As Adam/Knowledge Ecology has mentioned, a few of us are doing a reading group on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Here are my notes for our first session.

Notes for Introduction and Chapter 1 of Difference and Repetition by Deleuze

By Matt Segall

Preface: Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition is an initiatory text that, rather than putting the Cogito on trial or trying to out judge the judging ego according to its own rules, instead goes to war with the Self as an outlaw, seeking to destroy and dismember it without concern for the Self’s laws or habits. D & R is a work of philosophical terrorism, a concept-machine that lobs semiotic grenades and launches metaphoric missiles that do more than explode in the sky like fireworks: Deleuze’s ideas are weapons of cruelty that erupt from the ground, not displays of celebration in the air. Deleuze seems to argue that the only way to unmask the ego, to reveal it for the mere ghost that it is, is to scare it to death, to force it over the edges of representation, whether organic or orgiastic. In showing the Self the empty form of time, Deleuze dissolves it. Unlike the beautiful soul, who understands all difference merely as misunderstanding, as though he were standing on a field of battle as a justice of peace (52), Deleuze rejects all notions of common sense, notions of what “everyone” supposedly knows, since this “everyone” is precisely no one in particular. On the other hand, Deleuze seeks to redeem difference from the sinful and accursed lot it has been given within the regime of representation. If his project to compose a philosophy of difference succeeds, it is because what “at the outset seemed monstrous, demanding expiation, and could be alleviated only by representative mediation,” in the end becomes “the most innocent difference, the state of innocence and its echo” (67).

1) Two Kinds of Difference: Kind and Degree (Bergson’s Revenge)

To understand Deleuze, we have to understand the difference between differences in kind and differences in degree, even if, all things being different in themselves, this difference turns out to be only one of (differential) degree.

Deleuze’s philosophical method repeats Bergson’s, who repeats Plato’s: it is the method of division, of the authentication of the singular by tracing its genetic roots, following its line of descent into the ground. This method is opposed to the (Aristotlean, Hegelian) method of identification of the special (by analogy, resemblance, or contradiction) with the general:

“Difference is not between species, between two determinations of a genus, but entirely on one side, within the chosen line of descent…It is a question of making the difference, thus of operating in the depths of the immediate, a dialectic of the immediate. It is a dangerous trial without thread and without net, for according to the ancient custom of myth and epic, false claimants must die” (60).

Deleuze’s philosophical method proceeds by generating differences in kind where before, there was only a confused coherence, an illusory identity, an impure mixture, or an errant resemblance, resulting from both the habitual (passive/unconscious) repression of the discontinuous multiplicity of the ground, (the ground is different in kind from all the differences in degree it produces on the surface), and from the projection of the clear and distinct ideas of the self-identical ego onto the representational screen. Deleuze slices a razor across the center of this screen, not just to cut it in half (the line of limitation), or even to fold it in two (the plane(s) of opposition), but to reveal the depth behind it (see pgs. 50-51).

Deleuze learns from Bergson that the root of all badly analyzed composites and confused differences generated by the representational image of thought is the conflation of differences in kind with differences in degree.

A difference in kind is a genetic difference, a difference that rises from the depths, as an affirmation of the depths, to “make itself” (28), a difference that distinguishes itself from a ground that does not distinguish it.

A difference in degree is a special difference, a difference that appears as already made or determined, a superficial difference that does not itself repeat or express the genetic activity of the ground and so can be understood only negatively.

Further, we learn from Bergson (and Whitehead, in his own way) that time is different in kind from space: space is extensive and time is intensive or genetic. The spatial difference between matter and perception, for example, is a matter of degree, of speed, while the temporality of the élan vital makes it different in kind from matter, perception, or any merely external movement measurable by rulers or clocks. The élan is the differenciator, the creative process or genetic activity that instigates all apparent movement without itself ever appearing in physical space (as a body) or psychic time (as an image). Deleuze’s is a philosophy of difference, which makes it also a vital philosophy, a philosophy of life.

2) Learning is not imitation (pgs. 22-23, 25), it is the successful synthesis of incarnating signs (the ocean’s waves) with spiritual signals (the pre-individual thoughts of the swimmer’s dissolved self): “Learning takes place not in the relation between a representation and an action (reproduction of the Same) but in the relation between a sign and a response (encounter with the Other)” (22).

Deleuze’s education in difference is a spiritual exercise that kills God, dissolves the cosmos, and fractures the Self. Or it multiplies gods, cosmoi, and selves, generating new habits, desiccating old ones. “There is something amorous–but also something fatal–about all education” (23).

Learning is always takes place at a level deeper, more singular, than any generalized method of teaching can hope to reach:

“…beneath the generalities of habit in moral life we rediscover singular processes of learning. The domain of laws must be understood, but always on the basis of a Nature and a Spirit superior to their own laws, which weave their repetitions in the depths of the earth and of the heart, where laws do not yet exist” (25).

3) Theater of Philosophy

Kierkegaard no longer simply reflects on theater (like Hegel and Aristotle, who “represent concepts instead of dramatizing ideas” [10]), he “lives the problem of masks, [he] experiences the inner emptiness of masks and seeks to fill it, complete it, albeit with the ‘absolutely different’–that is, by putting it into all the difference between the finite and the infinite, thereby creating the idea of a theater of humor and of faith” (8-9).

Theater of Repetition v. Theater of Representation =

“In the theater of repetition, we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit, and link it directly with nature and history, with a language which speaks before words, with gestures which develop before organized bodies, with masks before faces, with spectres and phantoms before characters–the whole apparatus of repetition as a ‘terrible power’” (10).

-Nietzsche’s Dionysian dance of life or Kierkegaard’s Christian leap of faith? (10-11)

  1. History of Philosophy (30-42) from Aristotle (being-genus-species), to Duns Scotus (neutral univocity of being), to Spinoza (affirmative univocity of being=pantheism), Nietzsche (eternal return of the different)…

“The history of philosophy has always been the agent of power in philosophy, and even in thought. It has played the repressors role: how can you think without having read Plato, Descartes, Kant and Heidegger, and so-and-so’s book about them? A formidable school of intimidation which manufactures specialists in thought – but which also makes those who stay outside conform all the more to this specialism which they despise. An image of thought called philosophy has been formed historically and it effectively stops people from thinking” (13).

5) Organic v. Orgiastic Representation:

“Orgiastic representation has the ground as its principle and the infinite as its element, by contrast with organic representation which retains form as its principle and the finite as its element” (42-43).

Organic representation (e.g., Aristotle, Spinoza) produces knowledge of finite things according to the requirements of the identity of the concept in general. It can produce no concept of difference in itself, since differences are always made extrinsic to the substantial identities of things, never internal to these things.

  • “Four shackles of mediation” (29, 34) in organic representation subject difference to
    • 1) identity of concept
    • 2) opposition of predicates
    • 3) analogy of judgement
    • 4) resemblance of perception
  • But is there not “an irreducible ground which continues to act under the apparent equilibrium of organic representation?” (35)…

Orgiastic representation (e.g., Hegel, Leibniz) discovers the infinite within itself and its objects and peers over the limits of the organized to reveal “the womb in which finite representation never ceases to be born and to disappear, to be enveloped and deployed within orgiastic representation” (43)

But, orgiastic representation, in that it remains foundational, still does not free itself from the principle of identity as a presupposition of representation: “it remains subject to the condition of the convergence of series in the case of Leibniz and to the condition of the monocentering of circles in the case of Hegel” (49). Identity remains the foundation, even while it is given infinite value and rendered coextensive with the whole, thereby reigning over existence itself.

The Large and the Small– Hegel and Leibniz overcome the false choice by making the large and the small coincide at infinity; however, Leibniz says the infinite of the finite through its infinite smallness (differential calculus), while Hegel says the infinite of the finite through its infinite largeness (the wholeness of the True Idea), such that difference is represented as contradiction and negation (44-45).

“If Hegel discovers in serene representation the intoxication and restlessness of the infinitely large, Leibniz discovers in the clear, finite idea the restlessness of the infinitely small, a restlessness also made up of intoxication, giddiness, evanescence and even death…the difference between Hegel and Leibniz is a matter of two ways of going beyond the organic” (45).

Contradiction v. Vice-diction- Hegel begins with the essential=genus, while Leibniz begins with the inessential (46).

6) Task of Modern Philosophy: Overturn Plato? (59)

Deleuze argues that Plato’s philosophy, though showing an undeniable preference for the One, had not yet become representational by succumbing to the abstract movement of mediation, since it still unfolded in the presence of brute, immediate facts. Physis/natura naturans had not yet been lost to it: “The Heraclitan world still growls in Plato” (59).

Deleuze distinguishes himself from Plato’s method of division when Plato enters the “play of myth” in order to trace an Idea’s line of descent according to the logic of participation (61). According to Aristotle, Plato lacks mediating concepts and so must resort to myth to provide “the imaginary equivalent of conceptual mediation” (61). Plato’s myth of a eternal return of metampsychosis is a sort of “story-repetition,” a myth of the turning and returning of the souls which circulate above the celestial fault. Plato’s mythic grounding of philosophy “always involves a further task to be performed, an enigma to be resolved. The oracle is questioned, but the oracle’s response is itself a problem. The dialectic is ironic, but irony is the art of problems and questions” (63). The Platonic art of problems becomes, when non-identically repeated by Deleuze, the genetic method of his philosophy of difference (the method of creating one’s own problems by marking new differences in kind where before only differences in degree were perceived).

Adam/Knowledge Ecology has responded to my comment about the role of the divine in Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme. Let me say at the get go that Whitehead himself acknowledged that he didn’t sufficiently work out the relationship between God and the World in Process and Reality. I approach Whitehead’s scheme, then, as a hacker might go to work on a buggy program, casting aside what doesn’t work and building on what seems most promising. I think there is something profound about his underlying intuition concerning the divine’s power as that of a persuader, rather than a coercer, even if his explicit formulations seem to fall short of a coherent description of how exactly this would play out metaphysically.

Whitehead’s dipolar deity is intended to be a derivative notion of his conceptual categories. He had far more to say about God’s primordial pole than God’s consequent pole; he mentions the latter only a handful of times, always obscurely, while the former, the primordial pole, fits relatively clearly into his conceptual apparatus as that which values a definite set of eternal objects to provide the aesthetic lures that are the condition for the possibility of a cosmos. God’s primordial nature is eternal and so conditions Creativity, translating its immensity into something that finite actual occasions can decide upon and enjoy as distinct qualitative moments of experience. God’s consequent nature, in turn, is conditioned by Creativity: despite God’s attempt to restrain its relentlessly blind rush toward novelty, Creativity nonetheless breaks through to disturb the ordered universe as the freedom of each finite actual entity to decide upon its own subjective form. Creativity is the constant disruption of the constancy that would otherwise reign over things from eternity. God isn’t just eternal, but also has a consequent pole, which is God’s passive reception of Creativity in the form of the free decisions of all actualities. In God’s consequent pole, God becomes a fellow sufferer with all other creatures in the trammels of physical time.

Perhaps “God”–a term weighed down by thousands of years of ontotheological baggge–is no longer appropriate as a descriptor. Whitehead suggests that his divinity is more like ancient conceptions of a World-Soul, or anima mundi, in that it is involved in and not external to the universe. Indeed, it is in some sense nothing other than the universe itself as a social actuality, or organismic togetherness. The divine is the cosmic animal, the universal organism.

Part of the reason Whitehead was lead to posit a divine function was that he saw no other way to coherently speak cosmologically. If there is no superordinate principle of valuation to bring all finite occasions into harmony, there is no cosmos. There is only the multitude of finite entities. Granted, the harmonious ordering of the universe so miraculously uncovered by the last several centuries of scientific investigation may be entirely contingent. Whitehead’s God is, after all, an accident of Creativity. There is nothing necessary about harmony. What, then, is responsible for an admittedly contingent harmony? Divinity cannot be marshaled as an explanation here, a move that is often and rightly criticized. There is a principle of irreducibility at work in Whitehead similar to that at work in object-oriented ontology described by Adam. For one entity or set of entities to explain another is akin to reducing the explained entity away. Whitehead’s philosophical method has nothing to do with explanation. He describes the task of philosophy as “sheer disclosure,” making it akin to poetry in the sense that its propositional expressions succeed only when they increase, rather than erase, our wonder at the astonishing fact(s) of existence.

To return to the question, then: what is responsible for the contingent order of the universe? Whitehead, like OOO, re-constructed causality in terms of aesthetics. Entities relate to one another erotically, not simply mechanically. All physical motion, active or passive, is emotion. Mechanical interaction is secondary to organic transaction, which is to say that internal relations supersede external relations. Every entity is quite literally inside of every other entity. A tension is generated within this mutual interiorization due to the desire of each entity to exist in and for itself apart from others, which is where the explosion of qualities described so beautifully by Harman (as a “sensual ether”) comes in. So, wherefrom harmony and order? From the erotic lure of beauty calling to each actuality non-coercively compelling it to dance in rhythm with its local nexus. Of course, notes of dissonance are often sounded amidst the song of the spheres, but at least (so far) on the macro scale, these dissonances have been gathered back up into a cosmic chord. For 14 billion years, cosmogenesis has remained harmonious enough to utilize disruption and chaos as an engine for the generation of higher forms of organization again and again. The dissonances erupting within the microcosm of human society are somewhat more troubling… Whitehead’s solution to the problem of evil is celebrated by many process theologians, but as I continue to study Schelling (who seems to have taken the difficulty of theodicy more seriously), its becoming apparent that perhaps more needs to be said about the proclivity of humanity to swerve away so drastically from cosmic harmony.  A problem for another post, perhaps… The ontological dimension of evil is admittedly an embarrassing issue to approach in a modern age as self-consciously philanthropic as ours.

After finishing my first comprehensive exam on Schelling, its now time to dive back into Whitehead. For starters, Adam over at the new minimalist Knowledge Ecology has recently been posting brilliant snippets of what I believe is a longer tract he is writing about the ecology of ideas. Here is one titled “The Alien Light“:

On an earth without humans the elephants are mourning their dead and the stars are burning with an alien light. Bees and wasps are swarming from flower to flower, targeting pollinated landing pads rich with colors of a unique visible spectrum; their buzzing messengers return with good news for the rest of the hive. Bacteria move along chemical gradients, seeking out the sugary sweetness of glucose; plankton float in the water before being consumed by baleen whales. Ancient trees cast long shadows, forcing young saplings to sprout leaves in new directions; the shadows themselves are real. The universe does not beget qualities through the emergence of the human alone; the tangled bank of the ecosystem is already filled with the rustling of leaves, croaking of frogs, and thrashing of salmon. Red, gold, and turquoise are carvings of things made by human eyes and minds, but they represent only a small diorama of the available spectrum of aesthetic experiences, an aesthetic dimension unfolding for billions of years before the arrival of the human.

A commenter asked Adam what exactly the meaning of “available” is in the context of the aesthetic experiences of the cosmos. Adam responds by saying “available” may be the wrong word, since he doesn’t think

there are something like “available qualities” just floating around, pre-existing their experience by some organism that enacts them. The problem would be that this would imply that there is something like a standing reserve of pre-existing qualities just waiting to be discovered.

I responded as follows:

I wonder where Whitehead’s eternal objects fit in to this question concerning the “availability” of qualities. These qualities are not actual until experienced by an organism, but they are nonetheless at least potentially real without these organisms. These potencies are the aesthetic lures of Whitehead’s creative cosmos. They are mediated by the divine organism, or anima mundi, who envisages an ordered totality of possibile qualities capable of shaping a given cosmic epoch. Without this divine mediation, the potential for qualitative valuation and so cosmic ordering would be infinite, which means there would be no value or cosmos at all, just a flood of pure relentless chaotic creativity.

So eternal objects aren’t exactly a “standing reserve” of pre-existing qualities, though they seem to be something like this at first. They aren’t exactly this, though, since they in no way pre-existper Whitehead’s ontological principle. Eternal objects are potentials for experience, not actualities. They are only somewhat like a standing reserve in that some finite set of eternal objects is prehended by God in order to get a cosmos to emerge out of chaotic creativity. But it doesn’t seem quite right to conceive of God as a mere store house of ideas. God is an organism, which is to say God is concerned about the ideas he/she/it envisions.

After Nature/Leon has brought my attention to a review of a new book, Peirce and the Threat of Nominalism by Paul Forster. 

“[Peirce’s] opposition to nominalism motivated him as nothing else did and, as Forster shows, is central to his philosophical program. While Peirce’s argument against nominalism was strictly philosophical, his objection to it extended beyond logic to what he regarded as the undesirable consequences of nominalism for civilization. This gave Peirce a sense of urgency in his effort to provide a realist alternative for philosophy and science.”

To defend realism from nominalism and her four daughters (sensationalism, phenomenalism, individualism, and materialism), Peirce had to argue for the existence of true symbols conveying real things to actual minds. In order to prove that laws are real (which is also to prove that ideas are real), he had to account for the emergence of lawfulness out of chaos. Chaos had to be granted memory to account for its accidental acquisition of increasingly organized habits.

There are striking conceptual parallels here with James, Bergson, and Whitehead, not to mention Coleridge (who I’ve been studying of late).

Speaking of realism… What in scientific cosmology is real, and what is theoretical? What is the relation between naming and knowing? There seem to be real things in the universe that we have names for and yet do not understand (see video below). Some of cosmology is systematic, but much of it is still classificatory. Astronomers and physicists are often forced to give names to objects they haven’t yet grasped conceptually (that is, understood in a coherent way in connection with all other known laws and theories).

It seems the electromagnetic age needs a Goethe who can rewind what has today become a much extended spectrum of “colors.” What is the electromagnetic spectrum? What does it mean that we are using technological sensory extensions to detect a whole spectrum of things beyond the phenomenal reach of our biological senses? If the stars are not only material, but semiotic, then what hieroglyph might they be painting for our eye? Of course, the eye, too, must be seen as part of the symbol. “There is nothing in external nature but is an emblem, a hieroglyphic, of some thing in us,” says Emerson.

 

“What is essential in science is movement; deprived of this vital principle, its assertions die like fruit taken from the living tree.” –Schelling, The Ages of the World

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The Copernican Revolution had the exoteric effect of throwing the Earth into motion, decentering human consciousness in the Cosmos. We, like the other planets, became a wanderer lost in the Chaos of empty space. Esoterically, the imaginations of Galileo, Newton, and Descartes steadied the Copernican Chaos by revealing the mathematical order underlying the motion of matter in space—a space poetically conceived of as the sensorium of God, an invisible world-soul uniting all things in His infinite Wisdom. Gravitational motion, celestial and terrestrial, was initiated and sustained by the power of this unmoved Mover. He was imaged to be an intelligent designer, and though the perfection of his plan kept the world-machine in stable order, it was a deterministic order.

Kant‘s Ptolemaic counter-revolution re-framed this new scientific knowledge of mechanical nature in order to leave room for freedom, which he understood to be a practical necessity. Freedom, Kant realized, is the ground and condition for the moral existence of an individual human being, as without it we are but the cogs in a great universal machine. Our movements would not be true animation, since we would be chained to forces external to ourselves. There would be nothing human about us were it not for our capacity to will the good. In a universe determined by the cause and effect of soulless bodies upon one another, Kant saw only one way to salvage our birthright and duty in life: “I have found it necessary to limit knowledge to make room for faith.” The human being was thereby lifted out of the realm of nature into the transcendental ideality of the mind. Knowing the True was sacrificed for willing the Good. Nature became, not the condition of our determinism (nor of our freedom, as Schelling would surmise), but the passive place and matter of our active rise in time toward Providence. As Kant put it, “He who would know the world must first manufacture it.” Nature becomes a mere product to be manufactured.

But scientific knowing would not remain bound by the transcendental limits Kant set for it. The early 19th century brought with it a further revelation about the nature of Earth. The burgeoning sciences of geology and paleontology were revealing the depths of the past out of which the life of our planet had come to be. Fossils of strange creatures no longer living raised the question of species extinction (and therefore also of species generation), long assumed an impossibility within the context of a mathematically perfect machine. Added to our understanding of the position of Earth in space was an understanding of its ancestral genesis. Of all those thinkers to take up Kant’s philosophical trajectory, perhaps it was Schelling who most clearly grasped the significance of these sciences of deep time.

Iain Hamilton Grant argues that Schelling sought a geocentric philosophy even more radical than Kant’s. If Earth had been around for hundreds of millions, if not billions of years before the human mind, then the latter could not claim to be its transcendental condition. On the contrary, Earth was the ground from which the human mind had emerged, and if the transcendental conditions of its freedom were sought, they must be discovered in the materiality of Earth itself. Schelling’s naturephilosophy accomplishes this without an eliminativist strategy.

The body of Earth, of course, has also come to be in time. It is itself still conditioned, and so cannot be the unconditioned ground of mind that Schelling is after. As Plato recognized in the Timaeus, there is more to matter than meets the eye. The Idea cannot enter into space and time as an already finished thing, but comes to be through the infinitely receptive productivity of the Receptacle, the mother of all forms, which itself remains formless. Corporeal matter is only the visible half of this “wet-nurse” allowing ideas to materialize and is not itself the source of invisible mind. “Beneath,” or “behind,” or “before” the ground of Earth and all the living bodies upon it, Schelling discovered the primordial abyss (ungrounding) of nature itself. As he put it: “Nature IS a priori,” or “Nature is subject.”

The abyssal dynamism of nature is hidden from view, but its incorporeal power allows ideality to participate in materiality. Through what Plato called “the becoming of being,” the Idea is eternally made Real. How such a seeming contradiction should be possible is difficult to understand; for Plato, it was the highest and most secret teaching.

“Everything,” says Schelling, “begins in darkness” (The Ages of the World). This darkness is the essence of God, that oldest of all beings. But in God there is both an essential (and so necessary) darkness as well as a spontaneous (and so free) light. God is both a Great No and a Great Yes, an eternal return onto self and an eternal giving of self. Without this contradiction, there could be no motion, no life, no genesis or creation. All of visible nature, for Schelling, is an image of this ever forthgoing and returning movement of invisible spirit: “This is the center, the hearth of the life which is continually perishing in its own flames and rejuvenating itself anew from the ash” (ibid.).

At every level of creation, in every creature, the image of eternity is recapitulated. A tree comes forth from a root and grows fruit, which falls to the ground depositing a seed in the soil to take root again. As for a human being, “it is certain that whoever could write the history of his own life from its very ground, would have thereby grasped in a brief conspectus the history of the universe” (ibid.).

…to be continued…

Some of my thoughts concerning the still unfolding tragedy in Japan…

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I take up philosophy largely to defend meaning and cosmos from the nihilism and chaos at the root of much contemporary thinking. But I am reminded by this catastrophe that the earth’s order and harmony is proved by an exception: ruptures in nature’s rhythm like earthquakes and tsunamis are the inevitable result of a planet with a highly differentiated, still developing physiology. The crust floats atop a liquid mantel, and so the ground upon which we build our cities will never be the dead rock that industrial civilization assumes it is. The rocks, and the ocean, have a life of their own running parallel to humanity’s. The life of such non-human objects exists on a level whose purposes are not necessarily equivalent, or even translatable, into our human sensibilities. It seems that there is indeed an immanent reality to chaos. Chaos (or sheer, relentless Creativity) is the condition of all conditions, but without (an incarnate) God, there would be no reason for anything determinate to occur. There could not be particular facts, nor the special fact of my own facticity, without a divine determiner to bring infinite possibility into finite manifestation. That there is an earth–this earth–is evidence of Reason (proportion, measure, etc.), experiential proof that beauty is alluring for the Real (that the Real is not just in-itself, but for-itself). It is also true that there exist many overlapping and non-overlapping layers of relation and non-relation amongst the beings of this earth, each layer of beings remaining hidden from the other until it ruptures and makes contact with adjacent layers, variably destroying or enlivening the beings discovered there.

The people of Japan are the victims of mistranslation, not the irredeemable sufferers of a world lacking all meaning. If anything, we live in a world of excess meaning. Meaningful communication often begins with contentious discord until different worlds are able to discover overlapping truths; or one world converts the other, through violence or artistry, into itself. Industrial civilization has averted its gaze rather forcefully from many of earth’s other layers of meaning, ignoring the surprising semantic ferocity of nature due to a false sense of technological mastery. Modern techno-scientific materialism is based on the mistaken assumption that all of nature’s voices can be translated into the ontologically privileged equations of the human marketplace.

If philosophy is not just an exercise in self-consolation, perhaps there is some logic to the above. I suppose that it is finally prayer that consoles, and not thought, since the latter is sometimes morally ruthless in its determinations.

“So long as we believe that there must be a reason why what is, is the way it is, we will continue to fuel superstition, which is to say, the belief that there is an ineffable reason underlying all things” (After Finitude, p. 82).

This belief, according to Meillassoux, is logically unnecessary, since there is no reason that reason must be ontologically foundational. Leibniz’ principle of sufficient reason only follows from the belief in a perfect and eternal God whose essence is to exist, and who could not but create the best of all possible worlds. Meillassoux, in contrast, discovers an absolute that is unreasonable because purely chaotic, and argues that nothing is necessary, not God, physical law, or any finite thing. In other words, everything is contingent, and this contingency is not merely a transcendental statement concerning the limits of human factiality, but a speculative statement about the nature of reality itself. Asking “why is there something, rather than nothing?” is not a silly or unanswerable question: the answer is “no reason.” This is Meillassoux’s principle of unreason, which is the result of his desire to seek out an argument that dispels the sense of wonder provoked by Leibniz’ question. This wonder, he thinks, leads to the religionization of philosophy, especially in a post-Kantian atmosphere where reason is forbidden any claim to the absolute, thereby leaving philosophy defenseless against non-rational poetic, spiritual, or psychological (etc.) claims to have uncovered its truth.

The “return of the religious” is a strange fact about our contemporary world. Sociologists had long assumed that modernization would necessarily lead to increasing secularization. The failure of the secularization thesis leads me to wonder whether religiousity isn’t a more basic feature of human nature than atheist or nihilist thinkers typically want to let on. This is an anthropological, rather than an ontological issue, but then again, maybe Leibniz’ question should be reframed in the context of Kant’s transcendental critique: “why is something given for us, rather than simply being in itself?” Put otherwise, why consciousness capable of asking “why?” when there just as easily could have been something not given to anyone at all?

Meillassoux writes about the necessity of contingent beings, and perhaps approaches an answer to my question in that context. He argues that if contingency is necessary, then contingent beings are also necessary. And to be a contingent being implies being a finite incarnation that has a point of view on the world and so naturally asks “why?” despite the fact that Being itself offers no reason.

Nihilism is very convincing on intellectual grounds alone. But perhaps knowlege and truth cannot be limited to the dictates of logos (what of ethos and pathos?). More soon…

Meillassoux and Barfield may at first seem like strange bedfellows, but by unmasking the pervasiveness of correlationism in post-Kantian philosophy, the former steps right into an issue that works its way into nearly all of Barfield’s published works.

In perhaps the most complete and cogent explanation of his position, Saving the Appearances, Barfield writes:

“…the evolution of nature is correlative to the evolution of consciousness…[which] hitherto can best be understood as a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the ‘meaning’ of phenomena towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. The earlier awareness involved experiencing phenomena as representations; the latter preoccupation involves experiencing them, non-representationally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness. This latter experience, in its extreme form, I have called idolatry.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. For Barfield, the evolution of consciousness is not just a matter of recognizing the historical changes in our ideas about nature (an obvious and widely acknowledged process); rather, theories of the evolution of consciousness attempt to describe ontological changes in the underlying relationship between human awareness and the universe. For example, in Worlds Apart, writing about the significance of Galileo’s division of nature into qualitative (subjective) and quantitative (objective) aspects, Barfield says, “It wasn’t a new idea of the relation between man and nature; it was an idea of the new relation between them” (p. 178).

Barfield suggests that, prior to the Copernican and scientific revolutions, humanity directly experienced the surrounding world as symbolically meaningful: the whole moral structure of the geocentric cosmos was arrayed before consciousness in the appearance of the night sky, for example. Post-Copernican consciousness, however, could no longer take immediate sensory experience at face value. Our sensory perception of the heavens had been proven to be mistaken by the newly emerging mathematical methods of science. It now seemed that the planets were not gods concerned with our earthly destinies, but mere matter arrayed in empty space going about its business whether or not anyone was there to perceive it. Humanity’s sense of centrality had been humiliated. Barfield, a correlationist of the eternal variety discussed by Meillassoux in After Finitude (p. 22-23), goes to great lengths in many of his books to explain why the purported existence of objects independent of Mind (be it human or divine) is non-sensical.

As for Meillassoux, he has much to say about the effect of the scientific revolution, as well:

“…science’s promotion over philosophy as guarantor of knowledge has become the locus of a misunderstanding, not to say wrong-footing, that appears to be without precedent in the annals of thought – for it is at the very moment when philosophy attempted for the first time to think rigorously the primacy of scientific knowledge that it decided to abjure precisely that aspect of thought which constituted the revolutionary character of scientific knowledge: its speculative import. It is at the very moment when philosophy claimed to be acknowledging its own supersession by science in the realm of knowledge that it renounced as ‘moth-eaten dogmatism’ its own capacity to think the object ‘in-itself’ -precisely the mode of thinking that, for the first time, was concurrently being promoted to the status of potential knowledge in the context of this very science. Even as science, by virtue of its power of decentring, revealed to thought the latter’s own speculative power, philosophy, at the very moment when it was ratifying this takeover, did so by abjuring all speculation, which is to say, by renouncing any possibility of thinking the nature of this revolution. Something akin to a ‘catastrophe’ occurred in this changeover from metaphysics to science as guarantor of knowledge -Copernican science provided the impetus for philosophy’s abandonment of speculative metaphysics, but this abandonment was reflected back onto Copernican science as philosophy’s Ptolemaic interpretation of the latter. Thus, philosophy’s message to science was: ‘it is you (and not speculative metaphysics) that holds the reins of knowledge, but the underlying nature of this knowledge is the very opposite of what it seems to you.’ In other words, in providing the impetus for philosophy’s destruction of speculative metaphysics, science also destroyed any possibility of a philosophical understanding of its own essence.”

For Meillassoux, Kant’s counter-revolution, which philosophically re-centered the subject after its scientific displacement, was a wrong turn. I’m still not entirely clear on how his attempt to radicalize correlationism from the inside (by absolutizing the facticity of the correlation itself) plays out, but in his rejection of Kant’s compromise with science, he would find an ally in Barfield (who is certainly in favor of a speculative renewal!). On the other hand, Barfield was a lifelong critic of the sort of scientific materialism that posits a mind-independent universe filled with sense-less objects; but if Meillasoux’s radicalization leads in something of a panexperientialist or pansensualist direction (as Harman’s OOO does), then they may be fighting the same fight, after all.

Religion and the Modern World: Towards a Naturalistic Panentheism

“Dear people, let the flower in the meadow show you how to please God and be beautiful at the same time. —The rose does not ask why. It blooms because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself nor does it wonder if anyone sees it.” –Angelus Silesius (1624-1677), Cherubinic Wanderer, 1:288-289

Introduction

The last century has arguably brought more change to the Earth, measured either in terms of increased complexity (of culture and consciousness), or in terms of entropy release (as pollution), than any other 100-year period in the biosphere’s history. Human civilization, and the disenchanted technoscientific way of life which has come to dominate it, is largely responsible for this rapid transformation. Whether it be the population explosion and global poverty, the continuing threat of nuclear war, civil rights, feminist, and other social justice movements, peak oil, or the ecological crisis, ours’ is a world with much at stake for whom the fast approaching future may just as easily bring tragedy or triumph, or perhaps equal doses of each.

In such an unstable and uncertain context as this, how is humanity to orient itself cosmologically, and in the service of what ideals is it to direct its spiritual aspirations? These are not peripheral questions—they inevitably burn in the hearts of every individual faced with the aforementioned chaos. Answering them in an integral enough way so as to overcome political divisiveness while at the same time avoiding the subsumption of cultural difference is essential to assuring the future flourishing of our species and the planet. The possibility of a planetary civilization rests upon re-inventing our complex human identity, such that it is inclusive of our origins as embodied earthlings and our destiny as immortal spirits.

Whether our aim is scientific investigation of the cosmos, or religious worship of the divine, sooner or later we are going to have to articulate a conception of human nature. Are we creatures of God, or products of Nature? Or, is there an alternative conception of humanity (of God, of Nature) that overcomes this false dichotomy? The following essay is my attempt to provide such an alternative: an integral anthropology, or theory of the human, that is neither exclusively theological nor cosmological. After Raimon Pinnikar, my approach in what follows might be called “cosmotheandric,” in that I am attempting to tell a story about human origins and destiny that does justice to our traditional spiritual intuitions and is adequate to our modern scientific realizations. Contemporary debates, especially in popular media outlets, tend to collapse the complexity of the science/religion dialectic into easily digestible slogans derived from the most extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion. The cosmological options are typically dichotomously construed as atheistic scientific naturalism vs. literalistic creationism. These are not the only options. Before moving into a discussion of a third option emerging out of Alfred North Whitehead‘s naturalistic panentheism, I will provide an example the popular discourse that surrounds these issues.

Religion in the News

The power of religious and cultural ideology, according to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is the single most important issue facing human civilization in the 21st century. During a recent debate in Toronto with author, Christopher Hitchens, Blair cautioned against the wholesale desire to rid the world of religious belief:

“The 20th century was a century scarred by visions that had precisely that imagining at their heart, [giving] us Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot. In this vision, obedience to the will of God was for the weak, it was the will of man that should dominate.”

Hitchens, an outspoken atheist, argued that the divide between religion and philosophy is foundational. For him, reason and faith, scientific skepticism and scriptural sanctification, are unambiguously opposed ideals. Not the will of God, but basic respect for human dignity ought to be the basis of morality:

“We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong. We don’t need tablets administered to us ten at a time on pain of death to be able to have a moral argument. No, we have the reasoning and the moral persuasion of Socrates and our own abilities, we don’t need dictatorship to give us right from wrong.”

The crux of the disagreement between Blair and Hitchens seems clear: For Hitchens, our values can and should emerge on the horizontal plane of history out of basic human sympathy and autonomous reason, while for Blair, the nature of Goodness is revealed by a divine authority, inserted into time along the vertical axis of eternity. Hitchens rejects all notions of “celestial dictatorship,” while Blair rejects the hubris that lack of faith in a higher power implies. But, despite their differing emphases, the two men may still be carrying the same cross. It cannot be overlooked that Hitchens, in mentioning Plato’s teacher, Socrates, implicates himself in an idealist tradition of verticality. And Blair, a life-long politician, cannot deny the power of common sympathy and the importance of rational discourse on the horizontal plane.

Both men, it seems, are bound by the interpenetrating axes of time and eternity, the conscience of each of them called to bleed for something larger than their own skin in order to make sense of life. Each is compelled, by reason or revelation, to reach beyond mortality in their measurement of life’s ends. Hitchens, a materialist, argues that modern science has provided an awe-inspiring vision of an immense and mysterious cosmos, but that this awe is more terrifying than edifying. Not divine providence, but suicide by over-expansion is, in Hitchen’s eyes, the true fate of our universe. He does not shy away from suggesting that, without God, our carnal existence is ultimately meaningless but for brief encounters with “the important matter” of what he is willing to call “numinous,” “transcendent,” and “ecstatic.” He desires to clearly distinguish between belief in a “supernatural dictator”—an idea he finds morally and intellectually bankrupt—and the sense of the transcendent and numinous.

On this final point, Hitchens and Whitehead would be in agreement. Traditional notions of an all-powerful extra-cosmic Creator deity capable of entering into and re-directing the causal course of natural events upon a whim do not align with our scientific knowledge, nor for that matter with our moral intuitions of how a benevolent God should behave. An all-powerful deity that does not prevent the evils that are a daily fact of creaturely life cannot also be all-good.

Whitehead, like Blair, is an example of one for whom philosophy and religion are not at odds. As Blair put it, belief in God is for him “clear, insistent, and rational.” The challenge for philosophy is not necessarily to oppose the religious impulse, but to adequately articulate how God and the world are related.

The moral and intellectual arguments that Hitchens marshals against religious belief are not relevant to Whitehead’s philosophy of naturalistic panentheism. Hitchens’ brand of atheism, though it is perhaps a reasonable response to those strands of Abrahamic monotheism that conceive of God in the image of an imperial ruler, nonetheless remains an inadequate cosmological and psychological basis for civilized life. In the next section, I attempt to demonstrate why.

A New View of Religion

“Philosophy attains its chief importance,” according to Whitehead, “by fusing the two, namely, religion and science, into one rational scheme of thought” (p. 15). The revelations of modern science concerning the regularities of nature have made belief in miracles seem antiquated and superstitious, but the religious impulse itself seems to run deeper than the need for magic tricks offering proof of the divine.[1] As Hitchens admits, humanity’s sense of the numinous and transcendent—of “something beyond the material, or not quite consistent with it”—is what distinguishes us from other primates. We are not only the wise, but also the uncanny species. To be human is to participate in both time and eternity, to be embedded in history with an intuition of infinity, our birthright an experience of what Thomas Berry called incendence.

The vast majority of human beings feel compelled to respond to this feeling of incendence religiously, either as evidence of a personal deity (as in the Abrahamic and some Vedic traditions) or as evidence of an impersonal creative plenum or ground of being (as in Buddhism, Taoism, and many indigenous traditions). Whitehead’s dual conception of the ultimate in terms of God and Creativity, respectively, helps us understand these cultural differences, as will be explicated below. A naturalistic panentheism both acknowledges the nearly universal human proclivity to religiosity, and indeed the reality of the divine, while at the same time providing a cosmological picture that satisfies Hitchens’ demands for non-supernatural scientific adequacy.

There are three distinct but related questions that must be considered in order to unpack Whitehead’s speculative scheme: (1) “is there a divine reality (to which experiences of the numinous, transcendent, and ecstatic refer)?”, (2) “do our inherited cultural expressions of this reality pass basic ethical and epistemological tests of adequacy (that is, do these traditions align with our moral and intellectual intuitions)?”, and (3) “is relating and giving voice to the numinous basic to human nature, and therefore to civilized life?”

These three questions correspond to (1) the metaphysical/ontological, (2) the practical/theoretical, and (3) the anthropological relevance of the divine. Each question will be explored in turn.

(1) For many atheists like Hitchens, modern science and philosophy are interpreted to have all but eliminated the need for and evidence of a divine reality. The physical universe is understood to be meaningless and non-teleological, the seemingly “finely-tuned” constants underlying its mathematical regularities deemed entirely accidental. Whitehead, on the other hand, takes the same empirical evidence and interprets it through a more adequate metaphysical lens. Rather than relying upon the notion of randomness to account for the excessive order and harmony of the universe (which, it should be said, is the exact opposite of an explanation), Whitehead’s naturalistic panentheism overcomes the misplaced concreteness[2] that allows abstract entities like “randomness” and dead mechanical “forces” to pass for satisfying causal explanations of natural phenomena. Stepping out of Hitchen’s mechanistic cosmology of explosions, colliding surfaces, and entropy and into Whitehead’s living universe of interpenetrating wholes requires a cognitive and somatic gestalt shift in perception. Whitehead is not just providing a new set of ideas to account for the order of the external world; his metaphysics is an attempt to make perceptible a way of thinking with the cosmos so as to achieve co-presence with and as the Wisdom of an eternal and ever-lasting God. This God is not extra-cosmic, but directly participates in the unfolding of the universe by luring its creative longing toward certain ideals.

“[God] does not create the world,” writes Whitehead,

“he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (PR, p. 346).

Unlike traditional theism, for which the trend toward order “[arises] from the imposed will of a transcendent God,” for Whitehead, these trends arise because “the existents in nature are sharing in the nature of [an] immanent God” (AI, p. 130). The existence of a divine reality is affirmed while avoiding attributing it with the supernatural power to create ex nihilo that has been criticized by many philosophers, including David Hume. Whitehead sought to “add another speaker to that masterpiece,” namely, Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (PR, p. 343). Divine causation, rather than being an imposition from outside the natural world based on power alone, instead works within this world based on moral persuasion. It could be argued in summation that, for Whitehead, ours in an ordered and beautiful universe because God desires that it be so, and because all creatures, as participants in God’s nature, tend to grow toward these divine ideals.

Skeptical atheists like Hitchens interpret modern scientific cosmology, specifically Georges Lemaître’s inflationary theory and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, to have proven beyond much doubt that our species, an interesting but peripheral and accidental twig on the billion year old tree of life, has mysteriously awoken to consciousness in a hapless universe moving inevitably toward heat death.

As Hitchens put it so eloquently, if also partially, during his debate with Blair:

“I come before you as a materialist. If we give up religion, we discover what actually we know already, whether we’re religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates, on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon.”

Hitchens here emphasizes the absurdity of our purely empirico-physical understanding of the larger cosmos. Based only on sensory observation of primary qualities like mass and motion, and mathematical analysis of them in terms of measurable quantities, the universe reveals no apparent purpose. It is only the poetic indulgence of the human imagination that fools us into believing otherwise.

Whitehead laments the consequences of such a disenchanted perspective on the cosmos:

“The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves [turning] them into odes of self-congratulations on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, p. 54).

In responding to Hitchens rather disheartening philosophical interpretation of scientific data concerning the larger cosmos, it would be instructive to recall Whitehead’s statement in the opening pages of Process and Reality that “the chief error in philosophy is overstatement” (p. 7). The mechanistic materialism that was born during the Scientific Revolution has proven immensely useful for technological endeavors, but in attempting to give an account of the universe entirely in terms of meaningless matter in motion, it commits what Whitehead calls the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This fallacy concerns the false attribution of concrete actuality to what remain abstract conceptual models.

The philosopher Jean Borella has located the cause of this false attribution in what he terms the “epistemic closure of the concept,” which Wolfgang Smith suggests “consists in the elimination from the concept of everything that proves recalcitrant to linguistic or formal expression” (SM, p. 50). Borella’s analysis is based upon the distinction he makes between language and thought, wherein thought is assigned primacy and language is defined by its supportive and communicative function. The “epistemic closure of the concept” is the very foundation of scientific materialism, because unlike the conceptual thought of the philosopher, for whom maintaining a certain “openness to being” is paramount, the scientist is after exact, formalizable definitions. While the philosopher’s aim is to use concepts in order to achieve a non-discursive contemplative vision of the truth, the scientific materialist “is constrained to reduce phenomena to ‘pure relations,’ that is to say, relations which are independent of the beings which enter into them” (ibid., p. 51). In other words, abstract mathematical formalisms describing the relations between actual occasions obscure the complex reality of those occasions, committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Borella explains:

“There is thus [in scientific materialism an identification of] the concept and its object, since the latter is likewise a concept, whereas in philosophical knowing the concept is only a means by which the object is known: essentially transitive, it remains thus ontologically open. The Galilean universe is therefore a universe of object-concepts which move in a conceived space-time” (ibid.).

Although Whitehead’s cosmology challenges many of the same assumptions of Aristotelian physics that Galileo was lead to criticize, he nonetheless recognized that mechanistic accounts of natural phenomena couldn’t be the whole story. The Galilean approach, though it provides for a great deal of prediction and control of non-living matter, does so at the expense of a comprehensive, qualitative account of the cosmos as a whole (which includes the more-than-physical phenomena of life and intelligence).

While for a materialist like Hitchens, cosmic inflation suggests only a dead universe whose random and fleeting order is destined to evaporate into nothing, for a panentheist like Whitehead, “…the expansion of the universe…is the first meaning of ‘organism’” (PR, p. 215). Like Plato before him, Whitehead recognizes in the macrocosmic processes something analogous to the growth and development of a living thing.

Similarly, while for Hitchens the doctrine of evolution implies that organic life is a directionless wandering motivated only by the desire to survive the blind selection of an uncaring external world, for Whitehead “the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms,” wherein the more complex organisms represented stages of “emergent value” (SMW, p. 107). In other words, if Darwin’s evolutionary theory is non-teleological, then it is an incomplete theory, since the history of the universe, both beyond and upon our planet, clearly displays a tendency toward greater states of organizational complexity. Of course, Darwin was only trying to account for the process of speciation among plants and animals on Earth, not for that among the microscopic organisms studied by particle physics (electrons, protons, atoms, etc.). But even among earthly bodies, if mere survival were the only game in town, matter would have been quite content to remain in the mineral state. Why trouble itself with the challenges of eating and procreation if life as a rock would have sufficed?

Whitehead’s evolutionary cosmology, besides avoiding the bifurcation of nature into organic v. inorganic, attributes the experience of “enjoyment” to all enduring forms of order that arise amidst the cosmic process. Organisms do not just stoically endure their existence by responding passively to the harsh givens of their environment; they feel compelled to take the speculative risks necessary to deepen their experience and enjoyment of existence.  Evolution is the story of the great successes of speculation of countless generations of diverse organisms to come before us upon this planet and within this universe. Every moment of our human experience as organized beings—as cosmotheandric organisms—inherits a relevant past billions of years in the making. Our human bodies are the accumulated achievements of the decisions of ancient bacteria. Within the nucleus of bacteria are the accumulated achievements of primordial hydrogen atoms who suffered a transmutation into heavier elements within the core of a prior generation of stars. Life seeks not just survival, but an increase in the intensity of its enjoyment, which is to say a refinement of the contrasts available within experience for conceptual valuation. In short, the more capable an organism is of perceiving and expressing truth, goodness, and beauty, the more evolved it is. The desire to move toward the end of heightened experience is described by Whitehead as an adventure of ideas. This desire, or Eros (divine lure), is the reason for evolution from simplicity to complexity. Deeper beauty, purer truth, and greater goodness are the ends of Eros.

The metaphysical background of modern scientific cosmology, as brought to the surface and articulated by Hitchens, is an overstatement based on a narrow range of facts. His conclusions about human nature and the fate of the universe, though rightfully rid of supernaturalism, represent an inadequate appraisal of the full spectrum of evidence available to human experience. Purpose is not simply a human contrivance, but can be seen and felt at work throughout the universe. The excessive harmony and upward trend toward complexity evident in our universe testify to the presence of an immanent divine lure. The epistemic closure of scientific materialism occludes one’s view of the presence of these trends, such that the clear, formal definitions of an abstract system come to replace our immediate perception of a value-rich world.

(2) The notion of a persuasive God working from within the world to bring about the most beauty and goodness that is possible is not entirely without precedent in humanity’s cultural expressions of divinity, but for the vast majority of those practicing within the Abrahamic traditions, the idea probably sounds foreign. Hitchens major criticisms of religion center around the ethical and epistemological inadequacies of orthodox theology, wherein an all-powerful and all-knowing God designs and creates the world from nothing, a world that then somehow falls from grace into sin. In this scenario, according to Hitchens, it seems that God “makes us objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.”

From Whitehead’s perspective, such a cruel picture is clearly an inadequate basis upon which to worship the divine, whose nature, even for orthodox believers, is also supposedly all-loving and all-good. That humanity has, for the most part, poorly depicted the nature of God in its popular cultural expressions is no argument against the reality of the divine. This shortfall demands of us not the abolition of religion, but a more philosophically coherent response to the sense of incendence that makes our species uniquely religious.

“Religion,” says Whitehead,

“is an ultimate craving to infuse into the insistent particularity of emotion that non-temporal generality which primarily belongs to conceptual thought alone” (PR, p. 16).

The role of philosophy, which finds the numinous and transcendent “among the data of experience,” is to weave the particular religious impulses that result from such experiences into some general scheme of thought. Philosophy, without developing a close relationship with religion, would become psychologically ineffectual; and religion, without calling upon philosophy, would sink into emotional tedium. Some “supreme fusion” between the situatedness of particular emotions and the universality of ideas must be effected.

As Whitehead put it,

“The two sides of the [human] organism require a reconciliation in which emotional experiences illustrate a conceptual justification, and conceptual experiences find an emotional illustration” (PR, p. 16).

Through an ideal interplay between the emotions of religion and the concepts of philosophy, Whitehead sought to widen humanity’s moral outlook, so that the interests of individuals might begin to align with the general good (PR, p. 15). Not a culturally exclusive set of doctrines and dogmas violently clung to, but a universal respect for the goodness of life: this is the essence and end of the religious impulse for Whitehead.

As was shown in answering question (1), Whitehead’s God is not all-powerful in the traditional sense, nor is God entirely transcendent. The evils of the world-process are suffered as much by God as by finite creatures, since God is in effect the soul of the universe. God is understood to be the original creature of Creativity, its “primordial, non-temporal accident” (PR, p. 7). Creativity is “the universal of universals characterizing ultimate matter of fact” (PR, p. 21), and also “that ultimate notion of the highest generality at the base of actuality” (PR, p. 31). The true omnipotence of God is expressed, not as the ability to alter events from an unaffected state beyond the universe, but as the ability to remember and incorporate for all eternity the character of each and every actual occasion as it arose from and receded into the flux of the creative process. God perpetually unifies the ongoing cosmic process by providing the initial aims and perceiving the final results of the concrescence of all finite creatures, including the universe itself. God is the assurance of permanence amidst the unstable dynamism at the root of reality.

Process is considered ultimate for Whitehead (PR, p. 7), seemingly making it more eminently real than at least God’s primordial nature. But God is complex, relating to the world through more than one face. The consequent nature of God must also be considered, wherein due to interpenetration with time and process, the divine transacts with the actual world to shape and be shaped by its enduring characteristics of order. “Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty,” says Whitehead. “Either of them, God and the World, is the instrument of novelty for the other” (PR, p. 349).

Some non-Western traditions, like Buddhism and Taoism, express the ultimate nature of reality in terms of an impersonal creative principle. Whitehead points out that, by relativizing God’s power in respect to Creativity, his cosmology may seem to have more in common with Indic and Chinese conceptions of the ultimate (PR, p. 7). Creativity, however, can never exist by itself, but only as embodied or exemplified by some actual entity (following Whitehead’s categorical scheme, wherein only res verae are real); God and the World are those actual entities by which creativity is instantiated and made actual (PR, p. 29). Finite creatures never experience Creativity in the absence of its having been characterized by God and worldly actualities (RWS, p. 283). This is not to say that non-theistic religious traditions like Buddhism are incorrect in their assessment of ultimate reality, but that what makes experiences of Śūnyatā, or Emptiness, distinctively religious (because numinous and transcendent) is that “Creativity as prehensively experienced is always characterized by divine attributes” (RWS, p. 284). Even within many Buddhist traditions, Emptiness is characterized as wise and compassionate, which lends support to the notion of God’s participation in all our experience of reality.

If Blair is right, and the sociopolitical power of religion is the most important issue of the coming century, then inter-religious dialogue ought to be our civilization’s most pressing concern. No civilization, according to Whitehead, can continue its adventure in rationality absent a vigorous expression of the human sense of sacredness (MT, p. 120). Without some widespread cultural consensus regarding its nature, the sacred is bound to “retire into a recessive factor in experience” (ibid.). The consequences of such an apparent lack of universal orientation towards the sacred are evidenced by our global society’s increasing dependence upon the marketplace to determine its values. Money and property have overshadowed wisdom and compassion as the measures of individual and communal well-being. The inevitable result of failing to come to general cosmological consensus regarding our species’ spiritual aspirations will be the continued forfeiture of ultimate metaphysical authority to the shallow, entirely relative trends of the consumer economy. Widespread balkanization and the eventual triumph of barbarism seem like the most probable outcomes of this trajectory. Philosophical[3] dialogue across cultures concerning religion is not a mere academic curiosity, but will be the source of the vitality of any continuing civilization humanity may hope to bring forth.

(3) As with all attempts to philosophically assess the ultimate nature of reality, and to determine how civilization ought to orient itself around this reality, a naturalistic panentheism must finally articulate its theory of human nature, or anthropology. Are the transcendent, the numinous, and the ecstatic basic to human experience? Even Hitchens agrees that they are, but still disagrees with Whitehead about how this fundamental feature of human nature is to be interpreted and culturally expressed in religious forms.

For Whitehead, our experience of moral ideals—our conscience—“is the experience of the deity of the universe” (MT, p. 103). The very fact that we can disagree about ethical situations is evidence that some standard of judgment, some intuitive sense of what is just, exists to arbitrate our claims. Disagreements are opportunities to see the world from a wider and more complex perspective, to be more inclusive of differing expressions of the ultimately and incomprehensibly real.[4]

“When the Western world accepted Christianity,” writes Whitehead, “Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers” (PR, p. 342). Whitehead goes on to criticize the “idolatry” of what became the Holy Roman Empire, namely its projection of the structure and function of Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rule onto the court of heaven. All the Abrahamic forms of religion that have come to dominate Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East have been infused with tragedy, according to Whitehead, because their willingness to obey tyrannical rule produced histories full of divisiveness and bloodshed (ibid.). “The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar” (ibid.).

Christianity’s Galilean origins also suggest another, humbler possibility, however. Historically realized in the person of Jesus Christ is the great potential hidden in every human heart: the ability “to slowly and in quietness operate by love,” finding enjoyment not in some future reward, but in “the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world” (PR, p. 343). Jesus presents us with a God whose nature is not that of the kings of Earth, ruthless and brusque, but that of a more heavenly patience, able to suffer even death and to wait millennia for the mass of humanity to awaken to his message.

Whether or not human nature is inherently Christ-like, or that of “imperfectly evolved primates,” as Hitchens claims, makes all the difference in the world. In the former case, we are capable of self-transcending love. In the latter, we are limited by our own selfish instinctual desire for pleasure, helping others only in cases where it does not harm ourselves. The contrast between the animal/cosmic and the angelic/spiritual aspect of our nature need not be drawn so starkly, however. As has been shown above, a continuity can be said to exist between God, humanity, and the universe.

“There is a kind of perichoresis, ‘dwelling within one another,’” writes Panikkar, “of these three dimensions of reality: the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic—the I, the you, and the It” (MFH, p. 214).

Holding in mind Whitehead’s doctrine of divine participation in the becoming of the world, it could be said that within the human being, the cosmos is giving birth to a new God. God, like the cosmos and the human being, is “an incompletion in process of production” (PR, p. 215). The birth, death, and resurrection of Christ could be said to be taking place through the historical awakening of the human spirit to itself and to the divine milieu within which it is embedded. But two thousand years after the presence of the kingdom of heaven was announced as at hand, we are still struggling to develop the ears to hear and eyes to see it.

Poets are perhaps those most immediately aware of the incarnational process unfolding deep within the human soul. Their heightened intuition raises to consciousness the subtler, more obscure dimensions of experience, perhaps approaching the creative skill of divinity in their finest moments of imaginative reverie. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake beautifully expresses the false assumptions of orthodox theology and contrasts them with the true implications of the Word’s becoming flesh:

“All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True.

1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”

Blake’s intuition concerning the experiential delight that energy takes in its activity contradicts both materialist interpretations of modern physics, for which energy is the blind ability to do work, and ascetic interpretations of orthodox monotheism, for which instinctual energies are sinful, leading us astray from God. Like Whitehead, his imaginative vision of the human soul’s relationship to the larger cosmos overcomes the bifurcation between the spiritual and the material that runs through so much of Greek philosophy and Middle Eastern theology alike.

The human being, from the panentheist perspective here expressed, is not a peripheral feature of cosmogenesis. Because of the complexity of our organization, we are perhaps unique among earthlings in our ability to attain full consciousness of eternity, and thus also of time. This makes each of our moment-by-moment decisions of special importance to God, for whom complete actuality “must also be understood as a multiplicity of actual components in process of creation” (PR, p. 350). God’s consequent nature is “God in his function of the kingdom of heaven” (ibid.), biding together all living things into a unified cosmos. The excess of creative freedom and degree of appetition achieved by the organization of the human organism means we have a deeper intuition of the primordial nature, and a larger impact upon the consequent nature of God than any other finite creatures (at least on Earth). Human consciousness can potentially come to know God’s ends, and it can rejoice in their continual accomplishment. Not only that, but when we express love and kindness, it allows God’s moral relation to and concrete reality within the world to become that much stronger, just as our expressions of fear and greediness pushes God that much further into irrelevance.

Whitehead’s understanding of human nature is such that both God and the cosmos are of the essence, as a thorough anthropological study inevitably leads to uncovering, challenging, and revising our theological and cosmological pre-suppositions. His is a prime example of a cosmotheandric metaphysics.

Panikkar’s cosmotheandric principle suggests that no account of reality can be complete unless it recognizes the interdependence of the universe, the divine, and the human. Christianity in particular has continued relevance in our age not as pure theology, but as anthropology. This is not because, as in Feuerbach’s philosophy, God is conceived merely as a human projection or ideal. Rather, Christianity is the natural culmination of anthropology, a lotus still sprouting from the murky soil of human civilization. And humanity is similarly the product of a cosmic longing for what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called personalization. To continue the Teilhardian terminology: Cosmogenesis is anthropogenesis, and anthropogenesis is Christogenesis.[5]

Conclusion

A naturalist panentheism does not build its case for the existence and importance of God upon logical or sensori-empirical proofs. Rather, the evidence for God, it can only be suggested, lies for the most part buried in the prediscursive silence of the human heart, which William James proclaimed is “our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things” (TWB, p. 62).

This non-sensuous perception of the divine’s presence in and influence upon the world is the reason for religion. Human beings cannot help but overflow with the desire to worship the Wisdom that has created and shaped the nature of all things. This worship, when ideally expressed, becomes the play of spirit with itself. A planetary awakening to the true, cross-cultural nature of the sacred would require nothing less than the widespread transfiguration of individual consciousness to a form historically experienced only by a few contemplatives and mystics. Given a clear vision of the divine-human-cosmic connection, our civilization may gain the reinvigorated spirit of adventure it so desperately needs.

“God is the fire within me,” writes Angelus Silesius,

“and I am the light in him. Do we not belong to each other intimately? I am as rich as God. There is no grain of dust that I do not have in common with him; dear people, believe me…God loves me above himself. If I love him above myself, I give him as much as he gives me…The bird is in the air, the stone lies on the land, the fish lives in the water, and my spirit is in God’s hand…If you are born of God, then God flowers in you, and his divinity is your sap and adornment” (CW, 1:11-80).

Materialistic anthropology reifies the non-discursive experiential origins of religion, back-grounding its true sources by drawing our attention away from the meaningful ambiguities constituting perceptual reality. It directs us instead to a simplistic definition: “a set of beliefs in the supernatural.” This definition of religion produces epistemic closure, a closure effecting how both contemporary religious and secular people think about their lives and the world. Theories and other verbalizable “beliefs” about reality overshadow and conceal the complex (but still common!) experience of incendence that comes along with being born and dying as a human being.

“Stop!,” continues Silesius,

“What are you chasing after? Heaven is within you. If you are looking for God anywhere else, you will always miss him” (ibid., 1:81-82).

The religious impulse is central to human life and provides the moral foundation for civilization. It is of our nature as human beings to be “spirits in God’s hand,” to be participants in the heavenly economy of love while alive on Earth. The old concept of religion, wherein God is a thing to be believed in, must be re-conceived in light of the cosmotheandric revelation of today: God is a Self to be experienced, and heaven an earthly paradise.

Works Cited

(1) Griffin, David Ray

Reenchantment Without Supernaturalism (2001)

(2) Panikkar, Raimon

Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics (1979)

(3) James, William

The Will to Believe (1956)

(4) Smith, Wolfgang

Science and Myth: What we are Never Told (2010)

(5) Silesius, Angelus

The Cherubinic Wanderer, Vol. 1

(6) Whitehead, Alfred North

Adventures of Ideas (1933)

Modes of Thought (1938)

Process and Reality (1929)

Science and the Modern World (1925)

(7) William James

The Will to Believe (1956)

(8)  Munk Debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair in Toronto, Canada on Nov. 26th, 2010 (transcript)


[1] Matthew 16:4 – “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of Jonah.” Matthew 12:40 – “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

[2] This fallacy is explored more thorough on p. 10

[3] “Philosophy is love of the divine Sophia, that is to say, the self-revelation of the Principle itself; it is the desire for the knowledge by which the Absolute knows itself” (Jean Borella, quoted in SM, p. 50).

[4] Reality is “incomprehensible” not because it is irrational, but because reality is ultimately process, forever outrunning its own completion in order to reach toward novelty.

[5] Paul writes in Galatians 6:14 that the world itself was crucified upon the cross, implying that Christ’s Resurrection is also the creation of a new cosmos.