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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A talk I gave at my graduate program’s retreat at Esalen a few weeks ago.

Part 1:

Part 2:

A comment by media theorist and professor of communication Corey Anton about what I say around the 3 minute mark of part 2 about the death/rebirth mystery of cosmogenesis:

Corey Anton:
Hi Matt, Thanks again.
A question for me comes at about 3:25 [of part 2]. Will the whole universe “die” and/or be reborn? What, exactly, would that mean? How would that be similar or not similar to human death? Does the cosmos have any “sense” of its finitude? I mean, humans can know that they will die, and that seems to be a main condition for certain kinds of meaningfulness–an articulation of the whole of their lives. Are you suggesting something like reincarnation for either individuals or the cosmos itself? Would you find intelligible some kind of notion of postmortem memories or postmortem experience, for either individual or cosmos? It seems quite slippery at the human level because my own death then appears not as the ending of my life but as a movement to a different mode of life for me in some form (assuming, of course, that the universe itself is not dying simultaneously) but, also, at the cosmos level, when “the cosmos ‘dies,'” does it have postmortem ‘experience’? Is there any ground prior to, or outside of, some kind of “experience”?

0ThouArtThat0 (me):
Corey, The universe does have a sense of its (in)finitude. This is not the same as having human consciousness of finitude. Symbolic consciousness is not just sense, but the sense of sense. I do the cute thing with the parentheses there because sensing finitude immediately implies that finitude has been and continues to be operated upon by infinitude. Neither we nor the universe are simply finite. To be a dying being is not simply to be a finite being. Our being-toward-death is precisely our infinitude, our openness to what waits beyond, to the imponderable future full of infinite possibilities. We and the rest of the universe are undergoing what Whitehead called a “creative advance into novelty.” Contrary to the materialist sermonizers, there is no inevitable state of entropic equilibrium awaiting us at the end of time because time is unending. Time is a moving image of eternity as Plato said. Pure difference, absolute disequilibrium, reigns. The death of the body is the birth of the soul and the death of the soul is the birth of the body. Really, we are never one or the other (a soul or a body), but always caught somewhere in-between, in-between incarnational embrace of waking life and withdrawal toward dreamy death. We breathe. All things breathe together. Life is not the opposite of death but includes it.

Steven Shaviro’s new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism arrived on my doorstep a few days ago courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. I’m going to provide a bit of context in this post before diving into a review of the text in subsequent posts.

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The press release U of M included in the package describes the book as “an up-to-the-moment critique of a recent turn in philosophical thought.” “Up-to-the-moment” it is not, since Shaviro has been testing much of the book’s content on his blog and at conferences since at least 2010. There will always be an important place for books in academic philosophy, but the principle procedural lesson of Speculative Realism (leaving aside its conceptual contributions for now) is that blogs must be an essential ingredient in any future academic philosophy hopes to carve out for itself. I strike out “academic” here because it is as yet unclear to me whether philosophy has much of a future in academia. If it is to survive the rise of the neoliberal university, philosophy may have to migrate into media ecologies more suited to free ranging public discourse and genuine learning (learning as an end in itself rather than preparation for the industrial workforce). Sometimes I think the blogosphere is able to provide this. Other times, not so much. Back in 2011, Ray Brassier (ironically the originator of the movement’s name and organizer of its first conference back in 2007) dismissed Speculative Realism as nothing more than “an online orgy of stupidity” cooked up to exploit impressionable graduate students. Since then, several dozen books have been published on the subject, including six titles in the past few weeks alone by Peter Gratton, Tom Sparrow, Peter Wolfendale, Dylan Trigg, Markus Gabriel, and Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey (eds.). If we include the last 6 or 7 months, there have also been publications by Levi Bryant and Tristan Garcia. Obviously, there is more to SR than the late night blog musings of a few overzealous graduate students. In Brassier’s defense, however, it is equally obvious that much of the recent activity in the SR blogosphere has been a total waste of bandwidth. It’s a lot of posturing and very little if any philosophizing.

Much of the controversy of late has centered around Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, which violently attacks the philosophy of Graham Harman. I haven’t and won’t read the 400-page tome, but word on the street is Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as a symptom of some sort of philosophical pathology (it seems the disease infects both admirers and despisers of OOO—why else would Wolfendale write 400-pages on it?).  Brassier makes a cameo appearance in the book’s afterward only to once again announce the nonexistence of the SR movement. Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of (in Harman’s words) “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma” to popularize his philosophy.

“I’m not aware of having any such power,” continues Harman, “nor am I aware of having ruthlessly crushed a thousand-flowers-blooming SR blogosphere, as Wolfendale bizarrely contends.”

In preparation for my review of Shaviro’s book, which engages with Harman more intimately than any other SR thinker, I recently re-read the last chapter of his early book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005). His style really is infectious. And because of the aesthetic roots of his ontology, it is not at all incidental to his arguments. “A style,” according to Harman, “is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception” (55). There is nothing naked about his prose. Reading him is perhaps best described as a psychedelic experience.

Like Shaviro, I have certain conceptual qualms with Harman’s substance ontology, as well as with what I believe to be his misreading of Whitehead’s process ontology. But I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit in which he engages philosophy. His call for less critique and more invention couldn’t come at a more crucial juncture in the history of ideas and the evolution of (post)human consciousness. Echoing other speculative thinkers like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, he calls for turn toward a more constructive and less anthropocentric mode of thinking: “We seek a form of invention no different in kind from the blossoming of cherry trees or the compression of carbon into diamond” (241). He warns us that “progress [in metaphysics] is constantly threatened with relapse into critique, that most deeply rooted intellectual habit of our time”(237-8), and contrasts critique with curiosity and the capacity for surprise, even going so far as to equate the latter with wisdom itself: “Wisdom means the ability to be surprised because only this ability shows sufficient integrity to listen to the voice of the world instead of our own prejudice about the world, a goal that eludes even the wisest of humans a good deal of the time” (239).

It is in this same spirit that Whitehead endeavored to philosophize, and in “rediscovering” him (as U of M’s press release puts it), Shaviro carries this spirit forward in a constructive way. Harman thanks Shaviro on the back cover for avoiding prose full of “rancor and backstabbing ambition” and praises him as “the most dignified and helpful of Speculative Realism’s critics.” I’ve also often found his work helpful. Particularly helpful was his earlier book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics (2009), which was basically my introduction to Deleuze. Also key for my understanding of the stakes of speculative thinking has been his insistence upon the philosophical fork in the road between panpsychism and eliminativism (an issue he takes up again in The Universe of Things). 

I’ll begin my review of Shaviro’s new book in subsequent posts over the next several days…

“The machinery of the brain does all the work–after all, what else is there? What [Cain] calls ‘thinking of science in normative terms’ is a mechanistic enterprise, something our brains do. Since metacognition is all but blind to the mechanistic nature of the brain, it cognizes cognition otherwise, in nonmechanical, acausal, magical terms. Normative judgements, intentional relations, and so on: these are simply ways our brain naturally mischaracterizes its own activity.” -R. Scott Bakker

 

“Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” -Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (16).

Those who have been tracking my last few posts (HERE and HERE) will know I’ve been enjoying Ben Cain’s philosophy blog Rants Within the Undead God. It was in a guest post on fantasy author R. Scott Bakker‘s blog Three Pound Brain that I first encountered Cain’s mind. Bakker has just published a critical reply to Cain’s guest post a few days ago on the philosophical difficulties facing scientism. I’m as new to Bakker’s “blind brain theory” (BBT) as I am to Cain’s “existential cosmicism,” but I’ve been reading Cain and Bakker’s recent exchange concerning the ontological status of consciousness in our scientific age with tremendous interest. I agree with Bakker that we ought to be extremely disturbed and existentially unsettled by BBT’s implications, just not for the reasons he thinks.

Like Cain, I find Bakker’s BBT threatening not because it is true in some matter of fact sense, but because it is becoming increasingly true (in the American pragmatist sense) as the values of techno-scientific imperialism continue to infect secular societies (techno-capitalism has done a fabulous job marketing these values thus far). It is indeed becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish ourselves from machines. As Cain suggests:

 Maybe our imagination, emotion, intuition, and creativity will atrophy as our habits continue to be shaped by our artificial environments. Then again, we’d be looking not so much at a scientific revelation of what we’ve always really been, but at a transformation of human nature for the worse.

While Bakker cognitively mobilizes unexplained explainers like “scientific accuracy” (achieved by a disinterested res cogitans?) and “natural mechanism” (mathematizable res extensa?), I’d prefer to call upon the non-modern powers of creative imagination and cosmogenesis in my speculative fantasies (in Hillman’s sense of fantasy). I take my speculative risks on behalf of philosophical inquiry and creative intuition attempting to attune with the logos of the chaosmos. This is an infinite task, it must be admitted. But then philosophy is full of infinite tasks, as Husserl taught us“Scientific accuracy” is also an infinite task, is it not? I suppose only if the universe is an infinite fact. 

Bakker is not happy about the loaded labels of “scientism” and “absolutism” fired at him by Cain. I think its true that these labels tend to carry negative connotations, but I’m surprised that Bakker doesn’t just own up to BBT’s philosophical allegiance to those very connotations (i.e., science as the only valid way of knowing because philosophical intuition is bosh, etc.). Neuroscientists like the “hardheaded devotee of aggressive-exterminative scientism” (as Graham Harman referred to himThomas Metzinger and eliminativist philosophers like Ray Brassier don’t shy away from the term but seem rather to wear it as a badge of honor.

Levi Bryant recently posted about Entropy. He writes:

Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.

I posted a comment which read:

I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?

To which Bryant responded with:

Matthew,

The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.

To which I responded with:

Levi,

I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.

Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.

Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:

In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.

It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices.  Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother.  Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.

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.

The discussion continues over on Levi Bryant’s blog.

Bryant agrees with me that Whitehead’s conception of God does not fall prey to many of the ethical and epistemological criticisms he levels against traditional theism. But he fails to understand the problem that Whitehead’s God is purported to have solved.

Whitehead’s style of philosophizing has much to do with his understanding of history. From his perspective, the history of religious experience is a fact about the Cosmos that must be taken up and integrated by speculative philosophy. I don’t think Bryant would necessarily disagree with this, but he might add that the way this fact is to be integrated by philosophy is through some sort of sociological or neurological reduction (i.e., the content of religious experiences is entirely culturally or cranially constructed).

Whitehead integrates the fact of humanity’s religious inheritance (which is both experiential and scriptural–and these two sources are inextricably bound up in my opinion) in a different way. He abides by what Bruno Latour has since come to call the principle of irreduction: a phenomenon can sometimes be translated into a related phenomenon, but never explained by reference to anything other than its own internal reasons. Instead of reducing the content of religious experience to something merely cultural or merely neural that must be rejected wholesale as superstition, Whitehead accepts the cultural habits he has inherited as the “imaginative background” constituting the condition for the possibility of his own speculative flights into conceptual novelty. He sees no other choice but to think with the historical milieu in which he is embedded, even if this thinking leads eventually to a creative revisioning of his culture’s fundamental assumptions. As Latour and Stengers later articulated, Whitehead’s cosmology is not separable from his politics. Nor is his ontology separable from his sociology. Human experience is to be understood based upon the same criteria of explanation and existence as the experience of any other organism. If the vast majority of the earth’s human inhabitants currently find the concept of God meaningful in some ultimate sense, this is a cosmic fact Whitehead cannot afford to dismiss.

Bryant and other atheists may not find this at all compelling. That a majority of humanity holds certain beliefs about God is no evidence whatsoever as to the validity of those beliefs. Whitehead, however, is a pragmatist; for him, the truth of an idea is not a matter of correspondence to some pre-given reality; or at least if truth is correspondence, it is not very interesting to him. What matters to Whitehead is how our conceptual propositions create novel contrasts in our interpretation of experience in order to further the Universe’s adventure of ideas. In a Universe that relates to itself sensually (i.e., via prehensions), interesting lies are often more effective–more productive of value–than boring or obvious truths (at least if adventure is our goal).

It all comes down to how we construe the relationship between philosophy and religion. Hegel argued that the content of each was the same. Whitehead agrees. The role of philosophy is always to be the critic of abstractions, whether they be scientific or religious in origin. Scientific abstractions tend to be derived from empirico-mathematical (i.e., theoretical) cognitions, while religious abstractions tend to be derived from ethico-scriptural (i.e., practical) emotions. Philosophy’s role is to bring our thinking and our feeling into constructive harmony: the abstractions employed by science and religion are systematized by philosophy so as to presuppose one another such that in isolation they are meaningless.

It is perhaps a mistake to use the descriptor “Christianity,” since this will only invite the knee-jerk dismissal of what I am about to say; but nonetheless, I think the archetypal meaning of the Christ event is highly relevant in any discussion of the relationship between religion and philosophy. The history of Christian theology represents a sort of unhappy compromise between Hebraic eschatology and Greek cosmology. We should not underestimate the profound transformation that the God of the Old Testament had to go through in order to become the God of the Gospels. I think Christianity, whose central figure is purported to have accomplished the complete synthesis of spirit and matter, eternity and time, myth and history, creator and creation, etc., still has a significant role to play in the unfolding of our civilization. In fact, I think (like Rudolf Steiner and Teilhard de Chardin) that we’ve only just begun to feel the cosmohistorical repercussions of the Christ event.

I’ve already posted a short response to Harman, but I wanted to re-visit the issues explored in that post concerning the difference between Homo Sapiens, as an object among objects, and the Anthropos, as an ideal toward which every object tends. I will also try to disentangle my own “cosmotheandric” position from the generic anti-nihilism Levi Bryant has rightfully critiqued.

I should preface this by saying that Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology excites me a great deal. I think it puts philosophical heat on many of the right places in contemporary phenomenology and naturalism, where the residue of dualism and anthropocentrism is still too thick for my post-secular taste. When I suggested in an earlier post that SR/OOO needs to unpack its theological and anthropological implications, I did so with the hopeful expectation that, were an object-oriented theology, psychology, or anthropology developed, it might provide a viable alternative to the philosophical exaggerations of Creationism and Nihilism alike.

When I refer to nihilism in the context of SR/OOO, I am thinking in particular of Ray Brassier‘s eliminative materialism. As far as Brassier is concerned, the “manifest image” of the human as an ensouled organism participating in an intrinsically meaningful world should be replaced by the “scientific image” of the human as a biological machine competing for survival in an uncaring material universe. Brassier’s nihilism has several main characteristics: 1) it denies the cognitive role of myth, imagination, and intuition in human consciousness, since 2) it asserts that truth is available to scientific rationality alone, and 3) it asserts the contingency of thought for matter, and matter’s priority to thought.

I’ve written on the relation between Mythos and Logos, or story and science, before. I agree with Donna Haraway, when she writes in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. (1997), that “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44). Myth provides the cognitive and imaginal condition necessary for the emergence of logic and empiricism. You cannot think about ideas until after you’ve contemplated the gods; this is true in terms of both the collective history of our species and the development of an individual. Haraway makes the case that, without the Christian mythos as its cultural background, the Scientific Revolution never would have happened. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser makes a similar case in his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser offers an archeology of human consciousness, depicting the emergence of de-mythologized rationality (beginning with Plato, and ending, perhaps, with Hegel) as a necessary, but not sufficient phase in the evolution of consciousness. Somehow, consciousness must find a way to integrate each phase of its own evolution (Gebser distinguishes 4: archaic, magic, mythic, and mental), or face annihilation.

Bryant says he is unable to understand why one might assume SR/OOO has anything to do with nihilism, since an flat ontology doesn’t mean humans can’t still relate ethically and meaningfully with one another.

Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear?

I don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology, but it all depends on how we do the flattening. Alan Watts wasn’t exactly a systematic philosopher (he usually preferred to refer to himself as a spiritual entertainer), but he did articulate his own flavor of a flat ontology, wherein every object is essentially God in disguise:

God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama… And, so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many, many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming. To use a verse from G. K. Chesterton:

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

 It is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
I think Watts’ sense that everything is God pretending not to be God is similar to what I want to say about the Anthropos, which is not to be simply identified with Homo sapiens, but is rather a cosmic principle at work to shape the becoming of every actual entity. I take the speculative risk of suggesting that the evolution of the Cosmos is influenced by divine lures, the Anthropos being among the most pre-eminent of all such lures, or archetypes, with a taste for actualization. I’ve been influenced  here both by Carl Jung’s modern interpretation of Alchemy and Hermeticism, and Whitehead’s process theology.

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

I think Whitehead was struggling to secularize theology, such that science and religion–the study of nature and the worship of divinity–could mutually enhance one another, rather than being placed in irremediable conflict on either side of a universe bifurcated between Nature and Spirit. Bryant questions whether any good evidence exists for believing in God, but it seems that he is imagining a God who issues decrees and determines the future course of the universe in advance. Whitehead’s God has no such power, but rather is alike in kind to all other actual entities. God is with the world, not above it. God does not guarantee anything but the possibility of relevant and meaningful experience to every actual occasion. It is up to each actual occasion to decide upon its future based on its own subjective ends. There is little scientific evidence for the existence of a transcendent, law imposing God like the one Bryant is critiquing (I say “little” evidence only because of the way some physicists remain rutted in a non-historical paradigm that conceives of physical laws as arbitrarily imposed upon nature from beyond nature); but from Whitehead’s panentheistic perspective, the evidence for God is aesthetic and moral, not just scientific. That there is a Cosmos at all, rather than chaos, is evidence of Beauty’s participation in bringing the cosmic democracy of objects into (a still evolutionary and open-ended!) harmonization. That human beings are capable of struggling for Justice (even if it remains largely an ideal imperfectly realized) is evidence that God’s infinite love for each and every entity is ingredient in our more limited experience of entities. And finally, that human beings are capable of doing metaphysics and philosophy so as to reveal the inner workings of reality is evidence that a deeper Intelligence is involved in bringing forth both the knower and the known.

Last month, Bryant articulated what he calls a “wilderness ontology.” I’m very sympathetic to the idea that humans not be given special status, and would like to extend it into new terrain. I can’t fully unpack its implications at the moment, but what of the possibility of a “wilderness theology,” wherein God is considered as a metaphysical scheme’s chief exemplar, rather than its ultimate explanation or unique exception? Whitehead’s God, immanent and responsive to the creative decisions of each and every other actual entity, is a good starting place for the development of such a wilderness theology. Theology doesn’t necessarily require inserting some vertical scale of values into the universe, such that humans rank higher than animals and animals rank higher than plants in some Great Chain of Being. From the perspective of a panentheism (or cosmotheandrism) like Whitehead’s, values are neither horizontally constructed by human society nor vertically imposed by divine will; his theology is an attempt to upset this neat dichotomy between nihilism and deism so that the Being of God’s mind manifests itself here and now in the twists and turns of the forest path of Becoming.

I’ve been reading Stengers’ recently translated book Thinking with Whitehead (2011) with an eye to developing an eco-ontology, or ecological realism. Adam and I are still in the process of searching for an adequate characterization for this project, but in nuce, we want to untangle the ethical, epistemological, cosmological, and ontological knot that is the ecological crisis. The hope is that a coherent and adequate philosophical grasp of the complex relations between each of these threads will enable us to bring forth more resilient modes of living and dying as human beings on planet earth. We are just the latest participants in a tradition of cosmopolitical thought, and with the help of philosophers like Stengers and Whitehead, perhaps we can play some small role in transforming the danger of ecological crisis into an opportunity opening up an entirely novel civilizational adventure.

Whitehead’s metaphysical system, if understood in the creative spirit with which it was conceived, is itself always in process, always open to ongoing tests of logical coherence and experiential adequacy. It is an open system oriented toward a similarly processual cosmos without pre-established foundations, material, spiritual, or otherwise. The order and harmony of the universe is achieved, not given. What holds together now may cease to hold together in the future. Global climate change is just the latest creation/discovery by modern scientific practice of the contingency of nature. Such a catastrophe forces us to think of “the environment” in a more participatory way, where organisms are not passively fitted to a stubborn, pre-given Nature, but actively cooperate to symbiotically shape their own environments. Climate change challenges us to conceive of living beings as existing in precarious relationships of trust with their environments: their success depends upon the patience of their environment, of the environment’s ability to maintain a hold on the conditions constituting viability in any given instance.

I quote Stengers at length:

That endurance is a factual success without any higher guarantee may be expressed as follows: may those who are no longer afraid that the sky might fall on their heads be all the more attentive to the eventual impatience of what they depend on. Thus, it is not without interest today that the new figure of Gaia indicates that it is becoming urgent to create a contrast between the earth valorized as a set of resources and the earth taken into account as a set of interdependent processes, capable of assemblages that are very different from the ones on which we depend. In order to distinguish the endurance of Gaia–and of the multitude of bacterial populations that play an active role in its assemblages–from the precariousness of our modes of existence and of those of other large mammals, some speak of Gaia’s “shrug of the shoulders” capable of making us lose our foothold: “Gaia is ticklish, we depend on her patience, let us beware her impatience.” The contemporary period is exploring the difficulty of a transformation of what are called “values” in a sense that corresponds well to the Whiteheadian use of the term: a particular way of shaping our attainments, presupposing the stability wagered upon in this way, while explaining itself in terms of habits (p. 163).

Stengers invokes the Gaia theory, which construes the earth as a self-organizing assemblage of living processes–a superorganism–in order to illustrate the need for an etho-ecology, or an understanding of earth that links the ethos of living beings with their oikos. A living being succeeds in enduring only in relation to other beings, all of whom make their homes within a vast environment upon whose patience they depend.

Thinking ecology with Whitehead has implications beyond just biology and environmental ethics. His ontology is organic, not in the sense that it privileges wholes over parts, but in that it encourages chemists to think reactions in terms of the “ethology of molecules,” and physicists to think protons and electrons as species of elemental organism. Organisms, for Whitehead, are not self-subsistent entities that might serve as explanations for everything else. “Organism” is a concept Whitehead employs to think the active, enduring production of order at any and all levels amidst ever-changing conditions. It risks vitalist associations to avoid any bifurcations between subjectivist free causes and objectivist mechanical causes. Everything from carbon atoms, to elephants, to hospitals survive as organisms amidst their environments due to the ongoing effectiveness of canalized habits in securing the modes of organization peculiar to their purposes. Maintaining their wholeness as organisms requires that their parts continue to play the roles required of the whole. If patients refuse to give up most of their rights upon entering the hospital, the hospital would quickly degenerate. When the patient accepts the role assigned to them by the organism of which they are to become a part, doctors and their assistants can then perform their various expertises upon her, usually without her having the slightest knowledge of the details of the procedure (see p. 175). Organisms are genuine wholes, but only as long as they last, as long as their parts are able or willing to be infected by the purposes of the whole.

A philosophy based in an ecological realism must, I think, rececitate some conception of organism to successfully navigate the new imaginal territories that it enacts. I’m more inclined to speak of “organisms” than I am “objects” when trying to ontologize because the former foregrounds both the active role of these entities in constructing the real, as well as their fragility: the fact that they may perish should their environment suddenly change. I think “organism” also highlights the extent to which relationality and individuality are co-constitive (OOO seems to overemphasize the individual while demoting relationality to a secondary phenomenon).

In subsequent posts, I’d like to flesh out what Francisco Varela‘s and Evan Thompson‘s autopoietic/enactive approach to the life sciences [see The Embodied Mind (1992) and Mind in Life (2007)] can contribute to both an etho-ecology and a more robust account of the epistemic issues surrounding the study of the same life processes constituting our capacity for study. Varela and Thompson’s philosophical attitude runs parallel to Whitehead’s, but neither explicitly mentions being influenced by his philosophy of organism. I’m especially interested in drawing out the connections between these thinkers in light of Ray Brassier’s critique of Thompson to be delivered later this month at a conference in Crotia on vitalism. The enactive perspective is radically participatory, in that it recusisvely weds ethics, epistemology, and ontology. The way we think the world immediately begins to translate into the way we make the world. I feel responding to Brassier’s nihilistic philosophy of extinction is thus more than a merely academic exercise. It is my way of responding to an invasive species of thought threatening to disturb the environmental norms that constitute my life.

Tim Morton drew my attention to this post about the demise of the humanities due to neoliberal economic policies grounded in the supposed truth of neurocomputational eliminativism.

I agree with Morton’s appraisal, that the eliminative materialism that seems to be gaining favor among philosophers (like Ray Brassier) offers little in the way of new theoretical accounts of consciousness or practical approaches to ethics, and so functions only to support conservatism. Eliminativists, of course, argue that “consciousness” is only a word, a meaningless vibration of molecules that makes sense to us because we’ve been duped by our habitual use of folk psychological language. In reality, there is no consciousness, only vectors of neural activation. Philosophers may have traditionally sought out the truth with the help of language, whether prosaic or poetic; but, the eliminativists assure us, human language produces only fictions. There is no such thing as consciousness, just as there is no such thing as a sunrise. Truth can only be found, if at all, in numerical relations derived from the computational activity of synapses.

Whitehead’s entire philosophical adventure is an attempt to avoid the “bifurcation of nature” produced by this sort of scientific materialism. Following his way of thinking nature and culture as different aspects of the same creative process, what is to prevent us from conceiving of neural interaction as semiotic in its own right? Human semiosis may be based in the fictional play of signifiers, and to that extent incapable of finally explaining its own conditions of possibility; but neural semiosis is no less messy and interpretive, no less groundless and playful. Semiosis, so far as I can tell, must go all the way down: meaning is not a human fabrication, but a natural phenomenon.

Eliminativism is the worst kind of reductionism, that motivated by the technoscientific desire to predict and control everything for the sake of a more efficient capitalist market. As I tried to touch on in my last post, there is quite literally a world of difference between a mystery and a problem. Consciousness is not a problem that might be solved through some kind of reverse engineering, but a mystery whose very contradictoriness (it cannot be found since it is that which is seeking, even though this very statement unveils much about its nature) constitutes the worldliness of our lives. Without this mystery, there is no world, no meaning, no aesthetic or ethical value. This is not to say, mind you, that eliminativism is a threat to the meaning of human life. It is itself just another mythos, albeit an alienating and destructive one. It is ironic that, just as biologists are awakening to the current anthropogenic mass extinction event, someone like Brassier, inspired by eliminativism, would embrace a logic of extinction as the only valid form of philosophical reflection (I must thank Adam for pointing this out).

I’ve just finished Eugene Thacker‘s After Life, wherein he surveys the positions of key pre-modern thinkers, including Aristotle, Plotinus, Pseudo-Dionysius, Eriugena, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa. Despite the often illuminating nature of their thoughts, it seems that none of these men were able to articulate a workable account of life-in-itself, at least not one that could be grasped absent some initiatory encounter with the mystical. The first 4 chapters were a difficult but rewarding read, as Thacker leads the reader through the cognitive darkness of paradox and contradiction inherent to any attempt to think the Absolute as Life. In chapter 5 (“The Logic of Life”), things start to get really interesting…

Whether utilizing a theological or philosophical mode of reflection, it seems that all the thinkers Thacker surveys (with the possible exception of Deleuze’s Spinoza) were bound by a correlational logic: they attempted to think an ontology of life relative to the human being. Overcoming this correlation is easier said than done, since “Life,” as such, can only be approached by a living being capable of, or perhaps possessed by, self-conscious thinking. In other words, it would appear that the concept of Life is only meaningful given that there exists a rational creature capable of abstracting it from all the many given instances of individual living creatures, including me myself. Distinguishing the human animal from other forms of life is controversial, both philosophically and politically, but perhaps it is precisely in thinking life-in-itself, or at least in thinking the impossibility of such a thought, that the human distinguishes itself from other beings. It is not that the life of a dog is not, in some sense, meaningful for the dog; but can the dog pre-discursively form anything like the proposition “what is the meaning of life?” Not “what is the meaning of life for me,” mind you, but the meaning of life in general. The contemplation of the aporia of life-in-itself seems to be a specifically human predicament.

“The concept of life,” writes Thacker, “–and whether such a concept is possible–places philosophy in a hovering, wandering space between an ontotheology and an ontobiology” (p. 241).

The challenge, as Thacker lays it out, is to articulate a conception of Life that is neither reductively theological or biological. Philosophy is that restless wanderer charged with the task of navigating between these two extremes.

“The history of Western philosophy,” continues Thacker, “is this ongoing dilemma concerning the very possibility of ‘living thought'” (p. 242).

What is the relationship between life, on the one hand, and thought, on the other? The intentional structure of consciousness is such that thought always has an object; might not life-in-itself be the Object of all objects, that which, being “ambivalently positioned between self and world,” constitutes the very possibility of a “continuum [connecting] the ‘out there’ to the ‘in here'” (p. 247)? Life would then be, paradoxically, both the condition of the possibility of thought and the end toward which thinking strives.

Thacker’s book has reminded me of Evan Thompson‘s thesis, presented in Mind in Life, that the self-organizing dynamics at work in living beings are not just conceptually analogous, but structurally continuous with the self-conscious dynamics of mind. What remains unexplored is what this continuity between life and thought means for the nature of the universe itself. Can the being of the world-in-itself be understood independently of the thought of the world-for-us? Breaking the correlation would entail something like the nihilism of Ray Brassier, where “living thought” is deemed impossible, since truth is discovered only in the thought of thought’s own extinction. Perhaps a depth psychological approach can overcome this dichotomy between vitalism and nihilism, as from the soul’s perspective, life and death exist on a continuum. Of course, this only brings us back to the mysticism of pre-modernity. Not that this is necessarily a problem…

(as always) To be continued…


Preface

Quentin Meillassoux‘s lucid text, After Finitude (2008), comes at a time when Continental philosophy finds itself engaging more closely with what might be called  “poetico-religious” modes of thought. Rationality of the Cartesian sort has been thoroughly deconstructed, and no longer seems capable of providing what it once promised: a clear and distinct picture of the substance of the world as it exists outside and independent of the human soul. Meillassoux admits that Cartesianism seems to have become “irrevocably obsolete” (AF, p. 29), since, following Kant’s transcendental critique of the ontological argument (that the necessity of a concept for thought does not prove its existence in fact), the theological basis of Descartes’ knowledge of the ‘in-itself’ has been dissolved. Two centuries of post-Kantian reflection have carried his critique of our organ of knowledge even further, pointing to, among other things, the constitutive role of language for thought and the evolutionary origins of consciousness as factors severely limiting, if not outright denying, philosophy’s access to the Absolute. Whatever Reason, or Logos, is, contemporary philosophy has made it all but impossible to conceive of it in abstraction from the body and its cosmohistorical origins.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was well aware of the need to conceive of the cosmos and the soul in less dualistic terms, and did not shy away from rejecting religious dogmatisms that could not be squared with the findings of 20th century natural science. Neither were these conditions lost on Owen Barfield, who argued throughout his life that Romanticism’s poetico-religious conception of humanity’s relation to nature and divinity can and must “come of age” in our era. For him, “imagination,” the favored organ of Romantics, referred not to “the faculty of inventing fictions,” but rather that which,

at its highest level…[inherits] and [continues] the divine creative activity of the Logos,…the common origin of human language and consciousness, as well as the world which contains them (RM, p. 20).

Meillassoux argues formidably against such a “return of the religious,” lamenting that “the contemporary philosopher has completely capitulated to the man of faith,” since post-Kantian modes of thought have forced upon him the conclusion that, “if there is an ultimate truth, only piety can provide it, not thought” (AF, p. 47). A truly adequate response to Meillassoux in light of Barfield’s and Teilhard’s Christologies would require a longer study than I can provide in this short essay. My aim is to begin opening a few sites of inquiry into the poetico-religious mode Meillassoux so sharply, and perhaps unfairly, criticized by supplementing this mode’s seemingly pietistic justifications with a logic of incarnation. Faith need not be contrary to logic; rather, faith may be that which opens logic to being.

Beyond an Abstract Absolute

Though it is the Copernican revolution that Meillassoux marks as the decisive moment for modern philosophy—that moment when, following Kant, philosophy was led “to conceive of [the Copernican] de-centering in terms of thought’s unprecedented centrality relative to this same world” (AF, p. 118)—it was not until the end of the 18th century that the sciences of deep time began to reveal the paradox of ancestrality underlying his critique of post-Kantian correlationism. “By ‘correlation,’” writes Meillassoux, “we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (AF, p. 5). The force of the paradox of ancestrality articulated by Meillassoux consists in the fact that, according to the empirico-mathematical claims of geologists and astrophysicists, there is an asymmetrical relation between the being of the world and the world’s being thought, since a material substance of some kind must have existed prior to the emergence of either sentient life or conscious creatures capable of reflecting upon it. Being, therefore, precedes thought. But how could this be so? Short of hypostasizing the correlation, such that a Universal Mind is deemed to have been present to witness the accretion of the earth and the formation of life, it seems that the scientific understanding of cosmic evolution requires breaking the “correlational circle” tying consciousness and cosmos together. This break, according to Meillassoux, would release thought from its solipsistic contemplation of a “cloistered outside”—“an outside in which we’re trapped, only ever finding the correlates of our own acts of consciousness and language” (CAO, p. 6). A “Great Outdoors” might thereby be revealed to consciousness that is not only external to it, but persists entirely independent of it, existing ‘in-itself’ for no one and, even more radically, for no reason. Meillassoux’s Absolute is absolute precisely in that, though it is thinkable, it is indifferent to the light of Logos. It is omnipotent Chaos.

There are post-Kantian alternatives to Meillassoux’s experiment in thinking the Absolute independent of the correlation. Instead of locating the Absolute in an impersonal being outside of and indifferent to human consciousness, I will, with inspiration from Barfield and Teilhard, Christologize the Absolute by attempting to articulate how the ‘in-itself’ can become for us. A clearer picture of the problems of contemporary philosophy will be painted by situating it within the larger cosmohistorical arc of the evolution of consciousness, approaching the Absolute via a logic of incarnation. An incarnational logic challenges both the notion that the Absolute might be grasped through a formal or mathematical proof and the notion that irrational belief alone, no matter how fervent, might be enough to secure it. The realization of the Absolute as Christ demands the participation of the full suite of human faculties, including thinking, feeling, and willing. The philosophical pursuit of the Absolute is as much a theoretical as a practical and aesthetic adventure, since the mere thought of the Absolute would be empty unless this thought was correlative to a transformed perception of the world and carried with it a renewed moral calling to redeem it. In Christ, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful each participate, such that through the logic of incarnation Christ transforms not only our conceptual, but also our perceptual and physical registers of reality.

Teilhard’s Christological Science

“Until the dawn of the present era,” writes Teilhard,

one could say that man still had the illusion of living ‘in the open air’ in a universe that was penetrable and transparent. At that time there was no hard and fast boundary, and all sorts of exchanges were possible between the here below and the beyond, between heaven and earth, between relative and absolute…Then, with the rise of science, we saw the gradual spreading over everything of a sort of membrane that our knowledge could not penetrate (AE, p. 186).

The “dawn of the present era” can be equated with the beginning of post-Kantian thought. The impenetrable membrane can then be read as the transcendental limits Kant placed on human cognition. “I have found it necessary,” wrote Kant, “to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.” After the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), it was no longer possible to access the beyond, or to participate directly in the angelic ecology tying heaven and earth together, since any supposed knowledge of things or beings outside the pre-established categories of the understanding and our sensory experience of time and space became but a transcendental illusion. The divine was no longer the source and telos of human concern for reality, but a regulative idea of practical reason—a possibility to be willed or believed in, but not a necessity deducible by the understanding or a being graspable by the senses.

Teilhard recognized and championed the post-Kantian discoveries of the new sciences of geology, biology, and astrophysics. But rather than accepting the Kantian or Cartesian paradigms that would wall off the conscious soul of man from the mechanisms of a soulless universe, Teilhard emphasized the extent to which the curvature of the universe is both geometric and psychic: out of the core of our own soul there grow fibers reaching back into the fabric of space-time itself. While Descartes would have us “irrevocably imprisoned” in a “thinking bubble,” Teilhard saw in the still maturing center of the human psyche evidence of the latest phase in a universal process of convergence underway throughout the organic and inorganic cosmos (AE, p. 189). For him, human thought is the result of a billion year yearning of the ‘without’ for the ‘within.’ He saw consciousness as the latest product of the axis of evolution toward deeper interiorization, the most recent rebirth of the whole (macrocosm) in the center (microcosm). To the adequately prepared subject, apparent in the cosmogenetic phenomenon revealed by science is also an anthropogenesis: “we are not an element lost in the cosmic solitudes…within us a universal will to live converges and is hominized” (HP, p. 7). The cosmos implies the anthropos for Teilhard, as though it were ‘finely-tuned’ just so as to eventually become conscious of itself. This is a perspective Meillassoux must reject not because it is anthropocentric, but because of his denial of causality in nature: there is no tuning at all, no self-organization, only what he calls the “stabilist illusion of sensible becoming” characterizing our shortsighted experience of empirical constants (AF, p. 83). Teilhard would agree that thinking about the universe in terms of fixed laws was shortsighted, since in an evolving cosmos, thresholds of complexity can be reached that irreversibly transform ontological and behavioral norms. Once the earth came to life around 4 billion years ago, its geological and atmospheric dynamics were entirely altered. Similarly, after only a few tens of thousands of years of human civilization, the living planet’s dynamics, relatively stable for the majority of its multi-billion year history, have been altered in just as radical a way. But in dismissing fixed causal law with Meillassoux, Teilhard does not then follow him by instating the total reign of chaos. The universe’s punctuated evolution can still be understood as obeying a logic of incarnation, following a general trajectory toward complexity and consciousness through pre-life, to life, to thought. The human species is not the end of cosmic evolution, however, but a potential vessel capable of incarnating the Spirit of Christ on earth. Anthropogenesis is, finally, Christogenesis.

Meillassoux’s speculative materialism emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human consciousness against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Teilhard’s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.

Though he remains a correlationist of sorts, Teilhard acknowledges the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, disorienting us in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of [our] own self” (AE, p. 187). No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all. Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.”

Teilhard realized that the flourishing of our species depends upon bringing forth a new, scientifically and spiritually informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that would grind to a halt without the narrative renewal offered by each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provided him with only momentary condolence, if any at all. “The truth is,” he writes, “that even at the peak of my spiritual trajectory I was never to feel at home unless immersed in an Ocean of Matter” (HM, p. 8). Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.

The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (AE, p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world-shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos:

With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things—the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge (AE, p. 254).

What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and human consciousness are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that the cosmohistorical unfolding of the correlation is progressive and convergent. “The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long,” writes Teilhard, “but the axis and the arrow of evolution—which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).

The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation tends. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation.

After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire (AE, p. 280).

The Logic of Incarnation

Meillassoux writes of the necessity of incarnation for the transcendental subject: “Granted, the transcendental is the condition for knowledge of bodies, but it is necessary to add that the body is also the condition for the taking place of the transcendental” (AF, p. 25). He goes on to conclude that subjectivity is instantiated, rather than exemplified, by the body, meaning that embodiment is the “non-empirical condition of [thought’s] taking place” (ibid.). Without the body, there could be no such thing as thinking, and so no human being. Teilhard would not disagree, but would add that it is precisely in the reflective, or transcendental, consciousness emerging from the complexity of the human cardio-metabolic-nervous system that the divine finds a suitable portal into the phenomenal world. For God to become man through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ requires a true mediation of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the material. The human being has the potential, through the development of transcendental consciousness, to participate in the incarnation of the Word, since only by “taking place at the heart of the world” (ibid.), by living and dying as a physical creature, can the Creator instantiate his eternal love for creation. To love infinitely, God first had to become finite, to enter the horizon of the world. Jesus was not a heavenly example sent by God for men to poorly imitate, but the first historical manifestation of the, until then, dormant Christ-impulse dwelling within the human being. Christ “was in the beginning with God” (John 1:2), but in becoming flesh and walking among us, also carries God into the present and brings hope for the future redemption of earth. God’s omnipotence makes possible the incarnation by “dissolving the apparent contradiction between His complete identity and His difference with His Son” (AF, p. 41). Meillassoux argues that the mystical register within which this statement, and the incarnation itself, is meaningful depends upon the hypostatization of the correlation, such that the possibility of incarnation is justifiable or dismissible not due to the facts of the world ‘in itself,’ as depicted by reason and science, but rather due to the sublime fact that there is a world ‘for us’ at all, a world that carries with it at least the potential for beauty and goodness.

Theology, after Kant, became speculative reflection upon the transcendental conditions of creation, a “faith seeking understanding” (Aquinas: “fides quaerens intellectum”) of creation’s sufficient reason. For Meillassoux, such reflection is fallacious, since, he argues, it is thinkable that the world has come to be for no reason. The world is no more significant, despite its potential for aesthetic and moral order, than any of the evidently contingent facts occurring daily within it. Meillassoux’s “principle of unreason” is a result of his conception of the Absolute as Chaos, a being of pure power without desires or ideals. Teilhard’s picture of the universe is not without chaos, since his vision of evolution leaves room for the local randomness of evolutionary groping. But instead of ignoring or marginalizing cosmos in favor of chaos, Teilhard accounts for the global arc cosmogenesis by understanding it as the gradual incarnation of the Logos into matter through the power of love. Even upon meeting the seemingly absurd resistance of death, love is able to transform it into the necessary condition of the world’s redemption. In this sense, the love at work in the logic of incarnation is impossible to understand absent the “logic of extinction.”

Without becoming mortal, a disembodied divine being has no need of love, since no separation exists between it and another. Death, then, is the condition for the possibility of agape, or divine love. The power of God is in the service of the wisdom and love of Christ, without whom the creation would spiral blindly into chaos. The logic of incarnation brings Logos into mortal flesh, giving meaning even to death and extinction, since it is only by confronting the possibility of annihilation that the true significance of life becomes apparent. On Teilhard’s reading of the cosmological, geological, and biological evidence, in the human, the universe has grown a heart and a mind and is now evolving consciously into the Omega toward which it has always already been bending.

The Logic of Extinction

“The will to know,” according to Ray Brassier, Meillassoux’s translator, “is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction” (NU, p. 239). Even if consciousness survives in some form 4.5 billion years from now, the inevitable death of the sun will annihilate any life still remaining on earth. Acknowledging the truth of extinction, for Brassier, means not only accepting that consciousness will not be, but that it already is not: “the subject of philosophy must recognize that he or she is already dead.” Brassier argues, against Nietzsche, that despite life being the precondition of thought, the former cannot be privileged over the latter without underestimating the profundity of the challenge posed to life by the will to know (NU, p. 222). Even if life’s only meaning is to survive, knowledge of extinction eradicates even this minimal sense of purpose. There is no reason for conscious life, according to Brassier, since, following Meillassoux, he reads post-Copernican science as having ratified the diachronicity of thinking and being, exposing thought’s contingency for being: “although thought needs being, being does not need thought” (NU, p. 85).

Meillassoux argues, as we’ve seen, that post-Kantian philosophy has failed to fully reckon with the scientifically verified (or at least not yet falsified) asymmetry between being and thought, or the universe and consciousness. He coined the term “correlationism” to mark the philosopheme operative in all thinking that denies the possibility either of a universe that existed in itself prior to consciousness or that might exist in itself after the extinction of consciousness. That consciousness has emerged is an entirely contingent fact with no underlying reason whatsoever, according to this scheme.

So long as we believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, the belief that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things (AF, p. 82).

Such a belief in reason (or in meaning), according to Meillassoux, is logically unnecessary, since there is no reason that reason must be ontologically foundational. Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason only follows from the belief in a perfect and eternal God whose essence is to exist, and who could not but create the best of all possible worlds. Meillassoux, in contrast, seeks an absolute that is unreasonable because purely chaotic, and argues that nothing is necessary, not God, consciousness, or even the endurance of scientifically verified physical laws. In other words, everything is contingent, and this contingency is not merely a transcendental statement concerning the limits of human understanding and experience, but a speculative statement about the nature of reality itself. For Meillassoux, asking “why is there something, rather than nothing?” is not a silly or unanswerable question: the answer is “no reason.” This is Meillassoux’s “principle of unreason,” a result of thinking through the logic of extinction without also discovering its corollary, the logic of incarnation. He attempts to devise an argument to dispel the sense of wonder provoked by Leibniz’ question in order to prevent the eclipsing of philosophy by religion. But the wonder persists, since consciousness continues to find itself alive to wonder where it has come from and where it shall go. The dialogue between philosophy and religion therefore continues.


Barfield and Participation

“I believe,” writes Barfield,

that the blind-spot which posterity will find most startling in the last hundred years or so of Western civilization, is, that it had, on the one hand, a religion which differed from all others in its acceptance of time, and of a particular point in time, as a cardinal element in its faith; that it had, on the other hand, a picture in its mind of the history of the earth and man as an evolutionary process; and that it neither saw nor supposed any connection whatever between the two (SA, p. 167).

Barfield is best known for his articulation of the evolution of consciousness, which is a concept subtler than the history of ideas usually offered in its stead. The former is not simply concerned with the progress of thought generated as each age responds to the problems of its predecessors, but with a change at the level of perception, and indeed a transformation in how the world itself is brought forth for consciousness. Like Teilhard, Barfield is an unabashed correlationist who directly confronts the difficulties spelled out by Meillassoux. Meillassoux suggests that, precisely to the extent that he has been “de-Christianized” by rejecting the “metaphysical pretension that [the Christian] belief system [is] superior to all others,” the inheritor of the Western tradition has opened the door to the complete relativization of truth (AF, p. 48). In our post-secular, post-Kantian context, according to Meillassoux, all belief systems are equally legitimated as potential paths to the Absolute, so long as they don’t claim to be rational.

Instead of rejecting the structure of history as revealed in Christianity, Barfield recognizes the way in which the emergence of the scientific method is itself the result of the logic of incarnation. The world alienation and disenchantment brought about following the Scientific Revolution are not the nullification of the Christian mythos, but the culmination of Spirit’s fall into matter. If Barfield is right, in the future, it will become “impossible to write a popular manual of science without referring to the incarnation of the Word” (SA, p. 164).

The contingent origins of mind out of life, and life out of matter, are the crux of Meillassoux argument for the priority of being in relation to thought. Barfield is well aware of the paradoxes of ancestrality, but instead of making non-sense of them by breaking the correlational circle, he opens up a more coherent possibility. Even the most devout scientific materialists (for whom the Kantian counter-revolution may as well never have occurred) are forced to employ a “crypto-noetic” vocabulary in order to overcome the absurdity of a “pre-perceptual past” (WA, p. 165). “Information” is now an indispensable concept for physicists and biologists alike; “decision-making” capacities are attributed to sub-atomic particles; chemical activity is said to follow order-generating “rules.” This hidden correlationism within science itself makes suspect Meillassoux’s evocation of the scientific perspective in order to secure his speculative materialist argument.

From a Barfieldian perspective, if after all secondary, or subjective qualities, are removed from matter, only number (or, if you like, “information”) remains, then materialists have no reason to believe that earth, prior to life and thought, existed in anything like the solid, physical state it today appears to be in. Solidity becomes as much a secondary quality as color, sound, or value. To his credit, Meillassoux does not insist on extension or solidity when referring to matter for similar reasons, but only to its mathematical properties. But he fails to realize the implications of this admission. Given that the physicality (or spatial extension) of matter is no longer essential to it, what reason does the materialist have for insisting on the physical origins of consciousness? The body may be necessary for our kind of consciousness without being its sufficient condition. If what we call matter is really the result of the underlying numerical relations between unseen dynamic forces, does this not imply the reality of some disembodied consciousness capable of holding these relations, or ideas, in mind? Meillassoux explicitly denies this possibility: “we know nothing of [an] eternal or disembodied subject” (CAO, p. 3); but his logic seems nonetheless to rest on such an eternal subject’s reality.

In the way that Barfield describes the evolution of consciousness, the relevant question is no longer “how did matter make consciousness?” but rather, “how did consciousness ever come to be so intimately tied up with matter?” (WA). This shift in emphasis is a result of Barfield’s thoroughly participatory approach, which has it that being exists for thought, and vice versa, not in a relation of asymmetrical dependence but of co-creative evolution. From this perspective, Copernicus’ heliocentric insight represents not simply “a new idea of the relation between man and nature [or thinking and being],” but rather “an idea of the new relation between them” (WA, p. 178).  The Copernican de-centering of human consciousness in relation to the cosmos was not simply a scientific correction of a primitive age’s misperception; it was thought entering into a new, mutually transforming relationship with being, thereby ushering in a new epoch in the history of the world.

The Scientific Revolution in some sense represents the climax of the evolution of consciousness, that historical moment when Spirit first fully recognized its distinctness from matter. Descartes is perhaps the most articulate thinker to experience the tremendous existential force of this new condition by ontologically separating the res cogitans from the res extensa. The separation was so radical that it seemed all but impossible to understand how the two might relate, leading Kant to declare that knowledge of the supersensible conditions underlying thought was impossible, not only in fact, but in principle. By articulating the transcendental conditions of knowledge, Kant created a situation in which Spirit could only enter further into the body and the world in pursuit of a solution to its dualistic situation.

If we are able to inquire into Spirit’s, or consciousness’, situation as Barfield was, we realize that

We are not studying some so-called “inner” world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called “outer” world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world (HGH, p. 18).

As all philosophers since Kant, Barfield is unable to conceive of the physical world independent of the participation of consciousness in its evocation (SA, p. 12). As modern science has forced us to expand our understanding of the universe, philosophy and religion have been forced to intensify the reach of the human spirit.

Conclusion

In the final pages of Owen Barfield’s fictional dialogue, World’s Apart, the narrator (Burgeon, a philologist) shares a letter from one of the seven other participants (Hunter, a theologian) received a week after their wide-ranging conversation had ended. Along with thanking Burgeon for organizing a successful experiment in cross-disciplinary conversation (in which an engineer, a physicist, a teacher, a biologist, an analytic philosopher, and a psychiatrist also took part), Hunter shared a strange and obscure dream that was provoked by the discussion. The dream involved three distinct humanoid figures that appeared and disappeared in turn, each bearing their own verbal message. The first had a round box with two holes in it for a head, with “light blazing out of its eye-holes in all directions” (p. 275). The words “Subjective Idealism” were associated with this figure. The second figure had the head of a lion with an emphatic mane that spread out, ray-like, in a way emblematic of the sun. Associated with this figure were the words “The Key of the Kingdom.” The third and final figure appeared without any head at all, carrying only the message “The Kingdom.” “In spite of the touch of alarm,” concludes Hunter, “the whole dream, from beginning to end was somehow “like a breeze blowing from excellent places, bearing health” (p. 276).

The dream, though enigmatic, would seem to be a symbolic summation of Barfield’s entire philosophy. The contemporary thinker must begin his or her pursuit of Wisdom from within, as a free individual mind (Subjective Idealism). This subjective beginning is then strengthened by the Christ-impulse (The Key to the Kingdom), transforming its inward light into the light of the universe. Finally, the individual mind is entirely taken up and absorbed into the eternal life of a redeemed cosmos (The Kingdom).

The dream sequence reveals the Christological foundation of Barfield’s thinking. For him, the truth of reality, if there be one, is revealed in Christ. Philosophy without Christ can think only the skeleton of the Absolute, leaving the blood and guts of the world in the margins of its treatises. Without the logic of incarnation (which is both a practice and a theory), spirit is unable to reconcile itself with sensation or gain the reign of its will, and though in thought it may grasp the formal structure of the thing-in-itself, it cannot feel its warmth or see its light. Faith need not be in opposition to knowledge, for is that movement that prepares and opens the soul to the incarnation of the Logos.

Works Cited

  1. Barfield, Owen. History, Guilt, Habit. 1979. The Barfield Press: San Rafael, CA.
  2. Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning. 1977. The Barfield Press: San Rafael, CA.
  3. Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances. 1988. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.
  4. Barfield, Owen. World’s Apart. 2010. Barfield Press: Oxford, UK.
  5. Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound. 2010. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, UK.
  6. Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. 2009. Continuum International Publishing Group: New York, NY.
  7. Meillassoux, Quentin. “Contingency and the Absolutization of the One.” 2010. A lecture delivered at the Sorbonne for a symposium called “Metaphysics, Ontology, Henology.”
  8. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. Activation of Energy. 1978. William Collins Sons: London, UK.
  9. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Heart of Matter. 1978. Williams Collins and Sons: London, UK.
  10. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. 1999. Sussex Academic Press: Portland, OR.

Adam Robbert has written a nice summary of the panel discussion last week (4/8) on Speculative Realism. I’ve pasted it below. For the audio from the event, click HERE.

Here are a few reflections on last Fridays event “Here Comes Everything: An Introduction to Speculative Realism.” Video of the event will be posted later today (hopefully!).

The evening was split roughly into two halves with three presentations on each side of a short break. The first three, as you shall see, focused heavily on the Latour-OOO branch of Speculative Realism, with the second half focusing on Buddhist dialogues with Speculative Realism as well as excellent treatments of the work of Iain Hamilton Grant and Quentin Meillassoux.

The evening started off with Sam Mickey and myself (Adam Robbert) recounting our own version of “The History of Access” a little piece riffing on the many facets of the post-Kantian scene in philosophy. Fortunately for everyone, Sam is one of those people who can summarize a book in three words, an auspicious asset considering that we gave ourselves only 25 minutes to explain the major philosophical insights gained since the late 18th century.

Correlationism is of course the centerpiece of any attempt to introduce Speculative Realism to those unfamiliar with the disparate and divergent movement. Charting the history of philosophy, Sam took us through the multiple adumbrations of correlationism including German idealism, phenomenology, deconstruction, analytic philosophy and their assorted subgenres, showing how correlationist thinking has left anti-realist and anti-metaphysical philosophies in its wake.

My own task in this introduction was somewhat easier and focused on the relevant strands of philosophy that, in their own way, had continued a tradition of speculation, ontology and metaphysics despite their increasing unpopularity throughout 20th century philosophy.

Where Sam articulated post-Kantian prohibitions against speculation, I focused on those figures that I felt had admirably maintained an avid love of speculation. William James seemed an obvious choice, as it was he who had such an impact on both Whitehead and Latour. There is something about James’ phrase “everything is ever not quite” that I felt captured so well both the desire to articulate an ontological position, and the inevitable failure of any attempt at complete metaphysical description. James in this way anticipates central figures to speculative realism.

Where Whitehead sought to systematize James’ ontological pluralism, and Latour so adequately applied both the Jamesian notion of radical empiricism and the Whiteheadian metaphysical love of process, one could also read into James’ “ever not quite” a hint of what Heidegger would later articulate as the withdrawn nature of the tool- a position that, as anyone familiar with OOO knows, would become a cornerstone of Harman’s articulation of the ontology of objects.

Though the connection between James and Heidegger is perhaps not canonical in any recognized philosophical sense, the tie between the “withdrawn” and the “ever not quite” seems to situate both thinkers in a way that makes both the phenomenological background of Heidegger and the psychology of James as important precursors to at least the OOO branch of Speculative Realism. Of course, “ever not quite” and “totally withdrawn,” are phrases from different traditions with notable distinctions; nevertheless an evasive ontological quality is present in both.

Whether or not Speculative Realism is still a term that can be used to describe the work of people as diverse as Ray Brassier and Graham Harman is a matter of contention. Our own group seemed ambivalent about the distinction, but it seemed clear that OOO and Speculative Realism, though historically related, are growing further apart.

Our introduction rounded out with further reflections on the use of speculative philosophy in connection with other movements in thought that occurred during the 20thcentury. In addition to the psychology of James and the cosmology of Whitehead, we also noted the contributions of Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stenger’s with regards to the “Parliament of Things” and the “Cosmopolitics,” respectively. Donna Haraway’s work in feminism, science studies and her work on companion species were also noted. Haraway seems to be the figure most rooted in both the 20th century critical continental scene drawing on the likes of Foucault, as well as exhibiting a strong connection to Whitehead’s own speculative philosophy (on a side note, her capacity to hold these distinct positions is one of the reasons she is such a hero of mine).

That Stengers and Haraway were both central to the Claremont conference “Metaphysics and Things,” which was attended by three of the six panel members at our event was noteworthy as well. Haraway and Stengers are not, strictly speaking, members of the original four speculative realists (which most now know consisted of Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman and Ian Hamilton Grant), nevertheless their ongoing contributions to philosophy, anthropology and science studies make them central figures in the ongoing need to articulate not only new ontologies, but also new political and ethical systems of practice in relation to the work of metaphysics. One of the recurring themes and questions at our Friday event centralized ethics, the problem of evil and practice. There seemed to be an air of question as to whether the potency with which Speculative Realism has approached ontology has left it vulnerable, at least at this stage in the game, to political, ethical and moral criticisms (are we forsaking crucial considerations vis-à-vis praxis in the rush return to metaphysics?) Important questions abound here.

Our brief introduction was followed by the work of doctoral student Elizabeth McAnally, whose recent return from India gave her presentation a concrete and direct feel for us all to engage with the value of speculative realism in general, and with the philosophy of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman in particular. Having written her MA thesis on Latour, her ability to describe the value of actor-network theory with confidence and ease was apparent. The Ganges River in India, her particular site of study, afforded everyone with the opportunity to explore just what an object-oriented philosophy could perform in terms of on the ground research. The Ganges is a goddess, a river, a sewage canal and much more. That religion, politics and ecology are intertwined with the river goes without saying, the problem lies in allying these disparate perspectives into a kind of “water democracy” that adequately situates each perspective. Latour’s notion of “irreduction” was particularly prescient here as it becomes easy to see that any mode of abstraction (be it religious, scientific or political) has the capacity to reduce the Ganges to a particular set of relations, something that both Latour and Harman provide robust grounds for arguing against. Elizabeth’s presentation highlighted the value of Latour’s work in terms of religious, ecological and political praxis.

Next, Sam Mickey was given the floor once again to explore “The Astonishing Depths of Things,” a philosophical exegesis that opened us into the philosophical roots of Graham Harman’s philosophy. Mickey, once a devout Heideggerian, explained how through reading Latour he was able to break the Heideggerian circle and return to “the things themselves” through both Latour’s critique of Heidegger in We Have Never Been Modernand Latour’s political musings in The Politics of Nature. Anyone familiar with Harman will note Sam’s historical kinship with him. As a student of the works of Heidegger, and then of Latour, Sam was uniquely positioned to understand Harman’s position perhaps better than any of us. A simple synthesis of Heidegger and Latour was not, however, Sam’s highlight. In my opinion, Sam was at his strongest when articulating a “philosophy of touch” as both an integral philosophy (from the etymology of “integral” meaning “untouched”) and an object-oriented philosophy following, for example, Whitehead scholar Roland Faber’s comments at the Claremont conference that Harman’s is also a “philosophy of touch.” Drawing on Harman’s concepts of vicarious causation and allure, Sam argued that all objects are both always already touching every other object in the universe and are always withdrawn from all relations, planting him firmly in Harmanian grounds. I am definitely looking forward to see how the project of touch unfolds in both integral and object-oriented philosophical modes.

I will abstain from producing an account of my own talk for the panel as I have already posted the paper I delivered for the event HERE. My own notions of an ecological realism and a fourfold research method are nascent, but suffice to say that they at least seemed well received.

Shifting gears in the second half (after food and some wine), Aaron Weiss, doctoral student in the Asian Comparative Studies department regaled us with an account of both Buddhist cosmology and Harman’s chapter in Circus Philosophicus entitled “The Ferris Wheel.” Aaron is another one of those rare scholars that is as funny as he is deep. Starting with a description of the god-king Indra’s jeweled net –in which each faceted gem is connected to an infinite amount of other gems strung together through an n-dimensional array of threads- Aaron invited questions that could be considered alongside of Harman’s own accounts of objects as they rotate above and below ground, traveling as they do upon a gigantic Ferris wheel. Praxis was also a central theme of Aaron’s talk. We had heard about touch, we had heard about actors, objects and networks, but what are the practices associated with these ontological musings, asked Aaron. As a practitioner and scholar of Buddhism, practices are central to both Aaron’s studies in general and to his reading of integral philosophy in particular. The “Latourian Litanies” –those lists of cheetahs, leprechauns and patriot missiles for which Latour is so famous (and from which Harman seems to have learned so much) are for Aaron, modes of mindfulness where one can consider the interconnections of disparate things. Aaron’s talk seemed to me a call not just philosophize, but also to consider philosophy alongside non-philosophical modes of practice, to which philosophy (being that it cannot be its own self-contained island) must remain in relation to.

Thus far in the evening a disproportionate amount of attention had been paid to the likes of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman, so much so that I had a creeping feeling of anxiety that we should have named this event “Introduction to Object-Oriented Philosophies” rather than the more general title “Introduction to Speculative Realism.” It was true that we had centered Quentin Meillassoux’s work and his term “correlationism” in the introduction (and again in a brief recap after the break for those folks who had arrived late). Sam had also on more than one occasion invited us to explore and try out not just nihilism, but Ray Brassier’s more sophisticated  “transcendental nihilism.” Nevertheless with four out of six presentations complete, the original speculative realist crew seemed ill represented. Our final two presenters, however, would serve to help remedy this imbalance as both Dr. Jacob Sherman and philosophy doctoral student Matt Segall would take us through the works of both Quentin Meillassoux and Iain Hamilton Grant, respectively.

Matt Segall’s ambitious presentation sought to argue the well taken point that, although speculative realism may be new in name, the mode of philosophizing advocated by speculative realists is as old is Plato (Segall’s blog, named FOOTNOTES2PLATO after Whitehead’s famous comments about the history of philosophy being “footnotes to Plato” gives you a sense that returning to Plato is a common practice for this young philosopher). Working through three central texts: Kant’s Critique of Judgment,Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, and Plato’s Timaeus, Segall sought to justify and explore the insight of Iain Hamilton Grant’s own contributions to Speculative Realism in Nature after Schelling. Aside from all the heavy philosophizing, Segall has a background in cognitive science and biology, which gives him the unique power to move between philosophical and scientific discourse in a manner unfair for someone of his age. Alongside of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, one finds Segall’s talks peppered with references to geology, evolutionary theory and in particular, a love of the work of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson. “There will never be a Newton of the grass blade,” remarked Segall, echoing Kant’s famous phrase. For Segall, following in Grant’s footsteps, correlationism is overcome by a reversal of the Kantian position that ‘all of existence must be grounded in the mind.’ No such thing is necessary, argues Segall. Rather, the earth itself is the transcendental ground that anchors consciousness and not the reverse. Segall’s tagline could have been “no earth, no geology” a quick phrase that demonstrates the thesis that were there no earth prior to mind, no experience as such would be possible by any human. In this way Segall persuasively argued for Grant’s “geocentric realism,” and that questions of the “thing in itself” need also consider that “the thing itself thinks!” In other words, for Segall and for Grant, there is more to the phenomenal realm which renders it immune to any simple distinction from the noumenal, as the two can be seen to act concordantly in all living things, with our without human mediation.

After repeated criticisms of correlationism from the prior presentations, our keynote speaker Dr. Jacob Sherman’s presentation returned our attention to the origin of the problem of correlationism in modern philosophy, including insightful overviews of the philosophies that led up to Kant’s Copernican turn (including Locke, Berkeley, and Hume).  Focusing on After Finitude, Sherman introduced the penetrating arguments and refreshing style that have helped Meillassoux gain a wide readership.  Honoring the elements of “participatory realism” in Meillassoux’s response to the problem of correlationism, Sherman called for “two cheers for Meillassoux.”  Instead of offering a third cheer, Sherman raised some critical concerns about Meillassoux’s mathematical understanding of real (primary) qualities.

In an odd turn of events, Sherman opened his talk with the verse of Wordsworth, but perhaps this was not so strange when considering some of Meillassoux’s choice words inAfter Finitude. Meillassoux’s “great outdoors,” or “absolute outside,” that aspect of the world to which no human correlate need correspond, is for Sherman a central component of the original Romantic project. Sherman traced the original coinage of the phrase “the great outdoors” to Keats in 1819. The Romantics, Sherman noted, were not concerned with producing mathematical descriptions of primary qualities “outside” of human experience, but rather sought explicitly to explore the sensible qualities that pervaded, with a strange uncannyness, not just the great outdoors, but also, to quote Sherman’s phrase “the great indoors.” For Sherman, Meillassoux has offered just critiques of correlationism in general and of Romanticism in particular, critiques that should and must be heeded by the continuation of any Romantic project.

It is better to watch Sherman so carefully take us through his arguments than it is for me to try and reproduce them here as I can do them no justice, however, Sherman’s final remarks are noteworthy. Meillassoux, who is so eager to a think a world apart from the mind, to consider the arche-fossil as a serious challenge to any honest correlationist position, and who wants, and may have succeeded, in producing a mathematical proof of existence before manifestation, still leaves Sherman wanting. If we are thinking qualities, and not maths, does this not imply that we are also thinking interiority, asked Sherman. And if so, are not the sensual relations, qualities and stories what we want to break free from the correlation? Sherman ended with a challenge for us to thinkqualities non-anthropocentrically.

During the Q&A that followed, it was mentioned that Harman’s metaphysics provides ways of discussing real qualities without mathematicizing them.  The rest of the brief Q&A touched on a variety of big topics for speculative realism, including beauty, time, and the future of philosophy.

What is language, and how did it evolve? The flurry of recent posts concerned with media ecology and the way the content of philosophical thinking depends upon the form in which it is expressed has redirected my attention to the significance of the Word. I think grammatically, which is to say that my alphabetic consciousness, whether text or hyper-text based, conforms to a preconscious regime of universally imposed rules of meaning. I cannot think but by assuming the meaningfulness of the public language given to me at birth. I cannot get beyond the givenness of this language in order to inspect its legitimacy. I can only explore it from within. Language has no outside. Truth, then, is a matter of coherence, rather than correspondence. Or at least philosophical thinking cannot begin but by having faith in the meaning-making capacity of its culturally inherited tongue.

Contra Brassier, intelligibility cannot be separated from meaning. Wisdom can be reached with logic, but logic itself originates in the songs of the mouth and the perception/passion of the h/ear/t. Science has telescoped vision and mathematized reason to reach distances divine in time, but it has not found chaos and disorder even at the edge of the universe. There, at the end of time as we know it, the scientific imagination witnesses the creation of space in itself. Mind you, this is not the creation of any thing in particular, but the creation of the very possibility of there being things at all. Scientific consciousness has now known its own conditions of possibility. Brassier believes this entails nihilism. He believes it despite his eliminativist ploy to elevate cognition beyond its contextual emergence out of “folk psychology,” or common sense. The fact is that our having come to see and to understand that our universe has a beginning in space-time is no demotion of the human being. The speculative claims of scientific investigation are still dependent upon the meaning of language (even if mathematical) and the sensuality of the body (even if technologically extended). Scientific cosmology is only disorienting if aesthetic participation in the phenomena it has revealed lags behind their cognitive theorization. Not only has human finitude been thought, it has been seen, and seen through! And what a sublime sight! We can witness the creation of our finite universe and know nonetheless that this universe is unbounded. Space is not inside of or given within a bigger space: it has no outside. Space is self-forming. The world is full of the Word.