Christopher Satoor and I discussed Schelling, his German Idealist context, and Whitehead’s inheritance of Schellingian ideas about mind and nature.
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” ( 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  1967, 17).
This paper brings Whitehead’s “Philosophy of Organism” ( 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 ( 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  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 ( 1994, 284-285;  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  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 ( 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.
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  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,  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  1978, 50) of experience and the “concrete affairs of life” (Whitehead  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  1978, 13).
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.  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  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.
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  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  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  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  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  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  1968, 151). Quarks, photons, protons, electrons, neutrons and the like appear to be our most ancient ancestors, close to the “primate organisms” (Whitehead  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 ( 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  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  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  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  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  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  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  1967, 51) and “nature at an instant” (Whitehead  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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  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 ( 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  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  1978, 289).
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Here’s my talk from the INTERSECT: Science & Spirituality conference in Telluride, CO earlier this summer. It’s titled “Participatory Spirituality in an Evolving Cosmos”
Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
My Spring course at CIIS.edu finishes up this week with a set of modules on Timothy Morton’s book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). Earlier in the semester, we read works by Plato, William James, Catherine Keller, William Connolly, Bruno Latour, Anne Pomeroy, and Donna Haraway. Below, I am sharing a series of lecture fragments about Morton’s book, as well as a panel discussion formed around the course topics.
A trailer for my course being offered this Spring at CIIS.edu.
PARP 6135 Process and Difference in the Pluriverse will explore the ethical, social, political, and ecological implications of process-relational philosophy. You could call it a course in applied or experimental metaphysics. We will read and discuss texts by radical empiricist William James, revolutionary sociologist WEB DuBois, pluralist political scientist William Connolly, process theologian Catherine Keller, philosopher of science Donna Haraway, Gaian sociologist Bruno Latour, and object-oriented ecocritic Timothy Morton. Each in his or her own way brings the process orientation down to Earth by articulating it’s relevance to the struggle for social, economic, racial, and ecological justice.
I hope this course provides a space for us to imagine a more symbiotic future together. I doubt there will be any answers that emerge from what we study together, but I do hope we will get closer to asking the right—that is, the life enhancing, creativity engendering—questions. My goal is to infect your political passions with process-relational ideas, to invite you into the role of philosopher-activist. Activism becomes philosophical (in the process-relational context explored in this course) when it affirms an ethos rooted in relational alterity and creative becoming. Such an orientation provides an antidote to the neoliberal ethos rooted in private identity, property ownership, and wage labor.
Published in International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Volume 36, Issue 1 (2017)
Abstract: This essay argues that the organic realism of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) provides a viable alternative to anti-realist tendencies in modern and postmodern philosophy since Descartes. The metaphysical merits of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism are unpacked in conversation with Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor’s recent book Retrieving Realism (2015). Like Dreyfus and Taylor, Whitehead’s philosophical project was motivated by a desire to heal the modern epistemic wound separating soul from world in order to put human consciousness back into meaningful contact with reality. While Dreyfus and Taylor’s book succeeds in articulating the problem cogently, its still too phenomenological answer remains ontologically unsatisfying. Whitehead’s process-relational approach invites philosophy to move closer to a real solution.
Below is a draft of a paper I’ll offer at the MEA Convention in a few weeks. I share it here in the hopes that my readers may provide feedback that helps me improve it. I have something like 15 minutes to present as part of a panel on “Philosophical Perspectives,” so I’ll only be able to extemporaneously summarize the text below. I hope to submit some version of this paper to the Explorations in Media Ecology journal.
A Panel Presentation for the 18th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association
Convention theme: “Technology, Spirituality, Ecology”
Title: Toward A Communicative Cosmos: Whitehead and Media Ecology
Author: Matthew T. Segall, PhD
Affiliation: California Institute of Integral Studies
“…it is not to be wondered at, that there is nothing attributed unto Pan concerning loves, but only of his marriage with Echo. For the world or nature doth enjoy itself…but where there is enough there is no place left to desire. Therefore there can be no wanton love in Pan or the world, nor desire to obtain anything (seeing he is contented with himself) but only speeches…It is an excellent invention that Pan or the world is said to make choice of Echo only (above all other speeches or voices) for his wife: for that alone is true philosophy, which doth faithfully render the very words of the world; and it is written no otherwise than the world doth dictate, it being nothing else but the image or reflection of it, not adding anything of its own, but only iterates and resounds”
—Francis Bacon (The Essays, Or Councils, Civil and Moral , 18)
“Not all communication is human communication. Animals and machines, atoms and the earth, the seas and the stars are themselves full of curious communications, and our efforts to have intelligence with such entities reform our own practices as well. A vision of communication committed to democracy cannot foreclose on entering into intelligence with radical otherness, including the earth, other species, machines, or extraterrestrial life.”
—John Durham Peters (“Space, Time, and Communication Theory”)
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”
—Alfred North Whitehead (PR, 50)
In what follows, I draw upon Alfred North Whitehead’s organic cosmology in an attempt to expand the scope of media ecology beyond its ordinarily humanistic horizon. Neil Postman defined media ecology as the critical study of how media technologies envelope and form cultures. As McLuhan famously put it, “Man is an extension of nature that re-makes the nature that makes the man” (Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, 66). This definition of media ecology is premised on the idea that human beings have a foot in two different worlds: a natural or physical environment that includes our own living bodies, and a media environment that extends our embodied expressions into a non-material space of meaning. Each form of communication technology (e.g., speech, the alphabet, the printing press, radio, TV, the Internet, etc.) creates a surrogate nature, an artificial environment within which new cultures grow, sometimes deformed due to their alienation from and lack of resonance with original nature. Today, largely because of a lack of resonance, we find ourselves the late capitalist denizens of a planet in crisis. Geologists and Gaian physiologists tell us that we have entered the Anthropocene. Technological civilization, in its rush to establish a new and improved second nature on top of the first, has neglected to consider that first nature—the Earth—is not a mere stockpile of raw material waiting to fuel the growth and innovation of the human economy, but a complex and highly differentiated ecopoietic superorganism (see Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 120-122). The planetary ecological crisis has made the modern theory of a bifurcated nature obsolete. Cultural productions and physical processes, perhaps once separable in thought, are now irrevocably entangled at a geochemical level. Our ability to understand and respond to the planetary ecological crisis may be aided by a truly ecological media ecology; by the idea, that is, that there is not just an analogical resonance between natural ecologies and media ecologies, but a cosmological community.♣ Whitehead’s organic cosmology allows us to generalize media ecology’s focus on the medium instead of the message, such that the world itself is brought into view as a medium of communication. Perhaps such an imaginative generalization of media ecology into an ecological metaphysics or metaphysics of the medium can sensitize us to the primal logos of the cosmos.
This work is already well underway, carried forward by theorists including Jussi Parikka, John D. Peters, Mark B. N. Hansen, Adam Robbert, and Andrew Murphie. They each (especially the latter three) turn to Whitehead’s process-relational metaphysics in search of a more cosmological media ecology. Recognizing that humans represent only one of the cosmos’ many forms of communicative being, and that the storage, transmission, and transformation of meaning occurs at every scale from the quantum to the geological to the galactic, opens up new theoretical perspectives on and practical interventions into the study of media as environment and environment as media. In alignment with this conference’s theme, becoming conscious of a communicative cosmos has profound technological, ecological, and theological implications.
Part 1 makes the case for cosmologizing media theory beyond the study of human communication. Part 2 engages more specifically with Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward, arguing that his “inversion” of Whitehead is an unnecessary radicalization of an already radical theory of perception.
McLuhan and Postman theorized media largely from an anthropocentric perspective (i.e., media as “extensions of man”). There is much to be learned from such a perspective. But it is not the only perspective from which to study media. Unlike Postman, with his prophet-like criticisms of new media’s deleterious effect on contemporary culture♥, McLuhan’s Catholic faith sometimes led him to offer a more theologically charged take on electronic media. He went so far as to suggest that what we now call the Internet may be the technological incarnation of the mystical body of Christ (of course, he also worried that electronic media were just Satan’s latest temptation). God has an important role to play in Whitehead’s media theory, as well, though less as a subject of religious worship than as a metaphysical principle providing coherence to his cosmological scheme. For Whitehead, God is that infinite actuality which introduces an ideal harmony or aesthetic order into the world, making cosmos out of chaos by providing the initial aim or erotic lure conditioning every creative act: God “is the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness” (RM, 139). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic theory of Being wherein God is the poet of the world.
McLuhan said of all media prior to electronic technologies that they were “extensions” or “prostheses” of the human being, but with the emergence of digital media and the Internet, an uncanny reversal seems to be occurring: the human is becoming an extension of media. According to McLuhan, we are ourselves being “translated into information” (UM, 57). Digital media have been characterized as “environmental,” “elemental,” and “atmospheric” because they surround and dissolve our classical conception of human agency. Data is now the most powerful weapon in the world, as the governments, corporations, and anonymous hackers who wield it have the ability to shape our collective perceptions and actions, even while we continue to believe we are individuals thinking for ourselves. The situation is decidedly double-edged: we have instantaneous access to more information about each other and the world than ever before in human history, but this information also has access to us.
Whether we call it the informational revolution, the technozoic era, or the Anthropocene, it is clear that our species has become a planetary force on par with supervolcanoes and meteorites. Just as this realization begins to dawn on us, media theorists are articulating a “non-anthropocentric, non-prosthetic, and radically environmental theory of media” (Hansen, FF, 250). Hansen, Murphie, and Robbert turn to Whitehead’s panpsychism in order to re-imagine the ontology of media as part of an effort to overcome the modern bifurcation of nature. The bifurcated theory of nature has it that nature is a soundless, scentless, colorless affair, with all experience and interpretation, all emotion and purpose, all value and agency, reserved for the human or at most the animal (and for some, for God). Media theory has tended to treat human perception as though it existed in an ontologically unique domain outside and above mere material existence: humans and their technologies do the mediating, while nature itself remains passively mediated. In protest against the bifurcation of nature, Whitehead articulated a radical account of perception, whereby the affective inheritance of our own just past bodily experience becomes analogous to all of nature’s causal transactions. Human temporality, even if stretched and intricately folded, is still continuous with cosmic temporality. For Whitehead, the ultimate concrete facts composing nature are non-conscious acts of perceptivity: to be actual is to be the achievement of a specific form of feeling, or what Whitehead refers to as a “prehension” (RM, 88, 91). Causal efficacy in nature is the transmission of an occasion of feeling from the settled past into the cresting wave of the present. Once an actual occasion’s present form has reached completion, its perceptivity perishes and it offers itself as an expression feeding the emergence of subsequent prehensive actualities. “Expression,” says Whitehead, “is the one fundamental sacrament…the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace…the recipient extends his apprehension of the ordered universe by penetrating into the inward nature of the originator of the expression. There is then a community of intuition by reason of the sacrament of expression proffered by one and received by the other” (RM, 118). Where McLuhan described the “miracle” whereby “in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world, because human perception is literally incarnation” (“Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters,” 82), Whitehead goes further by arguing that “Every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” such that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself” (RM, 140). Expression and prehension are the systole and diastole movements of cosmic creativity, the call and response between God and the world. Every creature, whether atomic, galactic, biotic, or anthropic, is privy in various degrees to this conversation. McLuhan’s theological intuitions already offer media ecology one way beyond its ordinarily anthropocentric charter. But by accepting some version of the bifurcation of Nature, McLuhan falls short of the “becoming-cosmological of media” (Hansen, FF, 244) that is achieved by Whitehead. Media theory’s founding insight, that “the medium is the message,” must be translated into cosmology.
Adam Robbert offers one translation in the form of a “geocentric media ecology”: “Organisms are media ecologists enveloped by the media ecologies of other organisms…the Earth itself is not a passive ground upon which events unfold, but a medium that constrains and conditions the energetic cascade of organismic and ecosystemic development” (“Earth Aesthetics: Knowledge and Media Ecologies,” 6). Along similar lines, Jussi Parikka suggests that “the Earth as living creature communicates via the assembled resources it fashions and provides” (“The Geology of Media,” The Atlantic [Oct 11, 2013]). Parikka offers his own translation of “the medium is the message” into cosmology via a psychogeophysical inquiry into the memories of rocks, raising a dilemma “anyone deep into Alfred North Whitehead would find attractive”: “how do the soil, the crust, the rocks, and the geological world sense?” (A Geology of Media, 62-65. Emphasis mine). Such questions may seem odd at first, but they are an invitation to consider anew the ontological implications of the way natural sciences like geology and astronomy have taught us so much about the cosmos by treating it as a kind of recording medium.
In The Marvelous Clouds, John Durham Peters asks: “What if we took nature as the epitome of meaning rather than mind? What if the fecundity of meaning in nature provided our model of communication?” (MC, 380). Peters approaches the cosmologization of media theory by calling for an “infrastructural aesthetics” to replace both structuralism (the ambition to “explain the principles of thought…by way of a combinatorics of meaning”) and post-structuralism (“with its love of gaps, aporias, and impossibilities, its celebration of breakdown, yearning, and failure, its relish for preposterous categories of all kinds and love of breathless syntax”) (MC, 33). Infrastructural aesthetics lifts the taken for granted background of our human living and dying into the foreground, bringing that which habitual use and abuse has made imperceptible out from behind the veil and into view. Whitehead’s method of speculative philosophy could be described likewise, as for him metaphysics is the pursuit of those generalities so finely woven into the texture of our everyday experience that they become “obscured by their persistent exemplification” (PR, 5). “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious” (SMW, 4), which perhaps explains why philosophy is such a rare vocation. But for Whitehead, philosophy must not become the enemy of habitual commonsense. Infrastructural ignorance has been an essential component of our species’ uniquely powerful form of intelligence: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them” (Intro to Math, 61). Instead, philosophy must deploy the method of “imaginative rationalization” (PR, 5) to seek out and make explicit the unacknowledged cosmological presuppositions that provide justification for our civilized commonsense. Infrastructural aesthetics is the effort to bring to light the vibrant materiality of the medium underlying the ephemerality of the messages it conveys. It is the effort to unearth the way the ground we walk on supports and enables our understanding of media, our communicative capacity, our consciousness, and our very being: “Ontology, whatever else it is,” says Peters, “is usually just forgotten infrastructure” (MC, 38). In a discussion of Einsteinian cosmology, Peters refers to the way “infrastructural warps can be embraced as epistemic sources” (MC, 364). In other words, the red shift and gravity lensing detected in ancient/distant light signals tells us something important about the universe. Distortions in these cosmic messages, far from ruining our ability to decipher their meaning, communicate something significant to us about the medium of space-time itself: “…light is not simply a signal carrier, but the basis of the universe’s structure—not just message but being…Time, the universe’s key dimension, is tied to signal velocity, and ontology is bound by the finitude of communication” (MC, 366, 368).
Whitehead’s philosophy of organism allows a radical new possibility to become thinkable, that the world can be re-imagined as a medium because the cosmos is itself composed of communicative processes at every scale. The world itself has always been, in Whitehead’s terms, “a medium for the transmission of influences” (PR, 286). “Ironically,” writes Andrew Murphie, “the idea that there’s too much mediation (a world over-run by media which would otherwise run smoothly) leads media theory and practice astray,” since, as Whitehead’s philosophy reveals, “We have too small a concept of mediation” (“The World as Medium,” 11n11).
Cosmologizing media theory means finally, decisively, letting go of the Cartesian-Kantian framework that extends mere matter forever beyond a meaning intending mind. “Nature abounds in meaning,” says Peters, “most of which we have no idea how to read or even acknowledge that it is there. There is an exquisite pattern in DNA and the neurons of sea slugs, in photons and the red shift, in the bonds of the carbon atom and the fortuitously odd behavior of water…There is clear intelligence of some kind in planetary, physiological, and genetic feedback loops. We…should understand intelligence at all scales, as the dynamic, restless, inarticulate genius of life-forms evolving in their environments…with human brain intelligence just one glorious outpost of organic evolution” (MC, 381).
Such a scale-free conception of intelligence requires a more general theory of communication (indeed, a more general general semantics!) than that which supposes the paradigm case of communication is one human mind trying to convey a thought to another. With a truly (and not just metaphorically) ecologized media theory, we can come to see the prehuman world was always already a medium for the transmission of “data.” Humans are not just now being transformed into information by digital media; like the universe, we were always already made of self-interpreting information. For Whitehead, a bit of information, a datum, is a “potential for feeling” (PR, 88), and every potential seeks satisfaction through actualization in an occasion of experience.
There is much that remains to be unpacked, but my time is short. I can only end by offering a plea to media theorists to join Whitehead’s protest against the bifurcation of nature. Contrary to McLuhan’s argument that languaging humans are unique among biological organisms in that we “[possess] an apparatus of transmission and transformation based on [our] power to store experience” (UM, 59), Whitehead’s organic cosmology invites us to recognize that the transmission and transformation of experience is the very basis of causal connection throughout the universe. Human language is just a further, loopier elaboration upon this cosmic capacity for communicative transaction. So to McLuhan I say, yes, there is a logos in the anthropos, there is a living God at the heart of our human perception and symbolism: a Spirit runneth through our alphabetic letters. But there is another logos: a logos of the cosmos. Thus the need for a cosmological media theory, not just an anthropological or theological one.
Mark Hansen’s Feed Forward: On the Future of 21st Century Media (2015) is densely argued and full of important correctives to the anti- and post-human tendencies of many contemporary theorists. While he accepts the call for an anthrodecentric philosophy, Hansen does not seek to “eschew contact with humans” entirely, as though ontology could ever be completely purified of our existence (FF, 15). Rather, he aims to “resituate,” “intensify,” and even “enhance” human experience by bringing it back into contact with the “causally efficacious lineages that have produced it” (FF, 9, 15). As we become increasingly immersed in and saturated by new forms of digital media, Hansen fears that our species is at risk of being drowned by data: “…in a world linked together by…computational networks and increasingly populated with intelligent sensing technologies ranging from environmental sensors to the smart phones…we now carry with us as a matter of course, experience simply is not what it used to be: far more of what goes on in our daily lives is carried out by machines functioning at their own timescales, meaning outside of our direct perceptual grasp but in ways that do significantly affect our activity” (FF, 23). Hansen argues that Whitehead’s re-embedding of human perception in a cosmic vibratory continuum provides a radical corrective to bifurcated Cartesian-Kantian accounts of the relationship between physical processes and human consciousness, a corrective that may help us meet the challenges posed by 21st century digital media.
But Hansen’s reading of Whitehead, assisted by Judith Jones’ beautiful book Intensity (1998), positions itself as an “inversion” of Whitehead’s ontology, which Hansen argues is still residually anthropocentric. Much of what Hansen proposes leans heavily on Jones, even though she herself only claims to be offering a slight revision and reemphasization of concepts already present in Whitehead’s texts (I, x). Hansen summarizes the reasons for his “inversion” of Whitehead’s ontology:
“The canonical interpretation of Whitehead, which is largely justified by his own writings, holds that only concrescence is creative because it is only in concrescence that actualities wield their subjective power; once they ‘perish,’ undergo transition, and enter the settled world, actualities become merely objective (or superjectal), meaning that they become passive and inert and can only become creative again if they are taken up by future concrescences of new actual entities” (FF, 13).
This is, to put it generously, a misleading reading of the role of concrescence and transition in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead clearly characterizes objects as antecedent and given to newly concrescing occasions, but definitely “not…generated in that occasion.” The new occasion “does not create the objects which it receives.” Actual occasions do not “[arise] out of a passive situation which is a mere welter of many data.” “The exact contrary is the case,” Whitehead tells us, “[since] the initial situation includes a factor of activity which is the reason for the origin [of the new] occasion of experience” (AI, 179; emphasis mine). Objects are not inert, left to die into the past, but have an expressive capacity that itself serves as the primary phase of each new occasion’s entrance into the present. “The creative process is thus to be discerned in that transition by which one occasion, already actual, enters into the birth of another instance of experienced value” (RM, 99).
Hansen develops a non-prosthetic account of digital media in terms of what he calls “worldly sensibility.” Rather than attributing all agency and creativity to human consciousness, Hansen attributes a kind of sensitivity to data itself, a “datasense,” “[thereby positioning] data-gathering as an independent producer of sensibility (causal efficacy) in its own right” (FF, 149). Hansen claims his project involves a radicalization of Whitehead’s theory of perception, in that Whitehead’s account of concrescence still over-privileges the subject-pole, and thus by extension the humanness, of experience. Hansen instead emphasizes superjective transition over subjective concrescence, and similarly seeks to heighten the distinction between what he describes as the “empirical” and “speculative” aspects of Whitehead’s scheme. But Whitehead does not privilege concrescence over transition, or subjective prehension over superjective expression. His cosmological scheme is an attempt at harmonizing the two principles characterizing reality’s process, and his analogization of philosophic method with the flight of an airplane suggests he also sought a harmonization between speculative and empirical methods (PR, 5). Whitehead is not a phenomenologist; he is, like Schelling, an organic realist.♦ Experience, in the most general or metaphysical terms, is an “oscillation between concrescence and transition of actual entities…or ‘societies’…ranging from the most ‘micro’-level phenomena, for example, quantum decoherence, to the most ‘macro’-level phenomena, for example, geological and cosmological processes” (FF, 14). Here, Whitehead and Hansen are in complete agreement.
Hansen claims he needs to to “radicalize” Whitehead because he sees the latter as still too centered on human consciousness. Whitehead betrays an anthropocentric residue, according to Hansen, when he defines causal efficacy merely in reference to the last tenth of a second of our human experience: “Whitehead’s…reductive rechristening of perception qua causal efficacy as ‘nonsensuous perception’…jettisons the crucial ‘vector character’ of perception, the way lineages of causal efficacy stretch far into the background of perception, and not just to its most immediate just-past” (FF, 20-21); “Whitehead effectively identifies causally efficacious perception with—and, I would argue, limits it to—the immediate past of sensory perception” (FF, 24). But Whitehead is merely using our human experience of causal efficacy as a specific example of the way superjective expressions transition into subjective prehensions, an example close to home: “In human experience, the most compelling example of non-sensuous perception is our knowledge of our own immediate past” (AoI, 178). But in the context of his metaphysics, the example is generalized as an account of causal relations as such; that is, our nonsensuous perception of our own immediate past is imaginatively extended so as to characterize the becoming of actual occasions at every scale. And it is not clear to me that causal efficacy of the sort Hansen refers to as “worldly sensibility” is completely beyond human perception, as he claims: we may have access to it in certain extreme states (psychedelics, NDEs, flow states, etc.). On the other hand, it could be that we become other-than-human during such extreme experiential episodes.
Early in his book, Hansen puts a definitional stake in the ground by referencing Husserl’s distinction between sensation and perception: “sensation [is] the nonintentional material on which perception, and intentionality, is erected” (note 3, p. 271). Hansen argues that Whitehead’s account of “nonsensuous perception” must be replaced with an account of “non-perceptual sensation” (p. 19), but I have a feeling this is a merely a definitional issue having to do with a difference in how Husserlian phenomenologists demarcate “sensation” vs. “perception.” Whitehead explicitly acknowledges the lack of consistency in the philosophical tradition’s various definitions of “perception”: Sensationalist doctrine suggests that perception is always through stimulation of the various sense-organs, but Whitehead argues that “there is a wider meaning” beyond this limited use of the term (AoI, 178). “Tacit identification of perception with sense-perception must be a fatal error barring the advance of systematic metaphysics” (AoI, 180). Below I excerpt two sections of my dissertation that unpack Whitehead’s account of the two pure modes of perception (which I also refer to as “aesthesis”), causal efficacy and presentational immediacy, which I believe makes clear there is no need for the “inversion” Hansen has attempted.
Analysis of prehensionality from my dissertation (pgs. 132-143): It is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empiricist and rationalist schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy” or “sense-perception,” contrasting it with the more primordial mode of “causal efficacy” or “sense-reception.” The latter mode of perception, as its name suggests, directly links our experience to that of other actualities in our causal lineage. That human experience is linked to other actualities by such lineages contradicts the Kantian paradigm, for which perception is “mere appearance” and so causally epiphenomenal. From Whitehead’s perspective, “experience has been explained [by modern philosophers] in a thoroughly topsy-turvy fashion, the wrong end first”: because presentational immediacy (i.e., derivative appearances in the subject) provides us with clear and distinct ideas that are accessible to conceptualization by the understanding, it has been given genetic priority, when in fact, causal efficacy (i.e., primordial feelings of objects) deserves this honor (PR, 162.). “The philosophy of organism is the inversion of Kant’s philosophy,” according to Whitehead, in that while Kant endeavors to construe experience as a process whereby “subjective data pass into the appearance of an objective world,” Whitehead’s philosophy of organism describes experience as a process whereby the order of the objectively felt data pass into and provide intensity for the realization of a subject (PR, 88). In short, in Kant’s philosophy “the world emerges from the subject,” while “for the philosophy of organism, the subject emerges from the world” (PR, 88).
Rather than treating the objective world as an appearance constructed by subjective activity, as Kant and most other modern thinkers do, Whitehead reverses the direction of the process of perception such that each subject is described as arising from its feelings of other objectified subjects, or superjects (PR, 156). “In the place of the Hegelian [or Kantian] hierarchy of categories of thought,” writes Whitehead, “the philosophy of organism finds a hierarchy of feeling” (PR, 166).
On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileges perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignores or at least marginalizes the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification accomplished by the society of actual occasions composing our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of the Cartesian theater of presentational immediacy, hidden in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness), while perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects. Causal efficacy is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, sensing their essence rather than prehending their causal presence, while the latter implies the interpenetration of things, the transition from the superjective beings of the past into the subjective becoming of the present. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than conceptuality, an ontologically primordial mode of experience shared in by every actuality in the cosmos. If anything is a priori, it is not the transcendental structures of human conceptuality as Kant argued, but the descendental processes of cosmic prehensionality.
(pgs. 156-159): Prehension should not be thought of as resulting in an actual occasion “having” experience of other occasions, as though an occasion were “the unchanging subject of change” (PR, 29). This would inevitably lead back to the classical bifurcated conception of substantial minds qualified by their private representations of supposedly public material objects. For the philosophy of organism, an actual occasion is not a pre-existent subject qualified by its representations of ready-made objects. Instead, actual occasions are re-imagined as dipolar “subject-superjects” (PR, 29). The “subject” phase of a concrescing occasion emerges from the prehensions of antecedent occasions which it unifies, while in the “superject” phase the occasion, having attained satisfaction as a unified drop of decisively patterned experience, perishes into “objective immortality,” which then initiates another round of prehension by a subsequently concrescing actual occasion. Whitehead expresses the perpetual perishing of subjective immediacy into objective immortality in terms of his “principle of relativity,” such that “it belongs to the nature of a ‘being’ that it is a potential for every ‘becoming’” (PR, 22). Actual occasions are thus describable in two ways: as “being” and as “becoming.” These ontological designations are not separable, since, according to Whitehead’s correlative “principle of process,” an occasion’s “being” arises from its “becoming”: “how an actual [occasion] becomes constitutes what that actual [occasion] is” (PR, 23). The description of an occasion according to its genetic “becoming” provides an account of the occasion’s own subjective aim (i.e., its final cause), while the description according to its extensive “being” provides an account of its superjective effect as prehended by other occasions beyond itself (i.e., as efficient cause). Creative process is said to manifest in two ways, as the concrescence of each individual entity, and as the transition from one occasion to the next. Concrescence describes “the real internal constitution of a particular existent,” while transition describes the perishing of a particular existent’s process, thereby “constituting that existent as an original element in the constitutions of other particular existences elicited by repetitions of process” (PR, 210). “The transition is real, and the achievement is real,” writes Whitehead. “The difficulty is for language to express one of them without explaining away the other” (Modes of Thought, 102).
♠ Also quoted by Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media, 60).
♣ Or perhaps this assumes too shallow an understanding of analogy, which is plenty cosmological (in the Whiteheadian aesthetic sense) already if, like McLuhan, we adopt the Thomist theory of analogical perception, wherein “the sensory order resonates with the divine Logos.…Analogy is not concept. It is community. It is resonance. It is inclusive. It is the cognitive process itself. That is the analogy of the divine Logos. … [I]mmediate analogical awareness … begins in the senses and is derailed by concepts or ideas” (McLuhan to John W. Mole, 18 April 1969). In other words, perhaps analogical reasoning links us via perception/aesthesis to the cosmic logos.
♥ E.g., consider how Postman criticisms of modern technology resemble the prophet Isaiah: “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands” (Isaiah 2:8); or the prophet Jeremiah: “They burned incense to other gods and worshipped the works of their hands” (Jeremiah 1:16).
♦ See my dissertation for more on the convergence of Whitehead and Schelling’s process philosophies: Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead (2016). A media determinist might argue that in my attempt to cosmologize media theory, I am simply mistaking the meaning created by words for meaning discovered in the world. That alphabetic literacy serves as the media a priori for cosmological speculation I do not doubt. But Schelling’s philosophy of language reveals the way alphabetic consciousness, like the mythic consciousness which preceded it, is only an intensification of potencies already present in nature. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie allowed him to “cognize the physical in language,” and to “arrange…the history of…language…in analogy to the geological” (Schelling, Werke, vol. 8, 452-453). Do humans make sense of the Earth, or are humans the Earth making sense of itself? From Schelling’s point of view, the philosophy of nature is nature itself philosophizing, Autophusis philosophia. For more on the way human myth and language can be read as expressions of the Earth, see “Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future” in World Futures, vol. 68 , Iss. 2, 2012.
I meant to post this back in August when Levi Bryant finally started blogging again, but it somehow got stuck in my drafts (a veritable grave yard of unfinished thoughts and undead ideas). The philosophical spirit Bryant expresses in his writing is rather unique in its capacity to inspire me to resist. I am very grateful to him for this. So many of my posts on Footnotes2Plato have been provoked by the ideas he has shared on Larval Subjects. I’ll add another to that long list.
In his post on the trauma of speculative realism (etc.), Bryant draws on a passage from Foucault’s Archaeology of History to link the essential structure of myth to the synthetic activity of the subject, that is, to the “temporalizing activity of the subject capable of forming a totality for itself in how it links historicity and futurity in the formation of a present” (Bryant’s words). [Speaking of the present, those in the Bay Area should join us at CIIS tonight for a lecture on Foucault’s life and works by Jamie Socci.] He argues that all prior forms of consciousness (i.e., ideologies) were possessed by the drive to mythologize, that is, to long for a lost origin. Speculative realism (etc.), finally, has exorcised humanity (or some posthuman object formerly known as a human subject) of this possession, freeing ‘us’ to contemplate the fact that ‘we’ are already dead. The enlightened speculative realist no longer believes in ghost stories, not even the ghost story called human subjectivity.
There is much I agree with Bryant about. I align myself with the same “minor” tradition in the history of philosophy that he hints at. I also seek to undermine “the self-present mastery of the subject” and take every opportunity I can to remind myself and others that “we live in the orbit–-in the astronomical sense of the word–-of things that exceed us.”
For precisely these reasons, I am drawn to the work of Schelling (no doubt a heterodox thinker not easily categorized by Western philosophical norms). His early Naturphilosophie and later positive philosophy of mythology and revelation were a century ahead of their time as a forerunner of depth psychology.
“The crisis through which the world of the gods unfolds,” writes Schelling, “is not external to the poets. It takes place in the poets themselves, forms their poems” (Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 18).
Joshua Ramey and Daniel Whistler discuss the implications of Schelling’s philosophy of mythology in their essay “The Physics of Sense: Bruno, Schelling, Deleuze” (2014).
For Schelling, myth is not the way the human subject “reconciles itself with itself” or “achieves self-present mastery,” as Bryant puts it. Myth is precisely the opposite: it is another way of speaking of the subject’s inability to achieve complete self-mastery, of the cision at the generative root of subjectivity. Myth is the human imagination’s way of coming to terms with the soul’s creative becoming (i.e., with its lack of substantial being). Myth is soul-making. Humans do not invent myth; rather, argues Schelling, it is myth that invented (and continues to reinvent) humanity.
For Schelling, rejecting the mythopoiesis at the core of our becoming-soul in favor of some supposedly myth-free enlightened view of a meaningless existence (metaphysically speaking) is the route of infantile escapism. His philosophy of mythology urges us to stay with the eternally unfolding crisis and not to fear the infinite depths of its creative becoming. Myth is not a facade painted atop Nature, but Nature’s way of becoming human (and perhaps humanity’s way of becoming other than human).
Levi Bryant offered some ideas about materialism earlier this week over at Larval Subjects. I read and commented on his post while screeching through the BART transbay tube on my commute home from work. My comment, asking about “ontological constructivism,” was rushed and ill formed. Now that I’m moving more slowly, and have a keyboard large enough for all ten of my fingers, I wanted to take the time to further expand and contextualize my question.
Bryant’s reflections on the paradoxes of materialism spoke precisely to some of the problematics emerging recently in a reading group I’m participating in at CIIS with Adam Robbert and others. We just finished Mark Taylor’s reader Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Prior to DiC we read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and prior to that Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. (Next is Deleuze and Guatari’s What Is Philosophy?). Bryant’s materialism is meant as a direct challenge to the authors excerpted in Taylor’s anthology. With Kant (with whom the reader begins), there began a line of thinkers committed to transcendental philosophy. This lineage has more recently been pejoratively renamed correlational philosophy by Meillassoux and other Speculative Realists. It may not be entirely fair to identify Derrida (with whom Taylor’s reader ends) as a transcendental thinker. But I do think I can say that, as a careful reader of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, his work must be understood as a respectful but nonetheless critical response to this tradition. You could almost say that Derrida’s texts were an attempt to out critique the critical (or transcendental) philosophers by bringing to attention that which is even more a priori than concepts and intuitions: namely, writing. As Derrida wrote in Of Grammatology, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte”–usually translated as “there is nothing outside of the text,” but perhaps best translated as “there is no outside-text.” For object-oriented thinkers like Graham Harman and Bryant, Derrida is public enemy number one (though for slightly different reasons). For Bryant, Derrida must be read as a linguistic correlationist, as one who denies the reality of anything outside the contextual domain of semiogenesis. We must, of course, remember that the play of différance prevents an author from finally fixing the meaning of the text (I almost said “of their text,” but textual ownership is precisely what Derrida is taking issue with). Derrida’s correlationalism is not, then, the sort that would place all objects in relation to a transcendental subject, since as I understand his deconstruction of traditional metaphysics, the subject itself (along with the objects it represents) only becomes possible in and through writing. Nonetheless, meaningful signs, even if infinitely contextual, for precisely this reason only ever point to themselves. There is no “Great Outdoors,” as Meillassoux says, that writing might grant us cognition of.
Derrida owes much to Saussure’s binary semiotic theory. I prefer a different starting point in regard to meaning-making: the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s triadic semiotics redistributes meaning beyond human signs, inviting us to consider the various ways other beings interpret and refer to themselves independently of us. Peirce, and other thinkers in his lineage like James and Whitehead, seem to me to stand outside the framework of Bryant’s post. These thinkers qualify as what I called “ontological constructionists” in my original comment. Unlike “social constructionists,” it is not merely we human beings who create all meaning. Rather, all beings, in becoming-with one another (and so becoming-other than themselves), are generative of meaning. For this reason, Whitehead generalized the notion of “society” such that it included organized collectivities of any kind (not just humankind).
As Bryant frames the correlational paradox, any thinker claiming to be a materialist necessarily “proceeds through concepts.” This despite the fact that materialists understand themselves to be “[attempting] to grasp that which is other than the concept.” Bryant wants to place matter beyond and before all thought as “absolutely exterior” and unrepresentable. This is all fine and well. The clear and distinct concepts of reflective self-consciousness cannot in any way touch the darkness of materiality. But I’d like to suggest that attending to the imaginal tides of affect and aesthesis as they flow to-and-fro across the fractal edges of conscious experience may help bridge the otherwise gaping chasm between mind and matter. Attending only to thought and conceptuality, or to transcendental structures of intentional directedness toward the eidos of appearing objects, artificially widens the gap. Dwelling instead upon the way emotional vectors vibrate through and between bodies, we begin to realize that the old abstract categories of mind and matter no longer hold any water. They leak. By entering into an aesthetic–or better, poetic–rather than a conceptual time-space, we no longer need to shroud matter behind the representational mirages projected onto it by a mind which, as materialism would have it, can only be conceptualized in absentia, as not present, as somehow both identical with and yet alien to materiality. I qualified the term “aesthetic” with “poetic” above, because it is all too easy to define aesthesis according to the misplaced concreteness, so prevalent among modern philosophers of both the empirical and rational schools, which has it that our primary form of sensory experience is of bare patches of qualia free of all relations. Whitehead called this mode of perception “presentational immediacy,” contrasting it with the more foundational mode of “causal efficacy.” When I refer to entering an aesthetic or poetic time-space, I mean attending again to the causality of sensuality, to the way aesthesis links us up with real currents of energy in our cosmic, biotic, and psychic environs. This is James’ radical empiricism, adapted by Whitehead following his protest against the bifurcation of nature. I’ve written about this in a short essay on the importance of Wordsworth’s nature poetry for Whitehead’s account of perception. For Whitehead, nature is “what we are aware of in perception” (The Concept of Nature):
“For natural philosophy everything perceived is in nature. We may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon. It is for natural philosophy to analyze how these various elements of nature are connected.
In making this demand I conceive myself as adopting our immediate instinctive attitude towards perceptual knowledge which is only abandoned under the influence of theory. We are instinctively willing to believe that by due attention, more can be found in nature than that which is observed at first sight. But we will not be content with less. What we ask from the philosophy of science is some account of the coherence of things perceptively known.
This means a refusal to countenance any theory of psychic additions to the object known in perception. For example, what is given in perception is the green grass. This is an object which we know as an ingredient in nature. The theory of psychic additions would treat the greenness as a psychic addition furnished by the perceiving mind, and would leave to nature merely the molecules and the radiant energy which influence the mind towards that perception. My argument is that this dragging in of the mind as making additions of its own to the thing posited for knowledge by sense-awareness is merely a way of shirking the problem of natural philosophy. That problem is to discuss the relations inter se of things known, abstracted from the bare fact that they are known. Natural philosophy should never ask, what is in the mind and what is in nature. To do so is a confession that it has failed to express relations between things perceptively known, namely to express those natural relations whose expression is natural philosophy. It may be that the task is too hard for us, that the relations are too complex and too various for our apprehension, or are too trivial to be worth the trouble of exposition. It is indeed true that we have gone but a very small way in the adequate formulation of such relations. But at least do not let us endeavor to conceal failure under a theory of the byplay of the perceiving mind.
What I am essentially protesting against is the bifurcation of nature into two systems of reality, which, in so far as they are real, are real in different senses. One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream” (29-30).
The post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman treats this issue brilliantly in Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and Their Meaning for Therapy:
“If energy were the underlying substrate of the universe, i.e., its ‘truth,’ and if emotion were the way in which it manifested itself to the mind, then the creative artist through his emotion would be apprehending this truth from within” (68).
So in summary, while I agree with Bryant’s criticism of the variety of transcendental, phenomenological, and (Saussurean) semiological philosophies of access for the way they reduce the mode of being of the non-human to that of the human, I do not think his bifurcated materialistic alternative provides us with a more coherent ontology. We’re left, instead, with irresolvable paradoxes (like the hard problem of consciousness, for example).
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.
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…
Relevant links to the argument between me, Levi Bryant, and Graham Harman:
Below, I’ve copied an email thread with Dan Dettloff, who blogs at Re(-)petitions. I thought some of our other readers might want to chime in. Actually, I’d really like to hear other people’s responses to Dan’s question. I’ve not arrived at a satisfying answer to it, but I do think getting past “the problem of evil” will require a far more radical re-conceptualization of God’s nature than that offered by any ontotheology. On the other hand, there is more to religion than concepts. If, as the religious believe, God actually exists, then God is not simply an idea. God is real. After Kant–for whom God became merely a regulative idea necessary “for us” as rational thinkers but for all that not necessary for being “in itself”–the problem of evil became more acute, since it was re-located from the transcendent to the transcendental, from the universal to the individual: what had been an abstract problem for God to work out before the creation of the universe became a concrete problem for each human person to work out before theorizing about or acting within the world. Theology was no longer ontologically relevant, was not a science of divinity, but nonetheless remained crucially important for phenomenological knowledge and practical affairs, for free and responsible action among others. Without the regulative idea of God, or the Kingdom of Ends, human freedom would spin free of its gravitational center and unwind into blind willing. We would be incapable of good or evil action, incapable of loving. We would be as nothing.
Dean has been busy trying to think Christianity in the context of Speculative Realism and the “New Story” of evolutionary cosmology. Some of my own thoughts on these topoi were collected in this essay “Towards a Christological Realism.”
I’ll be brief, as I’m sure you’re busy, and I to you with what may turn out to be a bit of a heady question. I have followed your blog from time to time, and I admire your ability to bring various strands of thinking together. In fact, your writing prompted me to take a course on eco-theology with Dennis O’Hara in Toronto. I come from continental philosophy and identify as a Christian with the usual string of philosophical qualifiers. Convicted by Speculative Realism and a general growing interest in science, I have been hard at work trying to bring together the theological visions, which have ontological ramifications, of religious traditions (most specifically Christianity). Perhaps a year or so ago, Levi Bryant made a post at larval subjects calling out folks like Caputo for reducing religion to a sort of poetic overlay on the world, suggesting this cuts its legitimate, if (on Bryant’s view) misguided, ontological claims.
I share Bryant’s criticism, but, naturally, not his atheism, and as such have been exploring just what those ontological claims of Christianity might be, especially given the new cosmology. I’ve read The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry and Berry’s The Great Work, along with a myriad of articles (and I have some formal theological training, most specifically with Moltmann). While I’m not novice to theology, I recognize that this is a new arena for me, or at least I’m coming to it with new sets of questions.
Let me cut to the chase. I’m having trouble finding a satisfactory answer to the problems of creative destruction in the universe story, especially as it pertains to the kind of vision of a God of love present in most religious traditions. The argument is likely not foreign to you, but so we’re on the same page it goes something like: if God is so loving, as revealed in figures like, for example, Jesus Christ (though one could obviously choose others, but perhaps staying Christocentric will give us a little bit of a particular ground to work with), and God reveals that humans are called to enact radical love, forgiveness, and peace in the world, why would God create a universe which can only seem to create itself via loads of natural evil? In other words, when God incarnates into the person of Christ, God essentially becomes not just a human but inherits the sacrifice of millions of suffering creatures who, as part of the universe story, have given rise to this particular conscious being we call Jesus. Jesus then explores an ethic of love which runs precisely counter to the pre-human logic of cosmogenesis (or at least biogenesis).
Solutions to this issue usually take the form of some kind of libertarian notion of freedom for creation. God steps back and allows creation to realize itself. But this, too, is at odds with plenty of religious definitions of freedom, and, of course, autonomy is hardly synonymous with freedom. So what gives? Are we forced to affirm some kind of strange, perverse religious ontology which suggests God creates a universe which creates itself, only to tell the universe it was messing up the whole time? Do you know of any ways out of this predicament?Thanks in advance, Matthew. I hope all is well, and thank you, again, for your work. I’ve personally benefited quite a bit from it and look forward to reading more.
Thanks for your email. You’ve raised a question that has been on my mind lately, actually. I just finished a book by Matthew Stewart called The Courtier and the Heretic: Spinoza, Leibniz, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. It goes into the different theological positions of Spinoza and Leibniz.
For Spinoza (a pantheist), there is no such thing as good and evil from God’s all-inclusive perspective. Further, God has no freedom, since God is identical to the natural world, which was conceived by Spinoza along Newtonian lines as deterministic and law-abiding.
For Spinoza, the problem of evil is really just an illusion resulting from our limited perspective on things. Things are the way they are because they couldn’t have been any other way. God had no choice in the matter.
Leibniz was deeply influenced by Spinoza, but fought against his conclusions. Leibniz wanted to defend a conception of God as both apart from and internal to the universe, as both free and as necessary. In his Theodicy, he asked “why is there something, rather than nothing?” He imagined God deliberating with Himself prior to creating the universe: “Is such an endeavor worth it?,” Leibniz imagines God asking Himself. Leibniz then distinguishes between the divine understanding (God’s mind, if you will) and the divine will (God’s heart). The divine understanding, in creating a universe, must obey the logical principles of identity and non-contradiction. The divine will, given these restrictions, desires to create the best of all possible worlds. So the finite created world we know, according to Leibniz, contains the least amount of evil that it possibly could contain. God did His best, in other words. He decided it was worth creating the world for the good that would result, even if this good was won at the cost of some degree of evil and suffering.
My own response to the problem of evil comes largely out of Whitehead’s process theology. Whitehead (dis)solves the problem in a way that may be unacceptable to some orthodox Christians, in that he denies God’s omnipotence. Leibniz also limited God’s power in some sense (in that he required God to obey logic–Descartes is an example of someone who conceived of God as so powerful that He could even make 2+2=5 if He wanted). But Whitehead’s denial is more radical. God is no longer an all-powerful dictator who created out of nothing a finite and contingent universe. Rather, God is a creature of Creativity, part of cosmogenesis like you and I, not a distant unmoved mover but”a fellow sufferer who understands.” His only power derives from “the worship He inspires.” He is not capable of coercing creation to obey his commands, but works gently by way of erotic, moral, and aesthetic persuasion.
I presented a paper recently that further fleshes out Whitehead’s psychocosmotheology called “Worldly Religion in Whitehead and Deleuze: Steps Toward an Incarnational Philosophy” that further develops his process theology.
In short, for Whitehead, evil is not God’s fault, but is a side effect of creative process/evolutionary becoming. Evil is “creativity in the wrong season,” as he puts it.I’m also influenced by Schelling’s treatment of these issues… He would probably invert the Whiteheadianism that “evil is not God’s fault.” For Schelling, evil is precisely the fault or fissure in God between hiddenness and revelation, between wrathful withdrawal and radiant love.
Hope that clarifies some things for you somewhat… I welcome further dialogue about all this. Would you mind if I post your question and my response on my blog? I think others would enjoy thinking alongside us.
Thanks so much for your timely and thorough response. You’re welcome to post it on your blog, and feel free to edit whatever you’d like. I’m not much a stickler on those sorts of things.
Your presentation of Whitehead is a useful way of cutting through Spinoza and Leibniz. I wonder, though, if this response moves the problem around rather than solving it (I recognize that “theodicy” may very well be an impossible thing to “solve,” but it remains the nagging problem of the universe story and, I fear, threatens it as a viable interpretive option). While I would happily deny God’s classical omnipotence, the question remains as to how God could not have created a universe which creates itself without all the violence. The Judeo-Christian writings get out of the problem by basically affirming that God creates a universe which is open to further development under a primordial goodness, and evil/suffering end up having a radically anthropocentric cause. This older cosmological mythos doesn’t explain suffering, of course, but it gets God off the hook. With the new cosmology, I, like you, find it necessary to deny a strong Providence, but we end up running into the usual problems of process theism, namely that it seems to encourage us to modify the concept of God so significantly that the God who comes out on the other side seems totally alien to the impulses of most world religions. God ends up sort of being shoe-horned into a certain cosmological model rather than setting the terms of the discourse, and thus process theology runs the risk of re-establishing another God of the philosophers and committing the sin of ontotheology.
Bringing this back to the problem of evil, the process paradigm, while still (I think) a God of the philosophers, is an improvement on the classical paradigm, but it fails to name the origin of evil other than to say it is structurally present in the very processes of the universe. It would be hard, I think, to hold that God creates the universe out of love as a result. We would need to posit the usual Boehme-Hegel-Moltmann-zimzum models, which come loaded with their own structural instabilities just as the classical models do.
But perhaps I’ve missed something somewhere along the way. I’ve sort of assumed a lot of things about these models in a slow disclosure of how I feel about them, and I certainly don’t want to pin anything on you that you don’t wish to be saying. My apologies for any presumptions or errors.
Thanks again for your time, Matt.
I suppose it comes down to whether or not we are persons of faith, for whom God’s nature and existence are attested by way of spiritual revelation. If we cannot simply affirm this or that sort of God by way of an inner faith or an acceptance of outer religious authority, then we are forced to consider the physico-cosmological revelation instead by asking: What can God be like, given what we know of the physical universe? This question seems absurd, even abhorrent, for evangelical Christians, since what we’ve learned about biological evolution (which marches forward mostly by way of the satanic Great Selectors: sex and death) suggests we’d do better not ask the question at all, since if such a universe of continual carnage does have a Creator, its not the sort of God that would be worth loving. Better to be an atheist than to admit the existence of a deity who thought billions of years of rape and slaughter were worth the effort of creation…
I think process theism, whether we’re talking about Whitehead’s version, or Schelling’s Böhmean version, forces us to consider the darkness, the wrath, and the unconsciousness of God, as much as we may prefer only to look at His conscious light and love. If the life of God is an eternal process of incarnation, then the classical sort of religion that would have provided its adherents with hope for some sort of escape hatch to a better world beyond this one must be regarded as nothing more than the illusion of a death fearing primate struggling desperately to cope. God is here with us, part of us, living and dying with us. God isn’t trying to escape this world, but to become more and more mixed up with it. Creation wasn’t something God undertook by choice, as far as I can tell.
“God,” said Whitehead to Lucien Price, “is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts…In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death…to…irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator in the universe is his dignity and his grandeur.”
I came across this article in The Atlantic penned by Whitehead in 1925 called “Science and Religion.” Much of it seems to be excerpted from his lecture published as Religion in the Making. Thought it might be relevant to quote at length:
“Religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realized; something which is a remote possibility, and yet the greatest of present facts; something which gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest. The immediate reaction of human nature to the religious vision is worship. Religion has emerged into human experience mixed with the crudest fancies of barbaric imagination. Gradually, slowly, steadily, the vision recurs in history under nobler form and with clearer expression. It is the one element in human experience which persistently shows an upward trend. It fades and then recurs. But when it renews its force it recurs with an added richness and purity of content. The fact of the religious vision, and its history of persistent expansion, is our one ground for optimism. Apart from it, human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience.
The vision claims nothing but worship; and worship is a surrender to the claim for assimilation, urged with the motive force of mutual love. The vision never overrules. It is always there, and it has the power of love presenting the one purpose whose fulfillment is eternal harmony. Such order as we find in nature is never force — it presents itself as the one harmonious adjustment of complex detail. Evil is the brute motive force of fragmentary purpose, disregarding the eternal vision. Evil is overruling, retarding, hurting. The power of God is the worship He inspires. That religion is strong which in its ritual and its modes of thought evokes an apprehension of the commanding vision. The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. The death of religion comes with the repression of the high hope of adventure.”
Brian Swimme on “The New Story” in cosmology:
Update: By chance, I noticed this opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times: “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Her discussion of Rudolf Otto‘s psychology of religion is certainly relevant.
Levi Bryant recently called for a cross-blog discussion concerning what he perceives to be the problematic relationship between ethnographic pluralism and ontological realism. His call was instigated by Jeremy Trombley’s post on the so-called “ontological turn” in contemporary anthropology and ethnography. Trombley articulated what might be described as an ontology of the concept, wherein concepts are not representational frames that mirror (or fail to mirror) the world, but participatory interventions that dis- and/or re-assemble our thoughts and practices. Trombley writes:
“a concept or conceptual assemblage – ontology, feminism, queer theory, post-colonial theory, etc. – enables us to understand differently, and in understanding differently, it enables us to also be differently… What the ontological turn does is…[allow] us to reflect not only on the way we represent, but on the way that we exist and the kinds of relations we compose through our practices.”
Before I get into what such an anti-representationalist ontology of concepts does to our understanding of Truth (hint: Truth is not pre-given but enacted), I should mention a few other bloggers who have already jumped into the conversation. Phillip of the blog Circling Squares (which I need to explore more!) responded to Bryant’s original post by pointing out that thinkers like Latour and Stengers (and Whitehead before them) have been articulating a rather robust form of pluralistic realism for some time now (i.e., cosmopolitics). Terence Blake of Agent Swarm also chimed in, arguing that Bryant’s “realism” seems to be no more than old-school scientism, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is so difficult to square with pluralism.
Bryant believes that the social constructionist turn of the 90s was politically valuable in that it improved the social standing of many oppressed minorities. But he rejects what he perceives to be the extension of such constructionism beyond politics into ontology. Bryant writes:
“In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth. Everything becomes an optional narrative or story about the world, an optional picture of reality, where we are free to choose among the various options that most suit our taste. It’s not a surprise that so much of the philosophy during the 90s in both phenomenology and post-structuralism culminated in a theological turn. For where everything, including science, is just a narrative or story about what being is, why not just go ahead and take a leap of faith?”
I’m not sure if Bryant intends to include cosmopolitical thinkers like Latour and Stengers in his punching bag category “social constructionist.” I don’t understand how he could. If he does insist on labeling them as such (which seems to me to just obscure their true positions–but if he insists…), then, building on Whitehead’s categoreal scheme, I’d retort that “society” for these cosmopolitical thinkers has to be understood in the most general sense as an ontological category, not simply a human “construct.” The human organism is already a society of cells, each of which is itself a society of organelles, each of which is a society of molecules, each of which is a society of atoms, each of which is a society of protons, neutrons, and electrons, and so on… Realities are decomposed and recomposed by associations between and among actual occasions–occasions which are never simple unities but are always multiple and so always “in the making.” Which brings me to the concept of “construction”: if we are working within a process ontology, construction also needs to be ontologized. Biological evolution is a gradual process of construction wherein what begins as psychological desire later becomes physiological reality (to take the example of evolution by sexual selection). The physical world is itself continually constructed by what physicists are now calling “geometrogenesis.” This is not to say that the physical world is a human construct, mind you. The picture that is beginning to become clear as a result of contemporary physical cosmology is that space and time are the co-emergent products of the real activity of pure energy, something both non-human and pre-physical/pre-extended (Whitehead called it Creativity; physicists call it the quantum vacuum). If the physical world (as described by contemporary physics) is a network of relations always “in the making,” and not some collection of pre-given particles obeying eternal laws, then a “true” understanding of it must also always remain open-ended. There is no Science or Universal Reason that might once and for all pronounce upon the nature of the Real. There are many sciences, many methods, many rationalities. Science as it is actually practiced now and in the past has always already been a pluralistic enterprise. As Latour showed in Science in Action, what ends up being called “Nature” is always a consequence of some more or less temporary settlement of controversies. Every new generation of scientists stirs up new controversies about what the aging generation thought was settled.
The cosmopolitical perspective that I’d want to defend certainly does not “undermine the possibility of public deliberation about truth”–it is (once we accept an enactivist account of truth) the condition of its possibility! It is Bryant’s position that rules out such public deliberation by insisting on declaring war on all those human societies that reject materialism. Latour has plenty to say about the vacuity of the notion of “matter,” which I’ve discussed elsewhere and won’t get into here. Accepting a cosmopolitical form of ontological pluralism doesn’t at all require that we think of all beliefs and belief-systems as created equal. Nor does it imply that social groups “freely choose” their beliefs simply as a matter of “taste.” The ontological commitments of any given society typically emerge out of long multi-generational processes of historical development. They aren’t just made-up on a whim by individual members. Further, the world view of a social group is as integral to their their livelihood and well-being as their food, shelter, and water, not simply an optional aesthetic veneer. As Trombley suggested, belief-systems enact ways of being and are not just representations.
Ontological pluralism is a commitment to multiple realities, many of which overlap, but some of which remain (at least for now) irreconcilable. It is not a commitment to tolerance of multiple perspectives on a single reality. This latter option, as Bryant points out, would be a rather trivial form of pluralism. It is also a rather colonialist and scientistic take on the Real. Anyone trying to argue that contemporary science has somehow provided us with a unified account of an objective reality that holds true for all people in all places and times has their work cut out for them. Several hundred years of “modern” science has only succeeded in making the world stranger, more dangerous, and more multifarious than it was for ancient and medieval peoples.
Am I saying that a ayahuasca shaman’s encounter with the spirit of the jaguar is just as real as the particle physicist’s encounter with the Higgs boson? Yes, most definitely. In fact, the shaman’s encounter is way more concrete and direct than the physicist’s, since the latter has to wait for a world-wide network of supercomputers to process the information for him, which only after many repeated trials, journal publications, and so on becomes what most (but not every!) physicist will agree is something like a Higgs boson. Even after all this painstakingly detailed mediation (“science in the making”), the Higgs boson remains now and forever a theoretical construct. The ayahuasqueros’ encounter with the jaguar spirit is anything but. Sure, a cognitive neuroscientist might claim to be able to explain the shaman’s experience as a “brain malfunction” brought on by the ingestion of a psychedelic plant brew. But this remains a reductive etic description and not a complete explanation. The neuroscientist should participate in an ayahuasca ceremony for himself before he goes declaring war on the shaman. At least, this is what a pluralist ethics would entail. Such shamanic practices have functioned quite well in their own tribal context for thousands of years. Instead of assuming from the get go that anyone who doesn’t describe the world in your favored language is deluded, try to get to know them, to understand not only what their world is like, but how their world is brought forth. Follow the injunctions through which they enact their world. Then, once you’ve explored it from the inside, by all means judge their enactment, contest it, translate its features into other terms to show why it is unethical, dangerous, or misguided.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay of mine on the ethical implications of enactivism and the need for a pluralistic planetary mythos (Logos of a Living Earth):
One consequence of the enactive approach is that the Cartesian quest for epistemological certainty becomes but the expression of a particular cognitive domain made possible by the abstract languages of mathematics, precise measurements of machine technologies, and controlled laboratory environment. If the nervous system is operationally closed, its function cannot be to modestly mirror an external, objective reality, even if the modest witnesses are highly trained scientists allied with powerful instruments that extend their sensory reach. The operational closure of the nervous system forestalls a representational account of its activity, as its role is maintaining coherence, rather than correspondence, between organism and environment. New techniques may open up previously hidden worlds, as when Galileo first turned a telescope to the sky and revealed the moons of Jupiter in 1610, or Hooke first recognized cells through a microscope in 1665, but one cannot speak of finally discovering the real as if it existed independently of our bodily and inter-bodily experience of its meaning.
As Haraway has suggested (p. 199, 1997), “…objectivity is less about realism than about intersubjectivity.” She yearns for us to come to see objectivity as a way of “forming ties across wide distances” (ibid.), instead of as the privileged and modest perspective of self-invisible European men who remain somehow unpolluted by their ambiguously situated bodies (p. 23-32, ibid.). If science can claim relative epistemological privilege, it is not the result of transcending culture, but of the ever-accelerating, ever-expanding mobility and combinability of the traces scientists and their cyborg surrogates have constructed within their networks. Outside of these special networks of labs, machines, shared languages, and centrally controlled policy initiatives, scientific facts have little relevance. As Latour put it, “we might compare scientific facts to frozen fish: the cold chain that keeps them fresh must not be interrupted, however briefly” (p. 119, Latour, 1993).
Thanks to Adam/Knowledge-Ecology for pointing me to this one.
I really dig what he says about physics and science…
These posts are relevant to some of what Caputo has to say about correlationism, the philosophy of religion, and physical reality:
“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 him) Thomas 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.
- The Danger of Scientism? (response to Benjamin Cain) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Life After Darwin (another response to Benjamin Cain) (footnotes2plato.com)