UPDATE: Here is a PDF of the final draft accepted for publication under the revised title “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative.”


I’ve just finished drafting this article, which will hopefully be featured in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences focused on panpsychism. It still needs plenty of editing, but I’m sharing it here for those who want a sneak peak. Criticisms and suggestions definitely welcome.


 

Title: “Physicalism and Its Discontents: A Study in Whitehead’s Panexperientialist Alternative”


Abstract
(150-200 words): This paper brings Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. This paper thus examines physicalism’s dominant strategies for explaining consciousness, including eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism, and concludes that the panpsychist alternative is superior. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.

Key words: panpsychism, panexperientialism, physicalism, emergence, experience, consciousness, process philosophy

 

The skull-crackingly hard problem concerning the place of consciousness in the physical universe has led an increasing number of analytic philosophers of mind to take seriously the panpsychist alternative to standard physicalism. Nonetheless, Brüntrup and Jaskolla note in their editors’ introduction to Panpsychism: Contemporary Perspectives that the usual response to the doctrine remains “an incredulous stare” (2017, 2). Perhaps the most forceful dismissal to date comes from Colin McGinn, who in a reply to Galen Strawson rejects panpsychism as “a comforting piece of utter balderdash” that only stoned hippies could believe (McGinn 2006, 93).

But an explanation for the emergence of consciousness in the universe known to physics has thus far proven elusive. Fundamental philosophical questions remain to be answered before the criteria for such a scientific explanation can even be established. For example, is consciousness essentially ‘real’ or ‘illusory’? That is, does it “have truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality,” as Alfred North Whitehead suspected (1929, 15), or is it a peripheral accident, a mere epiphenomenon emergent from blindly churning physiochemical processes that are otherwise well understood by natural science? Does consciousness evolve, and if so, does it intelligently influence the behavior of the organisms instantiating it? These questions are not merely theoretical or academic. They cut to the very core who and what we are, shaping our sense of what it means to be human.

Despite the initial incredulity it provokes, this paper argues that panpsychism—specifically Whitehead’s process-relational,  panexperiential version—provides a viable alternative to scientific materialism while also avoiding the philosophical excesses of dualism and idealism. Strange as it may sound to modern ears, panpsychism has a long and rich history stretching back to the origins of Western philosophy. Heraclitus opposed Parmenides’ vision of unchanging Being with the doctrine that ‘everything flows’ (panta rhea). Heraclitus understood the universe to be “an ever-living fire” (pyr aeizoon), making him not only the first recorded process philosopher but the first panpsychist, as well (Skrbina 2005, 29). Even in the early modern period, thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Gottfried Leibniz, often lauded for their important contributions to the emergence of the scientific worldview, continued to uphold some version of the doctrine. “Lucretius tells us what an atom looks like to others,” writes Whitehead, “and Leibniz tells us how an atom is feeling about itself” ([1933] 1967, 132). Skeptics may be tempted to excuse Bruno and Leibniz’s panpsychist eccentricity as an unthought residue of pre-modern animism. Once enlightened by the findings of contemporary physics and biology, surely these luminaries would happily have dispensed with the ‘primitive’ notion that atoms can feel? Perhaps not. What, after all, are we to make of Whitehead, another mathematical and philosophical genius who critiqued scientific materialism and arrived at his own variety of panpsychism not despite but because of the findings of contemporary physics and biology?

“There persists…[a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter…spread throughout space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being…[This] is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 17).

This paper brings Whitehead’s “Philosophy of Organism” ([1929] 1978) into conversation with the recent panpsychist turn in analytic philosophy of mind. Whitehead’s unabashedly metaphysical project broadly aligns with recent critiques of reductive physicalism and the turn toward a conception of experience as basic to Nature. However, Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism diverges in crucial respects from the dominant substance-property variants of panpsychism. I argue that Whitehead’s version avoids many of the conceptual difficulties plaguing the latter and that it thus represents a more formidable alternative to standard physicalism.

1. Why not Whitehead?: A Brief Historical Excursus

“Urge & urge & urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance & increase, always sex,

Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.”

—Whitman (“Song of Myself”)

Understanding Whitehead’s process-relational approach to panpsychism (or panexperientialism, as David Ray Griffin has renamed it [Griffin 2008, 78]) first requires a bit of historical contextualization. While Whitehead’s early work with Bertrand Russell on the logical foundations of mathematics is widely acknowledged by analytic philosophers as seminal to the emergence of their school of thought, Whitehead’s later metaphysical speculations are for the most part either ignored or ridiculed. For example, W. V. Quine traveled to Harvard in the mid-1920s to study with the coauthor of the Principia Mathematica. After attending the lectures that became Science and the Modern World (1925), Quine acknowledged “a vivid sense of being in the presence of the great” but went on to admit that the notes he took were mostly full of doodles. “What [Whitehead] said,” Quine reports, “had little evident bearing on the problems that I recognized” (Quine 1985, 83). Another student of Whitehead’s at Harvard, Donald Davidson, was initially transfixed by his ideas, but later reflected that his encounter with Whitehead “set [him] back philosophically for years” by confirming his youthful “inclination to think that doing philosophy was like writing poetry” (Davidson 1999, 14). Not everyone was quite as sour on Whitehead’s speculations at Harvard. Ernest Nagel credited Whitehead with being one of the first to realize and attempt to address the metaphysical problems that were becoming “acutely pressing in the special sciences,” praising him for his “[sensitivity] to the advances of recent science as well to the ancient tradition that philosophy is the systematic study of being” (E. Nagel 1954, 154). But Nagel also noted “the severe abuse of language to which Whitehead is partial” (ibid.), a familiar (if not entirely fair) refrain among those who attempt to read him for the first time.

To round out this historical excursus, let us return to Nagel’s point about the special sciences. By the mid-1920s, the new quantum and relativity theories had already succeeded in demolishing the old mechanical philosophy of Nature by transforming matter into energy and merging space and time together with gravity. The classical explanations of Nature offered by a once confident scientific materialism no longer made any sense. A second scientific revolution was afoot. At the same time, Ludwig Wittgenstein led the logical positivists in a revolt against the excesses of British idealism by blowing up the bridge purporting to connect the metaphysical speculations of philosophers with the ultimate nature of things: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” (Wittgenstein 1922, 189). The physicists struggling to come to terms with the strange ontological implications of their discoveries could henceforth expect no help from philosophers. Whitehead’s own pathbreaking work on the application of mathematics to physics made him especially sensitive to Einstein’s relativistic revolution; he was also well aware of the concurrently unfolding quantum revolution. His sensitivity to the metaphysical earthquake underway in the physical sciences awakened Whitehead from the dogmatic slumber of the mechanistic paradigm. “What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation,” Whitehead asked, “when you do not know what you mean by mechanics?” (1925, 16). His Philosophy of Organism is a protest against the lifeless Nature imagined by Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, and a rejection of the narrow linguistic analysis and sterile logical positivism of his philosophical contemporaries. His is an attempt to make natural science philosophical again by asking whether physical causes and motions need be so violently segregated from the conscious reasons and emotions by which we apprehend them.

In Process & Reality: An Essay in Cosmology ([1929] 1978), Whitehead aims for nothing less than the construction of an organic system of the universe that not only brings quantum and relativity theories into coherence, but gathers up scientific truths, aesthetic feelings, and religious values into an integral vision of reality. It is true that Whitehead found it necessary to invent many new turns of phrase to accomplish this feat. He thus contrasts his speculative philosophical method with that of the “critical school” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 173), which for my purposes can easily be identified with the then just emerging analytic school of thought. This school assumes that humanity “has consciously entertained all the fundamental ideas which are applicable to its experience” and that “human language, in single words or in phrases, explicitly expresses these ideas” (ibid.). The critical or analytic school, Whitehead continues, “confines itself to verbal analysis within the limits of the dictionary” (ibid.). In contrast, Whitehead’s speculative method “appeals to direct insight, and endeavors to indicate its meanings by further appeal to situations which promote such specific insights. It then enlarges the dictionary” (ibid.). Whitehead credits analytic philosophy for its “delicate accuracy of expression,” but marks the main “divergence between the schools [as] the quarrel between safety and adventure” (ibid.).

Davidson worried about the adventurous Whitehead’s attempted alliance between speculative philosophy and mystical poetry. Both, according to Whitehead, make “reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words.” He continues: “If you like to phrase it so, philosophy is mystical. For mysticism is direct insight into depths as yet unspoken” (ibid., 174). Davidson’s complaint may be short-sighted, however, especially once one has acknowledged the profound metaphysical problems that after nearly a century of careful analysis continue to plague not only the physical sciences but the philosophy of mind, as well. Hamlet was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth…”

While getting to the bottom of Whitehead’s chilly reception among analytic philosophers is not the aim of this paper, a few conjectures can be offered. After a celebrated first career as a mathematician, Whitehead’s untimely entry into philosophy in the mid-1920s can be read as heralding the more recent return to metaphysics both in the analytic and Continental traditions. Philosophers are finally catching up to the problems Whitehead was pointing out nearly a century ago. Perhaps it is just because his cosmological ideas initially emerged in the wrong season that they have remained buried in the snow. In addition to the unfortunate timing, Whitehead’s lack of easy classification is probably another reason for his neglect. Neither an analytic philosopher, nor a phenomenologist, Whitehead’s approach generally confounds partisans of both schools. That said, his process-relational philosophy has been creatively taken up by a number of friendly thinkers on the Continent (initially Henri Bergson (1999, 47), later Gilles Deleuze ([1968] 1994, 284-285; [1988] 1993, 76ff), and most recently Isabelle Stengers (2011) and Bruno Latour (2005). Whitehead’s thought also featured prominently in the Speculative Realism movement that swept through Continental philosophy beginning in late 2010 (Bryant et al. 2011; Harman 2018). He is perhaps best situated within the American pragmatist tradition stemming from Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, though even here the shoe pinches. Dewey is the only one who lived long enough to respond to Whitehead’s philosophy, which he praises for its organicism and experiential point of departure but criticizes for its mathematical residues (Schilpp 1941). In the end it must be admitted that Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy is singular in its aims and conclusions. Any attempt to pigeonhole his thought into a school inevitably trivializes it. Of course, Whitehead himself generated a school, but there exist plenty of wild Whiteheadians who avoid any established orthodoxies, like Deleuze, Stengers, and Latour, or Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein (2017).

Finally, there is the issue of Whitehead’s inclusion of reformed conceptions of teleology and God in his cosmological scheme. For many philosophers and natural scientists, this rules out in advance any serious engagement with his ideas. Daniel J. Nicholson and John Dupré, for example, claim that the theological baggage of Whitehead’s process philosophy is a “liability” for thinkers with a naturalistic aim (2018, 7). But a closer look at Whitehead’s process-relational reformulations of purpose and divinity may reveal to those who rushed to dismiss them that Whitehead shares many of their criticisms of traditional natural theology. By the time God and teleology return from Whitehead’s adventure in cosmology, the former is no longer an omnipotent Creator but a creature of Creativity suffering with the rest of us, and the latter is no longer an eternal design imposed from beyond the world but an aesthetic lure immanent in the experience of each and every actual occasion in the world, whether that experience belongs to Shakespeare or “to the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 28).

My hope is that this paper brings Whitehead out of cold storage and at least thaws his ideas enough to get those unfamiliar with his Philosophy of Organism to consider the alternative it represents, not only to physicalism, but to dualism and idealism, as well. Despite Quine’s first impression, it may turn out that Whitehead has much to say about the problems faced by contemporary analytic philosophers, especially those who, against all odds, now find themselves affirming the panpsychist heresy.   

2. The Place of Consciousness in a Physical Universe

Serious conceptual difficulties await any philosopher attempting to understand the place of consciousness in the physical universe. David Chalmers’ well-known “hard problem of consciousness” (1995) is perhaps the most oft cited formulation of the impasse, but the basic problem goes back to Rene Descartes’ argument that a real distinction exists between a thinking or mental substance and an extended or material substance ([1647] 1982, 21]. While many contemporary physicists would be quick to dismiss Descartes’ idea of an immaterial soul as unscientific, his correlate idea of extended matter continues to shape the scientific imaginary of Nature as something explainable without remainder in purely mathematical terms. While Descartes faced the difficult problem of accounting for the relationship between two entirely autonomous substances, contemporary physicalists face what is arguably an even harder problem: how can extended matter in motion ever give rise to the seemingly interior experience of conscious thought and emotion? As Galen Strawson has pointed out, even if this “seeming” experience ends up being some sort of illusion, the seeming itself still demands an explanation: “any such illusion is already and necessarily an actual instance of the thing said to be an illusion” (Strawson 2018).

Let us run through the various metaphysical options at play for those affirming standard physicalism, by which I mean any variation on the ontology that posits that the final real things (whether particles, fields, or some other mode of existence yet to be discovered by science) are passively enduring objects entirely devoid of subjective enjoyment and aim. When addressing the place of consciousness in Nature, physicalists generally draw upon three basic explanatory strategies: eliminativism, epiphenomenalism, and emergentism. Many physicalists, in order to side-step patent absurdities, end up tacitly sliding back and forth between two or more of these positions in the course of their explanations of consciousness. Unfortunately, there is little consistency in how these terms are defined in existing literature, hence the need to offer accounts of each position as they are considered for the purposes of this paper.

a) Eliminativism

Eliminativism tries to deny the reality of consciousness outright, arguing that our folk psychological intuitions and self-reports about it are hopelessly misguided and need to be replaced by more mature neurophysiological or computational accounts. While Paul and Patricia Churchland are perhaps the most prominent contemporary defenders of this position (P. S. Churchland 1986; P. M. Churchland 1988), its origins can be traced back to Wilfred Sellars (1956) and Quine (1960). Quine’s reflections on the matter are especially relevant. He raises the question of whether eliminativism truly “repudiates” conscious experiences as factually mistaken, or whether it is meant as a theory identifying such experiences with physiological facts (Quine 1960, 265). He decides that there is no real distinction to be made in this case between explanation and identification. If the elimination of consciousness in favor of physiological processes is the same as the identification of consciousness with correlated physiological processes, all the sudden eliminativism starts to sound a lot like panpsychism, with the crucial qualification that the panpsychist refuses to grant brain matter any special ontological status, as though it instantiated experiential capacities not found to some degree in all physical processes. In Whitehead’s terms: “There’s nothing in the real world which is merely an inert fact. Every reality is there for feeling: it promotes feeling; and it is felt” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 310). In other words, if Quine’s reading is right, Whitehead is also an eliminativist about that sort of consciousness that is imagined to be something extra in addition to physical processes.

More recently, a quasi-transcendental version of eliminativism has been defended under the label of “illusionism” (Frankish 2016). The idea is that we suffer inextricably from what Daniel Dennett calls a “user-illusion” (Dennett 2017, 222). There is really no one home inside, but because we are constitutively blind to the neural basis of our user-illusion, we cannot help but keep knocking on the door. The answer to all our knocking comes only as a bunch of mouth-squeaks signifying nothing (other than more squeaks). We are just a bunch of neurons and chemistry playing out an evolutionary algorithm. “We’re all zombies” (Dennett 2004, 67). Despite his critics, Dennett denies that his version of physicalism is eliminativist (Dennett 2017, 224). His philosophy is a good example of the way the most inventive physicalists end up combining aspects of multiple positions, sliding from eliminativism for questions of ontology to emergentism when it’s a question of the practical functionality of conscious will (Dennett 2003).

Hard core eliminativists like the Churchlands, or like the speculative realist philosopher Ray Brassier (2007), can at least be credited with bitting the materialist bullet by accepting that any physicalism worthy of the name leaves absolutely no room in the universe for anything like what most people mean by consciousness. For Brassier, eliminativism is not just a promising neuroscientific theory of consciousness but a tremendous opportunity for speculative philosophy. Philosophers, rather than acting as “a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem” by continuing to seek the restoration of a meaningful connection between human consciousness and the cosmic processes that generate it, should instead follow the logic of eliminativism to its admittedly nihilistic conclusions (Brassier 2007, xi). Even if attempts to restore meaning succeed in increasing our quality of life, Brassier still calls upon self-respecting philosophers to reject them, since “thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living” (ibid.). The eliminativist position can be criticized as self-refuting, since it denies in theory what, short of suicide, one cannot deny in practice (though even the act suicide implies a conscious decision to kill oneself). How can one claim to hold to the view of eliminative materialism if the capacity for holding meaningful views of anything is precisely what the position purports to be eliminating? Brassier responds to the performative contradiction criticism by pointing out that the eliminativist project entails a rejection and replacement of the folk psychological view of ‘views’ or ‘beliefs’ assumed by its critics. Following Paul Churchland, Brassier reduces the propositional meanings and sentential beliefs of folk psychology to the “dynamics and kinematics” of neural activation patterns in the brain (Brassier 2007, 12, 15-17). What it is to hold a particular view (e.g., “Eliminativism is true”) is just for the relevant neural pathways to fire.

While panpsychism may initially affront the common sense of modern Western adults, eliminativism is an even bigger stretch. Of course, the common sense folk psychology of a particular era cannot be given the privileged position of determining metaphysical reality. Whitehead’s process-relational panexperientialism entails a radical revisioning of our common sense understandings of consciousness and propositional meaning. But it does not deny conscious experience outright. Philosophy can reform common sense without eliminating the very possibility of a meaningful life. According to Whitehead, “As we think, we live” (Whitehead, [1938] 1968, 63). Thinking is, after all, as natural to the life of a conscious organism as eating or breathing. If our philosophy cannot in the end be squared with the “overpowering deliverances” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 50) of experience and the “concrete affairs of life” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 80), it is a good sign that we have made a wrong turn somewhere in our abstract reasoning. This, at least, is how a pragmatic radical empiricist like Whitehead addresses the matter: “Metaphysics is nothing but the description of the generalities which apply to all the details of practice” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 13).

b) Epiphenomenalism

Epiphenomenalism claims there is room enough for consciousness to be somehow excreted by the brain, but only as a semi-transparent ghost or “inert spectator” (James 1890, 129) with no causal influence over the goings-on of the body or its proximal environment. As formulated most famously by Thomas Huxley, epiphenomenalism is the view that consciousness is “completely without any power…as the steam-whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery” (Huxley 1875, 62). Epiphenomenalists at least acknowledge the irreducibility of our direct intuition of conscious experience. But assuming a broadly naturalistic and thus evolutionary framework (as Huxley and most contemporary defenders of the doctrine claim to) rules out accounts of epiphenomenal consciousness as sealed off from but nonetheless perfectly correlated with physical processes via a “pre-established harmony” (e.g., Leibniz). Any naturalistic account must explain the causal nexus between mental and physical processes, even if the causal relationships are said to move in only one direction, i.e., physical causes determining an epiphenomenal steam-whistle. Given the requirements of naturalism, the problem with epiphenomenalism is that it is incomprehensible how such a complex ghost-like consciousness could ever have evolved if it serves no function at all for the organism it haunts. If consciousness plays no active role in shaping an organism’s behavior, it cannot be selected for and thus has no role in biological adaptation (T. Nagel 2012, 44ff). As James argued more than a century ago, it is an absurd abuse of scientistic reasoning to assert in the same breath that, while consciousness exists, “all those manners of existence which make it seem relevant to our outward life are mere meaningless coincidences, inexplicable parts of the general and intimate irrationality of this disjointed world” (James 1879, 21). Not only is the view epiphenomenalist view incoherent, the opposed view, that consciousness to varying degrees depending on cerebral complexity “[exerts] a constant pressure in the direction of survival,” grants further plausibility to the Darwinian evolutionary story: “It is, in fact, hard to see how without an effective superintending ideal the evolution of so unstable an organ as the mammalian cerebrum can have proceeded at all” (ibid., 16).

The neuroscientist Michael Graziano attempts to avoid this problem with epiphenomenalism by redefining conscious awareness in neuroscientific terms as “attention” (Graziano 2019). While focusing on the ‘phenomenal properties’ of conscious awareness gives philosophers the impression that subjective experience is some sort of extra ethereal or nonphysical essence (e.g., private ‘qualia’), what Graziano calls an “attention schema” has been scientifically measured in brain-based computational terms (ibid.). The attention schema is the brain’s way of internally modeling certain aspects of its own activity, and our reports and claims about our own consciousness appear to correlate with it (ibid., 101). Graziano thus slides away from the hard problem of consciousness to ask a different question: what sort of neural computations allow us to make claims about supposedly conscious experiences? “In this theory,” writes Graziano, “the ghost in the machine, the consciousness inside us, is a topic of discussion among us only because our intuitions are informed by an attention schema, with its incomplete account of attention” (ibid., 103). While a supposedly ethereal essence would have no way of altering the behavior of an organism, the attention schema serves an adaptive function by monitoring, predicting, and controlling the brain’s attentional resources (ibid., 101). It performs this function in a purely physical way without the influence of any extra-physical consciousness.

While a Whiteheadian approach has its own reasons for being critical of the search for ethereal ‘phenomenal properties’ or private ‘qualia’ (see sections 3 and 4 below), Graziano’s neuroscientific slight of hand gets us no closer to understanding the place of consciousness in the physical world. To start with, consciousness is not merely “a topic of discussion” and cannot be reduced to the sentential claims we make about ourselves and our experience. Whatever else it is, conscious experience of oneself in a world is an immediately intuited concrete fact, not just a linguistic report about or computational model of a fact. Graziano admits he isn’t offering a philosophical answer for how consciousness arises in the brain, but he also implies that his properly scientific approach forces us to accept that “there is no meaningful answer to the question” (ibid., 97). We are just “a biological machine that claims to have a hard problem” (ibid., 96). We are brain networks running a linguistic program whose only power is that it can make claims about itself, statements about what it believes is going on and what its own and other people’s intentions are. These beliefs, claims, and intentions have no bearing on what is actually going on inside the skull or beyond it, since their meanings are epiphenomenal to computations in the brain and the motion of matter through spacetime.

A broader assumption baked into Graziano’s approach is that “the brain is an information processing device” (ibid., 95). This is stated as though it were a truth that neuroscience has discovered, but it is hardly that. It is a theoretical paradigm and a research program, that is, a framework for studying the brain as if it were a computer, not a fact about what the brain is. Other neuroscientists and philosophers of mind reject the computational approach and instead study brain activity from an enactive and embodied perspective (Varela et al. [1991] 2016, 44ff; Thompson 2007, 51ff). From an enactive perspective, speaking in terms of decontextualized and disembodied ‘information processing’ going on inside the skull neglects the extent to which meaningful information presupposes an experiential horizon within which it can be interpreted. Evan Thompson extends Gregory Bateson’s claim that “information is a difference that makes a difference” (Bateson [1972] 2000, p. 315), adding that information “is the making of a difference that makes a difference to somebody somewhere” (Thompson 2007, 57). Informational meaning is thus embedded not only in the complex dynamics of an experience-imbued brain, but in the sensorimotor networks of the body, and even extends out into the surrounding environment with which the organism is structurally coupled and has co-evolved.

c) Emergentism

Emergentism claims that consciousness suddenly appears in the universe whenever matter manages to arrange itself into the appropriate dynamical shapes. Some say a simple form of consciousness emerged with the first living cells (‘biopsychism’), while others claim these cells had to blindly organize themselves into large packs of neurons called brains before the light of consciousness could flicker on (‘cerebropsychism’). Still others insist that it was necessary for these brains to become sufficiently entangled in the symbolic network of a language before full-blown consciousness could explode onto the scene (‘anthropopsychism’).

There are weak and strong versions of emergence (Brogaard 2016, 131ff). The higher level capacities of a weakly emergent consciousness are at least in principle deducible from and thus in fact causally reducible to its lower level constituents. Once cognitive neuroscience discovers the relevant underlying brain mechanisms, complicated as they may be, the mystery of consciousness will be understood to have been only an artifact of our limited knowledge. Weak emergence thus presents an epistemological puzzle for physicalism to solve, rather than an ontological impasse forcing it to re-examine its premises. Of course, if weak emergentists do solve the engineering problem of how the brain makes the mind, it is difficult to see how they will avoid sliding back into epiphenomenalism.

Strongly emergent conceptions, in contrast, affirm the ontological novelty of consciousness above and beyond its physical components, even granting it downward causal influence upon the body and surrounding environment. Such a view at least refuses to explain away the evident facts and overpowering deliverances of conscious thought and intention, facts that law, politics, morality, religion, and practical life in general require; facts that even the endeavor to produce scientific knowledge itself necessarily presupposes, for what else is knowledge but a mode of consciousness? As Whitehead quipped, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study” (Whitehead [1929] 1958, 16). But unless it can explain how meaning and purpose arise out of mass and energy, strong emergentism lands us right back where Descartes left us nearly four centuries ago, with irreducible mind on one side, brute matter on the other, and no rational account of how they might relate to one another. Focusing on the gradual development of mental capacities from bacterial chemotaxis to Shakespearean poetry over the course of billions of years of biological evolution is an obvious strategy for narrowing this gap. But merely saying ‘evolution did it’ doesn’t cut it, since it wasn’t Darwinian evolution that gave rise to cellular life. Darwin’s theory of speciation by natural selection presupposes self-producing and reproducing organisms, it does not explain them. In Thompson’s terms, “natural selection is an emergent consequence of autopoiesis, not its cause”(2007, 212).

On the other hand, there is a wider definition of evolution than that assigned by Darwin. Whitehead was convinced that evolution had relevance for not just biology but all the sciences, including physics and cosmology. He imaginatively generalized Darwin’s theory such that evolution by the reproductive inheritance of variations checked by environmental pressure became evolution by the rhythmic propagation, or vibratory reiteration, of actual occasions along historical routes, whereby a particular occasion’s conformal physical prehensions of past actualities (=the inheritance of efficient causes) are integrated with its novel conceptual prehensions of future possibilities (=the formal causes of variation) into some emergent enduring pattern of experiential value. Whitehead argued that materialism could not survive its encounter with evolutionary theory., since the former implies merely the “purposeless and unprogressive” rearrangement of externally related substances and their accidental properties, while “the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 101). “The doctrine,” Whitehead continues, “cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (ibid.).

Information theoretic accounts of the gap between matter and life provide some hope for a pathway forward, but without incarnating information into the meaningful horizon of experience enacted by living organisms, research programs seeking to analogize brain activity to computation end up having to conceive of information processing as some sort of quasi-conscious homunculus hovering above the neurochemistry of the brain and steering it around. For example, neuroscientists regularly describe information processing in the brain as “goal relevant,” “selective,” and “sensitive” (Sy et al. 2015, 122), all terms implying intentionality and purposefulness, even though the presuppositions of mechanistic biology upon which computational neuroscience rests says such powers are impossible. Luckily, taking information seriously does not require “assuming that abstract properties have physical potency,” as Terrence Deacon put it (Deacon 2012, 192).

Deacon is a strong emergentist who tries to dispel the homunculus and de-etherealize information by describing it not as an extra essence added to the physical but in terms of the “absential” features of an incomplete Nature:

“A counterintuitive figure/background reversal, focusing on what is absent rather than present, offers a means to repair some of the serious inadequacies in our conceptions of matter, order, life, work, information, representation, and even consciousness and conceptions of value” (Deacon 2011, 44).

Information is just what is absent from physically present matter. It is not involved in the push and pull of causal efficacy, but instead ‘constrains’ these physical interactions, acting as a formal and final cause that ratchets physics (thermodynamics) up a contragrade organizational gradient into chemistry (morphodynamics), biology (teleodynamics), and eventually full-blown conscious thought (intentionality). Like the enactivists, Deacon limits information processing to the living world, denying ententionality to the physical and chemical realms. He grants morphodynamic systems the ability to ‘fall up’ negentropic gradients of complexity toward the telic informational processes of living semiosis, but rejects the idea of any aim or value or elán implanted in matter prior to the emergence of life. Telos is added later and not baked in. Not the creative evolution of organisms, but vacuous bits of matter with no internal values…hurrying through space” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 158) are fundamental for Nature.

It is here that the panpsychist integration of physics and experience goes further toward the naturalization of information by making sign interpretation, or in Whitehead’s terms, ‘prehension,’ an intrinsic part of cosmogenesis from the get go. Deacon criticizes Whitehead for projecting “micro humunculi” down to the level of quantum events, arguing that his panexperientialism obfuscates the need for an explanation of “why the [characteristics] of physical processes associated with life and mind [differ] so radically from those associated with the rest of physics and chemistry” (Deacon 2012, 79). Deacon admits that Whitehead in fact does offer an explanation for these differences in terms of the organizational complexity of enduring ‘societies’ of actual occasions of experience that emerge in the course of evolution. “Yet, if specific organizational complexity is what matters, then little explanatory significance is added by the assumption that some level of micro intentionality was suffused throughout all the component processes” (Deacon 2012, 78). While Deacon’s approach succeeds in narrowing the distance between physical causality and conscious intentionality, an explanatory gap still remains. Whitehead’s wager is that this gap is extreme enough to require fully undoing modern science’s “bifurcation of Nature” (Whitehead 1920, 30) by affirming that feeling or prehension is as intrinsic to natural processes as causality. Indeed, Whitehead’s experiential concept of prehension is meant to account for the very possibility of causal relation as such (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 164-165): prehension is what allows the real potentiality of the objectified past to pass back into the subjective immediacy of a new actual occasion of experience. Prehension is akin to the ‘information processing’ of computationalists, only it avoids the vagaries of their epiphenomenalism by rendering the detection of form as a process of feeling, thus embodying information in an experiential horizon. While his Philosophy of Organism does grant some degree of mentality to even the simplest of actual occasions, Whitehead’s panexperientialism doesn’t add anything extra to the natural world we find ourselves within: “the operation of mentality is primarily to be conceived as a diversion of the flow of energy” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 168). In other words, mentality is an absential constraint upon energy’s otherwise entropic tendency. Were this entropic tendency the final word in Nature’s becoming, we would not be here to regret the fact. Whitehead is thus attempting to render the true nature of the physical universe transparent to us as the ongoing aesthetic achievement of a vast nexus of experiential occasions: “these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which in their collective unity compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 151). Quarks, photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and the like appear to be our most ancient ancestors, close to the “primate organisms” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 132) of our cosmic ecology. Out of their co-evolution emerged atoms, stars, and galaxies, all examples of the complex social achievements of actual occasions.. The evolution of these physical organisms proves that Nature’s capacity for emergent value and organizational complexity long predates the arrival of biological cells. These particle and astronomical organisms may be minimally or maximally conscious. The point is that at whatever scale it occurs, information processing is an experiential process, with the intensity of experience depending on the degree of integration of prehended data achieved by any given society of occasions.

3. The Physics of Experience: Avoiding Inflationary and Deflationary Accounts of Consciousness

“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”
—Whitehead ([1938] 1968, 150)

If physicalists are willing to take seriously the idea that human beings might not really be conscious, perhaps they can grant that it is no more absurd to entertain the possibility that stars and galaxies have minds. If Whitehead’s panexperientialist alternative turns out to have philosophical advantages over scientific materialism, perhaps we can learn to live with its mind expanding implications. After all, if materialism is true, we aren’t really alive, anyway. Another advantage of panexperientialism is that it can help philosophy avoid the excesses of Absolute idealism by not expanding mind too much.

Whitehead’s panexperientialism is an attempt to take consciousness at face value without unduly inflating or deflating its significance in the universe. The most inflationary accounts tend toward Absolute idealism, while the most deflationary tend toward eliminative materialism. The Kantian transcendental or critical approach views consciousness (with its categories of understanding and forms of intuition) as an a priori condition for knowledge of anything, including the physical world. It is thus an important compromise position, holding materialism at bay by preventing us from ever knowing anything about a mind-independent reality, while also checking the mind’s tendency to declare itself the ground of being. Kant admitted that via introspection we can only ever access an ‘empirical me,’ but he nonetheless posited a ‘transcendental I’ or Ego as the necessary correlate of everything thought or experienced, whether in myself (temporal intuition) or outside (spatial intuition). Kant’s transcendental Ego is no longer a clear and distinct substantial reality, as Descartes had imagined when he declared “I am a thing that thinks” (Descartes [1641] 1996, 24). So what is it? From James’ radically empirical perspective, the Kantian Ego “is simply nothing: as ineffectual and windy an abortion as Philosophy can show,” for if it be granted any other status, given Kant’s transcendental premises, there is little to prevent the Fichtean and Hegelian move to “call it the First Principle of Philosophy, to spell its name in capitals and pronounce it with adoration, to act, in short, as if [we are] going up in a balloon whenever the notion of it [crosses our] mind” (James 1890, 365). The Kantian compromise is thus an inherently unstable position. It saves mind from ever being reduced to matter, but at the cost of leaving us in total ignorance regarding the transcendental ground of our own consciousness and the substantial reality of Nature. Philosophers are left poised in a vulnerable state of metaphysical indecision, only a moderate dose of nitrous oxide away from floating into the mania of Absolute idealism, and only a mildly depressive mood away from succumbing to eliminative materialism. Might Whitehead’s “organic realism” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 309) put philosophy on more solid experiential ground?

Presented with the general panpsychist hypothesis of a “pervasive perhaps ubiquitous” (Seager 2016, 229) subjectivity inherent in Nature, the first thing the incredulous tend to ask is whether the view entails that stones are conscious, or that tables and chairs stand at attention before us contemplating existence, or that spoons enjoy the flavor of the tea they stir. Few panpsychist philosophers actually uphold such views about stones and human artifacts, at least not without all the necessary qualifications (alchemists and astrologers notwithstanding). The proper panpsychist response to the skepticism of physicalists about the extent of mind’s reach into Nature is to ask whether it is really possible for them to conceive of their own consciousness as an illusion. For if the computational model of mind is true and experience contributes nothing to the functioning of the brain, if our consciousness is really just a complex set of what William Seager calls “bare recognitional capacities” evolutionarily elaborated “into a rich but delusive system of beliefs,” then when it comes down to it we human beings “are actually no more conscious than rocks” (Seager 2016, 231).

Which is more believable? That you and I are no more ‘alive’ than a pile of stones? That we and the stones are merely finite appearances in the eternal substance of the Absolute? Or that stones are more ‘alive’ than we think? From the perspective of Whitehead’s panexperiential organic realism, deflationary materialism and inflationary idealism are equally out of line. What, after all, does contemporary physics tell us about the materiality of a stone?: “[Vanished] from the field of ultimate scientific conceptions is the notion of vacuous material existence with passive endurance, with primary individual attributes, and with accidental adventures”; in short, physics has “[displaced] the notion of static stuff by the notion of fluent energy” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 309). Stones, understood scientifically, are thus more like attenuated energy events whose relative stability is the effect of reiterated vibratory patterns of activity. For Whitehead, “the energetic activity considered in physics is the emotional intensity entertained in life” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 168), though of course the emotional intensity realized in a stone is quite negligible due to the lack of any evolved organization for channeling and amplifying its scattered feelings into the more or less unified consciousness evident in animals. The physicist may retort that these patterns are merely mathematical equations and that we have no scientific basis for attributing experience or anything else concrete to the activity they describe. Indeed, many panpsychists are happy to admit that physics tells us only about the abstract aspects of matter and thus “can’t characterize the intrinsic nonstructural nature of concrete reality in any respect at all” (Strawson 2016, 85). In that case, it turns out ‘matter’ is among the most abstract ideas ever imagined by human minds. But in Whitehead’s way of thinking, this “divergence of the formulae about nature from the appearance of nature has robbed the formulae of any explanatory character” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 154). Energetic activity is not just a mathematical abstraction but an abstract description of something real: “Nature is full-blooded. Real facts are happening” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 144). Further, unlike some panpsychist readings of Russell’s neutral monism (Russell 1927), Whitehead’s process-relational rendering doesn’t claim experience is a ‘primary attribute’ or ‘intrinsic property’ of matter. This is because in Whitehead’s view, physics has moved beyond the substantialist view of matter, and talk of essential or accidental properties only made sense given such an ontology. The twentieth-century quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics dispensed with the ideas of “simple location” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 51) and “nature at an instant” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 145). There are no simply located, instantaneously present material particles or configurations of material particles, just as there are no simply located, instantaneous experiential states or properties. Both energy and experience are activities with fuzzy boundaries, and our panpsychist ontology should reflect this fact. Yet the substance-property ontology is difficult to shake, even for the physicists who know very well that it no longer captures what their equations are describing. The substance-property mode of thought is pervasive in Western philosophy. Descartes, so critical of Aristotle for other reasons, is fully infected by it, and many contemporary analytic philosophers who similarly consider their thinking to be free of any unexamined tradition nonetheless continue to construe reality in its terms. This mode of thought comes naturally since it is woven into the subject-predicate grammar of most of our languages.  It is no surprise that Whitehead’s process-relational alternative is at first difficult to grasp.

While there was an “essential distinction between [substantial] matter at an instant and the agitations of experience,” with this conception of matter having been swept away, a door is opened to analogies between energetic activity and concrete experience (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 115). Experiences, like energy vectors, are intrinsically process-relational in that they always involve transition beyond themselves: they manifest in a “specious present” (Whitehead [1925] 1967, 104) as a tension between the actualized facts of an inherited past and the potential forms of an anticipated future. Whitehead turns to our own lived bodies for a more concrete characterization of physical process, since it is the human body that “provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 115). In addition to the grammar of our language, our visual experience of the immediately presented world reinforces the scientifically mistaken idea that reality is composed of substances with qualities. The grey stone is one of Whitehead’s favorite examples: ancient Greek philosophers perceived “the grey stone” and from that simple observation “evolved the generalization that the actual world can be conceived as a collection of primary substances qualified by universal qualities” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 158). Modern natural philosophers beginning with Galileo elaborated this ontology into a conveniently bifurcated system of primary objective quantities (mass, velocity, dimensionality, etc.) and secondary subjective qualities (color, taste, value, etc.). Descartes’ mind/body dualism finished the job. Thenceforward it is not the stone that is grey, but the private quale of the perceiving subject that is grey. The stone itself is just an extensional lump obeying the fixed laws of gravity and chemical decay. Scrubbing Nature clean of all qualitative residues and tucking them safely away within conscious subjects allowed modern science to make truly remarkable progress explaining those aspects of Nature amenable to precise measurement and mathematical description (Goff 2017b, 12-14). But after a few hundred years of world-transforming progress, this powerful methodology still finds itself embarrassed by the hard problem. Consciousness appears to be “a strange intrusion into an otherwise well-behaved world” (Seager 2016, 234), though of course, it can hardly be said to have intruded if it was the methodology of modern science itself that initially excluded it from the physical world. Limited to the precise measurements afforded by strict sense-perception and to mathematical modeling, science finds no enjoyment, aim, or creativity in Nature, “it finds mere rules of succession” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 154). But this is because, by design, science deals with only half the evidence of human experience.

In addition to the relatively superficial affordances of sense-perception granted us by the five outward facing senses, what Whitehead calls “perception in the mode of presentational immediacy” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 121), he also describes a more primordial form of bodily experience or “sense-reception” (ibid., 113-114) referred to as “perception in the mode of causal efficacy” (ibid., 120). It is this latter form of human experience that modern science has all but ignored. When our eyes are functioning normally, they are transparent to the world. Nonetheless, it is evidently true that we see with our eyes. Causal efficacy is the feeling of our eyes blinking when we pull back the curtains and the sunlight floods onto our face. Presentational immediacy is the view of the meadow out the window after our eyes adjust. While presentational immediacy grants us perception of the grey stone as a geometrically projected patch of color, causal efficacy grants us perception of the grey stone’s weight when we pick it up in our hand, of the way this weight influences the muscle fibers and nerve endings in our arm as, “by channels of transmission and of enhancement” (ibid., 119), its ‘weightiness’ is delivered to the presiding occasions of the brain wherein we consciously feel it. “It is the accepted doctrine in physical science,” Whitehead tells us,

“that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound doctrine, but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the physical universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (ibid.).

Modern physics tells us that “the quiet extensive stone” is more complex than it at first appears to be. Were we able to apprehend the stone in a more direct way than that afforded by visual perception, it would reveal itself as a “society of separate molecules in violent agitation” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 78). Picking up the stone grants us no more insight into its inner life, but the feeling of its weight in our hand grants us a clue with profound metaphysical implications. Our consciousness is not separate from but “intimately entwined in bodily life” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 21). We consciously feel the stone because the human body, acting as an experiential amplifier, transmits the stone’s energetic activity along coordinated routes of actual occasions, accruing interpretive enhancements along the way, until the activity achieves final integration in a central occasion of experience. “The human body is thus achieving on a scale of concentrated efficiency a type of social organization, which with every gradation of efficiency constitutes the orderliness” found in the wider universe (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 119). Transmission of feelings within the body can thus be understood as analogous to the transmission of energy occurring in the rest of Nature. The body, after all, is part of and continuous with the rest of the external world, “just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 21).

Those seeking a truly naturalistic account of consciousness needn’t rush to deflationary explanations, whether eliminativist, epiphenomenalist, or emergentist. Such deflationary accounts would be understandable if the only alternatives available were dualism or idealism. Panpsychism, especially Whitehead’s panexperiential version, provides another option. It avoids the metaphysical travesty of dualism, the inflationary conjecture of idealism that “nature is mere appearance and mind is the sole reality,” and the deflationary conjecture of materialism that “physical nature is the sole reality and mind is an epiphenomenon” (Whitehead [1938] 1968, 150). It begins its explanation of consciousness modestly by examining our intimate feelings of bodily inheritance, and it concludes that these feelings provide a clue as to the functioning of energy in the rest of Nature. The conclusion may seem strange at first, but the philosophical payoff might just be worth it.

4. The Combination and Decomposition Problems for Panpsychism and Cosmopsychism: Bugs, or Features for Whitehead?

The philosophical payoff of panpsychism is that it dissolves the hard problem of consciousness, giving experience its proper place in Nature without undermining the scientific image of the universe. Indeed, panpsychism may have important advantages over materialism for interpreting contemporary physical cosmology (Segall 2018).  But substance-property panpsychists have their own problem to deal with: the combination problem. Does Whitehead’s process-relational approach help solve it?

The solution to James’ original statement of the combination problem is already in James’ own statement: there is a 101st feeling, a “totally new fact,” and “the 100 original feelings might, by a curious physical law, be a signal for its creation, when they came together” (James 1890, 160). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, in particular his genetic account of mutually sensitive prehensions (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 235ff), is an attempt to make good on James’ psychological insight by building it out into a coherent cosmological scheme.

Whitehead is neither a micropsychist nor a cosmopsychist exclusively. He tries to have it both ways. There is a universal soul, a psyche of the cosmos, a God of this world, and there are countless creatures creating in concert with it. Creativity transcends both, it is the source of all evolving parts, wholes, bodies, and souls. For Whitehead the combination problem becomes a logic of concrescence, a way of thinking change as more than just the rearrangement of pre-existing parts or the fragmentation of a pre-existing whole but as a genuine becoming, as an “emergent evolution” or “creative advance” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 21, 30, 229) where neither wholes nor parts pre-exist their relations. Whitehead’s account of process is an account of combination and decomposition, of conjunction and disjunction. Process means the growing together of many objects into one subject, and the perishing of that subject back into many as a superject: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (ibid., 21). Concrescence is a cumulative process and not merely an additive one.

5. The Wonder Remains

“Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophy has done its best, the wonder remains. There have been added, however, some grasp of the immensity of things, some purification of emotion by understanding.”

—Whitehead ([1938] 1968, 168-169)

Whitehead is thus clearly an emergentist rather than constitutive panpsychist (Goff 2017a, 114). But it’s not that human consciousness is breaking the laws of physics, it’s that Nature’s ‘laws’ are queerer than our mechanical models let on. Like Deacon (2012) with his absential constraints in an incomplete Nature, Whitehead’s knowledge of mathematical physics led him to reject the causal closure of physics. Laws are habits emergent from the social activity of actual occasions of experience, not divine decrees from heaven imposed upon dead matter. But unlike Deacon, Whitehead goes further by granting life and mind some subtle congress with things from the beginning of time. Indeed, without life and mind Nature would have no time to evolve. The laws of physics are indifferent to life, mind, and time, so the show would be over before it even began.

Human consciousness is the achievement of the human body. The human body is the organizational achievement of a nexus of experiential occasions stretching back billions of years through the evolution of life on Earth, the birth of our Sun and planetary system, and the fusion of quarks into baryons, back even to the birth of God (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 348). Consciousness is human physics. Our philosophical conceptions, moral decisions, aesthetic creations, and religious concerns are not violations of the laws of physics (which are really statistical habits, anyway), no more so than the emergence of stars and galaxies was a violation of particle physics, or the emergence of cellular life was a violation of geology. “[Nature] is never complete. It is always passing beyond itself” (Whitehead [1929] 1978, 289).

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Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

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

A trailer for my course being offered this Spring at CIIS.edu.

PARP 6135 Process and Difference in the Pluriverse will explore the ethical, social, political, and ecological implications of process-relational philosophy. You could call it a course in applied or experimental metaphysics. We will read and discuss texts by radical empiricist William James, revolutionary sociologist WEB DuBois, pluralist political scientist William Connolly, process theologian Catherine Keller, philosopher of science Donna Haraway, Gaian sociologist Bruno Latour, and object-oriented ecocritic Timothy Morton. Each in his or her own way brings the process orientation down to Earth by articulating it’s relevance to the struggle for social, economic, racial, and ecological justice.

I hope this course provides a space for us to imagine a more symbiotic future together. I doubt there will be any answers that emerge from what we study together, but I do hope we will get closer to asking the right—that is, the life enhancingcreativity engendering—questions. My goal is to infect your political passions with process-relational ideas, to invite you into the role of philosopher-activist. Activism becomes philosophical (in the process-relational context explored in this course) when it affirms an ethos rooted in relational alterity and creative becoming. Such an orientation provides an antidote to the neoliberal ethos rooted in private identity, property ownership, and wage labor.

Richard-Heeks-4

Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).

As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).

The prehensional basis of all object-relations implies that “detached, self-contained local existence” (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since in each act of prehension “the environment enters into the nature of” the prehending thing. This is not to say that things have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a thing or actual entity is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual entities do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions. It is regarding the issue of the interrelation of all things that Whitehead and Harman begin to part ways. While Whitehead defends an image of the universe as a creatively evolving nexus of interpenetrating events, Harman paints the picture of “a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums” (GM, 76). Shaviro neatly sums up the disagreement: “Whitehead opposes correlationism [and anthropocentrism] by proposing  a much broader–indeed universally promiscuous–sense of relations among entities,” while “Harman opposes correlationism by deprivileging relations in general” (tUoT, 30).

Harman rejects Whitehead’s relationalism for two reasons: 1) he worries it reduces ontology to “a house of mirrors” wherein, because a thing just is a unification of its prehensions of other things, there is never finally any there there beneath its internal reflections of others; and 2) he claims that an ontology based exclusively on internal relations, wherein entities are said to hold nothing in reserve beyond their present prehensional relation to the universe, cannot account for change or novelty. In such a universe, there would be “no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed,” as Levi Bryant puts it (The Democracy of Objects, 209). As Shaviro is quick to point out, however, Whitehead was well aware of this potential objection (see page 35 of PR, for example), which is exactly why he amended his ontology sometime between his final editing of Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929) so that becoming was understood to be atomic rather than continuous. A fair reading of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical scheme should acknowledge (despite a few inconsistent statements here and there) that his goal was to strike some balance between internal and external relations, precisely for the reasons put forward by Harman and Bryant.

In response to Harman’s first worry regarding an infinite regress of prehensions, I’d call his bluff and say that a truly aesthetic ontology (which he also claims to be seeking) would leave us with just such an infinite regress of appearances. A thing’s “style” or “allure” doesn’t need to be understood as emanating from some substantial core or fixed essence; we can also understand a thing’s “style” as Whitehead does in terms of the “enduring characteristic” realized by a historical route of actual occasions. There is nothing hidden from view by such outward qualities other than the occasion in question’s moment-to-moment subjective enjoyment of these characteristics. Which brings us to Harman’s second (I believe unfounded) worry about relational reductionism. Whitehead’s dipolar account of the process of experiential realization includes both a public moment of display and a private moment of withdrawal. Every drop of experience begins by taking up the “objectively immortal” data of its past. It then unifies this data into its own singular and private perspective on the world. It is this moment of privacy that most closely resembles Harman’s doctrine of withdrawal. The occasion in question is in this moment entirely independent of its relations. But as soon as this private, never before experienced perspective on reality is realized, it perishes into objective immortality, becoming publicly available for the next occasion of experience to inherit as it moves toward its own novel concrescent realization. “The many become one, and are increased by one.” Whitehead is able to make sense of change and novelty while at the same time preserving a non-reductive account of internal relations. It seems to me that Harman’s insistence on the irrelevance of evolutionary time for ontology is part of the reason he is unable to make sense of Whitehead’s attempted compromise (“The ontological structure of the world does not evolve…which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure” [GM, 24]). In effect, Whitehead’s entire process ontology can be understood as an imaginative generalization of evolutionary theory.

This difference regarding the metaphysical status of evolutionary time represents a deep divide between Whitehead’s and Harman’s otherwise similar ontologies. Shaviro, following Stengers (who was following Deleuze), reminds us that “the concepts a philosopher produces depend on the problems to which he or she is responding” (tUoT, 33). It seems as though the deep divide between Harman’s ontology of vacuum sealed objects and Whitehead’s ontology of interrelated organisms comes down to a question of taste. There is no going behind aesthetic taste to find some more rational justification to prefer one account over the other. As Fichte put it in his Wissenshaftslehre (although in the context of morality and not aesthetics), the kind of philosophy one adopts ultimately depends on the kind of person one is. Harman’s personal problem is to account for how relation is possible in a universe of vacuous actualities, while Whitehead’s was to account for how individuality is possible in a universe of interpenetrating actualities.

In the spirit of attaining to some wider point of view inclusive of both perspectives, Shaviro sums up the situation thusly:

“Harman’s difference from Whitehead, and his creative contribution to speculative philosophy, consists in the ‘translation’ of the deep problems of essence and change from one realm (that of relations) to another (that of substances). These two realms, oddly enough, seem interchangeable–at least in an overall anticorrelationist framework. Given that ‘there is no such thing as transport without transformation,’ the only remaining question is what sort of difference Harman’s transformation of ontology makes” (tUoT, 41).

Given the state of our present world, wherein “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them…where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales,” Whitehead’s problematic appears more and more relevant to our actual condition (tUoT, 33, 42).


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“The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially consists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contradictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.” -Alfred North Whitehead, September 10, 1941

It is in this spirit that I believe Shaviro wrote The Universe of Things. Although his name is not in the title, Whitehead is the protagonist of Shaviro’s short book, subtitled On Speculative Realism. Shaviro successfully develops Whitehead’s scheme as an alternative to the other strands of speculative realism. He starkly contrasts Whitehead’s scheme with the eliminativism of Brassier and the mathematism of Meillassoux, but devotes by far the most attention to the differences between Whitehead’s Organism-Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. I learned a lot from these comparisons. One thing I’d really liked to have seen is a more sustained treatment of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Schellingian powers ontology. Whitehead and Schelling make for an intensely interesting comparison. Of the 4 original speculative realists, Grant’s vitalist variety of SR always struck me as the most intuitively compelling. Harman’s object ontology hit me as more of an intellectual shock that I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from yet.

Despite the lack of engagement with Grant/Schelling, what Shaviro convincingly illustrates is the way Whitehead’s philosophy of organism anticipates the most important of speculative realism’s main concerns, in particular SR’s desire to overcome “the anthropocentrism that has for so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality” (1). Call it “correlationism” or “the philosophy of access”: the assumption of almost all philosophy since at least Kant is that the only reality of any consequence is human reality, reality as it appears or submits to human theories and practices.

“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).

In order to overcome the pervasive anthropocentrism of so much modern philosophy, Shaviro argues we would be better served by erring on the side of anthropomorphism. I agree, but with important qualifications. Even if human experience is a special instance of a more general feature of nature, we still need to perform a kind of alchemical distillation of human consciousness in order to determine exactly what is special and what is generic about our experience. What is unique to our way of aesthetically translating the universe, and what is universal? In Whitehead’s estimation, when we perform such a distillation, it quickly becomes clear that not all experience is conscious. There are all sorts of non-conscious experiences causally contributing to our conscious personalities. There are also all sorts of non-conscious experiences occurring beyond and below the reach of human access. As Harman reminds us, “the life of gravel and sandpaper is every bit as troubled by inner ambiguities as human existence ever was” (GM, 257). Both Whitehead and Harman agree on the need to decenter the human. Further, they both agree philosophy must overcome what cultural historian Richard Tarnas describes as “the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind,” namely, “the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” (Cosmos and Psyche, 41). 

Harman actually denies that he is a panpsychist, since he doesn’t want to install the special features of human cognition into the heart of being. If this is what panpsychism entails, then Whitehead is not a panpsychist, either. David Ray Griffin coined the term “panexperientialism” to better describe Whitehead’s ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative” (GM, 244). Just as Whitehead reminds us that, while all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious, Harman states that “all consciousness is allure, but not all allure is conscious” (GM, 245). Whether we call their approaches panpsychist, panexperientialist, or panallurist, it’s obvious that both Whitehead and Harman reject the modern dichotomy between the “conscious images” of minds and the “causal impacts” of matter. According to Harman, images live in the gaps between everything, even particles of supposedly inanimate dust. He enigmatically suggests that we are most closely bound up with the rhythms of being when we are overcome by laughter or worship (243). While I’m not entirely sure what he means, I’m hoping this statement primes my readers to more open-mindedly consider the panexperientialist notion that perhaps the human body can be understood as a sort of monotheistic religion, the god-serving ritual of molecules and cells.

All the components of our body dance in harmony according to the ancient rhythms inherited from their evolutionary forebears, working together to construct and reconstruct the hierarchical structure of our organism. As individual components they have no idea they are participating in creating and maintaining the body of a hidden and unspeakable god. If the cells and molecules of our bodies are so clearly alive, what are we to make of the wider so-called “inanimate” or “inorganic” world?

“The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. Every instability of any part of it–be it chemical, physical, or molar–imposes an activity of readjustment throughout the whole organism. In the course of such physical activities, human experience has its origin. The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism. The actualities of nature…must be explanatory of this fact…Such experience seems to be more particularly related to the activities of the brain. But…we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain” (Adventures of Ideas, 289-290).

Panpsychism (or whatever we want to call it), though it has a long pedigree as “a recurring underground motif” in Western philosophy (from the presocratics, to Spinoza and Leibniz, to William James and Whitehead), is only just recently beginning to be taken seriously again. Still, the notion of inherently experiential material strikes many as absurd. Colin McGinn, for example, refers to the idea as “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” He goes on to ask “isn’t there something vaguely hippyish, i.e., stoned, about the doctrine?” (Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, 93). On Shaviro’s reading, it is not panpsychism that provides us with comfort in the face of an otherwise meaningless and inhuman universe; on the contrary, the comforting modern myth is the anthropocentric idea that all intelligence and purposefulness is safely locked up within the human skull. It gives us a false sense of control over our environments, as though the nonhuman world were just a bunch of dead objects whose blind motion strictly obeys the clear and distinct laws discovered by science. The panpsychist re-enchantment of nature is actually a rather terrifying prospect from the perspective of our hyper-alienated, still all too Cartesian late modern consciousness.

I’ll continue with my review of Shaviro’s book in subsequent posts. Still to be discussed is Shaviro’s rebuttal of Harman’s claim that Whitehead is a relational reductionist. I’ve been arguing against Harman’s reading for years (see here). For many Whiteheadians, the whole issue was settled back in 2010 at the “Metaphysics and Things” conference in Claremont, CA (click here for Shaviro’s brief review and links to other accounts of he and Harman’s exchange at the conference). I’m not sure if Harman remembers, but a few of us from CIIS ran into him at a cafe across the street from the lecture hall just prior to Isabelle Stengers’ keynote. I’d already heard of his OOO by that point, but didn’t catch his name at the time and so only realized it was him after the fact. In any event, despite being gently but consistently scolded by Shaviro, Roland Faber, and other Whiteheadians for his misreading, Harman continues to caricature Whitehead’s process atomism in what I can only believe is an exaggerated attempt to differentiate and so win attention for his own philosophical scheme. There’s nothing abnormal about this tactic in the history of philosophy (I often say, only half facetiously, that the history of philosophy is a long series of caricatures). And the good spiritedness of this particular debate makes it a really great opportunity to flesh out the implications of Whitehead’s ontology. It provides a great example of how disagreement can be conceptually fruitful without degenerating into polemic. As I hope to show in a subsequent post, Harman’s key concept of “withdrawal” provides important insights about causal relation. But I also think Whitehead’s account of an occasion’s momentary privacy gives us what Harman wants without having to affirm the incoherent notion of “vacuous actualities.” Stay tuned…

Steven Shaviro’s new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism arrived on my doorstep a few days ago courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. I’m going to provide a bit of context in this post before diving into a review of the text in subsequent posts.

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The press release U of M included in the package describes the book as “an up-to-the-moment critique of a recent turn in philosophical thought.” “Up-to-the-moment” it is not, since Shaviro has been testing much of the book’s content on his blog and at conferences since at least 2010. There will always be an important place for books in academic philosophy, but the principle procedural lesson of Speculative Realism (leaving aside its conceptual contributions for now) is that blogs must be an essential ingredient in any future academic philosophy hopes to carve out for itself. I strike out “academic” here because it is as yet unclear to me whether philosophy has much of a future in academia. If it is to survive the rise of the neoliberal university, philosophy may have to migrate into media ecologies more suited to free ranging public discourse and genuine learning (learning as an end in itself rather than preparation for the industrial workforce). Sometimes I think the blogosphere is able to provide this. Other times, not so much. Back in 2011, Ray Brassier (ironically the originator of the movement’s name and organizer of its first conference back in 2007) dismissed Speculative Realism as nothing more than “an online orgy of stupidity” cooked up to exploit impressionable graduate students. Since then, several dozen books have been published on the subject, including six titles in the past few weeks alone by Peter Gratton, Tom Sparrow, Peter Wolfendale, Dylan Trigg, Markus Gabriel, and Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey (eds.). If we include the last 6 or 7 months, there have also been publications by Levi Bryant and Tristan Garcia. Obviously, there is more to SR than the late night blog musings of a few overzealous graduate students. In Brassier’s defense, however, it is equally obvious that much of the recent activity in the SR blogosphere has been a total waste of bandwidth. It’s a lot of posturing and very little if any philosophizing.

Much of the controversy of late has centered around Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, which violently attacks the philosophy of Graham Harman. I haven’t and won’t read the 400-page tome, but word on the street is Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as a symptom of some sort of philosophical pathology (it seems the disease infects both admirers and despisers of OOO—why else would Wolfendale write 400-pages on it?).  Brassier makes a cameo appearance in the book’s afterward only to once again announce the nonexistence of the SR movement. Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of (in Harman’s words) “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma” to popularize his philosophy.

“I’m not aware of having any such power,” continues Harman, “nor am I aware of having ruthlessly crushed a thousand-flowers-blooming SR blogosphere, as Wolfendale bizarrely contends.”

In preparation for my review of Shaviro’s book, which engages with Harman more intimately than any other SR thinker, I recently re-read the last chapter of his early book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005). His style really is infectious. And because of the aesthetic roots of his ontology, it is not at all incidental to his arguments. “A style,” according to Harman, “is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception” (55). There is nothing naked about his prose. Reading him is perhaps best described as a psychedelic experience.

Like Shaviro, I have certain conceptual qualms with Harman’s substance ontology, as well as with what I believe to be his misreading of Whitehead’s process ontology. But I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit in which he engages philosophy. His call for less critique and more invention couldn’t come at a more crucial juncture in the history of ideas and the evolution of (post)human consciousness. Echoing other speculative thinkers like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, he calls for turn toward a more constructive and less anthropocentric mode of thinking: “We seek a form of invention no different in kind from the blossoming of cherry trees or the compression of carbon into diamond” (241). He warns us that “progress [in metaphysics] is constantly threatened with relapse into critique, that most deeply rooted intellectual habit of our time”(237-8), and contrasts critique with curiosity and the capacity for surprise, even going so far as to equate the latter with wisdom itself: “Wisdom means the ability to be surprised because only this ability shows sufficient integrity to listen to the voice of the world instead of our own prejudice about the world, a goal that eludes even the wisest of humans a good deal of the time” (239).

It is in this same spirit that Whitehead endeavored to philosophize, and in “rediscovering” him (as U of M’s press release puts it), Shaviro carries this spirit forward in a constructive way. Harman thanks Shaviro on the back cover for avoiding prose full of “rancor and backstabbing ambition” and praises him as “the most dignified and helpful of Speculative Realism’s critics.” I’ve also often found his work helpful. Particularly helpful was his earlier book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics (2009), which was basically my introduction to Deleuze. Also key for my understanding of the stakes of speculative thinking has been his insistence upon the philosophical fork in the road between panpsychism and eliminativism (an issue he takes up again in The Universe of Things). 

I’ll begin my review of Shaviro’s new book in subsequent posts over the next several days…

Relevant links to the argument between me, Levi Bryant, and Graham Harman:

Levi Bryant Mis-reading Whitehead?

Harman’s response to me

Whitehead’s Process Atomism (Response to Graham Harman)

Object as subject-superject, or why Harman is wrong about Whitehead

Occasionalism in Whitehead and Harman

Harman’s Crucified Objects and Whitehead’s God: More on Withdrawal

 

 

“The machinery of the brain does all the work–after all, what else is there? What [Cain] calls ‘thinking of science in normative terms’ is a mechanistic enterprise, something our brains do. Since metacognition is all but blind to the mechanistic nature of the brain, it cognizes cognition otherwise, in nonmechanical, acausal, magical terms. Normative judgements, intentional relations, and so on: these are simply ways our brain naturally mischaracterizes its own activity.” -R. Scott Bakker

 

“Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” -Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (16).

Those who have been tracking my last few posts (HERE and HERE) will know I’ve been enjoying Ben Cain’s philosophy blog Rants Within the Undead God. It was in a guest post on fantasy author R. Scott Bakker‘s blog Three Pound Brain that I first encountered Cain’s mind. Bakker has just published a critical reply to Cain’s guest post a few days ago on the philosophical difficulties facing scientism. I’m as new to Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (BBT) as I am to Cain’s “existential cosmicism,” but I’ve been reading Cain and Bakker’s recent exchange concerning the ontological status of consciousness in our scientific age with tremendous interest. I agree with Bakker that we ought to be extremely disturbed and existentially unsettled by BBT’s implications, just not for the reasons he thinks.

Like Cain, I find Bakker’s BBT threatening not because it is true in some matter of fact sense, but because it is becoming increasingly true (in the American pragmatist sense) as the values of techno-scientific imperialism continue to infect secular societies (techno-capitalism has done a fabulous job marketing these values thus far). It is indeed becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish ourselves from machines. As Cain suggests:

 Maybe our imagination, emotion, intuition, and creativity will atrophy as our habits continue to be shaped by our artificial environments. Then again, we’d be looking not so much at a scientific revelation of what we’ve always really been, but at a transformation of human nature for the worse.

While Bakker cognitively mobilizes unexplained explainers like “scientific accuracy” (achieved by a disinterested res cogitans?) and “natural mechanism” (mathematizable res extensa?), I’d prefer to call upon the non-modern powers of creative imagination and cosmogenesis in my speculative fantasies (in Hillman’s sense of fantasy). I take my speculative risks on behalf of philosophical inquiry and creative intuition attempting to attune with the logos of the chaosmos. This is an infinite task, it must be admitted. But then philosophy is full of infinite tasks, as Husserl taught us“Scientific accuracy” is also an infinite task, is it not? I suppose only if the universe is an infinite fact. 

Bakker is not happy about the loaded labels of “scientism” and “absolutism” fired at him by Cain. I think its true that these labels tend to carry negative connotations, but I’m surprised that Bakker doesn’t just own up to BBT’s philosophical allegiance to those very connotations (i.e., science as the only valid way of knowing because philosophical intuition is bosh, etc.). Neuroscientists like the “hardheaded devotee of aggressive-exterminative scientism” (as Graham Harman referred to himThomas Metzinger and eliminativist philosophers like Ray Brassier don’t shy away from the term but seem rather to wear it as a badge of honor.

I liked Harman’s reflections on style in philosophy so much I thought I’d paste them here. They are originally from this interview by Brian Davis conducted last year.

BD:  Michel Serres has said “philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices… Not only must philosophy invent, but it also invents the common ground for future inventions.” Much of your work can be seen as an effort to develop a philosophy that gets beyond critique and analytical thought and instead seeks to develop a sort of creative or generative philosophy.  In this project you place a special emphasis on style. What is the role of style and aesthetic experience in a creative project?

GH: We recognize a new philosophy when we hear the sound of a new voice, not when we hear a series of propositional statements that we happen to regard as accurate. Everyone knows this experience. You pick up a book by a philosopher you’ve never read before, and within a few pages you’re thinking “this is the real deal,” even before you’ve fully understood the content of what they’re saying, and even if you explicitly reject much of what you are reading.

Why does it work this way? Because there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice.
This cannot be faked simply by making contrarian propositions, since contrarians are always parasites on the status quo. The contrarian aims at causing shock and dismay among other people. He or she (but the contrarian is usually a “he”; it’s a predominantly male vice, just like fistfights) simply wants to draw the attention of other people by reversing the conventional wisdom on this or that point. The original thinker has no interest in doing this, because here the primary motivation is not to shock other people; at best, this is an intermittent practical tactic. Instead, the primary motivation is to break out of the closed circle of stale options and sink one’s teeth into the real and draw nourishment from it.
Some see it differently. Some think that philosophy should result in a set of correct propositions about the world. And as a general rule, they think it is they themselves who possess more of these correct statements than anyone else. As a result, they tend to become dogmatic enforcers of their own favored orthodoxy. They denounce everyone else as ideologues even though they are usually the world’s greatest ideologues themselves. They have no hard-won taste for the originality that may be at odds with their own dogmas, but from which almost everything of value is obtained.

This is the key role of style in philosophy, no less important here than it is in the arts. The style of an artist or writer is something deeper than the sum total of works that they happen to have produced. Other Shakespeare plays could have been written (and may in fact have been written but not yet discovered), but they would have to be animated by that Shakespeare style. Heidegger is not a sum total of propositions, but a voice. His propositions often contradict one another, as is true of all thinkers. But the voice is always lying there underneath, animating all the contradictions.

Everything in the world has a style. You can see an apple from different angles at different times, but there’s a certain style of the apple underneath its various profiles. But we’re speaking of philosophers. Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims.

Graham Harman has jumped in offering his own response to my recent comment directed at Levi Bryant regarding his interpretation of Whitehead.

The core issue, for Harman, is whether Whitehead’s position is ultimately reducible to some form of relationism, wherein an actual occasion is no more than the sum of its prehensions, or whether Whitehead’s accounts of an occasion’s self-creation and self-enjoyment are enough to preserve some sort of individual withdrawal, thereby allowing genuine novelty to erupt in the course of cosmogenesis. Without such withdrawal, says Harman, there could be no change at all, much less novelty, since each actual occasion would always already be related to every other actual occasion. Without points of rupture in the continuum of relations, nothing new, nothing different, could ever emerge. Harman writes:

Change obviously occurs, and in my view Whitehead has a surprisingly difficult time accounting for it, despite the common impression that he is a philosopher of process and change (he is actually a remorseless philosopher of static instants, just like Heidegger– another philosopher who is wrongly viewed as a thinker of time). You can’t just say “of course Whitehead knows that things change,” and then hypostatize that awareness by positing concepts such as “concrescence” and “enjoyment” and dodging the question of whether they are prehensional or something more than prehensional (both of which lead to severe problems for Whitehead).

I’m honestly not sure what Harman is getting at by saying Whitehead is a remorseless philosopher of static instants. As far as I’m aware, Whitehead is a process philosopher, such that the relational flux of the cosmic nexūs is the foreground of his cosmology. His understanding of the universe of classical physics is similar to Bergson’s: physical science had become increasingly adept at spatializing time, allowing it to view nature denuded of value, quality, and duration. This lead to all sorts of metaphysical paradoxes, the results of badly analyzed composites and abstract bifurcations.

On the other hand, Whitehead was unwilling to follow Bergson’s anti-intellectualism. Picking up where Bergson left off (with his important critique of the philosophical tradition’s habit of backgrounding fluency in favor of the clear and distinct stasis of abstract categories like “extension”), Whitehead employs his own form of intellectual intuition to further differentiate fluency into two kinds (PR, 210):

1) concrescence (=”the real internal constitution of a particular existent”; i.e., the individual final causes of the universe), and 2) transition (=the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process”; i.e., the transfer of inherited efficient causes through the universe). The continuity of the universe is preserved by the process of transition, while the withdrawal of individual occasions, and therefore the potential for novelty, is preserved by the process of concrescence. Unlike transition, concrescence is not simply prehensional. “Each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates. No two occasions can have identical actual worlds” (210). Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

This differentiation between concrescence and transition allows Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, despite its generally processual orientation, to remain nonetheless explicitly atomic. This comes through clearly enough in Process and Reality, where Whitehead writes: “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (35). He is lead to this conclusion largely as a result of the discoveries of quantum and relativity theories concerning the nature of time. 20th century science was forced to reject two ideas that had long provided its metaphysical first principles: 1) the idea of nature at an instant, and 2) the idea that the universe had a single continuous time flow.

On this point, Whitehead writes (35):

“There is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming. The actual occasions are the creatures which become, and they constitute a continuously extensive world. In other words, extensiveness becomes, but ‘becoming’ is not itself extensive.”

He concludes, as I quoted above, that atomic discontinuity is an ultimate metaphysical truth. The continuously extensive world with its universal relationality he considers an accident, not a metaphysical necessity: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (36). The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation.

Let me just add that, while I’ve obviously been influenced a tremendous amount by attempting to think with Whitehead, I realize that he is not infallible. My disagreement with Harman’s and Bryant’s critique is not a result of my wanting to protect a sacred cow from blasphemers; it is rather a result of wanting to be clear about the specifics of the metaphysical scheme that Whitehead has left us. I’m all for finding flaws and hacking the system to make improvements and to keep it relevant. But in this particular case, I just don’t think it is at all fair to Whitehead’s scheme to claim he reduces individuals to the flux. It seems like a simple mistake to me, easy enough to correct with a moderately careful reading his texts. Perhaps there is something deeper to the critique that Harman and Bryant are leveling, but they seem to have aimed it poorly; at least, I haven’t felt the force of the blow yet…

P.S.- Aside from Process and Reality, another good place to turn for Whitehead’s account of “forms of unity” and the relationship between the two kinds of fluency is chapter 5 of Modes of Thought, “Forms of Process.”

 

Re-posting my comment to Bryant’s recent criticism of Whitehead and process-relational thought below:

Levi,
I’m not so sure treating an actual occasion as a “bundle of prehensions” is at all faithful to Whitehead’s scheme. Maybe you arguing that some other aspect of his thought forces him into an inconsistency on this point? If that’s not what you’re suggesting, then I fail to understand how an actual occasion’s process of concrescence–which Whitehead insists is self-created and transcends the whole of the past universe in a moment of private self-enjoyment–could be reduced to a “bundle of prehensions.” Don’t forget Whitehead’s formula of Creativity: “the many become one, and are increased by one.” It seems to me you’re selectively ignoring Whitehead’s emphasis on the distinct and novel oneness produced by each occasion’s concrescence.

I think Bryant is making the same mistake about Whitehead that Harman makes. See my earlier post in response to Harman.

Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects has laid down a clear and clarifying plumb-line definition for a contentious word that finds itself being thrown around the OOO blogosphere from time to time:  Correlationism. It has a fascinating biography. Harman recently offered his version of its history and conceptual origin.

Bryant’s was a very helpful post for me. His shift in emphasis from internal/endo-relations to external/exo-relations is definitely the sort of provocation contemporary thought needs to stir it from its humanist dreams and awaken it to the painful light of climate change and mass extinction. I wonder, though, if he means to include Whitehead among those internalists who fail to offer an adequate account of how ruptures in reality (sudden separations or novel connections) are possible…

I’d argue the fundamentally atomistic nature of actual occasions, as well as their capacity for negative prehension and conceptual reversion, makes room for the kind of creative/destructive relations among relata that Bryant wants to preserve. Whitehead’s remains an internally related universe, there’s no doubt about that. But its a universe just as clearly perpetually dividing from itself (Creativity=many become one, and increase by one).

In further agreement with Bryant, for Whitehead, no society is finally safe from disintegration. Enduring relations are fragile in the extreme. But when societies do manage to endure, they are not just bundles of qualities projected on the screen of bare sense-perception; rather, they become self-creating subject-superjects, real individual actors in the world in possession of their own unique and definite characteristics.

Where Bryant and Whitehead probably begin to differ rather starkly is on the issue of how to account for the qualitative character distinguishing each complex society of occasions as the individual that it is (in Circus Philosophicus, Harman calls this an object’s “style”). Whitehead has recourse both to the unique telos of each occasion’s subjective aim, and to the ingression of some relevant set of eternal objects. The initial relevancy of eternal objects to any finite occasion’s situation is a result of the harmonizing attunement sung by divinity at the origins of time.

Whitehead’s God is not the creator or designer of the world, however, but the fellow sufferer of its ongoing re-creation by Creativity. The song and the singer who tunes our universe is an ancient accident of Creativity.

Time is a moving image of eternity originating in the tension between the poles of beginning and ending, what Whitehead calls the primordial and consequential natures of God (two adjectives, one noun). If the beginning is God’s act of finite decision amidst infinite creative potential, the ending is the fact of God’s recollection of the diversity of actualities into a whole.

While any given society will surely some day pass away, each and every occasion of experience composing it achieves objective immortality in the eternally resurrecting body of divine memory.

Michael/Archive Fire and Adam/Knowledge Ecology are at it again, working to sort through the material, semiotic, and ideational strands of the cosmic mesh to figure out what is real and what isn’t. In both positions, I detect a desire for ecological realism, the sort of realism where Santa Claus, mountain pine beetles, global capitalism, black holes, and strawberries are each considered to be real causal actors, each in its own unique way. But only Michael explicitly argues that a certain set of these actors–ideas–should ultimately be understood as secondary effects of causes operating at a more basic level–that is, (vibrant, dynamic) physicality. I agree with Michael that ideas are embodied and enacted, that they cannot play a causal role in the creative advance of nature without being ingredient in some definite occasion of socially organized experience. But I do not think it follows that this obvious co-relationality between ideas and living bodies implies that ideas, or indeed minds (in some non-Cartesian/post-Whiteheadian sense of the word mind) are epiphenomenal to technologically mediated physiological activity. As Whitehead says, the things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal, just as the things which are eternal arise by their participation in the things which are temporal. There is a relation of co-emergence, of dependent origination, between timeless potentials and actual occasions. … Ideas and Minds do not operate independently of material signs and living bodies. They do not exist without leaving symbolic traces and a heat signature. But it does not follow that they are not real things. If anything is a “thing,” ideas are things. I need to take a detour into Whitehead’s account of perception before returning to the thingliness of ideas… (a thing here would be an object in Harman’s lingo). In Whitehead’s lingo, we would say that a given thing (actual entity) withdraws from its prehensions by other things precisely because if it were not in some way withdrawn from these prehensions, there would not be anything definite to distinguish it from other entities to make it “just this entity here-now.” Ideas, in Whitehead’s lingo, are conceptual prehensions. We could also call them abstract feelings of future possibilities. For most occasions of experience, physical feelings of past actualities predominate over conceptual feelings of future possibilities. Still, all occasions include a mix of physical with conceptual feelings: nowhere in the universe are there events unfolding in a purely repetitive way, without any appetitive adjustment. Granted, in the inorganic societies studied by physicists, novelty is negligible enough to ignore in equations describing the behavior of the universe is timespans relevant to human existence. In longer timescales (i.e., more than 13.7 billion years ago), it seems the “laws” of physics can no longer account for visible nature without making room for the possibility of radical novelty/extreme negentropy “before” the “beginning” of time. Even at the level of quantum events, the appetition for novelty is present. If it were not, the universe never would have transformed from superheated plasma into living protoplasm or human minds. The formation of the first atoms, and certainly the first stars, already provides evidence of the universe’s desire to out run the past by incarnating ever new forms of organization. Human consciousness is only a more extreme expression of this same desire. Implanting experience and ideality into the most fundamental features of reality is an attempt to account, in one general metaphysical scheme, for the evolution of the organizational complexity of nature from plasma to person. It is an attempt to avoid the traditional metaphysical bifurcation between appearance and reality that has plagued Western philosophy the formalization of Aristotle’s substance-predicate logic. Bifurcated metaphysics either reduce the person to the plasma (materialism), or the plasma to the person (idealism); either way, half of nature has been lost. For those more complex social canalizations of experiential occasions associated with we thoroughly mediated human souls and our technological societies, prehension is predominantly conceptual, with physical prehension fading into irrelevance. The great danger of unchecked intelligence is that it forgets its bodily roots in the rhythms of the brain, heart, and lungs and its cosmic source in the rhythms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, and the Moon. By forgetting its source in the soil between earth and sky, intelligence dismembers itself and the ecology to which it belongs. Becoming deaf and blind to the material-semiotic flows tenuously tying it to the network of others living within and amongst it, it loses contact with the erotic and aesthetic lifeblood its life depends on. Intelligence is driving our species into extinction, and taking a lot of others with us. I think I can understand why Michael has such a distaste for the notion that ideas are just as real as bodies. He writes:

Giving up on ‘ideas’ as objects helps us understand what Wittgenstein and Derrida and Rorty (and the Buddha and Lao Tsu among others) wanted to teach us, in the sense that conceptuality – and by extension all knowledge – is intrinsically undecidable, unstable and ephemeral. And this insight has some very serious political, existential and philosophical implications.

I agree completely that conceptuality is often undecidable. Reality usually always out runs our everyday descriptions. But on some rare occasions, like those concocted in the laboratory by experimental physicists, the conceptual structure of reality becomes decidable to an uncanny degree of accuracy as formal mathematical descriptions are found to correlate with natural processes. These descriptions remain approximations, of course, since they are never purely conceptual. It needs to be said, to balance Michael’s denial of conceptuality, that sensuality is no less unstable and ephemeral. Prehension, since it always carries a mix of physical and conceptual factors, is necessarily abstraction. If it were not abstraction, each actual entity would contain every other actual entity within itself in such a direct way that there would be no way to tell any two actual occasions apart. Without eternal objects/ideas to mediate between the mutual prehensions of particular actual occasions, their particularity would become meaningless: all time and space would collapse into an instantaneous null-point. Pure conceptual knowledge is as undecidable as pure sensation. It is only when creatively contrasted that something actual can emerge.

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.