Thanks to Bruce Alderman, Layman Pascal, and The Integral Stage for another great conversation! Here’s Bruce’s description:

How does our understanding of the relationship between language and reality evolve as we develop, individually and culturally? What does it mean for language to be the house of being? Is there any sense in seeking a universal language? What is the impact of the new social media on our communication habits, patterns, and expectations? What new metamodern or integral skills and attitudes to language might help us navigate our current meaning crises? How might we be empowered by confronting, and owning, language’s limits?

I’ll be spending more time at the South Yuba River for the remainder of the summer. I’ll be recording more videos thinking with rocks, water, air, and fire. I’ll keep adding them to this playlist below.

“What you thought was dead and inanimate betrays a secret life and silent, inexorable intent. You have got caught up in a hustle and bustle where everything goes its own way with strange gestures, beside you, above you, beneath you, and through you; even the stones speak to you, and magical threads spin from you to things and from things to you. … But if you watch closely, you will see what you have never seen before, namely that things live your life, and that they live off you: the rivers bear your life to the valley, one stone falls upon another with your force, plants and animals also grow through you and they are the cause of your death. A leaf dancing in the wind dances with you; the irrational animal guesses your thought and represents you. The whole earth sucks its life from you and everything reflects you again. Nothing happens in which you are not entangled in a secret manner; for everything has ordered itself around you and plays your innermost. Nothing in you is hidden to things, no matter how remote, how precious, how secret it is. It inheres in things. Your dog robs you of your father, who passed away long ago, and looks at you as he did. The cow in the meadow has intuited your mother, and charms you with total calm and security. The stars whisper your deepest mysteries to you, and the soft valleys of the earth rescue you in a motherly womb. Like a stray child you stand pitifully among the mighty, who hold the threads of your life. You cry for help and attach yourself to the first person that comes your way. Perhaps he can advise you, perhaps he knows the thought that you do not have, and which all things have sucked out of you.”

-C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Secundus 27/28).

a poem I wrote at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA on Oct 29, 2019

I don’t know
whether I am
a poet pretending to philosophize,
or a philosopher who happens to rhyme.

I am
hungry for wisdom’s teaching.

Feed me philosophy.

These thoughts do not
take place
inside my head.

I taste them in my mouth.
They boil in my belly.
My chest is resounding
with their potential.

The thinking now occurring
in me
is not mine.
It is the movement
of the world
through me.

Ideas are dew drops swaying
on flower petals
reflecting passing clouds.
They do not belong
to you or me.

Philosophy is a tree.
It is planted
in the earth.
Its trunk is ancient.
Its branches
are many.
Its leaves
are thousands more.
They whisper in summer wind,
catch fire in fall,
are buried in winter.
In spring they green unfurling.

This tree’s leaves can talk,
their whispers
ever-writing
an endless book.
Some leaves fold into flowers.
And some forbidden fruit.

Do not reach
for this tree’s wisdom
without permission.
Ideas cannot be possessed.
Ideas do the possessing.

Seed me, philosophy.

Philosophy is a galaxy.
It spirals
in heaven.
A lattice of light.
At its heart
a black hole hums
a billion year vibration.
Its arms have hands waving
in the folds of gravity
at the passage of time:
a goodbye to its exfoliating past,
a hello to its inescapable future.

Along these arms countless
worlds are curled around stars,
their kindling calling kin
out of the mud,
waking mind from its slumber,
teaching matter to sing
the songs of God.

A tree,
a galaxy,
a seed,
a star,
are so many names for God.

Do not strain your mind
in search of truth eternal.
Hear God now

And now

And now

in the pounding silence
between the beatings
of your heart.

God’s aim,
after all,
is art.

Do not look for God
beyond ocean’s horizon.
God’s body is the earth,
you are God’s body.
God’s face is the sky.
Pores in God’s face appear
as black holes
on the surface of the world.
The stars are the fountain-veins of God.

I am the love of wisdom.
We are the love that powers
the whirling of all these worlds.

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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This Fall at CIIS.edu, I’m teaching an online advanced seminar on Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process & Reality. Here are my reflections on Part I of Process & Reality, “The Speculative Scheme.”

Note that I discuss Richard Rorty’s conference presentation during a symposium on Whitehead at Stanford back in April 2006. Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway were there, too.

Notes on Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality

Part 1: The Speculative Scheme

Chapter 1: Speculative Philosophy

  • Whitehead needs to defend his speculative method as productive of important knowledge. He seeks to frame a “coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” His scheme of general ideas must be adequate and applicable to “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought” (3).
  • “coherence” means no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the rest of the universe
  • “logical” means the system must be self-consistent and not self-contradictory
  • “necessary” means that the general ideas or categories must bear within themselves their own warrant of universality throughout all experience (4)
  • “There is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.” Thus, for Whitehead, a rational interpretation always means a relational interpretation.
  • Whitehead admits that deficiencies of language plague metaphysics. Even his technically defined terms “remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.”
  • The datum of speculative philosophy is the actual world, including ourselves.
  • “The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.”
  • We habitually observe by the method of difference,” meaning we notice only what changes, not what stays the same. This is why metaphysics is so difficult. Metaphysics is the search for that generic texture which remains the same throughout all experience. Whitehead says elsewhere that it takes a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious. Such an analysis is precisely what metaphysics is. It is the search for what is so obvious we almost always fail to notice or mention it.
  • “We can never catch the world taking a holiday from the sway of metaphysical first principles.”
  • Whitehead says that “rigid empiricism” prevents metaphysics from discovering the “larger generalities.” For such discovery depends upon “the play of free imagination, controlled by requirements of coherence and logic” (5).
  • Whitehead articulates his aeroplane method of “imaginative rationalization.” This method allows further progress when the method of difference fails because it imaginatively supplies the differences which direct observation lacks. In other words, the metaphysician can observe everyday experience and think “this could have been otherwise,” and by imagining things other possibilities bring more of what is actually there into focus.
  • “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality,” which we see on display in thinkers like Hegel, who made an entire idealist method out of the power of negation.
  • “A system of philosophy is never refuted, it is only abandoned” for lack of interest.
  • Whitehead found it necessary to abandon the “subject-predicate mode of thought” because he does not believe it mirrors the basic structure of reality (this mode of thought is the basis of the substance-quality ontology) (7).
  • Philosophy is not deduction! Philosophy is thus misled by the example of mathematics and logic. Philosophy is the search for premises; it’s method is descriptive generalization. “Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (8).
  • “The history of thought shows that false interpretations of observed facts enter into the records of the observation. Thus both theory, and received notions of fact, are in doubt.”
  • Productive thought is won either via poetic insight or via imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought.
  • “Progress is always transcendence of what is obvious.”
  • “Rationalism is an experimental adventure…in clarification of thought, progressive and never final, [such that] even partial success has importance” (9). This makes Whitehead’s method unlike Kant’s or Descartes’, for whom rationalism meant beginning with clear and distinct premises and working out what necessarily follows from them.
  • Every science makes use of instruments in its investigation. Philosophy’s instrument is language. Just as the physical sciences redesign existing instruments, philosophy often has to redesign language (11).
  • “Complete propositions cannot be captured by verbal language”: Whitehead is saying that propositions (we’ll define these in a moment) are ingredients in the becoming of the physical universe long before humans arrived on the scene to consciously reflect upon and attempt to linguistically articulate them.
  • What is found in practice must be part of the metaphysical scheme: we cannot ignore what in practice is presupposed.
  • Interpretation is an intrinsic part of experience.
  • “Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity” (15)
  • Philosophy finds its importance by fusing religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.
  • Religion is among the data of experience that philosophy must weave into its scheme.
  • “Scientific interest is a variant form of religious interest,” which is to say doing science presupposes that we have a faith in the order of nature. Why do scientists believe that the natural world is rational? This belief, according to Whitehead, is derived from religion. Thus, religion and science, far from being enemies, are entirely dependent upon one another.
  • “Religion deals with the formation of the experiencing subject, whereas science deals with the objects, which are that data forming the primary phase of this experience” (16)
  • “Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away” (17).
  • “It is the part of the special sciences to modify common sense. Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists.”

Chapter 2: The Categoreal Scheme

  • Whitehead said that the generic notions he has constructed should reveal themselves as “inevitably presupposed in our reflective experience” (18).
  • He introduces four novel notions not found in the philosophical tradition: 1) actual entities, 2) prehensions, 3) nexus, and 4) the ontological principle
  • actual entities can be divided into some definite quota of prehensions
  • prehensions have a vector character, meaning they are referent to an external world; they involve emotion, purpose, valuation, and causality (unlike in mechanistic materialism, where causality is imagined to be a blind exchange of forces between particles, Whitehead re-imagines causality as the passage of feelings between entities via prehension). 
  • prehensions might have been actual entities if not for their incomplete partiality; they are subordinated by a subjective aim at further integration, which seeks to unify them into a subjective form which is the satisfaction of the completed subject.
  • nexūs are particular facts of togetherness or relatedness among actual entities (20)
  • Philosophy’s role is not to explain concreteness in terms of abstractness, but rather to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete.
  • Facts are more than their forms, though form participates throughout fact. Facts are creatures, and creativity is ultimate behind all forms.
  • Whitehead introduces four types of categories: 1) category of the ultimate, 2) categories of existence, 3) categories of explanation, 4) categoreal obligations
  • “Creativity, Many, One are the ultimate notions required for and presupposed by the existence of any entity” (21); “one” = singularity; “many” = diversity; “creativity” = many become one
  • Concrescence: the production of novel togetherness; “the many become one and are increased by one”
  • Eight categories of existence: 1) actual entities/occasions, 2) prehensions, 3) nexūs (public facts), 4) subjective forms (private facts), 5) eternal objects/pure potentials, 6) propositions/impure potentials/theories, 7) multiplicities, 8) contrasts
    • Among these existents, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with “extreme finality” (22)
  • twenty-seven categories of explanation:
  • the actual world is a process: the process is the becoming of actual entities.
  • in the becoming of an entity, potential unity becomes real unity, a concrescence of many potentials into one novel actuality
  • all existents advance into novelty, except eternal objects: “there are no novel eternal objects”
  • “principle of relativity”: each being is a potential for every becoming
  • no two actual entities originate from the same universe; but eternal objects are the same for all actual entities.
  • “real potentiality”: conditioned modality of entities included in other entities; an entity can be integrated in many ways but is in fact implicated in only one way.
  • eternal objects are potentials for “ingression”; analysis of eternal objects discloses only other eternal objects.
  • an actual entity can be analyzed as a) objectified in the becoming of other entities (i.e., coordinate division) or b) according to its own internal constitution (i.e., genetic division)
  • “principle of process”: how an entity becomes constitutes what it is; its being is constituted by its becoming
  • an actual entity is a concrescence of prehensions; analysis of prehensions is “division”
  • triadic structure of prehension includes: a subject prehending, a datum which is prehended, and a subjective form which is how that subject prehends that datum (23)
  • two types of prehensions: positive prehensions (i.e., operative feelings) and negative prehensions (i.e., scars); the latter are inoperative in the progressive concrescence of a subject, but still “felt” in their absence.
  • there are many species of subjective forms: emotions, valuations, purposes, adversions, aversions, consciousness, etc.
  • a nexus is a constellation of actual entities that mutually prehend or objectify one another
  • a proposition is a potential for relatedness of actual entities into a nexus; the entities in question are the logical subjects and the eternal objects defining them are the predicates.
  • a multiplicity is a special logical notion
  • the complex unity of a datum is felt as a contrast, or a contrast of contrasts: “the synthesis of entities into a contrast produces a new existential type”; a proposition is a contrast.
  • “ontological principle”: process conforms to other occasions or to the subject in process of formation (i.e., efficient and final causation, respectively). “Actual entities are the only reasons.” Propositions are “lures for feeling” shaped by the subjective aim of the concrescing entity.
  • actual entities and eternal objects are the fundamental entities; all other entities express how these two types are in community with one another.
  • to “function” means to contribute to determining actual entities; self-identity of one entity cannot be abstracted from the community of diverse functionings of all entities. “Determination” requires definiteness (i.e., illustration via eternal objects) and position (relative status in a nexus).
  • “an entity is actual when it has significance for itself”
  • the becoming of an actual entity transforms incoherence into coherence, ceasing with its attainment
  • self-functioning is the real internal constitution of an actual entity, called the “subjective immediacy” of an entity
  • an actual entity functions in another actual entity by being objectified; an eternal object functions in an actual entity by being ingressed.
  • the final phase of concrescence creative of an actual entity is one complex, fully determinate feeling. “Satisfaction” is determinate with regard to its genesis, its objective character for entities in its future, and its prehensions of every item in its universe.
  • every element in the genetic process of an actual entity has a single consistent function in the final satisfaction.
  • concrescence unfolds in a series of phases whereby new prehensions arise by integrating their antecedents; negative prehensions contribute only their subjective forms, not their data.
  • nine categoreal obligations
  1. “subjective unity”: incompleteness of many feelings in early phase find compatibility when integrated by subject
  2. “objective identity”: no duplicate elements in satisfaction of an actual entity
  3. “objective diversity”: diverse elements cannot exercise identical functions
  4. “conceptual valuation”: conceptual feelings of eternal objects are derived from physical feelings of other entities or of a nexus
  5. “conceptual reversion”: the subjective aim can determine diverse conceptual feelings in a secondary phase of concrescence; conceptual valuation reproduces physical feelings, whereas conceptual reversion introduces divergence from physical feelings
  6. “transmutation”: a prehending subject can derive the same conceptual feeling from multiple physical feelings of other actual entities and transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic that defines the nexus containing those prehended entities; transmutation is akin to the attachment of a quality to a substance (Aristotle).
  7. “subjective harmony”: conceptual feelings are adapted to congruence with subjective aim; akin to “pre-established harmony” (Leibniz); “no prehension can be considered in abstraction from its subject, although it originates in the process creative of its subject”
  8. “subjective intensity”: a subjective aim aims at intensity of feeling in the immediate subject and in the relevant future; this feeling of the effective relevance of the present for the future is the basis of morality.
  9. “freedom and determination”: concrescence is internally determined and externally free; final decision of subject-superject is the reaction of the unity of the whole to its own internal determination; reaction can modify emotion, appreciation, purpose.
  • You cannot abstract the universe from any entity so as to consider it in isolation: “every entity pervades the whole world” (28).
  • “the actual world” is a nexus relative to the concrescence of each actual entity
  • becoming is a “principle of unrest” resident in every actuality
  • the notion of “vacuous actuality” haunts realistic philosophy; it assumes that an actuality could be devoid of subjective immediacy and still be actual. Whitehead’s organic realism repudiates this notion.
  • An actual entity is not an unchanging subject of change; it is subject and superject of its experience.
  • “no thinker thinks twice”; time is perpetual perishing whereby actualities lose subjective immediacy and perish into objective immortality (i.e., they attain their final cause, lose their unrest, and become an efficient cause that initiates a new round of concrescence)
  • actual entities are definite and complete, while eternal objects, propositions, and some complex contrasts are intrinsically indeterminate and indecisive.

Chapter 3: Some Derivative Notions

  • Strange as it may seem (in comparison to the Western philosophical and theological tradition), God is merely a derivative notion in Whitehead’s system!
  • God is the primordial created fact, the first creature of creativity, the unconditioned valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects (31)
    • derivate actual entities objectify God’s valuation and thereby experience a gradation in the relevance of eternal objects to their own concrescence
    • there is an additional ground of relevance for the ingression of eternal objects in derivate actual entities: namely, the eternal objects already ingressed into the past actual world
    • apart from God, unrealized eternal objects would be invisible to derivate actual entities: God’s primordial nature provides access to possibilities that transcend realized temporal matter of fact
    • there is also the consequent nature of God, discussed in Part V of Process and Reality
  • “Creativity” is akin to Aristotle’s prime matter, except it is not passively receptive of form or of external relations
    • it is activity conditioned by objective immortality of the actual world
    • it is without a character of its own: “highest generality at the base of all actuality”
  • “God,” like all actual entities, is a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity; unlike other creatures, God is always in concrescence and never perishes. God’s consequent nature is the reaction God receives from the world.
  • Why call this creature “God” when it is so different from orthodox theological notion?: “Because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim” (32).
  • God’s immanence in the world is “an urge toward the future based upon an appetite in the present” (e.g., physical feeling of thirst aims at conceptual feeling of quenching)
  • a “society” is an ordered nexus; some societies are ordered so as to appear as an enduring objects
    • in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, an enduring object results from a common form of definiteness (a complex eternal object) ingressing into each included actual entity, such that the form is mutually imposed on each member and reproduced by their positive prehensions. There can be “genetic relations” holding members of such societies together.
    • a “serial ordering” of the members of a society produces “personal order,” where serial means any member genetically related to others in a linear mode of inheritance.
    • “societies are the [enduring] entities which enjoy adventures of change througout time and space” (35); so atoms are societies, as are stars and galaxies, tables and chairs, plants and animals, etc.
  • becoming as such does not have a unique serial order: time is plural; the creative advance of nature has no universal time line (a consequence of relativity theory in physics).
    • there is no continuity of becoming, despite the extensive continuity of the physical universe; rather, there is a becoming of continuity.
    • Whitehead articulates an atomic theory of becoming to explain how continuity is constructed. “Atomism does not exclude complexity and universal relativity” (36)
    • Whitehead suggests that his process atomism reconciles the particle/wave duality in quantum physics.
  • While he is often described as a panpsychist, Whitehead rejects the orthodox philosophical tradition which claims that the basic elements of experience are to be described in terms of consciousness, thought, and sense-perception. These are “unessential elements” in experience, and if they enter into experience at all it is only in the late, derivative phases of concrescence associated with very high grade actual occasions (e.g., those associated with complex animals).

Mission at Tenth special supplement

Vol. 7, 274-279 (2018)

“Carnival of Consciousness: Practice as Research in Black Rock City”

A Submission by Matthew T. Segall, PhD

“Burning Man and the Seeds of a New Story”

“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” –W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940)

As religious scholar Lee Gilmore argues in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press, 2010), the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, NV provides that growing sector of the human population who identify as “spiritual but not religious” with an opportunity to cultivate the communal ethos and participate in the ritualistic catharsis that are normally associated with traditional forms of religious practice. Some theologians have criticized so-called SBNRs for being too self-centered and warn that the growth of such an identity has more to do with the degeneration of culture by consumerism than with any genuine flowering of spirituality.The growing popularity of Burning Man, defined by its rejection of advertising and commodification, suggests that there is more to the story.

Human beings are order-seeking, meaning-making, story-telling creatures. For our species, meaning is at least as important as eating, and in some cases, more so. We construct cosmologies to orient ourselves in a mysterious and ever-shifting reality. No cosmology can hold chaos at bay forever, nor can it grant us complete understanding of the more than human powers that inspire all our mortal efforts to order, interpret, and narrate reality. Just as secularization led to the breakdown of the authority of traditional religion in the early modern period, it is becoming increasingly obvious at the start of the 21st century that the myth of the market (i.e., the modern story of individual competition fueling techno-industrial progress toward a consumerist utopia) is now also failing to properly situate human beings in our actual time and place on planet Earth. According to geologists, Earth is now entering a new geological era as a result of human industrial activity: the Anthropocene. The dominant values of the global economy are unraveling the life systems of the planet at a faster rate and a larger scale than anyone could have imagined a few centuries ago. Modern industrial humans have become a geological force, but so far our technical power continues to overshadow our knowledge of the planet’s fragile life systems.

We are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of Earth’s ecosystems, so much so that ecological entropy now threatens to destroy civilization itself.

It may be that our species is already doomed to extinction within the next century. In some sense, this message of doom has woven itself into our official civilizational narrative. Apocalypse is one of the bestselling plots in today’s mass media market. Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this fact is too much for any individual to face alone, the majority of us continue to sit in front of our screens watching, as though it were all just another form of entertainment.

Of course, fantasy and imagination are no mere trifle for our species: our meaning-making capacity is precisely what is at issue. How are we to conceive of our human presence on this living planet? Are we a cancerous growth or self-forgetful gods and goddesses? Are we capable of re-storying our industrial mode of meaning-making with a more life-enhancing cosmology? Must we be motivated solely by passive and isolated consumption, or might the celebratory and participatory communal values fostered by Burning Man signal a newly emerging possibility?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we compose our societies and how those societies come to inhabit the Earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its physical existence: the mechanistic and disenchanted worldview underlying industrial capitalism, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. A million years from now, even if our species is long gone, the biosphere will still show the scars caused by the industrial mode of life. Clearly, industrial cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that monetary profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the Sun, which thanks to photosynthesis produces and sustains all life on Earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured from the heavens by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes political ecologist Alf Hornborg, “the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them.”

Modern industrial cosmology has dissociated the human economy from the Earth’s ecology. Earth is a diverse tapestry of organisms delicately woven together by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Consumer capitalism homogenizes culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. Humanity, and many other species besides, are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values abstract profitability (the replication of money) over concrete productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, Hornborg continues,“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project.”

Burning Man provides our species with a precious opportunity to step out of the “default world” in order to reimagine our purpose as individuals and re-story our collective existence as members of a planetary community of life. Modern industrial cosmology is disenchanted, such that each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of ultimately tragic identity lost in an immense sea of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrial capitalism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue his or her own selfish ends in the hope that their sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

The Burning Man festival, in contrast, resituates human beings in the ritual context of communal meaning-making. It invites modern people to participate in the co-creation of an initiatory experience that re-awakens us to the possibility of an enchanted universe. It is inspiring the birth of a new story, a new way of being human, based not on alienated labor and the mindless replication of money, but on ritual play and the joyful recreation of life.

That said, according to the festival’s founder, the late Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. It is undoubtedly true that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism. As alchemists have known for millennia, initiatory transformations often unfold by way of enantiodromia, whereby taking something to its extreme ends up catalyzing a metamorphic transition into its opposite.

Gilmore’s book, mentioned earlier, makes the case that the growing popularity of the annual desert pilgrimage is forcing religious scholars to “reconsider the concepts of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience.” Having attended the festival myself many times (the first in 2010), I would agree with Gilmore and others thatBurning Man represents the emergence of a novel, prototypically American religious movement. Its ethos strives to find the sacred balance between individual expression and collective participation. Its peculiar form of religiosity weds art and technology into a carnivalesque celebration of bodily beauty and soulful creativity. A strong strain of critique of the dominant culture pervades the event, standing in stark contrast to Harvey’s rather strange claim that Burning Man somehow represents “old-fashioned, Main Street Republicanism.” The event can represent many things for many people, but there’s little doubt that Burning Man’s gift economy encourages the kind of authentic encounter between strangers no longer permitted in the hustle and bustle of the “default world,” and its “leave no trace” policy fosters the kind of ecological awareness that is necessary if our species is to survive the present planetary crisis.

2011 marked the first year in the festival’s history that the temporary wooden temple structure reached higher into the sky than the ritually burned effigy known as “The Man.” To my mind, this is a symbolic change indicating Burning Man’s transition into a new phase of its existence. No longer is it simply about burning The Man and reveling in the destruction of the patriarchal (and industrial) status quo, its participants are beginning to explicitly thematize the vibrant spiritual culture they have constructed to replace the dominator culture. 2011 also marked the birth of The Burning Man Project, a non-profit organization committed to renewing urban centers with the power of radical participation and artistic expression. More than 20 years after an earlier iteration of the festival was kicked off Baker Beach for being a public nuisance, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee welcomed Burning Man back to the city of its birth.

Despite its encouraging seepage back into the default world, the lifeblood of the Burning Man experiment remains the weeklong ritual in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. It is there that a new way of being human is being born, and that the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the profane are being redrawn or perhaps erased all together. Viewed as a collective phenomenon, it seems to me that the individuals involved in this participatory project are only just beginning to understand the full meaning of the world they are bringing forth together. It is as if the massive gathering of hippies, freaks, geeks, techies, welders, healers, artists, witches, jedis, and general purpose weirdos is being unconsciously lured to the desert by higher powers to provide a welcome committee or interdimensional portal of sorts for a new kind of consciousness to incarnate upon the Earth. Just as the Judeo-Christian religions of our collective past were generated by the profound transformations of desert-dwelling prophets, the planetary spirituality of our collective future may be being generated by a now more democratic form of initiation.

Whitehead tells us at the start of the final part of Process & Reality (“Final Interpretation”) that the chief danger in philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence. For many modern, scientifically inclined philosophers, this narrowness has taken the form of an all too easy rejection of the world’s religious traditions and the religious experience which gave rise to and continues to inform them. Intellectual chauvinism has led many modern scientific materialists to claim that, given the available scientific evidence, atheism is the only rational position. From Whitehead’s point of view, the history of religious experience is part of the data that any adequate cosmological scheme must incorporate. There is something of great philosophical significance in the religious and spiritual intuitions of human beings, even if these intuitions represent “exceptional elements in our conscious experience,” as Whitehead admits (PR 343). He also reminds us that “the present level of average waking human experience was at one time exceptional” among our ancestors (AoI 294). It is the job of philosophy to elucidate the significance of these rare mystical experiences, to find a systematic place for them in the wider scheme such that the average level of our species’ waking consciousness may continue to deepen.

Philosophy has tended to collapse reality into one or the other of the “ideal opposites” explicated by Whitehead: Permanence and Flux. Plato, for example, over-emphasized the “eminent reality” of permanence by raising his Eternal Forms above the physical world of ever-shifting sensory experience. The world of Ideas was considered ultimate, while the world of physical sensations was demoted to “mere appearance,” or worse, “illusion.” On the other end of the philosophical spectrum, David Hume completely disregarded what Whitehead refers to as “the everlasting elements in the passage of fact” (PR 338). For Hume, only sensory impressions are real, while ideas are merely agglomerations of impressions. All is flux; permanence is an illusion.

Whitehead’s more integral goal is to find a way to think these ideal opposites in a complementary way, such that each is understood to require the other for its meaning. For Whitehead, “perfect realization” is not a timeless perfection (as it was for Plato); rather, perfection “implants timelessness on what in its essence is passing” (PR 338). This is another way of expressing the meaning of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions. Think of a sunset: its beauty is haunted by eternal values even as the sun continues to sink below the horizon into darkness. Its passing, its perpetual perishing, somehow enhances its eternal beauty, rather than subtracting from it. There is perhaps something tragic in this interplay between eternal value and temporal activity, but from Whitehead’s point of view, tragedy may indeed be the highest form of beauty that our universe is capable of realizing.

Whitehead defines the “religious problem” (i.e., the general existential issue that all religions attempt to address each in their own way) as follows: “whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss” (PR 340). One of the profound dilemmas of human experience is that, while we crave novelty, we are also haunted by the loss of the past. In Whitehead’s process theology, one source of evil arises from the fact that the past fades, that time has the nature of “perpetual perishing.” Thus, one of God’s functions in the world is to preserve the past (this is God’s consequent nature). God is not an “unmoved mover” or an “imperial ruler,” but a “fellow-sufferer who understands” (PR 351). Whitehead says that God does not create the world, he saves it: God’s infinite patience allows for the preservation of all our sufferings, sorrows, failures, and triumphs. Nothing that occurs in the universe is lost; all is taken up into God’s experience to become unified with his consequent nature. This grants all actual occasions a kind of immortality, though it is not the personal sort promised us by traditional interpretations of Christian heaven. Each actual occasion of experience, though it may be trivial in the value it achieves in itself (if it is a puff of smoke in far off empty space, for example), in perishing becomes an immortal contribution to the greater end realized in God’s ever-enriched, ever-deepening consequent nature. God prehends each finite actual occasion not only for what it is (thus, God shares in each occasion’s world view), but for what it can be within God’s perfected nature. The only immortality we enjoy comes from the sense of transcendent value we experience as we perish beyond ourselves and pass into the eternal life of God.

God’s other function in the world (God’s primordial nature) is to provide the “initial Eros” or “eternal urge of desire” that lures each finite actual occasion toward the most beautiful possibilities available to it given its local circumstances. God’s primordial nature conditions the otherwise unlimited potentialities of Creativity, ordering the realm of eternal objects so as to make this otherwise infinite sphere of potential relevant to each actual occasion’s needs. Actual occasions are not determined by the initial aim provided by God: they still have creative independence from God (God, too, is a creature of Creativity). But God assists finite occasions in their decision as to how to concresce by preventing them from being overwhelmed by the entire infinite array of possibilities all at once. The “initial aim” provided by God grades these possibilities so those that are not immediately relevant are largely negatively prehended by the occasion in question. All particular occasions of experience presuppose the conceptual order provided by God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of eternal objects. God presupposes only the general metaphysical character of the creative advance.

In the final chapters of Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead articulates the same ultimate interpretation, but now in terms like Beauty, Adventure, and Peace instead of using theological language. He tells us that the purpose of the universe is the production of beauty. He tells us that beauty is more fundamental than truth, and that truth’s importance arises because of its beauty. This is not to say that truth (or the conformation of appearance with reality) is unimportant; it is rather that truth without beauty is, in a general metaphysical sense, boring. That is, it lacks importance, it fails to increase the intensity of value realized in the universe, and instead just reiterates the obvious. Similarly, beauty without truth is shallow, since it fails to penetrate to the deeper feelings inherent in the cosmic process: “The truth of supreme beauty lies beyond the dictionary meaning of words” (AoI 267). Beauty without truth is merely pleasing appearance. True beauty is what occurs when appearance elucidates and amplifies the finer textures of reality for experience.

Whitehead defines art as the “purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality” (AoI 267). Consciousness, which results from a heightened contrast between actuality and ideality in an occasion of experience, is that factor in the universe that renders art possible. In some sense, consciousness itself is an evolutionary expression of nature’s artistry. In other words, it is via artistic expression that nature has educated itself by growing more conscious. Said otherwise, art is the appropriation by consciousness of the infinite fecundity of nature. Art, Whitehead tells us, is a little oblivious as to morals. It focuses, instead, on adventure. From the perspective of artistic creation, the Day of Judgment is always with us: art is in the business of “[rendering] the Day of Judgment a success, now” (AoI 269).

Whitehead defines Peace as a trust in the efficacy of beauty. We achieve consciousness of Peace when we rest in that “deep feeling of an aim in the Universe, winning such triumph as is possible for it” (AoI 286).  Peace requires of us that we find some balance between our stoic acceptance of the impersonal order of the cosmos and our devotion to loving relationships of a more personal sort.

INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality

Join us for a 2-Day Conversational Conference (July 27-29th) for the purpose of Exploring Syngergies between the world of Science and the world of Spirituality.

Topics to include CosmologyEcologySustainability, and Consciousness.

Speakers include: Drew Dellinger, John Hausdoerffer, Matthew Segall and Brian Swimme (via video).

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/intersect-science-spirituality-tickets-4239963846

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

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


“America and Me (for Ginsberg and Whitman)”

by Matthew T. Segall

 

America, you’ve given me everything

and now you are nothing.

 

America 21 trillion 114 billion dollars in debt

April 3rd 2018.

 

I no longer own my own mind.

 

America when will we end the

Earth War?

 

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg said

“Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb, America.”

 

In 1856, Walt Whitman still

heard America singing.

Squatters, nurses, train conductors,

carpenters, itinerant lecturers, masons, merchants,

shoemakers, farmers

singing.

He heard mothers

singing to children

and friends and families singing

strong patriotic songs.

He heard enslaved Americans,

souls singing and bodies dancing

on their one night in seven

of fire-lit freedom.

 

Whitman reminds us of the great

“plunges and throes and triumphs and falls of democracy,”

and he reminds us of that Great Family of nations

—the Nation of nations—

the Earth,

and he reminds us of

the greatness of the way

the Earth became what it is.

 

“Do you imagine Earth is stopped at this?,”

Whitman asks.

“Do you imagine its increase abandoned?”

 

Earth absorbs

every atom bomb,

every server farm,

every pipeline and every protest,

every birth and every death of

every being beneath the Sun,

and it weeps glacial tears

for the tragedy of our history.

 

And we Americans,

though less youthful and buoyant now,

still feel special,

believe ourselves exceptional,

defenders of freedom.

 

But what of the Earth Guardians,

what of the Water Protectors,

what of the buffalo and the bumblebee,

the salmon and the sequoia,

are they not Americans, too?

 

I am angry at you, America,

and you’ve gone so mad

only poetry can save you now.

 

America when will you awaken

from your dream?

 

You already stand stark naked before

the weary-eyed world,

all your top secrets leaked,

all your rigging and spying and droning

out in the open.

 

When will you look at yourself

through geostory,

When will you see yourself

though Gaia’s eyes?

 

When will you be worthy

of humankind and the

Earth Community?

 

America why are your cities so proud while

homeless men and women

sleep in tents

on the street

in the shadow of half-empty

high rises?

 

America why are your libraries empty?

America why are your elementary schools like prisons

and your universities like shopping malls?

America will you send your eggs to Palestine?

 

Why did Ginsberg dream of meeting Whitman

in a grocery store

and not a mushroom speckled meadow?

 

America why are all your forests on fire?

Why are your dollar bills green?

 

America where are your poets?

When will poets become

the acknowledged lawmakers of

our nation?

When will poets replace presidents

as our common referees?

Will America ever learn to

chant the Earth’s strophes?

Will we settle for

catastrophe?

 

America after all it is you and I

who must heal this world

and not the green God we pray to

on our trusty money.

 

America your machinery

is too much for my humanity.

 

I read Chomsky and Zinn

in college.

America your history

made me want to renounce

my citizenry

to become a rabbi

wandering in the wilderness of God.

 

There must be some

other way to heal

this wound.

 

Bernie Sanders is still

a Senator,

but the system is

so sinister.

 

We thought Trump was funny on TV

next to Little Marco

and Low Energy Jeb

and Lyin’ Ted,

but now he’s in DC

plotting wars

like business deals.

 

I’m trying to get to the point.

America stop pushing me,

I know what I’m doing.

 

America the plum blossoms are falling.

 

I haven’t read the news

in minutes,

every second

somebody caught lying,

stealing, cheating, shooting,

going on trial

for rape and murder.

 

America I’m addressing you.

 

Don’t let your emotional life

be run by CNN and Fox.

I’m obsessed with the news.

I read it every day.

The scrolling horrors staring back at me

as I flick at my phone screen

on the crowded Millbrae train.

I glance at all the phone screens around me

their numbing glow

obscuring the obscenity

of what they display.

 

America it’s not news

we’re all going to die one day.

 

America why is medicine so expensive?

Why is healthcare not a right?

 

America I feel sentimental

about democratic socialism.

 

America I used to be an anarchist when I was a kid

I’m not sorry.

I sat at my desk for nights on end

staring at the books on the shelf.

 

You should’ve seen me

reading Marx.

 

I smoke cannabis every chance I get.

 

My astrologer thinks I’m perfectly right.

 

I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.

 

America I still haven’t told you

what you did to my grandpa

after he came back

from fighting in

Germany and Japan.

 

America we’ve got a mission

but we’re missing the boat.

 

America I don’t pledge allegiance

to your flag.

 

America your star-spangled

and blood-spattered banner

deserves to unravel.

 

If we be patriots of some nation,

may it be the Earth Nation,

one nation under Sun, Moon, and Stars,

One People made of many,

all species called to congress.

 

America you’ve given me everything

and now I am nothing.

 

America give the Earth its freedom back.

Compost the Constitution.

Let democracy become creaturely.

America this is quite serious.

America this is the impression I get

after looking up from my screen.

America is this correct?

 

America the oceans

that once sheltered you

from waves of war

are rising.

 

As your empire evaporates,

take no hope in isolation.

Become an open home

of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d,

grown, ungrown, young or old,

Become strong, ample, fair,

enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth,

with Freedom, Law, and Love,

Become a grand, sane,

towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.