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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I meant to post this back in August when Levi Bryant finally started blogging again, but it somehow got stuck in my drafts (a veritable grave yard of unfinished thoughts and undead ideas). The philosophical spirit Bryant expresses in his writing is rather unique in its capacity to inspire me to resist. I am very grateful to him for this. So many of my posts on Footnotes2Plato have been provoked by the ideas he has shared on Larval Subjects. I’ll add another to that long list.

In his post on the trauma of speculative realism (etc.), Bryant draws on a passage from Foucault’s Archaeology of History to link the essential structure of myth to the synthetic activity of the subject, that is, to the “temporalizing activity of the subject capable of forming a totality for itself in how it links historicity and futurity in the formation of a present” (Bryant’s words). [Speaking of the present, those in the Bay Area should join us at CIIS tonight for a lecture on Foucault’s life and works by Jamie Socci.] He argues that all prior forms of consciousness (i.e., ideologies) were possessed by the drive to mythologize, that is, to long for a lost origin. Speculative realism (etc.), finally, has exorcised humanity (or some posthuman object formerly known as a human subject) of this possession, freeing ‘us’ to contemplate the fact that ‘we’ are already dead. The enlightened speculative realist no longer believes in ghost stories, not even the ghost story called human subjectivity.

There is much I agree with Bryant about. I align myself with the same “minor” tradition in the history of philosophy that he hints at. I also seek to undermine “the self-present mastery of the subject” and take every opportunity I can to remind myself and others that “we live in the orbit–-in the astronomical sense of the word–-of things that exceed us.”

For precisely these reasons, I am drawn to the work of Schelling (no doubt a heterodox thinker not easily categorized by Western philosophical norms). His early Naturphilosophie and later positive philosophy of mythology and revelation were a century ahead of their time as a forerunner of depth psychology.

hadespersephone2locri

“The crisis through which the world of the gods unfolds,” writes Schelling, “is not external to the poets. It takes place in the poets themselves, forms their poems” (Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 18).

Joshua Ramey and Daniel Whistler discuss the implications of Schelling’s philosophy of mythology in their essay “The Physics of Sense: Bruno, Schelling, Deleuze” (2014).

For Schelling, myth is not the way the human subject “reconciles itself with itself” or “achieves self-present mastery,” as Bryant puts it. Myth is precisely the opposite: it is another way of speaking of the subject’s inability to achieve complete self-mastery, of the cision at the generative root of subjectivity. Myth is the human imagination’s way of coming to terms with the soul’s creative becoming (i.e., with its lack of substantial being). Myth is soul-making. Humans do not invent myth; rather, argues Schelling, it is myth that invented (and continues to reinvent) humanity.

For Schelling, rejecting the mythopoiesis at the core of our becoming-soul in favor of some supposedly myth-free enlightened view of a meaningless existence (metaphysically speaking) is the route of infantile escapism. His philosophy of mythology urges us to stay with the eternally unfolding crisis and not to fear the infinite depths of its creative becoming. Myth is not a facade painted atop Nature, but Nature’s way of becoming human (and perhaps humanity’s way of becoming other than human).

“Two things fill the mind with ever-renewing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind is drawn to think of them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” So says Kant in the conclusion to his Critique of Practical Reason. He goes on to explain that neither the sky above him nor the freedom within him should be considered mere conjectures. Neither is beyond the horizon of conscious experience. We sense the celestial lights above through our eyes, and we sense the moral freedom within through our heart, the innermost source of our self-hood. Kant continues: “The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to the conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”

StarryNight_Posterreworked

I started thinking about Kant’s accounts of beauty, sublimity, and morality after reading Levi Bryant’s recent post on beauty as an absolute value. An absolute value, in Bryant’s sense, is a value that we hold for its own sake as an end in itself. He discusses beauty as one example of such a value and wonders what role it might play in resisting the instrumentalizing tendency of neoliberal capitalism, whereby every aspect of life comes to be valued only in terms of its usefulness or profitability. Bryant suggests that the earlier theological understanding of beauty (i.e., beauty as an index of a divine Creator) must be replaced by an immanent, naturalistic account. He writes:

The question then becomes that of why we find the beautiful beautiful, of why we encounter the beautiful at all.  This is not a question– at least at first –of what we find beautiful.  In other words, it is not a question where discussions of harmony, pattern, and proportion would be appropriate answers.  Again, the question here is not what is beautiful, but why such things would be beautiful to us at all.  What is the ground of the ability to have, as Kant put it, “disinterested pleasure” or the ability to find things beautiful?

To phrase the question in Kantian terms opens the door to a sort of transcendental compromise between earlier dogmatic accounts of beauty as the work of a transcendent Creator and later materialist accounts in terms of evolutionary survival value. It is clear enough to me (and of course to Bryant) that a transcendent Creator offers us little in the way of a rational explanation for beauty. It is just as clear that an account of beauty in terms of its survival value won’t do, either, and for precisely the reasons that Bryant articulates: such an explanation must first translate beauty into instrumental terms as a means to the end of survival. Darwinian accounts of sexual selection help us understand part of the reason male peacock feathers are so ornate, but the underlying causal efficacy of an organism’s perception of and response to beauty remains an unexplained explainer. A further problem is that many interpretations of naturalism forbid the idea of organismic agency or purposiveness, making the perception of beauty underlying sexual selection an even bigger mystery.

There are other interpretations of naturalism, of course. From a Whiteheadian point of view, wherein beauty is the very teleology of the universe, the locus and valence of mystery are shifted elsewhere. Mystery is no longer a problem to be explained, but a reality to be experienced (to paraphrase Frank Herbert). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic ontology, which is to say that aesthetic achievement is the very essence of reality. All order is aesthetic order. To “understand” this order means nothing more or less than to experience its beauty.

Returning to Kant’s famous statement about the starry heavens above and the moral law within, I think we can validate the physical feeling he is attempting to express even if we are forced to reject the metaphysical conclusions he draws from it. If human beings have any moral freedom and worth, it must be the freedom and worth we share with animals. For we are animals. Accepting our creatureliness and our dependence on the ecological networks of Earth doesn’t require that we deny our participation in the infinite. It is our intuition of the infinite, both outside and within ourselves, that generates beauty. Instead of, like Kant, sharply dividing animal aesthesis from moral or spiritual noesis, we can recognize the sublime heights of the heavens and the sublime depths of the heart as equally aesthetic in nature.

Beauty, then, is an end in itself precisely because of its infinite sources. We cannot reach beyond or behind its inner and outer appearances. In this sense, this is an immanent account of beauty. When we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite progression of appearances. When the intellect tries to grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of reality. Only the imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic progression of beauty.

I realize I am disrespecting the differences Kant sought to establish in his Critique of Judgment between the beautiful and the sublime. But part of what an aesthetic ontology requires is that the sublime be de-Kantianized. Kant took the aesthetic “too muchness” of encounters with the sublime (like the starry night) and tried to redeploy them as evidence of humanity’s moral superiority over nature. He comes so close to decentering the human in the face of the sublime depths of the cosmos, and then backs away into artificial moralizing. There is so much more that could be said about all this, but for now I can only muster an ellipsis (and a link some thoughts of mine from several years ago about the links between ethics and aesthetics)…

Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.

Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.

Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).

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As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):

“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.

In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.

This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).

The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy

“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).

So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).

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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).

I was wondering how long the cease fire would last… The pluralism wars flared up again this afternoon over on FaceBook (this link may not work for everyone). Misunderstandings abound, or so it seems to me. My position–which is greatly indebted to thinkers like James and Whitehead, and more recently, Bruno Latour–is that of ontological pluralism. What is finally real in such an ontology has nothing to do with a mind-independent objective nature; rather, what is real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms.

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Ontological pluralism is not equivalent to the rather banal thesis that human individuals and collectives have different world views. Of course they do. Call this “world view pluralism” or “multiculturalism.” Many of us don’t like it, but it doesn’t matter: it’s still a plain fact about the sociopolitical environs modern people inhabit. The idea here is that human subjectivity provides for a whole multitude of cultural, psychological, and/or symbolic ways of relating to the world. The Modern constitution has it that each way of relating to reality should be tolerated, even respected, but on the other hand we are also all obliged to agree that there is finally just one pre-existent true reality out there somewhere. This is the incoherence of Modernity’s bifurcation of nature. Depending on whether we’re dealing with a theistic or scientistic fundamentalist, this “one true reality” could be a natural world made of matter that Science/Reason is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing, or a supernatural world made of spirit that Religion/Revelation is the only objective, culture-free way of accessing. This all too Modern settlement is rooted in the bifurcation of nature that Whitehead spent the last 25 years of his life protesting against:

What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream. –The Concept of Nature, p. 31

Scientific materialism, in other words, has come to oppose our subjective experience of nature (the dream) to an abstract model of nature theorized to be the objective cause of that experience (the conjecture). Latour recently delivered a lecture to an audience of anthropologists that continued Whitehead’s protestation against bifurcation: “What Is the Recommended Dose of Ontological Pluralism for a Safe Anthropological Diplomacy?” It is worth a listen… 

Latour and Whitehead both protest against scientific materialism, but they don’t do so as beautiful souls trying to defend the subjective meanings of consciousness from reduction to the materiality of the nature known to science. As Latour makes clear in the lecture above, his project is an attempt to account for the variety of materials known to the sciences more adequately. Similarly, Whitehead was driven into metaphysics precisely because of his deep appreciation for and desire to defend the scientific process. He was as shocked as everyone else who lived through the demolition of classical physics in the early part of the 20th century. He realized that a quantum, relativistic physics, to continue being rational and offering elucidating descriptions of reality, was going to need new metaphysical justification. His process-relational ontology (aka, ontology of organism) takes materiality very seriously, but it no longer considers “matter” to be the objective half of a bifurcated universe. Rather, enduring materials are understood to be always already hybrid subject-objects. Everything physical is understood to be mixed up with everything conceptual and affective. The universe is awash in flows of feeling, flows composed not just of actualized histories and present appreciations, but of anticipated future trajectories. Energy carries physical as well as emotional force.

All that said, what, then, is ontological pluralism? Unlike the banal form of pluralist multiculturalism that everyone already accepts, ontological pluralism is the more radical thesis that no unified underlying material reality exists that might referee the plurality of organismic (human and nonhuman) value-experiences that contest, cooperate, or metamorphose with one another in order to secure their continued existence. The universe is an evolving ecosystem of organisms. It is eros and ares all the way down, equal parts symbiogenic orgy and struggle for existence from top to bottom. Whitehead (Science and the Modern World) offers a concrete example of how this plays out in the physical world:

“Thus just as the members of the same species mutually favor each other, so do members of associated species. We find the rudimentary fact of association in the existence of the two species, electrons and hydrogen nuclei. The simplicity of the dual association, and the apparent absence of competition from other antagonistic species accounts for the massive endurance which we find among them.”

In the image of the cosmos constructed by the philosophy of organism, evolution comes to refer not only to the process of biological speciation in the earthly mesocosm, but also to wider micro- and macrocosmic ecologies of individualizing energetic activity. Evolution, in its most general outlines, is a theory relevant to the entire scope of cosmic history.

The sciences are generally quite good at producing objectivity, but they do so by forging robust alliances with a multitude of still evolving agencies, not by laying bare the supposed material substratum of all things. As a result, their knowledges and their truths, are always in-the-making (just as the cosmic ecology itself is always in-the-making). Science is a process of inquiry, not a storehouse of produced knowledge.

Latour’s ontological diplomacy is an effort to avoid marshaling “Scientific Facts” as though they might bring a final end to all contestation. Such facts will remain as important as ever even in a non-modern ecological epoch. They deserve to be defended. But the question is, just how is the scientific process best defended from its relativist critics? By claiming that it somehow transcends culture, politics, society, practice, embodiment, subjectivity, etc., and speaks unambiguously on behalf of an objective and pre-existent “Nature”? No, I don’t think this does the reality of the often anarchic and surprising scientific process justice. Latour shows how if such a defense of science via purification were successful, it would only succeed in rendering science entirely unequipped to produce any of the knowledge we’ve come to expect of it.

I’m no relativist, though I am a relationalist. We have plenty of tools to determine which facts are more secure and which more fragile. The clearest evidence we can produce of a well-constructed fact is to trace the network of relationships it has been able to forge between the agencies constituting it. The more tightly and widely networked, the more serious we ought to take it as a fact. So for example, when it comes to the issue of climate change, I’m way more inclined to trust the worldwide scientific community of climatologists–with their well-funded labs, peer-reviewed journals, satellites, thermometers, weather balloons, etc.–than I am a PR rep from the oil industry or the Heritage Foundation. Unfortunately, the PR industry has its own way of forging networks that work tirelessly to undermine the public’s trust in the scientific process. Here, we can and should distinguish between the political and the scientific mode of existence: the Heritage Foundation thinks it is doing climatology, but really it is doing politics. Its networks are not productive of experts, but rather of ideologues. Not that there is anything wrong with politics! The point is just that a more diplomatic effort to sort out these ontological confusions might help us do politics and science more effectively amid the plurality of fragile things composing this open-ended universe.

Ontological pluralism, then, is the thesis that reality is multiple and open-ended (not just that humans have a multitude of world views). It’s not just that our scientific knowledge of the universe is incomplete, its that the universe itself is incomplete. Ontological pluralism does not entail that we ought not to disagree with human collectives whose values differ from our own. We can and must enter into such disagreements! We cannot rely on some transcendent Scientific God’s eye view to settle our scruples for us. Instead, we should weigh the merits of different human values and world views on less otherworldly (ethical and aesthetic) grounds.

For the pluralism of an ontology of organism like that I’ve tried to articulate, the question about whose subjective symbolic or cultural or psychological world view is true and whose is mistaken just doesn’t arise. It is a dumb question once you’ve accepted the conceptual consequences of this path for thinking. If what is finally real are the value-experiences of a multiscaled and creatively evolving ecology of organisms, then the question isn’t “whose view is correct?” (“correct” in the scientific sense of objectively true regarding an external material world), but whose view is more powerful? Being is power, as Whitehead said, following Plato in The Sophist. 

Ontological pluralism is not a thesis about the relativity or objectivity of truth. It concerns the truth of relativity–the truth suggested by post-classical physics, systems biology, and post-colonial anthropology–that the universe is full of agencies at all levels (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, …) and is ontologically incomplete/open-ended/processual. 

The “…” is important for process-oriented pluralists. It signifies that which cannot finally be signified. Call it “Creativity” if you think that’s less cagey.

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

 

 

Below, I’ve copied an email thread with Dan Dettloff, who blogs at Re(-)petitions. I thought some of our other readers might want to chime in. Actually, I’d really like to hear other people’s responses to Dan’s question. I’ve not arrived at a satisfying answer to it, but I do think getting past “the problem of evil” will require a far more radical re-conceptualization of God’s nature than that offered by any ontotheology. On the other hand, there is more to religion than concepts. If, as the religious believe, God actually exists, then God is not simply an idea. God is real. After Kant–for whom God became merely a regulative idea necessary “for us” as rational thinkers but for all that not necessary for being “in itself”–the problem of evil became more acute, since it was re-located from the transcendent to the transcendental, from the universal to the individual: what had been an abstract problem for God to work out before the creation of the universe became a concrete problem for each human person to work out before theorizing about or acting within the world. Theology was no longer ontologically relevant, was not a science of divinity, but nonetheless remained crucially important for phenomenological knowledge and practical affairs, for free and responsible action among others. Without the regulative idea of God, or the Kingdom of Ends, human freedom would spin free of its gravitational center and unwind into blind willing. We would be incapable of good or evil action, incapable of loving. We would be as nothing.

Dean has been busy trying to think Christianity in the context of Speculative Realism and the “New Story” of evolutionary cosmology. Some of my own thoughts on these topoi were collected in this essay “Towards a Christological Realism.”


Matthew,

I’ll be brief, as I’m sure you’re busy, and I to you with what may turn out to be a bit of a heady question. I have followed your blog from time to time, and I admire your ability to bring various strands of thinking together. In fact, your writing prompted me to take a course on eco-theology with Dennis O’Hara in Toronto. I come from continental philosophy and identify as a Christian with the usual string of philosophical qualifiers. Convicted by Speculative Realism and a general growing interest in science, I have been hard at work trying to bring together the theological visions, which have ontological ramifications, of religious traditions (most specifically Christianity). Perhaps a year or so ago, Levi Bryant made a post at larval subjects calling out folks like Caputo for reducing religion to a sort of poetic overlay on the world, suggesting this cuts its legitimate, if (on Bryant’s view) misguided, ontological claims.

I share Bryant’s criticism, but, naturally, not his atheism, and as such have been exploring just what those ontological claims of Christianity might be, especially given the new cosmology. I’ve read The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry and Berry’s The Great Work, along with a myriad of articles (and I have some formal theological training, most specifically with Moltmann). While I’m not novice to theology, I recognize that this is a new arena for me, or at least I’m coming to it with new sets of questions.

Let me cut to the chase. I’m having trouble finding a satisfactory answer to the problems of creative destruction in the universe story, especially as it pertains to the kind of vision of a God of love present in most religious traditions. The argument is likely not foreign to you, but so we’re on the same page it goes something like: if God is so loving, as revealed in figures like, for example, Jesus Christ (though one could obviously choose others, but perhaps staying Christocentric will give us a little bit of a particular ground to work with), and God reveals that humans are called to enact radical love, forgiveness, and peace in the world, why would God create a universe which can only seem to create itself via loads of natural evil? In other words, when God incarnates into the person of Christ, God essentially becomes not just a human but inherits the sacrifice of millions of suffering creatures who, as part of the universe story, have given rise to this particular conscious being we call Jesus. Jesus then explores an ethic of love which runs precisely counter to the pre-human logic of cosmogenesis (or at least biogenesis).

Solutions to this issue usually take the form of some kind of libertarian notion of freedom for creation. God steps back and allows creation to realize itself. But this, too, is at odds with plenty of religious definitions of freedom, and, of course, autonomy is hardly synonymous with freedom. So what gives? Are we forced to affirm some kind of strange, perverse religious ontology which suggests God creates a universe which creates itself, only to tell the universe it was messing up the whole time? Do you know of any ways out of this predicament?Thanks in advance, Matthew. I hope all is well, and thank you, again, for your work. I’ve personally benefited quite a bit from it and look forward to reading more.

Best,
Dean

~~~~~

Hi Dean,

Thanks for your email. You’ve raised a question that has been on my mind lately, actually. I just finished a book by Matthew Stewart called The Courtier and the Heretic: Spinoza, Leibniz, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. It goes into the different theological positions of Spinoza and Leibniz.

For Spinoza (a pantheist), there is no such thing as good and evil from God’s all-inclusive perspective. Further, God has no freedom, since God is identical to the natural world, which was conceived by Spinoza along Newtonian lines as deterministic and law-abiding.

For Spinoza, the problem of evil is really just an illusion resulting from our limited perspective on things. Things are the way they are because they couldn’t have been any other way. God had no choice in the matter.

Leibniz was deeply influenced by Spinoza, but fought against his conclusions. Leibniz wanted to defend a conception of God as both apart from and internal to the universe, as both free and as necessary. In his Theodicy, he asked “why is there something, rather than nothing?” He imagined God deliberating with Himself prior to creating the universe: “Is such an endeavor worth it?,” Leibniz imagines God asking Himself. Leibniz then distinguishes between the divine understanding (God’s mind, if you will) and the divine will (God’s heart). The divine understanding, in creating a universe, must obey the logical principles of identity and non-contradiction. The divine will, given these restrictions, desires to create the best of all possible worlds. So the finite created world we know, according to Leibniz, contains the least amount of evil that it possibly could contain. God did His best, in other words. He decided it was worth creating the world for the good that would result, even if this good was won at the cost of some degree of evil and suffering.

My own response to the problem of evil comes largely out of Whitehead’s process theology. Whitehead (dis)solves the problem in a way that may be unacceptable to some orthodox Christians, in that he denies God’s omnipotence. Leibniz also limited God’s power in some sense (in that he required God to obey logic–Descartes is an example of someone who conceived of God as so powerful that He could even make 2+2=5 if He wanted). But Whitehead’s denial is more radical. God is no longer an all-powerful dictator who created out of nothing a finite and contingent universe. Rather, God is a creature of Creativity, part of cosmogenesis like you and I, not a distant unmoved mover but”a fellow sufferer who understands.” His only power derives from “the worship He inspires.” He is not capable of coercing creation to obey his commands, but works gently by way of erotic, moral, and aesthetic persuasion.

I presented a paper recently that further fleshes out Whitehead’s psychocosmotheology called “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy” that further develops his process theology.

In short, for Whitehead, evil is not God’s fault, but is a side effect of creative process/evolutionary becoming. Evil is “creativity in the wrong season,” as he puts it.I’m also influenced by Schelling’s treatment of these issues… He would probably invert the Whiteheadianism that “evil is not God’s fault.” For Schelling, evil is precisely the fault or fissure in God between hiddenness and revelation, between wrathful withdrawal and radiant love.

Hope that clarifies some things for you somewhat… I welcome further dialogue about all this. Would you mind if I post your question and my response on my blog? I think others would enjoy thinking alongside us.
Warmly,
Matt
~~~~~

Matt,

Thanks so much for your timely and thorough response. You’re welcome to post it on your blog, and feel free to edit whatever you’d like. I’m not much a stickler on those sorts of things.

Your presentation of Whitehead is a useful way of cutting through Spinoza and Leibniz. I wonder, though, if this response moves the problem around rather than solving it (I recognize that “theodicy” may very well be an impossible thing to “solve,” but it remains the nagging problem of the universe story and, I fear, threatens it as a viable interpretive option). While I would happily deny God’s classical omnipotence, the question remains as to how God could not have created a universe which creates itself without all the violence. The Judeo-Christian writings get out of the problem by basically affirming that God creates a universe which is open to further development under a primordial goodness, and evil/suffering end up having a radically anthropocentric cause. This older cosmological mythos doesn’t explain suffering, of course, but it gets God off the hook. With the new cosmology, I, like you, find it necessary to deny a strong Providence, but we end up running into the usual problems of process theism, namely that it seems to encourage us to modify the concept of God so significantly that the God who comes out on the other side seems totally alien to the impulses of most world religions. God ends up sort of being shoe-horned into a certain cosmological model rather than setting the terms of the discourse, and thus process theology runs the risk of re-establishing another God of the philosophers and committing the sin of ontotheology.

Bringing this back to the problem of evil, the process paradigm, while still (I think) a God of the philosophers, is an improvement on the classical paradigm, but it fails to name the origin of evil other than to say it is structurally present in the very processes of the universe. It would be hard, I think, to hold that God creates the universe out of love as a result. We would need to posit the usual Boehme-Hegel-Moltmann-zimzum models, which come loaded with their own structural instabilities just as the classical models do.

But perhaps I’ve missed something somewhere along the way. I’ve sort of assumed a lot of things about these models in a slow disclosure of how I feel about them, and I certainly don’t want to pin anything on you that you don’t wish to be saying. My apologies for any presumptions or errors.

Thanks again for your time, Matt.

Peace,Dean

~~~~~

Dean,

I suppose it comes down to whether or not we are persons of faith, for whom God’s nature and existence are attested by way of spiritual revelation. If we cannot simply affirm this or that sort of God by way of an inner faith or an acceptance of outer religious authority, then we are forced to consider the physico-cosmological revelation instead by asking: What can God be like, given what we know of the physical universe? This question seems absurd, even abhorrent, for evangelical Christians, since what we’ve learned about biological evolution (which marches forward mostly by way of the satanic Great Selectors: sex and death) suggests we’d do better not ask the question at all, since if such a universe of continual carnage does have a Creator, its not the sort of God that would be worth loving. Better to be an atheist than to admit the existence of a deity who thought billions of years of rape and slaughter were worth the effort of creation…

I think process theism, whether we’re talking about Whitehead’s version, or Schelling’s Böhmean version, forces us to consider the darkness, the wrath, and the unconsciousness of God, as much as we may prefer only to look at His conscious light and love. If the life of God is an eternal process of incarnation, then the classical sort of religion that would have provided its adherents with hope for some sort of escape hatch to a better world beyond this one must be regarded as nothing more than the illusion of a death fearing primate struggling desperately to cope. God is here with us, part of us, living and dying with us. God isn’t trying to escape this world, but to become more and more mixed up with it. Creation wasn’t something God undertook by choice, as far as I can tell.

“God,” said Whitehead to Lucien Price, “is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.”

I came across this article in The Atlantic penned by Whitehead in 1925 called “Science and Religion.” Much of it seems to be excerpted from his lecture published as Religion in the Making. Thought it might be relevant to quote at length:

“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something which gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. The immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship. Religion has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination. Gradually, slowly, steadily, the vision recurs in history under nobler form and with clearer expression. It is the one element in human experience which persistently shows an upward trend. It fades and then recurs. But when it renews its force it recurs with an added richness and purity of content. The fact of the religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.

 

The vision claims nothing but worship; and worship is a surrender to the claim for assimilation, urged with the motive force of mutual love. The vision never overrules. It is always there, and it has the power of love presenting the one purpose whose fulfillment is eternal harmony. Such order as we find in nature is never force — it presents itself as the one harmonious adjustment of complex detail. Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision. Evil is overruling, retarding, hurting. The power of God is the worship He inspires. That religion is strong which in its ritual and its modes of thought evokes an apprehension of the commanding vision. The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.”

Best,
Matt

~~~~~

Brian Swimme on “The New Story” in cosmology:

Update: By chance, I noticed this opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times: “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Her discussion of Rudolf Otto‘s psychology of religion is certainly relevant.

Levi Bryant recently called for a cross-blog discussion concerning what he perceives to be the problematic relationship between ethnographic pluralism and ontological realism. His call was instigated by Jeremy Trombley’s post on the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology and ethnography. Trombley articulated what might be described as an ontology of the concept, wherein concepts are not representational frames that mirror (or fail to mirror) the world, but participatory interventions that dis- and/or re-assemble our thoughts and practices. Trombley writes:

“a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently… What the ontological turn does is…[allow] us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.”

Before I get into what such an anti-representationalist ontology of concepts does to our understanding of Truth (hint: Truth is not pre-given but enacted), I should mention a few other bloggers who have already jumped into the conversation. Phillip of the blog Circling Squares (which I need to explore more!) responded to Bryant’s original post by pointing out that thinkers like Latour and Stengers (and Whitehead before them) have been articulating a rather robust form of pluralistic realism for some time now (i.e., cosmopolitics). Terence Blake of Agent Swarm also chimed in, arguing that Bryant’s “realism” seems to be no more than old-school scientism, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is so difficult to square with pluralism.

Bryant believes that the social constructionist turn of the 90s was politically valuable in that it improved the social standing of many oppressed minorities. But he rejects what he perceives to be the extension of such constructionism beyond politics into ontology. Bryant writes:

“In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste.  It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn.  For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?”

I’m not sure if Bryant intends to include cosmopolitical thinkers like Latour and Stengers in his punching bag category “social constructionist.” I don’t understand how he could. If he does insist on labeling them as such (which seems to me to just obscure their true positions–but if he insists…), then, building on Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, I’d retort that “society” for these cosmopolitical thinkers has to be understood in the most general sense as an ontological category, not simply a human “construct.” The human organism is already a society of cells, each of which is itself a society of organelles, each of which is a society of molecules, each of which is a society of atoms, each of which is a society of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and so on… Realities are decomposed and recomposed by associations between and among actual occasions–occasions which are never simple unities but are always multiple and so always “in the making.” Which brings me to the concept of “construction”: if we are working within a process ontology, construction also needs to be ontologized. Biological evolution is a gradual process of construction wherein what begins as psychological desire later becomes physiological reality (to take the example of evolution by sexual selection). The physical world is itself continually constructed by what physicists are now calling “geometrogenesis.” This is not to say that the physical world is a human construct, mind you. The picture that is beginning to become clear as a result of contemporary physical cosmology is that space and time are the co-emergent products of the real activity of pure energy, something both non-human and pre-physical/pre-extended (Whitehead called it Creativity; physicists call it the quantum vacuum). If the physical world (as described by contemporary physics) is a network of relations always “in the making,” and not some collection of pre-given particles obeying eternal laws, then a “true” understanding of it must also always remain open-ended. There is no Science or Universal Reason that might once and for all pronounce upon the nature of the Real. There are many sciences, many methods, many rationalities. Science as it is actually practiced now and in the past has always already been a pluralistic enterprise. As Latour showed in Science in Action, what ends up being called “Nature” is always a consequence of some more or less temporary settlement of controversies. Every new generation of scientists stirs up new controversies about what the aging generation thought was settled.

The cosmopolitical perspective that I’d want to defend certainly does not “undermine the possibility of public deliberation about truth”–it is (once we accept an enactivist account of truth) the condition of its possibility! It is Bryant’s position that rules out such public deliberation by insisting on declaring war on all those human societies that reject materialism. Latour has plenty to say about the vacuity of the notion of “matter,” which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t get into here.  Accepting a cosmopolitical form of ontological pluralism doesn’t at all require that we think of all beliefs and belief-systems as created equal. Nor does it imply that social groups “freely choose” their beliefs simply as a matter of “taste.” The ontological commitments of any given society typically emerge out of long multi-generational processes of historical development. They aren’t just made-up on a whim by individual members. Further, the world view of a social group is as integral to their their livelihood and well-being as their food, shelter, and water, not simply an optional aesthetic veneer. As Trombley suggested, belief-systems enact ways of being and are not just representations.

Ontological pluralism is a commitment to multiple realities, many of which overlap, but some of which remain (at least for now) irreconcilable. It is not a commitment to tolerance of multiple perspectives on a single reality. This latter option, as Bryant points out, would be a rather trivial form of pluralism. It is also a rather colonialist and scientistic take on the Real. Anyone trying to argue that contemporary science has somehow provided us with a unified account of an objective reality that holds true for all people in all places and times has their work cut out for them. Several hundred years of “modern” science has only succeeded in making the world stranger, more dangerous, and more multifarious than it was for ancient and medieval peoples.

Am I saying that a ayahuasca shaman’s encounter with the spirit of the jaguar is just as real as the particle physicist’s encounter with the Higgs boson? Yes, most definitely. In fact, the shaman’s encounter is way more concrete and direct than the physicist’s, since the latter has to wait for a world-wide network of supercomputers to process the information for him, which only after many repeated trials, journal publications, and so on becomes what most (but not every!) physicist will agree is something like a Higgs boson. Even after all this painstakingly detailed mediation (“science in the making”), the Higgs boson remains now and forever a theoretical construct. The ayahuasqueros’ encounter with the jaguar spirit is anything but. Sure, a cognitive neuroscientist might claim to be able to explain the shaman’s experience as a “brain malfunction” brought on by the ingestion of a psychedelic plant brew. But this remains a reductive etic description and not a complete explanation. The neuroscientist should participate in an ayahuasca ceremony for himself before he goes declaring war on the shaman. At least, this is what a pluralist ethics would entail. Such shamanic practices have functioned quite well in their own tribal context for thousands of years. Instead of assuming from the get go that anyone who doesn’t describe the world in your favored language is deluded, try to get to know them, to understand not only what their world is like, but how their world is brought forth. Follow the injunctions through which they enact their world. Then, once you’ve explored it from the inside, by all means judge their enactment, contest it, translate its features into other terms to show why it is unethical, dangerous, or misguided.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay of mine on the ethical implications of enactivism and the need for a pluralistic planetary mythos (Logos of a Living Earth):

One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular cognitive domain made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed, its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.

As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance. As Latour put it, “we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).

Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.

Bryant writes:

This is not a metaphor.  At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels.  This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants.  All living and social being is solar in its origin.

I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?

Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,

must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).

Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.

Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:

For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.

[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.

I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.

Following up on my contribution to the Latour/AIME reading group, I wanted to say a bit more about the confused concept called “matter.” There are many varieties of materialism, but for the sake of time, let’s follow Robert Jackson by dividing them up into two basic categories: 1) that variety of materialism which understands matter as some ultimate stuff that all emergent forms can be reduced to, 2) that which understands matter as some primordial formlessness, or endlessly differentiating movement from out of which all form emerges.

_snowflakes__by_candymax

While I’m committed to articulating a realist ontology (my dissertation draws on Schelling and Whitehead in pursuit of what you might call an ontology of organism), I’d argue that to be real is not necessarily to be material, especially if matter is conceived of as a fundamental stuff. If we insist on continuing to employ the words “mind” and “matter” in metaphysical discussions, I’d want to construe them not as separate substances in a dualist ontology, but rather as reciprocal poles in an ontology of becoming, where “matter” signifies the accumulated weight of the stubborn facts of the past, while “mind” signifies the novel forms yearning for realization in the future. Every passing moment, or drop of experience, exists in tension between the two poles, fact and form, or actuality and potentiality. Matter, then, is only half the picture. A universe of only material things would be a universe where everything had already been actualized such that nothing new could ever emerge. All that could occur would be the rearrangement of the same old matter. There are plenty of thinkers who would disagree with me. For example, see Levi Bryant’s recent post.

Bryant seems to want to defend a non-reductive version of the first type of materialism. Contrary to my claim that materialistic atomism makes real emergent novelty impossible, Bryant writes:

…it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.  Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves.  In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged [or organized] in these particular ways…certain objects are only possible through certain relations.

I’ve probably got much to learn from Bryant about the Greek atomists. So my response here as much a query as a claim. I am aware that the third necessary ingredient in Lucretius’ scheme (aside from atoms and the void) is the clinamen. Atoms have an unexplained tendency to swerve as they fall through the void. According to Lucretius, without the clinamen, “nature would have never produced anything” (ii. 216-224), since no interaction would ever have occurred between atoms to allow for material organization. Leaving aside the equally puzzling question as to where atomic weight comes from or why atoms should be falling, we might also ask what the cause of this swerve, and so of material organization, is. Why do otherwise inert atoms have such a strange inclination for “curved” motion? Why does matter tend to turn in on itself? Lucretius seemed content to say it was simply “chance.” Chance, I suppose, means “for no reason at all.” Perhaps a strange swerving deserves an equally strange story. But we could tell other stories that make more sense. Dante might identify the cause of the clinamen with the Primum Mobile, the final sphere of the heavens whose divinely inspired motion initiates and sustains the motion of all the spheres it encloses (Paradiso, Canto XXVII). Of course, modern cosmology has outgrown Dante’s ancient geocentric imagination. We need a new creation myth to account for the strange inclinations of matter, a story more credible than the rather mechanical cosmos of revolving crystalline spheres first described by Aristotle and Ptolemy. I imagine Bryant would disagree with the need for a story in ontology, but then again, Lucretius articulated his ontology in the form of an epic poem. When it comes down to it, every metaphysician needs to give narrative force to their ontology by way of some ultimate reason(s) for which no reason can be given (other than givenness itself). For Whitehead, the ultimate reasons are aesthetic (Eros, Beauty), while the main characters in his cosmic plot are Creativity and Actuality. For Plato, the ultimate reasons are moral (Goodness, Truth), while his main characters are Nous and Chora.

Bryant says Lucretius finds relations to be as important as atoms. Does this mean relations are just as real as atoms? If so, perhaps the cause of the clinamen, and by proxy of nature’s emergent hierarchy of complexity, has something to do with an inclination to relate. “Chance” seems to me to be a poor explanation for such an inclination. Throwing our hands up by claiming such an all-pervasive swerve is random seems to me to be a rather anti-metaphysical, even anti-scientific, move. The tendency to relate must have a cause. There must be some account we can give of it that aligns with our understanding and coheres with our experience. Such an inclination, or tendency, may be motivated by what Whitehead, after Plato, called Eros. For Dante, Eros is “the love which moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, lines 142-145). Love requires freedom, so this story concerning the cause of the clinamen need not neglect the uncertainty of atomic motion. All that I’d want to add to Lucretius’ account of atomic motion is relational emotion. This brings his ontology rather close to Whitehead’s processual atomism. How close depends on whether we are willing to say relations are just as real, and just as primordial, as atoms. Whitehead’s process-relational scheme includes both internal relations and external relations. On Bryant’s reading, Lucretius would seem to leave no room for internal relations: atoms can only collide; they cannot collude (they can only relate externally via efficient causation; they cannot relate internally via erotic play).

I’m hoping Bryant will clear up my queries concerning Lucretius. I’m ready to stand corrected about his lack of a coherent explanation for the clinamen. I would want to argue, however, that Bryant has misunderstood the second type of materialism listed by Jackson. Bryant writes:

Far from materialism being “always deployed against form” [as Jackson claims], materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter.  If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of idealincorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter.  What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.

Jackson describes the second type of materialism as that which posits an infinitely differentiating pulsation of formless energy at the base of all things. Whitehead’s ultimate principle of Creativity could easily be described this way. He suggests in Adventures of Ideas that Creativity is an adaptation of Plato’s “dark and difficult” concept of the Chora, or Receptacle. Plato describes the Receptacle as formless, but this is hardly the end of the story. The Receptacle is not simply the passive material from which a cosmos will be shaped, but the place within which the cosmos will come to be. Further, it is hardly “passive” at all, since it is abuzz with errant forces winnowing this way and that, grouping trace elements (pre-formed matter?) by their kind like a cosmogenic sieve, only to ceaselessly disturb every attempt at settled placement. When approaching Plato’s Receptacle, Bryant seems to fixate on one descriptor, “formless,” while ignoring the numerous indications in Timaeus that there is more to this choric “matter” than meets the eye. There’s no doubt Plato’s story could use some tweaking given our modern understanding. But let’s not forget he never claimed to be telling anything but a “likely story.” That is all we can hope to do today, even with our improved mathematics and increased data set.

……

 

 

Last night, I watched a short performance called “The Kepler Story” at the Morrison Planetarium in the California Academy of Sciences. The opening scene introduces Kepler’s essay on the crystalline forms of snowflakes. Kepler played with an ingenious pun between the Latin word “nix,” meaning snowflake, and the German word of the same spelling, meaning “nothing.” Is form really “nothing” at all? Kepler didn’t think so. He wondered why all snowflakes have six-sides, despite the fact that each one achieved its six-sidedness in a unique way. He searched for the “formative principle” of snow crystals. He considered the way water vapor evaporates due to heat. He considered the influence of impurities in the clouds where crystals grow.

“There must be a cause why snow has the shape of a six-cornered starlet,” Kepler wrote in his essay, De nive sexangula: “It cannot be chance. Why always six?” His answer: Hexagonal packing provides the tightest possible arrangement of water droplets. Matter has some intrinsic tendency to organize itself, taking great care to achieve geometrical harmony. Kepler’s conjecture only came to be proven basically correct several years ago. As far as Kepler was concerned, the “formative principle” at play giving shape to the water vapor had no purpose whatsoever. From his perspective, nature is “in the habit of playing with the passing moment.” Its reasons for taking shape are purely aesthetic.

I’ve copied my response to Levi below:

I’m glad you are not reducing all religion to the sort of literalism we’re both trying to critique (you from a scientific standpoint aimed at religion, me from a spiritual standpoint aimed at scientism). Regardless of what the majority of “believers” may think about the ontological status of their religious propositions (neither of us can offer anything but anecdotal evidence on this point), what I’ve been attempting to do in our discussion is shift us away from the sort of representationalist paradigm that would construe religion in terms of “true v. false” belief. Deleuze does thematize the modern turn away from certainty toward belief, but his discussion of belief is set in a pragmatic context where what is most important is not whether the object of the belief is fabricated or factual, but whether the effect of the belief is life affirming or nihilistic. A belief in the divinity of Jesus may be totally fabricated, but from my perspective, this is irrelevant. The important question to ask is how the “fictional force” of such a belief works to transform individual and social behavior and experience. The important question to ask is not “is religion true?” but “what does religiosity make possible?” I know this is part of the way you want to analyze the question of religion, as well. You tend to emphasize the negative effects. I recognize that certain expressions of religiosity are socially, politically, and ecologically damaging. But I also recognize other expressions of religiosity that have positive social, political, and ecological effects (e.g., Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, who just yesterday spoke at our commencement here at CIIS). It is not at all obvious that the negative outweighs the positive; and even if it did, I question whether it is really possible to purify ourselves of religiosity, be it of the ancient, animistic sort or the modern, scientistic sort. Myth and symbol are inextricable features of human cognition, whether we are scientifically trained or not. I know of no scientific theory that is utterly free of narrative structure. Even mathematical formalisms share the metaphorical structure of poetry in their use of an “=” sign. I am not trying to equate scientific with mythic modes of experience; I think the scientific method is a sort of technological and empirical refinement of our innate story-telling capacities. I also think that we need a new form of spirituality today, one not limited by ancient or modern forms of literalism. My essay on Whitehead and Deleuze tries to spell out how we might proceed on this front.

What confuses me about your approach is that, as Jason and others have pointed out, you seem to ignore the important ground that was laid (or perhaps the ground that was demolished) by Nietzsche’s philosophical hammer. I’m sure you’re familiar with his short piece on the “true world” becoming a fable. If this “true world” is no longer tenable, what are we left with? Not the apparent world, surely, since the meaning of “mere appearance” is scrambled unless there is an original truth that appearance is a better or worse attempt to copy. So what are we left with? We are left with two choices: negation or affirmation. The latter choice requires admitting that we are world-creators as much as world-discoverers, that all our techno-scientific knowledge is but another genre of poetic expression (an extremely powerful genre!). Affirmation means accepting the participatory nature of all our supposed reflective knowledge, that it cannot grant us access to a ready-made Reality waiting to be “truly” or “falsely” represented, not only because knowing is always already performative/enactive, but because no such unified, ready-made Reality exists. Different modalities of knowing call forth the realities they desire to know. So let us not continue to pretend that the expression “True world” has any one precise meaning. The true world died along with God. What is left for us is artistic expression, song and dance, ritual and celebration. If Philosophy is to remain relevant today, it cannot do so as a form of ascetics, but must unground its traditional representational basis so as to become a kind of conceptual artistics (i.e., a creation of concepts, as Deleuze would call it).

Levi Bryant initiated a string of blog posts on nihilism with his “axioms for a dark ontology.” Attempts at Living followed HERE, and Bill Rose Thorn HERE. Both of them accept Bryant’s ontological purposelessness, but raise the important issue of developing a “post-nihilistic praxis” (see this great post by Michael/Archive Fire from last year on what comes after nihilism, and this more recent post at his new home, SyntheticZero). I do not accept Bryant’s axioms, of course (he and I have argued about this several times over the years). I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him. Certainly, this literal-mindedness infects not only those of a more materialist persuasion, like Bryant, but also those of a religious bent. When religion becomes dogmatic, based upon lists of unassailable axioms and commandments written on stone tablets, the creative life of the human socius is threatened. An education in the power of imagination is the best cure for either form of literalism.

My dismissal of Bryant’s “dark ontology” is not a dismissal of the merits of immanence in philosophy. My recent essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity” (accepted by the 9th International Whitehead Conference later this year–hopefully I can find the funding to get to Poland! for a PDF of the essay, click HERE), is an attempt to articulate a philosophy of religion compatible with modern standards of belief and practice. Religion, like science, is about more than just belief in certain propositions, of course. Both religion and science are complex assemblages which include ritual practices (meditation, prayer, experimentation) and communal experiences (liturgy, peer review). Certainly, the aims of science are different from those of religion (one is largely descriptive, the other largely prescriptive), but from my Jamesian pragmatic perspective, the philosophical test of each is not to ask about the truth or falsity of their propositional claims (can we please be done with the dogmatic representational image of thought already?), but to ask about the effects of their practices on living organisms and their (noetical and physical) habitats.

Nihilism of the sort expressed by Bryant in terms of axioms like “there is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe” is itself already a sort of religious response to human life, a mythopoeic way of coping with the mystery of being, even if it is in this case a scientistic religious response whereby the epistemic limits of the scientific method have been hypostatized into a mechanistic-materialistic ontology. There is no reason to construe the facts of science in the atheistic, anti-teleological way that Bryant does. There are other interpretations of contemporary scientific cosmology, most notably that offered by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (for a PDF of this essay, click HERE).

{Update: check out the discussion surrounding Bryant’s dark ontology over at the Integral Post-Metaphysics blog.}