“Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances” by Catherine Keller

Let us first recall why Keller has chosen to “dreamread” John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. As a process theologian, it is no surprise that she would be interested in a Biblical text. But her purpose is not merely to read John’s missive back into its 1st century CE historical context. Nor is her intent to read it as a literal prediction of a divinely determined future. Her aim, rather, is to unveil the eternal patterns of history that reverberate through John’s day into our own. Keller is dreamreading the “ancient future” of humanity, imperiled by imperial excesses and injustices then as now. She turns to Revelation as a polysemic source of dis-closure, that is, as a reminder that the future remains open-ended, its promise or peril awaiting our response to the signs of the times. Keller reads the book’s many internal contradictions as a call to liberate ourselves, through the work of shared mourning and collective uplift, from any sense of scripts already written so that we may arrive fully in the potent present, capable of facing what MLK, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” The book she dreamreads remains relevant to our situation today because, with both oppressive and progressive effects, it has inspired martyrs, emperors, and enslaved alike to shape and reshape the course of civilization for millennia. 

In Chapter 5, Keller interprets John’s misogynistic vision of the luxuriously adorned “Whore of Babylon” astride a seven-headed, ten-horned scarlet beast as a metaphor (or “metaforce”) expressive of the unholy matrimony of imperial power and global economy. The beast is said to turn on the “Mother of Whores,” just as imperial superpowers have been known to contradict themselves by “devouring the very flesh, resources, [and] labor, [they] live from” (111). John details the commodities that the “merchants of the earth” of his day buy and sell along their Mediterranean sea routes. These include not only wine, pearls, silk, and spices, but “human bodies and souls” (Rev. 18:11-13). Keller reminds us that “Rome two thousand years ago operated the largest market in chattel slaves on the planet,” adding the disturbing facts that “civilization as we know it is based upon the labor of unthinkable numbers of slaves,” and, even today, long after the institution has been outlawed in most nations, tens of millions of mostly women and children remain in chains, with billions more stuck in what amounts to wage slavery (114). 

Keller then turns to a critique, informed by Revelation, of our insatiable neoliberal/neo-imperial capitalist political economy. In our day, as in John’s, the power of unchecked consumerism does not simply fulfill desires, it produces them—or in terms of John’s pornographic metaforce, it “seduces”: “the graphic of the great whore signifies a commodification of self, body and soul, on the part of imperial subjectsnot just their objects” (117). In other words, the power of capitalism is not simply “out there,” imposed upon us as the will of an imperial army may be. The truly insidious thing about an economy of greed is how it infects our very selves, our sense of self-worth and well-being. The engine of our economy depends upon knowing no limits, on the feeling of lack, the constant need of more income, more land, more labor, more stuff. The political representatives elected to protect our democratic rights and assure social stability by checking the power of transnational corporations have failed to fulfill their duties. Under the neoliberal order which has held sway since the 1970s (when declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt put an end to the post-war alliance between capital and democracy), the role of the state has been coopted, so that it now “[offers] political support, tax benefits, police and military backing for the economy, which in return rewards the politicians it rides” (121). Capital cannot help itself, it commodifies everything: land, labor, politicians, and like John’s Porn Queen, even itself, undermining its own conditions of continuance. 

Building on the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streek, Keller introduces the situation in present day Western democracies as a struggle between two constituencies, the “nation state people” and the “international market people” (122). Tensions are rising as inequality reaches levels not seen since ancient Rome (Keller cites studies showing that, within the US, the ratio between the richest 100 households and the bottom 90% is about 108,000 to 1, roughly equivalent to that between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman empire). The rise of Trump and other demagogues around the world is symptomatic of income inequality and a growing rift between “nationalists” (who are mostly white and often rural) and “globalists” (often urban and somewhat more diverse). Rather than demonize the supporters of Trump (many of whom are evangelical Christians inspired by their own, albeit more spurious readings of Revelation), Keller acknowledges the ambiguities and contradictions of our times. Trump’s presidency was itself an outcome, and perhaps signals also the ending, of American neoliberalism (126). The anger that helped lift him into office stemmed from racist animosity but also the complete lack of concern shown by (neo)liberals for many working class people as the post-war industrial economy was dismantled and its jobs sent over seas. Keller admits that John’s visions are indeed suggestive of a great battle against the global elites who profit from such outsourcing. But the contradictions intensify, as Republicans blame wildfires in the Western US on environmentalists instead of climate change, while Democrats blame Trump’s election on Russian memes instead of acknowledging the impact of global trade on the lives of those Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables.” Keller also warns against conflating jet-setting cosmopolitan neoliberalism with the radically intersectional cosmopolitics that resists with equal vigor both the “aspirational fascism” of nationalists and the insatiable extractivism of globalists (124). 

In the end, Keller returns to the beginning, to the “dominion” clause in the Genesis creation narrative that has stirred so much debate among environmentalists and religious scholars. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that “the matter of the earth will not neatly reduce to the stuff of dollar signs…Matter Strikes Back” (130). In other words, all of humanity is beginning to experience the blowback from centuries of unchecked extraction and pollution. Witness “Gaia’s Revenge,” as James Lovelock put it. All of humanity suffers from this blowback, the conspicuously consuming and technologically insulated wealthy Western peoples as well as the Global South, where billions of people are eager for justice to be restored despite being first in line to face rising sea levels and changing climates.

The drive to dominate the Earth among the Biblical peoples has deep roots in a perhaps partial reading of the story of creation: “What a beastly irony: somehow human-godlikeness got taken as ‘go for it, godly world masters: use up the earth, waste its creatures” (131). Keller closes chapter five by offering a re-reading of the first book, reminding that Elohim creates not from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but from “the deep” (creatio ex profundis). Further, God says that every creature, and creation itself, is good, indicating to Keller that we who are made in God’s image “are called to emulate that love of the material universe” (131). (For more on Keller’s theopoetic reading of Genesis, be sure to check out her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming). 

In Chapter 6, Keller explores the “poetics of Hebrew hope” that shaped John’s 1st century religious context and that have continued to reverberate through the millennia. The earliest Christian communities suffered disappointment after their messiah was crucified by the empire they so despised. They waited for a second coming, but Keller points out that no such “coming again” is mentioned in the Bible. Rather, despite the persistence of imperial rule and the increasingly violent persecution of his followers, Christ is signaled as “present” (parousia) rather than still to come (135). Keller goes on to chronicle the uses and abuses of Revelation. In the 2nd century CE, the African theologian Tertullian, emboldened by John’s text, attempted to create some breathing room between politics and religion by calling upon Rome to protect religious freedom (144). Eventually, Emperor Constantine would answer this call, but only at the cost of the imperialization of Christianity. The anti-imperialist egalitarian community Jesus had inspired thus transformed into the official religion of Rome. Still, Tertullian’s call would ring true thousands of years later, inspiring the liberation of slaves in the Americas. In the 11th century CE, Pope Urban II’s holy crusades, inspired by the bloody battles of John’s visions, unified a war torn Europe against a common Muslim enemy. A century later, European Christendom would face internal dissensions again, as heterodox communities perceived the growing wealth of the Vatican through the lens of John’s Great Whore (149). The monk Joachim of Fiore declared the coming “Age of Spirit” when the Church hierarchy would be dissolved, all property would be held in common, and everyone would have direct access to the divine. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant revolt against the excesses of the Catholic Church. Luther memed scenes from John’s Revelation by portraying the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Included in his German translation of the Bible was a drawing of the Mother of Whores wearing the papal tiara (151). The Thirty Years War to follow was the bloodiest in European history. 

Colored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible

Keller chronicles these events to make clear that “the history of collective resistance to oppression is no less an effect of the Apocalypse than is the oppression itself” (155). Indeed, Jewish messianism leaves its traces in all modern progressive movements on behalf of justice. Keller says that the progressive left must grieve the “totalitarian traumatisms” and “messianic disappointment” of 20th century state communism, turning elsewhere for its (more intersectional, more cosmopolitical and multispecies) political projects (158). While the right appears more unified, and thus more poised to take power, it is “precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities [that] the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities” (161). She councils our “cosmically entangled, dangerously gifted, achingly diverse” species to take time for griefwork, to mourn all that has been and is being lost. And she warns us to remain ever vigilant against the temptation to allow the rage that arises in us to forego its righteousness by collapsing into a vengeful “we-good, you-bad” dichotomy. The split between good and evil people only fuels more cycles of revenge. If God is love (as the other John said in his gospel), and if justice is what love looks like in public (as Cornel West puts it), then only our love of each other (enemies included) and of all creation can hold open the possibility of a future worth living in. What kind of future will that be? In the final chapters of her book, Keller offers some possibilities… 

“Another End of the World is Possible” by Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle

“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
—Bruno Latour

“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.” 
—David Graeber

Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.

The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies. 

We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).

The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).  

The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here. 

The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”

Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195). 

Towards a Mycological Metaphysics

The mycologist Merlin Sheldrake recently published Entangled Life (2020). The book revels in the power of fungi to “make us question our categories,” thereby “[changing] the way we think and imagine” (14, 214). A few pages in, Merlin defines mycelium as a process, rather than a thing (6). I am inclined to agree. As a process philosopher, I could not help but ally myself with his project. He goes even further later in the book, insisting that all life-forms are relational processes inhabiting a natural world best understood as “an event that never stops” (53). He encourages us to wonder how our scientific image of nature would be transformed by the adoption of mycelial rather than mechanical metaphors. What would it mean to take seriously the many examples of “basal cognition” and “problem-solving behavior” evident in brainless fungi (15)? If even microscopic hyphae are capable of such feats as “decision,” “improvisation,” and “interpretation” (44), then perhaps conscious agency, or something akin to it, is not the exclusive property of human heads. In that case, “culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy, and independence” would need to be revised (18). Perhaps fungi can inspire more humility in big-headed humanity?

Perhaps. A powerful word, especially for philosophers seeking to gain permission to peek beneath the measurable facts into the plenum of possibilities from out of which such facts precipitate. Despite the feelings of embarrassment that years of disciplinary training had instilled in him, Merlin, too, found it necessary to embrace the power of speculative imagination in order to make sense of what fungi were teaching him. 

“Thousands of my samples passed through expensive machines that whisked, irradiated, and blasted the contents of the tubes into strings of numbers. I spent whole months staring into a microscope, immersed in rootscapes filled with winding hyphae frozen in ambiguous acts of intercourse with plant cells. Still, the fungi I could see were dead, embalmed, and rendered in false colors. I felt like a clumsy sleuth. While I crouched for weeks scraping mud into small tubes, toucans croaked, howler monkeys roared, lianas tangled, and anteaters licked. Microbial lives, especially those buried in soil, were not accessible like the bristling charismatic aboveground world of the large. Really, to make my findings vivid, to allow them to build and contribute to a general understanding, imagination was required. There was no way around it” (19).

Most of us think of mushrooms when we hear the word “fungi”—but they are just the surface-dwelling fruiting bodies of much larger underground networks.  The task of the metaphysician, who is compelled to inquire into the hidden underbelly of reality, is not unlike that of the mycologist, since “[mycelial] relationships are conducted out of sight” (138). Given this similarity, Merlin and I are hoping that an “academic symbiosis” (215) will be possible between philosophy and mycology. This sort of transdisciplinary collaboration may help stitch the modern image of nature back together again. 

While reading Merlin’s book, the overlaps with Alfred North Whitehead’s “organic realism” were impossible to miss. Whitehead is best known as a mathematician and collaborator with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. Lesser known is his later work in natural philosophy and metaphysical cosmology. His entrance into philosophy took the form of a critique of the modern “bifurcation of nature,” a thought-habit which insists that a strict separation be maintained between the objective causal factors thought to be “in nature” and the subjective feelings and perceptions imagined to be “in the mind.” On the one hand, there’s the conjectured system of molecules and electromagnetic radiation formulated by physicists, and on the other, the warmth and color of a sunrise celebrated by nature poets. Mocking the incoherence of this bifurcated image of nature, Whitehead writes: 

“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, 56). 

Whitehead would go on to articulate a thoroughly unbifurcated vision of the cosmos as an evolving ecology of organisms. He understood processes of emergent evolution as unfolding at all scales in nature, such that something like Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis transpires not just in the biological realm as more complex cells arise by incorporating formerly free-living organisms, but also in the physical domain, as early in cosmic history independent protons, neutrons, and electrons forged enduring associations to bring forth the first hydrogen and helium atoms. This vision is not meant to conflict with natural science, but to support and enrich it: he criticized the classical ontology of inert particles governed by arbitrarily imposed mechanical laws as entirely unsuited to the new findings of relativity and quantum theories. In addition to constructing a new metaphysical background for these early 20th century revolutions in the scientific understanding of space, time, matter, and energy, Whitehead also sought to overcome what philosophers nowadays refer to as “the hard problem of consciousness”: in short, how could mind ever arise out of matter if the latter is defined a priori as purely extended and thus entirely devoid of interiority? This is not just a hard problem. According to a growing cadre of panpsychist philosophers, it is impossible. It cannot be solved as stated. It can only be dissolved by rethinking the materialist premises upon which it is based. Despite scientific anxieties about anthropomorphism, Whitehead urged us to come to see our capacity as knowers to be part of the universe we are trying to know. While some physicists lean on randomness in lieu of explanation by making anti-empirical postulates about an infinite supply of other universes without life or mind, the only universe we actually know about is quite obviously anthropogenetic. After all, here we are. Instead of insisting that mind and life are freak accidents in an otherwise well-behaved mechanical world, perhaps (there’s that word again) the emergence of mind and life reveal something about the nascent potentials of matter that classical physics missed? 

Maybe the real danger to proper scientific understanding is not anthropomorphism, but mechanomorphism. Mechanism implies a mechanic, an outside designer; in contrast, Whitehead’s organic cosmos is understood to be self-organizing. Laws of physics become more like widespread habits that evolve with the organisms composing the cosmos, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond, as deistic early modern scientists supposed. While Whitehead restricts conscious experience to highly complex organisms with nervous systems, he insists that the vast majority of experience comes in the form of non-conscious feeling and emotion. It is here that many skeptics like to throw rocks at Whitehead and other panpsychists: “So you’re saying stones can think?!” No, but contemporary physics tells us that rocks are in fact composed of complex societies of vibrating molecules. In Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, the vibratory frequencies of molecules, and of atoms composing molecules, express forms of aesthetic harmonization with attendant feelings of experiential satisfaction. Particles are no longer conceived of as point-like geometric abstractions, but vector-feelings whose local subsistence depends upon the reiteration of their vibratory patterns. Thus, what appear as wave-lengths and vibrations to infrared spectrometers, for the molecular occasions in question are felt as “pulses of emotion” (PR, 163; see also my Physics of the World-Soul [2021], 76). Some mineral societies vibrate into highly ordered crystals, while others are more haphazard. 

Sober-minded scientists may balk at such speculative renderings of physical processes. Merlin quotes Whitehead’s statement to Russell, which speaks to his scientifically unorthodox interpretation of the facts of nature:  “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep” (112). Whitehead philosophizes at dawn, while dreams still halo consciousness and the separative outlines of objects remain blurred. In contrast, the speculatively-averse Russell preferred the clarity and distinction afforded by shadowless light. 

Mycological metaphors run even deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysics. “Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form,” in Merlin’s words (51). Their networks form “streams of embodiment” (55) that act as “ecological connective tissue” stitching the rest of the living world into relation (46). Do these networks form a single organism, or a plurality? A plurisingularity? According to Merlin,  “a hyphal tip would be the closest one could come to defining the unit of a mycelial swarm” (47). Relating the growth of hyphae to our human experience of becoming, Merlin writes:

“The growing tip is the present moment—your lived experience of now—which gnaws into the future as it advances. The history of your life is the rest of the hypha, the…lines that you’ve left in a tangled trail behind you. A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history” (53).

The equivalent of hyphal tips in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology are called “actual occasions.” Actual occasions are buds of experience that grow out of their relations to the past, achieve some novel aesthetic value in the subjective immediacy of the present, and perish into objective immortality so as to influence the future, contributing whatever value they’ve garnered to the ongoing creative advance of nature. Occasions tend to organize themselves into “societies”: swarm-like historical routes that sustain and amplify an enduring collective form by faithfully reiterating some shared pattern of potentiality.  

Merlin and I are beginning work on a longer paper to draw out the underground connections between process philosophy and the science of fungi. Our suspicion is that the findings of mycology serve as a special example of the more general categories articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. More to come! 


*Image credit: Aimee Cornwell (Instagram: @peggyfarmandforage)*

Psychedelics Today podcast on Consciousness, Capitalism, and Philosophy

I had a great conversation with Joe Moore of Psychedelics Today a couple months back, and the podcast was just released today. Have a listen.

In this episode, Joe interviews philosopher, author, and assistant professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco: Matthew D. Segall, Ph.D.

Segall discusses the relationship between consciousness and neuroscience: how science is helpful, but ultimately amounts to just one of many different tools towards describing consciousness (not truly understanding it), and how science, philosophy, and religion need to focus on their specialties but also work together towards better defining the human experience. And he talks about the importance of philosophy in trying to make sense of non-ordinary states of consciousness. 

As this is a very back-and-forth, philosophically-based conversation, they talk about a lot more: William James, David Ray Griffin’s concept of “hardcore common sense presuppositions,” Richard Dawkins, scientism, positivism, how we’re slowly thinning the line between technology and humanity, Timothy Leary and whether or not anyone really “dropped out,” German idealism, how capitalism co-opts everything, John Cobb, Alfred North Whitehead, Universal Basic Income, the death denial in capitalist life, and how to use the relationship between the internet and capitalism to improve society. 

Notable Quotes

“The thing about capitalism is that it lives inside each of us at the level of our desires and our drives because we’ve been shaped by it. So we can’t pretend like it’s this big, bad monster out there that other people believe in. The problem with capitalism is that it’s not just a worldview you decide to believe in or not; it is the very structure, again, of your desires and your sense of identity. It’s inside of you.”

“They say cannabis causes problems with motivation. Well yea, once you see through the value structure of our society, you lose motivation to participate because it’s no longer appetizing to you to engage in the rat race.” 

“Fifty years later, after Leary was saying ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out’, a lot of people thought that they followed his instructions, but again, capitalism co-opted the whole hippie movement, and by the 90s, they were selling Che Guevera t-shirts at the shopping mall and Apple was using the Beatles to sell computers.” 

“The way that liberals tend to think about these questions [is that] they get really mad at Facebook for being biased in what ads they allow and not censoring certain things and selling ads to Russians and stuff. …A publicly traded corporation has one purpose: to maximize shareholder profits. And that’s the business model for Facebook, and so they’ll take money from anyone who wants to sell ads. They’re a private company. They’re not a public utility that has anywhere in its corporate charter as part of its mission: ‘improving civil society’ or ‘helping America maintain its democracy.’ Why would we expect a private corporation to do that? There’s no incentive in capitalism for that. And yet we get mad and blame Mark Zuckerberg. Why aren’t we blaming capitalism? That’s where the source code for this problem is.” 

“Psychedelics aren’t necessarily going to wake us up, but I think that’s why we need philosophy. These substances and these experiences need to be contained within a meaningful story and a meaningful theory of reality so that we can make sense of what we’re experiencing and integrate it, and not only come out of those experiences with a profound sense of what’s wrong with our society, but with at least a good idea for what we’d like instead.”

Whitehead: Purpose and Reason

Great post over on the Prehended blog, partially in response to my book and recent post about Whitehead. Whitehead’s understanding of purpose in nature is enriched by being brought into fruitful comparison with Peirce’s semiotics.

It is true that I try to distance Whitehead from at least Kantian conceptions of rationality (Whitehead replaces Kant’s “critique of pure reason” with a “critique of pure feeling”). I appreciate the critiques here as I should be more clear that Whitehead is not advocating some sort of irrationalism, but rather a form of “aesthetic logic” or “relational rationality.”

conceptual prehension

Matthew Segall (who blogs over at footnotes2plato.com) has recently published a revised edition of his book Physics of the World Soul–an exploration of Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, bringing it into dialogue with some recent science and discussing its relevance for our current era of ecological and intellectual turbulence. Reading it over, I felt Segall delivered an exciting and accessible exploration and application of Whitehead’s ideas (as well as plenty of creative thinking beyond Whitehead), hopefully getting many readers of various backgrounds eager to dive deeper into this philosophy. I don’t think there is that much in the substance of Segall’s characterization of Whitehead I disagree with–but I do think there may be possible ambiguities where I would want to draw some further clarification, which I hope to fruitfully pursue in this blog post, and thereby also, hopefully, contribute to further articulating a philosophy capable of centering organism and…

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A review of Michael Hogue’s “American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World” (2018)

MICHAEL S. HOGUE, American Immanence: Democracy for An Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018: 238 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

Michael Hogue has written a timely theopolitical intervention drawing from (and contributing to) the American stream of philosophy in service of democratic and spiritual renewal. By the time American Immanence was published in 2018, humanity’s longest running national experiment in democracy was already embroiled in what Hogue (following Robert Bellah) calls “its fourth major trial” (2). Each of the last four centuries has seen the United States thrown into an epochal crisis of identity and destiny that tests and transforms our bonds as a people. The great trial of the eighteenth century was formative: the Revolutionary War. The nineteenth century crisis, the Civil War, was seeded by the moral contradictions implicit in the first: American colonists won political freedom from the British Crown on the basis of Enlightenment values only to turn around and build a society that not only tolerated native genocide and African enslavement but actively engaged in them as a matter of official state policy. The twentieth century brought the rise of America’s nuclear powered global military empire in the wake of the world wars as well as the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, which finally gave legal and political substance to the nominal freedom won in the prior century. As America stumbles into the third decade of the twenty-first century, its citizens continue struggling to responsibly inherit the unresolved collective traumas of their history. The fourth national trial is also challenging us to develop a new consciousness of our shared future vulnerabilities. All the old moral contradictions are still making the news. But something wickedly novel has emerged that recontextualizes everything.

Hogue’s book takes a step beyond current partisan divides by reminding us of the emergent planetary context of our shared political life. Whether first marked by the appearance of symbolic consciousness, agriculture and cities, colonization, industrialization, nuclear energy, or the microchip, there can be no doubt that we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by human modes of production and their unintended climatic blowback. The wave of reactionary nationalism that carried Trump into office is but the latest symptom of a more all-encompassing spiritual and ecological emergency.

For Hogue, the Anthropocene brings an end to the era of human exceptionalism, as all who had been externalized (poor and marginalized people, as well as the climate, the soil, the rainforests, etc.) are now rushing back to reclaim their agency. Gaia (or the Earth System, if you prefer) is not passive before the industrial projects of global capital. The reasons and desires shaping our political and economic lives are inescapably entangled with and thus limited by the flow of energy around the Earth, such that there are thermodynamic conditions of human freedom. Humans are evolved and evolving mammals who make useful tools that remake us in turn. Our moral ideals and social order did not arise ex nihilo from Zeus’ forehead. The history of human cultural evolution cannot be told in abstraction from its energy extraction regimes (foraging, farming, fossil fuels, etc.) (70). Concomitant with the increased awareness of the material and biotic conditions making human consciousness possible, fissures in the ideological matrix of modern liberal secularism are widening. While some may feel suffocated by the deluge of dire factors weighing upon the human future[i], Hogue seeks to fill the postliberal, postsecular gaps in the social imaginary with new theopolitical possibilities (10).

Drawing upon what he calls the American immanental tradition (particularly William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and their more recent interpreters), Hogue reimagines the social and political role of theology in more pragmatic and world-loyal terms, shifting away from traditionally religious obsessions with the afterlife and more recent “death of God” theologies to focus instead on “natal concern for the complex creativity immanent within the world and emergent through nature” (14). Defining the political as the domain of ongoing, open-ended negotiations of power and value in the context of common life (15), Hogue sets to work in chapter 1 demystifying the “redeemer symbolic” that has functioned throughout American history to legitimize certain theopolitical conceptions of power and value rooted in a dual logic of exception and extraction. This moral logic is typified by the elevation of a savior (human, divine, or both) to a special ontological status exempt from the normal conditions, contingencies, and constraints of creaturely coexistence and authorized to extract value and externalize cost in service of the redemption of a chosen people (29). Hogue traces the destructive effects of this symbolic constellation through its colonial, national, imperial, and neoliberal phases. While historians may prefer thicker descriptions of the events described, Hogue’s sketch suits his insurrectionist purposes. He begins by using the political theory of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to elucidate the anti-democratic decision-making and environmental racism of former Michigan governor Rick Synder, which precipitated a still ongoing humanitarian crisis in the impoverished, mostly Black city of Flint. The tragedy in Flint provides a synecdoche for the longer historical arc of American exceptionalism, from America’s Biblically coded ex nihilo creation story (31) to Trump’s election as the “apotheosis of [neoliberalism],” such that “capitalism has become a sacred crusade, [with] the market as the model of all other social relations” (50). 

Chapter 2 unpacks the wicked entanglements characterizing the Anthropocene, detailing the intimate but until recently unacknowledged bonds between humans and the Earth. Among the most striking entanglements is that European colonization of the Americas may have left a mark on the atmospheric record: after disease ravaged and displaced indigenous populations were no longer able to manage the forests, a precipitous reforestation of the Western hemisphere concentrated enough CO2 to at least contribute to the emergence of a mini-ice age in Europe (57). Hogue favors interpretations of the Anthropocene that identify it as primarily a colonial phenomenon driven by industrial growth capitalism. Hogue amplifies scholars like Eileen Crist (61), Jason W. Moore (62), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (64) who challenge the name chosen by geologists to mark this epochal transformation. Moore’s proposal of “Capitalocene” better captures the historical reality (and is no more infelicitous than the current misnomer) (63). 

Chapters 3 and 4 are the theoretical heart of the book. Hogue brilliantly reconstructs viable concepts of power and value in the context of Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, James’ radical empiricism, and Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy. These chapters warrant deep engagement from process-oriented thinkers. I only have space to critically address one issue: Hogue’s treatment of God as both concept and symbol. While he champions Whitehead’s aesthetic and “grassroots” (97) approach to metaphysics as “a blueprint for deep social change” (99), Hogue questions whether Whitehead’s process theology obeys its stated embargo on ontological exceptionalism. While Whitehead demotes God to the status of a creature of Creativity like all others, God’s creatureliness retains a special status in the universe as the most ultimate (in its primordial role as valuer of eternal possibilities) and most intimate (in its consequent role as fellow sufferer and tragic poet). For Hogue, Whitehead’s insistence upon a God who is “constantly concrescing, never satisfied, and nonperishing” (111) raises the suspicion that he may be smuggling ontotheological contraband. But rather than offering a sustained rebuttal of the “metaphysical necessity” of Whitehead’s God concept or divine function, Hogue focuses instead on the “pragmatic religious sufficiency” of such a God symbol (112), determining that contemporary political theologians are better off inheriting “Whitehead without God” in service of “a fuller, more vital, religiously world-loyal appreciation for the creative process of reality” (113). 

While pragmatic considerations of the individual and social function of religious symbolism are essential, I do not think we can so neatly divide metaphysics from social praxis. There is some risk in overapplying Deweyan instrumentalism in search of a “useful” image of God that we end up reinstituting the very anthropocentrism Hogue means to overcome. Hogue nowhere mentions the essential role of Whitehead’s divine function in granting relevant novelty to finite occasions of experience, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the onrush of unfiltered infinite Creativity. It is not clear that Whitehead’s scheme of prehending and concrescing actual entities remains coherent if “the primordial created fact”[ii]has been excised (or misunderstood as a “metaphysical necessity”). While the contingency of cosmic and earthly evolution cannot be denied, it is just as evident that the course of nature’s creative unfurling displays a tendency toward organized complexity. Where does this tendency to self-organization originate? Surely not in human symbol systems, which are rather an expression of it. Hogue suggests the creative advance can be sustained merely by the combinatory effects of finite occasions of experience, without any need for God or eternal objects. He goes on to argue that “the potential for novelty [would then be] ontologically distributed through the cosmos rather than concentrated within God’s primordial aspect” (111); but on my reading, Whitehead’s divine function is already radically distributed in the form of an “initial Eros” providing “the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.”[iii] It is also not clear how reference can still be made to “potential” (and in particular, relevant potentials) in a universe composed only of actual entities and sealed off from the ingression of eternal objects and divine lures.

Nor am I convinced that Hogue’s pragmatic emphasis on natality in the face of death adequately addresses the practical and existential concerns of the growing masses of people suffering through the current multiform planetary catastrophe. While it is true that some sects of Christianity verge on the status of death cults for their overemphasis on crucifixion, sin, and the need for otherworldly redemption, our religious imaginaries would be equally diminished by an exclusive focus on natality without regard for the moral import of death and the afterlife (or our images of it). Our religions must integrally address the miraculous facts of birth and death in their symbolic formations lest the encompassing divine mystery of human life be obscured. It is not clear to me that, on pragmatic grounds, belief in some kind of afterlife necessarily diminishes world-loyalty. A belief in reincarnation, for instance, can be construed as superlatively loyal. 

In the closing chapter, Hogue turns to Grace Lee Boggs in an effort to inspire a theopolitics of lasting annunciatory revolution in place of more short-lived denunciatory rebellions (153). Hogue’s book makes an important contribution to the task of disrupting and demystifying the dominant symbolic complexes that have shaped our collective emotions and habits for centuries. Whitehead warned almost a century ago that “societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows”[iv] (quoted by Hogue, 98). Hogue has deftly heeded this warning by showing how reverence and revisioning can coexist. 

[i] A team of Israeli scientists recently calculated that the total “anthropogenic mass” (overall material output of human activities) has now reached or exceeded the total living biomass of Earth at approximately 1.1 teratonnes. See Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5

[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

[iii] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 139. 

[iv] Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 88. 

Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Consciousness between Science and Philosophy (response to Philip Goff on panpsychism)

Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920)

If you prefer to listen to me read this blog post:

tl;dr Panpsychism = All is psyche, which is to say human consciousness and visible Nature take place within the World-Soul.

Most moderns have accepted as a matter of course that the best people to speak on behalf of Nature are the scientists. Scientists are the people most ideally positioned to study the special ways matter behaves under the experimental conditions of their theoretical gaze. But what happens when the object of scientific inquiry is not just another thing in Nature, not just another organ of the animal body, whether brain or eyes, but the thinking subject herself, the one who sees through those eyes and supposedly comes to know Nature scientifically, that is, consciously?

When the object of study is the conscious subject, science cannot do without philosophy. This is also true when the object of inquiry is Nature as such, or as a whole, that is, as the cosmogenetic process of Natura naturans. Cosmology will never be a purely positive science. There will always be ample room and need for speculative philosophizing beyond what at present can be measured or mathematized. Thus we can say that science becomes philosophical whenever it asks about its own subjective conditions of possibility (“What is consciousness?”) or about the nature of the cosmic process out of which it has emerged (“What is the cosmos?”).

I’ll borrow a tired Kantian trope because it’s late and why not: Philosophy without science is blind, and science without philosophy is empty. If we allow them to remain divorced and at odds, our human capacity to know the actually existing universe will continue to suffer and degrade.

Card-carrying panpsychist philosopher Philip Goff weighed in earlier today on this theme. Rather than invoking the antipodes of consciousness and cosmos as naturally philosophical arenas off limits to scientific reductionism, Goff emphasizes ethics as being forever beyond natural science’s explanatory prowess. When it comes to consciousness, he grants neuroscience at least part of the solution to the puzzle by way of their pursuit of the famed “neural correlates of consciousness”:

It is commonly assumed that the task of explaining consciousness is scientific rather than philosophical. I think that’s half right. It’s the job of neuroscience (among other things) to establish the neural correlates of consciousness (NCCs), that is, to work out which physical states of the brain are correlated with which subjective experiences. We have a robust and well-developed experimental approach for answering these questions.

Philip Goff

I have absolutely no doubt that the careful study of electrochemical activity in the human brain has a lot to teach us about the nature of consciousness. But I do not share Goff’s enthusiasm for this particular methodological approach known as “NCC.” There are other neuroscientific and neurophenomenological research programs that I think warrant our philosophical attention. For example the enactive approach to consciousness as articulated by Alva Nöe and Evan Thompson. They co-authored this paper showing how the search for neural correlates is not well-founded epistemologically or phenomenologically. It assumes certain things about experience as representational “content” and brain “states” that turn out to be philosophically incoherent.

Goff goes on to carve out a place for philosophy in the study of consciousness by reminding scientists that theory is underdetermined by data. In other words, there are multiple rational explanations for the available empirical evidence. In the case of consciousness’ place in Nature, Goff offers three possible accounts:

Naturalistic dualism – A subjective experience is a very different kind of thing from a physical brain state, but the two are bound together by natural law. In addition to the laws of physics, there are fundamental psycho-physical laws of nature which ensure that, in certain physical circumstances, certain experiences emerge.

Materialism – Each subjective experience has a purely physical nature. Having subjective experiences – feeling pain, seeing red – wholly consists in having certain complex patterns of neuronal firing.

Panpsychism – Each physical state has a purely experiential nature. Physical science tells us what matter does whilst leaving us in the dark about what it is. Having physical states – being negatively charged, being a certain pattern of neural firing – wholly consists in having certain kinds of subjective experience.

Philip Goff

I don’t think it is fair for Goff to leave idealism off his map of reasonable philosophical positions. Idealism matters. That said, he is correct that we cannot perform an empirical test to determine which of these four ontologies is true. They are “empirically equivalent” (like Whitehead’s family of alternative bimetric gravitational theories are to Einstein’s Relativity Theory).

Goff goes on to ground his empiricism on a public experiment/private experience bifurcation that I find phenomenologically inaccurate and conceptually confused. If panpsychism is ontologically valid then this Cartesian public/private or res extensa/res cogitans division must be an illusion, no? The need to dissolve the Cartesian split is a consequence not only of panpsychism, but of post-Cartesian phenomenology (especially Merleau-Ponty). Consciousness is not anyone’s private property; rather, consciousness publicly pervades the world. I agree with Nöe: we’ll never understand consciousness until we get out of our heads. Like fish in water, we are swimming in it.

Experience pervades and reverberates through Nature, “inside” and “outside” the mind, and is not bundled up into tiny private particles. The world isn’t that cold. It’s warm and alive, leaving every drop of experience open to be grown into by its internal relations with others. Reality is not fundamentally made of externally related mind dust, each particle watching its own private qualia screen, trapped in its own solipsistic egg shell universe. Rather, reality is made of experiential relations, or prehensions. Whiteheadian prehensions are not just passive feelings: they grow together into subjects who express aims.

Is there aim or value being realized in the non-human cosmos in Goff’s panpsychist vision? The reality of aim is relevant to his defense of ethics from scientific explanation. If there is such a thing as ethics in the universe, it’s because at least some animals have the ability to behave on purpose, that is, to act by launching an intention beyond the immediate moment in the hopes of effecting some ideal change upon the future. If conscious humans are ethical creatures (and ethics is not reducible to Sam Harris’ laboratory experiments), then the universe includes aims, at least in the form of our human actions. Where do these aims come from? I think we are left having to make the same move when it comes to explaining the place of aim in Nature that Goff accepts we had to make to explain consciousness. Aims also go all the way down. They evolve and accrue enhancements upon the way. Humans are just an especially intense expression of something Nature has been doing from the get go.

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.”