“How does matter give rise to consciousness?” (response to Sam Harris)

Harris seems to presuppose the old Cartesian framework, with consciousness being that which is indubitable and which can in no way be reduced to matter. I wonder, though, what concept of matter Harris is working with here? That “matter” is a concept should go without saying, since on his Cartesian view of consciousness, we are locked in a mental prison with no way of perceiving anything outside our own minds. We can have knowledge of matter, but only as a mathematical abstraction (see my review of Latour’s Modes of Existence, where he deconstructs the modern “idea of matter”).

Harris admits that, from within the materialist ontological paradigm, consciousness may always appear to be a miracle, its origins a mystery. Rather than rest content with this sort of quasi-dualist materialist obscurantism, I’d rather follow the heretical panpsychist (broadly construed) stream dating back to Spinoza, Leibniz, and Schelling, later emerging in the organic realism of Whitehead. For a fuller treatment of why an evolutionary panpsychism provides a more coherent account of the place of consciousness in nature, see my article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

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

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

Consciousness in the Wild

I just finished a 2.5 hour debate with David Long (moderated by Bruce Alderman of The Integral Stage). David is a proponent of “Integral 2.0,” an attempted upgrade of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory which David feels amounts to a kind of idealistic creationism when it comes to cosmological questions and the origins of consciousness. David argues for a form of emergentism, the idea that consciousness or sentience emerges out of neutral physics and chemistry at some point in evolutionary history. I argued against emergentism by pointing out that as an account of consciousness it ultimately collapses into either epiphenomenalism or dualism (I unpack why in this article). I argue in favor of a Schellingian/Whiteheadian form of evolutionary panpsychism. The debate should be uploaded in the next few days, and I will share it here. Below are a few reflections offered in an attempt to bridge my position with David’s.

I’m fine with saying that consciousness is an emergent property/product of a complex system. But the system in question is not just the neurons in the skull, it’s the system of the universe.

When we abstract brain physiology from the wider organism-environment field and evolutionary developmental history to which it belongs, when we stick a brain in a laboratory fMRI machine, we may learn some interesting things about how we’re wired up to respond to the world. DARPA/The Pentagon is spending billions on brain science, because it pays off if the goal is the instrumentalization of human souls. It could also pay off therapeutically, if that’s what society valued.

But consciousness is different “in the wild.” Out here in the midst of human history on an imperiled planet earth we conscious beings find ourselves not only embodied but embedded within the body of the world. This world-body’s horizons are analogous to our rentinal blind spot where the optic nerve enters the eye. The light of sight recedes into the darkness of a seer unseen.

As an emergent product of cosmogenesis, consciousness can’t quite get a handle on its comic origin. A finger can’t touch itself. An eye can’t see itself.

We reach for the edge of space-time only to have it recede from us at an ever-accelerating rate. My consciousness is limited in its capacity for ever-vigilant attentiveness to the entire experiential field encompassing me. My focus on this field is always shifting from locus to locus and fades off at fractal edges. Consciousness is an emergent product of the entire history and extent of the cosmos. I mean this quite literally and physically. What else could it be?

Metaphysics in Process (reflections on Whitehead’s system of philosophy)

As best I understand it, in Part IV of Process & Reality, Whitehead attempted to account for how geometrical measurement of the physical world is possible without any empirical presuppositions. He was worried that physics had not yet fully accounted for its own experimental practices and so searched for a presuppositionless mathematical starting point for measurement. He worried about the infinite regress of instruments needed to verify a measurement: the ruler used to measure a particular region of space itself needs to be measured by another ruler to confirm its accuracy, which itself needs to be measured by a third ruler, and so on. Whitehead thus sought a purely mathematical derivation of all the geometrical elements, including definitions of points, lines, and planes, definitions that again do not depend upon actually having to measure something. That said, Whitehead is not eliminating experience or perception as such from his derivations. He is doing projective geometry, which forgoes the need for empirical measurement while still relying on subtler mathematical intuitions regarding certain relations, like inclusion and exclusion, etc. Whitehead’s is in this sense still an experientially grounded mathematical scheme, but grounded in a purified mode of experience that is far more generic than the normal way we perceive the spatiotemporal world around us through our species specific sensory organs. As Whitehead tells us earlier in PR, “philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity” (PR 14). 

Some readers of Whitehead may feel the desire throw his book across the room and challenge the very basis of what he is trying to do, and even to question his motivations for doing it. Is metaphysics even possible?! Who dares try to utter the ultimate? Perhaps there is an irresolvable tension or even conflict between system and freedom. Schelling is another process philosopher who dwells on precisely the paradox between systematic necessity and personal freedom. In his 1801 essay titled “Presentation of My System of Philosophy” he appears to quite grandiosely identify a product of his individual consciousness with the universal system of reality. There is something to such identification, of course (atman is Brahman); but such an inflated view of one’s own philosophy can easily slide into closed narcissistic exclusivism. In his more mature works, Schelling (using the example of his friend Hegel) becomes a good deal more skeptical of the possibility of individually attaining the Absolute once and for all.

Whitehead is no less immodest than Schelling or Hegel in his speculative wagers, but he would insist that we never lose the ability to laugh even at our own most serious ideas about God, the universe, and ultimate reality (in his Dialogues with Lucien Price, Whitehead said: “The total absence of humor from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature”). 

Is the so-called “organic realism” or “philosophy of organism” just Whitehead’s personal perspective on things? I don’t think so. We can say for sure that his intention at least is not to offer us his own idiosyncratic artistic rendering or mystical vision of reality. He is rather intending to do metaphysics, that is, he is striving to articulate the most generic, universal, and common features of our shared experience, and to do so with as much logical rigor and scientific adequacy as he can muster. He is trying to reveal the structure and dynamics of reality through the medium of a strange invented language that he admits is almost entirely ill fitted to the task. Flawed and clumsy as it is, he hopes the lexicon of his open system traces the branches of the world-tree we call reality well enough to guide us at least a few steps forward along the philosophic path toward its roots. He was not deluded enough to hope or believe that his precise categories and definitions, if found useful, would remain unchanged as they are carried forward and applied by others. 

I’ll let Whitehead speak for himself on these issues (from Process & Reality, 4-5): 

Philosophers can never hope finally to formulate these metaphysical first principles. Weakness of insight and deficiencies of language stand in the way inexorably. Words and phrases must be stretched towards a gen­erality foreign to their ordinary usage; and however such elements of lan­guage be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely ap­pealing for an imaginative leap.

There is no first principle which is in itself unknowable, not to be cap­tured by a flash of insight. But, putting aside the difficulties of language, deficiency in imaginative penetration forbids progress in any form other than that of an asymptotic approach to a scheme of principles, only de­finable in terms of the ideal which they should satisfy.

The difficulty has its seat in the empirical side of philosophy. Our datum is the actual world, including ourselves; and this actual world spreads itself for observation in the guise of the topic of our immediate experience. The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought; and the starting-point for thought is the analytic observation of components of this experience. But we are not conscious of any clear-cut complete analysis of immediate experience, in terms of the various details which comprise its definiteness. We habitually observe by the method of difference. Sometimes we see an elephant, and sometimes we do not. The result is that an elephant, when present, is noticed.  Facility of observa­tion depends on the fact that the object observed is important when present, and sometimes is absent.

The metaphysical first principles can never fail of exemplification. We can never catch the actual world taking a holiday from their sway. Thus, for the discovery of metaphysics, the method of pinning down thought to the strict systematization of detailed discrimination, already effected by antecedent observation, breaks down. This collapse of the method of rigid empiricism is not confined to metaphysics. It occurs whenever we seek the larger generalities. In natural science this rigid method is the Baconian method of induction, a method which, if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it. What Bacon omitted was the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic. The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation. The reason for the success of this method of imaginative rationalization is that, when the method of difference fails, factors which are constantly present may yet be observed under the influence of imaginative thought. Such thought supplies the differences which the direct observation lacks. It can even play with in­consistency; and can thus throw light on the consistent, and persistent, elements in experience by comparison with what in imagination is incon­sistent with them. The negative judgment is the peak of mentality. But the conditions for the success of imaginative construction must be rigidly adhered to.”

Theology of Nature Templeton research proposal, shelved : (

Several weeks ago, I submitted a proposal for a Templeton Foundation research fellowship called “God and the Book of Nature: Science-engaged Theology of Nature.”

I just heard back from the review committee that my proposal was not selected.

: (

Oh well. I thought I’d share my cover letter and shelved (for now) research proposal. I do still hope to collaborate with Dr. Bruce Damer (we already have an event scheduled at CIIS this October, about which I’ll share more details soon).


May 28th, 2019

Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion

California Institute of Integral Studies

1453 Mission Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

To the Research Fellowship Review Committee:

Enclosed please find my application for the “God and the Book of Nature” research fellowship. I aim to build a science-engaged theology of nature by applying the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead to newly emerging research into the origins of life. Along with my mentor XXX, I will be collaborating with the origin of life biogeochemist and computer scientist Dr. Bruce Damer. In collaboration with his colleague at the University of Santa Cruz Prof. David Deamer, Dr. Damer has developed the “hot spring hypothesis” of biogenesis that has now become the chief rival to the deep-sea hydrothermal vent hypothesis. In August 2017, Damer and colleagues’ work was the cover story for Scientific American. Empirical research to further test their hypothesis is being undertaken by university teams worldwide. The work is also being presented and discussed at numerous meetings as it may herald a revolution in evolutionary theory, but also carries implications for philosophy and spiritual inquiry. Specifically, the hypothesis suggests that the common ancestor of all of life was not an autonomous individual cell emerging through competition but instead was a common community of collaborating proto-cells. My research proposal involves deepening my understanding of the theoretical and empirical details of Damer’s work and contributing to the articulation of the philosophical and theological implications of this exciting new approach to biogenesis.

I have studied Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism” for more than a decade and have long believed that his critique of the mechanistic abstractions of a by now outdated scientific materialism and his novel understanding of mind’s (and God’s) relationship to nature have much to contribute to contemporary scientific theory and practice. He shows that another kind of naturalism is possible, one that, while remaining fully consistent with the scientific picture, still leaves room for divine action (and passion) and, crucially, makes sense of the possibility of something like scientific consciousness/knowledge emerging in the course of cosmic evolution (whereas most standard naturalisms are forced to conceive of consciousness and scientific knowledge, not to mention religious consciousness, as some kind of improbable anomaly).

In addition to contributing to the academic study of the relationship between science and theology, I would like to shape part of my scholarly output so as to reach a public audience and to influence the wider culture. Our increasingly imperiled civilization desperately needs new sources of meaning if it hopes to survive the fast approaching evolutionary bottleneck caused by modern techno-scientific industrialism. We cannot simply return to traditional religious outlooks, but nor can we jettison these traditions in favor of the new religions of scientism or technologism. Through this research project, I would like to contribute in some small way to the imagination of a new story that integrates spiritual wisdom and scientific knowledge, such that humanity can come to see itself as a participant in a grand evolutionary adventure whose final chapters have not yet been written.

Thank you for considering my application.

Sincerely,
Matthew T. Segall

God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature

Research Fellowship Application

Applicant: Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Scientific collaborator: Bruce Damer, PhD

Proposal Background:

Since his death in 1947 and until quite recently, the impact of Alfred North Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism”1 has been felt predominantly in American theology departments. John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin and their Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California have played a particularly important role in carrying forward the legacy of Whitehead’s thought in the form of process theology. Whitehead’s innovative approach to theological questions has plenty of merits of its own (e.g., its religious pluralism and inclusivity, its intimate panentheistic vision of divine participation in cosmogenesis, Earth evolution, and human life, and its resolution of the problem of evil, etc.), but many students of his thought have long lamented a lack of serious engagement on the part of natural scientists. Whitehead, after all, began his career as a mathematician with a strong interest in physical applications and was right at the center of the relativistic and quantum revolutions of the early 20th century. In the aftermath of these and other paradigm-breaking discoveries across multiple disciplines (in addition to relativity and quantum theory, there was also evolutionary theory and the early phases of what came to be called complexity theory), Whitehead realized the deistic mechanistic materialism science had inherited from the 17th century had become completely inadequate. Science needed a new metaphysical foundation. Whitehead thus threw himself into natural philosophy in search of an alternative ontology more attuned to the universe being described by the latest scientific research. He emerged with a cosmological vision that rejected tired dualisms (e.g., between God and nature, mind and matter, and creation and evolution) and instead affirmed panentheism, panexperientialism, and the creative advance of nature. Re-imagining God’s relationship to nature turned out to be a necessary part of his metaphysical efforts, but Whitehead’s aim was first and foremost to influence the theory and practice of natural science.

In more recent years there has been a surge of interest in Whitehead’s “process-relational ontology” among physicists, biologists, and philosophers of science.2 The most recent application of the process perspective to natural science is John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson’s edited volume Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (2018). Unfortunately, after acknowledging their debt to Whitehead’s process philosophy, they are quick to distance their project from the larger scope of his cosmological vision. They characterize Whitehead as a “liability” due to the “panpsychist foundations” and “theological character” of his work, which they believe are difficult to reconcile with scientific naturalism.3 It is in response to such concerns that the present research proposal gains its relevance.

Research Proposal’s Theoretical Aims:

This proposed research project will focus on the application of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, as well as process-oriented historical precursors like Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, to emerging research in theoretical biology. Our aim is twofold: 1) to counter charges like Dupré and Nicholson’s that Whitehead-inspired panpsychism and theology are a liability to serious research in the life sciences by making the case that a naturalistic account of the existence of biological organisms in fact requires a re-imagination of nature in process-relational, panentheist, and panexperiential terms; 2) by collaboratively engaging with biochemist and computer engineer Bruce Damer to demonstrate the relevance of Whitehead’s scheme to Damer’s research (with David Deamer) into the origins of life in the wet-dry cycling of geyser-fed thermal pools.4 Not only does the geochemical cycling process described by Damer et al. provide a specific exemplification of Whitehead’s general metaphysical description of the process of concrescence, Damer’s first person accounts of the visionary experiences and thought experiments that underlie his scientific discoveries are suggestive of a new understanding of divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation in a panpsychist cosmos. 

Research Sub-theme:

Our research will be situated primarily within the “Mind and Nature” sub-theme looking at relevance of Whitehead’s process-relational, panpsychist ontology to scientific research on biogenesis. The argument is that closing the gap between physics/chemistry and properly living organization requires coming to see some modicum of mind, experience, and aim as fundamental ingredients in the evolutionary creativity of the universe from the beginning.5 In addition to our already secured collaboration with Bruce Damer, we will seek further collaboration with complexity scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, especially Stuart Kauffman (whose work on autocatalytic chemical systems and evolutionary exaptation dovetails nicely with our Whiteheadian approach).

Given the transdisciplinary scope of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme it will be impossible not to touch on all three of the project sub-themes. Regarding the God and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s panpsychism entails a novel interpretation of divine action in terms of an “initial aim” immanent in the moment to moment experience of creatures at every scale of cosmic and biotic organization (from protons and neutrons, to stars and galaxies, to cells and animals); his approach re-opens the possibility of a new kind of immanent and open-ended teleology in nature that is unlike the deistic design paradigm rightly rejected by evolutionary biology. Regarding the Naturalism(s) and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s cosmology obviously requires a complete re-imagination of the metaphysical underpinnings of science. We will be explicit about this and spell out the changes that are necessary to naturalism as it is typically conceived within the materialistic and atheistic mainstream of contemporary science.

Our research will philosophically contextualize both Damer’s novel method of discovery and his theory of biogenesis by critically examining and subverting the generally Kantian strictures of the philosophy of science and much natural theology by drawing on Schelling and Whitehead (both of whom called for a “critique of feeling” to replace Kant’s critique of pure reason). Schelling and Whitehead articulate what Segall has called a descendental aesthetic ontology.6 Whereas Kant imagined mind as the transcendental condition of a merely apparent nature, a descendental aesthetic ontology replants mind, and thus scientific knowledge, within the living processes it attempts to know. Rather than bracketing ontology (and thus accepting critical idealism in place of realism about nature) and resting satisfied with a transcendental epistemology that exempts mind from the laws governing the rest of nature, Whitehead and Schelling’s approach makes clear that many of the epistemological problems plaguing modern philosophy are in fact just disguised ontological issues stemming from the incoherent dualism originating with Descartes. One way of overcoming this dualism entails going back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and imagining what becomes possible if his analogy between aesthetic judgments of art and teleological judgments of organisms holds constitutively for the objects of scientific cognition. What if artistic geniuses tap into and express the same creative power responsible for organizing the nonhuman natural world? This is of course exactly the move that Schelling makes, but the methodological and epistemological justifications for such a move have not been adequately spelled out, which has allowed it to be dismissed as merely Romantic excess. Whitehead’s detailed systematic treatment of experience, perception, propositional feelings, judgment, etc., makes such dismissals far more difficult. The philosophical groundwork for our Whiteheadian interpretation of Damer’s discovery of a new theory of biogenesis includes articulating a justification of what might be called an “aesthetic turn” in ontology. This framing is another way of getting at what Whiteheadians mean by panexperientialism. Such an ontology would open up novel approaches to both theology and natural science, and perhaps even a cultural renewal of natural theology in our increasingly post-secular age. The evolving, self-organizing cosmos revealed by contemporary natural science is exactly what we would expect from a God who is more like the “poet of the world” (Whitehead) than its transcendent designer. Damer et al.’s approach to biogenesis implies a process of creative evolution that does not involve the implementation of divine plans designed in advance but rather a gradual creaturely groping toward more intense modes of experience goaded by an immanent divine Eros.

Research output:

  1. A two-day public conference in October 2019 at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA featuring Bruce Damer, cosmologist Brian Swimme, Matt Segall and others focused on establishing initial points of contact between Damer’s biogenesis theory and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
  2. The submission of a co-authored journal article to a leading journal in philosophy of biology or a more popular outlet that articulates the philosophical and/or cultural implications of Damer’s biogenesis theory in Whiteheadian terms.
  3. A book on Whitehead’s relevance to scientific research on the question of life’s place in the universe.

Research plan/budget:

Funding will be requested (~10,000 Euros) to support: 1) travel between mentor home institute in Madrid and Segall and Damer’s institutions in Northern California, 2) collaborations with Bruce Damer, including research seminars and tutorial sessions to convey the geochemical details and computer modeling grounding his theory, lab time at his home institution UC Santa Cruz, travel expenses for on-site field studies related to ongoing empirical research, and 3) scientific conference-related expenses.

Footnotes

1 See Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929).

See for example these recently published works linking aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy to contemporary physics and biology:

Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, ed. by John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003).

-Michael Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004) and Foundations of Relational Realism (with Elias Zafiris) (New York: Lexington Books, 2013).

-Life and Process: Towards a New Biophilosophy, ed. Spyridon Koutroufinis (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014).

-Shimon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012).

“Introduction” to Everything Flows by Dupré and Nicholson, 7.

See the cover story of the August 2017 issue of Scientific American, “The New Origins of Life: did volcanic hot springs harbor the first living organisms?” See also a collection of scientific papers at https://www.researchgate.net/project/Origin-of-Life-6

For more a more detailed account of the trajectory of this argument, which includes engagements with the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas, Robert Rosen, Francisco Varela, and Evan Thompson, see Matthew T. Segall’s “On the Place of Life in the Cosmos: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and Contemporary Theoretical Biology” in Intuiting Life: Process Ontology for Biophilosophy (New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2019); https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/on-the-place-of-life-in-the-cosmos-mts-revision-march-18-2019.pdf

See Segall’s dissertation “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” (2016); https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1803306347.html?FMT=ABS