Enjoyed dialoging with James about Whitehead’s organic cosmology
I had a great conversation with Joe Moore of Psychedelics Today a couple months back, and the podcast was just released today. Have a listen.
In this episode, Joe interviews philosopher, author, and assistant professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco: Matthew D. Segall, Ph.D.
Segall discusses the relationship between consciousness and neuroscience: how science is helpful, but ultimately amounts to just one of many different tools towards describing consciousness (not truly understanding it), and how science, philosophy, and religion need to focus on their specialties but also work together towards better defining the human experience. And he talks about the importance of philosophy in trying to make sense of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
As this is a very back-and-forth, philosophically-based conversation, they talk about a lot more: William James, David Ray Griffin’s concept of “hardcore common sense presuppositions,” Richard Dawkins, scientism, positivism, how we’re slowly thinning the line between technology and humanity, Timothy Leary and whether or not anyone really “dropped out,” German idealism, how capitalism co-opts everything, John Cobb, Alfred North Whitehead, Universal Basic Income, the death denial in capitalist life, and how to use the relationship between the internet and capitalism to improve society.
“The thing about capitalism is that it lives inside each of us at the level of our desires and our drives because we’ve been shaped by it. So we can’t pretend like it’s this big, bad monster out there that other people believe in. The problem with capitalism is that it’s not just a worldview you decide to believe in or not; it is the very structure, again, of your desires and your sense of identity. It’s inside of you.”
“They say cannabis causes problems with motivation. Well yea, once you see through the value structure of our society, you lose motivation to participate because it’s no longer appetizing to you to engage in the rat race.”
“Fifty years later, after Leary was saying ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out’, a lot of people thought that they followed his instructions, but again, capitalism co-opted the whole hippie movement, and by the 90s, they were selling Che Guevera t-shirts at the shopping mall and Apple was using the Beatles to sell computers.”
“The way that liberals tend to think about these questions [is that] they get really mad at Facebook for being biased in what ads they allow and not censoring certain things and selling ads to Russians and stuff. …A publicly traded corporation has one purpose: to maximize shareholder profits. And that’s the business model for Facebook, and so they’ll take money from anyone who wants to sell ads. They’re a private company. They’re not a public utility that has anywhere in its corporate charter as part of its mission: ‘improving civil society’ or ‘helping America maintain its democracy.’ Why would we expect a private corporation to do that? There’s no incentive in capitalism for that. And yet we get mad and blame Mark Zuckerberg. Why aren’t we blaming capitalism? That’s where the source code for this problem is.”
“Psychedelics aren’t necessarily going to wake us up, but I think that’s why we need philosophy. These substances and these experiences need to be contained within a meaningful story and a meaningful theory of reality so that we can make sense of what we’re experiencing and integrate it, and not only come out of those experiences with a profound sense of what’s wrong with our society, but with at least a good idea for what we’d like instead.”
Dr. Torday is Professor of Evolutionary Medicine at UCLA: https://www.evmed.ucla.edu/torday/
For more on the cellular theory of evolution: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4447538/
More about the Cobb Institute Science Advisory Committee: https://cobb.institute/science-advisory-committee/
Last Saturday, the Science Advisory Committee for the Cobb Institute hosted plasma physicist and philosopher Timothy Eastman for the first of 8 dialogue sessions focused on his new book, Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020). The book sketches a new approach to a theory of everything that builds on philosophers like Peirce and Whitehead, as well as recent advances in quantum, complexity, and category theories.
Here is the recording of the first session:
If you’d like to join the next session on July 10, RSVP here: https://cobb.institute/tim-eastman-unties-the-gordian-knot-2021-07-10/
Great post over on the Prehended blog, partially in response to my book and recent post about Whitehead. Whitehead’s understanding of purpose in nature is enriched by being brought into fruitful comparison with Peirce’s semiotics.
It is true that I try to distance Whitehead from at least Kantian conceptions of rationality (Whitehead replaces Kant’s “critique of pure reason” with a “critique of pure feeling”). I appreciate the critiques here as I should be more clear that Whitehead is not advocating some sort of irrationalism, but rather a form of “aesthetic logic” or “relational rationality.”
Matthew Segall (who blogs over at footnotes2plato.com) has recently published a revised edition of his book Physics of the World Soul–an exploration of Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative philosophy, bringing it into dialogue with some recent science and discussing its relevance for our current era of ecological and intellectual turbulence. Reading it over, I felt Segall delivered an exciting and accessible exploration and application of Whitehead’s ideas (as well as plenty of creative thinking beyond Whitehead), hopefully getting many readers of various backgrounds eager to dive deeper into this philosophy. I don’t think there is that much in the substance of Segall’s characterization of Whitehead I disagree with–but I do think there may be possible ambiguities where I would want to draw some further clarification, which I hope to fruitfully pursue in this blog post, and thereby also, hopefully, contribute to further articulating a philosophy capable of centering organism and…
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Dia-logos with John Vervaeke: Emergence, Emanation, and Bernardo Kastrup’s Idealism
“To sum up: There are two species of process, macroscopic process, and microscopic process. The macroscopic process is the transition from attained actuality to actuality in attainment; while the microscopic process is the conversion of conditions which are merely real into determinate actuality. The former process effects the transition from the ‘actual’ to the ‘merely real’; and the latter process effects the growth from the real to the actual. The former process is efficient; the latter process is teleological. The future is merely real, without being actual; whereas the past is a nexus of actualities. The actualities are constituted by their real genetic phases. The present is the immediacy of teleological process whereby reality becomes actual. The former process provides the conditions which really govern attainment; whereas the latter process provides the ends actually attained. The notion of ‘organism’ is combined with that of ‘process’ in a twofold manner. The community of actual things is an organism; but it is not a static organism. It is an incompletion in process of production. Thus the expansion of the universe in respect to actual things is the first meaning of ‘process’; and the universe in any stage of its expansion is the first meaning of ‘organism.’ In this sense, an organism is a nexus.”
—Whitehead, Process & Reality, p. 214-215
In Process and Reality, Whitehead articulates two methods for describing the universe. The ontologically primary method is what he calls “genetic analysis.” This mode of analysis looks at what transpires within each concrescing actual occasion of experience, abstractly dividing occasions into their component “prehensions” (i.e., either physical feelings of perished occasions in their environing past or conceptual feelings of eternal objects divinely envisaged). Genetic analysis is the “view from within,” an endocosmology. The second method Whitehead calls “coordinate” or “morphological” analysis, which has to do with the mereotopological (whole/part) relations among the entities of the contemporary external world. This latter mode of analysis focuses on the presentational immediacy of extensive relations in space-time, the “geometrical strains” binding occasions together into the prehensive unity of the external universe. This method of analysis backgrounds the subjective feelings and intensions informing the actual occasions that compose the world-process. Coordinate analysis of the morphology of extension is another way of describing what natural science is doing in all its measurements of matter/energy, which are always measurements of what has already become. In contrast, the genetic mode of analysis re-contextualizes the objective beings of the past by involving them in an eternal process Whitehead calls “Concrescence”: objective beings are prehensively unified into novel subjective becomings. Though it is often modeled as such by physicists, the cosmos is not simply a collection of inert particles: it is a community of creative participants. The universe expands like an embryo grows, through cellular division. In all our sophisticated modeling we must remain cognizant of both finished facts and concrescent actualizations of novel facts. We can never have the complete set of facts because the fact is nature itself is perpetually perishing, incomplete, forever passing beyond itself, caught in creative advance. Hence both genetic and coordinate modes of analysis provide essential service to the science of metaphysics.
Whitehead uses the phrase “intensity of satisfaction” to describe the feeling of concrescence, which is the creative process whereby “the many become one and are increased by one,” or the process whereby the perished past is valued, remembered, and allowed to progress into the future with renewed evaluation accruing. The past can pass into the future only through the present: experience is always a function of what William James called the “specious present,” which is not a solipsistically frozen frame cut off from its origins and destiny, but the living tension between an inherited past and an anticipated future. For Whitehead, our perception of space emerges in the present. He calls it “presentational immediacy”: it’s Descartes’ res extensa. Time perception is a function of what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy,” which is the feeling of transition from one occasion of experience to the next. Concrete reality is a complex relation of these two modes of perception; we distinguish them only for the purposes of intellectual analysis. We relate them not through deductive logic or deterministic causality but through analogy and symbolic imagination. Forgetting this epistemic situation leads to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
In Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the “extensive continuum,” the realm of extension or extensity, is only half the picture. And in fact, even to call it “half the picture” is already the privilege the domain of extensity over the other domain, that of intensity: to say it’s only half, as if 50% was external and 50% was internal, is already to privilege the quantifiability of extension. The quantitative dimension, the “extensive continuum,” is the mathematizable, computable, binary domain; it is what Tim Eastman calls the Boolean domain that can be measured in bits, rendered exhaustively in 1s and 0s. Only in this domain does it make sense to talk about 50% or half, or ratios of this kind. In the realm of intensity, the old rationality with its logical rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle doesn’t work anymore. The intensity of concrescence is a domain that cannot be measured, cannot be digitized. It is reality-in-process, something I’ve referred to as “creality” to prevent us from imagining it at some “thing” or “state.” It is the process whereby pure potentiality finds an improbable pathway to the achievement of final satisfaction in a complete occasion of experience or “actual entity.” Before a completed entity is achieved, an occasion is composed of many prehensions of its past, some initially in contradiction with one another. The entity’s process of concrescence resolves contradictory prehensions into complex contrasts, sometimes drawing upon prehensions of novel eternal objects not found in its past, transforming clashes into some modicum of aesthetic harmony (these conflicts are why the principle of non-contradiction cannot be applied in the genetic analysis of concrescence, since a definite actuality has not yet been achieved; only once a concrescing subject has achieved its aesthetic aim and perished into objecthood can standard logic and measurements in space-time be applied).
When Whitehead discusses the intensity of satisfaction of a concrescent actual occasion of experience, he is talking about feeling, about subjectivity and aesthesis, which cannot be spread out in a coordinate grid because it is not yet part of extended space-time. The realm of intensity or of prehension is not in extended space and time; rather, measurable space-time relations are a secondary expression of or emergence from networks (or nexūs or societies) of occasional feelings. Space-time thus emerges out of the collective decisions of actual occasions of experience, a result of what these occasions of experience find satisfying, rather than a pre-existent container of some kind to which occasions are passively subjected and forced to conform. The extent of conformity to a measurable and predictable space-time manifold is a function of the stubborn habits accumulated by past occasions being inherited in the present. The habits of what Whitehead calls “the electromagnetic society,” as well as the society of occasions associated with gravity (gravitonic society) set the base notes for further cosmic evolution, though we cannot be sure that in the distant future our universe will not continue unfolding in more dimensions than what relativity has so far suggested.
Thus, the very gravitational gradient of space-time, and the energetic dynamics of light, are functions of feeling, functions of feelings of enjoyment, such that the the measurable shapes that the cosmos takes in the extensive domain are a precipitated result of the achievements of the prehensive activities that are underway inwardly and so do not appear in the measurable domain. The concrescent activity of occasions of experience does not appear outwardly because it is what does the peering. It is the subject side of the equation governing cosmogenesis. When Whitehead refers to “intensity of satisfaction,” what he means to say is that there is an aesthetic achievement whereby the perished objects of the past are brought together under contrast with one another, “prehended.” The many objects of the perished past grow together into a new unity, a new whole of some kind, which has an associated experiential vector that launches it through the present into the future. It is telic, an aim, a purposeful unfolding that feels its way forward, or in thermodynamic terms, “falls forward” into the local minima free energy state (e.g., spherical liposomes). The achievement of stable thermodynamic morphologies, and the creative advance into more and more improbable morphologies at whatever scale of physical organization can be described in such experiential terms using Whitehead’s scheme. It is an account of the “why,” not the “how” (the latter is a matter of detailed scientific investigation of the extensive domain).
Talk of energy in the extensive domain can, in Whitehead’s terms, be translated into the intensive domain in terms of experience or emotion—not conscious deliberation or imagination, or any of the high grade consciousness that we human beings experience—but a lower more basic form of feeling, a “vector feeling,” in Whitehead’s terms. At the most primitive level of physical process, these vector feelings are just gravitational gradients, or the inheritance of the vibratory frequency of a helium atom from moment to moment of its life-history, the repetition and enjoyment of the feeling of that particular frequency. What starts as extremely simple and relatively habitual feeling vectors amplify themselves as they cycle, as they become recursive, and especially as they develop means of reliable molecular templating and replication. When the geological and astrophysical conditions are right for an “ur-able”* planet to ripen into life, when various reliable rhythms in the environment afford the emergence of “improbability sinks” sheltered by environmental conditions from a background of relative chaos, then the emergence of chemical combinatorial selection becomes possible, eventually bootstrapping cellular evolution. The gradual emergence of living cells occurs in the cycling of these fragile progenitor communities. Not a single, heroic cell, but a heroic community gave birth to life. The progenitor hypothesis that Bruce Damer is developing suggests it was a network of polymers at the edges of warm little ponds that would be drying out and refilling, drying out and refilling, with a crucial “gel-like” phase in between where complex cities of lipid sheaths allowed for the first sharing economy on Earth to emerge. Along the edges of these ponds, dehydration would catalyze the formation of longer polymers, of nucleic acids and peptides, complex chains or molecular worms that begin to manifest the first biological “functions” on planet earth, and perhaps in the universe.
Bruce Damer likes to say that the universe before life—the atomic, astrophysical, galactic environments—gets a “D” for creativity, in the sense that at these scales relatively few stable forms of organization were found, and for billions of years they have been fixed in place and are just running down or wasting away now. No further evolution can transpire. The abiotic cosmos is thus ergodic. It wasn’t until the biological realm invented template copying and self-repairing complex adaptive cellular organization that the creativity of the cosmos ratcheted up again to find new, more complex energy states to “fall” into. I accept with Damer that the universe before life gets a “D” in creativity, but the important point here is that it is not an “F.” It is just enough to pass, just enough creativity to keep the evolutionary process falling forward. Yes, it unfolds at a much slower rate than life is able to evolve with its more potent novelty producing engines, but at least some degree of aim and effective affective satisfaction (you read that right) was present from the beginning, otherwise atoms, stars, and galaxies could never have emerged. These sidereal processes are tremendous organizational achievements in their own right, considering the chaos from out of which they came.
To sum up, there is a creative lure toward more intense relationship operative at every scale of the universe, but which becomes qualitatively richer as evolutionary organization complexifies and new means of sheltering improbable energetic pathways, affording interconnection, and storing memories are developed. With Whitehead’s help, we can correlate these aesthetic lures with major evolutionary transitions into more and more improbable phases of psychobiophysical organization: the lure toward intensity of satisfaction is a lure towards improbability.
This tendency is an aim toward order that is driven or goaded by the lure of enjoyment and satisfaction. It is the great cosmic “counter-agency” to entropy that Whitehead discusses in his book The Function of Reason. He is attempting to give physics animacy again. This language is not meant to discount the details of physics in the realm of extensity. It’s just an attempt at reintegrating the for too long neglected domain of intensity back into our modern understanding of the universe. Whitehead does prioritize the realm of intensity as the concrete reality, with the realm of extension being its secondary expression. But it is not like you could have one without the other, an inside without an outside. Both are required for the cosmic engine of evolution to creatively advance. Whitehead’s protest against the sort of scientific materialism that tries to explain away the inside by reduction to the outside is rooted in his claim that we cannot understand the shapes taken in space without giving intensity its due. Intensity is Natura naturans (Nature naturing), and without this ingredient of creative process sprung from intensity of satisfaction, the Natura naturata (Nature natured) would make no sense. Explaining Nature’s external shapes requires making reference to such inward satisfactions. That, at least, is Whitehead’s wager.
*”Ur-ability” is a new concept Damer is developing with David Deamer to refer to the thermodynamic and chemical conditions necessary for life to emerge on a planet. We are used to thinking of the “habitability” planets, but “ur-ability” has to do with establishing not just habitability for existing life but the conditions for the origin (ur-) of life.
A new revised and expanded edition of my book Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology is now available in paperback and electronic versions.
Here’s a link to an academic article laying out the significance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism for the hard problem of consciousness: https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/segall_ptsc_7_1_105-131.pdf
John Vervaeke and I recorded a dialogue a few days after I recorded the video above. View it here: Dia-logos with John Vervaeke: Emergence, Emanation, and Bernardo Kastrup’s Idealism
My German is schrecklich, but since I couldn’t find any translations I liked, I spent the afternoon struggling with Goethe’s poem “Eins und Alles” (“One and All”), with a dictionary and several other translations in tow. What follows is my best attempt to render this Englishly. I am convinced that translation is impossible, but I am compelled to try anyway. (German speakers, please tell me where I’m way off!)
Finding oneself amidst the infinite,
The individual would gladly disappear
That all discomfort may dissolve.
No more burning wishes, wild wanting;
No more annoying demands, rigid rules:
To give oneself up is a joy.
Soul of the World, come, permeate us!
Help us wrestle with the World-Spirit,
Raise our powers to its heights.
Goad us as kindly spirits,
Gentle guiding masters,
To that which creates and created everything.
And remaking what has been made,
So that it does not fossilize,
Eternally working, vitalizing activity.
What was not, now wants to become
Virgin suns, vibrant earths,
And never rest.
It must remain in motion, actively creating,
First forming, then transforming;
It appears still only for a moment.
The eternal lures everything onward:
Because all things must decay into nothing,
If they want to persist in being.
Is the flow of time a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” a mere psychological mirage, as Albert Einstein held? Or is it the very essence of all psychical life and material things alike, as Henri Bergson argued? Might there be an equally scientific rendering of relativity that does not force us to deny our lived experience, as Alfred North Whitehead preferred? Whose time is it? Join us for this drunk history lesson about the epochal clash between these three geniuses to find out.
*Errata: At 30:29, I misspoke: Einstein’s train thought experiment is, of course, in reference to the special, not the general theory of relativity. But Einstein first articulates it in a text meant for the general public that summarizes both theories. At 34:08, I misspoke again: Of course, since 2014, Russia has claimed Crimea as its own.
Seb and I discussed the history and contemporary status of the natural sciences and their relationship to philosophy and metaphysics.
The following is a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s recent blog post about process metaphysics and Whitehead. I keep a relatively close eye on Pigliucci’s philosophical work, as there is plenty of convergence in our views on several issues, including, as he says in his title, “the promise of process metaphysics.”
Despite some convergences, I part ways with Pigliucci on the issue of the place of consciousness in the physical world. A couple of years ago, I penned a defense of panpsychism in response to an article Pigliucci published in The Side View. This divergence is also at play in the present exchange, but it is not front and center. While I have characterized Whitehead’s process-relational ontology as a species of panpsychism (or, better, “panexperientialism,” as David Ray Griffin has suggested), I’ve come to realize that there’s as much distance between his process-relational version of the doctrine and, say, Philip Goff’s substance-quality version, as there is between either and materialism or idealism (see my recent dialogue with Goff). For a recent treatment of the relevance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, see this journal article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020). I won’t be dwelling on this issue here.
In his latest post, I was glad to see Pigliucci engage more deeply with some of Whitehead’s ideas, but his accounts of the motivations and key categories of Whitehead’s scheme are misleading. Whitehead a “dead weight”? I don’t think so. Sure, it is a heavy lift to study and understand his admittedly dense and complex metaphysical scheme, but this will always be true of pathbreaking philosophical work aimed at nothing short of a ground-up reconstruction of the explanatory categories of natural science, and as we’ll see, much else besides.
Pigliucci begins with Heraclitus’ line that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” which could be read as the inaugural statement of the process metaphysical project. But Pigliucci wants to make clear that he rejects the speculative arm-chair approach to metaphysics that he thinks culminated with Descartes’ foundationalist attempt to balance the entire world upon his own thinking. So far so good, as Whitehead also explicitly rejected the idea of metaphysics as a foundationalist project.
Pigliucci goes on to put forward what I think is a pretty good definition of scientism, which is the view that: “natural science [has] replaced metaphysics as the method by which we find out how things are.” Pigliucci does not provide us with an account of exactly what natural science is, which makes sense, as I suspect that would involve doing a bit of metaphysics. Whitehead’s reasons for turning to metaphysics (after a successful career as a mathematician and physicist) provides a revealing contrast to Pigliucci’s triumphalist myth about the replacement of philosophy by science. Whitehead turned to metaphysics precisely because the early 20th century revolutions in physics had revealed the complete inadequacy of the old substantivist, mechanistic ontology that modern science had been presupposing since Descartes. He wrote in 1925:
“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.”Science and the Modern World, p. 25.
Whitehead was no mere critic, however. He was a profoundly constructive thinker whose “Philosophy of Organism” inherited the pluralistic, evolutionary, and radically empirical psychology of William James and systematized it with the findings of quantum and relativistic physics as part of an endeavor “to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (Process & Reality, p. 3). This is the meaning of metaphysics, for Whitehead: generality of description. The search for generalities is not a task that could be replaced by the special sciences; rather, it is an effort to bring interpretive coherence to the findings of natural science so that what we learn through its methods hangs together with the rest of the hard-core common sense presuppositions of human coexistence (e.g., that consciousness and volition are not epiphenomenal illusions).
Of course, metaphysics could not adequately engage in its task without the special sciences. Pigliucci goes on to soften his earlier “replacement thesis” by admitting that there is still a role for metaphysics in the clarification of concepts so as to fit all the scientific puzzle pieces together. He thinks process metaphysics is the best candidate for this job, and here I am in complete agreement.
“By far the most promising approach to that aim is process metaphysics, which — as German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher put it — regards ‘reality not [as] a constellation of things at all, but one of processes. The fundamental ‘stuff’ of the world is not material substance, but volatile flux.’ This is distinct from what has been mainstream metaphysics for a long time. Another pre-Socratic, Parmenides, regarded change as entirely illusory. And the most influential metaphysicians of all time, Plato and his student Aristotle, posited that reality is timeless, made of unchanging essences.”-Pigliucci
Plato is perhaps the most caricatured philosopher of all time, which makes sense since he left us with only aporetic dialogues, rather than definitive doctrines. In other words, he speaks to us only through the mouths of his characters, which leaves some doubt as to what his true philosophic views are. With that caveat in mind, I’d argue that his cosmological dialogue the Timaeus was more an attempt to synthesize the Heraclitean and Parmenidean views, but that’s a topic for another post. Pigliucci goes on:
“One very strong reason to adopt process- rather than object-based metaphysics is because that’s the way science has been leaning for a while. James Ladyman and Don Ross make the most compelling empirically based case for process metaphysics in their masterpiece, Every Thing Must Go, though they call the resulting approach ‘naturalized metaphysics.’ The idea is that physicists are increasingly showing that there are no objects (i.e., particles) at the bottom of reality but rather, at best, fields, and at the most speculative not even those (Ladyman and Ross talk — provocatively — about basic reality being characterized by ‘relations without relata,’ that is points in a field where the points are not really ‘made’ of anything).”-Pigliucci
Despite some Whiteheadian quibbles about whether a point-free mereotopology (such as that articulated in Part IV of Process & Reality) would better characterize the relational continuum underlying all apparent “things,” there is a lot of convergence here. Reality is relational all the way down. That said, Whitehead was also an atomist of sorts and did attempt to retain a process-compatible sense of individuality. Unlike Newton’s atoms, which are pushed and pulled around by external relations and transcendently imposed laws, Whitehead’s atoms are intra-dependent (that is, internally related) “drops of experience” or “actual occasions,” whose dipolar becoming can be analyzed in terms of both a physical and a mental pole, and whose sociohistorical coordinations give rise to emergent behavioral habits. Whitehead was only very marginally influenced by that other giant of American philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce, as they seem to have independently arrived at an understanding of physical habit as a less ontotheological rendering of what classical physics defined in terms of “law.” I mention this as it is important to distinguish Whitehead’s experientially-grounded (i.e., radically empirical) process theology from the sort of ontotheology criticized by Kant and Heidegger. In his rejection of eternal “laws” in favor of evolutionarily emergent “habits,” Whitehead’s cosmology is actually a critique of the residual ontotheology of mechanistic physics, which even today unwittingly carries forward the deist assumptions that were intrinsic to Descartes’ and Newton’s conceptions of the order of nature as determined once and for all by the transcendent will of an omnipotent God.
Pigliucci next turns to Whitehead. After a few nods to the value of his “holistic” and scientifically-informed approach to metaphysics, and a dismissive quip about the supposedly anti-scientific basis of panpsychism (which is a total misunderstanding), the criticisms begin. Overall, Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s influence has spoiled process metaphysics.
After introducing Whitehead’s key category—the actual entity or actual occasion—Pigliucci’s first criticism concerns the way Whitehead supposedly divides up nature into artificial levels:
“I don’t think there is any reason to retain this kind of obfuscatory language. … From a scientific perspective, all these levels are part of a continuum, possibly characterized by emergent properties.”-Pigliucci
This punch totally misses its target, as Whitehead’s is clearly a “flat ontology,” in that it aims to describe all levels of emergent complexity in nature in the same general metaphysical terms as the “concrescence” (another key category) of actual occasions (here is a timestamped video link of my latest attempt to explain “concrescence” using a cartoon). I am not sure what Pigliucci may have read to give him his mistaken assumptions here. In his various metaphysical texts, Whitehead offers different rough sketches of emergent levels in nature (just as natural science does when it speaks the special languages of particle physics, astrophysics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, etc.), but always explicitly acknowledges “the aspect of continuity between these different modes,” the way they “shade off into each other” (Modes of Thought, p. 157). Indeed, Whitehead’s critique of what he termed “the bifurcation of nature” makes his holistic cosmological view even more continuous than a still implicitly dualistic scientific materialism (which places our first-person conscious experience distinctly outside and epiphenomenal to an otherwise merely material nature). Whitehead was led to a variety of panexperientialist ontology precisely because he is committed to a continuity between mind and nature:
“Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature. Accordingly it disregards all those mental antecedents which mankind habitually presupposes as effective in guiding cosmological functionings. As a method this procedure is entirely justifiable, provided that we recognize the limitations involved. These limitations are both obvious and undefined. The gradual eliciting of their definition is the hope of philosophy… [This] sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. [Thus,] we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature. … [We] should reject the notion of idle wheels in the process of nature. Every factor which emerges makes a difference, and that difference can only be expressed in terms of the individual character of that factor. … [We] have now the task of defining natural facts, so as to understand how mental occurrences are operative in conditioning the subsequent course of nature.Modes of Thought, p. 156
Note that Whitehead admits the erasure of mental functionings from nature is entirely justifiable as a method. The problem is when this useful methodological short-cut slides into a metaphysical presupposition. Whitehead’s mature metaphysical view as articulated in Process & Reality broadly distinguishes between two types of analysis: 1) genetic analysis of the becoming of actual occasions (a concrete view of the universe from within, as it were), and 2) coordinate analysis of the extensive continuum characterizing the relations among these occasions. The latter mode of analysis considers the universe from the outside, as natura naturata (to use the classical Latin terminology for “nature-as-product”), thus bracketing the mental functionings (the natura naturans, or “nature-as-process”) so as to abstractly characterize the behavior of entities in relativistic spacetime. Coordinate division is what makes scientific measurement possible, but in Whitehead’s view, this is only half the story. The universe is a creative advance into novelty, not the mere re-arrangement of pre-existing particles. Thus, his philosophy includes the elaboration of a genetic account of how actual occasions of experience arise out of their past, enjoy themselves in the present, and perish so as to contribute their experiential perspective to the future. A philosophy of nature that considers only the coordinate division of simply located objects in spacetime commits the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” writ large. Not only does it ignore the role of quantum potentia and discreteness in the becoming of nature, it makes of our human mental functions a monstrous aberration in an otherwise well-behaved cosmos. A fully concrete and metaphysically coherent account of the cosmos must make room for mentality, even if the function of mind in the inorganic realm studied by physics and chemistry is nascent enough to be mostly negligible. I say “mostly” because even in particle and astro-physics there’s already plenty of evidence of the creative realization of potentia (i.e., quantum decisions) and a pronounced tilt toward the self-organization of higher and higher grades of complexity (e.g., emergent evolution of protons out of quarks, of atoms out of protons and electrons, of stars and galaxies out of atoms, etc.). The physical world is not a billiard table engaged in the mere rearrangement of pre-existing parts. It is rather an open-ended process of emergence of wholes nested within wholes at every scale, a process that Whitehead characterizes in terms of “societies” of actual occasions. The most widespread such society in our cosmic epoch Whitehead calls the “electromagnetic society,” and its established habits provide a background of order that shelters all the more complex activity taking place among and within us here on Earth. This brief account obviously does not do justice to the intricacy of Whitehead’s scheme, but I’ve tried to outline the main points so as to make clear what Pigliucci’s characterization has badly muddled. For more on the two types of analysis introduced above, check out my lecture on Part IV of Process & Reality.
Next on Pigliucci’s list of criticisms is, unsurprisingly, Whitehead’s concept of God. I’ll quote Pigliucci below and then respond at length to each sentence:
“Unfortunately, Whitehead makes one gigantic exception to his rule that all actual entities are occasions of experience: god. The deity is understood by Whitehead as being both temporal and atemporal, leading to something called process theology. Setting aside that this raises the possibility of logical contradiction, I just don’t think there is any reason at all — and certainly no empirically, science informed reason — to think that any gods exist, so process metaphysics in the hands of Whitehead here takes a decidedly wrong turn.”-Pigliucci
On the charge of theological exceptionalism, I’ll begin by letting Whitehead speak for himself: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process & Reality, p. 343). As was mentioned earlier, Whitehead’s is a flat ontology, wherein everything is to be describable in the same categoreal terms. It follows that “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process & Reality, p. 18). Clearly, Whitehead’s intention was not to make reference to God as a “gigantic exception,” but rather as the “chief exemplification” of an actual entity. To be fair to Pigliucci, this is a matter of some dispute among process theologians, since there are some significant differences in Whitehead’s characterization of the divine entity—the primordial creature of Creativity—as compared to other experient creatures. God’s concrescence unfolds in reverse order to that of finite creatures: God’s mental pole (logically) precedes God’s physical pole. In the case of finite occasions, which always already find their (co)existence amidst that of others,—emerging out of the perished occasions of their past into the subjective immediacy of their present before launching themselves into objective immortality in the hopes of influencing the occasions of the future,—their origination is in the physical pole while their satisfaction is achieved in the mental pole. God’s concrescence begins with the private satisfaction of the mental pole, as “the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality” (Process & Reality, p. 343). In other words, as the first creature of Creativity (which is the ultimate category in Whitehead’s scheme, roughly equivalent to what contemporary physicists refer to as the quantum vacuum), God’s function is to give some definite value or character to the otherwise indefinite field of unrealized logical possibilities that go into shaping an actual world. God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of pure potentials (or “eternal objects”) does not determine precisely how the world comes to be; rather, God’s primordial values function as an erotic lure within the world, a goad to finite occasions of experience so as to tilt cosmic becoming toward the emergence of complexity. Finite actual occasions must decide how to become for themselves, but God’s “initial aim” is inherited in their physical poles as a mirror disclosing to each occasion its own potential for greatness (Religion in the Making, p. 139). God’s physical pole, then, is the divine reception of how each and every occasion of experience decides to actualize itself, in light of its unique situation. God’s primordial mental pole is thus complemented by a consequent physical pole, whereby God functions in the role of “a fellow-sufferer” (Process & Reality, p. 351).
Whitehead insists that his process God is one God, not two. The distinction between primordial and consequent natures, as too the distinction between the mental and physical poles of any occasion, is an exercise in rational abstraction in an effort to better understand the necessary ingredients of concrete reality. Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s attempt to hold together the eternal and the temporal in one creature “raises the possibility of logical contradiction.” Indeed, it is not just in God that Whitehead tries to turn these apparently contradictory notions into a dynamic complementarity: every occasion of experience is said to participate in both concrete actuality (via what he calls “prehension”) and eternal possibility (via what he calls “ingression”). Here we have to address Whitehead’s process-relational critique of Aristotelian substance-property logic, including the sacrosanct rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Whitehead praises and indeed inherits Aristotle’s “masterly analysis of the notion of ‘generation'” (Process & Reality, p. 209), and admits that “probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian” (ibid., p. 51). But in light of contemporary physics, with its emphasis upon agitations of energy and spatiotemporal events, the old Scholastic logic which sought to attach essential or accidental properties to substances has become entirely inadequate. Physics makes no reference to some passive underlying material substance; rather, all is now accounted for in terms of formal relations of relations (as Ladyman and Ross argue). So far so good (I think Pigliucci is on board thus far). Now, when it comes to the logical laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, it is not that Whitehead simply sought to do away with them. This would contradict, as it were, one of his rational criteria for sound metaphysics (i.e., that such a scheme be logical; he also enumerated empirical criteria of adequacy and applicability to experience). To return to the distinction above between a genetic and a coordinate analysis of the universe, Whitehead was perfectly willing to accept that coordinate analysis of the entities of spatiotemporal nature required adherence to the classical laws of logic (else an entity could be said to exist in two places at once, or to exemplify two contradictory predicates, etc.). However, in analyzing the genetic process of an actual occasion’s concrescence, these laws must be held in suspension. This is because the factors that grow together into a concrete entity begin as indeterminate prehensions or feelings, akin to the way quantum potentia exist in a state of superposition prior to the collapse of the wave-function. In this state of suspended decision in the genetic analysis of an occasion, a multiplicity of contradictory elements may coexist. Only once an occasion has achieved its “satisfaction” do the incompatibilities get worked, such that “the actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe” (Process & Reality, p. 44). In the case of God, the process of concrescence is said to be “everlasting,” such that the indetermination is ongoing. The creative advance of the universe thus unfolds within the eternal process of divine indetermination. Not even God knows where we are going, in other words. Still, God’s everlasting concrescence expresses a yearning for ideal satisfaction, realizing an aesthetic harmony of harmonies, which the universe of finite occasions can only ever incompletely realize.
Pigliucci then regresses to a rather tired scientistic argument against belief in “gods.” I say it is “tired” because it totally fails to address the argument underlying Whitehead’s process theology (or that of most philosophically-informed theologians, for that matter). It is just cheap rhetoric meant to reduce the alternative metaphysical approaches of those not seduced by scientism to supernaturalist superstition. Pigliucci pluralizes “gods” because he is imagining that theologians conceive of God as just another stick of furniture within the world, a thing among things (albeit a very big, important, and powerful thing!). While it may be meaningfully addressed to literalist religious believers who idolatrously imagine God as a thunder-wielding sky-father, his is not a fair characterization of how most theological traditions have sought to approach the divine as, e.g., the infinite ground of being (rather than a being among beings). It is no surprise that experimental tests focused on the behavior of beings would turn up no evidence of Being as such. Being is grounding condition or necessary precondition of beings. Now, needless to say, much of this traditional theological language is construed in substantialist terms that have no place in Whitehead’s process-relational scheme. I quote Whitehead’s opinion of traditional theology at length as I think it conveys the extent to which he and Pigliucci may actually share non-belief in the popular image of deity:
“The notion of God as the ‘unmoved mover’ is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as ’eminently real’ is a favourite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism.
When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”Process & Reality, p. 342
Whitehead had no patience for the traditional image of God as an imperial ruler, by whose dictates the lawful order of the world was established. In relation to this God, Whitehead was a proud atheist.
“There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the [other main strands of theological] thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.”Process & Reality, p. 343
Elsewhere in Process & Reality (p. 207), Whitehead remarks on the urgent importance of secularizing the divine function in the world, by which he meant distinguishing God’s metaphysical import as a cosmological factor from the emotions that characterize human religious life, which have often misled philosophy. The Love exemplified in Jesus is metaphysically repurposed by Whitehead into the divine function’s mode of participation in the world, where it works to persuade (rather than coerce) finite actual occasions toward the most beauty that is possible for them in their temporal situations.
So why does Whitehead find it necessary to make reference to a divine function in his cosmological scheme? It has nothing to do with any religious desire to believe in God. This sort of belief, though it may be of tremendous sociological importance (e.g., as a form of group selection among humans), is not what motivates Whitehead’s theological innovations.
The Whiteheadian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (former collaborator of Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine) argues in her book Thinking With Whitehead that, while God is the keystone of his entire cosmological scheme (i.e., the chief exemplar of his categories), he nonetheless remained unsatisfied with his own thinking concerning the nature of the divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent or finally complete (indeed, he was well aware of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and so approached “system” asymptotically as a form of philosophic “assemblage” [see Modes of Thought, p. 2]). His understanding of divinity was always an open-ended work in progress meant to be picked up and re-worked by inheritors of his thought who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating the divine ground of existence matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God (or his soul’s God-feeling). It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of or lack of evidence for a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy—psychological and societal—of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the intuition of holiness by human hearts (which some call “God,” others “Buddha-nature,” “Allah,” “Brahman,” etc.) implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But as a matter of anthropological fact it must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God (etc.) was not merely a scientific hypothesis meant to explain the causal nexus of worldly events, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially). It is only after the Scientific Revolution and the entrance of “modernity” that religion began to be construed as a distinct domain of human existence, and that God came to be construed as a thing to be believed in, or not.
When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life, the formation of Earth, and the unfolding of the larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness. It means considering the conditions making possible a world wherein something like human thinking, feeling, and willing are possible. For Whitehead, these conditions are cosmological (not simply cognitive, as in Descartes or Kant). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology breaks free from the epistemic chains of most modern philosophy, eschewing foundations and making do instead with conceptual coherence and fallible pragmatic adequacy. His cosmological scheme makes room for both subjects and objects, giving logical nor temporal priority to either. Subject and object are to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. “Objectivity” in the sense of an unbiased scientific appraisal of reality doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether each subject is able to creatively respond to the objectified past, thus participating in the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. In such a Whiteheadian universe, truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.
This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Pigliucci, are led to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to (or worse, a “dead weight” upon) metaphysics. So far as it goes, I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the abstract possibilities of reality abstracted from any concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate category of his scheme, demoting a no longer all-powerful God to the status of its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize—that is, when I seek out participatory understanding of the order and harmony of the actual world that we inhabit.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for scientific consideration. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that our modern consciousness has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the human soul experienced no separation between the world’s Logos (=meaning) and its existence (=facticity), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.
Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature, or mind separable from matter. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.
Had a great chat with Marty yesterday on his podcast “Philosophy Chat.” We covered a lot of territory… those interested in German Idealism, Naturphilosophie, and Process-Relational Philosophy will have plenty to chew on.