherman, Jacob, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. New York: State University of New York, 2008.
Grof, Stan, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1982.
Lahood, Gregg. “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008).
Lahood, Gregg. “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007).
Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel, 1964.
Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984.
Metzner, Ralph. Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.
Metzner, Ralph, ed. Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.
Paglia, Camille. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.
Revonsuo, Antii. Kallio, Sakari. Sikka, Pilleriin. “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 187-204.
Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.
Roof, Wade. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998).
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.
Shanon, Benny. “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.
Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.
Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978.
Levi Bryant and I have been going back and forth over at Larval Subjects about the role of formal and final causation in the explanation of living systems. He argues that Darwin forever banished teleology from nature, or at least showed how the apparent purposiveness of organisms is a result of an entirely non-teleological process. I’ll paste my latest response to him below:
You are still construing the argument I referenced at #6 [it is not so much “my” argument as it is Varela and Thompson’s (see “Life After Kant,” 2002, and Mind in Life, 2008)] as though it refers to the purpose or function of distinct traits or variations. That was never my claim. I fully accept that the function of an organ or a trait usually comes after its formation, and that in the course of evolutionary history, the same organ can come to have entirely unforeseen functions. The argument has to do with the immanent teleology of biological individuals, not with the contingent function of their parts. Darwin’s genius was to discover a non-teleological mechanism to account for speciation at the phylogenetic level due to chance variation and inheritance at the ontogenetic level. There is nothing in his theory, or in any additions to his theory in the last 150 years, that explains the existence of biological individuals with immanent purposes. Systems theory has offered descriptions of biological individuals in terms of attractors, but these are descriptions of behavior and not causal explanations. Efficient causality cannot offer a complete explanation for the sentient behavior of living beings. It is of course part of any explanation, but cannot be the whole explanation unless we are willing to ignore the distinct phenomenology of living systems by reducing them to the neutral language of physics (neutral in regard to the taking into account of the perspective of the system one is studying). As Etienne Gilson brilliantly argued (see From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, 1984), no defender of teleology in nature has ever done so in order to deny the role of mechanism (efficient causation); it is only the mechanists who deny teleology. From Gilson’s perspective, while mechanistic biology can perhaps explain the specifics of the functioning of individual organisms (which is what you have been arguing), they cannot explain the existence of such individuals as such. To account for the existence of biological individuals requires a principle of immanent teleology. You’ve made reference to the reductionistic promissory notes that eventually an explanation in purely efficient terms will be provided for how DNA and RNA replication got started, thereby bypassing Varela/Thompson’s argument about the explanatory priority of autopoiesis; but as I understand the arguments of systems biologists like Stuart Kauffman (see Reinventing the Sacred, 2008), any account of nucleic acid autocatalysis, due the inherently recursive nature of such reactions, will already be in terms of formal and final causes.
Levi Bryant (Larval Subjects) recently unpacked his position that object’s are “spacetime worms” (HERE). It got me thinking about the arguments that thinkers like Bergson and Whitehead had with Einstein regarding the philosophical implications of his equations. Bruno Latour spoke about this issue HERE. For Bergson, “time is invention or it is nothing at all,” while for Einstein, time is merely “a stubbornly persistant illusion.” Bergson experienced the universe as a creative evolution, while Einstein bracketed the evidence of his experience in favor of mathematical transformations on the Cartesian coordinate grid. Jayveeaitch posted a comment to Bryant’s piece wherein he linked to a wonderful essay about the precursors of relativistic time in Kant and Schelling (HERE). He unpacks Schelling’s position regarding the dynamic evolution of Nature in terms of Spirit’s self-externalization. The position requires that Schelling temporalize the eternal. After quoting Schelling’s Freedom essay,
[wherein Schelling writes:
Although man is born in time, he is created in the beginning of creation (the center). The act by which his life in time is determined does not itself belong to time, but to eternity, nor does it precede time, but moves through time (untouched by it) as an act by its nature eternal. Through this act man’s life extends to the beginning of creation; thus through it he is beyond creation as well, free and himself eternal beginning (259)],
Jayveeaitch responds with:
In Ages of the World, Schelling expansively elaborates on this inchoate conception of the ground or the center of creation firstly by stating that in the ground the individual creature originally exists in the mode of an archetype, as a kind of spiritual image, a pure determinate potentiality of body, spirit and soul awaiting, or rather, yearning for actualization. But the archetypes cannot actualize in the ground because there is neither space nor time in it to do so. As Schelling describes it, there is no true up or down or left or right or before or after in the ground. Rather, it is a kind of dimensionless, infinitely involuted singularity, a black hole within which three divine potencies (corporeal, spiritual, and psychic) circulate in an unending rotary motion, literally fighting over the locus of being. However, the very dynamism of the annular drive suggests some kind of temporality, and therefore some kind of before and after. As Edward Allen Beach points out, in the incorporation of “genetic principles into the very core of [his] ontology,” Schelling undertakes the temporalization of the eternal and the essential (P 112).
Schelling reads time, then, not as another extended dimension like space, but as the very potency of a spiritual process hidden in the core of every extended being. The 4th dimension isn’t an extended spacetime dragged behind or thrown out ahead of a being; rather, it is the internal principle of its genesis, the archetypal form “yearning for actualization” in a living body. The invisible form can never finally achieve full actualization (that would be death), and so instead it exhibits itself as the entelechy of the creature. This process of archetypal incarnation makes it appear in the physical plane of extension that the creature is always becoming other than itself, its material parts constantly replaced in time; but on the spiritual plane, the creature remains what it is because it dips into the eternality at the root of time. When in the Timaeus, Plato refers to time as “a moving image of eternity,” he is hinting at something very similar. We think of time as the universal background by which we measure the succession of events or the motion of objects; but if time is really eternity, and eternity is in all things, then time is the creative potency–the I AM!–powering the free decisions of every creature in the Universe.
Autopoiesis is a description, in physical terms, of a process that must also be understood spiritually (i.e., in archetypal terms). A living system possesses an identity that cannot be understood in terms of its parts alone. It is not just a machine, but a locus of self-concern [See Varela’s last paper, Life After Kant (2001), where he distances himself from the “machine” metaphor while arguing for the need to bring purposes back into biology]. The apparent wholeness of the organism is more like a “black hole” whose archetypal power maintains the being’s inner identity despite the ongoing chemical and physical transformation of its body. From this “hole,” infinite freedom enters the world to take on definite form. Rather than a spacetime worm, I’d offer the image of a torus to understand what organisms (or objects) really are. [For more on the relationship between toroidal dynamics and embodiment, see Logos of the Lived Body].
I’ve been fascinated by the development of the enactive paradigm since I read The Embodied Mind back in college at UCF, where I studied cognitive science with Prof. Mason Cash and Prof. Shaun Gallagher. I feel fortunate that I was able to study cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in a program where the phenomenologies of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were taken seriously, since traditional approaches to cognition still tend to rely heavily on computational metaphors for mind and see the development of artificial intelligence as the most effective research program. The enactive paradigm is fundamentally opposed to such metaphors, and to the idea that mind can be understood independently of living systems.
Evan Thompson (University of Toronto) is perhaps the foremost researcher associated with Enactivism. He studied very closely with Francisco Varela as a graduate student, and even before that as a child at the Lindisfarne Association (started by his father, William Irwin Thompson), where Varela often lectured. I had the opportunity to meet E. Thompson earlier this year when he lectured about his upcoming book on neuroscience and meditation at the CIIS Consciousness Forum. I asked him then what his empirical and phenomenological research implies about the ontology of consciousness, a question he answered by giving an autobiographical account of his personal spiritual development. Having grown up at Lindisfarne surrounded not only by new paradigm scientists, but new age mystics, he said he was more inclined early in his life to believe that consciousness was indeed basic to, if not constitutive of, reality. Since becoming an academic philosopher and immersing himself in the neurophysiological and biological sciences, he has stepped back a bit from this ontologization, and is now inclined to believe that life, rather than consciousness, is basic to at least our knowledge of reality (as per his “strong continuity thesis”). I continue to follow his work very closely and will probably reference enactivism quite a bit in my dissertation on the ontology of imagination. Having studied and internalized the perspectives of Whitehead, Schelling, and other cosmologically-inclined thinkers since initially encountering the paradigm in college, I think enactivism, though epistemologically and methodologically robust, remains ambiguously afloat in murky metaphysical waters. What lies beneath the surface of the co-constituted umwelt of organism and environment? Meaningless chemical reactions and thermodynamic gradients? Is the emergence of sense-making autopoiesis possible in the universe as it is depicted by scientific materialism? Kant certainly didn’t think so, but he was still living in a Newtonian universe. Have systems theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity made his comment about the impossibility of a “Newton of the grass-blade” passé ? These are the kinds of questions I’m left wondering about…
- The Creativity of Causality in Bios and Cosmos: a response to Levi Bryant (footnotes2plato.com)
- Causality in Whitehead’s Panentheism (footnotes2plato.com)
Levi Bryant has posted a comment in response to me over at plasticbodies. He has also posted a comment directed at Adam and I over at knowledge-ecology. I’d like to respond to some his questions and concerns, which include issues surrounding causality, explanation, God, and Nature.
He first suggests I have conflated two different construals of teleology in an earlier reference to Maturana and Varela‘s work. In an essay I linked prior to his comment, there are several chapters on the history of biology wherein I unpack the development of the concept somewhat extensively. I track the changes in the conception of teleology from the premodern to the modern era. I differentiate the more Platonic doctrine of teleology as “demiurgic design” from the more Aristotelean doctrine of immanent teleology, which was later modernized by Kant into a regulative principle for judging the organization of living systems. In the last paper Varela published before he died, he took up Kant’s project in the Critique of Judgment by attempting to ontologize telos at the individual level (making it constitutive of the reality of organisms, rather than simply a human way of conceptualizing their activity).
I don’t think Varela succeeds in the paper, since he leaves a lot of the philosophical work required to support his account unarticulated, but his references to Whitehead suggest he saw him as an ally in a similar project. Part of the problem with Varela’s account is that, though he claims to ontologize final causality, he really only grounds formal causality in the self-organization of living beings. What Varela refers to in his last paper as “the instauration of a point of view” is what Whitehead calls the “subjective form” of an actual occasion. In order to link the subjectivity of living beings (i.e., their soul, or formal identity) to a final cause, matter of the universe itself has to be subjected to the ideals of a cosmic, everlasting soul: God. Varela never went this far (at least not in writing; he does, however, come close to evoking the “subtle consciousness” of the World-Soul in this video interview toward the end of his life). He reveals that formal and final causality are closely tied in individual organisms, but one has to turn to Whitehead’s work for a fully re-enchanted (though undeniably post-modern) conception of an inherently purposeful Universe. “Re-enchantment” in this context means that Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology includes both the activity of Ideas and the desire for Ends in the process of reality.
Let’s put Whitehead’s panexperialist, panentheist metaphysics to the side for a moment and revisit Varela’s autopoietic account of telos. Bryant writes the following:
Maturana and Varela…understand teleology in cybernetic terms as feedback mechanisms in an organism wherein the organism regulates itself homeostatically within a particular range. While more complex, there’s nothing markedly different here from how the thermostat functions in your house. The temperature at which the thermostat is set is the teleological goal or cause, and the air conditioner turning off and on is the feedback mechanism by which that state is goal is actualized. The goal itself has no causative power. It is just the basin around which actions settle. In organisms, moreover, this teleological dimension is produced through evolution, not design, and is produced out of processes that are not themselves teleological, i.e., there is no goal towards which evolution is striving or tending.
I think Bryant is conflating the difference between the “goal-like” movements of intelligently designed machines and the immanent purposes of autopoietic organisms. I can’t speak for Maturana, since I haven’t studied the evolution of his thought beyond his early work with Varela. But as his last paper makes clear, Varela came to reject his earlier view that organisms are purposeless systems. Autopoiesis is not simply a description of self-regulation (as in thermostats), but a description of self-production. Organisms are purposeful systems because they are self-organizing systems: they exist for the sake of themselves. Machines are also purposeful systems, but they do not produce themselves, nor do they bring forth their own horizon of experience. The neo-Darwinist paradigm referenced by Bryant, wherein non-teleological processes are purported to generate biological form, seems confused to me. It denies design in nature at the same time that it carries over the design metaphor from artificial selection to natural selection. In this way, nature is said to generate the appearance of design in organisms, while the process of selection itself is claimed to be completely purposeless and non-directed.
Again, I think intelligent design (or any metaphor still rooted in the design paradigm) is being conflated here with organismic production. It is one thing to claim that the process of evolution on the phylogenic level is non-directed and in some sense purposeless (Whitehead would disagree, but let’s stick to Varela for now); it is an entirely separate claim to say that the development and organization of individuals on an ontogenic level is purposeless, or merely teleonomic (“goal-like”). In point of fact (as Evan Thompson, once a student of Varela’s, points out in Mind and Life), the mechanism of natural selection must assume self-organizing biological individuals that can reproduce before it explains anything about the way speciation occurs. Natural selection is not an explanation for autopoietic organisms, since it provides no account of their subjective horizons or their immanent purposes. Natural selection is one mechanism playing a role in what Varela calls “natural drift,” the generational changes in the morphology of species due to shifting environmental conditions.
If not natural selection, what would constitute an explanation of the ideas, meanings, and purposes of organisms? Bryant complains that I am employing God as the explanation for life and everything. I do employ a concept of God when cosmologizing, but not as the singular cause of reality. God is rather the living soul of the world, within which “values arise from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (Process and Reality, p. 88). The world is as much the cause of God as God is the cause of the world. At this point, we must move into a discussion beyond causality in nature: we must consider the nature of causes, explanations, and reasons, as such. Varela, the biologist, becomes less helpful here than Whitehead, the metaphysician and cosmologist.
I fail to see what Whitehead’s conception of god adds to our metaphysics. It introduces a number of highly contentious and troubling postulates (that god influences things to produce certain aesthetic contrasts) that can neither be verified in any way and that seem deeply arbitrary. I fail to see what evolutionary and autopoietic theory gains from such an approach.
I think evolutionary and autopoietic theory gain their metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s panentheist cosmology. His work is an attempt to show how the 19-20th century facts of evolution and the 16-17th century theory of mechanistic materialism are incompatible. Contemporary scientific cosmology has discovered (in theory and in fact) that the physical universe itself, like life on earth, is a historical entity. It appears to have been born, and, if current trends continue, it appears that it will die. If philosophy is to articulate the metaphysical principles of reality in the context of an evolutionary cosmology, it cannot refer only to the temporal aspect of the universe, to the diversity of organisms which have emerged in evolutionary history. Philosophy must also consider the ideals of God, the everlasting soul of the universe. The concept of God is not an arbitrary addition to philosophy, unless our philosophy denies all validity to the history of human experience prior to the development of politico-techno-scientific secularity in local pockets of some urban societies, where a neo-liberal capitalist imaginary fosters the emergence of the self-creating individual to whom God becomes a mere hypothesis.
God, from a Whiteheadian perspective, is not an explanation for actual occasions. As Stengers’ writes in Thinking With Whitehead, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). I develop this idea in a response last week to the atheist biologist PZ Myers, who, like Bryant, sees no evidence of God or reason for thinking seriously about religious experience.
Plasticbodies has posted another volley in the theism-nihilism discussion, this time drawing attention to causality.
What does process theology give us that a (process) naturalism cannot? Or, put otherwise, how does one get from nature to divinity without begging the question?
I’ll paste my comments in response here:
I have written quite a bit about what you could call naturalistic process panentheism.
I think you’ve uncovered the real issue underlying this “theism-nihilism tango” (as Tim Morton called it): causality. Atheistic naturalism (which we might also call “scientific materialism,” after Whitehead) almost always entails a denial of formal and final causes. I think it still holds on to a version of Aristotle’s material cause, even if “substance” is no longer an adequate concept in physics. The material cause has become the randomness of quantum fluctuation, which is at the root of some variations of the Big Bang theory. I remain unconvinced that this “reason” actually explains the “What” of this Universe, since randomness seems to me to be the exact opposite of a reason. Scientific materialism becomes nihilistic only if it overcomes the correlational dualism implicit in its perspective that otherwise allows it to maintain formal and final causality in humans while denying it to everything else. If the metaphysical first principles of atheistic naturalism are carried to their logical conclusions, the reality of ideas (formal causes) and of meanings (final causes) must be denied out right to humans and nature alike. I think something like this is what Ray Brassier is up to, since for him, the illusion of human freedom provides ideological support for the continuance of capitalist social relations. I have argued that mechanistic biology and scientific materialism generally, because of their implicit correlationism and “bifurcationism,” provide ideological support to capitalism (or at least fail to provide adequate and convincing critiques of it): On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics.
I think chapters 2-6 are most relevant to the discussion surrounding causality. I’ve drawn heavily on the work of biologist and cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela in these chapters, wherein I give a brief history of biology from Plato and Aristotle, through Kant, Darwin and Paley, and on to Monod, Mayr, and Dawkins. Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 5:
“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).
Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.”
This last sentence (“…there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with…”) is where Whitehead’s God comes in. The Universe has the character it does “because” God values certain creative possibilities over others; but at the same time, only the actual Universe has value, which is to say that only finite actual occasions can decide what form Creativity takes in any given instance. God has a polarized, dynamic nature for Whitehead: his primordial nature has a deficit of actuality, and so is complemented by his consequent nature, which becomes with the Universe, is internal to the Universe, suffering with it in order to “save” it. God “saves” the world by allowing it to hold together as a whole despite the individual freedom of its many finite occasions to decide their own fate. This is why God is necessary based on Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme for cosmology to be possible. Without God, there is no Cosmos, only Chaos. And without the possibility of cosmology, there is no possibility of rationality. As Meillassoux makes so clear in “After Finitude,” without hypostasizing the correlation as thinkers like Hegel and Whitehead do, the principal of sufficient reason goes right out the window and Chaos reigns.
It seems that for God to appear in a philosophical discussion nondogmatically, he/it must be needed to explain something that cannot be explained without him. It seems like you’re saying that the what of the world is inexplicable without God. You reject the notion that the Big Bang, or presumably some other aleatory event (the Epicurean swerve, for instance) can explain the emergence of the universe. Again, that seems like a matter of assertion: either we believe in the swerve (an uncaused cause) or we don’t.
Are you saying that atheistic naturalism entails the nonexistence of ideas and meanings?
To which I responded:
Whitehead’s God is not an explanation for anything, since actual occasions are their own reasons. I don’t think allowing randomness the possibility of “swerving” explains anything, either. It just begs the question. Where does the swerve come from, and how is it capable of producing so much beauty and coherence? In Whitehead’s scheme, “explanation” takes on a novel meaning, since “to explain” cannot mean for him the reduction of one kind of society of actual occasions to a more fundamental kind (his explanations must avoid over- or undermining objects, as Harman puts it).
I don’t think the “What” of the world (the material cause) is inexplicable without God. The material cause becomes Creativity in a process ontology, a cause to which even God remains subject. The “How,” or efficient cause, and the “Why,” or final cause, are inexplicable without God. God, as the primordial “How,” is the agent initiating the selective valuation of certain ideals, which then seek realization in finite actual occasions (through persuasion, rather than force). God as the consequent “Why” is the enjoyer of Beauty and Goodness resulting from the ongoing concrescence of the Universe. In other words, the end of Whitehead’s Universe is to increase the intensity of divine experience: God is less interested in judging good and evil, and far more interested in transforming conflict into aesthetically pleasing contrasts. The “Who” (which includes the “When” and the “Where”), or formal cause, is the subjective form of each actual entity, its individual decision regarding how to actualize the possibilities envisioned by God.
I think many atheists are able to continue contradicting themselves by preserving ideas and meanings as human realities. But if they follow their naturalistic reductionism through to its metaphysical requirements, ideas and meanings must be erased from both human beings and nature at large, reduced to some kind of “transcendental illusion,” as Bryant put it.
I completely agree that the swerve begs the question. But assuming it is just as plausible as assuming that God got things started. Astrophysicists may have more evidence for their origin story. So if Whitehead’s God doesn’t explain anything, what’s the point of it? I mean, what makes it more than a superfluous postulate if it isn’t doing any metaphysical work? If you’re implying that only a God could create so much “beauty and coherence,” I’d suggest that a tiny swerve in a complex material system is sufficient to cause unimaginable variation (think of biological evolution, computer algorithms, digital art–check out this TED Talk by Stephen Wolfram
The idea of God as subject rings contradictory to the very concept of God, I think. The rest of what this God does–enjoys, creates, selects, persuades–remains anthropomorphic and, despite its radical presentation, subject to the same criticism leveled by Spinoza in the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise. Even if he is not a judge of good and evil, God seems to do a lot of things that cannot be apprehended (at least I can’t) by the human intellect. I’m simply saying that it’s a lot to subscribe to without any evidence in support of it. I’d rather admit to the reality of Aristotle’s four causes and leave it at that.
Are you claiming that atheists cannot find meaning in the world? If so, are you saying that it is metaphysically impossible or psychologically? Perhaps your saying that atheists *believe* there is meaning in their lives, but this meaning is an illusion or *merely* psychological. Which is it? This notion really needs to be spelled out more, as it’s hard to believe that an atheist cannot have ideas (if that’s what you mean). If an atheist cannot have ideas, then they cannot have the idea that God does not exist, in which case they cannot really be an atheist. Does this mean that there are no atheists?
Let me just add that when I say that there is no ‘evidence’ for this God, I’m not saying that since I don’t see him, he’s not there. I’m saying that if you want to get people on board with this God, you don’t drag him out into plain sight, you show why he is necessary for a coherent metaphysical view of the universe. But if he does not explain anything, then he seems to be superfluous.
To which I responded:
God didn’t “get things started”; it would be more accurate to say that God actively initiates each moment of an ongoing cosmogenesis. God is both “in the beginning” and “in the end,” but in a logical, rather than a temporal sense. From Whitehead’s perspective, creation didn’t happen 14 billion years ago. Creation is still happening. God participates in, but does not determine, the ongoing process of creation. The actual world is not yet finished, though in God’s consequent nature, each actual occasion finds objective immortality.
Whitehead’s God does do metaphysical work, but for Whitehead, this is the work of producing coherence and adequacy rather than “heroic feats of explaining away.”
Your argument that attributing such characteristics to God (he enjoys, he selects, he persuades, etc) is anthropomorphic is well taken; but it could also be argued that the attribution of these characteristics to humans alone is anthropocentric. Part of the project of secularizing God is breaking down the ontological gap between humans and divinity (this would seem to be the presupposition of any object-oriented theology).
I am saying that it is psychologically possible for atheists to have ideas and make meanings (this much is obvious), but that according to their own metaphysical commitments, such higher order phenomena are epiphenomenal at best, and given enough social criticism and neurophysiological research, should be replaced by causal language scrubbed clean of “folk psychology.”
I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.
Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.
I quote Stengers at length:
That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).
Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.
Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.
A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).
In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.
On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is Life?
I. The Irruption of Time
II. Ancient Biology
III. Modern Biology
IV. Teleology as a Regulative Principle of Living Organization
V. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive of Living Organization
VI. Concrescence and Bodily Perception
VII. Concrescence and Autopoiesis
VIII. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
IX. Integral Thought-Perception and Market Cosmology
X. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity
Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life
“Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?” –p. 7, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures
The relative success of the human endeavor, measured in terms of population 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. 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 extropy 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). 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 thermodynamics 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 noosphere finds its eyes” (p. 280, 1955). Only with the full emergence of the noosphere 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).
Humans and their 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 dualistic ontologies and fetishized mythologies. These forces of cultural habit have deceived us into tirelessly slaving for the alienating and spiritually empty ends of techno-industrial accumulation. This ideological distortion of our human-human relations is the psycho-social precursor that primed scientific consciousness for the reductionistic study of living systems and their evolution (which lead, consequently, to the mechanistic study of the “rational animal,” the human consumer, as scientific metaphors migrated back into economic policy).
Mechanistic biology typifies deficient mental thought concerning human-earth relations. I will try to draw ideological links between mechanistic sciences of life and industrial economics to make clear that, while not the only cause of current social and ecological injustice, mainstream biology’s dismissal of soul (formal cause) and spirit (final cause) gives ideological steam to the hegemonic industrial parade noisily marching the planet’s living population to the edge of extinction. I will attempt to deconstruct the biological bulwarks guarding the economic status quo so that more integral human-human/human-earth relationships might be brought forth.
Introduction: What is Life?
“Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result” –p. 12, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and Lectures
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 on earth. Philosophers since Plato and Aristotle have struggled to adequately articulate this metaxic, commercial concept. The reflective 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 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” (p. 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.). How are we to conceive of life’s integrality? An overly reductive definition distorts life’s cosmic import, painting too tragic and meaningless a picture of existence; an overly expansive definition obscures life’s fragile beauty, ignoring the fact of death given by the birth of every living creature. Each living creature is a moving image of eternity, embodying both temporal and eternal ingredients.
I will endeavor in the following pages to coherently define every actual occasion, from atom to Eve, as a living creature. The reason is that no scientific account of the biosphere can, without incongruence, explain the emergence of life in a physical universe that is otherwise devoid of feeling, meaning, and purpose.
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). This definition will be shown to be entirely inadequate. It makes of our human experience an aberration, severing all roots whatsoever between our own intentionality and the evolutionary dynamics that carried us here. 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.
The process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the phenomenological biology of Francisco J. Varela, will aid my critique of mechanistic biology and industrial capitalism. 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 represents what cultural philosopher Jean Gebser has called the “irruption of time consciousness” (p. 380). It was not until the 20th century that life could be properly understood, as prior to this historical moment, time itself had not fully entered the consciousness of human beings. Gebser’s account of the irruption of time will aid us throughout this text.
I. The Irruption of Time
“The supersession of dualism in biology begins to occur in this science at the moment when the ‘time’ factor is taken into consideration.” –Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, p. 384
In The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser elegantly enacts a still nascent structure of human consciousness, the integral, and distinguishes it through comparison to the other structures uncovered in his phenomenological study of the evolution of consciousness. The structures he discovered include the archaic, magic, mythic, and mental, each with its own dimensionality and sensory emphasis. Most important for my task—that of bringing forth a living cosmology to replace the dominant mechanical, market cosmology—is the ongoing mutation from the deficient mental to the integral structure, with special attention paid to the resulting transformed awareness of time.
The efficient mental structure of consciousness is described by Gebser as having been “already shaped in the Mediterranean world of late antiquity” (p. 11) by such figures as Parmenides, Plato, and especially Aristotle. The full mutation from psyche to mind, however, did not take place until 13th century Europe, revealed in the intensely personal poems of the Troubadours and the revival of Aristotle in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Gebser’s account of the mental structure suggests it was responsible for producing “the visualization of and openness to time with a quantifiable, spatial character” (p. 12), and offers as an example of this new attitude toward time the erection of the first public clock in 1283 in the courtyard of Westminster Palace. From this moment forward, the mind became increasingly deficient, a growing impediment to integral space-free, time-free awareness.
Gebser is clear that this rising of time into consciousness is both a gain and a loss: a gain because it allowed humanity to think, to understand, to reflect, to calculate—in short, to recognize its capacity for rationality (p. 74); a loss because, with the invention of clocks, time became falsely spatialized, thereby occluding the transparency of the whole for the sake of rampant quantification of the parts.
As Gebser puts it,
“…our fathers [dominated by the mental structure] had no sensorium for the phenomenon of time. Living in a spatially frozen world, they considered the temporal world to be a disturbing factor which was repressed, either by being ignored, or by being falsified by measurement into a spatial component” (p. 284).
The implications of the obsession with measurement in a world experienced as “spatially frozen” will be explored in depth below, but it suffices to say for now that such factors played a central role in the formulation and widespread acceptance, whether explicit or not, of the substance dualism that continues to plague much of mainstream mechanistic biology (whether it be the dualism between consciousness and earth, or that between genetic information and somatic realization). Only once the mutation into integral consciousness commenced could humanity begin to appreciate time, not as a quantity or magnitude, but as a qualitative intensity (p. 285). Before exploring the crucial significance of qualitative time in an integral biology of economics, I must first examine the beginnings of biology itself during the birth and development of the mental structure.
II. Ancient Biology
“Biologists cannot study their subject in abstraction from matter, since nature always acts for the sake of an end, which involves studying the relation of what is potentially something to its full realization” – p. 641, Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium
Gebser recognizes Aristotle as among the first in antiquity to display an unquestionable tendency toward mental, as opposed to mythic, consciousness (p. 408). It is not surprising then that Aristotle is widely seen as the originator of both the science and philosophy of biology (p. xx, Lennox). Whitehead, however, famously wrote that philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato,” (p. 39, 1978), and indeed, Aristotle is indebted to him, even where he diverges. Whitehead credits Aristotle with correcting Plato’s tendency to “separate a static spiritual world from a fluent world of superficial experience” (p. 209, ibid.). In Timaeus, Plato lays out a cosmology that is structurally similar to what would today be called intelligent design. The universe is described as something made, though is imbued with intelligence and soul by its designer, a divine craftsman, who orders it based upon a changeless, ideal model to bring about the most beauty and goodness possible (p. 228, Lennox). Aristotle, on the other hand, tried to find a less theological middle ground between atomistic reductionism and Plato’s still mythic artifactual idealism, being careful not to scrub away nature’s purposes in the process. Though he still made use of the metaphor of the craftsman to understand organic form, Aristotle recognized an important difference between artifact and organism that was blurred by Plato’s cosmology (despite the fact that in Timaeus Plato describes the cosmos as a living thing—its soul was inserted from outside):
“For the artist is source and form of what comes to be, but in another; whereas the movement of nature is in what is coming to be” (p. 735, Generation of Animals).
Aristotle here distinguishes the work of an artist from the form of an organism by pointing out that artists shape their crafts from the outside, while organisms form from within. The core difference between Plato’s understanding of life and Aristotle’s is that Plato finds it necessary to import purpose into nature from beyond nature (by demiurgic design), while Aristotle finds it immanent in the movement of natural things themselves.
It might be helpful here to introduce Aristotle’s four αιτίες (roughly translated as causes, or reasons) for the sake of which every living organism exists. I will revisit these causes in a later section (VII) on Whitehead, where a slight reworking of them will aid our understanding of concrescence. The material cause is the potentiality necessary for formation, and the efficient cause this formative movement’s agent of initiation. The formal cause is movement directed toward an end, the final cause being the attainment of that end. Aristotle viewed the matter and form of a creature as intimately related: matter provides the potential for the actualization of form. The difference between Aristotle’s immanent and Plato’s demiurgic understanding of teleology is extremely significant, as this distinction has influenced nearly every philosopher of biology since, as well as every economist.
The separation and valuation of man and his labor over and above the surrounding natural environment goes hand in hand with the separation and valuation of a divine architect allied with eternity over and above a created world that is a mere imitation, “a thing that has come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods” (37d, Timaeus). The mythic enchantment still informing Plato’s cosmology would eventually be cleansed and anthropocentrized by more modern thinkers, who used its logical structure in support of what Donna Haraway has called “productionism”: “Productionism and its corollary, humanism, come down to the story line that ‘man makes everything, including himself, out of the world that can only be resource and potency to his project and active agency’” (p. 297, 1992). I will discuss productionism in connection with mind/matter dualism in section VIII.
III. Modern Biology
“…if one accepts the evolutionary perspective, attempts to discuss science (or any other sort of conceptual activity) become much more difficult, so difficult as to produce paralysis.” – p. 299, David Hull, The Naked Meme
Charles Darwin, idolized by many contemporary materialists as the slayer of teleology and champion of the mechanistic paradigm, was a student of William Paley, whose natural theology and argument from design can be traced back directly to Plato (p. 228, Lennox). Paley held that certain artifacts, including organisms, could not be explained without recourse to an intelligent artificer due to their obviously designed features. Darwin was inspired to respond to Paley, and so devised the theory of natural selection to explain how the apparent design of organisms could be the result of a purely mechanical process working over immense geological time (p. 68, Dennett). Darwin’s response to Paley is difficult to disprove by weight of empirical evidence alone, but when one realizes the implicit assumptions that both make, it becomes clear they are working from within the same paradigm: both Darwin and Paley understood organisms to be nothing more than especially sophisticated machines. They differ only in the reasons given for this sophistication. Paley’s argument from design required a transcendent deity for nature to have any purposes. Once Darwin called the logical necessity of that deity into question, the biological world was left sterile and purposeless, the result of chance, necessity, and an unfathomable amount of time. Plato’s demiurge and the wisdom it had ensouled the universe with had been vanquished, leaving only the undirected flux of nature in its stead.
This is not the whole story, however. Darwin’s was a biology constructed to comply with and reduce to Newtonian physics. Newton conceived of the universe in a way reminiscent of (demythologized) Plato: nature was a clockwork machine constructed by God according to certain transcendent laws. Darwin was compelled to find a place for life within this framework, a framework Whitehead describes as “the doctrine of Imposed Law” (p. 113, 1967). The only way to make room for life in Newton’s universe was to erect a radical division between the contingency of biological evolution and the necessity of physical law. While Darwin correctly replaced Paley’s deist natural theology of creation with his evolutionary narrative, he failed to recognize that the laws of physics themselves also had to be evolutionized. But because he was still firmly rooted within the mechanistic paradigm, Darwin could not understand how the biosphere’s miraculous beauty and harmonious organization might have arisen without recourse to the arbitrarily imposed, deterministic order of Newton’s laws.
Immanuel Kant, who died more than 50 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (and so also lived in the shadow of Newton), heavily criticized the view that organisms can be understood as machines/artifacts. His view is reminiscent of Aristotle, in that it affirms natural purposes without recourse to supernatural designers. Why the Anglo-American world paid so little attention to his critique of mechanistic biology is an historical curiosity worth exploring.
British colonialism (and later, American capitalism) has had no better apologist than Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by variation under natural selection can be read as the animistic projection (through metaphorical transfer) of the socio-economic models of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus onto natural processes. England was at the height of its global empire while David Ricardo, Smith, and Malthus were writing their treatises on market economics. His own national history and enculturation no doubt presented Darwin with a sense of moral obligation to explain natural history and biological evolution in such a way that they not contradict sanctioned norms of colonial and capitalist power relations.
Biologist Ernst Mayr has suggested that “Kant’s acceptance of teleology…greatly affected German evolutionists in the nineteenth century” (p. 82, 2001). Nonetheless, Mayr felt that any use of final causation in biology was doomed to failure (ibid.). We can only assume that Mayr had other philosophical (and perhaps ideological) commitments that prevented him from investigating Kant’s understanding of teleology in more depth. We turn now to explore Kant’s account of life, one that would almost two centuries later resurface in the scientific guise of Varela’s theory of autopoiesis (p.136, Thompson, 2007).
IV. Teleology as a Regulative Principle of Living Organization
“An organized being is then not a mere machine, for that has merely moving power, but it possesses in itself formative power of a self-propagating kind which it communicates to its materials though they have it not of themselves; it organizes them, in fact, and this cannot be explained by the mere mechanical faculty of motion.” –Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
In The Critique of Judgment, Kant ridicules the very idea of a purely mechanical account of life:
“…it is quite certain that in terms of merely mechanical principles of nature we cannot even adequately become familiar with, much less explain, organized beings and how they are internally possible. So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd for human beings even to attempt it, or to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws unordered by any intention, how even a mere blade of grass is produced” (p. 282-283).
Many materialists have argued that Darwin was exactly the “Newton of the grass blade” that Kant thought would never come. But this confuses an important distinction between ontogeny and phylogeny. Darwin’s theory was exclusively an account of the phylogenic diversification of species.
As Evan Thompson makes clear,
“Kant’s concern was the definite organization of living beings, but the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection does not provide any account of organization at the level of biological individuals. On the contrary, the theory must presuppose biologically organized individuals that reproduce” (p. 131).
To suppose Darwin’s theory banished the immanent purposes of particular beings, one must commit Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness by mistaking a general law about the abstraction “species” for an account of the nature and origin of concrete individuals. Further, because Darwin had to presuppose reproducing organisms for his theory of speciation to work, modern biology cannot look to his work for anything approaching a complete account of life.
Kant’s genius was to recognize that “some products of material nature cannot be judged to be possible in terms of merely mechanical laws” (p. 267, CoJ). To understand life, according to Kant, final causality must be employed. Like Paley, Kant also thought artifacts were impossible to explain without the application of some teleological principle. Material and efficient causes were not enough to account for the design of a bicycle, for instance. But unlike Paley, Kant understood organisms as “natural products,” not artifacts of divine design (p. 133, Thompson). A natural product is generated immanently by a natural purpose, in contrast to an artifact, which is given its purpose by an external, intelligent agent. A natural purpose is found in “a thing [that is] both cause and effect of itself” (p. 249, CoJ).
It will be helpful to explore the relationship between artifacts and organisms a bit further. Both are organized in a purposeful manner, which means they are incomprehensible without an idea motivating their production. Further, the structure of any organized thing, machine or organism, is such that each of the parts composing it exists for the sake of the whole (i.e., each of the components conforms to an overall idea).
But this is not enough to understand the natural purposes of organisms, as Kant explains:
“…we must think of each part as an organ that produces the other parts (so that each reciprocally produces the other)… Only if a product meets that condition…will it be both an organized and a self-organizing being, which therefore can be called a natural purpose” (p. 253, CoJ).
Again, an artifact is purposeful because it is caused by an idea, but it is an idea that “resides outside the entity in the mind of an intelligent designer” (p. 134, Thompson). The idea informing an organism is, in contrast, “both cause and effect of itself.” Kant’s coining and elucidation of the term “self-organization” is strikingly similar to Varela’s theory of autopoiesis, but an important complication remains for us to discuss before I can move on to this more recent formulation. Kant saw the natural purposes of organisms as merely a regulative principle of our own human epistemological limitations. Regulative principles, in contrast to constitutive principles, do not tell us what a thing is, but only what we can know about that thing (p. 137, ibid.). Kant held that we needed both mechanical and teleological modes of thought to investigate nature, but was agnostic as to these concepts’ ultimate relation to things. This is a necessary result of the Kantian dualism between the phenomenal realm of experience and the transcendent realm of noumena.
Even so, Kant comes very close to admitting that self-organization is constitutive of living organisms (and not just a regulative principle), but backs away from this position for reasons that are extremely significant considering the overarching aim of our current exploration (to reverse the disenchantment of nature that sustains the instrumentalist attitude so characteristic of techno-industrial capitalism).
It is worth quoting him at length:
“In considering nature and the ability it displays in organized products, we say far too little if we call this an analogue of art, for in that case we think of an artist (a rational being) apart from nature. Rather, nature organizes itself… We might be closer if we call this inscrutable property of nature an analogue of life. But in that case we must either endow matter, as mere matter, with a property (hylozoism) that conflicts with its nature… Or else we must supplement matter with an alien principle (a soul) conjoined to it. But if an organized product is to be a natural product, then we cannot make this soul the artificer that constructed it, since that would remove the product from (corporeal) nature. And yet the only alternative would be to say that this soul uses as its instrument organized matter; but if we presuppose organized matter, we do not make it a whit more intelligible. Strictly speaking, therefore, the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us” (p. 254, CoJ).
Kant here attempts to reconcile the possibility that organisms are intrinsically self-organizing (and therefore purposeful) with his philosophical commitment to Newtonian science. He finds that he must either endow matter with life-like properties (hylozoism), or admit a dualism whereby an intelligent soul either constructs or inhabits organized matter (vitalism). He rejects both on the grounds that they conflict with Newton’s view of nature as composed of inert and unfeeling atoms shuffled around by transcendentally imposed laws. Self-organization, therefore, is seen as an entirely irrational principle that is nonetheless indispensible for any human understanding of living creatures.
Kant’s understanding of the nature and scope of science was lacking due to no fault of his own. In the time since his death, both the study of physics and the study of self-organization in biology have advanced beyond the wildest dreams of the 18th century imagination. Kant, like most of his generation, was mesmerized by the mathematical magic displayed in Newton’s Principia.
But as Gebser points out,
“This form of mathematics permits calculation with infinitely small variable quantities. These quantities…are merely mathematical quantities…[and]…render causal processes measureable by mathematically fragmenting intensities. These spatialized ‘quantities’ of intensity…will continue to exert a negative effect until we clearly recognize this rational falsification” (p. 311).
Gebser is here attempting to explain that calculative systems like Newton’s are clumsy abstractions, basing their measurements of space and time on “so-called ‘ideal quantities’” (p. 310) that are actually falsely spatialized intensities. The significance of this will not become clear until Whitehead’s process metaphysics are unpacked, but for now I will allude once more to the tendency of the deficient mental structure of consciousness to spatialize and quantify everything, leading to
“an extreme dualistic form of thinking which recognized only two antithetical and irreconcilable constituents of the world: measurable, demonstrable things, the rational components of science which were valid; and the non-measureable phenomena, the irrational non-components, which were invalid” (p. 285, ibid.).
Kant falls victim to this extreme form of dualism, and so is forced to understand self-organization as merely an appearance necessitated by the structures of our understanding. Life, for Kant, was self-organizing and purposeful, but only because the human mind is unable to experience and describe it any other way.
This deficient mental dualism between what is rational/measurable and what is irrational/non-measurable will be explored later in connection with capitalism’s tendency to wedge general-purpose money between all human-human and human-earth relations (see sections VIII, IX, X). Such decontextualization erases the qualitative diversity of cultural meanings and natural purposes, replacing them with abstract and homogenous quantities assigned arbitrary value by the short-term whims of the market.
“Like all structures,” says Hornborg,
“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, 2001).
Mechanistic biology quantifies living organization by reducing its essential nature to the replication of genetic algorithms. A living organism, from the perspective of such a paradigm, is defined as “anything that can use the resources of the world to get copies of itself made” (p. 15, Ridley, 1999). It is a small step to the defacto attribution of vital existence to money itself, which feeds off the mineral and organic mass of the planet to turn a profit (i.e., make copies of itself).
V. Autopoiesis: Teleology as Constitutive of Living Organization
“…autopoiesis proposes an understanding of the radical transition to the existence of an individual, a relation of an organism with it-self, and the origin of ‘concern’ based on its ongoing self-produced identity.” –p. 116, Francisco J. Varela, et al., 2002
The resurrection of Aristotelian teleology in modern biology is a matter of great controversy (p. 1, Colin et al., 1998). Some biologists, such as Richard Dawkins, deride any mention of it, as natural selection is deemed to have explained away any requirement of a purpose or aim behind the purely mechanical process of reproduction. This view can be easily dispensed with, as Darwin’s theory concerned phylogenic change, having nothing to say whatsoever about the self-organization and goal-directed behavior of individual organisms. Indeed, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection is applicable only given an already self-organizing creature intentionally operating and reproducing within its environment.
Other biologists have adopted a new term, “teleonomy,” to describe the as-if property of purposes evident in the behavior and organizational dynamics of life. Biologist Jacques Monod goes so far as to say that “it is indispensible to recognize that [teleonomy] is essential to the very definition of living beings” (p. 9, 1972). Here, he echoes Kant by pointing out that life cannot be understood without purposes, though also like Kant, he understands these purposes to be a projection of the human observer. This is as far as most biologists are willing to go, as they feel obliged to respect the epistemological dualism of the mechanistic paradigm. Hornborg points to the cognitive science of Varela and Humberto Maturana in an attempt to deconstruct this dualism, suggesting that their approach “…[downplays] the distinction between human intention and other forms of systemic directionality in living systems” (p. 179).
Whitehead similarly notes that “no biological science has been able to express itself apart from phraseology [that] refers to ideals proper to the organism in question” (p. 84, 1978). Whitehead goes on to credit Aristotle with having impressed this fact on the science of biology, and relates how the overstressing of final causation during the Christian medieval period probably provoked the equally overstressed reliance on efficient causation in modern science.
When Varela and Maturana originally developed the theory of autopoiesis, they were undoubtedly influenced by this scientific tendency to overstress efficient causes: “Living systems, as physical autopoietic machines, are purposeless systems” (p. 86, 1980). By machine, they did not intend to confuse organisms with artifacts, but meant that the system was determined by its structure and organization (p. 141, Thompson). Any purposes attributed to it were considered projections: regulative, as opposed to constitutive features.
In one of the last essays he authored before his death, however, Varela proposed a revision of the understanding of purposes present in his earlier work with Maturana. He recognized that an autopoietic organization of the living implies the emergence of “an autonomous center of concern capable of providing an interior perspective” (p. 97, 2002). To understand why, it is necessary to explore in more detail the theory of autopoiesis:
“…an autopoietic system—the minimal living organization—is one that continuously produces the components that specify it, while at the same time realizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in space and time, which makes the network of production of components possible” (p. 115, ibid.).
To understand this rather abstract definition, let us ground it in the paradigm case from which it is drawn: the cell. A living cell is engaged in a continual process of self-production and repair, wherein each of its organelles participate in the production of one another, as well as in the production of the membrane defining them as a unity. Though an autopoietic system is also a self-organizing, dissipative structure, it should not be reduced to these more general categories. What distinguishes an autopoietic system is its “self-produced identity,” or “instauration of a point of view” (p. 116, ibid.). An autopoietic entity is one that can be studied empirically (from the outside), but that also requires one to appreciate the horizon of experience brought forth by its continual self-production (from the inside). It is here that an immanent teleology finds its way back into biology, not as a regulative principle of our study of organisms (teleonomy), but as constitutive of life itself.
“…self-production is already and inevitably a self-affirmation that shows the organism as involved in the fundamental purpose of maintaining its identity” (ibid.).
Varela’s analysis of the experiential component of autopoiesis involves more than just recognizing the identity arising due to an organism’s internal circular dynamics, but also the surrounding Umwelt emerging from its “sense-making” abilities, allowing it to “change the physiochemical world into an environment of significance and valance” (p. 147, Thompson). In this way, intentional movements directed toward ends become the very basis of life. Both formal (the identity, or idea, actualized in the movement of the organism and its organs) and final (end-directed behavior) causality are here implicated in the organization of the living.
But can the Kantian dilemma be so easily resolved? Kant, as was discussed earlier (p. 19), did not understand how self-organization of the autopoietic variety could be possible naturalistically. In the last century, however, our understanding of the physiochemical make-up of organisms has increased significantly. We are far better equipped than Kant to cope with organic form (p. 140, Thompson; p. 101, Varela, 2002). But how, exactly, does an autopoietic account of life establish that the activity of an organism is intrinsically purposeful? How do we know that a teleological element is behind life when it could just as well be a projection of our own “…perspective on an otherwise completely neutral behavior” (p. 108, Varela, 2002)?
“It is actually by experience of our teleology—our wish to exist further on as a subject, not our imputation of purposes on objects—that teleology becomes a real rather than an intellectual principle. Thus causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life” (p. 110, ibid.).
Varela here inverts the whole tradition of natural philosophy since at least Descartes by reminding us that, “before being scientists we are first living beings, and as such we have the evidence of our intrinsic teleology in us” (ibid.). The mechanistic paradigm could begin only after Descartes had firmly established a metaphysical rift between thinking and extended substances. The Kantian difficulty over whether to embed teleology in organisms themselves, or to recognize it as a heuristic principle of human judgment, can be traced back to this division between mind and matter. Descartes decreed that the extended substance was purely mechanical, ruled by efficient causes alone. This included our own living bodies.
Once it is understood that experience is rooted in bodily processes, and not in some invisible mental substance existing beyond it, attributing genuine interiority and teleology to other living bodies is simply a matter of generalizing our own embodiment. We need not, as Whitehead warns, “relapse into the tacit presupposition of the mind with its private ideas which are in fact qualities without intelligible connection with the entities represented” (p. 76, 1978).
But how far can this generalization of our own experience be taken? Varela, while he grants that teleology is more than an artifact of the human mind, only re-establishes it as a necessary phenomenological fact about our own embodied experience. To firmly root teleology, and therefore formal and final causes, in organisms generally, Varela must establish an ontological principle, not merely a phenomenological description. It appears he is willing to do just that:
“To speak of [autopoiesis] thus directly links the biological sphere with a teleological account of ontology. On a material, concrete level we can observe in the organism the flip side of mechanical causality, a final causality as the basic process of life itself—the establishment of an identity. But this happens not by revising physical laws for particle-interactions in special application to organisms, nor by imposing an extra-mechanical entelechy. It is rather the ‘subject-pole’ that is the organism in its autonomy, which changes linear causality by structuring matter in the process of self-realization to maintain itself as this very process” (p. 119, 2002).
Exploring this process of the formation of a “subject-pole” (or mental-pole) requires connecting Varela’s biology to Whitehead’s metaphysics, where an analysis of the general character of experience in terms of concrescence provides us with the conceptual platform necessary to understand how organisms don’t need to “transcend the neutrality of pure physics” (p. 118, Varela, 2002) because there never was a purely neutral physics to begin with.
VI. Concresence and Bodily Perception
“The philosophy of organism aspires to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason. This should also supersede the remaining Critiques required in the Kantian philosophy.” – p. 113, Whitehead, 1978
All of the mechanistic ways of thinking thus far critiqued habitually commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, due in large part to inherited patterns of thought dating back to the Greeks. Aristotle can be praised for ushering in the mental mutation by recognizing the immanence of nature’s purposes, but he can be damned for having introduced the substance-quality logic that entranced the European intellect for much of the medieval period, eventually leading to the deficient sensationalist doctrine of modern scientific materialism. The sensationalist doctrine mistakes a high abstraction—universals derived from bare perception of sensory data (perception in the mode of presentational immediacy)—for the most primitive, concrete element of experience: “sense-reception” (perception in the mode of causal efficacy). This confusion of the concrete with the abstract allowed for the unchecked spatialization of time, with all its rigidifying and alienating effects, discussed in a prior section (see I). Whitehead adopts Bergson’s “admirable phraseology” to explain why: “Sense-reception is ‘unspatialized,’ and sense-perception is ‘spatialized’” (p. 114, 1978). The sensationalist perspective collapses the unspatialized continuum of experiential intensity connecting actual occasions through time, and so entirely ignores the immanent teleology found therein.
This ignorance of what Whitehead calls sense-reception, or causal efficacy, prevents mechanistic paradigm from accounting for sentience of any grade, whether the motile sensitivity of flagellating bacteria or the discursive consciousness of human beings. The sensationalist doctrine lead Hume to deny the soundness of induction, for with only sense-perceptions of the outer world of surfaces to go on, the best he could do was correlate sequential observations that tended to arise together into bundles of general association. Causation, as Kant would later declare (based on Hume’s empiricist premises), was merely a regulative principle projected on experience by the structure of our intellect. Whitehead blames this misplaced concreteness on the Greek overreliance on visual perception (p. 117, p. 121, ibid.), which Gebser also points to as the dominant mode of sensory experience in the mental structure. Sense-reception, or causal efficacy, can be described as the temporally-ordered experience of one’s own living bodily presence, such that the past and the future are both constitutive elements in every passing moment, concretely and meaningfully making each one transparent to the whole. The immanence of past and future in a mandalic present provides us with a direct link, Whitehead argues, to the real becoming of the universe.
“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is doubled-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (p. 119, ibid.).
Here, Whitehead is attempting to generalize our experience as human beings, especially our non-sensuous perception of time, to all other occasions in the universe. Concrescence is best understood as the most general analysis of the phases of becoming of every actual occasion in the universe, though it should be remembered that these phases are not sequential in time, but always already growing together into an integral whole.
The simplest way to explain the phases of concrescence is to begin with Aristotle’s four causes/reasons. So long as we remember “the passage from phase to phase is not in physical time,” we will avoid oversimplification due to a false spatialization of the process (p. 283, ibid.). Aristotle uses the example of a house to elucidate the meaning of the causes, which was fitting for the mental structure’s preference for static categories. It is important to emphasize process in an integral account of experience; but for simplicity’s sake, the causes involved in concrescence will be introduced in relation to another artifact, a sailboat adrift at sea.
The material cause, for Whitehead, is the creative potential underlying all actuality: “It is that ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality” (p. 31, ibid.). In my sailboat analogy, this cause is the wind and the water, as well as the very structure of the boat itself. This entire nexus of occasions emerges each moment out of the satisfactions of the actual occasions that have perished before it. The efficient cause is “the transition from attained actuality (satisfaction) to actuality in attainment,” such that the prehensive acquisition of the satisfied occasions becomes the datum for the next phase (p. 214, ibid.). This prehensive phase is represented by the sails of the boat catching the winds of prior creative expressions, feeling their potential, and endeavoring, in the next phase, to make something of its own with them. This next phase is associated with the formal cause, wherein the valuation of future possibilities informs the reshaping of past actualities. The winds of inherited expression caught by the sails form a contrast between what is already given and what might yet become. As the saying goes, “You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” The final cause is the ideal of satisfaction luring the sailboat in the direction formed by the adjustment of its sails. It is here that the analogy begins to break down, as the sailboat, like Aristotle’s house, is an artifact. Its purposes are imposed on it from without, and so it attains no satisfaction of itself in the final phase of concrescence. This extremely simplified analysis of concrescence must be extended to the more complex occasion of the living human body.
The first thing to remember is that the emergence of each occasion of experience is partially conditioned by the entire past unfolding of the cosmos. The material cause, as described above, contains within it the subjective aims of countless actual entities that have come into being and perished. They gain objective immortality as they “[pass] over into the ‘given’ primary phase for the concrescence of other actual entities,” (p. 85, ibid.). This givenness is the efficient cause as experienced directly through the body’s non-sensuous perception (or causal efficacy) of the immediate past. Rather than understanding efficient causes as mere mechanical effects lacking emotive agency, Whitehead reconnects mind and matter by interpreting them as affects, or feelings directly prehended through bodily experience. As Whitehead puts it, “…sympathy…is the primary ground for the continuity of nature” (p. 183, 1967). The emotive forces of the past, aptly referred to as the physical-pole of concrescence, situate our immediate experience “…as a fact in history, derivative, actual, and effective” (p. 72, 1938).
Whitehead describes the transition to the mental-pole:
“In the formation of each occasion…the swing over from re-enaction to anticipation is due to the intervening touch of mentality…the occasion arises as an effect facing its past and ends as a cause facing its future. In between there lies the teleology of the Universe” (p. 194, 1967).
This swing from re-enaction to anticipation is the subjective form of concrescence, which, after integrating physical feelings related to actuality, opens to the ingression of eternity into time as the possibilities of definiteness available for shaping the future. Without this “intervening touch of mentality,” every actual occasion would be entirely determined, destined to passively repeat the past without any hope for novel expression or valuation of the future.
As was mentioned earlier in relation to Kant (see p. 17), the defining characteristic of living organisms is that they are cause and effect of themselves. The importance of such reciprocal causality becomes evident when considering the role played by the mental-pole of concrescence. The initial phase of the mental-pole is the self-formation of the organism, wherein the determined effects of its past are evaluated in light of future ideals. This contrast between feelings of givenness (physical prehensions) and feelings of potential (conceptual prehensions) constitute the autonomous subjective form of each occasion of experience. The completion of each occasion is reached when the subjective comparison of affects reaches satisfaction, perishing into objective immortality by becoming the efficient cause of subsequent occasions. This continual process of death-life-rebirth, of “derivation from without [physical prehension],…immediate enjoyment within [conceptual prehension],…and transmission beyond [final satisfaction],” is continually taking place within what would be recognized empirically as a single living organism. The phases of concrescence should shed light on what it means for organisms to be their own cause and their own effect. If Kant was able to analyze the organization of the living without having mistakenly assumed his sensuous perception (presentational immediacy) was most primitive, he might have recognized in himself, as an instance of living matter, an analogue of the teleological process of organic formation in nature.
Varela realizes just this when he writes that “causality, as it is perceived by us as sentient beings, may be subsumed under the more general principle of life,” which for Varela and Whitehead is intrinsically teleological. I will now explore the close ties between Varela’s biological account of autopoiesis and Whitehead’s metaphysical account of concrescence.
VII. Concrescence and Autopoiesis
“[The] wholeness [of an organism] is self-integrating in active realization, [its] form is not the result but the cause of the dynamic arrangements of matter, and hence the process at the same time is the form.” – p. 21, Hans Jonas, 1992
“It belongs to the essence of all occasions of experience,” contends Whitehead, “that they are concerned with an otherness transcending themselves” (p. 180, 1967). As Hosinski says of this contention, it implies that “subjectivity is derivative from objectivity” (p. 56). In other words, each occasion receives from the objective world the ground of its [the occasion’s] subjective enjoyment and the motive for its own subsequent (logically, not temporally) individual expression.
Similarly, Varela says of organisms that
“…because there is an individuality that finds itself produced by itself it is ipso facto a locus of sensation and agency, a living impulse always already in relation with its world” (p. 117, 2002).
The relation of an organism to its Umwelt is one of care and concern, as Whitehead says:
“The occasion as subject has concern for the object. And the ‘concern’ at once places the object as a component in the experience of the subject, with an affective tone drawn from this object and directed towards it,” (p. 176, 1967).
Varela is in agreement, in that “there cannot be an individuality which is isolated and folded into itself,” (p. 117, 2002). Instead, organisms have
“…[a] precarious existence…always menaced by concern, the need to avoid perishing, and to do this, [they are] again dependent on matter whose characteristics are the reason for [their] concern” (p. 113, ibid.).
The constant threat of perishing referred to by Varela is a result of every organism’s dependence upon flows of matter and energy, which mechanistic science tells us inevitably tend towards entropy. But as Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme allows us to grasp, the notion of “dead matter…is an abstraction from the full complexity of concrete actuality” (p. 62, Hosinski, 1993). Life is defined by its continual self-production, maintaining its form by remaining far from thermodynamic equilibrium riding atop a wave of negentropy (or extropy). As Varela says, “this entails that teleology is a primordial tendency of matter manifest in the form of organisms,” (p. 114, 2002). An organism’s material struggle to avoid death will not ultimately succeed, but in temporarily achieving its ongoing life via autopoiesis, it brings forth a subjective form, “[enjoying] its decisive moment of absolute self-attainment as emotional unity” (p. 177, 1967) before perishing, becoming an immortal object to be prehended by subsequent occasions of experience.
To account for the natural purposes inherent in living forms, both Varela and Whitehead are forced to reject the materialist doctrine that defines matter as inert and passive.
As Varela puts it:
“The emergent causality of the reciprocal passages between the local elements [physical-pole] and the global emergent identity [mental-pole] are not a caprice, but inscribed and endogenous to nature itself, a tendency rather than an irregularity” (p. 114, 2002).
“…what has 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…the concept is useless as an ultimate notion in science and in cosmology” (p. 309, 1978).
A materialist may here protest that I have run roughshod over the established empirical facts concerning objective nature. But from Whitehead’s perspective, the dualism between subject and object established by Descartes is in conflict with the “organic realism” he sought to establish. Descartes dualism lead to the uneasy doctrine of primary and secondary qualities, a dualism Whitehead rejects, pointing out that “what [Descartes] described as primary attributes of physical bodies are really the forms of internal relationships between actual occasions, and within actual occasions” (p. 309, ibid.).
For Whitehead, primary qualities, which are supposed by the materialist doctrine to be the final real things existing independently of subjective experience, are but abstractions, for
“…we can never survey the actual world except from the standpoint of an immediate concrescence…actuality means nothing else than this ultimate entry into the concrete, in abstraction from which there is a mere non-entity,” (p. 211, ibid.).
Both the primary and secondary qualities of the experienced world must be understood in a relational, ecological way, rather than in a Cartesian, representational way. The mind does not make an internal picture of the world based on subjective ideas and perceptions corresponding to its objective, pre-existing features, but participates through the process of concrescence in the bringing forth of intersubjective worlds.
This return to the evidence of concrete experience leads to a further parallel between Varela’s theory of autopoiesis and Whitehead’s process of concrescence. Concrescence can be defined as “the real internal constitution of a particular existent” (p. 210, ibid.).
More technically, concrescence is
“the name for the process in which the universe of many things acquires an individual unity in a determinate relegation of each item of the ‘many’ to its subordination in the constitution of the novel ‘one,’” (p. 211, ibid.).
Though it is true that “every entity in the actual world of a concresent actuality has some gradation of real relevance to that concrescence” (p. 41, 1978), in order to attain its unity of subjective satisfaction, the concrescence must simplify the multiplicity of its feelings with negative prehensions. A negative prehension is “the definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution” (ibid.).
Varela account of the autopoietic process of self-realization is similar: “stimuli from outside enter the sphere of relevance…only by their existential meaning for…the process of self-establishment,” (p. 117, 2002). Any element of the actual world incompatible with the subjective aim of an organism is negatively prehended, such that its role becomes negligible, though still actual enough to affect the emotional complex involved in the final satisfaction of the concrescence (p. 41, 1978). In Varela’s terminology, organisms bring forth their own domain of cognitive significance; or, in Whitehead’s: “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates” (p. 210, ibid.).
Before exploring the cosmological significance of this metaphysical account, it is necessary to elucidate the relation between form and matter that has been tacitly assumed so far. The classical materialist account is that matter has a fixed essence, cannot evolve, and has no intrinsic potential; it is determined entirely by exterior forces. The emergence of life out of such material would therefore require a miracle, as there is no way to account for individual self-formation without a yearning for organization and enjoyment present in matter from the beginning. Accounting for the ontological status of biological identity—for the “ever existing gap between the realization of the living and its underlying matter” (p. 119, 2002)—requires moving beyond the mechanistic understanding of organisms as substances informed with genetic qualities (traits) through passive selection by a pre-given environment. Not only does this ignore the reciprocal role played by organisms in the selection of their environment, it fails to fully consider an organism’s moment-to-moment task of having to produce its identity out of a continual flow of matter and energy. The neo-Darwinist claim is that genetic algorithms are responsible for the formation of the organism, but as has been pointed out numerous times already, one cannot account for the teleological organization and meaningful experience of individual living organisms (ontogeny) by reduction to a mechanical process operating at the level of whole species (phylogeny). To do so is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
Accounting for the natural purposes of individual organisms does not require that we reject the reality of physiochemical constraints. On the contrary,
“the organism has to remain in the field of physiochemical laws to maintain a ‘coupling’ with the underlying energetical structures [i.e., entropy, autocatalyzing reactions, etc.] whose regularities assure that it can maintain coupling through the course of its life” (p. 118, 2002).
In other words, “the environment gives the basis for the organism’s behavior precisely by establishing a continuous challenge to it” (ibid.). This point is similar to the one made earlier about the object-subject structure of experience (see p. 45). The basis of subjectivity is a concern for that which transcends it. This subjectively immanent concern for objective transcendence is equivalent to the desire to exist for one’s own sake, or as Varela puts it, “Subjectivity is the absolute interest the organism takes in its continued existence” (p. 119, ibid.).
“Necessary…are the material compounds of an organism, their incessant input and their unhindered supply. But this necessity…is governed by a principle of autonomy: the fact that a living system is able to become an ontological center, that it is able to organize itself into a form that is not explainable by the features of the underlying matter (the pure necessity) alone. This autonomy then is nothing other than true teleological behavior” (p. 119, ibid.).
To understand how purposeful living forms could arise from matter, an evolutionary tendency toward increased intensity of autonomous experience and planetary interconnectivity must be attributed to it.
“The doctrine [of evolution],” says Whitehead,
“cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental to nature. It also requires an underlying activity—a substantial activity—expressing itself in individual embodiments, and evolving in achievements of organism. The organism is a unit of emergent value, a real fusion of the characters of eternal objects, emerging for its own sake,” (p. 107, 1925).
The “substantial activity” Whitehead refers to could be called Eros. Eros is the “the soul stirring itself to life and motion” (p. 66, 1967) to “endow with agency all ideal possibilities” (p. 210, ibid.). If matter/energy is imbued with self-enjoyment and the desire to evolve (as in a Whiteheadian cosmology), it should be possible to give a thermodynamic account of the work of Eros in the universe, on earth, and in human society. The next section will unpack the implications of thermodynamics for both the biosphere and the noosphere, looking at how Gaia and the global techno-industrial economy relate materially and semiotically.
VIII. Mechanized Life and Spatialized Time
“Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of truth.” –Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn to Matter
The tremendous temperature gradient between space, the surface of the earth, and light from the sun generates the far from equilibrium conditions necessary for organic life to emerge. The gradient produces a tremendous amount of free energy, allowing autopoietic beings “to spontaneously create new patterns of order and organization by dissipating entropy” (p. 32, de Quincey, 2002). A thermodynamic account of living organization demonstrates the planetary basis of life. It is the material earth who is in the first pregnant with the energetic possibility of life, which quickly spreads around the planet to become a biospheric phenomenon. Lovelock hypothesizes that life, should it exist on Mars today, will not exist much longer; without pervading the entire planet with their metabolic presence, isolated organisms remain unable to activate the self-regulatory effects displayed by Gaia and so quickly perish.
“Life,” says biologist Lynn Margulis, “is a gradient-reducing system” (p. 46). Living organization does not contradict the 2nd law of thermodynamics, as was once thought. Instead, it feeds on extropy produced by the generous sun and receptive earth in much the same way as the industrial organism; though in the case of industrialism, the rate of gradient reduction via exergy extraction has become so accelerated that it threatens to upset Gaia’s ability to self-regulate climate and sustain biodiversity.
Hornborg distinguishes between “biomass” and “technomass” to make transparent the difference between Gaia’s growth/maintenance strategies and the industrial machine’s:
“For biomass, growth is a morally neutral reward granted by nature itself, whereas for technomass it is a reward resulting from human ideologies and generating unequal global relations of exchange” (p. 17).
He goes on to remind us that technomass and biomass are currently competing for energy with one another on a planet with finite resources. Technology and economics, according to Hornborg, are not unrelated, independent levels of reality; machines do not magically create “growth,” “progress,” and “development” at the industrial centers out of nothing, but are animated by land and labor that has been exploited in the periphery (p. 147). Economics, like ecology, is a zero-sum game. Hornborg urges us to adopt wiser cultural concepts through which to engage with the rest of the community of life on earth. Mechanistic biology functions politically as a pseudo-scientific apology for contemporary industrial capitalist human-human and human-earth relations, and so my critique of its metaphysical foundations and reconstruction of biology in light of Varela and Whitehead is not a mere definitional nicety, but a political and eco-spiritual revolt. A mutually enhancing future human-earth relation will require more philosophically nuanced and spiritually mature discourses about the complexities of life and living.
As was suggested earlier (p. 2-3), the tremendous (and perhaps cancerous) growth of technomass can be understood as an extension of thermodynamic law to human economic activity. But this does not imply that the total dissipation of the planet’s energy via industrial extraction is inevitable. Consciousness can and must awaken to its integral, planetary role by overcoming the deficient mechanistic thinking currently polluting the noosphere. It might be helpful here to unpack, with Gebser, the process of mutation in the evolution of consciousness.
Gebser describes the mutation from the mythic to the mental structure as an “earth-shaking” event: it pierces the womb of the psyche—where all was pregnant with imaginal meaning and polar congruence—birthing the directed, dualistic, and discursive thought of the mind (p. 75). “The ring [of his protective psychic circle] is broken, and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking” (ibid.). Gebser describes this process as “a fall from time into space,” as the sheltering cyclical temporality of the mythic structure gives way to the three-dimensional, alienating vacuum of space (p. 77). Efficient mentality, first exemplified by the thought of Aristotle (as well as Socrates and Plato before him), was a momentous achievement of the human spirit. It broke the mythic circle of temporality and aligned humanity with a purposeful, historical evolution. But after more than two millennia of increasing conceptual and colonial conquest of space, a growing sense of anxiety is alerting the mind to its deficiencies. Despite all our conceptual systematicity and technoscientific mastery, it seems the health of the earth has rarely been in so precarious a state (see p. 1).
“The environmental crisis,” says Hornborg,
“forces upon us the insight that Descartes expelled from view, that the human subject, with its bundle of concepts, anxieties, and aspirations, is recursively interfused with the planetary landscape” (p. 160).
The mutational task of integral consciousness is to free time from the spatial containers the mind has attempted to trap it in. The alienating struggle to spatialize time so characteristic of a deficient mentality turns dynamic and intentional life into static and inert material. This disembodied perspective on a disenchanted cosmos evoked the psycho-spiritual mood that allowed the towering empirco-mathematical system of Newton—not to mention the global techno-industrial system first gaining ideological steam in 18th century England—to stand for several centuries, “but at last the Newtonian cosmology has broken down” (p. 156, Whitehead, 1967). Erecting such systems was possible only after Descartes had “decisively [separated] ‘mind’ from ‘nature’ (p. 210, bid.). This separation allowed Newton to conceive of atoms as “devoid of self-enjoyment.” Mind was deemed present only in the human, who through its unique access to conscious deliberation imposed upon a dead material cosmos the clarity and distinctness of its innate ideas (p. 212, ibid.).
As Gebser puts it,
“In the process of consolidating space-consciousness man has precariously placed himself at the outermost reaches of all manifestations. He brought about the isolation of the human, leaving it with only matter as its valid support….” (p. 310).
Whitehead recognizes that “human mentality is an extreme instance…of those happenings which constitute nature,” but refuses to exempt humanity from the course of natural events by imposing an artificial dualism. He argues that humanity must generalize its own conscious experience so that the phases of concrescence discovered therein become applicable to the descriptions of all other species of occasion in the cosmos, including God (p. 184-5, 1967; p. 110, 1978).
Failing to overcome the human-nature duality leads to a rigidification of culture wherein, as Gebser says,
“…consciousness increasingly empties itself of the ‘time’ it has negated, which, as a result of this attitude, itself becomes a lifeless spatial component. And the quantified motoricity of the machine and its lifelessness are in turn merely another expression of the spatialized concept of time [emphasis added]” (p. 310).
The danger in falsely spatializing time, of which we have given so much attention, is not only that it replaces the transparency of our experience with a opaque dualism, but that this dualism results in the attempt to make measurable and predictable every phenomenon one is faced with, even when such measurement, as in the case of a living organism, fractures its qualitative intensities of feeling, meaning, and purpose into abstract, homogenous quantities of matter and energy (p. 311, 383, ibid.).
“If technology is the verification of modern scientific thought,” says Hornborg, “its social and ecological failures pose a challenge to that mode of thought” (p. 130). The global techno-industrial machine will continue to hollow out the heart of the earth until the human organism regains its own alienated labor. Land (earth), too, must come to be experienced as more than a mere spatial extension of property or standing reserve of raw materials awaiting manufacture. The living earth is the primordial producer of life whose generativity is overshadowed only by the radiant generosity of the sun (p. 123, Hornborg). The humanist productionism discussed earlier (see p. 12) is a gross distortion of our species’ actual energetic relation to the biosphere.
Hornborg goes on to suggest that “…a more profound understanding of the machine must rest on the recognition that ‘technology,’ ‘society,’ and ‘cosmology’ are inseparable: as a socio-technical artifact, the machine simultaneously embodies and reproduces a specific configuration of cultural categories” (p. 127).
These deficient cultural categories are dominated by the notion of materiality. Hornborg argues that the word “material” is used prescriptively in modern Western discourse to refer to those aspects of life that are unquestionable (p. 130). The result of this materialistic obsession is that thought begins to obediently kneel before the power of the machine (p. 116, ibid.), helpless to avert its thermodynamic trajectory toward ever more efficient conversion of exergy into entropy for the sake of disproportionate monetary accumulation. The machine is “a material object of our own making which we seem to have lost control” (p. 147).
Nonetheless, “intensities, unless we mistake them for pressure or tension, are not measureable” (p. 310, Gebser), and so cannot be successfully mechanized/monetized. The materialism and mechanization still in vogue in contemporary economics and biology are, in part, a result of a failure to assimilate the transformation occurring in physics over the past century.
As was discussed earlier (p. 13), Darwin’s reduction of the apparent design of species to the accidental mechanism of random variation under natural selection was based on the fundamental assumption that space, time, and matter were Newtonian in nature. While his theory was undoubtedly empirically sound, it is often the case that “we have to rescue the facts as they are from the facts as they appear” (p. 155, Whitehead, 1967) by metaphysically reorienting the mind in its relation to things. Darwin selected from among the facts appearing to him only those most salient to his thoroughly Newtonian and bourgeois mind. As a result, the animate presence of the creatures he sought to understand was ignored, overlaid by the abstract rationalizations favored by the deficient mental structure of consciousness (p. 387, Gebser).
Time, for Newton as for Darwin, played merely a quantitative role: it was the space, conceived as a fourth dimension of extension, that allowed one moment, a fixed instant, to pass into the next, equally as instantaneous and having no intrinsic relation to the one prior to or following it but for the exchange of forces by way of efficient causation. This collapse of time into a spatial sequence, each snap shot externally and accidently related to the next, vanquished the concrete temporal intensity required to understand how formal and final causes participate in living organization.
As Whitehead puts it:
“…the old conception [of time] allows us to make an abstraction of change and to conceive the full reality of nature at a given moment…an abstraction is made of all temporal duration” (p. 195, 1934).
From Darwin’s point of view, the admission of teleology in evolution was absurd because it implied that the future had causal influence on the past. Time, conceived as purposeless and entirely accidental renders the future a mere result of forces determining it from the past—an aggregate of instants piled one on top of the other, species gaining their form along the way from the accumulation of chance mutations surviving the differential selection of a pre-given environment. This may be a partial explanation for the diversity of species, but not for the origin of life itself (see p. 16: the process presupposes self-organizing creatures that reproduce). This inadequate explanation retards a full account of life by neglecting the formal and final causes of autopoiesis, which become occluded when the “opposed doctrine of internal relation [is] distorted by reason of its description in terms of language adapted to the presupposition of external [i.e., spatial] relations of the Newtonian type” (p. 157, Whitehead, 1967). It should be noted in Darwin’s defense that his theory of variation under natural selection wasn’t designed to explain anything but the origin of species. The neo-Darwinism of Dennett, Dawkins, Ridley, and others is the source of the epistemic over-extension of Darwin’s more modest proposal.
Darwin imagined that all relations between occasions were external, but concrete/integral time is not decomposable into the static and exclusionary categories of past, present, and future—nor space into “here” and “there”: every point is the center. Teleology is not a matter of the future causing the past, but of the future and the past being immanent in the concrescence of every occasion. Formal and final causation are relevant only for the internal relations within and between organisms and their environments, which Darwin assumed could only be related externally because of his commitment to mechanistic materialism.
“Evolution for the materialistic theory,” says Whitehead,
“…is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modem doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (p. 107, 1925).
The doctrine of matter as merely externally related “stuff” in a continual process of purposeless re-arrangement according to arbitrarily imposed preconditions is no longer tenable, for reasons discovered in both the biological, as well as the physical sciences. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, though its discoverer does not take it this far, was the first crack in the foundation of Newton’s cosmological edifice.
The final sentence of Darwin’s Origin reads:
“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (p. 384).
Darwin’s mistake was to assume that the law of gravity is fixed. He fails to extend the formative influence of evolution far enough. But worse for the implications of his theory within his own field of biology, he assumes that living organization is just an anomaly in nature, having been imposed upon matter from without by a capricious God, “breathed…into a few forms or into one” at the dawn of life. Darwin’s book, “The Origin of Species” tells us nothing of scientific value about the origin of life. For natural selection to be of any use as a theory of biological form, we must presuppose the self-creation and natural purpose of individual organisms. Only given self-organizaion and Eros does Darwin’s theory shed any light on the subsequent development and diversification of the biosphere. Mechanistic attempts to account for the organization of the living fail because they employ too abstract and disembodied a conception of space, time, and matter, mistaking the quantities of Newtonian equations for the durations of lived experience, where each actual occasion, though continuous with the past, can anticipate novel futures. Newton’s conception of space and time was that each was a vast container indifferent as to what filled it, and even indifferent one to the other. Matter shuffled through, blindly obeying arbitrarily imposed laws.
But contemporary physics no longer understands time and space, nor matter and energy, as separate or absolute. Each shares a common history, having co-emerged and reciprocally conditioned the other throughout the process of cosmogenesis. Matter, similarly, is intimately related to the development of space and time—not in space-time as a kind of inert “stuff,” but integrally woven with it into a physio-psycho-spiritual process of inconscient yearning gradually flowering into luminous awareness, compassion, and bliss.
Emerson suggests there is “a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms” and that “The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world” (p. 25). Matter is not lifeless, but intrinsically animated by an enfolded spiritual destiny always and everywhere calling it toward higher forms and ideals. Its motion is not accidental or imposed upon it from without, but manifest by an indwelling spiritual longing for wholeness.
Most contemporary physicists are still unwilling to grant that spirit pervades matter because the deficient mental structure of consciousness prevents its presence from being transparently apprehended. Having gained a better handle on the potential for the emergence of thermodynamic order found throughout nature, however, physics is now in a position to supplement the “aimless, aloof, and external power of natural selection” with the “willful, self-sufficient, and internal power of self-organization” (p. 128, Barlow). Evolution really is what arch-mechanist Daniel Dennett calls a “universal acid” (p. 63). It leaks out of biology and dissolves traditional ways of thinking in every field it comes in contact with. But it cannot be understood as a “mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” unless we somehow exempt the Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm (Gebser’s deficient mental structure of consciousness) from evolution’s transformative reach. Evolution is a theory that points to the common origin of the many forms of matter, life, and mind—not just at some distant moment in the past, but as a present reality, as every living creature owes its continued existence to its ecological (material-semiotic) relationship with others. Evolution (in a more cosmological sense than Darwin intended) is incompatible with the doctrine of external relation, which is the foundation of materialism.
The progress in the field of thermodynamics over recent decades, specifically the work of Ilya Prigogine, has established that the irreversibility of time is essential to the emergence of order in nature. This is a direct break with all of the mechanistic attempts to account for time, which did not recognize anything essential whatsoever about its direction. Newton’s equations give the same results no matter which direction time flows. This is also true for all equations expressing relativistic or quantum mechanics. Einstein himself once remarked that “time [as irreversible] is an illusion.” For Prigogine, however, the directionality of time is essential for any account of non-equilibrium systems and the creative advance into novelty that they make possible.
Whitehead’s notion of concrescence, derived from the Latin verb meaning “growing together,” is, according to Prigogine, an attempt to “reconcile permanence and change” (p. 59). Whitehead recognizes the essential role played by time in the creative unfolding of the universe, and his analysis of concrescence allows us to understand what was said at the outset (p. 6), that life is a moving image of eternity. Living organization cannot be accounted for in terms of the stuff of which it is made because its processual and experiential essence always transcends the mind’s attempt to decompose it into a spatially rationalized mechanism or totalized system.
Life perpetually recedes from the mind’s attempts to conceive of it materially because the mind’s materiality (i.e., its life) is the very source of its limiting spatialized modes of conceptuality. Life sustains the dynamic and evolving interplay of mind in matter, liberating mentality from its material slumber by increasing the sensitivity and reactivity of its concrescence. Only integral consciousness becomes aware of life as a transparent and purposeful whole, whose autonomous individual parts naturally tend toward symbiotic mutuality. Deficient mental consciousness, disillusioned by the disembedding forces of the techno-industrial market, is forced to explain life away as the naturally selected product of accumulated genetic algorithms. This supposedly scientific story about the reduction of life to DNA only carries metaphorical weight when imbued with mythological significance in the biological guise of Dawkins’ capitalistic “selfish genes.”
Logically, the neo-Darwinian mechanism is tautological: it says only that genotypes continue to survive today because they survived in the past. The only way to turn this from a meaningless non-statement into the founding principle of deficient mental biology is to mythologize it by metaphorically transferring English socio-economic ideology onto natural processes. Self-interested genes compete for resources in order to reproduce themselves indefinitely, much like middle-class industrial consumers and corporations compete for money (via sale of labor, land, products, and ideas) in order to generate the highest possible profit. Each instance ignores the concrete reality of its situation: the notion of selfish genes is a fetishized reduction of the teleology of whole organisms, just as the notion of general-purpose money and profit are fetishized reductions of the purposes of interpersonal relationship.
Transparently apprehending the spiritual meaning underlying nature’s evolutionary unfolding requires new modes understanding and perception. Only an integral way of seeing and being can break the ideological spell techno-industrial capitalism has cast upon the human imagination. In the next section, I will recount Gebser’s attempt to bring forth understanding as systasis and perception as synairesis, comparing these to the deficient modes caused by what Heidegger has called the “enframing” of nature.
IX. Integral Thought-Perception and Market Cosmology
“Integral reality is the world’s transparency, a perceiving of the world as truth: a mutual perceiving and imparting of the truth of the world and of man and of all that transluces both.” –Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin
In the Ever-Present Origin, Gebser introduces two terms he feels exemplify the transparency and wholeness typifying the integral structure of consciousness. The first is systasis, “the conjoining or fitting together of parts into integrality” (p. 310). Gebser contrasts systasis with system, not to imply that they are opposites (as a thesis to its antithesis), but rather to make explicit the fact that systematization is still the method of a consciousness stuck in the three-dimensional, predominantly spatial world of parts. When one refers to a system, he describes the effect of some quantitative process of addition, thereby draining that process of any intrinsic life. Viewing an organism as a system converts it into a lifeless collection of objects, whereas systasis grants the parts a transparency allowing the organism to be understood as a subject perpetually becoming whole.
The second term, synairesis, refers to the mode of perception adequate to the integrality of reality. Gebser says that synairesis
“fulfills the aperspectival, integrative perception of systasis and system…[and is] a precondition for diaphany, which is able to be realized when, in addition to systasis and system, the symbol—with its mythical effectivity—and magic symbiosis are included, that is to say, present” (ibid.).
Varela and Whitehead display a clear understanding of the need for a synairetic mode of perception that breaks free of the spatial categories and systematization endemic to the mental structure. Whitehead’s analysis of concrescence is precisely an attempt to come to terms with living organization systatically. Systasis is Greek for “put together,” with the connotation of “forming” (Gebser, p. 292), linking it closely with the meaning of concrescence.
As Whitehead says,
“We have to discover a doctrine of nature which expresses the concrete relatedness of physical functionings and mental functionings, of the past with the present, and also expresses the concrete composition of physical realities which are individually diverse” (p. 157, 1967).
The related processes of concrescence and autopoiesis bring together each of the structures of consciousness in their attempt to make clear the organization of the living, uniting the systematic categorization and empirical attention to detail of the mental (through an appreciation of the dynamics of genetic inheritance), the circular polarity of the mythic (through an appreciation of cellular autopoiesis), and the vital synchronicity of the magic (through an appreciation of the concresent interpenetration of subject and object) without becoming fixated upon any in particular. The transparency of the whole is thus made evident.
It was not until the 20th century that time became fully apparent to human consciousness. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, participated directly in the scientific revelation that our sensory experience of the heavenly bodies is delusory until we have an appreciation of eternity. That is, because light takes time to travel from distant stars and galaxies to our eyes, we can only appreciate them as actual occasions if time has become transparent to us. Then we presentiate them without having to see them, bringing forth a “[reality] in which the present is all-encompassing and entire” (Gebser, p. 7).
“The synairesis which systasis makes possible integrates phenomena, freeing us in the diaphany of ‘a-waring’ or perceiving truth from space and time. Space and time are, after all, merely conditional realities and as such realities with a double relation. They are in the first place ‘objective’ as the transitory structure of our universe, and in the second, ‘subjective’ as the transitory structure and mirroring of our consciousness. This transitory character refers us to origin, which, with respect to consciousness, becomes space-and-time-free when we fulfill and complete synairesis, the aperspectival imparting-of-truth. In this are consolidated the clarity and transparency of man and universe in which origin becomes present, inasmuch as origin, which ‘lies’ before spacelessness and timelessness, manifests itself in consciousness as space-time-free present” (p. 311-12).
Absent such integration, those fixated within the mental structure will continue to reduce all factors of living organization to spatial-material components, thereby negating not only the natural purposes of the organisms around them, but “denying [their] own status as sentient beings who have a right to the pursuit of an undisturbed life” (p. 111, Varela, 2002). We cannot afford to ignore what Whitehead, after Shelley and Wordsworth, refers to as the “values [arising] from the accumulation of the brooding presence of the whole on to its various parts” (p. 88, 1925).
Thinking nature as concrescence and bios as autopoiesis prepares the conceptual alembic necessary for an integral cosmology that not only re-ensouls the world, but makes the ideas at work in the heart of the universe transparent to the human spirit. Human and universe are an anthropo-cosmogenesis, a whole in the process of intelligently forming itself; in its human mode, the universe not only forms, but performs the story of its evolution through cultural expression and civillizational ideals.
“Our image-building,” says Hornborg, “actively participates in the constitution of the world…Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (p. 10). Market cosmology conceives of the world as a fragmentary heap of raw materials awaiting technological production, a standing reserve of objects devoid of instrinsic worth or self-enjoyment. This leads to the mistaken idea that industry produces real value, when in thermodynamic fact, it operates deceptively by generating symbolic value (money) with no intrinsic relation to the actual earth processes it is degrading at evermore efficient rates (p. 32, ibid.). An integral perception and understanding of human-earth-cosmos relations grasps the inseparability of mind and nature, as “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (p. 24, Emerson). Space-time is not an objective container to which the rational human mind is subject, but the outermost reaches of the living tissue of an evolving consciousness.
The systematicity so characteristic of techno-industrial capitalism drains the earth of its vitality by fragmenting its symbiotic diversity of eco-semiotic valuations into a uniform, general-use currency such that “resource nations are economically forced to trash their ecologies to promote foreign exchange” (p. 174, W. I. Thompson). “Money in itself,” says Hornborg, “is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged” (p. 10). Hornborg understands general-purpose money (especially fiat currency) to be an “algorithm of destruction” because it is symbolically accumulated at the industrial centers even while the actual means of production underlying its profits on the periphery systematically render useless the truly generative potential of the planet. “Industrial sectors of world society,” says Hornborg, “subsist precisely on that discrepancy between the material and the symbolic” (p. 47). This exploitative techno-socio-economic situation has resulted from a dissociation of human symbolic valuation from earthly productivity, and is principally responsible for the ecological crisis. Deficient mental attempts to commodify the ecopoietic processes of nature (biosphere) and culture (noosphere) are given traction by abstract, quantitative measures of energy. Such hyper-perspectivalism severs all lines of possible contact between the raw state of natural energy and the qualitative and purposive temporality of human life. In the next section (X), Lockean notions of labor, property, and the common state of nature will be re-imagined in an attempt to enact an integral “Gaian politique” (p. 174, W. I. Thompson, 1985).
A systatic understanding of earth as a whole awakens the knower to his or her participation in a complex physio-bio-noospheric concrescence that is intrinsically purposeful and generative. Integral consciousness perceives synairetically the co-emergence of ideas and images in a living cosmos that always already involves the human being in processes beyond his or her ability to rationally dissect and control (though spending great amounts of energy “tying nature to the rack” may temporarily make the mechanization of life seem possible –witness the so-called Petroleum Interval).
Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because the mechanistic conception of energy already systematically enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our monetary ends.
Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such” (p. 320, Heidegger, 1977). Technology seems to be the means to this end. However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (p. 317, ibid.). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature. The danger in relating to earth in such a way—as a “calculable coherence of forces” (p. 326, ibid.)—is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry, which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense (p. 321. Ibid.).
Energy becomes, for the mechanistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth’s poïesis has been falsely monetized and thermodynamically exploited. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.
Humanity seems afraid to recognize that its technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. Ours is a crisis not only of the environment, but of the human souls dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, human beings will become batteries bio-powering the machines that have enslaved us, homeless upon a dying earth.
Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” -p. 340, ibid.), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger, scientific materialism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought forth technology. The great success of the empirico-rational disciplines is not the result of their metaphysical truth or correspondence to reality, but rather of the practical, economic value of their methods. These methods, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, have depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for humanity’s, and all life’s, continued existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given our species the opportunity to truly stand watch over the earth as the only home we’ll ever have.
The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the Garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. Humanity cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny has had to be lived out—our process of maturation cannot be reversed. In a typical enantiodromic reversal, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen synairetically, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of saving the earth from the techno-industrial monster that has been strangling it. For the first time, the noosphere can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath its feet.
As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (p. 351, ibid.). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars and the sun, whose diviner energies grant life to we mere earthly mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute” (p. 167, Rilke). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say (i.e., systasis and synairesis), and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.
X. Integral Enaction of a Gaian Polity
“The revolution cannot come in time for us to quit out jobs or cancel our debts, and the end of the world cannot come in time to eliminate the mess we have made of history; nothing smaller than the earth is large enough to express the revelation, and nothing smaller than this instant is vast enough to contain all the future that we need” -p. 182, W. I. Thompson
John Locke articulated the social foundations of market cosmology by defining property as anything human labor has taken out of “the state nature leaves it in” (p. 330, 1965). Human labor is said to produce property and value, the first of its proclaimed properties being itself. Once I have monetized my own ability to do work, the reduction of nature to a standing reserve of raw materials to be exploited is an afterthought (see pgs. 12, 44, 48, and 57).
“In our informational society,” says William Irwin Thompson, “property is no longer simply land; it is consciousness” (p. 177). Thompson suggests we think with Gregory Bateson by understanding matter, not as a “state of nature” awaiting human production, but as “unconscious Mind, or Gaia” raised to consciousness by the labors of the soul (ibid.). Such a shift in economic ethos reverses the relationship between mind and matter currently informing industrialism: the former is epiphenomenal to the latter. In a Gaian polity, Mind is understood to be united with the living earth, whose value is determined by the intensity of consciousness associated with the particular product in question (179, ibid.).
“If autonomy is the fundamental recognition of the distinction of life, and if autopoiesis is the fundamental narrative process of life, then the biological politics that derive from these descriptions are radically different from sociobiology or scientific socialism. This is what I see as the Gaia Politique, a politics that is radical in the sense that it is deeply rooted in the understanding of life [and] is truly…ecological and not simply the old industrial Marxist critique newly decorated with sun-flowers and green paint” (p. 180, ibid.).
Thompson goes on to suggest that, autonomy being essential to life and consciousness, the evil of market cosmology consists in its “failure to recognize the [distinct] living [performances] of autonomous unities” in their “narrative process of self-description” (p. 179). A Gaian polity would evoke the “counterdrive to total commoditization” that Hornborg identifies as culture (p. 172). Culture’s main resistances to the homogenizing tendencies of market exchange are the processes of singularization and sacralization that reverse money’s “tendency to render social [and human-earth] relations increasingly abstract” (p. 166, ibid.). Sacred or spiritual forms of culture are also abstract, but still rooted in narratives of “local resonance,” unlike the disembedded abstractions of science and money (p. 171, ibid.).
“The ecological crisis of modern society,” says Hornborg,
“has two connected aspects: one objective and generated by the general-purpose market and its axiom of universal inter-changeability, the other subjective and founded in the alienation of the disembedded, modern individual” (p. 160).
The challenge of enacting an integral cosmology hinges upon a transformed sense of narrative and the construction of meaning, which, according to Hornborg (p. 120) and Thompson (p. 101), is motivated by a fear of chaos and the desire to establish order through the ritualized performance of myth. Even the culture-eating techno-industrial worldview is made to function ideologically by way of deficient mythic narratives depicting the march of progress toward total control and rationalization of life.
Thompson defines narrative as a uniquely human way of responding to time, “an attempt to escape the infinity of the present as duration by reifying time into a past” (p. 100). Our narratives bring forth the worlds we inhabit, and enacting worlds of ecological resilience and diverse cultural expression requires respecting the autonomy of both Gaia and her many children. While only humans seem capable of knowing they tell stories, all creatures unconsciously bring forth their own cognitive domains of significance. The reduction of human consciousness to wage labor (measured by falsely spatialized clock-time) is a symptom of modern technology’s tendency to dissociate formerly integrated facets of reality, “namely tool/body, physical work/mental work, means/ends, work/agency, use/meaning, production/art, and work/life” (p. 130, Hornborg). Techno-industrial life leads to meaninglessness and existential anxiety precisely because money (and the social relations it establishes) alienates consciousness from its own powers of creative response to the overflowing meaning of each and every moment. Money is understood by Hornborg to be a “communicative disorder”; empty signs of arbitrary value are shown to be the very heart of market cosmology (p. 170-171). While general-purpose money can reinforce power relations, it cannot itself convey meaning, which depends on difference (p. 167, ibid.).
Thompson sees “the recognition of differences as the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 163), which is to say that cultural diversity is paramount to the establishment of resilient forms of meaning capable of providing spiritual nourishment for the whole human family. “Regional devolution,” says Thompson, “is part of planetary evolution; so it is the larger entity that nourishes the emergence of the smaller identity” (p. 166). Hornborg recognizes the need for a similar return to local valuation to “domesticate the market,” calling for the creation of dual currencies “so as to render local subsistence and global communication two parallel but distinct and incommensurable domains” (p. 34).
The living earth is the new stage upon which all human interaction must take place, but not in the decontextualized fashion typical of global capitalism. The move to a Gaian Politique deconstructs the Western division between person and thing, human and nature (p. 195, Hornborg). Hornborg points out that, the more tied up with global networks of exchange we become, the less “outreaching” we become as persons. A return to local material and cultural subsistence would involve taking up forms of reciprocity that have been increasingly marginalized by market forces. Marshall Sahlins (1972) has articulated three forms of reciprocity, including generalized reciprocity (a “pure gift” with no expectation of return), balanced reciprocity (a fair trade), and negative reciprocity (an impersonal exchange where each party seeks to get something for nothing via symbolic persuasion) (p. 201, Hornborg).
An integral cosmology functions on “the basic intuition [of a] shift from industrial work, abstraction, and materialism to play [and] sensual consciousness” (p. 161, Thompson). Enjoyment of subjective community becomes the primary value of life, replacing the market cosmology of atomistic competition of each against all to accumulate quantities of money whose value is appraised based upon how successfully it can disembed meaning and material from its local, inter-personal and inter-bodily instantiation. A return to the experiential depth of the places where we live and the faces who we live with is the only way to reverse industry’s destruction of earth and money’s inversion of the Sacred (p. 171, Hornborg). The disenchantment and alienation resulting from the monetized mechanization of life are rectified only through a renewed authenticity capable of bringing forth the specificity and non-interchangeability of individual expression and inter-personal relation that resists being appropriated by the abstract and impersonal values of the market.
Conclusion: On the Soul and Spirit of Life
“The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opaque. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself [and with woman and humanity]. He cannot be a naturalist until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit.” –p. 47, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Aurobindo lists death and mutual devouring, hunger and conscious desire, and the struggle to increase, expand, conquer, and possess as the basic truths of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (p. 199). But this theory defines life only by its relation to the mechanisms of matter, forgetting the arc of evolution extends also toward mind and spirit. As mind emerges to overtake the vital striving of life, the “law of love” replaces that of death, and the fittest become those “who harmonize most successfully survival and mutual self-giving” (p. 203).
Mind, according to Aurobindo, “does not need to devour in order to…grow; rather, the more it gives, the more it receives and grows” (p. 204). The global economy has thus far been guided by Darwin’s overemphasis on the aggressive principle of life, devouring the very vitality of the planet it depends upon for its continued existence. Humanity is struggling to give birth to the higher principle of mind, to the love of conscious joining and interchange that might forestall our entropic rush to convert the common earth into private property.
The biosphere is experiencing the pains of labor as it struggles to give birth to its enfolded destiny, the noosphere. “We can hope for no progress on earth,” says Teilhard, “without the primacy and triumph of the personal at the summit of mind” (p. 297). Teilhard reminds us that even an interiorized and involuted universe labors, sins, and suffers (p. 313). Such are the demands of the spirit working through this anthropo-cosmogenesis, which, as Teilhard says, even from the perspective of a biologist, “resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross” (ibid.).
“Eros (love) does not occur only in the human soul,” says Eryximachus in Plato’s Symposium,
“It is a significantly broader phenomenon. It certainly occurs within the animal kingdom, and even in the world of plants. In fact, it occurs everywhere in the universe. Eros is a deity of the greatest importance: he directs everything that occurs, not only in the human domain, but also in that of the gods” (186b).
The personalization of earth and the cosmos is essential to any renewed engagement of humanity with its ecological context, as “persons and landscapes are mutually constitutive [and] co-evolve” (p. 3, Hornborg, 1998). The deficient mental separation of mind from nature has shattered the wholeness of the biosphere and of human society by translating the living intensity and particularity of the relationships holding each together into quantities of money and raw materials.
“Driven by the forces of love,” says Teilhard, “the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come into being” (p. 264-265). Teilhard urges humanity to overcome the “anti-personalist” complex paralyzing our techno-industrial civilization, and to at least grant the possibility, under the heightened pressure of our infolding world, that the earth has a face and a heart (p. 267). Life is not a machine, nor the human being a consumer. A human being, like all creatures, is alive because a great cosmic creativity stirs its very atoms into autopoietic e-motion.
“Whatever happens on the earth,” says Gebser,
“man [who is the consciousness of earth] must share the responsibility…On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s” (p. 541).
An integral biology of economics brings to light the wholeness of life and makes transparent the law of love luring even the materiality of the earth toward its center. The mutation of consciousness into its integral mode requires enduring a violent birth, as the industrial process has made quite evident. But the end of consciousness’ unfolding is not the annihilation of earth—rather, it is to participate with earth in the regeneration of Eden by learning to face the universe with an open heart and a mind transluced by the spirit of origin.
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 ~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.
 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.
 i.e., energy available to do work.
 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.
 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).
 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).
 Criticism is not my only task, however. Like Emerson, I desire “an original relation to the universe” and to behold God and nature face to face, rather than through the eyes of tradition (p. 7).
 Gebser characterizes the mythic structure as predominantly psychic and spaceless, as the intimate bond between soul and nature had not yet been severed. As a result, “Man’s lack of spatial awareness is attended by a lack of ego-consciousness, since in order to objectify and qualify space, a self-conscious ‘I’ is required that is able to stand opposite or confront space, as well as to depict or represent it by projecting it out of his soul or psyche” (p.10).
 In the closing centuries of the 2nd millennium, the mechanical clock would become the dominant model used by science to understand the physical world (quantitative, symmetrical time), the biological world (organisms are gene survival/propagation machines), and the economic world (“Time is money” –Ben Franklin). See also p. 122, Hornborg: “The clock has been advanced as the prototype for all machines…The idea of the machine has…generated a web of cross-references by which nature and the machine are engaged in a reciprocal metaphor.”
 Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species, is littered with observational evidence in support of the plausibility of his theory. No scientists can deny what Darwin found without first reworking his metaphysical assumptions.
 Time, in this context, is to be understood as the falsely spatialized time of the mental structure: as quantitative magnitude, rather than qualitative intensity as for the integral.
 “…a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff…from which a materialistic philosophy begins is incapable of evolution” (p. 107, Whitehead, 1925).
 “Descola (p. 88, 1996) defines animism as the use of ‘the elementary categories structuring social life to organize, in conceptual terms, the relations between human beings and natural species” (p. 200, Hornborg, 2001).
 “In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus’ Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence [a phrase used by Malthus] which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be a new species. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work.” –Charleas Darwin (The Zoology of the Beagle, 1840).
 Karl Marx, through Hegel, was certainly influenced, even if he rejected Kant’s critical system.
 Such as a tacit acceptance of Hume’s sensationalist doctrine (see p. 29).
 Kant’s Aristotelianism is evidenced here. Darwin and Paley were more influenced by Plato’s dualism between form and matter than Kant, who was able to conceive of the purposes of an organism as immanent, thereby avoiding the machine/organism analogy. However, Kant imposed a dualism of a different sort, which will be explored below.
 This is a variation of Plato’s separation between spiritual and superficial experience mentioned on p.10 above.
 Kant’s bourgeois ethos no doubt also influenced his reluctance to imbue nature with life or soul (as constitutive), as capitalism depends upon a fetishized productionist account of value where nature is worth only what human labor and inventiveness can add to it. An ensouled earth could not be as guiltlessly exploited.
 In his last philosophical text (Opus Posthumum), Kant realized that his thinking on this matter was incomplete. Varela (after Jonas, 1973) argues that “without invalidating the a priori categories that had been the possibility of all knowledge, Kant finds an entirely new foundation for them: the lived body. The moving forces of matter—prime subject of natural science—are not deduced from or ‘dictated’ by the a priori categories of reason but themselves are a basic experience underlying all a priori categories” (p. 109, 2002). Thus we know an organism is intrinsically purposeful and self-organizing because we extrapolate as much from our own experience as organisms.
 See The Blind Watchmaker, 1986
 As has already been discussed on p. 16.
 A dissipative structure is an energetically open system that emerges in non-equilibrium conditions (ex: tornado, whirlpool, etc). The key difference between a dissipative structure and an autopoietic system is that the former usually does not produce a boundary that establishes it as a unity, nor does it produce the components on which it depends. Instead, it is more structurally dependent on its local environment and so lacks a degree of autonomy present in organisms.
 This concept was first developed by Jakob von Uexküll (1940). Hornborg writes that “Each organism lives in its own subjective world (Umwelt) largely defined by its species-specific mode of perceiving its environment…The implication is that ecological interaction presupposes a plurality of subjective worlds…ecological relations are based on meaning; they are semiotic” (p. 183).
 Descartes needn’t take all the blame: We could also point to Plato’s dualism of form and substance, to Aristotle’s subject-predicate logic, to Parmenides’ separation between being and non-being, or indeed to more the modern separation between culture and nature.
 “Philosophers have disdained the information about the universe obtained through their visceral feelings, and have concentrated on visual feelings” (p. 121, 1978).
 Indeed, as we already mentioned (see footnote, p. 21), Kant recognized this possibility late in his life, but was unable to rework his entire philosophical system to reflect it prior to his death.
 Incoming solar radiation is approximately 5800 Kelvin and outer space approximately 2.7 Kelvin (p. 46, Margulis, 2003).
 While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6).
 Margulis points to the “geometry of the universe’s expansion” to account for its ever increasing creative possibilities for gradient reduction (p. 48), while Whitehead suggests “…the expansion of the universe in respect to actual things is the first meaning of ‘process’; and the universe in any stage of its expansion is the first meaning of ‘organism’” (p. 214-15, 1978).
 “…both biomass and ‘technomass’ represent positive feedback processes of self-organization, where the system’s use of harvested resources is ‘rewarded’ with new resources in a continuing cycle. Both are dissipative structures, requiring inputs higher than outputs and subsisting on the difference. A crucial difference is that biomass is a sustainable process whereas technomass is not. For biomass, energy resources are virtually unlimited, and entropy—in the form of heat—is sent out into space. For technomass, resources are ultimately limited, and we are left with much of the entropy in the form of pollution” (p. 17, Hornborg).
 “The neoclassical concept of growth was borrowed from…Newton, to whom it would simply have meant a process of aggregation. Whereas natural science has moved on to a more organic or systematic perception of growth, that is, as appropriation of order (Schrodinger, 1944), mainstream economists remain confined within the old, mechanical version” (p. 94, Hornborg); “Nineteenth-century scientists materially constituted the organism as a laboring system, structured by a hierarchical division of labor, and an energetic system fueled by sugars and obeying the laws of thermodynamics” (p. 97, Haraway, 1997).
 And money (see p. 23). The whole world is supposed in the capitalist scheme to be encompassable, at least in promise, by a sufficient quantity of general-purpose money.
 “The relationship between human labor and technology is clearly ambiguous in terms of which serves which” (p. 103, Hornborg).
 Rudolf Steiner had a similar understanding of the psycho-spiritual causes of materialism: “The concept of matter arose only because of a very misguided concept of time. The general belief is that the world would evaporate into a mere apparition without being if we did not anchor the totality of fleeting events in a permanent, immutable reality that endures in time while its various individual configurations change” (p. 174, 2000).
 Hornborg suggests that “general-purpose money was the universal solvent that gave Western industry access to the resources of its global periphery” (p. 105).
 Henri Bergson refers to this way of understanding time as the “cinematographical method.” “Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially” (p. 204).
 Though Margulis’ theory of the origin of species via symbiogenesis may provide more robust an account, as the mere accumulation of chance mutations, even given billions of years, does not provide a means of phylogenic change quick and resilient enough to have done the necessary organizational work (see Acquiring Genomes, 2003).
 “God is an intelligible sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” –Corpus Hermeticum, 3rd century; “Nature is an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere” Blaise Pascal, 1670. In a Whiteheadian metaphysics, both God and nature participate in the integral becoming of every actual occasion.
 i.e., accidental, rather than essential.
 “…when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, Whence is matter? and Whereto? many truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. We learn…that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound, it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves: therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (p. 41, Emerson).
 “Fetishism is about interesting “mistakes”—really denials—where a fixed thing substitutes for the doings of power-differentiated lively beings on which and on whom, in my view, everything actually depends…Without question, contemporary genetic technology is imbricated with the classical commodity fetishism endemic to capitalist market relations” (p. 135, Haraway, 1997).
 “An item produced from oil and metal ores must be priced as if it were more valuable than the oil and the ores that were destroyed in making it, or the process could not go on. This in turn amounts to a constant rewarding of the continued destruction of oil and ores by giving industry access to increasing amounts of oil and ores to destroy” (p. 14-15, Hornborg).
 “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).
 The implications of the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics were so contrary to mechanistic expectations, that Niels Bohr once remarked, “It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we say about nature” (p. 291, McEvoy, 2001).
 “My only earthly wish is… to stretch the deplorably narrow limits of man’s dominion over the universe to their promised bounds… [Nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets”(p.viii); “I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave… the mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses, they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations” (p. 21, Francis Bacon, 1980).
 “’The Petroleum Interval’ [is] the brief interlude of 200 years where we extracted all of this amazing material from the ground and burnt it” (p. 20, Hopkins, 2008).
 Hornborg makes similar aspects of technology transparent: “Industrial technology does not simply represent the application of inventive genius to nature but is equally dependent on a continuous and accelerating social transfer of energy organized by the logic of market exchange” (p. 45).
 “Such a distinction…is alien to hunter-gatherer groups like the Algonquian-speakers of northeastern North America, who tend to view all living beings as undivided centers of awareness, agency, and intentionality” (p. 195, Hornborg).
Logos of the Living Earth:
Towards a Gaian Praxecology
By Matthew Segall
The word “praxeology” has been employed with various meanings in 20th century French and Austrian discourse. Praxecology is a distinct, though not entirely unrelated neologism invented for the purposes of this essay. A new word is not without a history, nor a text without context—praxecology is the mutated kin of its discursive ancestors whose semiotic relation cannot be denied. But my neologism is not just a sign; it is also a materially inscribed event emerging in my life and, having been read and understood, in the lives of each of you, my audience. Words have real effects in the world of material-semiotic cyborgs like us.
Praxecology is the embodied practice of a living planetary systems theory, the enacting of a Gaian way of life. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, developed in the 1960s while working for NASA to detect life on other planets, has played an important psycho-spiritual role in the environmental movement, but half a century later has not been fully realized as an eco-cultural revolt against modern techno-industrialism and the alienation, fetishization, and commodification of self, society, and nature that such a system requires. The results of this Enlightenment project of disembedded rationality are well known: loss of place, self-alienation, social injustice and ecological devastation chief among them. A scientific theory of Earth as a self-regulating system is not enough in itself to overturn any of these aspects of our post-industrial malaise, but the knowledge of a living Earth is compelling enough, I believe, to inspire both the aesthetic skill and religious will of humanity into a renewed relationship with the Earth.
In this essay, I will try to lay down a path in walking toward a Gaian praxecology by offering a more integral, or at least nonmodern (Latour, 1993) narration of embodied practice concerning human-earth relations. As Latour argues in his critique of modern science, the only myth is that there could be science without myth (p. 93, ibid.). I will seek a planetary (and so seemingly universal) mythos, though careful attention will be paid to nature as place, or topos (commonplace).
As Donna Haraway has written,
“We turn to this topic [nature] to order our discourse, to compose our memory …[because] nature is the place to rebuild public culture…[and] is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the Earth” (p. 296, 1992).
The title, “Gaia,” has been criticized for its gender essentialism and mythic connotations. I will try to convey why Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess, is among the most appropriate of names for the living Earth. Her theogonic origins in the poetry of Hesiod, Ovid, and others is an apt reminder that disentanglement of science from myth, or knowledge from narrative, while logically possible, is vacuous in practice. Praxecology is not theory or praxis alone, but human understanding-as-participation in the meaningful cycles and evolutions of the Earth community. Science (logos) and story (mythos) are distinct, but in no way separate expressions of the underlying human yearning for knowledge born out of a recognition of our origins in a larger cosmogenic whole. “The Earth,” says cultural phenomenologist Jean Gebser, “is nothing but an event [self-enacted/autopoietic unfolding] which in materialization has become progressively slower” (p. 541, Gebser). Matter and mind, embodied action and theoretical discourse, are not isolated influences or opposed forces, but friendly poles in a holistic process of evolutionary autobiography. As Haraway puts it, “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44, 1997).
The protagonists in my story include Haraway, who reminds us that modern technoscientific biology is not life itself, but a cultural discourse about life; Thomas Berry, who evokes an original relationship to the universe by reminding us that an ongoing cosmogenesis is the origin of our existence; Bruno Latour, who demystifies science in action by unveiling the networks of relationships supporting its facts; William Irwin Thompson, whose vision of a Gaian polity helps us re-imagine the world; Francisco Varela, whose enactive cognitive science shows how worlds are brought forth through autopoietic structural coupling; and Gaia, our common ground, producer of all bodies and muse of every mind.Others, too, will lend a helping hand along the way of this logos of the living Earth.
“Ecology,” according to Thomas Berry, “is functional cosmology” (p. 84, 1999). This suggests that an adequate understanding of the universe as a whole is not at all separate from knowing how to live sustainably within one’s particular community of life. The whole and the part are mutually implicated in any “functional cosmology.” Any truly universal knowledge should also be applicable and adaptable to life at home. Such a relational approach to cognition-as-living will guide us along our journey through various philosophical holzwege, or wood paths (German: wegen– “to make a way,” wagen– “to risk”), with the hope that we emerge at a clearing revealing new, perhaps unexpected, ways forward.
Neither representational, nor constructionist epistemologies will suffice for such thoughtful and heartfelt wanderings, as I am concerned here with concrete matters of life and death, not decontextualized ideas of transcendent truth or the moral resignation of unmoored relativism. This discourse concerning the Earth is an attempt to refigure the way words relate to worlds, in part because
“humans are not the ones who arbitrarily add the ‘symbolic dimension’ to pure material forces. These forces are as transcendent, active, agitated, spiritual, as we are” (p. 128, Latour, 1995).
The following pages will record the traces of my struggle to enact a story, not about Earth, but of, as, and for an Earth personified: Gaia. The clearing I hope will be discovered at the end of my praxecological textual way-making is but the beginning of our long overdue transformation from disembedded techno-industrial consumers into symbiotic participants in a flourishing Gaian polity.
“The urgent task of ecological culture,” says Rosemary Radford Ruether,
“is to convert human consciousness to the Earth, so that we can use our minds to understand the web of life and to live in that web of life as sustainers, rather than destroyers, of it” (p. 250, 1992).
It is my hope that my words may participate in the Great Work of weaving Western consciousness back into the tapestry of life from which it sprang by inspiring a renewed call to situated eco-action.
Praxeology Becomes Praxecology
Praxeology is a word with a mixed history of discursive use. Murray N. Rothbard suggests that: “Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals” (p. 58, 1997). Arnold Kaufmann defines praxeology as “the science of human decision-making,” and models his approach after the Cartesian method of logical analysis (p. 12, 1968). Both Rothbard and Kaufmann seek universal, a priori laws of human action; but unlike Kaufmann (best known for his work in computer science), Rothbard criticizes the notion that conscious human beings can be treated like “stones or molecules whose course can be scientifically tracked in alleged constants or quantitative laws” (p. 74). I am in agreement with Rothbard’s (and before his, Ludwig von Mises’) rejection of a quantitative or positivistic account of human action, but because he fails to recognize the feelings, values, and purposes of all the species sharing this planet with humanity, his narrowly humanistic praxeology falls short of enacting the Gaian polity implied by a praxecology.
Kaufmann’s praxeology is even more problematic, as his account of the human nervous system by analogy to a “combinatorial machine [i.e., parallel computer]” (p. 224) neglects the autopoietic nature of living cognitive processes. As will be discussed at length in the following section, the nervous system is not a linear “chain of perception-analysis-decision-action” (p. 228, ibid.), but a recursive and operationally closed loop of sensorimotor coordination within endogenously specified environments of relevancy (see p. 12). Construing cognition as if analysis and decision-making took place as independent steps in a causal chain between perception and action neglects the physiological fact that thinking (i.e., analyzing and deciding) is always already an embodied and embedded sensorimotor activity. Kaufmann’s praxeology re-inscribes the Cartesian dualism responsible for the metaphysical confusions at the root of the ecological crisis. Praxecology is my attempt to re-embody the human being’s conscious analytic capacities by re-imagining the way mind and body, thought and action, knowing and being relate to one another.
Autopoietic Biology and Enactive Cognition
The particular discourse of biology is one that I, like Haraway, “value, want to participate in and make better…and believe to be culturally, politically, and epistemologically important” (p. 218, ibid.). The biology of the late Francisco Varela, more recently carried forward by Evan Thompson, strikes me as especially important because it arises out of an awareness of the “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing” (p. 25, Maturana & Varela, 1988). In other words, deep inquiry into biology can reveal that our ontology, praxis, and epistemology are knotted together such that “…every act of knowing brings forth a world” (p. 26, ibid.).
Varela’s central conceptual contribution (along with Humberto Maturana) to the study of life is the theory of autopoiesis. The theory is part of a larger move away from current orthodoxy in biology that understands organisms as “heteronomous units operating by a logic of correspondence”; instead, Varela offers a new biology that sees organisms as “autonomous units operating by a logic of coherence” (p. 50, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987). The standard, gene-centric perspective of neo-Darwinist biology maintains that individual organisms are the puppets of their DNA, struggling to achieve fitness by way of natural selection into pre-given niches. They are “other-determined” (heteronomous) because the forms of their bodies and behaviors are imposed extrasomatically by a supposedly objective world and endosomatically by supposedly objective genetic algorithms. Evolutionary success is retroactively explained as the result of a correspondence between an organism’s body, instincts, and thoughts (all reducible to genetic coding) and the external world. Varela’s autopoietic view, in contrast, allows us to see organisms as autonomous and purposeful beings whose success is explained not by correct representation of a pre-given, objective reality, but by adequate structural coupling with others allowing for the enaction of coherent and durable material-semiotic worlds.
Further, an autopoietic biology makes clear that self-production is at least logically (if not also temporally) prior to reproduction (p. 131, E. Thompson). The basis of living organization, therefore, is not the ability to genetically replicate, but to produce a membrane-bound, self-organizing identity distinguishing organism from environment. In this way, the ecopoiesis of Gaia grants it living status, contrary to gene-centric neo-Darwinian criticisms.
Varela’s penchant for transdisciplinarity lead him to link his autopoietic biology to cognitive science, and his enactive theory of cognition to sociology. Varela has described enaction by borrowing the words of the poet Antonio Machado: “Wanderer the road is your footsteps, nothing else; you lay down a path in walking” (p. 63, 1987).
The scientific principles underlying this poetic insight have been highlighted by Evan Thompson, who offers five features central to the theory of enactive cognition (p. 13, 2007):
1.“…living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and thereby also enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains.”
2.“…the nervous system is an autonomous dynamic system [that] actively generates and maintains its own coherent and meaningful patterns of activity according to its operation as a circular and reentrant network of interacting neurons.”
3.“…cognition is the exercise of skillful know-how in situated and embodied action.”
a.“Cognitive structures and processes emerge from recurrent sensorimotor patterns of perception and action.”
b.Sensorimotor coupling between organism and environment modulates, but does not determine, the formation of endogenous, dynamic patterns of neural activity, which in turn inform sensorimotor coupling.”
4.“…a cognitive being’s world is not a prespecified, external realm, represented internally by its brain, but a relational domain enacted or brought forth by that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with the environment.”
5.“…experience is not an epiphenomenal side issue, but central to any understanding of the mind, and needs to be investigated in a careful phenomenological manner.”
One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular “cognitive domain” (see # 1) made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed (see # 2), its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.
As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance.
Referring to technoscience, as opposed to just science, emphasizes the extent to which knowledge emerges out of skillful action in embodied situations (see #’s 3 and 4). Science has always been dependent upon technological sensorimotor extensions to deepen its understanding of that commonplace called by its peculiar culture “nature.” Artifacts and their articulations, including alphabetic technologies, shape the kinds of worlds scientists are capable of enacting. Even mathematics is a figurative language (p.11, ibid.), constructing analogies between otherwise unrelated domains of experience.
Varela’s biology has implications not only for scientific epistemology, but also for society and human-earth relations. Echoing the sentiments of Haraway, Varela writes that:
“…biology is the source of most metaphors in current thinking…and expresses the possibility of a worldview beyond the split between us and it…what we do is what we know, and ours is but one of many possible worlds. [Enactive cognition] is…the laying down of a world, with no warfare between self and other” (p. 62, ed. by William Irwin Thompson, 1987).
It is our shared biological lineage that secures the basic structure of the worlds we can bring forth together via linguistic and empathic structural coupling. But culture is not bound by nature, or rather human nature is sufficiently malleable that diverse cultural expressions can emerge within isolated social groups. It is often only through inter-cultural confrontation and misunderstanding that members of one society come to recognize the unthought background of their enacted worlds. Varela is at pains to convey to us the message of his biology, that “…as human beings, we have only the world which we create with others” (p. 246, 1988). Unless I can encounter the differences between my (or my culture’s) cognitive domain and another’s with the willingness to make room for their meanings besides my own, I undermine the biological process of structural coupling that produces livable worlds. Meaning emerges out of difference (p. 167, Hornborg), and as W. I. Thompson suggests, “the recognition of differences [is] the consciousness of the unique that contributes to the understanding of the universal” (p. 167, 1985). Bringing forth worlds with others requires tapping into a universal substratum of empathic relation, not to erase difference, but to celebrate it.
Varela calls this willingness to forego self-certainty for the sake of enacting inclusive worlds with others love. Love, says Varela (and Maturana), “is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness” (p. 264, 1988). Most scientists would dismiss such claims because they overshoot the objective scope of the scientific enterprise. But Varela’s biology is an attempt to break down the Cartesian divide between rationality and emotion, between what is and what ought to be. Biology is the study of life, but in the context of the recursive logic of enactivism, it becomes the self-study of our own living. Perhaps some physicists can study the mathematical regularities of measurable matter without too much personal investment, but to study the processes that birth and sustain our very being inevitably calls for profound personal and interpersonal involvement. And because of the identity between knowing and doing, the stories we tell about how life came to be and what it is doing here will determine what sorts of future worlds we bring forth together.
“Whatever we do in every domain, whether concrete (walking) or abstract (philosophical reflection), involves us totally in the body, for it takes place through our structural dynamics and through our structural interactions. Everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence” (p. 248, ibid.).
Varela’s autopoietic biology is a critical response to the mechanistic trends of mainstream studies of living organization. He emphasizes the autonomy of individual organisms while also situating them within the eco-social environments that sustain them materially and semiotically. Varela also engages the philosophical implications of biology in a more penetrating way than most other scientists when he recognizes the dynamic unity of mind and body. Thought, perception, and action are knotted together in the process of living, and life is by its very nature a co-creative, world-making affair. Acknowledging this, a Gaian praxecology strives, not to disembed local cultures (whether scientific or indigenous) from their specific histories of structural coupling, but to expand their cognitive domains such that they begin to comport themselves appropriately in light of the knowledge of the whole Earth as a single living system—in mythopoeic fact, a person—that all beings, no matter our cultural or even biological differences, depend upon for survival. The task of our planetary age is to situate the parts in the whole (so human persons can relate to Gaia) while not forgetting that the whole is also to be found in each of the parts (humans are, first and foremost, earthlings). Personifying the Earth not only leads to renewed respect for our home planet, but reminds us of the encompassing and interconnected natural processes responsible for breathing life into individual human persons and all other earthlings. Personhood, it could be said, is granted only when beings are able to meet each other in loving social spaces.
Language is the primary instrument of human knowing, the tool of tools that opens up worlds of meaning more flexible (and reflexive) than the bio-semiotic endowments granted to most other organisms. But the virtue of human language is also its tragic flaw, as the creative power of words enable the imagination to almost entirely detach from the actuality of the body and the Earth. One result of such disengagement is what A. N. Whitehead has called the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” (p. 51, 1925): abstract worlds of words and images restructure not only thought, but perception and action, such that the concrete lived experience of the uniqueness of individual persons, to take one example, becomes obscured by pre-conceived notions of culture, race, and class (etc.), leading to an objectification of others that short-circuits the process of linguistic and empathic structural coupling.
Varela suggests that human language evolved as a result of increased socialization and loving cooperation between our hominid ancestors (p. 220, 1988). The female shift from estral cycles to nonseasonal sexuality and the frontal coitus resulting from upright posture are mentioned as possible reasons for the development of such a complex and expressive behavior as speech (p. 219, ibid.).
Evan Thompson points also to “…the evolution of a new stage of development, namely, childhood,” which provides developing human beings with an incredible plasticity, so much in fact that
“…individual subjectivity is from the outset intersubjectivity, a result of the communally handed down norms, conventions, symbolic artifacts, and cultural traditions in which the individual is always already embedded” (p. 409-411, 2007).
Writing may have arisen later (around the 4th millennium BCE) for economic reasons (p. 13, Jean, 1987), but the spoken word appears to have emerged originally as a result of the desire for increased interpersonal intimacy. This is, of course, a revisionist account of the origins of human language, focusing more on the evolution of consciousness than economic progress or the invention of technologies. W. I. Thompson offers evidence contrary to the standard technophilic and androcentric explanations, citing the work of prehistorian Alexander Marshack, who, like E. Thompson and Varela, argues language arose as a result of neoteny and increased social cohesion:
“If, at any point in the evolutionary process ‘language’ or proto-language was to be learned, it would not have been in the context of the hunt. It would have been learned young, before the individual was economically productive…in the context of the child’s widening, increasingly complex relational competence” (p. 91, W. I. Thompson, 1981).
A Gaian praxecology requires a novel way of relating to language as primarily communicative, rather than descriptive or representational. The meaning of our words comes not from a correspondence between them, our brains, and objects or events in the world, but from the consensual coordination of our lived bodies and their linguistic intentions. Social coherence, rather than representational correspondence, produces meaningful intersubjective linguistic domains.
The communicative origins of language should make it clear that claims to establish a pure observer language free of cultural idiosyncrasy (and so capable of objective description of phenomena) are more political than scientific. Human beings speak with one another in order to share emotion and direct attention, and so any notion of descriptive or explanatory truth must include at least the potential for agreement between structurally coupled agents. If one group’s emically verified description contradicts another’s, there has not been a factual conflict but a failure to communicate. Such conflicts of description are especially insidious when political power is used to enforce “true” accounts of reality despite the resistance of marginalized social enactments of meaning.
The move away from representational accounts of language is the first step toward “…[placing] the human within the dynamics of the planet rather than [placing] the planet within the dynamics of the human” (p. 160, T. Berry, 1999). By recognizing language as a poetic product of the Earth’s own desire to know itself through autobiography, perhaps the psychological alienation and spiritual disenchantment so characteristic of our historical moment can be overcome. According to Berry, “this awakening is our human participation in the dream of the Earth” (p. 165, ibid.). As I shared above, our language and the imaginative capacities it facilitates evolved because humans grew more capable of empathic structural coupling. As the cultural and symbolic systems that emerged became more complex, they began to reify differences between one another and, at least in the Western world, between humanity and nature. In effect, Western consciousness detached from the dream of the Earth and fell into its own nightmare of endless economic growth fueled by technological progress.
A flourishing Gaian-polity will require rooting human imagination and language back in the body of the Earth and Cosmos, such that our evolutionary journey from protozoa to speaking primates becomes an expression of the planet’s own joie de vivre.
As Rick Tarnas has written:
“The human spirit does not merely prescribe nature’s phenomenal order; rather, the spirit of nature brings forth its own order through the human mind when that mind is employing its full complement of faculties–intellectual, volitional, emotional, sensory, imaginative, aesthetic, epiphanic…human language itself can be recognized as rooted in a deeper reality, as reflecting the universe’s unfolding meaning…Human thought does not and cannot mirror a ready-made objective truth in the world; rather, the world’s truth achieves its existence when it comes to birth in the human mind” (p. 435, 1991).
A participatory approach like Tarnas’ is exactly the kind of relationship between language, culture, and nature that praxecology seeks. Humanity, rather than the alienated dominator of Earth, can become Gaia’s most articulate storyteller and most potent dream weaver. Logos did not arrive in the universe in human form from beyond at some point in history, but has been a part of cosmogenesis since the beginning.
Humanity is unique, in the double sense of being both one with (Latin: unus) the Earth/Cosmos and undeniably alone. What it is that makes our species so special is a matter of contention. The risk one takes in defining the difference between human and nonhuman is that some group be marginalized by not being included in the favored category. History makes it quite apparent that societies become more willing to commit atrocities when they adopt antagonistic linguistic classifications (race, class, gender, species, etc.). But even to deny the difference is already to have marked the topic as a forbidden fruit. I cannot avoid this risk if I wish to tell my story (cross-cultural communication depends, at least etymologically, on munitions—on firing an opening shot). I can only provisionally offer that what makes us human is our being always already embedded participants in evolving worlds of meaning, and knowing so. Knowledge is what distinguishes humanity, but all knowing is situated within the promiscuous meanings and romantic-comedic-tragic narratives of embodied life among others, both human and non.
Our human capacity for knowledge also clues us into our ignorance, the fact that we lack, perhaps indefinitely, a complete understanding of how we came to be and how best to live. Nonetheless, as Wendell Berry has written, “…we have to act on the basis of what we know, [even if] what we know is incomplete” (p. 10, 2000). Our cultures must provide us with a flexible way to navigate the unmappable complexities of the terrain of life on this evolving planet. A renewed engagement with the mythopoeic dimensions of consciousness is one way to keep our balance while walking upon such uncertain ground.
Myth, according to W. I. Thompson, “is a state of being, analogous to music [and so] not simply a description, but a performance of the very reality it seeks to describe” (p. 6, 1996). Any knowledge we pretend to have regarding the world simultaneously participates in the bringing forth of exactly such a world. Even modern technosciences of life have deep mythological roots, and so to properly contextualize matters of fact I must invoke the poetic images of the ancient past (of at least our Western, alphabetic tradition).
Hesiod, Ovid, Homer and other Greek orators have given poetic, divinatory, or dramatic tribute to Gaia, the “mother of all [and] eldest of all beings” (Homeric hymn XXX). She is imagined to have emerged at the beginning of the world from the undifferentiated, lifeless mass of Chaos. Once her earthly foundation was in place, she birthed the sky, the mountains, and the sea, along with countless other beings, mortal and immortal. She was, for ancient humanity (on all continents, though by other names), personified as Grandmother, revered for her creative generativity and life-sustaining soils.
For us, despite living thousands of years later in an age of “Reason,” it remains wise to remember with W. I. Thompson that a Gaian evolutionary theory and practice (a praxecology) “requires not simply training and data collection, but imagination” (p. 252, 1991).
Imagination, for Thompson, is what integrates perception and enacts coherent worlds of situated meaning:
“What brings forth a world is the human body as a field of metaphoric extension of the known into the unknown… [Imagination’s] ability to stabilize a world derives from…preverbal geometries of behavior we have come to cognize as the way things happen” (p. 253, ibid).
These preverbal geometries of behavior archetypally structure our unconscious experience of the Earth. In those “mythic times called the ‘Scientific Revolution’” (p. 1, Haraway, 1997), the Cartesian coordinate plane emerged to refigure the human body-mind, constructing a flattened background upon which the Western imagination could perform its world-making magic at relative distance from the local complexities and particular faces of Earth.
The re-imagining of the world I am after requires locating the supposedly universal scientific truths responsible for disenchanting the Earth and Cosmos. “[The scientific tribe], says Latour, “like earlier ones, projects its own special categories onto Nature; what is new is that it pretends it has not done so” (p. 102, 1993). This pretense to objectivity, ironically, is what allowed Lovelock to publish his first hypotheses (p. 568-570, Nature, 1965) concerning how best to detect extraterrestrial life (by searching for “order” and “non-equilibrium”). The ambiguous boundaries between life and non-life, much like those between human and nonhuman, are fraught with controversy. Lovelock’s generalizations, however, seem to offer at least relatively universal characteristics applicable even to alien worlds. As far as Lovelock is concerned, life is a planetary affair, involving even the physiosphere in its metabolic processes of growth and evolution (through regulation of atmosphere and plate tectonics [Mann, 1991]).
Our living planet has produced not only complex eco-semiotic webs of organic community, but also a special primate who can know the difference between sign and thing (and who surfs the mystery in between with myth). This differential knowing raises the specter of minds separate from bodies, of a noosphere over and above the biosphere using it as a means for its own elevated ends. But we need not reproduce the Sacred Image of the Same by reifying the human difference; we can instead, through a self-critical and diffractive consciousness, bring forth histories of entangled meaning where reality and idea, science and story, nature and culture mutually constitute one another (Haraway, 1997). The cosmogenesis of Earth is as much mental, cultural, and transcendent as it is physical, natural, and immanent. There is no one true and ideal copy of the world that might be reproduced culturally or technologically. Reality is not a reflected image in the human mind, but co-emerges out of the interference patterns generated by the varied material-semiotic activities of countless earthlings, most of whom are not human (p. 299, Haraway, 1992). A Gaian praxecology attempts to make this radically inter-species realization explicit in both our ecological practices and our discourse.
Imagine a world where Lovelock’s scientific narratives about the “Ages of Gaia” are tied together in a distributed and layered way (p. 121, Haraway, 1997.) with the ancient myths and mysterious organic origins of so many other human and nonhuman natures-cultures. Gaian praxecology requires not hegemonic universalism or globalization, but a shared discourse of common origins always open to interpellation (p. 49-50, ibid.). Humanity does not yet share a sacred story of creation, but our global techno-industrial activities have already inextricably linked our biological destinies. The future of our species depends upon a more integral relation between economic theory and ecological practice, myth and science, and imagination and knowledge. A Gaian praxecology is at least an opening gesture toward a more appropriate relation between these dualisms.
Earth recognized and lived with as what Ian Hacking (p. 31-32, 1999) has called an “interactive kind,” a person, would bring our species even closer to what a Gaian praxecology implies. Reconnecting on a personal level with the Earth makes evident the real ways that our ideas are actualized in the bringing forth of worlds. For too long, Gaia has been conceived of as a dead rock mutely bearing oil drills and explosives, a mere standing reserve of resources fed into the human market, and only then made valuable. The result is that much of her body (including the parts of her that we are) has become toxic and infertile. The time has come to pay respect again to the Grandmother of all who eat and breathe beneath the sun. I call for a polyphonic Gaian mythos sung by humans and nonhumans alike, “…for things [quasi-objects] too have to be elevated to the dignity of narrative” (p. 90, Latour, 1993).
The spiritual import of a logos of the living Earth cannot be underestimated. Unless the human spirit can begin to feel at home again upon the planet of its birth, it will surely soon become the planet of its death.
“As physical resources become less available,” says Berry,
“psychic [or spiritual] energy must support the human project in a special manner. This situation brings us to a new reliance on powers within the universe and also to experience of the deeper self. The universe must be experienced as the Great Self. Each is fulfilled in the other: the Great Self is fulfilled in the individual self, and the individual self is fulfilled in the Great Self. Alienation is overcome as soon as we experience this surge of energy from the source that has brought the universe through the centuries. New fields of energy become available to support the human venture. These new energies find expression and support in celebration. For in the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration” (p. 170, 1999).
The ongoing celebration of the Cosmos and Earth community, indeed, provides us with a mythos worth performing and participating in. Indigenous peoples have ritually participated in Gaia’s seasonal rhythms for thousands of generations, recognizing the celebratory significance of all life’s activities. A similar re-sacralization of life goes hand in hand with a Gaian praxecology. Ritual is the concrete foundation of culture, the source of our most fundamental habits and dispositions. Renewing our connection with the “mother of all things” can bring an end to the fragmented Chaos of post-industrial civilization, giving us the inspiration to tell the meaningful stories of creation and regeneration going on around, between, and within us. It is through such scientifically informed, mythically imbued narratives and rituals that a Gaian praxecology can be brought forth. All of our cultural institutions must seek their guidance from the roles granted them by such numinous, celebratory stories such that they perform their world-making work for the glory of Gaia, rather than for the profit of a few corporations.
My story has now reached its end, but hopefully the holzwege I have laid down in walking has provided an opening for fellow terrestrial trekkers to follow in my footsteps. Our ultimate destination cannot be prematurely known, as the mythic landscapes we must travel are dense and full of mystery.
“The landscape of myth,” says W. I. Thompson,
“…is that shoreline where the island of knowing meets the unfathomable sea of our own being…When we come to [such] an edge we have to shift our mode of thought…from rational analysis to intuitive meditation” (p. 87, 1981).
We can only hope to understand the current planetary moment by wholeheartedly participating in the multibillion-year cosmic performance of powers that produced and continues to nourish us. Science and spirituality must mutually aid us in any joint venture to enact a Gaian praxecology, because only a more integral relation between intelligence and imagination will allow the human being to dream with the Earth once again.
 Cyborgs are “the offspring of…technoscientific wombs—imploded germinal entities, densely packed condensations of worlds, shocked into being from the force of the implosion of the natural and the artificial, nature and culture, subject and object, machine and organic body, money and lives, narrative and reality” (p. 14, Haraway, 1997).
 See Weston, A. ‘Forms of Gaian ethics,’ pgs. 217-230, Environmental Ethics 9. 1987. Lovelock himself sees his work as strictly scientific, but this has not stopped others from extending the implications of his theory into ethics and spirituality via critiques of anthropocentrism and materialism.
 “…the intensified misery of billions of men and women [and nonhuman species] seems organically rooted in the freedoms of transnational capitalism and technoscience” (p. 3, Haraway, 1997). Another result of techno-industrialism is mechanistic biology. I explore the metaphysical substructure of this disembedded perspective in my essay “On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics” (2009).
 Refers to class discussion (11/4/09). Also see Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype (1983), where he argues that natural selection could not have produced a self-regulating planetary organism. Dawkins’ definition of life in terms of genetic replication is too narrow for reasons discussed on page 9.
 “Even Hegel, for whom the Absolute is fully grasped as such only as Concept or Idea, recognized that art, religion and philosophy all share the same substance, that in fact it is only as reflection on (or refraction through) the myths and symbols of religion in particular that ‘absolute knowing’ can arise in the first place.” –Sean Kelly, Evolutionary Panentheism for the Planetary Era, 2009
 This is, essentially, a move away from representationalist epistemology to participatory epistemology, where knowledge “about” a system or process is understood to be an integral part of the same system or process. Personality is not the sole possession of our species, but a refined expression of the primordial personhood of the living Earth.
 For more on what a Gaian polity entails, see Gaia, A Way of Knowing: Political Implications of the New Biology, ed. by W.I. Thompson. Several principles are suggested, including the move away from one-sided ideologies to an “ecology of consciousness” (Bateson) and the supersession of nation-state territorialism through a recognition of the atmosphere as our global commons. See also section X (p. 67) of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009).
 Eco-action is action in service of one’s earthly home and all the kin who live there (oikos– household, or family).
 The details of the technical definition of “autopoiesis” (self-production) need not concern us in this paper, but in short, a system is generally defined as autopoietic if it is composed of a network of dynamic chemical transformations that produces its own components and the membrane that spatially defines it as a system (p. 46, M. & V., 1988). The paradigmatic example of autopoiesis is the cell.
 See Dawkins 1989 and Dennett 1995
 Lovelock’s Gaia theory allows us to see that life does not adapt to fit the fixed parameters of a lifeless planet, but remakes its host into a complex, self-regulating living system.
 “We speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (p. 74, M. &V., 1988).
 “In one of his articles Lovelock uses the term ecopoiesis to describe Gaia (Lovelock, 1987). This term seems just right for conveying both the resemblance and difference between Gaia and the autopoietic cell. The resemblance is due to the ecosphere and the cell being autonomous systems, the difference to the scale and manner in which their autonomy takes form” (p. 122, E. Thompson).
 “…we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).
 For example, Thomas Edison wove a chain of associations together to relate Joule’s and Ohm’s equations with economic principles. The result was the electric light bulb (p. 239-240, Latour, 1988).
 W. I. Thompson (p. 21-26, 1981) similarly links the evolution of language and sexuality, pointing to, among other things, Alfred Kinsey’s studies in the 1950s showing the intelligentsia (those who have mastered language), unlike the working classes, tended to revel in oral sexuality.
 See Maturana’s Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality (1978), where he points to structural coupling as the origin of language. This is in contrast to denotative or representational theories of language, where words stand for things independent of consensual coordination between human organisms.
 “The governing dream of the twentieth century appears as a kind of ultimate manifestation of that deep inner rage of Western society against its earthly condition as a vital member of the life community” (p. 165, ibid.).
 See section VIII of my essay On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics (2009) for a possible account of why Western consciousness became so detached from the ecopoiesis of the Earth.
 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through [the Word] and without [the Word] was not anything made that hath been made” (John 1:1-1:4).
 See James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (3rd ed., 1915). Frazer points to the common origin of all modern religions in the ancient goddess worshipping traditions of the world. Especially significant in the context of my essay is his statement that “…imagination acts upon man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid” (ch. 22).
 Autopoiesis has been suggested in an earlier section on Varela’s systems biology as a possible scientific definition of “life” that recognizes self-production and self-regulation (rather than genetic replication) as essential to living organization, thereby granting Gaia living status. The economic implications of the controversy over what counts as “life” are central to my essay On the Matter of Life (2009), where I argue, with the help of Whitehead and Varela, that all actual occasions are autopoietic organisms.
 While Lovelock was working with NASA to detect life on Mars, he had “a gentle discussion with Carl Sagan, who thought it might be possible that life existed in oases where local conditions would be more favorable. Long before Viking set course from Earth I felt intuitively that life could not exist on a planet sparsely; it could not hang on in a few oases, except at the beginning or at the end of its tenure. As Gaia theory developed, this intuition grew; now I view it as a fact” (p. 6, 1988).
- Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. 1988. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.
2) Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. 1999. Bell Tower: New York.
3) Berry, Wendell. Life is a Miracle: Essays Against Modern Superstition. 2000. Counterpoint: Washington D.C.
4) Hacking, Ian. The Social Construction of What? 1999. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
5) Haraway, Donna J. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. 1997. Routledge: New York.
6) Haraway, Donna J. The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. Printed in Cultural Studies. 1992. Eds. Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., Treichler, A. Routledge: New York.
7) Hesiod. Theogony. 1953. Bobbs-Merrill: New York.
8) Hornborg, Alf. The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment. 2001. AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek.
9)Jean, Georges. Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. 1992. Abrams: New York.
10) Kaufmann, Arnold. Transl. from French by Rex Audley. The Science of Decision-Making: An Intro to Praxeology. 1968. McGraw-Hill: New York.
11) Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. 1987. Harvard: Cambridge.
12) Lovelock, James. The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth. 1988. Bantam Books: New York.
13) Mann, Charles. Lynn Margulis: Science’s Unruly Earth Mother. Science 19 April 1991. Pgs. 378-381
14) Maturana, Humberto and Varela, J. Francisco. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. 1988. Shambala: Boston.
15) Rothbard, Murray N. The Logic of Action I: Method, Money, and the Austrian School. 1997. Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, UK.
16) Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing. 1989. Harper: San Francisco.
17) Segall, Matthew. On the Matter of Life: Towards an Integral Biology of Economics. 2009.
18) Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. 1991. Ballantine Books: New York.
19) Thompson, Evan. Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind. 2007. Harvard: Cambridge.
20) Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia: A Way of Knowing, Political Implications of the New Biology. 1987. Lindisfarne: New York.
21) Thompson, William Irwin (editor). Gaia 2: Emergence, The New Science of Becoming. 1991. Lindisfarne: New York.
22) Thompson, William Irwin. Pacific Shift. 1985. Sierra Club Books: San Francisco.
23) Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light. 1981. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
24) Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. 1925. The Free Press: New York.
The following is lifted from my old blog at Gaia.com, which has since shut down. Sorry of some hypertext doesn’t work!
I first want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. The intersection of integral spirituality and enactive cognitive science is, for whatever reason, one of my passions, and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to engage others about these ways of thinking and living.
I’m going to begin this essay by breaking down the topics of enactivism and integralism (specifically Ken Wilber’s integralism) as they relate to one another. I’ll do so in two separate sections, the first on the biology of cognition and communication as described within the enactive paradigm, and the second on biology and enactivism as perceived and appropriated by Wilber. I hope to highlight a few areas of agreement, as well as disagreement, and to lay down what I think the most promising path of synthesis might be. If you are not too keen on abstract philosophical discourse, please bear with me, as these sections may qualify as exactly that (feel free to skip to part 3 if you must!).
The last section will be more concrete and, hopefully, poetically evocative. It will focus on what an embodied and integral spirituality might look like, contrasting it with the unfortunate developments in the contemporary New Age community. Popular but shallow spiritual salesmen (and women) have developed clever marketing campaigns geared toward convincing people that they can “create their own reality.” While this idea is not entirely false in some contexts, it is grossly misleading and requires quite a bit of unpacking before it begins to bear any resemblance to reality. With the help of some of Varela’s ideas, I hope to offer a vision of the potential of being human in the creative cosmos we all call home.
Part 1: Enactivism and the Biology of Cognition
1-A: Co-gnosis, or “Knowing-with”
If one had to distill the central tenet of enactivism, as developed by Humberto Maturana and the late Francisco Varela, it would be that “everything said is said by an observer” (Maturana, 1988, p. 27). An observer is any language-using being, specifically a human being. We human beings use language to describe the world we inhabit with others. Typically, we describe without explicitly referencing ourselves as observers. Enactivism (I’ll use this term even though it is Varela’s; Maturana, though not directly associated with it, would probably not be opposed to the label) suggests that self-referentiality is always implied, as to speak a language with others is to bring forth a world of shared significance whose relation to an independent reality outside the one we constitute with and for each other is irrelevant.
This holds true for all modes of language, whether colloquial or scientific. When molecular biologists investigate the structure of cellular organelles, they come to know what they see through their microscopes by agreeing upon appropriate linguistic abstractions and relations between abstractions. These abstractions designate the important features of reality as distinguished by those with the skills and training required to do so. Even when the science being practiced is physics, our descriptions amount to consensual agreements about the nature of the world under investigation (shaped also by our biological structure and organization, which are not arbitrary choices but historical necessities resulting from our evolutionary inheritance; more on this below). This may be hard for materialists to swallow, but one of the core suppositions of enactivism is that science, as a form of languaging, is indeed a social activity embedded in a particular historical situation bearing the marks of the prejudices that affect every other human sphere of life, whether political, religious, or otherwise.
“A physicist will say that we’re made of atoms,” says Varela. “Such statements, while true, are irrelevant… There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions” (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/varela/varela_p4.html).
The reality of life and death that Varela here refers to is that of our embodied existence as conscious observers. There is a tendency in the sciences to assume that the knowledge brought forth by the scientific method amounts to an objective representation of reality as it exists independent of human subjectivity. Maturana and Varela want to replace this notion with that of “objectivity-in-parenthesis.” Their aim is to avoid the transcendental objectivism which results when the observer “…implicitly or explicitly assumes that existence takes place independently of what he or she does, that things exist independently of whether he or she knows them, and that he or she can know them, or can know of them, or can know about them, through perception or reason” (Maturana, 1988a, p. 28).
Remember, for enactivism, “everything said is said by an observer.” This is to remind us that all of our descriptions come from a particular perspective. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as pure objectivity. As philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, pure objectivity amounts to a “view from nowhere,” which, when taken literally, is contradictory. Conceptually, we can certainly imagine reality and ourselves outside our embedded perspectives; but such mental exercises remain a function of ouroperationally closed (more on this later) nervous systems. In other words, our imagined objectivity is still a product of our embodiment, and so remains an “as if” objectivity; or, as enactivism suggests, an “objectivity-in-parenthesis.”
To be clear, though, as Bruce pointed out last week, Varela and Maturana do not mean to replace objectivity with a form of solipsistic idealism, nor a form of complete social constructivism. On the contrary, they want to call our attention to empirical biological realities. We will now shift from what has primarily been a discussion of language into a discussion of the “bio-logic” underlying it.
There is a bit of a scandal in the biological sciences. After nearly 400 years of what might be considered modern scientific investigation (and 3,000 years of natural philosophy), a widely agreed upon definition for the central object of study, life, has yet to be produced. There are plenty of qualities that have been ascribed to living systems, but (arguably) the only serious attempt to define it was Varela and Maturana’s theory of autopoiesis. Briefly, an autopoietic system is a unity easily distinguishable from its surrounding environment, containing components that continually produce and maintain both themselves and the unity. The term is a literal translation into Greek of “self-producing.”
There is a more technical definition of the term, but for the purposes of this paper, I won’t get into it. Click the hypertext above if you are interested. The reason the autopoiesis –or self-producing organization— of organisms is important for this discussion is the extent to which it helps us see how the nervous system brings forth both our individuality and our world. The term is meant to apply specifically to the organization of a cell, but it applies equally well (with a few caveats) to multicellular organisms, which biologist Leo Buss has appropriately called “somatic ecologies.” Why the term is appropriate may need some unpacking. From the point of view of autopoietic theory, the process of living is synonymous with cognition. So even a single bacterium flagellating up a sucrose gradient is bringing forth a world based on its own internal dynamics. When evolution gives rise to multicellulars, the worlds of each cell must somehow be coordinated such that “…potential conflicts between cells and the individual [are mediated], while the organism is simultaneously interacting effectively with the extrasomatic environment” (Buss 1987). Varela was fascinated by just how this mediation was pulled off. It drew him into immunology, where he attempted to improve upon the traditional understanding of the immune system as a kind of military defense against intruders by redefining it as a “self-referential, positive assertion of a coherent unity” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 9). But what interests us is his investigation into the “somatic ecology” of the nervous system, which along side the immune system allows a network of trillions of cells to function as a coherent whole.
Varela put it thus: “The fundamental logic of the nervous system is that of coupling movements with a stream of sensory modulations in a circular fashion” (Ibid.). Let’s break this down. The first thing to notice about this “neuro-logic” is that perception becomes an active process. We know the world by moving around within it. Bruce alluded to an experiment with kittens validating this in a comment under his essay. In this sense, the term “perception” is a bit of a misnomer, as it implies the passive reception through the senses of an already constituted reality. This brings us to the second important feature of Varela’s neuro-logic, which is that perception is a circular process generated by ongoing sensorimotor coupling. This is true both at the level of individual neurons (dendrites are sensors, axon terminals are motors) and at the level of the whole organism (eyes, ears, skin, etc. are sensors, muscles, tendons, etc. are motors).
This circularity is why enactivism posits the “operational closure” of the nervous system mentioned earlier. We know only the world the structure and organization of our nervous systems allow us to know. As Varela says, “The neuronal dynamics underlying a perceptuo-motor task are… a network affair, a highly cooperative two-way system, and not a sequential stage-to-stage information abstraction” (Ibid.). In other words, the typical linear notion of information picked up by the senses from a pregiven world, processed into perceptions, and then translated into appropriate motor responses is not just a simplification, but is actually wrong. What we perceive is based more on the ongoing operations already taking place in our nervous system prior to any perturbations by the environment. If we now reconsider the first point about active perception, we see that “all doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana & Varela, 1992, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, p. 27).
This concludes the section on enactivism, but we will revisit and further explore some of the concepts discussed above, as well as introduce a few other important features of the enactive paradigm (such as intersubjectivity and groundlessness) as we go along.
(Click here for a video of Evan Thompson, co-author of The Embodied Mind, on 1st personal consciousness, and a much younger Varela speaking about objectivity.)
Part 2- Wilber, Biology, Enactivism
As Bruce has already pointed out last week, Wilber embraces Varela et al.’s attempt to move beyond the gross reductionism of the representational paradigm in cognitive science, which sees the mind as essentially identical to a sophisticated computer. As Wilber says, “From the field that claims to be the final authority on such matters, what we learn about consciousness and lived experience is this: basically, it doesn’t exist” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 564). Part of Varela’s project is to find a place for conscious experience in the scientific worldview. But Wilber’s support for enactivism as presented by Varela et al. is not without a few important reservations. While he applauds them for deconstructing and replacing the notion of a pregiven world found in the representational paradigm, he argues that they fail to fully appreciate the subjective dimensions of organisms. To be more specific, I refer you to the diagram below:
We see above in what is labeled figure 3 that each quadrant has both an interior and an exterior aspect, each with its own appropriate epistemological methodology. Varela is credited with rightly correcting the traditional Darwinian idea that something called “Nature” is responsible for singlehandedly sculpting the evolution of species, selecting which traits live on and which don’t. This idea, while not entirely wrong, fails to appreciate the degree to which organisms participate in their own evolution based on their autopoiesis, or self-organizing properties. Varela’s is a biology that emphasizes the autonomy of the organism, whereas most evolutionary biology sees the organism as the victim of a pregiven environment. In other words, organism and environment (or Nature, in Darwin’s terms) co-determine one another. Wilber further explains: “… autopoietic theories remind us that the objective organism is not merely a strand in a Web, but also a relatively autonomous agent enacting its environment, an environment that is not a pregiven Web but is rather brought forth in part by the autopoietic regime of the organism itself” (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptC/intro-1.cfm). Wilber suggests, though, that Varela “…escapes the crude mirror of nature paradigm (monological and pregiven), but only by attacking the pregiven part, not the monological part: the paradigm shifts from the monological mirror of a sensorimotor world to the monological enactment of a sensorimotor world” (Ibid., p. 714).
Wilber is here arguing that Varela’s approach remains focused only on the upper right, objective quadrant. Autopoietic organization represents the inside of the exterior of organisms, but according to Wilber, fails to fully appreciate the subjective, phenomenological experience of organisms.
I don’t disagree with Wilber’s analysis here, as I think Varela’s work could certainly benefit from a more in depth exploration of subjective development. Nonetheless, I think Varela is very much aware of the lifeworld of organisms, which is evidenced by his exploration of Buddhist meditation in The Embodied Mind, as well this statement which directly acknowledges the role of agency in organisms: “[an organism] isn’t related to its environment ‘objectively,’ that is, independently of the system’s location, heading, attitudes and history. Instead, it relates to it in relation to the perspective established by the constantly emerging properties of the agent itself and in terms of the role such running redefinition plays in the system’s entire coherence” (Varela, 1991, Autopoiesis and a Biology of Intentionality, pg. 11). Granted, this description is still a third person account of a lived reality, which can only be directly accessed with “I” language. “The habits of intimate touching of prehensive unification tend to be reduced to the mechanics of structural coupling and exterior-cognitive enactment,” as Wilber says (http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/kosmos/excerptC/notes-1.cfm).
Wilber accuses enactivism of being “heavily grounded in a biologistic bias” (Wilber, 1995, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, p. 712). To the extent that Varela et al. were aiming to remain scientific, this is true. But I wonder if Wilber has fully appreciated the scientific realities brought forth by a thorough investigation of the biological world…? As Julian discussed in one of his blogs earlier this year, Wilber seems to look to theorists associated with the intelligent design movement when asked about what an integral biology might look like. In one of his books, he makes the following specious argument: “It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg–a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing–you can’t run and you can’t fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal–also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings” (Wilber, 2000, A Brief History of Everything, p.20). If you showed this passage to a biologist, after they finished laughing, they’d explain that wings most certainly could evolve gradually.
It’s not that I don’t share Wilber’s distaste for the neo-Darwinist paradigm in evolutionary biology. I just think he would be more respected in scientific circles if he did not make outrageous claims without any supporting evidence whatsoever. There are plenty of other approaches to understanding evolution in a non-reductionist way that are entirely scientific and don’t require any such exaggeration, among them Varela’s co-determining theory, which Wilber seems to know well but so often neglects to mention when asked about evolutionary biology. If anything like intelligent design is true, science would become impossible, as positing a demiurge as the designer of nature makes any human attempt to know reality akin to a cartoon character suddenly realizing they are an artist’s drawing. It ain’t gunna happen.
To sum up this section, we can say that Varela’s ideas would definitely benefit from a greater appreciation for the depth and developmental scope of subjective experience, as Wilber has rightly argued. But Wilber, on the other hand, could equally benefit from a more realistic engagement with the findings of objective biological science. Varela is no longer with us, and so we will never know how he may have appropriated Wilber’s criticisms; but hopefully Wilber will reevaluate his seeming support for intelligent design by fully embracing the truths brought forth by an empirical, systems-oriented approach to biological evolution.
Part 3- Embodied Spirituality
I’d like to begin this section with a few words from Varela himself. This video was shot just before his death in 2001 as part of a documentary entitled “Monte Grande” released in 2005.
It pretty well speaks for itself, reiterating several points I hope were adequately made in the first two sections of this essay about the co-emergence of subject and object. What struck me as significant, though, was what Varela said towards the end about abiding in the questions that strike us as especially mysterious, rather than rushing to pass judgment for or against them. Maybe it is just a reflection of my and Varela’s Buddhist frame of reference, but it has always seemed to me that being spiritual essentially means being unattached. This doesn’t mean we should not love deeply those we share our lives with, quite the contrary. Letting go of our attachments allows us to relate to others more genuinely than when we have specific ends in mind. What non-attachment suggests is that we be constantly on the lookout for the various manifestations of certainty that tend to crop up in our thoughts about the world. Almost always, an unyielding conviction about this, that, or the other is the result of some kind of repression or psychological wound we have yet to fully face and allow to heal.
In The Embodied Mind, Varela repeatedly emphasizes the groundless nature of existence. Even that most universal of spiritual values, love, so often eludes all our attempts to possess or comprehend it. Whether it is our own personal experience of being conscious, or our sense of the world around us, a penetrating investigation reveals no firm foundation upon which to rest our tirelessly seeking minds. The path seems endless, not necessarily because it is long and filled with difficult challenges, but because it is constantly swallowing itself like an Ouroburos.
Holding this image in mind, what are we to make of the many New Age belief systems offering “secrets” (for a fee) that supposedly give us anything we desire? I see in these systems only clever advertising and predation upon those with weak minds. There is not even the hint of anything genuinely spiritual, in the sense that spirituality means letting go of our own wants and desires to focus instead upon compassion and loving kindness. Seeking great spiritual insights from something like the “law of attraction” tarnishes the meaning of the word “insight.” To genuinely see into our condition, we have to forgo the “Cartesian anxiety” that compels us to chase after various forms of security and stability, be they a grandiose sense of self, a youthful appearance, a six-figure salary, or transcendental knowledge of and control over reality itself. When we turn our attention inward, we discover that the self we think we are, with all its desires and wishes and ideas, is rather fragile and impermanent.
Realizing this can lead in one of two directions:
Either we avert our introspective gaze and distract ourselves with kitschy offers of instant enlightenment for 3 easy payments of $19.95, or we go deeper and realize that our lack of an essential self is an opportunity to engage reality on a level more rewarding than anything we could have dreamed of before.
I quote Varela at length:
“The more the fragile self-subject deploys itself, the more compassion deploys itself because that’s what it is. The more there is the opening into space to accommodate or to take care of the other, there is kind of an intrinsic decenteredness, and therefore the other appears closer. Solidarity, compassion, care, love –all of the different modes of being together– appear when the self is decentered. Now that, to me, is a great gift of the universe. Since we are not solid and private and centered, the more we get close to all our reality, the more we are who we are. That is, both you and I. Not just me, but the ‘us-ness’ in us. Which is another way of saying that my mind is not my mind. It is a mind that requires that interbeing. There is naturally that kind of concern and care and solidarity. But it is not just how nice I am, or how good a guy I am. It has nothing to do with this. It has to do with how real things are, in reality, that non-distinction between the intersubjective network of things” (http://www.dialogonleadership.org/varela-2000.html).
Varela is here suggesting that our true nature is to be compassionate, not because we are “nice guys,” but because our very identity as individuals arises out of our transactions with others. This, and not the possibility of magical powers, is what an integral and embodied spirituality offers.
To even believe for a moment that our thoughts will bring us whatever we want, we have to already be completely encased and blinded by a lonely solipsistic shell, not recognizing that every other person around us is also hoping and wishing for their own fantasies to be fulfilled. Who is going to end up on top in this struggle for personal happiness? There can only be so many lottery winners… Again, maybe it is just my Buddhist bias, but who can deny that life is suffering? We are made through an act of carnal love in the pursuit of fleeting bliss, grown in the womb at the behest of the crystalline death records of untold generations prior, and born as naked, delicately woven bodies, our intricate dynamics hardly noticed until something goes wrong. And when it does, we’re faced with that ultimate uncertainty– with the completely unknowable, unfathomable reunion with that from which we came.
But could it be any other way? Could our bodies be so capable of deep feeling and intimate contact without also being so prone to disease and decomposition? Life is suffering, but so is suffering bliss. It is our perpetual lack that moves us to love, that guides us into the future where unending forms of life will result from the creative spark that is our being-towards-death. We cannot overcome the circle of becoming, of continual rebirth, but we can embrace it, celebrating the opportunity we so easily forget we have.
I’ll close with one of my favorite Zen koans entitled, “Hyakujo’s Fox,” with a comment at the end by Zen master Mumon. Zen is great for cutting through spiritual excess and getting right to the point:
Once when Hyakujo delivered some Zen lectures an old man attended them, unseen by the monks. At the end of each talk when the monks left so did he. But one day he remained after the had gone, and Hyakujo asked him: `Who are you?’
The old man replied: `I am not a human being, but I was a human being when the Kashapa Buddha preached in this world. I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain. At that time one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man is subject to the law of causation. I answered him: “The enlightened man is not subject to the law of causation.” For this answer evidencing a clinging to absoluteness I became a fox for five hundred rebirths, and I am still a fox. Will you save me from this condition with your Zen words and let me get out of a fox’s body? Now may I ask you: Is the enlightened man subject to the law of causation?’
Hyakujo said: `The enlightened man is one with the law of causation.’
At the words of Hyakujo the old man was enlightened. `I am emancipated,’ he said, paying homage with a deep bow. `I am no more a fox, but I have to leave my body in my dwelling place behind this mountain. Please perform my funeral as a monk.’ The he disappeared.
The next day Hyakujo gave an order through the chief monk to prepare to attend the funeral of a monk. `No one was sick in the infirmary,’ wondered the monks. `What does our teacher mean?’
After dinner Hyakujo led the monks out and around the mountain. In a cave, with his staff he poked out the corpse of an old fox and then performed the ceremony of cremation.
That evening Hyakujo gave a talk to the monks and told this story about the law of causation.
Obaku, upon hearing this story, asked Hyakujo: `I understand that a long time ago because a certain person gave a wrong Zen answer he became a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now I was to ask: If some modern master is asked many questions, and he always gives the right answer, what will become of him?’
Hyakujo said: `You come here near me and I will tell you.’
Obaku went near Hyakujo and slapped the teacher’s face with this hand, for he knew this was the answer his teacher intended to give him.
Hyakujo clapped his hands and laughed at the discernment. `I thought a Persian had a red beard,’ he said, `and now I know a Persian who has a red beard.’
Mumon’s comment: `The enlightened man is not subject.’ How can this answer make the monk a fox?
`The enlightened man is at one with the law of causation.’ How can this answer make the fox emancipated?
To understand clearly one has to have just one eye.
Controlled or not controlled?
The same dice shows two faces.
Not controlled or controlled,
Both are a grievous error.