“When we speak… about consciousness, about the point at which consciousness arose and so forth, we are speaking not merely about human nature, as we call it, but also about nature itself. When we study consciousness historically, contrasting perhaps what men perceive and think now with what they perceived and thought at some period in the past, when we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself, and not simply changes in the human brain. We are not studying some so-called “inner” world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called “outer” world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.” -Owen Barfield (History, Guilt, Habit, p. 18).
Speculative realism has emerged out of a phenomenological tradition that originally sought to provide a transcendental defense of human existence against any scientific reduction to the merely natural. Phenomenology succeeds in this defense (on some accounts) to the extent that it is able to convincingly reduce the objects of “nature” to their human correlates. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s phenomenology takes the reverse approach, plunging into the uncanny depths of space and time to meet the challenge of scientific realism head on.
“… the most agonizing experience of modern man, when he has the courage or the time to look around himself at the world of his discoveries, is that it is insinuating itself, through the countless tentacles of its determinisms and inherited properties, into the very core of what each one had become accustomed to calling by the familiar name of his soul” (Activation of Energy (1978), p. 187).
In the same essay, he writes of the “de-centering” that humanity has suffered because of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud. The human has been de-centered in the universe, in the living world, and even “in the innermost core of his own self.” No longer positioned at the stationary center of a perfectly ordered cosmos, we are forced to look elsewhere for ultimate meaning, if it is to be found at all.
Teilhard’s solution is not to naturalize or to transcendentalize the mystery of being human by reducing us to contingent biological machinery or points of unified apperception, respectively. Instead, he pleads with his reader in the opening pages of The Human Phenomenon (1999) to look again at what science has shown us, and “to see or perish.” Teilhard realized that the survival of our species depends upon discovering a new, scientifically informed cosmological orientation. Civilization is not a given, it is a dangerous adventure that grinds to a halt without the narrational renewal of each generation. The phenomenological reduction of the cosmos to consciousness provides only momentary condolence, if any at all. Teilhard attempted to articulate a way forward that is congruent with the axis of things themselves: he called for conscious participation in the convergent movement made evident in the scientific history of our universe.
Teilhard is still a correlationist. He writes: “…nobody has any serious doubt but that if the world is to be, it must be thinkable” (AoE, p. 191). He believes that the world must be that sort of object graspable in principle by thought. For Teilhard as for Hegel, “the rational alone is real.” This correlation between the real and the rational, or between being and thought, is required by the “homogeneity in the structure of the cosmos” (ibid., p. 195) detected by Teilhard. The emergence of life from matter, and of mind from life, cannot be understood rationally if the universe is “diverging explosively at random” (ibid., p. 192). Ours is a living, thinking universe; to deny this is to become trapped in a Cartesian dualism separating the mechanical extension of the non-human from the spiritual intentionality of the human. Teilhard seeks to overcome this split, a split that provided the common metaphysical foundation for the otherwise divergent paths taken by science and phenomenology since the Copernican Revolution. Despite his desire to re-enchant the universe, he recognizes Copernicus’ world shaking discovery as a “tremendous achievement” that freed human thought from the contemplation of a static cosmos.
“With the mere admission of a revolution of the earth around the sun; simply, that is by introducing a dissociation between a geometric and psychic center to things–the whole magic of the celestial spheres fade away, leaving man confronted with a plastic mass to be re-thought in its entirety. It was like the caterpillar whose substance (apart from a few rare cerebral elements) dissolves, as its metamorphosis draws near, into a more or less amorphous product: the revised protoplasmic stuff from which the butterfly will emerge” (AoE, p. 254).
What makes Teilhard’s correlationism unique is his evolutionary perspective. Both the universe and the human mind are historical processes with a common origin. A transformation in one is always already a transformation in the other. It takes only a bit of speculative imagination to recognize that this history is progressive and convergent. Cosmogenesis is also anthropogenesis.
“The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; but the axis and the arrow of evolution–which is much more beautiful” (HP, p. 7).
The Copernican, Darwinian, and Freudian discoveries need not be read as disorienting blows to human or cosmic significance. Rather, they are heralds of Omega, of the convergent end toward which all creation grows. By dissolving the ancient division between the fallen terrestrial and divine celestial realms, modern science completed the historical process of spiritual incarnation. Anthropogenesis is now culminating in Christogenesis.
“After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire” (AoE, p. 280).
Does speculative realism require atheism? Meillassoux and Ray Brassier seem to think so, as both unequivocally reject the viability of mythopoeic thought and despise the recent religious turn in Continental philosophy. I’d like to leave open the possibility of a speculative realism as Christology, with Teilhard as its primary, if still problematic, exemplar (Rudolf Steiner, especially as carried forward by Owen Barfield and Jonael Schickler, also offers assistance here–See my essay on Steiner and Teilhard). Brassier’s book Nihil Unbound arrives later this week… after reading it, I’ll have more to say about this possibility…