Genes v. Organisms in Biological Explanation (responding to the Dawkins v. Weinstein debate)

Here’s the recent debate between Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein on the relationship between cultural and biological evolution:

Here are two response videos from me arguing for the relevance of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson et al.’s theory of autopoiesis and Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism:

 

Some relevant essays that expand on the ideas I shared in the video:

“Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future”

“The Origin of Organism: The Place of Life in the Cosmos”

“Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision”

Schumacher College summer course update: “Physics of the World-Soul”

https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/courses/short-courses/physics-of-the-world-soul

Schumacher College has decided to make my week on Schelling and Whitehead a stand alone course called “Physics of the World-Soul.” It will take place June 18-22. More information available at the link above.

The Place of Life in the Cosmos (draft of 11th International Whitehead Conference paper)

Below is the draft of a paper I’ll present at next week’s International Whitehead Conference in the Azores. Feedback appreciated!


2017 International Whitehead Conference  

Matthew T. Segall

 

The Place of Life in the Cosmos: Feeling the Origin of Organism

 

“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study.  It moulds our type of civilization” —Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 87).

“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”—Whitehead (Modes of Thought, )

“We must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature, whereby [God’s] infinity is acquiring realization.” —Whitehead (Adventures of Ideas, 277)

“To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet…such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots. It is an emotion that defines in the organism as a dynamic structural pattern, a stepping stone to interactions that may lead to the operational coherences of social life.” —Maturana and Varela (The Tree of Knowledge, 248)

 

This paper has been prepared for the “Whitehead and biology” track, but I will argue that a proper understanding of biology requires situating it, not only in relation to physics, but also in relation to psychology, anthropology, and indeed, theology. The universe, Whitehead recognized, does not come neatly packaged into the disciplinary silos of the modern research university. In addition to the cosmological scope of his organic realism, Whitehead also recognized the need for what today we might refer to as a participatory approach[1] to studying the universe. The other thinkers I draw into conversation with Whitehead in this essay, including Friedrich Schelling, Hans Jonas, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Robert Rosen, are similarly participatory or enactive in orientation, as they recognize that, as Aaran Gare put it, “scientists must see themselves as part of the world they are striving to understand.”[2] We are participants within the creative cosmos we are studying, participants who are actively contributing to or retarding the ongoing evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. What there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it. According to Varela and Maturana, ignoring this intimate connection isolates the human knower from the living world he or she is trying to know, as though “knowledge” existed in some transcendental realm beyond or before our concrete experience of embodied action in Nature: “to disregard the identity between cognition and action, not to see that knowing is doing…is not to see human beings as living entities.”[3] It is not only in biology, psychology, and anthropology that researchers must become attuned to the interactive effects their own methods and attitudes have on the subjects of their study. The same attunement is required in physics and in theology. I will argue that a proper understanding of the place of life in the cosmos requires a way of studying Nature and even God that places ourselves within what we are trying to study (i.e., an endophysics and an endotheology). Whitehead allows us to see that even God lacks a “God’s eye view.” “There is an essence to the universe,” Whitehead tells us, “which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.”[4] To rationally study the cosmos, then, is not to study it “objectively,” as if “from outside,” but rather to study it relationally, as we embodied minds find ourselves always in media res “in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”[5] There is, in Maturana and Varela’s words, an “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing,” such that “every act of knowing brings forth a world” and “everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence…We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth[6]

 

Life: Special Anomaly or Generic Principle?

With the founding of the modern, secular research university, biologists have for the most part come to approach life as an object of neutral scientific investigation.[7] But now that the existential threat of planetary ecological collapse has dawned on our species, the study of life can no longer remain a merely theoretical affair. It must also become an ethical and spiritual concern of central importance to everything we do. Modern humans have technologically transformed the planet at every scale we are capable of measuring, forever altering the complex feedback loops that integrate geological, chemical, meteorological, and biological processes into a self-regulating Gaian superorganism. Our species now finds itself in a rather paradoxically tragic situation: humans, originally creatures of Earth, have created a second Nature, an artificial Earth that we thought made first Nature passive before our economic projects. Moderns assumed first Nature would patiently endure modern, industrial progress, but alas, we are witnessing “Gaia’s revenge” (Lovelock): our presumed status as creators is being rudely revoked as we realize we are just as vulnerable to extinction as any other of Earth’s creatures.

A properly cosmological and participatory study of organisms has now become a matter of life and death, something that of course still requires plenty of theorization, but which can no longer be approached in a disinterested or objective way (if it ever truly could be). The question, “What is life?,” is itself a rather recent invention in the history of humanity’s inquiries into the nature of things. Jonas argued that the inverse question, “What is death?” preceded it by many millennia. Primal people perceived the blooming, buzzing world around them as incontrovertibly animated, ensouled. They felt embedded within a generative cycle, wherein death surely existed, but as an interval between life and rebirth, rather than as life’s complete and utter annihilation. Jonas thus suggested that “panpsychism,” or the view that the world is alive, “is really the most natural view.”[8] “To the extent that life is accepted as the primary state of things, death looms as the disturbing mystery. Hence the problem of death is probably the first to deserve this name in the history of thought.”[9] All culture—all religion, art, science, and technology, and indeed our very humanness—may be a result of our becoming conscious of and responding to the problem of death. Our sense of who we are as human organisms and the driving force of all our meaning-making endeavors may be rooted in a desire to overcome the contradiction of death by somehow integrating it into the more primary process of life. Every human society, primal or modern, to the extent that it remains viable finds some cultural means of integrating death back into the life process.

Archaeological anthropologists know for sure they are dealing with human remains when they find them buried in graves. Burying the dead, preparing them for an afterlife of some kind, appears to be an essential feature of our species. Jonas describes the paradox by which the anomaly of death stood out for the primal, panpsychist imagination: “This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground.”[10] It was only after the Copernican revolution, according to Jonas, that the “proportional place of life in the scheme of things” began to be questioned. Prior to this cosmological displacement of the living Earth from the center of things, it had never occurred to human beings “that life might be a side issue in the universe,” rather than “its pervading rule.”[11] Galileo, Descartes, and Newton wielded the weapons of mathematical analysis to vanquish the central intuition of pre-modern cosmology—an indwelling World-Soul—thus ushering in a new world view, that of the clock-work universe designed by a transcendent demiurge. To the modern question, “What is life?,” came the modern answer: life is a mechanical corpse.[12]

Five hundred years later, the emergence of the Anthropocene—a perspective on our planet that is perhaps even more consequential than Copernicus’ revolution[13]—invites us to consider Jonas’ problem anew. It is no coincidence that just as we find ourselves entering the 6th great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, one which may claim our own species as one of its victims, philosophers are once again beginning to take seriously the prospect of panpsychism. Jonas was himself familiar enough with the Whiteheadian variety of panpsychism to remind his readers that taking the idea seriously does not mean setting aside centuries of scientific discovery by returning to Aristotelean physics.[14] Whitehead was led to articulate his philosophy of organism in the early 20th century because physics itself had begun to outgrow the old mechanical world-picture (e.g., no more “simple location” in absolute space, no more “nature at an instant” in durationless time, no more “laws” of physics imposed from eternity, etc.). Unfortunately, many biologists continue to conceive of the object of their study as a rare anomaly within the physical universe, a universe otherwise empty of value, devoid of purpose, and governed by randomly imposed laws. Organisms, while exceedingly complicated, are thus thought to be ultimately reducible to their simpler component parts. They appear to be animate agencies, but really organisms are just another lucky combination of atoms falling in the void (or genes falling through the fitness gradient), the orphaned children of randomness and law, of Monod’s chance and necessity. Biologists are wary of letting go of the mechanical metaphor, as to do so puts them at risk of being dismissed as unscientific Romantics by their colleagues.[15] Whitehead admitted that “the appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena”; “But,” he continues (writing in 1925), “at present there is no such system of concepts.”[16] Even Albert Einstein, in a letter written to nuclear physicist-turned-biologist Leo Szilard, admitted that it was in dealing with living things that he most felt the primitiveness of contemporary physics.[17] Robert Rosen refers to Einstein’s feeling about physics to amplify the feelings of another physicist-turned-biologist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger’s hunch, elaborated in his famous essay What is Life?, was that the study of organisms would teach us a new physics.[18] In Rosen’s terms, the old physics, that of mechanistic reductionism, was not generic enough to account for living organisms:

organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.[19]

Rosen’s theoretical biology, when allied with Whitehead’s process philosophy, re-establishes a place for the organism not only in biological science, which has contented itself too long with reductionistic methods, but in physics, too. Rosen’s theory of life’s place in the cosmos hearkens back to the intuition of another kindred thinker, Friedrich Schelling:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.[20]

 

Toward an Organic Ontology

Schelling, who Gare has pegged as a process philosopher rather than an idealist,[21] developed his organic Naturphilosophie in the wake of Kant’s transcendental critique of metaphysics. Organism, for thinkers like Schelling, Whitehead, and Rosen, must be understood not as a special kind of entity contingently emergent from an inorganic Nature, but rather as a universal speculative principle characterizing Nature at both micro- and macrocosmic scales.[22] Organism functions as a mediating concept integrating the modern dualisms of such seeming opposites as process v. substance, identity v. relationality, and body v. mind. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the dualism between Nature and freedom running throughout his system approached but did not finally achieve resolution in the idea of organism. Unlike merely mechanical Nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living Nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without the application of formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts (in this, organisms are analogous to Reason itself). Kant famously argued that mechanistic physics could never in principle explain the internal possibility of organic, that is, self-organizing, beings:

So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd…to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws…how even a mere blade of grass is produced (the ‘Newton of the leaf’).[23]

Kant was in the end unable to overcome the epistemological dualism between conceptually determined phenomena and unknowable noumena that shaped his transcendental method. He thus applied organism merely as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to posit it as constitutive of Nature itself. He thought applying the concept in a constitutive way would require genius of a scientific sort, which he regarded as impossible. Only artists could attain the status of genius, according to Kant. Artists create art through intuitively participating in the creativity of organic Nature, expressing form by intuitively leaping to its wholeness without having to assemble it out of separate parts. In contrast, the reflective and objectifying mind of the scientist, transcendentally cut off from the living organization of the natural world, can only study and conceptually describe organisms piecemeal as dead mechanisms.

Schelling followed the spiritual potential if not the dead letter of Kant’s third critique by articulating an intuitive science capable of knowing organism as constitutive of Nature. According to Schelling, “the less merely reflective [that is, objectifying] thought we give Nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”[24] Schelling re-imagined Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a new inauguration of the transcendental method, releasing philosophy from the dualistic determinations and duties of pure and practical reason by rooting it instead in the aesthetic feelings of living organization. Philosophy, for Schelling, became “nature itself philosophizing/autophusis philosophia.”[25] Rather than the categories of transcendental logic, Schelling saw living Nature as a priori. His question was no longer “What must mind be such that knowledge of phenomenal Nature is possible?,” but “What must real Nature be for a knowing mind to have emerged from it?” Toward the end of his life, despite his own best efforts, Schelling had to admit that feeling, “the so-called inner sense of the emotions and the changes that take place within ourselves…still very much needs a critique.”[26] Whitehead’s philosophy of organism took up Schelling’s task: “to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”[27] The few pages Kant devotes to this in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” are, according to Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic.”

There is an intimate connection between such a critique of feeling and the construction of an organic or panpsychist cosmology. Though the essence of life cannot be known in a logically determinate way (i.e., what Rosen refers to as a Turing-machine simulable way[28]), it can be felt intuitively in our own experience of being alive, of being a living being among other living beings. In his earliest writings on the philosophy of Nature (~1797), Schelling wrote:

So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living Nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from Nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.[29]

The modern, mechanistic world-picture, which physics itself has outgrown, nonetheless continues to shape the imagination of many biologists. Biological organisms are understood to be reducible to their mechanical parts, as though living things are not really alive, but rather amount to little more than highly improbable chemical reactions. From Rosen’s perspective, the collapse of mechanistic cosmology means we must dispense with the idea that

the gradient from simplicity to complexity is only a matter of accretion of simple, context-independent parts, and the analysis of more complex systems is merely a matter of inverting the accretions that produced them.[30]

Instead, in Whitehead  terms, we must “reverse the process” typical of reductionistic explanation by construing the evolutionarily earlier forms of physical organization by analogy to the later, biological forms.[31] There is now a new “physics of irreversible, non-equilibrium processes,”[32] as Ilya Prigogine described it, allowing biologists to re-imagine organisms, not as dead machines, nor as machines imbued with an immaterial “vital force,” but completely natural, thermodynamically open, historically emergent, and irreducibly complex[33] energetic events. It turns out that such self-organizing energetic events pervade the physical universe (e.g., atoms, stars, galaxies, etc.). This is what I take Rosen to mean when he says complex self-organization is generic and not specific. Following Whitehead’s analogical reversal of the typical form of evolutionary explanation, if biological organisms are alive, then ontological coherence requires that physical and chemical events also be understood as already somehow lively:

Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.[34]

Organisms at every scale, whether particle, astrophysical, or biological, are precariously poised on thermodynamic gradients, surfing inner depths of feeling and lured by erotic potencies toward ever-more intense modes of existence. We might then say that ecology—the study of organisms and their co-evolutionary dynamics—should replace physics as the most generic science.

 

Whither Panpsychism?

Whitehead’s organic realism is not without its critics, even among those who sympathize with major aspects of his project. Jonas, despite stating that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism

is the only rational alternative open to naturalism after the loss of the transcendental counterpole provided by dualistic metaphysics, in whose shelter alone an unadulterated ‘materialism’ in physics was rationally possible,

nonetheless remained concerned that Whitehead’s panpsychism leaves no room for the reality of death because it denies “the deep anxiety of biological existence” by telling “a story of intrinsically secured success.”[35] Contrary to Jonas, I do not believe Whitehead’s metaphysics is just another elaborate denial of death. Whitehead’s panpsychism, on his own account, “is entirely neutral on the question of immortality,” understood in its traditional Christian sense as a personal afterlife.[36] His account of biological organisms fully acknowledges that such complex forms of organization are fragile and dependent upon the “patience” of their environment for their enduring stability.[37] Whitehead doesn’t simply establish life as the foundation of existence; rather, his dipolar account of process in terms of subjective immediacy and superjective immortality could be described as affirming the life-death-rebirth cycle itself as the central cosmic mystery.[38] Jonas’ fascination with Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is not misplaced: Dasein’s being-toward-death is indeed constitutive of our being human. Death opens us to the heart of Being. Whitehead’s unapologetic return to metaphysics is not necessarily in conflict with Heidegger’s turn toward Existenz, since he engages in philosophical speculation not in order to master or cover over death, as ontotheology does, but instead to seek some reconciliation between life and death via a coherent account of their integration in and as creative process, or what he termed Concrescence. Whitehead described an actual occasion’s concrescence in terms of three cumulative phases of feeling: first, the creative intensity of many objectively given past actualities initiates a new actual occasion or throb of experience; second, this occasion seeks its own form of aesthetic satisfaction in an immediately enjoyed presentation of the objective manifold by unifying this manifold into its own unique subjective perspective on the universe; finally, the occasion, having achieved satisfaction of its subjective aim toward unity, perishes into superjective immortality, becoming another objective expression to be prehended in the concrescence of subsequent throbs of experience. This process, whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one,”[39] is iterated endlessly “to the crack of doom.”[40] It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.[41] It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”[42] Note that while Whitehead’s ontological account of concrescence does include a kind of “immortality,” this should not be confused with the distinct, cosmological question of the status of the ontogeny of individual biological organisms after death. As mentioned above, Whitehead philosophy of organism is decidedly neutral on the question of ontogenetic or personal immortality.[43]

But it cannot be denied that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of some modern and much postmodern philosophy. For Whitehead, beauty is the teleology of the universe. The concrescence of each actual occasion is goaded toward beauty by an indwelling Divine Eros. This Eros, also called the “primordial nature of God,” is inherited by the initial feelings of each occasion. But because actual occasions are still self-creative, the Divine Eros cannot determine the direction of Nature’s creative advance. Rather, by contributing to the initial phase of each concrescent occasion a graded envisagement of Creativity’s infinite value-potential as relevant to its finite situation, the Divine Eros lures occasions toward more intense actualizations of value-experience or beauty. Such actualizations are never assured, and any achievement of order is accomplished amidst a background of chaos that is forever threatening to shipwreck the endeavor. Whitehead rejects as fallacious the narrow religious conception of the universe as determined by some final order imposed by a transcendent, omnipotent God.[44]

Despite its reformed, evolutionary character, Jonas, Varela, and Thompson do not go as far as affirming the cosmic teleology of Whitehead’s panpsychism. They restrict the scope of teleology to biological phenomena, arguing for a kind of immanent purposiveness at work at least in the self-production and sense-making of individual living organisms down to the level of single cells. Self-production or autopoiesis is said to differentiate an organism from an “indifferent physicochemical” environment, while sense-making turns this environment into a world of “biological significance.”[45] They allow teleology entrance into nature only through the emergent centers of “concern” and need whereby biological organisms “affirm and reaffirm [themselves] in the face of not-being.”[46]

Jonas, Varela, and Thompson here oppose the “otherwise neutral events” of external physics and chemistry governed by deterministic laws to the “internal norms” of biological organisms.[47] Biological organisms, as sense-making, self-producing beings, are not posited as by any means exempt from the laws by which science understands the physical world, but nonetheless they are thought to add something not found in or entailed by these laws. From Thompson’s perspective, the new sciences of complexity, unavailable in Kant’s day, allow contemporary theoretical biologists to grasp this extra something in a more rational, scientific way.[48] Jonas, Varela, and Thompson thus go further than Kant in affirming immanent teleology as constitutive of at least biological organisms.

Thompson (a former student of Varela’s and the only living member of this triad) has followed one line of the post-Kantian tradition’s development through Husserl to its culmination in Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology. He also draws on Jonas’ discussion of biological space and time, which is in effect an evolutionary extension of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic beyond the human to the subjectivity of biological organisms. Whitehead, on the other hand, tried to go back to Kant and invert his founding principles. As I’ve shown, Whitehead’s process-relational ontology is an attempt to construct a critique of pure feeling in place of Kant’s critique of pure Reason. Something very similar ended up happening within the Kantian tradition itself, not just via Schelling, but via Merleau-Ponty, whose late ontology of the flesh could be described as a transition from Kantian disembodied reason as epistemically foundational (with ontology bracketed) to embodied feeling as the ground of knowledge and existence. Perhaps Schelling, Whitehead, and the embodied phenomenologists end up converging in the end.[49] Nonetheless, Thompson remains suspicious of claims that the relations between even the most microscopic physical events are somehow experiential. He worries that this sort of speculative claim overshoots the transcendental limitations Kant placed on human knowing.[50] I am compelled to follow Whitehead, however, in seeing Kant as having prematurely limited our intuitive capacity to participate in Nature’s inner life.[51] Whitehead, perhaps with Kant or some of his transcendentalist inheritors in mind, rejected “the philosophic tradition” which has it that “there are set limitations for human experience, to be discovered in a blue-print preserved in some Institute of Technology.” He grants the usual limitations set by the social habits that happen to be dominant in each epoch, and by the difficulty of verbally expressing, and thus recalling or communicating, unusual experiences; but in principle he cannot “discern any reason, apart from dogmatic assumption, why any factor in the universe should not be manifest in some flash of human consciousness.”[52] After all, though the task be difficult, the main task of philosophy is precisely that of translating into language what such flashes of insight reveal about the nature of the penumbral background encompassing our normal consciousness. In this way, philosophy strives to increase the generality of our metaphysical categories beyond their applicability to the tables and tea cups of our everyday experience. Hidden in ordinary experience, continues Whitehead,

there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.[53]

The normally dim background of our embodied experience, that which our sensitive membranes are supposed to put us in touch with, is evidently not a mere neutral “not-being.” Whitehead beseeches us not to be too quick to artificially limit our capacity to experience the deeper causal vectors animating the cosmic life from which we derive and to which we return.

Despite its tendency to impose such limits, there remains much that is of value in the transcendental orientation, particularly when it has been transformed into embodied phenomenology. Thompson’s approach invites reductionists to become more reflexive about how their objective way of knowing brings forth a specific, limited domain of significance, a domain wherein only the mechanical aspects of living phenomena are detectable, and wherein all value, meaning, and purpose evaporates from view. By epistemically ruling out a “feeling for the organism”[54] as unscientific, mechanistic biologists become numb to the physical purposes at work within the living processes of Nature. If, as Thompson puts it, “empathy is a precondition of our comprehension of the vital order,” where empathy means the “spontaneous and involuntary resonance of two living bodies with each other,”[55] then knowing the living interiority of Nature requires coming to aesthetically resonate with it, to sense it, or sense with it, from the inside out. Whitehead, like Schelling, arrived at his organic realism by inverting Kant’s transcendental idealism so that intuitive feeling and aesthesis came to ground conceptual reflection and Reason.[56] “The reaction of our own nature to the general aspect of life in the universe”[57] is thus the primary experiential datum of and epistemological justification for Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Thompson agrees that a more generic view of nature than the mechanical one is possible. In his more recent work, he has pursued a post-physicalist, non-dualist perspective, arguing that “physical being and experiential being imply each other [and] derive from something that is neutral between them.”[58] He explicitly leaves the door open to panpsychism and neutral monism and suggests they may have advantages over neurophysicalist reductionism.[59] Neutral monism is a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had an important influence on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of a “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s panexperientialism. But how can something “neutral” give birth to a creative cosmos of living organisms? It is this problem that led Whitehead to generalize the insights of James’ radically empirical psychology (which has much in common with embodied phenomenology) into a panpsychist cosmology. If experience goes all the way down, the challenge is to find some description general enough to avoid anthropomorphism but vectored and telic enough to still count as experiential. Whitehead threads the needle with his concept of prehension. Physical prehensionality, where memory and anticipation are present already in germ, thus becomes the precursor of biological intentionality (which itself is the precursor of conscious reflection).[60] There is thus no neutral reality: for Whitehead, to be real is already to be the realization of some modicum of value, as “aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realization.”[61]

 

Placing Life Back in the Cosmos

There are clear parallels between Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and the new paradigms of theoretical biology put forward by thinkers like Jonas, Rosen, Varela, and Thompson. There are also important differences regarding physical ontology, panpsychism, and the proper scope of teleology. My main motivation for bringing these thinkers into conversation with Whitehead is to lure those already critical of the idea that mechanistic reductionism offers an adequate account of life into the more constructive project of imagining a viable metaphysical alternative. If living organization is taken seriously and given its proper place in the cosmos as ontologically generic, then our scientific conception of the universe requires a thorough re-imagining. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image or cosmic metaphor guiding natural scientific investigation. Epistemologically, feeling (in the expanded, Whiteheadian sense) must be granted an enhanced status as our primary mode of relation to the life of the cosmos, such that a rational cosmology comes to mean the same thing as a relational one.

 

Endnotes

[1] See Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001) or Participation and the Mystery (2017). See also Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn (2008)

[2] Arran Gare, “Approaches to the Question ‘What is Life?’: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology” (2008), Cosmos and History Vol 4, No 1-2.

[3] The Tree of Knowledge, 248

[4] Process and Reality, 4

[5] Process and Reality, 50.

[6] The Tree of Life: The Biological Roots of Human Cognition by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (Shambala, 1998), 25-26.

[7] Under the political and economic conditions of late capitalism, theoretical understanding has itself largely taken a backseat to instrumental manipulation with an eye toward military applications or corporate profits.

[8] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas (Northwestern University Press, 2001), 7.

[9] The Phenomenon of Life, 8.

[10] The Phenomenon of Life, 9.

[11] The Phenomenon of Life, 8-9.

[12] The mechanistic world-picture is rooted in a Faustian bargain, that where religious worship of God had apparently failed to defeat death, technological mastery of Nature might succeed. Ernest Becker famously argued that all human culture is ultimately in service to an elaborate “immortality project.” While pre-modern societies had religious means of achieving a sort of symbolic immortality, modern societies have replaced appeals to God with science and technology, which are, we are told by Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists, on the verge of providing us with real immortality. For Becker, both theologically and technologically oriented societies are driven by the same denial of death. Pre-moderns sought the shelter of the Church and the grace of the Mass to grant them some taste of transcendence, while moderns dream of terraforming Mars or, less grandiosely, surf Amazon and Facebook and through the miracle of transubstantiation turn data into a consumable goods. The “thoughtless Prometheanism” of modern techno-capitalism is for Becker only a turbocharged version of the premodern “immortality project.” It is rooted in the same “rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creaturely limitations” (The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1975, 85).

[13] In Clive Hamilton’s terms, the Anthropocene marks the discovery of a new phenomenon hitherto unknown to science: “the appearance of this new object, the Earth System, has ontological meaning. It invites us to think about the Earth in a new way, an Earth in which it is possible for humankind to participate directly in its evolution by influencing the constantly changing processes that constitute it. It therefore brings out the conception of a joint human-earth story” (Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, 21).

[14] The Phenomenon of Life, 2. Though of course there is plenty to be gained through a careful study of many of The Philosopher’s ideas, Whitehead decisively rejects Aristotle’s substance-quality ontology in favor of a process-relational one.

[15] I would ask my scientific colleagues, perhaps already tempted to dismiss the panpsychist cosmology I am peddling, to provide me with even a single example of a scientific theory that does explanatory work without invoking metaphor. Quantum and relativistic phenomena are notoriously difficult to explain in common language, since they appear at first to do violence to our habitual ways of perceiving and conceiving of visible nature. Many modern physicalists therefore prefer to treat them as purely mathematical theories. I ask my scientific colleagues again, what is the meaning of a mathematical equation without that most powerful of metaphorical symbols, “=”?  See Logos of the Living Earth: Toward a Gaian Praxecology for more on the place of metaphor in science: https://footnotes2plato.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/

[16] Science and the Modern World, 97.

[17] Quoted in Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 7.

[18] Essays on Life Itself by Rosen, 9.

[19] p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000

[20] On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

[21] “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics” by Aaran Gare, Cosmos and History, Vol 7, no. 2, 2011.

[22] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 128-129, 215.

[23] Quoted by Rosen, Essays on Life Itself, 35.

[24] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988), 35.

[25] Quoted in Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 188.

[26] Grounding of Positive Philosophy, Schelling, 168.

[27] Process and Reality, 113.

[28] Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 268.

[29] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

[30] Essays on Life Itself, 36.

[31] The Function of Reason by Alfred North Whitehead, 15.

[32] The End of Certainty (1996) by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 3.

[33] To be complex is not just to be “complicated,” but, in Rosen’s terms, to be noncomputable or nonsimulable (Essays on Life Itself, 17, 37).

[34] Science and the Modern World, 150.

[35] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas, 96.

[36] Religion in the Making, 107.

[37] Science and the Modern World, 119.

[38] This mystery is affirmed in most primal world views, as well as in Vedic and Buddhist traditions. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rather unique in its denial of any form of rebirth, though there are exceptions (e.g., Origen, Rudolf Steiner). Thompson made the following comparison of panpsychist conceptions of creaturely death to Buddhist conceptions of death: “Panpsychism implies that, as an entirely natural matter of fact, aspects or elements of consciousness—not creature consciousness but more primitive or basal, constituent forms of consciousness—remain present after biological death. Indeed, the idea that creature consciousness at death undergoes a kind of phenomenal dissolution into constituent phenomenal elements—an idea central to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of the dying process—may make more sense from a panpsychist perspective than from a neurophysicalist one” (“Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf).

[39] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[40] Process and Reality, 228.

[41] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.

[42] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.

[43] One form of immortality an individual can possess is achieved through its participation in and contribution to the larger cosmic personality or the divine milieux which shelters its experience. In the end, Whitehead and Jonas converge rather intimately on the question of the possibility and nature of immortality. Indeed, Jonas was deeply influenced by Whitehead’s processual account of God’s relationship to the world (see The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas by Christian Wiese, p. 126). Interested readers should compare the final pages of The Phenomenon of Life in the chapter “Immortality and the Modern Temper” to Whitehead’s late essay “Immortality.”

[44] Process and Reality, 111.

[45] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[46] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[47] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 152-153.

[48] Mind in Life, 129.

[49] Hamrick and Van der Veken’s Nature and Logos argues as much

[50] Blog exchange on July 16, 2013: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/07/16/phenomenology-and-ontology-merleau-ponty-whitehead-and-the-flesh-of-the-world/

[51] Even Kant, in his last writings before death (published as the Opus Postumum), acknowledged that we do have intuitive access to the interiority of nature, since we ourselves, as natural beings, have immediate access to our own interiority. Kant’s late re-consideration of the limitations his earlier critiques had placed on knowledge may have been a result of Schelling’s influence.

[52] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 134-135.

[53] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 132.

[54] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, referring to Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of biologist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism (1984).

[55] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 165.

[56] I referred to this Schellingian-Whiteheadian reversal as “descendental” philosophy in my dissertation, Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.

[57] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Immortality,” 102.

[58] Waking, Dreaming, Being, 105.

[59] Thompson, “Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf

[60] For  more on the difference between prehensionality and intentionality, see my dissertation Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead, 143.

[61] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 94.

 

Towards a new root image in natural science…

Here is anthropologist Anne Buchanan on the post-truth era in natural science.

I was reminded of my post on the federally-funded Brain Initiative a few years ago.

Buchanan includes geneticist Ken Weiss’ list of facts that do not fit the reductionistic paradigm of “normal science” in biology at the end of her post.

Weiss and Buchanan have co-authored the book The Mermaid’s Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things

Though I haven’t read their book yet, Buchanan and Weiss’ perspective seems to dovetail nicely with what I argue (with Whitehead’s help) in Physics of the World-Soul: that the paradigm shift required to make sense of self-organizing dynamics active at the biological scale will also need to make sense of the self-organizing dynamics active at the quantum and astrophysical scales. In short, mechanical models describable solely in terms of efficient causation cannot account for the observable facts of physics or of biology. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image, and formal and final causation must be reincorporated into a more adequate naturalistic ontology—a naturalism wherein value and experience are intrinsic to every process of realty.

Video of my presentations at the 10th International Whitehead Conference on Friday (6/5) and Saturday (6/6)

Conference website.


Friday, June 5th at 4:45pm:
Whitehead’s Non-Modern Philosophy: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse


Saturday June 6th at 2:30pm:
Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

I have a lot to say about some of the questions that came up during the discussion (~58 minutes into the video), especially the issues that Terrence Deacon and Stu Kauffman brought up about life’s pervasiveness in the universe and whether “play” might exist in the non-biological world. I’ll be posting about these questions in the next few days…

[Update 6/11: Stu K. and I had breakfast the day after my talk to discuss the idea of a “physics of play.” Such a physics becomes possible given the panexperientialist basis of Whitehead’s ontology. I’m hoping we can co-author a paper on this… Stay tuned.]

Eric Smith on the geochemical inevitability of life on earth

real-images-of-earth-from-space-3

For more from Smith, see this co-authored essay “The Origin of Life”:

“As we see it, the early steps on the way to life are an inevitable, incremental result of the operation of the laws of chemistry and physics operating under the conditions that existed on the early Earth, a result that can be understood in terms of known (or at least knowable) laws of nature. As such, the early stages in the emergence of life are no more surprising, no more accidental, than water flowing downhill.”

Seems to me to be a contemporary example of how complexity science is overcoming Whitehead’s fallacy of the bifurcation of nature. Another science is possible.

Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

This was an early draft of a paper I presented at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. For video of the actual presentation, click HERE.

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Abstract: This talk compares several approaches to the emergence of religion in human evolution. I contrast Robert Bellah’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts to Daniel Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritualized play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals)  is a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. I then argue that the history of human religious expression should count as data requiring interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” religious expression stem from an incoherent bifurcated image of nature, wherein dead matter is given explanatory priority over life and consciousness, which are relegated to the status of improbable epiphenomena. This approach, which ends up claiming that the emergence of human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident, provides the exact opposite of a proper scientific account. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible for the project of “naturalizing religion” to proceed in a non-reductionistic way. The guiding research question is no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?” 

My talk today will explore the evolutionary origins of human religion. As many post-colonial anthropologists have pointed out, “religion” is a highly contested term that cannot be unproblematically deployed as a transhistorical, universalist catch-all category. Although I’ve chosen to use the word, I agree with this problematization of a priori definitions of religion, which all too often blur our perception of the multifaceted richness of human spiritual expression by forcing it to submit to the discursive categories of modern scientific and sociological methodologies. I include the term “spirituality” here to indicate that by “religion” I don’t just mean a set of clearly articualted dogmas in which one believes with certainty, but a creative and experientially grounded orientation to the mystery of being alive. Whatever religion, and the spirituality at its core, are, they are more than can be captured by a fixed definition. They are interrelated dimensions of an ongoing cosmologically embedded activity, not simply a set of verbally professed beliefs. Like Augustine said of time, when it comes to religion and spirituality, “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.” Instead of trying to explain religion by reducing it to the favored terms of modern biology, psychology, sociology, the aim of this talk is to let it reveal itself by situating it within the long evolutionary account offered by Robert Bellah and the alternative cosmological scheme provided by Alfred North Whitehead.

Inquiring into the origins of religion—and connecting those origins to the evolutionary emergence of our species—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or objective way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. Inquiring into its nature will never be a dispassionate affair decidable by mathematical proof or experimental refutation. At the same time, human religious concerns and values are themselves matters of fact that have arisen and continue to arise in the course of cosmic evolution. As such, they require interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme.

Even the most sober-minded, materialistic scientists, whenever they offer evolutionary accounts of the origins our species, or of our universe, inevitably become myth-makers. Bellah makes this quite clear when, in the early chapters of his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution, he examines the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched the philosopher and author of The Atheists Guide to Reality (2011) Alex Rosenberg during a recent conference presentation introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).

In contrast to these scientistic thinkers engaged in what Whitehead referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away,” my own approach, building on Whitehead and Bellah, is motivated by the search for some sort of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious mythopoiea. I hope to show that the forced choice between religion and science is a false one, and that the emergence of an ecological civilization will depend upon our ability to construct a cosmological outlook that does justice to both scientific facts and religious values, and that recognizes the various ways facts and values overlap.

slide 3

Perhaps the most well-known attempt to “explain away” the phenomenon of religion is the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell (2006). He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins’ well-known and largely discredited meme theory, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the neo-Darwinian perspective, are not granted evolutionary agency, but are reduced to lumbering robots accidentally shaped by a multigenerational battle to the death with a harsh environment. So-called religious “memes” are said to spread and survive today not because people find them deeply meaningful and potentially transformative but because they have succeeded in their “competition for rehearsal space in the brain” by getting copies of themselves made. Their transmission from brain to brain, and from generation to generation, has been, as Dennett puts it, “transmission without comprehension.”[1] Now that humans have woken up to  the all-comprehending light of scientific rationality, and have come to know the universe as nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out any usefulness it may once have had and must be gotten rid of. Maybe it served our species initially as a sort of “morality prosthesis” or “nurse crop” for civilization, to use Dennett’s words again. But we are grown ups now and need to accept that existence—that of humanity and of the cosmos itself—ultimately comes to nothing. Nihil. Or so the modern scientific materialist story goes.

To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. He admits that the memetic theory he puts forward is probably wrong, but at least, he says, it gives others something to fix. Fair enough. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am sympathetic to the call for a naturalization of religion, for a scientific study of it as a phenomenon emergent from and continuous with its wider biological and cosmological contexts. But of course, it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.”

The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that Dennett’s approach to the evolutionary emergence of religion presupposes what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protests against: the bifurcation of nature.[2] For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. All seemingly intrinsic value is then explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material across the generations.

slide 4

The contrast between such reductionistic biological accounts of religion and Bellah’s and Whitehead’s more cosmological approaches could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience (a major influence on Whitehead), only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more reductionistic purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious expression must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, the cosmological.

“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).

So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine flowering of the universe we find ourselves living within: not as accidental, but as essential. Human religious experience, in other words, should count as part of the legitimate data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. To treat religion naturalistically, we need not explain it away as epiphenomenal. We can instead inquire into the cosmic conditions of its possibility. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).

Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in reality a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.

“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning.

“In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which I should point out Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also identify “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms or centers of agency? Alongside efficient causality, formal and final causality are also evident in the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny a cosmic ground to agency, purposiveness, and value, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny it in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of [humans] to the universe in which they find themselves” (Religion in the Making, 31). Following Whitehead’s reversal of the usual logic of evolutionary explanation, we can recognize the emergence of religion in human beings as evidence that something more than blind chance and inexplicably imposed physical necessity is at work—or, as we’ll see—at play in the evolution of our universe.

Bellah, like Whitehead, grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, to eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings. In contrast to Dennett’s mechanical, gene-centric view, Bellah’s is certainly an organism-oriented understanding of biology. But it is not yet a full-fledged ontology of organism like Whitehead’s. More on this later.

slide 7

Although he of course recognizes important distinctions that make humans unique among other members of the animal kingdom, even reproducing Terence Deacon’s statement that our species represents an entirely new phylum, Bellah nonetheless dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for us, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in the childhood phase longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. Bellah cites numerous ethologists who describe the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention (in a word, empathy) are the precondition for any form of sociality.

Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of mammalian play. The source of the complexification was the ramping up of empathic sociality among humans, eventuating in what Bellah (quoting Sarah Hrdy) calls “emotional modernity” (85). Homo sapien minds, due to their tendency to play ever-more intimately, have become uniquely vulnerable to possession by the power of symbolism—the power of words and images to bind us to certain political and cosmological worlds, worlds we literally create through the ritual enactment of myth. This power of symbolic binding transforms ritual play into religion. It is important in this context to admit, as Whitehead reminds us, that “we should not be obsessed by the idea of [religion’s] necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion.”[3] Despite the fact that religious symbolic consciousness was born out of our unprecedented capacity for social intimacy, once it has emerged, it has the power to detach us from one another just as readily, generating the worst kind of in-group/out-group discrimination, and, as has become more apparent in the modern, industrial era, symbolic consciousness also has the power to produce civilizational myths that are entirely detached from the ecological context of the living planet that sustains us.

What is clear is that religion grows out of the soil of collective ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in: it is something you are and do. The essential thing about religious life is not mindless, ranting about dogmatic creeds, but sincerity in its engagement with symbolic forms of ritual play. A religious symbol “[has] the effect of transforming character when [it is] sincerely held and vividly apprehended,” according to Whitehead.[4] Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the plants and animals on the earth and the shinning orbs in the sky. The human being’s religious impulse, growing out of ritual play, is to “recreate” the harmonies of these cosmic beings in symbolic form, to refashion them into myths for the guidance of our civilized societies.

Bellah’s argument draws extensively on the cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938), from which I quote at length: “Archaic society…plays as the child or animal plays…Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it…Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play…[humanity’s] consciousness that it is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).

slide ritual

Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. Further, because of the important role of play in the evolution of our species, and because it depends on shared attention/intention and basic ethical relations, it provides clear evidence contrary to Dennett’s view that organisms are just mimicry machines. “In acknowledging play,” says Huizinga, “you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter.”

“Even in the animal world,” he continues, “[play] bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable…when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings…” (Homo Ludens, 4).

Huizinga here almost slips into Whitehead’s fallacy of bifurcation by reifying the difference between mind and matter. Elsewhere he asks “would it be too absurd to assign a place [to play] outside the purely physiological?” I’d say yes, it would be absurd, or at least incoherent, to suppose the playfulness of mind-bearing organisms somehow exists separately from their physiological make-up. The physiological need not be equated with the mechanical.

Even though I’m critical of Huizinga’s slippage toward bifurcation due to his tendency to reify culture and mind as entirely “outside” of and set apart from mere “nature,” I still acknowledge and gladly inherit from him his other, underemphasized but no less profound intuition, that the efficacious reality of play in human and nonhuman lifeforms entails that we inhabit a sensitive and playful universe, not a dull, deaf, and dumb one. As we’ll see in a moment, I have similarly mixed feelings about the residue of bifurcation in Bellah’s more phenomenological approach to religion.

We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead also knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival: it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better.”[5]  If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to million year old minerals, life is deficient in survival value.

Whitehead, like Bellah and Huizinga, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play.[6] Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religion’s evolutionary emergence:

Whitehead: ritual play<>emotional evocation<>mythical belief<>rationalization

Bellah (drawing on Merlin Donald’s work on the evolution of human cognitive capacity): mimetic/ritual<>mythic<>theoretic

Both acknowledge that ritual is widespread among mammals. Early humans were no different, but because of their increasing emotional and cognitive sensitivity, began to recognize that certain emotional states, enjoyable for their own sake apart from the needs of biological survival, could be reliably reproduced through collective ritual enactment. Only later, once the capacity for symbolism had emerged, were mythic beliefs articulated in an attempt to account for the purpose of ritual practices and their attendant emotional quality. Myths then contributed through a kind of feedback loop to the intensification of the emotional qualities. Notice that the arrows in the diagram point both ways, which is meant to prevent us from thinking that the emergence of a new stage means the prior stage is forgotten or transcended. Early stages are still present with and necessary for the expression of later stages. This is true even with the final stage of rational, philosophical, or theoretical reflection upon religious rituals and myths. Religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about who one is and what one does. The fundamentalisms of our late modern age, whether atheist or creationist, tend to neglect the ritual and mythical dimensions of religious life. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the cognitive components of belief systems, which are often only the dead products excreted by a more primary, living process of cosmic participation.

Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of “work” or mere survival. Bellah’s understanding of religious experience as one among a variety of cultural realities (differing from that of science, aesthetics, politics, and so on) is drawn largely from the phenomenological approach of Clifford Geertz and Alfred Schutz. While I think this sort of approach provides a helpful critique of and alternative to more scientistic explanations, allowing us to examine religion on its own terms, because it leaves the question of the cosmological basis of religious experience unanswered if not also unasked, I believe a Whiteheadian supplement is necessary. Taking a phenomenological look at religious experience by bracketing other cultural enactments of reality risks leaving the bifurcation of nature from culture intact. Whitehead allows us to grant the validity of multiple cultural realities while also acknowledging human culture’s continuity with the rest of the cosmos. This will become clearer as I conclude this talk, but for now let’s stick with Bellah’s account of ritual play (and the religious experiences it is associated with) as transcending the everyday world of work.

The idea is not to transcend work entirely,  which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it generates, is at the historical origin and remains the existential core of our cultural lives?

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Göbekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1990s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard, technocentric account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. The existence of Göbekli Tepe suggests, instead, that these cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural mode of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society” (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued). The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

This understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary civilization, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. The contemporary world’s obsession with sports may seem like an exception, but I’d argue they are usually engaged in, not as ends in themselves, but as means for social prestige or to fulfill moral expectations of success. The question remains: Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the renewal of cycles of cosmic creativity?

Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead, inanimate collection of objects?

Maybe.

That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the incoherence of modern science’s bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask:

“What is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?”

This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.

Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist like Weinberg, Monod, or Rosenberg. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber (thereby potentially helping him overcome the residue of bifurcation resulting from his reliance on Geertz and Schutz’ more cultural approaches). Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”).

Building on Buber, Bellah argues that it is not at all surprising that for a “supersocial” species like us, an “I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trump the I-It relation.” He continues: “To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).

Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. This is very different from Dennett’s I-It approach, which is predicated upon the idea that the best way to study the evolution of religion is to imagine we are aliens from another planet trying to gain a view of it “from the outside,” as it were. To approach human religion from such an alienated perspective is to seriously handicap the pursuit of a naturalistic account of its evolutionary emergence. If we want an account of religion’s emergence that is immanent to cosmogenesis and avoids the undue imposition of other-worldly transcendence, then we’re going to need to study religious experience from the inside out.

“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting.”[7]

Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts, or rather, to include these values as among the facts. “We have no right,” says Whitehead, “to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.”[8] For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, to be a fact, for Whitehead, means to experientially enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman organisms, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”[9]

Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to move beyond the modern bifurcation separating nature from culture, fact from value, and mechanism from meaning. Moving beyond the bifurcation of nature to grasp the cosmological significance of religion, and the religious significance of cosmology, will require re-evaluating metaphysical assumptions that have been woven into the very fabric of the scientific worldview for hundreds of years. The originators of this worldview, the original myth-makers responsible for initiating the Scientific Revolution, conceived the universe as a machine and imagined God as its transcendent designer. Though they differ in the details, this was the imaginative background informing the thoughts of Newton, Descartes, and Kant. Nowadays, scientific materialists no longer have any need for the “God hypothesis,” but the imaginative background informing their ideas remains the same. The universe is still to be understood by analogy to a machine, only now it has become a purposeless machine. Understanding this cosmic machine requires purifying our perspective of any hint of emotion, value, or appreciation, since these merely subjective qualities can only contaminate an impartial view of reality. Whitehead ontology of organism provides us with an alternative.

“The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded,” he says in the final pages of Religion in the Making, “finds the foundations of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant [and many contemporary scientific materialists]—in the cognitive and conceptual experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order…The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” (91-92).

To draw this talk to a close, I want to draw a parallel between Whitehead’s aesthetic ontology to Huizinga’s understanding of play. Huizinga locates play within the field of aesthetics, and suggests that playing is inherently creative of order. “Play,” he says, “has a tendency to be beautiful.”[10] Huizinga goes on, in Whiteheadian fashion, to describe ritual  acts of play as cosmic happenings, as continuous with natural processes.

Would it be too absurd, following Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in favor of an aesthetic ontology, to assign a place [to play] within the evolution of the universe itself? Might we come to understand the whole of the cosmos at every level of its self-organization as an expression of divine play? Might Blake have been right, that “energy is eternal delight”? Instead of God the disincarnate transcendent designer of a clock-work universe, or a meaningless machine-world running down toward heat death, might we interpret the scientific evidence otherwise? Might it be, as Whitehead suggests, that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God” (140, 143)?   For those with an allergy to the G word, we should remember that Whitehead’s philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.”[11] The ultimate religious theme in Whitehead’s cosmology is this divine Eros, the counter-agency that saves the world from decay into irrelevance by luring organisms toward more creative forms of organization. Whitehead’s God is not a big boss in the sky who designs and determines everything, but the poet of the world, who through aesthetic sensitivity beckons all beings toward the highest beauty that is possible for them, given the limitations of their finite situation. Beauty is the teleology of the universe. This, at least, is Whitehead’s alternative cosmological interpretation of the facts and values of the history of human religious expression. Whether or not we seize this alternative vision will determine the future of our civilization, if indeed it is to have one.
Further resources:
On the ideological sources of the selfish gene approach to biological evolution:
Bruno Latour. “How to make sure Gaia is not a God of Totality, with special attention to

Toby Tyrrell’s book On Gaia.” Written for the Rio de Janeiro meeting “The Thousand Names of Gaia,” September 2014.

On the geochemical inevitability of the emergence of life on earth (life is no accident):

James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith. “The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons.” American Scientist (Volume 97), 2009.

On the importance of love in biological evolution:

Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller. Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Imprint Academic, 2009.

[1] 2010 talk at Sante Fe Institute

[2] see The Concept of Nature

[3] Religion in the Making, 3.

[4] Religion in the Making, 5.

[5] Religion in the Making, 8.

[6] Religion in the Making, 10.

[7] Religion in the Making, 128.

[8] Modes of Thought, 111.

[9] Process and Reality, 167.

[10] Homo Ludens, 15.

[11] Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343