Thanks to John Vervaeke for hosting me on his channel. It was a wonderful conversation. As you’ll hear, we are planning to do a few trilogues soon with Jorge Ferrer and Evan Thompson.
Christopher Satoor and I discussed Schelling, his German Idealist context, and Whitehead’s inheritance of Schellingian ideas about mind and nature.
Thanks to Bruce Alderman at The Integral Stage for moderating.
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?
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.”
My lecture in two parts introducing German Idealism (focusing on Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Goethe, Hegel)
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.
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A book on Whitehead’s relevance to scientific research on the question of life’s place in the universe.
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.
1 See Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929).
2 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).
3 “Introduction” to Everything Flows by Dupré and Nicholson, 7.
4 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
5 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
6 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
Adam Robbert interviewed me over on The Side View Podcast. Check it out HERE.
We discussed speculative philosophy, panpsychism, politics, and more.
The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”
I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.
As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.
I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:
1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)
2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)
I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.
I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.
You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”
I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.
I’m sharing some clips from a live video conference session a few days ago with students in my online course this semester, “Mind and Nature in German Idealism.”
“Our central idea is that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
-Auxier and Herstein
“So long as necessity is taken to be the guarantor of rationality, the conception of rationality advocated will be as useless to science as it is to practical life.”
-Auxier and Herstein
Auxier and Herstein’s book has been on my radar for several years. I first read small sections of the unpublished manuscript in late 2016 as I was finishing my dissertation. The book was published last year by Routledge, unfortunately in highly abridged form. I just finished reading the published text in its entirety. It is nothing short of marvelous.
Not since Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011) has there been such a significant contribution to Whitehead studies. Some might question the extent to which Stengers’ book contributes to understanding Whitehead in his own terms. She often (I think fruitfully) reads Whitehead through a Deleuzean lens, and, more importantly for the authors of Quantum, she leans heavily on Lewis Ford’s “compositional analysis” of Whitehead’s philosophical genesis. Auxier and Herstein make many contributions to understanding Whitehead in their book, but one of the most forceful is their attempt to rebut Ford’s influential reading of Whitehead’s supposed “temporal atomism.” While Ford makes use of his theological training by applying methods of New Testament analysis to Whitehead’s texts, there discovering (or inventing?) evidence of radical breaks in his thinking during the 1920s, Auxier and Herstein argue rather convincingly for an unbroken continuity in Whitehead’s thought from his early work at Cambridge on the foundations of mathematics and logic through his philosophy of science to his work at Harvard on metaphysics and cosmology. Unlike Ford, Auxier and Herstein believe that Whitehead, in keeping with his mathematical training, published the organized results of his thinking, not the scattered pieces of its development (QE 26).
Much of their book focuses on explicating Whitehead’s non-metrical theory of extension. This is originally what drew my attention to their unpublished manuscript: my dissertation also attempts to make sense of this notoriously difficult but central feature of Whitehead’s thought. I describe his “extensive continuum” in my dissertation as a new kind of ether theory, comparing it to the ether theories of Plato (i.e., the Receptacle), Kant, Schelling, and Rudolf Steiner (see chapter 4 of my dissertation). This may seem like a stretch, but Whitehead does refer to the extensive continuum as an “ether of events” in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge (1919) and in The Principle of Relativity (1922). He likely dropped the term in future books because of the way Einsteinian physicists ridiculed the old ether idea as akin to phlogiston, as it was made superfluous by Einstein’s special theory of relativity (despite the fact that Einstein himself claimed his general theory of relativity posited a “new ether”). But Whitehead’s novel ether theory is not the materialistic sort deployed by 19th century physicists, nor is it the relativistic sort deployed by Einstein.* Whitehead’s ether is not a physical “stuff” or space-time “fabric,” but a logical space or topological nexus allowing us to understand how self-creating actual occasions become coordinated participants in the same cosmic epoch.
“We shall term the traditional ether an ‘ether of material’ or a ‘material ether,’ and shall employ the term ‘ether of events’ to express the assumption of this enquiry, which may be loosely stated as being ‘that something is going on everywhere and always.’ It is our purpose to express accurately the relations between these events so far as they are disclosed by our perceptual experience, and in particular to consider those relations from which the essential concepts of Time, Space, and persistent material are derived. Thus primarily we must not conceive of events as in a given Time, a given Space, and consisting of changes in given persistent material. Time, Space, and Material are adjuncts of events. On the old theory of relativity, Time and Space are relations between materials; on our theory they are relations between events” -Whitehead (Principles of Natural Knowledge 26).
The search for a proper theory of extension or spatiality was the guiding thread in all of Whitehead’s philosophizing, culminating in the infamously impenetrable Part IV of Process and Reality, wherein Whitehead invents what has since come to be called mereotopology (current applications include programming the visual systems of robots). But his magnum opus is titled Process and Reality, not Extension and Reality. Why?
In a second edition of Principles of Natural Knowledge (202), Whitehead writes:
“this book is dominated by the idea that the relation of extension has a unique preeminence and that everything can be got out of it. During the development of this theme, it gradually became evident that this is not the case…[T]he true doctrine, that ‘process’ is the fundamental idea, was not in my mind with sufficient emphasis. Extension is derivative from process, and is required by it.”
Auxier and Herstein remind students of Whitehead not to neglect his pre-Harvard “triptych” on the philosophy of science (Principles of Natural Knowledge , The Principle of Relativity , and The Concept of Nature ) under the false assumption that he radically departs from these earlier texts in Process and Reality. All three of these books were written as a response to Einstein’s misguided identification of a preferred model of curved geometry with physical space-time (QE 30), but they carry forward physico-mathematical hypotheses that Whitehead had already been constructing for decades. Auxier and Herstein argue for the continuity of Whitehead’s thought by pointing out that already in A Treatise on Universal Algebra (1897) Whitehead was hard at work on the problem of spatiality (QE 63). I agree with them that Whitehead’s theory of extension is the golden thread linking his work in mathematics, physics, philosophy of science, cosmology, and metaphysics. There are no sharp breaks or revolutions in the story of his philosophical genesis, but there is evidence of a gradual shift in Whitehead’s thought toward an emphasis on the creative originality of process and its accretion of value over the pure possibility of extension. Yes: process requires extension to express itself. But extension, and the process of extensive abstraction by which we come to know anything about it, are functions of process. The primality of process or tension** as such over extension is part of what follows, I would think, from Auxier and Herstein’s stated radical empiricism, “that concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice-versa.”
My dissertation treats Whitehead’s process philosophy as a 20th century re-emergence of Schellingian Naturphilosophie. I thus treat Whitehead as a post-Kantian thinker, which is to say I read his philosophy of organism as an attempt to correct Kant’s wrong turn. Though there is little direct influence, I argue that Whitehead in effect follows Schelling by inverting the Kantian method, replacing transcendentalism with what I refer to as “descendental” philosophy. I do not believe this is the only fruitful way to interpret Whitehead’s contribution to modern philosophy, but given Auxier and Herstein’s criticisms of “habitual” readings of Whitehead as a post-Kantian (QE 35), I feel the need to defend my approach (see also pages 19-21 of my dissertation, which cites the earlier manuscript version of QE). While Whitehead does state in the first pages of Process and Reality that his philosophy of organism is a recursion to pre-Kantian modes of thought, I must disagree with Auxier and Herstein’s claim that Whitehead viewed his speculative philosophy as entirely unrelated to the Kantian project. On my reading, Whitehead explicitly and repeatedly engages with Kant’s transcendentalism throughout Process and Reality as well as other texts. I believe he did so because he recognized the significance of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for the pursuit of knowledge of Nature and the need to demonstrate the ways his own speculative thinking did not fall prey to transcendental illusions. It is true that “rationality” is entirely re-imagined by Whitehead in relational and radically empirical terms. His is a “critique of feeling” rather than pure Reason. Whitehead is a realist, but his realism does not ignore or recede from the challenge to knowledge of reality posed by Kant. Like Schelling, Whitehead wanted to respond to Kant, to point out and fix his errors, and to re-establish the possibility of rational cosmology, theology, and psychology on organic and aesthetic grounds.
In addition to shedding much needed light on Whitehead’s theory of extension, Auxier and Herstein dismantle “model-centric” approaches to physics (including the standard model of gravitational cosmology), redefine naturalism in radically empiricist terms, and contribute profoundly to carrying forward Whitehead’s urgent call to secularize the concept of God’s functions in the world (see Process and Reality 207). I hope to offer further blog reflections on each of these topics in the coming weeks.
* I unpack Whitehead’s processual and organic alternative to Einstein’s mechanistic relativity theory at length in Physics of the World-Soul (2018).
Auditors are welcome, though space is limited. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
One of our core texts in this course will be my Physics of the World-Soul (a new third edition soon to be published).
The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency. It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.
The Nature of Human Freedom
By Matthew T. Segall
The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”
Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2
In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.
The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator Fr. Baader:
it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.3
The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,
the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5
Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:
the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6
Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.
Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.
Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:
If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10
It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,
to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11
Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14
Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21
From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.
By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26
Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:
the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28
While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.
This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30
Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31
1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.
2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.
3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.
4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.
5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.
6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.
7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.
8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.
9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.
10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.
11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.
12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181
14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.
16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.
17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.
18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.
19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.
20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.
21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.
22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.
23 Matthew 5:39.
24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.
25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.
26 John 3:5.
27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.
28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.
29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.
30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.
31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.
I’ll be teaching another short course at Schumacher College in the UK the week of April 22nd-26th, 2019.
Here’s a link if you’re interested in registering:
Here’s what I’ll be teaching on:
“The Evolution of Consciousness and the Cosmological Imagination”
This week-long course will trace the evolution of consciousness in the West from ancient Greece through to the present. The goal is twofold: to understand the historical process whereby humanity severed itself from a meaningful universe and to re-ignite the cosmological imagination allowing us to reconnect to the soul of the world. The course begins by exploring Plato’s cosmology and theory of participation and moves on to consider the Scientific Revolution and the Romantic reaction to it. It concludes with a study of several contemporary efforts to re-enchant the cosmos by grounding human consciousness back in the more-than-human creative process responsible for generating it. In addition to Plato, the course draws upon the archetypal astronomy of Johannes Kepler, the Naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling, the nature poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, the esoteric philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield, the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and the contemporary participatory theory of Jorge Ferrer.
*featured image above by Jakob Boehme