Alexander Bard on Network Metaphysics

I really dig Alexander Bard’s “network-dynamic persepective.” Geometrogenesis is also extremely relevant to my research on Whitehead’s and Rudolf Steiner’s ether theories (the former articulated an alternative to Einstein’s theory of relativity based on an “ether of events”; the later spoke of an etheric dimension of nature mediating between the material and spiritual dimensions). The idea is that space-time is not ultimate, but an emergent product of quantum events (what Whitehead called “actual occasions”). Thanks to Prof. Corey Anton for pointing me to Bard’s lecture.

After a little searching, I’ve turned up this blog post by Bard wherein he makes reference to Whitehead as one of the few philosophers who can survive Nietzsche’s deconstructive hammer. But he seems to distance himself from Whitehead’s process metaphysics because he feels it lacks a proper phenomenological account of the real. Conrta Bard, Whitehead does in fact situate his cosmology in the context of America’s own breed of phenomenology coming out of William James’ radical empiricism.

Bard also discusses Burning Man, syntheism, Silk RoadSimon Critchley’s “faithless faith,” and the “chemical liberation” set off in the 60s by the California counterculture’s use of psychedelics. He finishes with the provocative question: “What if the internet is God?” (the title of his recent Ted Talk).

The Eternal Form of Philosophy (a response to Archive Fire)

Michael/Archive Fire has just written a gracious and astute response to my recent comment about Whitehead’s reformed Platonism. He has made me aware of the fact that my referring to Whitehead or to Plato in the hopes that they offer some sort of authoritative disambiguation is insufficient to support the arguments I am trying to make. I cannot expect Michael to read a large portion of Whitehead’s, or Plato’s corpus, nor guarantee that if he were to read these, he’d interpret them in the same way that I do. If I have any hope of adequately responding to Michael, its because I will be able to translate my reformed Platonism into forms of expression that he finds interesting (if I do draw on authority, maybe Schelling’s will be more rhetorically effective… He also is inevitably mixed up in any philosophical pie I may try to bake). Philosophical adequacy means keeping the conversation going, i.e., keeping the logos flowing.

My process philosophy is rheological, like Michael’s; but it is not just that, not just a scientific study of the flow of matter in the world. It is also a love of the way of wisdom in the world. Philosophy–at least as it was known when the word, and the way of life, was brought forth and developed in the pre- and post-Socratic philosophers–is concerned not only with contingent flows but with the “becoming of being,” the way of eternity, the living unity of the temporal universe.

Unity is the first form, the universal archetype, of philosophy; its first task is to express this unity in the multiplicities of its logoi and to discover it in the differentiations of its cosmoi. There are many important philosophical questions, among them (1) Why do things fall apart? Why Chaos? and (2) Why do things rise to attention? Why Order? I would not privilege (1) over (2), not only because both questions lead in interesting directions, keeping the logos flowing, but because I would not know what chaos was unless I had order to compare it with (and vice versa). Natural science itself already assumes the unity of the universe, that it is cosmos despite its chaos, even where it seems to methodologically require that intelligent freedom be kept distinct from a contingent and purposeless reality (i.e., that some mixture of mentality not be assumed to exist already in all materiality). This seeming methodological requirement of a modest witness to objectify neutral matter cannot be metaphysically justified. Philosophy, if it is to be anything more than an apology for nominalistic materialism, is the attempt to think the complex unity of intelligence and nature, to participate in the One Life organizing the whole. Schelling described the character of this complex unity as follows:

“Is it not manifest, that the tendency to posit the infinite in the finite and conversely the later in the former, is dominant in all philosophical speech and investigations? To think this form is [as] eternal as the essence of that which is expressed in it, and it has not just now begun, and nor will it ever cease; it is, as Socrates in Plato says, the immortal, never changing characteristic of every investigation” (from Bruno, Or on the Natural and the Divine Principle of Things (1802), I/4).

But what about Michael’s concern to bring forth a philosophy afresh? He called for “anarchic re-engagement” with tradition to avoid the tried and true pitfalls of ontotheological metaphysics. I share his concerns, even while I find tradition important (even if it is a pre-scientific and aristocratic tradition). When Whitehead wrote that philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, I believe he meant to say that he thought in the spirit, if not always in the letter, of Plato. After all, as Whitehead also suggests, most of the best criticisms of what has come to be called Platonic philosophy are in Plato’s own dialogues. Further, though Plato’s political views have come to seem oppressive to us today, in his own time, his critiques of myth and attempt to establish a society based on true merit, rather than tyrannical power, were rather progressive.

I’d prefer not to have this post turn into a defense of Plato, since Michael asked to know what I think, not what I’ve read. But then again, if I’m honest, it is hard to tell where what I’ve read and who I’ve conversed with ends and what I think or who I am begins. A kind of alchemical hermeneutics would seem to be at play here, making it impossible for me to disentangle my identity from my influences.

On to some of Michael’s specific comments:

We only have limited access to the contingencies of nature as they have unfolded so far but there is nothing that leads me to believe that the so-called “laws of nature” won’t change barring some future cosmic event.

Eternity’s participation in time does not imply the erasure of contingencies or the permanence of physical laws. Laws are cosmic habits. They could have been otherwise. What couldn’t have been otherwise is that cosmic memory (i.e., intelligence as it acts in time) would form habits of some kind. Meillassoux’s absolute contingency–hyperchaos–is an interesting thought experiment, but as a cosmological principle I just can’t bring myself to accept it. In reality, there is no pure contingency, just as there is no pure necessity: there is only a mixture of each. Laws, as habits, can and do change, but as a moving image of eternity. Like Harman, I refuse to give up on the principle of sufficient reason, even while I (following Schelling) find it necessary to think reason without the law of non-contradiction (thinking reason with contradiction is where I think a process ontology is most helpful).

Michael goes on to speak of the

“anarchistic expansion, diversification, and complexification…inaugurated by the primordial expression of potency in our cosmos, otherwise known as the ‘big-bang.'”

The “big-bang” theory is surely one of the strangest and most wonderful ideas to emerge from scientific investigation of the universe. Here, I think Michael and I have the most in common, though I’d again emphasize that I am lead by such an idea to a sense of the profound unity of the universe (i.e., all matter-energy and space-time shares a common origin) no less than to its capacity for differentiation.

There remains, finally, an important discussion to be had regarding the nature of qualities and quantities, but alas, I’ve run out of time and energy tonight and will have to take up that challenge later.

After Finitude and Fideism comes Speculative Christianity?

Quetin Meillassoux is an important philosopher, according to Graham Harman,

“not from the fact that he is plausibly right about so many things, but because his philosophy offers such a treasury of bold statements ripe for being radicalized or reversed. He is a rich target for many still-unborn intellectual heirs, and this is what gives him the chance to be an important figure.”

Leon Niemoczynski (After Nature) has recently posted about the theistic implications of Meillassoux’s work. He asks why so many Speculative Realist have ignored the religious aspects of his anti-correlationism. Adam at An und fur such pointed out Meillassoux’s ontology of radical contingency, taken to its extreme in The Divine Inexistence, leads to a reformed Christian incarnationalist scheme, where human value is derived, not from a past act of incarnation, but from our hope for future resurrection.

In an earlier post on this issue, I suggest that Meillassoux “dismisses fideism to re-affirm its object through the apotheosis of reason.” Philosophies of the Absolute cannot avoid inquiry into divinity. Whether explicitly atheistic, like Ray Brassier’s eliminativism or or Levi Bryant’s materialism (Larval Subjects), or explicitly theistic like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, metaphysical systems cannot simply ignore the presence of divinity in the universe. They either have to explain away spiritual experience by reducing it to religious indoctrination, and explain away the persistance of religion by reducing it to biopolitical, psychological, and/or ideological factors, or they have to discover God in cosmogenesis. If a scheme of thought choses the prior reductive route, it would no longer seem to be in pursuit of a comprehensive picture of reality, but merely of a subsection of it. It would no longer be properly metaphysical, in other words, since it has prejudicially disqualified the miraculous in favor of the mundane. Metaphysics is the (perhaps endless) pursuit of a systematic discourse concerning both the limits (immanent, finite aspects) and the freedom (transcendent, infinite aspect) of the Absolute. Immanence and transcendence are not properly thought of as opposites; rather, transcendence is the superlative of immanence. The infinite is not opposed to the finite, but contains and indeed implies it.

Meillassoux’s conceptual recourse to the contingency of facticity in After Finitude leads him eventually into the ethical issues surrounding the contingency of the Act of creation itself in The Inexistent Divine. If everything is absolutely contingent, then this world-creating Act, too, was gratuitous. Creatio ex nihilo: creation for no reason whatsoever. For this very reason, everything remains possible, even for our seemingly irredeemable world. Our world. Despite the anthrodecentric gesture of his’ After Finitude, Meillassoux seems to affirm in Inexistent that man “is born to be [nature’s] ultimate end,” as Kant supposed. “Such an end, however” Kant goes on to warn, “must not be thought in nature” (CoJ). Such an end seems to imply the divine’s entrance into the world, or at least its earthly birth within the incarnate human soul.

Integrating Panpsychism and Eliminativism in Processual Panentheism

I’ve just watched a good chunk of Shaviro’s lecture at OOOIII. I agree with his premise concerning the fork in the philosophical road between eliminativism and panexperientialism created by speculative realism’s anti-correlationism [See Adam over at Knowledge-Ecology’s recent post for a refreshingly novel perspective concerning the supposed courageous soberness of eliminativism]. There is no middle ground here; Meillassoux‘s dilemma concerning the meaning of ancestrality and extinction for human thought can only be resolved through the negation/elimination of thought/meaning or the hypostatization/eternalization of thought/meaning. Shaviro does, however, end his talk by leaving the door open to some kind of integration between eliminativism and panpsychism. He doesn’t make this connection, but to my mind, such an integration would look a lot like a processual panentheistic scheme, wherein the ouroboric universe is perpetually birthing/dying, both wholly and incompletely divine at once (whereas panpsychism proper suggests pantheism–a determined, already completed universe/divinity, and eliminativism suggests atheism–the death not simply of God, but also of Man and Cosmos). I aspired to something like this integration here (see especially the sections on the logics of incarnation and of extinction): Thinking the Correlation with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Owen Barfield

Here is one of my earlier takes on eliminativism: The Myth of Eliminativism 

In Defense of Wonder: A response to Naught Thought on Whitehead’s Philosophy of Dawn

I cannot, without much hesitation, identify myself as either a “prickly” or a “gooey” philosopher. It depends on who my interlocutors are. If I am in a philosophical conversation with, say, a professional biochemist with a reductionistic orientation, my attempt to wipe away and retrace the horizons of their world will inevitably come off as vague, pretentious, and mystical. If I enter into discussion with a musician or poet, my need to reflect upon and conceptualize the beats and flows of lived experience will probably upset their vibe.

Naught Thought/Ben Woodard recently posted about the “rhetorical disadvantages” of process philosophy resulting from its habit of embracing “ontological fuzziness.” He does nonetheless ally himself with the process perspective, speaking approvingly of Grant’s and Meillassoux’s philosophies of becoming by defending them from Harman’s worry about the “mining” of objects. The point of Woodward’s post, it seems to me, is to encourage the process wing of Speculative Realism to tidy up and formalize its rhetorical style:

“Too many thinkers who work with becoming or process are okay with operating in the twilight of becoming…this allows for becoming to be utilized as an escape hatch in argumentation.”

I definitely appreciate any call to clarify my philosophical position. While I guess I am one of the “process-relational folks” (Woodard’s phrase), in the sense that I have participated in some PR blogalogues recently, I probably wouldn’t employ the phrase to describe myself. Whitehead is one of my most significant philosophical influences at this point in my short philosophical career, but I don’t think the term “process-relational” quiet works for him, either. If pressed, I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Christian Hermeticist. I’m all about “process,” but my heart and mind lead me to affirm that the cosmic process is evolutionary in the teleogenic sense. On a purely metaphysical level, I agree that hyper-chaos/creativity reigns; but on a cosmological level, God’s Love guides physical processes toward an increasingly intense harmonization of aesthetic contrasts, which is Whitehead-speak for Beauty.

Whitehead, like James, is a metaphysician of experience as much as process. Granted, he holds that, ontologically, only becoming is real; but physically, which is to say experientially, becoming is atomized. As James’ put it, experiential reality is both “substantive,” consisting of discrete and unified buds, and “transitive,” with buds flowing out of and into one another as a continuous stream. James suggested that the transitive phase of experience unfolds on the “fringe” of consciousness; it is made conscious only in non-ordinary situations (like that generated by nitrous oxide, in James’ case), and then only with great difficulty. Consciousness of the flow between buds is difficult because, as soon as consciousness attends to the multitude of feelings unfolding on the edges of experience, it transforms them into a unified drop of experience with a new center of subjective identity withdrawn from a new circumference of mostly occluded processes. But still, these flows are only mostly occluded, and many of our commonsense beliefs about the world depend upon our taking for granted that true relation is possible, that each discrete moment of private consciousness is causally bound up (and so continuous) with public processes.

I disagree with Woodard that process philosophy, at least that of the Whiteheadian variety, does violence to commonsense. On the contrary, Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to cosmologize the commonsensical ethical arguments of David Hume. Whitehead’s Jamesian inheritance leads him to elevate experiential adequacy to the very top of his philosophical priority list. His is a scientifically informed plea for re-enchantment, a spirited defense of human freedom and creativity against the radically non-commonsensical reductionisms of mechanistic materialism.

The more I begin to grasp Meillassoux’s process approach the more strikingly similar it becomes to Whitehead’s. The only major difference (and I still have to read The Divine Inexistence for myself) seems to me to be that Meillassoux focuses almost exclusively on (at least the future possibility of) the consequent pole of God’s experience, denying any primordial element. There is no reason at all for the way the universe is, despite its aesthetic beauty and mathematical intelligibility, and there would be no reason at all if a God capable of world redemption were one day to emerge. Whitehead, on the other hand, adheres to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. He does so without separating thinking and feeling such that the intellect is forced to disenchant and mechanize the cosmos in spite of the heart’s protests. God, the eminent actuality and chief exemplar of Whitehead’s occasionalist ontology, is the dipolar embodiment of Reason; that which is responsible for experiencing both Reason’s eternal potentiality and its temporal actualization. Creativity remains Whitehead’s ultimate category, but absent God’s valuation and enjoyment, there can be no Cosmos. It is not a given that there is a Cosmos, but if we aspire to bring forth order and harmony in the world (i.e., if we aspire to cosmologize), then we do so under the assumption that a World Soul exists beyond our own soul to hold it all together.

Whitehead has been called a “philosopher for the muddleheaded,” and there is no doubt that he is an eccentric and complicated thinker. But I don’t think this implies that those philosophers (like myself) who share his attitude toward the real are necessarily at a rhetorical disadvantage. It all depends how one construes the end of philosophy. Some think philosophy, while it may begin in wonder, should end in precise understanding. This is not how Whitehead judges the success or failure of speculative metaphysics. For him, metaphysics should begin and end in wonder.

Bertrand Russell, about as prickly a philosopher as they come, recalls that Whitehead once remarked to him that:

“You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day; I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep.”

Woodard’s comment about the “twilight of becoming” certainly seems accurate given this candid statement by Whitehead himself. I see his “philosophy of dawn,” not as a liability, but as perhaps his most important attitudinal contribution to intellectual culture. Unlike Woodard, I think metaphysical speculation is necessarily affective and existential. Philosophy must be involved  in the ethical complexities of everyday life among others, since it is only in response to these complexities that thinking emerges at all. If affect and ethics are not properly “metaphysical” topics, then I say to hell with metaphysics.

The Poetics of Copernican Cosmology

Heliocentric universe, Harmonia Macrocosmica
Image via Wikipedia

In his cosmographic study of the Copernican Revolution,The Poetic Structure of the World (1987), Fernand Hallyn entirely re-envisions the foundations of modern science. Instead of reading Copernicus’ break with the geocentric scheme as a rejection of the enchanted cosmos of the ancient world, Hallyn makes clear that Copernicus himself believed he was only making ancient Platonic and Hermetic doctrines more plausible.

Copernicus writes:

“At rest…in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. The Thrice Greatest [Hermes Trismegistus] labels it a visible god, and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it” (p. 22, On the Revolutions, 1978).

Quentin Meillassoux, in After Finitude, credits Copernicus with decentering earthly humanity in the universe; however, according to Hallyn, Copernicus also re-enacted the Platonic notion of astronomy as as divine science. In effect, through a rent in the imaginal fabric of the medieval sense of the sky, Copernicus caught a ray of light from a new heaven (or perhaps, in a gleam, saw heaven in a new way): he perceived the solution to the problem of the planets in the heliocentric theory; he stole fire from Zeus and elevated humanity to the status of the gods.

“It is highly unlikely,” he writes, “that anyone lacking the requisite knowledge of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies can become and be called godlike”  (p. 7, On the Revolutions).

Ptolemy, a more empirical and Aristotelean astronomer, humbly denied that the human mind could finally perceive the secret meaning of the planetary movements, since this secret was safely tucked away in the mind of an unmoved transcendent God existing above the vault of heaven. As far as Ptolemy was concerned,  hypotheses were all the human mind could hope for: we can but “save the appearance” by offering clumsy descriptions of the universe as if it were a mechanical gear-works originally rigged up by a now absent divine Architect. Perception of the inner truth of things was deemed forever beyond the capacity of the finite human being.

Copernicus’ intellect caught fire in his contemplation of the stars. His was the Hermeticist‘s method: to know through identity, to learn the song and dance of eternity’s moving image by becoming one with the everlasting Soul animating the whole. Half a century later, Kepler was able to simplify Copernicus’ geometry by allowing for elliptical orbits. He was also able to clarify the theological implications of heliocentrism by pointing out that a decentered earth is actually the perfect place for a contemplative creature such as ourselves to observe and come to understand the order of the universe.

Kepler writes:

“If the earth, our home, did not measure the annual orbit of the other planets –changing from place to place and station to station– human reason would never have arrived at knowledge of the precise intervals of the planets and other things that depend on those intervals; it would never have instituted astronomy” (p. 366, Selected Works, vol. 6, 1938).

In other words, Kepler analogizes the relationship between creature and Creator to that between an earth’s eye view of the solar system and a sun’s eye view. From the sun’s perspective, only a God with a priori knowledge of the spheres could understand their design, whereas on earth, a being capable of “the labor of reason” (p. 66, ibid.) could uncover their design in the course of time (a posteriori) as a result of the comparison of their relative motions. Man is like God, except man’s knowledge becomes in time, a moving image of God’s timeless wisdom.

[A variation on Whitehead’s theological scheme here occurs to me, wherein God’s primordial nature is equated with this timeless wisdom, while God’s consequent nature is equated with humanity’s gradual awakening to the divine meaning of the universe of appearances from within the limits of that very same universe. This is a Hermetic spin on Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology, wherein God’s origin is the unconscious innocence of Nature and God’s end is the conscious responsibility of Man.]

The Copernican Revolution, according to Hallyn, was a victory for speculative organicism, for the idea that symmetry and systematicity are behind the appearances of nature, rather than the mechanical motion of separately and haphazardly arranged parts, as in Ptolemy’s model. But by the time of Newton, a conceptually degraded Copernicanism had provided the necessary conceptual foundation for the complete replacement of qualitatively differentiated, concrete space with the abstract, homogenous space of Euclidian geometry. As the Scientific Revolution marched onward, the enchanted and participatory cosmos of the Renaissance was forgotten in favor of an increasingly “objectified” universe devoid of “subjective” meaning.

It seems to me that another jolt of promethean imagination is necessary to complete the noösphere’s phase transition from the current, epicyclic materialistic paradigm –where subject and object remain sundered– into a more integrated vision of the cosmos as a living whole.

Intuitive Thinking vs. Reflective Thought: Harman on Meillassoux

I’ve just read Graham Harman‘s essay for continent. entitled “Meillassoux’s Virtual Future” (2011). As usual, it is primarily Harman’s style of philosophizing that really excites me. I am fascinated by the way he juggles and plays with ideas, even when I don’t finally agree with his attempts to securely mold a certain set of them into a consistent metaphysical system. In the essay linked above, he refrains from arguing for or even mentioning any of his own metaphysical positions. Instead, the focus is on the philosophical impact of Quentin Meillassoux‘s thoughts, on how they might come to effect the history of Thought by being reversed or radicalized by the “rude handling from later figures” (p. 88, continent. 1.2).

Harman says elsewhere that he

“is inclined to say that what really makes a philosopher important is not being right, but being wrong…One becomes an important philosopher not by being right, but by attracting rebellious admirers who tell you that you are wrong, even as their own careers silently orbit around your own” (p. 87).

He goes on to offer examples of future philosophers who might memorialize Meillassoux’s ideas through radicalization or reversal, but I think he leaves out a least one other interpretive possibility. Harman references Meillassoux’s respect for German Idealism several times, but he never fully unpacks the Schellingian or Hegelian ontologies in order to properly distinguish them from Fichtean subjective idealism. He argues that so-called “strong correlationism,” the starting point of Meillassoux’s philosophy, must inevitably fall back into subjective idealism, since otherwise it speaks nonsense by asserting that the unthought can be thought.

Thought, according to Aristotle, must be non-contradictory. This is a result of his doctrine of substance and the principle of sufficient reason. If we make a further experiential distinction, however, between thinking and what is thought, we see that while the latter must remain consistent to be considered reasonable, the former must remain inconsistent for the same reason. Thinking is the differentiation of that which nonetheless remains whole; it is identity in process, not an identifiable product; it is the transitive flow of experience, rather than its substantive content. The unthought cannot be thought, since the unthought is that which produces thought. It is the activity of thinking itself.

Harman continues:

“In a world where everything is instantly converted into thought, we cannot claim that there might be something extra-mental anyway, because this ‘might be something’ is itself converted into a thought by the same rules that condemned dogs, trees, and houses to the idealist position [that when I think the thing, X, it becomes X for thought]” (p. 81).

Thinking is outside thought not because it is extra-mental, but because it is the naturans underlying the naturata. Nature itself thinks: it is an open ended process that is neither objective nor subjective, since thinking is productive of both of these concepts. Thinking is always converting itself into thought, but never can thinking itself be thought. I agree with Harman that Meillassoux (at least on my Schellingian reading) seems to be offering a kind of Zen koan (p. 81).

I unpack this Schellingian form of speculative realism more fully elsewhere (HERE and HERE and HERE). See also Rudolf Steiner’s Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, especially chapter 7: “Are there limits to human cognition?”