Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,

Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.

-William Blake

Read the engaging and wide-ranging post hereThe Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I’ve written a few posts bringing Whitehead into conversation with Nietzsche that unpack my perspective a bit regarding nihilism as a pathological transitional phase.

converted PNM file

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:

I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

Entheogens and Cosmos, the sequel [a lecture for ERIE @ CIIS this Sunday on psychedelics and the extended mind thesis]

The Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education student group at the California Institute of Integral Studies has invited me to speak again about the philosophical, cosmological, and psychological significance of psychedelics. In case you missed it, here is my first talk for ERIE back in September called “The Psychedelic Eucharist–toward a pharmacological philosophy of religion”:

I attempted to link Plato and Socrates’ invention of philosophy to the psychedelic mystery cult at Eleusis, and interpreted Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as the mythic expression, not of a dualistic idealism that separates appearance from reality (what is usually called “Platonism”), but of a non-dual ontology of creative aesthesis.

My second talk for ERIE this Sunday (Jan. 25, 2015 at CIIS) will begin with a reflection upon the relationship between the work of speculative science writer of Richard Doyle on the co-evolution of psychedelic plants and human brains (see Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Nöosphere) and cognitive scientist Andy Clark (originator of the “Extended Mind Thesis” with philosopher David Chalmers) on the way computer technology augments and alters human consciousness.

jan25flyer

Clark wrote a piece back in 2010 for the NYT philosophy column “The Stone” called “Out of Our Brains” that is well worth a read. It is easy to become so transfixed by the way our consciousness is embedded within and potentially enhanced by an increasingly ego-pandering (and potentially self-destructive) technological media environment that we entirely forget about all the psychophysiological contributions made by the far more ancient biological and astrological environments from out of which we and our toys emerged. “It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious,” as Whitehead says. What is obvious is that the technoindustrial economy is situated within the dymanics of the Earth system as a whole, that all of our machines and media are ultimately subject to the cosmological energy flows coursing through our planet as it wanders around the Sun.

As Clark says, the novelties of late capitalism, like smartphones and laptops, do certainly extend and augment our our cognition. But ecological and cosmological modes of mind extension pre-date and override these more recent cognitive constructs. Our late modern consciousness may have become largely technologized, but to the extent that we remain grounded on this Earth beneath that Sky, our cognitive bills must still be paid not simply in the currency of skull-bound neurons or handheld smartphones, but in that of the ecodelic chemicals and archetypal energies we share with the other organisms in our local, planetary, and interplanetary ecologies.

Soul-Making vs the Blind Brain Theory

Steven Craig Hickman recently posted a fascinating commentary on the fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker’s “Blind Brain Theory.”  I’ve offered several of my own commentaries in the past (see HERE). My general sense of unease seems to be shared by Hickman, who ponders towards the end of his post whether Bakker’s BBT might be more of a prediction of our post-human future than a description of what remains of human being in the present. This is unnerving to me because I worry that mistaking a prediction for a description only serves to contribute to the realization of what I find to be a nightmarish future. Bakker argues that his thesis–“that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves”–is so disturbing that it remains unbelievable, even to him. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony in his claim not to believe BBT himself: his whole point is that “beliefs” and the “selves” we think hold them are just sophisticated shams.

While for obvious reasons it is difficult if not impossible to actually experience oneself as a blind brain, the common sense theoretical account offered by most educated people nowadays is some variety of mind-to-brain reductionism. Nowadays we are all more or less materialists (as Obama’s recent “Brain Initiative” press conference brought home for me). Or we are unacknowledged dualists: we say the universe is just purposeless material in motion, while by some cosmic accident the moving matter of our nervous systems gained the capacity for self-reflection. While I admit that is some irony in some of his statements, I’d have to classify Bakker as an unacknowledged dualist. He is offering a “theory,” after all. How is theorization even possible if we are really just blind brains? Isn’t theorization just an illusion like everything else that takes place in consciousness? If consciousness can’t be trusted, why should we trust any theory, much less one that tells us our capacity for theorization is an utter fraud?

As I’ve come to understand it, consciousness is a perfectly real factor in the universe. It makes a difference in what happens next, at least for human beings and some other animals. I don’t conceive of it as a substance or a “thing” that exists separate from the body, driving it around like a go cart (i.e., it is not a res cogitans). It is, rather, a very special, high grade achievement of the more generic energetic activity making up the whole cosmos. I follow Whitehead the panexperientialist here (who Hickman also references in his post) by arguing that the most fundamental activity of the universe is already experiential, already in some sense “there” for itself. Consciousness, in other words, is a very sophisticated form of experience made possible by the organizational complexity of animal nervous systems. While all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious. The less complexly organized (or “informationally integrated”) a system is, the less intense its experience. Another way to think about experience here is to put it in temporal terms. More complex organisms are capable of deeper experiential realizations because their nervous systems grant them access to thicker slices of time. For example, the temporal reach of human beings into the actual past or potential future is in principle nearly unlimited: it cannot be known in advance how far into the past (e.g., cosmologists have already reached to the edge of space-time 13.8 billion light years away) or future (e.g., think of the most imaginative sci-fi writers) the human mind can reach. On the other hand, the temporal reach of a hydrogen atom is rather narrow: it inherits its past and is launched into its future almost instantaneously, with very little opportunity for creative variation. Still, though, this opportunity to vary is there from the beginning. There are no instants in nature. Duration goes all the way down. Even hydrogen hesitates. There is a crack in causal transmission at the most fundamental levels of physical reality, an experiential gap that must be leapt. Nothing is absolutely determined or fixed in advance. The universe is radically creative and open ended. It’s for this reason (which follows from 20th century quantum and complexity theories) that Whitehead chose to aestheticize causality, to insert experience into every nook and cranny of the cosmos.

Whitehead’s experiential universe, as radically creative, is radically evolutionary. Every seemingly stable form of organizational achievement is subject to further change, either for the better or for the worse. In Whitehead’s aesthetic ethics (or aesethics), “better” would mean more beautiful, where beauty is defined as the harmonization of contrasting particulars into an organic whole, such that both the parts and the whole are enhanced in the process. My worry, again, is that believing in the blind brain theory can actually do damage to our human potential as consciously creative beings. We are all too ready nowadays to resign ourselves to the mechanical way of life demanded by techno-capitalist society. The only way to fight back against the reduction of human life to the blind machinations of the marketplace is to empower imagination. As Robert Richardson, Jr. says in his biography of Emerson, “It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.” If the human soul is in fact a processual achievement and not, as was long thought, an eternal substance, then it must be made, and, once it has, can be unmade. Soul-making is a sort of theurgy; its what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years; it is the very basis of culture. When we stop ritually enacting our souls, we lose them. We become blind brains.

Maybe this all sounds very conservative to some of my readers. Maybe it is. I’ll grant that their are conceptions of human consciousness that are overblown (e.g., the medieval notion of an eternal substance, the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous free agent, etc.): our agency is restricted, our memory faulty, our grasp of the massive emotional backdrop encompassing conscious attention is severely limited. But unless we take the admittedly wavering power of our consciousness seriously enough to continue ritually invoking it, extending it, experimenting with it, then the evolutionary achievement it represents (13.8 billion years in the making), along with the adventure of civilization, will come to an abrupt end. Yes, I know, the end is inevitable in any case: the Sun will eventually explode and swallow us all. But again, from a Whiteheadian aesethical perspective, it isn’t a question of if it will all end some day, but of how it will end. My own aesthetic tastes and moral proclivities lead me away from the post-human machinic future imagined by Bakker. Its not that I see such a future as impossible; its rather that I don’t see it as a necessary or desirable future. The way we talk and theorize about ourselves has a big role to play in what we in fact become. BBT is itself a form of ritual technology. It changes us as we begin to think it, as its logic infects us. If it is true, as Isabelle Stengers’ writes in her study of Whitehead, that “no thinker thinks twice,” then we must think more carefully, lest we become other than we want to be.

…Morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral… Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history.”

-Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

Responding to comments about Bakker’s “blind brain theory”

Discussion has continued beneath my last post about Bakker. Below are a few of my comments there:

rsbakkar writes:

I advert to common idiom when discussing theoretical incompetence, but it certainly doesn’t turn on any commitment to representationalism – even less correspondance! The fact is, people regularly get things wrong in what appear to be systematically self-serving ways. You don’t need to subscribe to assertion conditions or truth conditions or anything speculative to commit to this.

People generally get things “wrong” in what respect? How are you defining “wrong” here? Upon what scientific criteria do we determine “right” from “wrong”? I assume you mean to speak of “falsity” and “truth,” rather than right and wrong? Even so, the scientific enterprise is not a scantron test where we bubble in T or F after each experiment. Experimental facts are always underdetermined by the theory framing them, which means there is always some degree of extra-scientific hermeneutic, aesthetic, or intuitive selection going on to determine which theory is “best.” For example, even given all empirically verified neuroscientific evidence to date of a brain-mind correlation, brain-based reductionist accounts of what we call “consciousness” represent only one possible causal explanation: it remains entirely possible that the brain functions more like a radio antenna and that the causes of “consciousness” are non-locally distributed beyond the skull (see my reflections on cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger and cognitive philosopher Andy Clark, for example). If the scientific enterprise were simply a matter of confirmation or falsification (either a theory is true or it is false) then there’d be very few if any viable scientific theories. That most of our theories fail to account for all the evidence (or if they do, fail to definitively disqualify competing theories which also account for the evidence) suggests either that humans are theoretically incompetent, or that nature/matter is more complex than our mechanistic models generally allow.

rsbakkar writes:

The life sciences are mechanistic, so if subjective experience can be explained without some kind of ‘spooky emergence,’ as I fear it can, then all intentional philosophy, be it pragmatic or otherwise, is in for quite a bit of pain.

I’d dispute the statement that the life sciences are mechanistic, depending on what you mean by the machine metaphor. There are major unresolved controversies within the life sciences concerning the status of life, whether mechanism can really account for the self-organizing, biosemiotic, and phenomenological dimensions of even a single living cell (See the cognitive neuroscientist Francisco Varela’s 2002 paper “Life After Kant,” or his colleague cognitive scientist Evan Thompson’s book Mind in Life, for good run downs concerning this controversy). There is no reason to conceive of “emergence” as spooky. This way of thinking about the place of wholes in nature is terribly misleading. There’s no reason to make emergence seem supernatural now that science has the conceptual tools to deal with complexity, chaos, non-equilibrium systems, etc (see Terry Deacon’s recent book Incomplete Nature for the cutting edge attempt to account for intentionality in a non-reductive way).

Where I entirely agree with you is that classical philosophical “metacognition” is over-matched by the complexity of the experiential universe. I don’t take much stock in theories like supervenience, functionalism, or anomalous monism for this reason. They are too abstract and cogni-centric and pay too little attention to the complex textures of lived, embodied reality, textures that unfold at or below the threshold of what usually gets called “consciousness.” I turn instead to philosophers like James and Whitehead who sought to correct for the rationalist biases of so much Western philosophy by turning philosophy’s attention to an investigation of feeling and bodily reference, pushing back against the pretensions of disembodied thought and transcendental deduction.

 

 

Speculations on Obama’s Brain Initiative

Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), introduces President Obama as the “scientist-in-chief.” Collins’ “BioLogos” theory is a brand of theistic evolution I have to admit I am not all that familiar with. But I do think he is a good choice to head the NIH since he believes in the compatibility of science and religion, as the majority of Americans seem to.

Obama, for his part, does not begin his speech by situating the latest public investment in brain research in the context of human spirituality. That, of course, is a private matter. Rather, he immediately places this government-funded research in its proper economic context (i.e., techno-capitalism). Investing in science is important, he tells us. Why? Because sometimes it leads to important inventions, some of which may eventually make their way to the marketplace in the form of profitable products and services. If we’re really lucky, science might just lead to the creation of more jobs! The goal of this, and any scientific initiative, is not “understanding.” No, it is economic growth!

Not that Obama is entirely blind to the mystery being approached:

“The most powerful computer in the world isn’t nearly as intuitive as the one we’re born with. There’s this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked. The Brain Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think, and how we learn, and how we remember. That knowledge could be–will be–transformative.”

Not to worry, Obama is going to appoint a presidential bio-ethics committee to make sure all the mystery explaining remains “safe” and all the re-programming remains “legal.” No unnecessary risks will be taken. The only necessary risks will be those whose eventual pay-off as techno-scientific capital can be calculated to outweigh any present cost in human life, liberty, and/or happiness.

Am I being too harsh? Surely there are a few people on the ethics board with a conscience… But is a conscience enough? Isn’t some deeper understanding of the interweaving of cosmos, psyche, and spirit also necessary to guide such research? I guess I’m just disappointed that our scientist-in-chief is a materialist who has totally bought in to the techno-capitalist dream of a future artificial earth whose perfection is won through the progress of industry. Obama seems to joke that one day, after we’ve “cracked the code” in the brain, even politics will be made more perfect by techno-science.

“If we knew everything about how the brain worked, presumably my life here would be simpler. It could explain all kinds of things that go on in Washington… we could prescribe something…”

I suspect that human consciousness is a supreme mystery different in kind and not just more difficult in degree than the mere problems routinely solvable by the scientific method. Method cannot approach mystery. I’m not saying that we might not make important and beneficial medical discoveries as a result of investing in brain research. I’m certainly not saying that the brain should not be studied from as many angles as possible. I’m all for scientific inquiry. I’m just trying to air out the ideology I see painted all over Obama’s announcement. In this case it would certainly seem that the pursuit of scientific understanding has been co-opted by techno-capitalism. I must stick this initiative in the “Capitalist Sorcery” file.

I leave you with the words of a man who understood the difference between philosophical mysteries and scientific problems. Here is Alfred North Whitehead on “speculative Reason,” by which he means the human faculty that desires knowledge for its own sake:

“The speculative Reason is in its essence untrammeled by method. Its function is to pierce into the general reasons beyond limited reasons, to understand all methods as coordinated in a nature of things only to be grasped by transcending all method. This infinite ideal is never to be attained by the bounded intelligence of mankind. But what distinguishes men from the animals, some humans from other humans, is the inclusion in their natures, waveringly and dimly, of a disturbing element, which is the flight after the unattainable. This element is that touch of infinity which has goaded races onward, sometimes to their destruction. It is a tropism to the beckoning light–to the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world. Reason which is methodic is content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method. It works in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity. It is the discipline of shrewdness. Reason which is speculative questions the methods, refusing to let them rest. The passionate demand for freedom of thought is a tribute to the deep connection of the speculative Reason with religious intuitions” -pgs. 65-66, The Function of Reason (1929)

James Hillman on the folly of reducing mind to brain.

From The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, p. 150-154:

The upshot of genetic studies leads in two (!) directions: a narrow path and a broad one. The narrow road heads toward simplistic, monogenic causes. It wants to pinpoint bits of tissue and correlate them with the vast complexity of psychic meanings. The folly of reducing mind to brain never seems to leave the Western scene. We can never give it up because it is so basic to our Western rationalist and positivist mind-set. The rationalist in the psyche wants to locate causes you can put your hands on and fix.

Machines provide the best models for meeting this desire. Take them apart, find their inner mechanisms, and then adjust their functioning by modifying their ratchets, enriching their fuel, greasing their connections. Henry Ford as father of American mental health. Result: Ritalin, Prozac, Zoloft, and dozens of other effective products for internal adjustments that we consume in abundance, millions of us, daily or twice daily. The simplistics of monogenic causes eventually leads to the control of behavior by drugs–that is, to drugged behavior.

Robert Plomin, on whose passionate, prolific, and perceptive writings this chapter has frequently relied, urgently warns against using genetics in a simplistic manner. He states: “Genetic effects on behavior are polygenic and probabilistic, not single gene and deterministic.” I gather from him a warning to psychiatry: Do not capsize your noble vessel under the weight of pharmaceutical, insurance company, and government gold, and do not set your compass toward Fantasy Island, where genetics will define “disease entities in psychiatry.” “We have learned little about the genetics of development [how genes act and interact over time] except to appreciate its complexity.” Therefore we can never arrive at that equation where one defective gene equals one clinical picture (except for true anomalies like Huntington’s chorea).

These warnings have little effect; simplistic thinking fulfills too many wishes. The heads of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are carved into the Mount Rushmore of the mind. The monster of mechanism appears in every century of modern Western history and must be watched for by each generation–especially ours, when to hold out for “something else” besides nature or nurture means believing in ghosts or magic.

Ever since French rationalism of the seventeenth (Marin Mersenne, Nicolas de Malebranche) and eighteenth (Etienne de Condillac, Julien Offroy de La Mettrie) centuries and right through to the positivism of the nineteenth (Antoine Destutt de Tracy, Auguste Comte) in which all mental events were reduced to biology, a piece of the collective Western mind had been yolked like a dumb ox to the heavy tumbrel of French mechanistic materialism. It is astounding how people with such subtle taste as the French and with such erotic sensibility can go on and on contributing so much rationalist rigor mortis to psychology. Every import that arrives from France must be inspected for this French disease, even though it carries the fashionable label of Lacanism, Structuralism, Deconstruction, or whatever.

Today rationalism is global, computer-compatible every-where. It is the international style of the mind’s architecture. We cannot pin it to a particular flag, unless to the banners of the multinational corporation that can spend big bucks turning psychiatry, and eventually psychological thinking, and therefore soul control, toward monogenetic monotheism. One gene for one disorder: Splice the gene, teach it tricks, combine it, and the disorder is gone, or at least you don’t know you have it. The narrow path leads back to the thirties and forties of psychiatric history, though in a more refined manner and with better press releases. From 1930 into the 1950s, correlating specific brain areas with large emotional and functional concepts provided the rationale for the violence of psychosurgery and the lobotomizing of many a troubled soul at odds with circumstance.

The narrow path is yet more retro, going back to the skill analysis of Franz Josef Gall (M.D., Vienna, 1795), who settled in Paris and was much appreciated by the French. From him came the “evidence” that skull bumps and declivities could be correlated with psychological faculties (a system later called phrenology). Much as they are today, the faculties were given big names, such as memory, judgment, emotionalism, musical and mathematical talent, criminality, and so on. Refinement in methods over the years does not necessarily lead to progress in theorizing: 1795 or 1995–material location, and then reduction of psyche to location, prompts the enterprise.

The contrary direction to narrowing nature to brain simplistics is expanding nurture to a far more embracing notion of environment. If environment means literally what’s around, it must also mean whatever is around. This because the unconscious psyche selects quite arbitrarily among the stuff encountered every day in the environment. Tiny and trivial bits of information may have huge subliminal psychic effects, as the days’ residues in dreams show. We do dream of the damnedest things! Much of each day is never noticed or recalled, but the psyche picks up the environmental flotsam and delivers it to the dream. The dream–a processing plant recycling the environment, finding soul values in junk. The dream–an artist, appropriating images from the environment for recollection in tranquility.

Because we walk about in fields of psychic realities that influences our lives, we have to broaden the notion of environment in terms of “deep ecology,” the hypothesis that the planet is a living, breathing, and self-regulating organism. Since anything around can nourish our souls by feeding imagination, there is soul stuff out there. So why not admit, as does deep ecology, that the environment itself is ensouled, animated, inextricably meshed with us and not fundamentally separate from us?

The ecological vision restores to environment also the classical idea of providentia–that the world provides for us, looks out for us, even looks after us. It wants us around, too. Predators, tornadoes, and blackflies in June are only pieces of the picture. Just think of all that’s delicious and sweet-smelling. Do birds sing but for each other? This breathable, edible, and pleasant planet, invisibly serviced and maintained, keeps us all by means of its life-support system. Such would be an idea of nurture that is truly nurturing.

“Environment,” then, would be imagined well beyond social and economic conditions, beyond the entire cultural setting, to include every item that takes care of us every day: our tires and coffee cups and door handles and the book you are holding in your hands. It becomes impossible to exclude this bit of environment as irrelevant in favor of that bit as significant, as if we could rank world phenomena in order of importance. Important for whom? Our understanding of importance itself has to change; instead of “important to me,” think of “important to other aspects of the environment.” Does this item nurture what else is around, not merely us who are around? Does it contribute to the intentions of the field of which we are only one short-lived part?

As notions of environment shift, we notice environment differently. It becomes more and more difficult to make a cut between psyche and world, subject and object, in here and out there. I can no longer be sure whether the psyche is in me or whether I am in the psyche as I am in my dreams, as I am in the moods of the landscapes and the city streets, as I am in “music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts” (T.S. Eliot). Where does the environment stop and I begin, and can I begin at all without being in some place, deeply involved in, nurtured by the nature of the world?