Principles to Guide Philosophical Community (2021) By Eli Kramer (draft review)

The preprint book review below is forthcoming in World Futures: The Journal of New Paradigm Research

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ELI KRAMER, Intercultural Modes of Philosophy, Volume One: Principles to Guide Philosophical Community. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021: 382 pages. [Reviewed by MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

Contemporary civilization finds itself beset by a multitude of crises. Though humanity’s present-day challenges are arguably unprecedented in scope and consequence, history stands as a reminder that, whether stemming from cultural vices or the vicissitudes of nature, there has never been a society unfamiliar with tragedy. Amidst the noise and confusion of civilized earthly existence, special communities in want of wisdom have arisen in every corner of the world in an attempt to realize ideals beyond the reach of the common lot. In the first volume of his planned trilogy, Intercultural Modes of Philosophy: Principles to Guide Philosophical Community, Eli Kramer has provided not only a deep interpretation of these community ideals and their lived expressions both historically and in the present day, he has also shown the breadth of their exemplification in traditions arising in Africa, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, North America, and Europe.  

Kramer’s orientation to the study of the meta-ethical principles guiding successful philosophical communities is pragmatic and radically empirical. His book is not just an attempt to understand the role of philosophy in cultural life, but to actively cultivate the love of wisdom so as to participate in the renewal and educative enhancement of culture. While pre-modern philosophy typically involved mutually reinforced praxis as part of a commitment to values-oriented communal existence, times have changed. His inquiry thus constitutes a response to a problematic situation: namely, the professionalization of philosophy in the context of the modern research university. Thinking with historians of philosophy including Pierre Hadot and Thomas Davidson, Kramer asks: “Whatever happened to this hope of a shared philosophic life?” (5). While the transformation of higher education (particularly in the context of the United States after WW2) has undoubtedly contributed to the advancement of techno-science, questions of the ultimate ends of such advances tend to fall on deaf ears and hardened hearts. Rather than producing a “more ethical and personal world” (113), modern universities have tended to value the growth of information toward the end of increasing power over nature and society. Academic philosophy, far from serving as a cultural shepherd to build increasing determinacy of meaning in the universe, has become another specialized field of rarefied knowledge set apart from the general culture (101). Hyper-individualized professors of philosophy no longer pursue wisdom enhoused within contemplative communities. Instead, with precious few exceptions (e.g., the philosophic wanderers and speculators to be featured in Kramer’s subsequent volumes), as part of an effort to legitimize the middle-class identity of the knowledge worker they have been reduced to the roles of logical technician or “philepistemon” (105), lovers of knowledge abstracted from life and living. 

Seeking a balm for this tragic diminishment, Kramer offers his text as a “philo-dynamic image,” that is, as an aesthetic lure with a psychagogic function aiming to incite in the reader a mode of inspired reflection upon the illuminated order of the cosmos and our proper place within it (26-27). Before unpacking the “systema” (or purposefully organized phases of generality) constituting his dialectically concretized general, axiological, and cultural principles for philosophical community, Kramer sketches the history of their exemplification across several continents. 

He begins his historical sketch in 399 BCE with the death of Socrates, which marked a crucial moment in Western and Near-Eastern philosophical history. A philosophical wanderer guided only by dialogue and his daemon, skilled in the art of asking obnoxious questions and laying bare the pretense of those claiming to be wise, the Athenian gadfly was accused of atheism and corruption of young minds by a court of his fellow citizens. As dramatized in Plato’s Apology, rather than appeasing his accusers with a concession, Socrates defended himself against the false charges. Even in the face of what his accusers believed to be a capital offense, Socrates remained loyal to the Good: “The god orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men” (28e; transl. Jowett). Their plea bargain rejected, the jury sentenced Socrates to be executed. In the Phaedo (67e), Plato has Socrates explain why it is unwise to fear death, since philosophy itself is nothing else than preparation for dying. In the wake of this most profound teacher’s execution, his students founded philosophical schools on the edge of the polis, distant enough to avoid further direct confrontation with the existing social order while still close enough to contribute meaningfully to civic life (34, 308-309). 

Not all philosophic schools agree about the postmortem destiny of human souls, nor even that souls are substantial realities (e.g., the Buddhist traditions taught at Nālandā University). But such metaphysical speculations are not the focus of Kramer’s study. Despite their metaphysical diversity, the philosophical communities investigated in this text are shown to share a sense of human ethical possibilities and the emergent practices that predict success in their attainment (7). Among the practical principles enumerated by Kramer are a symbiotic relation between reflection and action, a cultivated maladaptation to injustice, the humility to recognize the distance between particular experience and the broader possibilities of existence, a tragicomic sensibility that invites laughter and play into otherwise overly serious asceticism, the recollection of the unthought background of all understanding, a commitment to frank criticism of fellow community members in service to the collective cultivation of freedom, and holding the tension between fidelity to the unique personality of a place while also remaining hospitable to cosmopolitan guests. 

Kramer’s interviews with adherents of present-day philosophical communities serve not only to establish the continuity of these practices, but to emphasize the importance of attending to the very different ethical situation in which we find ourselves, relative, say, to ancient Athens or dynastic China. The proliferation of digital technologies, the worsening ecological crisis (including more frequent pandemics), the breakdown of liberal democracy, and the all-pervasiveness of neoliberal capitalism contribute to placing increased pressure upon contemporary philosophical communities. These pressures have pushed such “eutopian” (302) communities to the edge of extinction at just the time that their experimental and reconstructive posture toward human experience is most needed to ameliorate cultural decay (283). With humanity entering a dangerous period of transition, Kramer’s book offers an essential provocation to those even mildly infected by the philosophic itch. While philosophy has not the sort of power that could prevent civilizational collapse, its communal experiments have survived many prior upheavals, and they stand as “bright spots during the storms of time” (311), lighthouses luring us toward the highest potentials of cultural life. 

Tim Eastman Wrap-Up Session: Quantum Physics, Process Philosophy, and the Simulation Hypothesis

We wrapped up our 9-part seminar series on plasma physicist and philosopher Timothy E. Eastman’s book over the weekend. Above is the recording of the final session, which included responses by Michael Epperson and me, followed by a really great dialogue among the other participants. The simulation hypothesis came up and was challenged in light of Eastman and Epperson’s interpretation of quantum reality.

For recordings of the earlier sessions, visit the Cobb Institute Science Advisory Committee webpage and scroll to the bottom.

For my review of Dr. Eastman’s book, click here.

Next Week: Physics of the World-Soul at the Open and Relational Theology Conference

Next Saturday, Feb. 19 I’ll be hearing from four respondents who will assess my recent book on Whiteheadian cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (SacraSage, 2021).

Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ortline-tickets-219336089147

Schedule:

9am Eastern
Rory Randall, An Open Theist Renewal Theology: God’s Love, The Spirit’s Power, and Human Freedom
– Panelists: Joshua Reichard, Steve Harper, Chris Baker, Monte Lee Rice

10am Eastern
Sharon Baker Putt, A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostle’s Creed
– Panelists: Brian Felushko, Deanna Young, Travis Keller, Annie DeRolf

11am Eastern
Matthew Korpman, Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully
– Panelists: Eric Seibert, Scott Spencer, Tammy Wiese

Noon Eastern
John Sanders, Embracing Prodigals: Overcoming Authoritative Religion by Embodying Jesus’ Nurturing Grace
– Panelists: Mark Umstot, Ryan Lambros Janna Gonwa, Michael Brennan

1pm Eastern
Andrew Davis, Mind, Value, and Cosmos: On the Relational Nature of Ultimacy 
– Panelists: Andre Rabe, Austin Roberts, Sheri Kling, Fidel Arnecillo

2pm Eastern
Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances
– Panelists: Dhawn Martin, Andrew Schwartz, Elaine Padilla, Jea Sophia Oh

3pm Eastern
Matthew Segall, Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology
– Panelists: John Pohl, Tim Miller, Michael Epperson, Tim Eastman

4pm Eastern
Bruce Epperly, Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism
– Panelists: Clemette Haskins, Steve Watson, Tim Reddish, Clarence White

5pm Eastern
John Cobb, Salvation: Jesus’s Mission and Ours
– Panelists: Tripp Fuller, Thomas Hermans-Webster, Donna Bowman, Shaleen Kendrick, Krista E. Hughes

6pm Eastern
Andrew Williams, Boundless Love: A Companion to Clark H. Pinnock’s Theology
– Panelists: Chris Fisher, Shawn Ryan, Linda Mercadante, Sharon Harvey

Review of Timothy E. Eastman’s ‘Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context’ [DRAFT]

Below is a draft of a review of Tim Eastman’s new book. I’ll be submitting this to a journal for publication soon, but wanted to share it here for those interested in this important contribution to understanding the nature of reality in light of quantum process.

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TIMOTHY E. EASTMAN, Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020: 344 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

It was nearly a century ago, in the midst of the quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics, that Whitehead realized scientific progress had reached a turning point: 

“The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. …What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.” 

Despite Whitehead’s warning, the 1920s also saw the rise of a positivist prohibition on speculative metaphysics, handicapping progress into the foundations of post-classical science and producing precisely the fragmented medley that he feared. Fortunately, a growing chorus of interdisciplinary scientists is taking up the philosophical work left unfinished by the early twentieth century founders of quantum theory. In Untying the Gordian Knot (UGK), plasma physicist-cum-philosopher Timothy E. Eastman adds his voice to the ensemble, offering the “Logoi framework” as a meta-theory that aims not only to make ontological sense of quantum mechanics, but to integrate it with several other emerging twenty-first century frameworks, including complex systems science, Peircean triadic semiotics, and category theory. This alone would make Eastman’s book worthy of careful study; but he goes even further, sketching the plan for a bridge between science (or “the way of numbers”) and the human ethical and spiritual spheres (“the way of context”). Despite the grand scope of his inquiry, Eastman remains humble and conciliatory: the Logoi framework “is not post-anything but a proto-worldview” (11) that seeks to balance both theory and story, both systematic rigor and open-ended adventure (14). Eastman’s masterful synthesis of dozens of cutting edge researchers across numerous disciplines is impossible to summarize in this short review. Thus, in what follows, I focus on a few of UGK‘s important contributions to the birth of a process-relational science.

Eastman decided to study physics and philosophy not only because he wanted to understand the physical world, but because from a young age he intuited that this “wondrous whole” contained layers of meaning deeper than the merely measurable (1). Natural science has allowed human beings to reach beyond the mundane proportions of their sense organs and species-specific umwelt toward extreme magnitudes of space and time. Telescopes extend our eyesight across vast distances of intergalactic space; microscopes into the nuclei of cells and even atoms; inferences from radioactive decay rates of certain isotopes allow us to infer the age of fossils millions or billions of years into the past. Such techniques have dramatically expanded our understanding of the universe, and our place within it. But in extending our senses to scales they were not evolved to perceive, often while using empirical concepts derived from human-scale perception, we run the risk of succumbing to the sort of model-centric literalism that imagines we possess an outside God’s eye-view of an already finished universe. Eastman seeks to re-embed the scientific perspective within the evolving universe that gave rise to it, such that “the most fundamental notions [of natural science] can be inferred from normal human experience” (5). This follows from Eastman’s commitment to the Whiteheadian ideal that “concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice versa” (as articulated by Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein [2017, 2]).

Eastman carefully deconstructs the conceptual impediments to philosophical integration of post-classical science, such as “actualism,” “nominalism,” and “determinism” (89), arguing that potentials (or potentiae in his terms) have a creative role to play that both upsets notions of (efficient) causal closure and reintroduces formal causes into our accounts of natural processes. While quantum physics has forced the issue, Eastman points out that it is misleading to construe even the formalisms of classical Newtonian physics as though they entail strict determinism, since all such modeling frameworks make assumptions about initial and boundary conditions, relevant scales, and domains for meaningful solution (94). Granting potentiae real participation in the physical world not only allows science to consider the anticipatory capacities and creative agency of biological organisms in a non-reductive way. It also resolves longstanding quantum puzzles, which resulted from trying to force-fit a classical mechanistic ontology to results that should indicate the need for a new, process-relational ontology (54). Building on the Relational Reality model of Epperson and Zafiris (2013), Eastman describes the evolution of quantum events from pure potential to probabilities to actualization when measured (a process involving both logical conditioning and causal re-iteration) (38). Integrating Ruth Kastner‘s Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics (2013), Eastman argues that acts of measurement are not passive observations of already existing facts, but rather themselves establish new facts. There can be no ultimate causal closure, either for finite systems or for the universe as a whole, since the ontological unrest of newly emerging facts break any such closure. The universe thus becomes a cumulative succession of “actual occasions of experience,” wherein potentiae grow together with actualities by linking local causal interactions with global logical constraints in the ongoing process of realization. This process is asymmetric and includes both a standard (Boolean) dyadic logic of actualizations (res extensae) and a triadic logic of potentialities (res potentiae) (23). Eastman argues that “dyadic relations do not, in fact, exist in the real world, [only in] the world of abstract modeling” (27). This is because context is inevitably involved, and because the relationship between potentiality and actuality is inherently asymmetrical, from whence comes the arrow of time.

Eastman’s Logoi framework (again, following Epperson and Zafiris) thus carries forward Whitehead’s crucial distinction in Process & Reality (1978) between the logical order of concrete events (“genetic division”) and the causal order of metrical spacetime (“coordinate division”) (43-44). The former, rooted in fundamental quantum processes, is given primacy, while the latter, rather than being conceived of as a pre-existing continuum serving as a container for processes, is secondarily emergent from such processes (68). In Eastman’s words: 

“Quantum physics exemplifies the fact that physical extensiveness (standard spacetime description) is fundamentally topological rather than metrical, with its proper logico-mathematical framework being category-theoretic (relations of relations) rather than set-theoretic (sets of things)” (71).

Grasping the significance of Eastman’s Logoi framework may be aided by contrasting it with popular actualist accounts. Eastman critiques the physical “theory of everything” articulated by Sean Carroll in his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Carroll takes up the God’s eye perspective by offering a single “core theory,” an equation combining quantum mechanics, spacetime, gravity, matter, the Higgs field, and other forces, which he claims leaves no room for new aspects of the universe that are not already well understood. Eastman points out that, while the components of this core equation represent great achievements, in practice no one has ever succeeded in combining them into a practical model or simulation. Carroll’s core theory thus amounts to no more than a mashup and is not anywhere close to being a working equation (126). On Eastman’s reading, Carroll makes several unstated metaphysical assumptions including actualism, physicalism, and causal closure, leading him to mistake an amalgam of dyadic input-output models as though they could serve as an ultimate explanation for the universe (127). Rather than accepting Carroll’s actualist rendering of the Feynman path-integral formulation of quantum physics (where electrons are assumed to take every path, with the largest probability being given to that path which approaches classical physics), Eastman argues that “physical relations emerge from [the] multiple sampling of potentiae pre-space, which is operationally handled by the principle of least action, reflecting optimization of relations of relations in this pre-space” (138). Rather than prematurely limiting our creative cosmos to the idealized deductivist models of current physics, or suggesting untestable “scientific exotica”(82) like the vast ontological overflow of actualized possible worlds as in the “many-worlds” interpretation, Eastman leaves open the possibility of genuinely novel emergence within the only universe we could ever know anything about. 

Whitehead’s cosmology, along with Peirce’s and contemporary physicist Lee Smolin’s ideas, are often interpreted as implying that physical “law” is more a matter of empirical probability, rather than being metaphysically grounded. Since deism is no longer a live option for scientists (as it was in Descartes’ and Newton’s day), very few have attempted to ground “law” metaphysically (130). The closest thing contemporary physics has to such a metaphysical ground for physical laws are “symmetry principles.” But from Eastman’s perspective, these principles remain groundlessly circular descriptions without an accompanying process-relational ontology. Peirce attempted to reformulate laws as habits, but Eastman worries this may be a category error that, despite Peirce’s realist intentions, falls prey to nominalism. For Eastman, genuine habits can only be said to emerge at the biological level. Without wanting to affirm deductivism, he nonetheless thinks necessity must have some purchase in Nature for many of the findings of modern physics to make any sense. He thus argues that Nature’s laws derive, not from any deductive necessity, but rather from the conditional contingency of trajectory optimizing histories (e.g., the Principle of Least Action) (131).  He compares these trajectories to Leibniz’ “striving possibles” (133).

In addition to its paradigm remaking implications for physics, the Logoi framework’s fundamental distinction between the Boolean domain of actualized measurements and the non-Boolean domain of pre-space potentiae also has important implications for the study of human consciousness. Rather than reducing our concrete experience of mental processing to abstract correlations among measurable brain states, the Logoi framework allows us to take seriously our sense of being conscious agents capable of some degree of decisive influence over the ongoing flux of reality. With the inclusion of the realm of potentiae into physical ontology, human consciousness need no longer be thought of as an anomalous intruder into an otherwise well-behaved mechanical universe. Instead, our conscious experience offers us an intimate window into the function of potentiae in the broader course of Nature, as our everyday mental capacities involving tapping into and expressing “ontologically genuine remainder[s] of real possibility” (84). It follows that popular claims on behalf of artificial intelligence systems said to be on the verge of realizing effectively human levels of consciousness and cognition are rooted in faulty metaphysical presuppositions. AI systems are entailment devices limited to input-output (Boolean) logic alone, and so cannot tap into the realm of potentiae in the way biologically evolved, historically emergent minds can (98). 

Eastman synthesizes important insights from a variety of researchers to contribute much needed clarity to the scientific understanding the role of emergence in Nature. Emergent physical entities are so described because as novel wholes they are not derivable either from the stuff of which they are made nor from the laws of physics (111). Eastman distinguishes emergence as a synchronic hierarchical process that builds on diachronic causation. Many basic causal and emergent processes are rooted in multi-scale quantum field processes (Eastman gives the example of space plasmas, whose emergent processes range from planetary to galactic scales) (112). Emergence is thus not merely a matter of epistemic limits to reductive explanations, but rather a consequence of the influence of quantum process across all physical scales. In the Logoi framework, causation is interpreted more broadly than just the dyadic correlation of facts typical of actualist frameworks. From within an actualist framework, any novelty or emergence can only be regarded as an epiphenomenon arising from random error or chance. Understanding emergent entities and processes requires symbolic bridges, as knowledge presupposes a distinction between knower and known, and thus the need for mediation (113). Eastman proposes Whiteheadian “prehension” as one such symbolic-conceptual bridge. Eastman shares Charles Hartshorne’s sense that prehension is the most powerful metaphysical generalization ever accomplished (159n18), as it allows all sorts of relations (e.g., memory, perception, causality, spatial, temporal, subject-object, God-world, etc.) to be accounted for in terms of one generic type. Further, the metaphysics of prehension imply that all physical relations are fundamentally asymmetrical in structure. Prehension can be variously understood as a philosophical embodiment of field theory; as the ontologization of the mathematical function; and as an account of quantum process (113-114). In light of Whitehead’s prehensional account of causation and emergence and Epperson and Zafiris’ applications (2013), Eastman argues that a strong case can be made for the idea that all macro-systems (including relativistic spacetime) are ontologically emergent from fundamental quantum processes.  

Although Eastman creatively expands upon Whitehead’s process philosophy, he does so without remaining unduly tied to the latter’s categoreal scheme. He emphasizes Leemon McHenry’s (2017) interpretation of Whiteheadian prehensions as “concrete functions” rather than “abstract relations” (40), thus contrasting Whitehead’s “third approach” to his former collaborator Bertrand Russell’s nominalistic logical atomism. Prehension is defined in its physical mode as “the present occasion’s absorption of past actual occasions in its process of self-creation” (McHenry, 325). This leaves out the role of conceptual prehensions in Whitehead’s scheme, that is, the present occasion’s ingression of potentials or eternal objects in its process of self-creation. McHenry (2015) appears to question the need for Whitehead’s eternal objects (at least if they are given a “Platonic emphasis” (47). Eastman claims his account of a diachronic process in terms of pre-space potentiae plays a role similar to that of Whitehead’s “prehensive unification” first introduced in Science and the Modern World (1925). Despite approving of Whitehead’s perspectival account of the relation between universals and particulars (103), Eastman sometimes indicates a desire to distance himself from Whitehead’s eternal objects, thus implying that there may be important differences between his landscapes of potentiae and the realm of eternal objects. This is a fertile area for further philosophical exploration beyond the scope of this brief review. Nonetheless, a few suggestions can be offered. 

One way of beginning such an exploration stems from asking whether the choice of realism over nominalism as regards the status of form in Nature entails Platonism. Eastman thinks not (92), but given that Plato wrote dialogues and not doctrines, it all depends what is meant by “Platonism.” Regardless of the nature of his divergence from Whitehead’s category of eternal objects, they clearly share a rejection of nominalism. Eastman puts forward an argument against nominalist actualism that is rooted in quantum potentiae that integrate local-global interactions without themselves having any specific spacetime location. They are generals, in C. S. Peirce’s sense, serving as logical constraints on physical process. From Eastman’s point of view, admitting potentiae back into Nature is far more parsimonious than the actualist/nominalist interpretations of quantum theory (e.g., the many-worlds and multiverse hypotheses) (94). 

Eastman concludes his book with an attempt to link human and cosmic logoi in search of some sense of the deeper meaning of our existence. Careful to avoid any monological fixations, he builds on George Ellis’ “Kenotic morality” (2020, 13), wherein human values like truth, goodness, and beauty “reflect the forces or intentions that created the universe…as part of the deep structure of the cosmos,” in Ellis’ terms. Eastman also amplifies Robert Neville’s (2013, 53) worry about the “enormous damage to human civilization [resulting from] the loss of value-reference and realistic valuation in modern Western science” (245). With characteristic caution and modesty, Eastman seeks to contrast his own Logoi framework, which aims at “evidence-based methodology,” with the “advocacy-based thinking” that is more appropriate in cultural and political spheres (247). 

In the final pages, Eastman honors the Dakota peoples, upon whose land he first had the spiritual experience that initiated his inquiry into the nature of reality:

“In confronting the psychological challenges of nihilism, denialism, and assorted despairs of contemporary life, in facing up to the physical threats of war, pandemics, human suffering, and in newly realizing the deteriorating of earth’s climate, ecology, and habitability, can we somehow embrace what we have learned through science and philosophy and what we may yet draw on from indigenous and other spiritualities so as to bring into being a world in which we humans can live and flourish over the long term?” (274).

Eastman has succeeded in making a major contribution toward such an integral embrace. 

Works Cited 

Auxier, Randall and Herstein, Gary. (2017). The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism. New York: Routledge.

Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton.

Ellis, George  F. R. (2020). “A Mathematical Cosmologist Reflects on Deep Ethics: Reflections on Values, Ethics, and Morality.” Theology and Science: 1-15. 

Epperson, Michael and Zafiris, Elias. (2013). Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 

Kastner, Ruth. (2013). The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McHenry, Leemon. (2017). “Whitehead and Russell on the Analysis of Matter.” The Review of Metaphysics 71: 321-342. 

Neville, Robert. (2013). Ultimates: Philosophical Theology, Volume One. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 

The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis

I just sent a draft of this coauthored essay off to the editors. Astrobiologist Bruce Damer and I have been building toward this for a few years. I’m thrilled to have gotten it to this point, and looking forward to peer review! The essay will be featured in a book coming out of this conference to be held in May: “Astrobiology, Exo-Philosophy, and Cosmic Religion: Toward a Constructive Process Cosmotheology.”

“The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis” by Segall and Damer:

Goethe and Whitehead: Steps to a Science of Organism

This essay was slated to be published in the Holistic Science Journal, but it looks like it will end up somewhere else later this year. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, though, and wanted to share it here. Feedback welcome.

“Goethe and Whitehead: Steps to a Science of Organism” (2021):

Social Threefolding

“The Times are the masquerade of the eternities; trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise; the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history; the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future. The Times—the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes, are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves, whereon a weighty sense is inscribed, if we have the wit and the love to search it out.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson 

In 1919, amidst the revolutionary turmoil of the post-war period in Europe, the Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner applied his anthroposophical understanding of the human being to the challenges facing modern society. He called his program “Social Threefolding.” Those interested in the details of the campaign should read Albert Schmelzer’s The Threefolding Movement, 1919, A History: Rudolf Steiner’s Campaign for a Self-governing, Self-managing, Self-educating Society (2017). For Steiner’s explications, see this archive. After initially winning widespread support from workers and some liberals and leaders of industry in Stuttgart, Germany, the effort came under attack from left, right, and center alike. The movement’s failure was due in large part to Steiner’s refusal to succumb to partisan ideological factions. “We have to admit,” Steiner wrote at the time, “that party programs are drifting about among us like the dried corpses of now dead creeds” (The Threefold Social Order (1920), p. 11). Threefolding is not simply a program for political reform. Its success depends first and foremost on the spiritual awakening of free thinking human beings capable of willingly and lovingly engaging in social life beyond the partisan half truths that divide us. As Whitehead put it, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil” (Dialogues by Lucien Price).

I cannot do justice to the scheme in this short blog post. But I want to share some of the basic ideas. I hope to find others interested in developing them further, as Steiner was explicit that his approach needed to be reconfigured for application to different times and places. Despite the need for updates and adjustments, I believe his approach can aid us in our present social predicaments.

Social Threefolding is rooted in Steiner’s perception that, over the course of its collective evolution, humanity has produced three basic semi-autonomous spheres contributing to the health of the social organism. All three spheres of activity are necessary for societal well-being. Problems arise when one sphere swallows or is allowed to dominate over the others.

Forgive the poor translation from German to English in this graphic. Source: https://socialnew.goetheanum.org/threefolding/

The economic sphere corresponds to willing and has to do with the metabolism regulating human-earth relations. The political sphere corresponds to feeling and has to do with the rights and laws regulating human-human relations. The cultural sphere corresponds to thinking and has to do with all that springs from individual personalities for the sake of the social whole.

When the cultural sphere is allowed to dominate over economic and political life, the result is some form of theocracy. When the political sphere is allowed to dominate over economic and cultural life, the result is some form of state communism. With a few important exceptions, humanity’s present social (dis)order stems from the domination of the economic sphere over cultural and political life. We call this system of domination “global capitalism.”

Now, 30 years after its triumphant victory against Soviet communism, the global capitalist system looks more fragile than ever. The social and ecological ills produced by the capitalist growth imperative are impossible to deny. It may be that majorities on the left and right now agree that the current global capitalist order needs at least major reform if not total replacement. But with what? It is in response to this latter question that bitter divisions arise.

Speaking as a politically active American who canvased for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, I find myself increasingly dismayed by the abstract and unrealistic utopianism of progressive left and conservative right alike. The former seems to believe government can solve all our problems, while the latter seems to believe government is the source of all our problems. Much of the confusion stems from a lack of proper differentiation among the social spheres. For example, while the political sphere has a crucial role to play in securing the rights of all people (e.g., by reforming policing and the legal system, securing voting rights, etc.), it simply is not possible to legislate racism away. Racial biases are a perennial cultural issue and must be dealt with as such (there are plenty of examples of the right trying to legislate cultural issues, as well). Trying to legislatively control education or free speech only exacerbates the problem by allowing the political sphere to overreach and dominate the cultural sphere. That said, dealing with racist cultural biases is impossible without addressing racialized political and economic injustices. That the three social spheres are to be given some autonomy is not to say that they can function independently.

What political rights are citizens of a democracy due? Certainly, in the context of the US Constitution, these include the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, the freedom of speech, of religion, and of association, etc. But how can one secure their right to life without basic housing, nutrition, and healthcare? And what good is abstract liberty if it does not include access to quality education and cultural life? Without these, liberty loses its concrete meaning and efficaciousness. Under our capitalist political economy, the basic conditions required for life, liberty, and happiness are paywalled, and differentially so depending on historically entrenched racial and class inequities.

Under the current global capitalist system, everything from housing to healthcare to human labor is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold for the private profit of an increasingly small cohort of billionaires. From a Threefolding perspective, the economic sphere has in these instances far overreached its proper charter, infringing upon the political rights of individuals. While corporate capitalism has increasingly embraced cultural progressivism, this rebranding amounts to no more than equal opportunity exploitation.

The claim that food, shelter, education, and healthcare are foundational political rights due to all citizens may make threefolding sound like a form of left wing utopianism. But this claim simply asserts the concrete conditions necessary for realizing the abstract rights enshrined in the constitution. While Steiner certainly sympathized with the plight of factory workers, supporting their call for the abolition of the wage system and for greater self-management, he completely rejected the idea of a state-centralized economy. Instead, he imagined an associative economy of cooperative firms seeking to harmonize their interests:

“The regulation of the production, circulation, and consumption of goods will not be done by laws, but by the persons concerned, out of their own direct insight and interests. The necessary insight will be developed through people’s own share in the life of the associations, and the fact that the various interests are obliged to arrive at a mutual balance by contract, will guarantee that the goods circulate at their proper relative values.”

Steiner, The Threefold Social Order (1920), p. 9.

In sharp contrast to the materialism of Marxist political movements, Steiner rejects the critique of cultural and spiritual life as mere ideology. On the contrary, Steiner felt that Marxists were blinded by the ideological weight of materialism from recognizing the spiritual content of their own impulses. He sought to affirm their sense of economic injustice while also inviting them to participate in the cultural life which to that point had been largely reserved for the upper and middle classes. This is not to say, however, that Steiner was blind to the impact of bourgeois ideology. During his campaign for social threefolding in Stuttgart, he reminded upper middle class theosophists and anthroposophists that the comfortable homes they withdrew to in order to contemplate spiritual ideas were heated with coal mined by children. He sought both to awaken the upper classes to the plight of workers, and to awaken workers to the spiritual ground of human life, with the aim of seeding the social soil so as to foster a truly free cultural sphere (including education, arts, religion, science, and media), genuine legal equality for everyone regardless of gender or race, etc., and a cooperative, regenerative economy that aims to contribute to the flourishing of humanity and the earth, rather than to profit from their exploitation.

Zombie Evolution (reply to Sean Carroll)

The physicist Sean Carroll was recently on the Mind Chat podcast hosted by the philosophers Keith Frankish and Philip Goff. Watch it here.

I uploaded a brief interpolation of my own on YouTube, which among other things calls out the model-centrism at play in Carroll’s “Core Theory.”

Earlier today, Carroll uploaded a blog post to tie up some loose ends after his discussion with Goff and Frankish: “The Zombie Argument for Physicalism (Contra Panpsychism).

Contrary to the intent of most philosophical zombie arguments, Carroll attempts to “ZAP” the credibility of panpsychist accounts of consciousness by arguing that, ironically, the well-wrought thought experiment only ends up strengthening the case for physicalism.

Philosophical zombies would, of course, insist that they have 1st-person introspective acquaintance with their own inner lives. They would claim to enjoy colors and sounds, and to feel deeply insulted by our opinion of them as mere mindless automatons. But they would be completely mistaken. Their verbal objections to our genuinely conscious judgements about them would amount to nothing more than the causally determined motion of lips, tongue, vocal cords, diaphragm, and neurons. No one would be making the claims, as they would amount to no more than the auditory outputs of a complicated machine.

Carroll correctly claims that the traditional zombie argument, if it challenges the credibility of physicalism at all, leaves panpsychists with a merely epiphenomenal sort of consciousness, a witness with no will, a ghost with no way to actively participate in physical processes. Admitting that consciousness is epiphenomenal leaves the panpsychist with way less explanatory leverage against physicalism, since if consciousness makes no difference to the goings-on of the physical world, then scientifically speaking it’s just not worth bothering about. Carroll admits that dualists could still argue for the irreducibility of epiphenomenal consciousness to physics, but due to the incoherence of the dualist ontology (i.e., two entirely distinct types of substance with no clear way to interact), we can set this position to the side.

If, on the other hand, consciousness does have some strongly emergent, downward causal role to play in how the body behaves, then according to Carroll that would mean that the very well-established Core Theory of physics is wrong. Electrons can’t break the laws of physics just because the mind haunting my brain tells them to.

In the background is Carroll’s claim to possess a complete theory by means of which the behavior of the physical world can be deduced.* The problem with this sort of model-centrism is that it entirely neglects the historicity of our universe, implying some sort of outside “God’s eye view.” Carroll’s emphasis on timeless imposed laws begs the question of their status in an otherwise entirely materialistic cosmos. Like Lee Smolin, and earlier philosophical scientists like C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead, I find it more coherent to recognize the cosmos as an evolving process, with “laws” arising as widespread habits alongside the emergent entities exemplifying them. As the cosmos complexifies, emergent entities like atoms, stars, and galaxies take shape to progressively constrain the future course of evolution. But nothing in the Core Theory, as I understand it, predicts the emergence of life or mind. This is not to say that the Core Theory somehow rules out the possibility, just that it renders these phenomena exceedingly unlikely, even miraculous. For the Core Theory to be considered a truly complete theory of everything, it would need to account for its own conditions of possibility, which is to say it would need to describe a universe wherein creatures capable of developing a Core Theory could evolve. Short of this, the best we cay say about the theory is that it accurately describes the goings-on of its particular domain of relevance. It is an abstract model that describes the physical world as if life and mind did not exist. Bracketing these higher level phenomena for the purposes of developing workable models of simpler phenomena is perfectly fine. Physics has been wildly successful in doing so! But turning around to try to explain away the consciousness doing the explaining as though it were nothing but a “successful way of talking” about physical behavior reeks of model-centrism.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that conscious agency in any way contradicts the account of particles and fields offered by the Core Theory. Electrons, for instance, need not disobey the equations of physics to nonetheless be subject to different probability distributions resulting from the unique, highly evolved physiological environment of the mammalian nervous system. The point is that context matters. Laws are not imposed on nature from some eternal mathematical heaven. They are descriptions of the statistical behavior of entities in various environments and at various levels of organization.

But back to the zombie argument. The point of this thought-experiment, as I understand it, is not to prove that consciousness is necessarily something extra above and beyond physics. Nor am I convinced by Carroll’s ironic reversal, that somehow it cements the strength of the physicalist account. I think it is helpful to cut to the chase by putting the zombie argument in an evolutionary context. If consciousness evolves, then it cannot be epiphenomenal, since in that case it would play no role in an organism’s behavior and thus offer nothing for the evolutionary process to select and enhance. So, if we put dualism and idealism to the side (I know this is not entirely fair to idealists, but that discussion will have to wait for a later post), then consciousness must somehow be causally efficacious, i.e., it must be a real feature of the physical world. But if matter/energy is construed in the abstract terms that model-centrists insist upon, then it is not at all clear how to bridge the gap. Hence Chalmers’ “hard problem.”

The solution, I’ve argued, is to first admit that physics offers a highly predictive but nonetheless abstract account of the isolated behavior of fields and particles. There is nothing in this model that suggests the universe should ever come to life or wake up and start consciously reflecting upon itself. Thus, the model needs to be placed in a broader cosmological context. To resolve the hard problem of consciousness, what we have traditionally meant by “matter” and by “experience” needs to be rethought, such that the two are understood as the “outside” and the “inside” of one and the same unfolding reality. This allows us to make continuous what would otherwise remain a rather glaring ontological chasm.

That simpler forms of self-organization, like electrons, protons, or the atomic elements they symbiotically compose, follow extremely regular and predictable patterns of behavior does not rule out the possibility that these behaviors are the expression of what Whitehead described as “vector-feelings.” What physicists describe in mathematical terms as gravitational fields may be experienced by the particles in question as gravitational feelings.

*For a logical and philosophical critique of Carroll’s “Core Theory,” see pgs. 126-130 of plasma physicist and process philosopher Tim Eastman’s book Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020).


For an article length treatment of these issues, see “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020)

On Whitehead’s Sociological Theory in “Adventures of Ideas”

Whitehead’s goal is these pages to elucidate the concept of civilization. He operates under the assumption that human civilization has profound cosmological significance. The fact that civilized beings have emerged in the course of the evolution of the universe tells us something important about the nature and perhaps even the purpose of that universe. His hypothesis is that the rise of human civilization exemplifies the effective lure of ideas in the adventure of cosmogenesis. While the issue of novel ideas into practical consequences may be slow, the upward adventure of life on Earth testifies to their power. 

He begins by reminding his readers that history is not just a collection of facts. Were we to be presented with the bare facts, devoid of any theoretical interpretation, we would have merely sound vibrations and the motion of colored shapes (3). History is a story told in the present, often to serve as material for the formation of our own self-understanding. Our imaginations of history are inseparable from our metaphysical and cosmological presuppositions. 

Whitehead claims that the study of history reveals a general dichotomy, that between senseless, often violent, compulsion and consciously formulated aspiration. People “are driven by their thoughts as well as by the molecules in their bodies, by intelligence and by senseless forces” (46). Whitehead lists environmental conditions and the brute necessities of technological production (e.g., the socially transformative effects of coal, steam, electricity, and oil) among the senseless forces, and Axial religion and democratic humanitarianism as examples of intelligent aspiration (7).  

While Whitehead was himself a progressive (he was involved in the women’s rights and educational reform movements of his day), he cautions against the impetuous insistence upon imposing new ideas in the wrong season. Sometimes in the rush to implement social improvements, attendant complexities are ignored, and the attempt to remove an evil ends up releasing further evils (20). “A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good [people] to carry it into practical effect…The ideal in the background is promoting the gradual growth of the requisite communal customs, adequate to sustain the load of its exemplification” (21). Ideals may be well-intentioned, but given the complexities of both nature and culture (and the complex interplay and continual overlap between them), the actual effects of their implementation often far outrun their conscious intent.

Whitehead dwells on the institutions of human sacrifice and slavery, long accepted among supposedly civilized peoples, as examples of the power of inherited instinctive behaviors to override higher ideals. “Freedom” was almost a meaningless notion for earlier societies, such as the Egyptian or Babylonian (49). Whitehead tasks philosophy with seeking to consciously entertain and articulate those ultimate intuitions, obscured by habitual customs, that nonetheless guide human beings toward civilized order, that is, toward a world wherein the persuasion of free beings has emerged victorious over coercive force as the prime agent of history (25). Whitehead offers an updated rendering of Plato’s suggestion in the Republic—that the ideal state would be run by philosopher-kings: “today, in an age of democracy, the kings are plain citizens pursuing their various avocations. There can be no successful democratic society till general education conveys a philosophic outlook” (98). 

Such a philosophical outlook would marshal wisdom as a “modifying agency” upon the two streams that feed into our consciousness, that is, inherited instincts/routines and intellectual ferment/spontaneity (47). Wisdom functions to coalesce these streams into some self-determining (i.e., free) and holistic judgment. Wise decision-making is limited by the limitations of our consciousness: “We do not initiate thought by an effort of self-consciousness. We find ourselves thinking, just as we find ourselves breathing and enjoying the sunset.” Nonetheless, few are willing to deny the role of knowledge and freedom in human life, though admittedly they tend to come in brief and unexpected flashes. Civilization advances, if it does, because wisdom kindles these flashes so as to melt and make malleable inherited customs and to light the way toward juster futures. 

Whitehead sees little evidence that humanity’s inborn mental capacities have increased during the historical period. Rather, he points to “the outfit which the environment provides for the service of thought,” that is, to the impact of various media technologies (e.g., literary and mathematical symbolisms, communication methods, etc.). The downside is that technologically mediated intelligence is liable to get locked into its favored abstractions, “[dismissing] the baffling aspects of things” in favor of the certainty provided by logical system. “Wisdom,” Whitehead suggests, “is persistent pursuit of the deeper understanding, ever confronting intellectual system with the importance of its omissions…The folly of intelligent people, clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes” (47-48).

Writing in the early 20th century, Whitehead thought that the economic sphere constituted the “most massive problem of human relationships” (62). He maintains high hopes for commerce, since ideally “it is the great example of intercourse in the way of persuasion,” while “war, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force” (83). But difficulties stand in the way of realizing the ideal. Whitehead discusses the invention of corporate personhood, which he believes totally undermined classical liberal political philosophy, wherein freedom belonged to individual human beings, rather than to fictional corporate entities. He also discusses the hazy notion of private property, which with the expansion of monopolistic corporate rule and competitive market dynamics has come to signify little more than “the will of the stronger” (63). But Whitehead admits that the classical liberal idea of “absolute individuals with absolute rights” is both metaphysically and politically inadequate: “The human being is inseparable from its environment in each occasion of its existence.” Whitehead’s process-relational understanding of reality has it that individuals, while they constitute real loci of aesthetic and moral value, are nonetheless emergent from their social relations; similarly, societies are shaped by the mutual transactions of their members. The emergence of individuals from their social relations means that custom forms the instinctive basis of our behavior. But determination by custom is not total, as individuals are also free to emphasize novel intuitions of alternative courses of action, and to consciously agree to mutually beneficial contractual transactions with one another, thus allowing for the possibility of a genuinely free marketplace. In the end, “nothing is effective except massively coordinated inheritance. Sporadic spontaneity is composed of flashes mutually thwarting each other. Ideas have to be sustained, disentangled, diffused, and coordinated with the background. Finally they pass into exemplification in action” (64). Thus, much work remains to be done to translate the ideal of freedom into the economic domain.

Whitehead traces the rise of the ideal of freedom in the history of human societies. Once a negligible fancy, it has gradually become the founding value of democratic nation-states. But Whitehead warns us against conceiving of freedom in purely cultural terms, as freedom of thought and speech, of the press, or of religious practice; that is, it is shortsighted to conceive of restraints on our freedom as stemming merely from the conflicting desires of other human beings. It is not our fellow human beings, but the “massive habits of physical nature” that constrain our freedom and set the scene for our suffering: “birth and death, heat, cold, hunger, separation, disease…all bring their quota to imprison the souls of women and of men” (66). Political philosopher William Connolly’s book The Fragility of Things (2013) begins by recounting the catastrophic Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which provides as striking an example as we could ask for of what Whitehead means. Connolly describes how the senseless shock of this terrible natural disaster fed into the emergent Enlightenment mentality represented by Voltaire, who in his satirical book Candide ridiculed both traditional religious consolations as well as Leibniz’s conception that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. In Connolly’s terms, the event exemplifies the way “the human estate is both imbricated with and periodically over-matched by a cosmos composed of multiple, interacting force fields moving at different speeds” (7). But rather than adopting an atheistic position in light of nature’s vicissitudes and the fragility of human life, Whitehead affirms the role of Ideas in history, believing that we can directly intuit an eternal Good beyond all changing circumstances. Without such ideal intuitions to stir the soul toward higher life, he sees no reason why civilized beings should have come to exist in the first place.

Whitehead then turns to critique the socioeconomic consequences of the Malthusian doctrine and the attendant Darwinian notion of “the survival of the fittest,” which he believes are at best an over-simplification and, at worst, when compared with the recent facts of European history, demonstrably false. The doctrine naturalizes the inequalities of capitalist society, with “the fortunate few, and…the semi-destitute many,” forcing us to abandon “hope of improving the social system by a humane adjustment of social…conditions” (73). Connolly goes into more detail regarding the continued effect of these doctrines in his discussion of neoliberalism, which is an ideology seeking to use state power to inject market dynamics into all domains of human life (21). The assumption is that the self-organizing dynamics of the market will result in the best of all possible worlds. Neoliberalism is thus a kind of capitalist Panglossianism (6) (Pangloss, remember, is Voltaire’s caricature of Leibniz).

Though Whitehead emphasizes the selective agency required for the evolution of civilization out of raw nature, he rejects the prevalent dichotomy between humanity and nature. “Mankind is that factor in Nature which exhibits in its most intense form the plasticity of Nature” (78). He goes on to claim that life itself is about more than mere survival, as living beings are constantly playing offense, groping toward novelty and expansion of their powers. In the human sphere, it follows that “a policy of sociological defense is doomed to failure” (81). “In a live civilization, there is always an element of unrest. For sensitiveness to ideas means curiosity, adventure, change” (83).

“Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances” by Catherine Keller

Let us first recall why Keller has chosen to “dreamread” John of Patmos’ Book of Revelation. As a process theologian, it is no surprise that she would be interested in a Biblical text. But her purpose is not merely to read John’s missive back into its 1st century CE historical context. Nor is her intent to read it as a literal prediction of a divinely determined future. Her aim, rather, is to unveil the eternal patterns of history that reverberate through John’s day into our own. Keller is dreamreading the “ancient future” of humanity, imperiled by imperial excesses and injustices then as now. She turns to Revelation as a polysemic source of dis-closure, that is, as a reminder that the future remains open-ended, its promise or peril awaiting our response to the signs of the times. Keller reads the book’s many internal contradictions as a call to liberate ourselves, through the work of shared mourning and collective uplift, from any sense of scripts already written so that we may arrive fully in the potent present, capable of facing what MLK, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” The book she dreamreads remains relevant to our situation today because, with both oppressive and progressive effects, it has inspired martyrs, emperors, and enslaved alike to shape and reshape the course of civilization for millennia. 

In Chapter 5, Keller interprets John’s misogynistic vision of the luxuriously adorned “Whore of Babylon” astride a seven-headed, ten-horned scarlet beast as a metaphor (or “metaforce”) expressive of the unholy matrimony of imperial power and global economy. The beast is said to turn on the “Mother of Whores,” just as imperial superpowers have been known to contradict themselves by “devouring the very flesh, resources, [and] labor, [they] live from” (111). John details the commodities that the “merchants of the earth” of his day buy and sell along their Mediterranean sea routes. These include not only wine, pearls, silk, and spices, but “human bodies and souls” (Rev. 18:11-13). Keller reminds us that “Rome two thousand years ago operated the largest market in chattel slaves on the planet,” adding the disturbing facts that “civilization as we know it is based upon the labor of unthinkable numbers of slaves,” and, even today, long after the institution has been outlawed in most nations, tens of millions of mostly women and children remain in chains, with billions more stuck in what amounts to wage slavery (114). 

Keller then turns to a critique, informed by Revelation, of our insatiable neoliberal/neo-imperial capitalist political economy. In our day, as in John’s, the power of unchecked consumerism does not simply fulfill desires, it produces them—or in terms of John’s pornographic metaforce, it “seduces”: “the graphic of the great whore signifies a commodification of self, body and soul, on the part of imperial subjectsnot just their objects” (117). In other words, the power of capitalism is not simply “out there,” imposed upon us as the will of an imperial army may be. The truly insidious thing about an economy of greed is how it infects our very selves, our sense of self-worth and well-being. The engine of our economy depends upon knowing no limits, on the feeling of lack, the constant need of more income, more land, more labor, more stuff. The political representatives elected to protect our democratic rights and assure social stability by checking the power of transnational corporations have failed to fulfill their duties. Under the neoliberal order which has held sway since the 1970s (when declining growth, growing inequality, and rising debt put an end to the post-war alliance between capital and democracy), the role of the state has been coopted, so that it now “[offers] political support, tax benefits, police and military backing for the economy, which in return rewards the politicians it rides” (121). Capital cannot help itself, it commodifies everything: land, labor, politicians, and like John’s Porn Queen, even itself, undermining its own conditions of continuance. 

Building on the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streek, Keller introduces the situation in present day Western democracies as a struggle between two constituencies, the “nation state people” and the “international market people” (122). Tensions are rising as inequality reaches levels not seen since ancient Rome (Keller cites studies showing that, within the US, the ratio between the richest 100 households and the bottom 90% is about 108,000 to 1, roughly equivalent to that between a senator and a slave at the height of the Roman empire). The rise of Trump and other demagogues around the world is symptomatic of income inequality and a growing rift between “nationalists” (who are mostly white and often rural) and “globalists” (often urban and somewhat more diverse). Rather than demonize the supporters of Trump (many of whom are evangelical Christians inspired by their own, albeit more spurious readings of Revelation), Keller acknowledges the ambiguities and contradictions of our times. Trump’s presidency was itself an outcome, and perhaps signals also the ending, of American neoliberalism (126). The anger that helped lift him into office stemmed from racist animosity but also the complete lack of concern shown by (neo)liberals for many working class people as the post-war industrial economy was dismantled and its jobs sent over seas. Keller admits that John’s visions are indeed suggestive of a great battle against the global elites who profit from such outsourcing. But the contradictions intensify, as Republicans blame wildfires in the Western US on environmentalists instead of climate change, while Democrats blame Trump’s election on Russian memes instead of acknowledging the impact of global trade on the lives of those Hillary Clinton dismissed as “deplorables.” Keller also warns against conflating jet-setting cosmopolitan neoliberalism with the radically intersectional cosmopolitics that resists with equal vigor both the “aspirational fascism” of nationalists and the insatiable extractivism of globalists (124). 

In the end, Keller returns to the beginning, to the “dominion” clause in the Genesis creation narrative that has stirred so much debate among environmentalists and religious scholars. It is becoming increasingly clear to anyone paying attention that “the matter of the earth will not neatly reduce to the stuff of dollar signs…Matter Strikes Back” (130). In other words, all of humanity is beginning to experience the blowback from centuries of unchecked extraction and pollution. Witness “Gaia’s Revenge,” as James Lovelock put it. All of humanity suffers from this blowback, the conspicuously consuming and technologically insulated wealthy Western peoples as well as the Global South, where billions of people are eager for justice to be restored despite being first in line to face rising sea levels and changing climates.

The drive to dominate the Earth among the Biblical peoples has deep roots in a perhaps partial reading of the story of creation: “What a beastly irony: somehow human-godlikeness got taken as ‘go for it, godly world masters: use up the earth, waste its creatures” (131). Keller closes chapter five by offering a re-reading of the first book, reminding that Elohim creates not from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) but from “the deep” (creatio ex profundis). Further, God says that every creature, and creation itself, is good, indicating to Keller that we who are made in God’s image “are called to emulate that love of the material universe” (131). (For more on Keller’s theopoetic reading of Genesis, be sure to check out her book Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming). 

In Chapter 6, Keller explores the “poetics of Hebrew hope” that shaped John’s 1st century religious context and that have continued to reverberate through the millennia. The earliest Christian communities suffered disappointment after their messiah was crucified by the empire they so despised. They waited for a second coming, but Keller points out that no such “coming again” is mentioned in the Bible. Rather, despite the persistence of imperial rule and the increasingly violent persecution of his followers, Christ is signaled as “present” (parousia) rather than still to come (135). Keller goes on to chronicle the uses and abuses of Revelation. In the 2nd century CE, the African theologian Tertullian, emboldened by John’s text, attempted to create some breathing room between politics and religion by calling upon Rome to protect religious freedom (144). Eventually, Emperor Constantine would answer this call, but only at the cost of the imperialization of Christianity. The anti-imperialist egalitarian community Jesus had inspired thus transformed into the official religion of Rome. Still, Tertullian’s call would ring true thousands of years later, inspiring the liberation of slaves in the Americas. In the 11th century CE, Pope Urban II’s holy crusades, inspired by the bloody battles of John’s visions, unified a war torn Europe against a common Muslim enemy. A century later, European Christendom would face internal dissensions again, as heterodox communities perceived the growing wealth of the Vatican through the lens of John’s Great Whore (149). The monk Joachim of Fiore declared the coming “Age of Spirit” when the Church hierarchy would be dissolved, all property would be held in common, and everyone would have direct access to the divine. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant revolt against the excesses of the Catholic Church. Luther memed scenes from John’s Revelation by portraying the Pope as the Whore of Babylon. Included in his German translation of the Bible was a drawing of the Mother of Whores wearing the papal tiara (151). The Thirty Years War to follow was the bloodiest in European history. 

Colored version of the Whore of Babylon illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible

Keller chronicles these events to make clear that “the history of collective resistance to oppression is no less an effect of the Apocalypse than is the oppression itself” (155). Indeed, Jewish messianism leaves its traces in all modern progressive movements on behalf of justice. Keller says that the progressive left must grieve the “totalitarian traumatisms” and “messianic disappointment” of 20th century state communism, turning elsewhere for its (more intersectional, more cosmopolitical and multispecies) political projects (158). While the right appears more unified, and thus more poised to take power, it is “precisely because of its pluralist and planetary proclivities [that] the progressive spectrum is more vulnerable than the right to contradictions between its ever-apocalyptic priorities” (161). She councils our “cosmically entangled, dangerously gifted, achingly diverse” species to take time for griefwork, to mourn all that has been and is being lost. And she warns us to remain ever vigilant against the temptation to allow the rage that arises in us to forego its righteousness by collapsing into a vengeful “we-good, you-bad” dichotomy. The split between good and evil people only fuels more cycles of revenge. If God is love (as the other John said in his gospel), and if justice is what love looks like in public (as Cornel West puts it), then only our love of each other (enemies included) and of all creation can hold open the possibility of a future worth living in. What kind of future will that be? In the final chapters of her book, Keller offers some possibilities… 

“Another End of the World is Possible” by Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle

“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
—Bruno Latour

“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.” 
—David Graeber

Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.

The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies. 

We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).

The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).  

The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here. 

The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”

Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195). 

“How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times” by Servigne and Stevens

Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens cover a lot of territory in this book. It is clear enough to anyone open to even consider reading it that climate change and other ecological catastrophes are already occurring and will only intensify. This book was published in French in 2015, well before the Covid-19 pandemic. While the origins of this virus are not yet known, it is widely understood that the effects of climate change and attendant habitat loss make “spillover events” more likely. So pandemics may be the new normal, with Covid-19 serving as a deadly but relatively merciful dress rehearsal (relatively merciful because the next novel virus that spills over into human circulation may have a much higher infection fatality rate). We have also learned from the explosion of conspiratorial thinking during the pandemic just how right Servigne and Stevens are to warn that collapse will not come with any homogenous vision of what is happening (153): “almost everything will be played out on the ground of the imaginary, of our representations of the world” (154). We are in the midst of a total information war with as many fronts as there are screens. Such a situation finds us in desperate need of shared understandings, of a common (even if multiply culturally inflected) story, since “stories give birth to collective identities,” and thus, foster awareness of our shared planetary destiny. 

In addition to the threat of pandemics which we have all grown familiar with, Servigne and Stevens list other catastrophes that are likely to intensify: biodiversity loss, chemical spills, resource wars, droughts, wildfires, migrations, terror attacks, financial crises, and social unrest, to name a few. They raise the question of how we are to maintain belief in the urgency of our situation given that disasters are becoming so common. Jerry Brown, former governor of California, remarked back in 2018 that mega-wildfires are “the new abnormal.” The authors discuss the difficulties and moral hazards of assessing risk in the context of ever-evolving hypercomplex systems, like Gaia or the global economy. Often, an “inverse temporality” only allows catastrophes to be recognized as possible in retrospect. Also, complex systems are understood to be resilient only up to certain unknown thresholds, at which point they can suddenly collapse. In light of the uncertainties, they recommend that we switch from an “observe, analyze, command and control” approach to risk assessment to a “probe, act, sense, adjust” mode. The latter is a better alternative to just waiting for catastrophe to strike before taking action. 

Despite the uncertainties, Servigne and Stevens discuss a few attempts to mathematically model collapse, including the “HANDY” (human and nature dynamics) model and the “World3” model. The HANDY model is unique in including economic inequality among its parameters. It factors in not only accumulated wealth but also its distribution through society. The model shows that societies with inequalities in wealth distribution will collapse even with low levels of overall consumption (112). Part of the reason is that “wealth buffers” in such societies allow elites to continue business as usual, thus locking in the very sociotechnical routines that eventually deplete the resource base, triggering collapse. The World3 model, originally developed by a group of systems scientists at MIT, has been around longer than HANDY. Based on the modeling of parameters including population, industrial production, agriculture, pollution, and resource use, it predicts the collapse of thermo-industrial civilization at some point in the 21st century. One of the designers of the model, Dennis Meadows, remarked in 2012 that “It is too late for sustainable development, you have to prepare for shocks and urgently build small resilient systems” (122). 

At this point, the question of how to define collapse may have arisen. How would we recognize it if and when it actually occurred? Yves Cochet’s definition is cited, which states that collapse is “the process at the end of which basic needs can no longer be provided at reasonable cost to a majority of the population by services under legal supervision” (126). The authors also cite Dmitry Orlov, who studied the collapse of the Soviet Union. He lists five stages of collapse (133), including 1) financial collapse (future investments become impossible because faith in business as usual is lost), 2) commercial collapse (money itself becomes devalued or scarce, supply shortages, rationing, etc.), 3) political collapse (faith in functioning and legitimacy of government is lost, municipal services like water and trash collection begin to shut down, etc.), 4) social collapse (loss of faith in existing institutions and organizations, leading people to regress to clan and gang allegiances), and 5) cultural collapse (faith in the goodness of humanity is lost). As Cochet’s and Orlov’s accounts make clear, in many parts of the US and around the world, collapse is very much already upon us. 

Despite the possibility of social and cultural collapse, Servigne and Stevens try to check the Hollywood movie driven fear that human beings become savage killers whenever catastrophes occur. The evidence suggests quite the opposite: “after catastrophe…most human beings behave in extraordinarily altruistic, calm, and composed ways” (150). Such behaviors challenge the founding myth of our liberal societies, that prior to the “social contract” that gave rise to states, humans existed as autonomous, greedy individuals ruthlessly competing in a “state of nature.” The truth is we are profoundly relational creatures, with the ability to fluidly shift identities between “I” and “We” as the moral circumstances require. Nonetheless, emergent networks of mutual aid rest upon a “fragile alchemy,” and without the restoration of basic needs like food and water, cooperative altruism may quickly shift into violent competition and selfish hoarding. There is an urgent need to rebuild vibrant local social fabrics and to create collective practices and aptitudes for living together (all things that modern consumer culture and individualism have methodically destroyed) (155).