“Electrons Don’t Think” by Sabine Hossenfelder

The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”

https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/01/electrons-dont-think.html


Hi Sabine.

I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.

As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.

I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:

1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)

2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)

I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.

I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.

You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”

I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.

 

Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene

Notes from a talk I gave at CIIS this past March titled “Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene”

Here’s the video of the whole panel:

https://youtu.be/sgoAZV4VVsc

Foucault on Hegel:

“[T]ruly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.” (Discourse on Language, Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, 1970-1971. tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith)

Begin with Hegel’s claim to have achieved absolute knowledge of Spirit, and to at least foreseeing the becoming concrete of this Spirit in the historical, social, and ethical life of the human community.

Marx read Hegel upside down, but still read Hegel. He was a materialist, but a dialectical materialist who recognized the potential of the human spirit, and this potential’s degradation and alienation from itself at the hands of capitalism. Marx tried to shake human beings awake, out of their slumber, out of the false consciousness that commodifies labor, life, and value.

It is not easy to do better than Hegel and Marx in terms of understanding, diagnosing, and prescribing action to overcome the contradictory situation in which humans find themselves as neoliberal capitalist subjects. But the dawning realization that we live in the time of the Anthropocene is fundamentally changing our situation. We can no longer talk about the nonhuman world, about what used to be called “Nature,” as though it was something separate from us, some kind of inert background or stage upon which human history progresses. As good dialecticians, Hegel and Marx fully recognized this entanglement of the human and the physical world, but they did so in a rather anthropocentric way that still presupposed and celebrated the idea of mastering nature. The Anthropocene signals, yes, the end of history, but also the beginning of (or at least the beginning of human recognition of) what Latour refers to as geostory. From Latour’s point of view, Hegel would never have expected our current situation, where Spirit, after its millennial march of dialectical progress, suddenly finds itself at risk of being suffocated, sublated, by carbon dioxide. As Latour describes it, the ecological crisis is pushing us into a profound mutation in our relation to the world. When the world as it has been known to the Western metaphysical project ends, we are left not with no world, but with many worlds. For Latour, politics is the composition of common worlds through the negotiation of differences. Political negotiation cannot be undertaken with the presupposition that unity has somehow already been achieved. If politics fails, we are left with a war of the worlds. A pluralistic politics asks us to forgo the desire for the premature unification of the world, to accept that “the world” has ended and diplomatic negotiation is the only viable way of “worlding.” Ours is always a world-in-process, and any unity we do achieve is fragile and must be continually re-affirmed and maintained.

Latour has been deeply influenced by William James. James positioned his ontological pluralism against Hegel and Marx’s dialectical monisms. William James was appreciative of Hegel, but certainly he was an counter-Hegelian thinker. As far as Marx goes, James was too American to ever fully reject at least the individualist spirit of capitalism, even if he was suspicious of capitalism’s larger cultural impact and its relation to American imperialism. In a letter to H. G. Wells in 1906, for example, James lamented “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” James thought worship of success, by which he meant money, was “our national disease.” James championed the individual, but an individual who is sympathetic to meeting and being transformed by novel differences, whose selfhood is leaky and perforated by human and nonhuman otherness, whose identity is always in-the-making and open to question and revision.

James on excess: “Every smallest state of consciousness, concretely taken, overflows its own definition. Only concepts are self-identical; only ‘reason’ deals with closed equations; nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into the more; and the only question, with reference to any point we may be considering, is how far into the rest of nature we may have to go in order to get entirely beyond its overflow. In the pulse of inner life immediately present now in each of us is a little past, a little future, a little awareness of our own body, of each other’s persons, of the sublimities we are trying to talk about, of earth’s geography and the direction of history, of truth and error, of good and bad, and of who knows how much more? Feeling, however dimly and subconsciously, all these things, your pulse of inner life is continuous with them, belongs to them and they to it. You can’t identify it with either one of them rather than with the others, for if you let it develop into no matter which of those directions, what it develops into will look back on it and say, ‘That was the original germ of me.’” (A Pluralistic Universe)

James leans strongly in the direction of particular, unique, once-occurrent individuals (even if he does not see individuals as autopoietic, but as sympoietic). In contrast, some historical performances of communism have leaned in the other direction, toward some abstract conception of communal will, and when individuals stood in the way of this abstract will, as we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, they were crushed. Our capitalist society claims to prize the individual highest, but it is corporate individuality that we really cherish. We human individuals are mere cogs in the labor machine, and Earth is a store of raw materials and a garbage heap. So either way, in either situation, capitalism or communism, human and nonhuman communities and individuals are in trouble.

Our challenge today, in the Anthropocene, is to think individuality and community concretely, to think relation, difference, and particularity concretely. Normally thinking seeks out universals, essences, substances, and to the extent that the Western metaphysical project has sought out universals, essences, and substances that failed to align with the particular contours of the sensory, social worlds that we inhabit, it has done great violence those worlds. As a result of the failure of our ideas and concepts to cohere with reality—that is, to sympoietically relate to the communities of actual organisms composing the living planet—these concepts have functioned to destroy them. Humans, whether we like it or not, are in community with these organisms, our worlds overlap and perforate one another; we touch interior to interior, my inside bleeding into your inside bleeding into all nonhuman insides. But our subjectivities do not just add up or sum to some seamless Globe-like Mind. Gaia, Latour is constantly reminding his readers, is not a Globe! To the extent that we are all internally related to one another, we form a network of of entangled, overlapping perspectives, where each perspective is still unique and once-occurrent, novel; and yet each is also related to what has come before and will be related to what comes next. We are individuals-in-communion, communities whose wholeness subscends the individuals who compose them. Subscendence is a concept developed by Timothy Morton to refer to the way that wholes, like Gaia, are actually less than the sum of their parts. He calls this “implosive holism” and contrasts it with “explosive holism,” the sort of holism that led Stalin to murder millions of individuals for the sake of the Soviet Union, or that leads some environmentalists to emphasize saving species or even the whole planet without paying enough attention to individual organisms (a species doesn’t feel pain; only individual organisms feel pain, etc.).

So the question becomes, how do we think pluralism, difference, and diversity concretely, and not abstractly. Because when we think particular identities or individuals abstractly, we do violence to them, we try to universalize them in an overly abstract way without being sensitive to their unique contours. This is a form of reductionism. We can reduce individuals “up” to the whole, or reduce them “down” to their parts. Pluralism is trying to find a middle path between both forms of reductionism: It seeks a “strung-along” sort of holism (as James put it), not a global or continuous holism where each thing is connected to everything else in exactly the same way. Instead, as Donna Haraway puts it, “Nothing is connected to everything” even though “everything is connected to something.”

Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping out of a sense of exclusively human society, out of the self-enclosed social bubble that used to insulate us from any access whatsoever to something called Nature, or “the environment” standing in wait “over there” for science to objectify into knowledge or for the economy to commodify into money. Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping outside of the monetary monism of contemporary capitalism, where all value is reduced to exchange value in the human marketplace, to instead become part of a democracy of fellow creatures, as Whitehead puts it, where values pervade the biosphere, and “Nature” is no longer just a realm of inert, law-abiding facts but of creative, expressive agencies. Thinking pluralism concretely means walking out of the old Copernican universe, forgetting the mastery-seeking knowledge supplied by the monotheistic gaze of Science, in order to inhabit a new cosmos composed of infinitely many perspectives, more a pluriverse than a universe.

Genes v. Organisms in Biological Explanation (responding to the Dawkins v. Weinstein debate)

Here’s the recent debate between Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein on the relationship between cultural and biological evolution:

Here are two response videos from me arguing for the relevance of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson et al.’s theory of autopoiesis and Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism:

 

Some relevant essays that expand on the ideas I shared in the video:

“Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future”

“The Origin of Organism: The Place of Life in the Cosmos”

“Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision”

Whitehead’s Quantum of Explanation: Thinking with Auxier and Herstein

“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein

“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein

Those looking for a proper review of their book should read George Lucas’ in NDPR. My thoughts are somewhat self-referential, as I am trying to sort through the intellectual earthquake unleashed within my mind as a result of reading this text.

Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.  

Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).

Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch. 

“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).

The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?

In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:

“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”

Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge [1919], The Principle of Relativity [1920], and The Concept of Nature [1922]) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”

My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds. 

In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks. 

 


* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).

** see pgs. 101 and 180 of my dissertation

the nature of consciousness and what to do about it, a dialogue

Here I am with Aaron Weiss, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and doctoral candidate at CIIS, talking about the nature of consciousness and what to do about it. The first talk was filmed back in April; the second was filmed in September as a follow-up.