A new revised and expanded edition of my book Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology is now available in paperback and electronic versions.
The following is a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s recent blog post about process metaphysics and Whitehead. I keep a relatively close eye on Pigliucci’s philosophical work, as there is plenty of convergence in our views on several issues, including, as he says in his title, “the promise of process metaphysics.”
Despite some convergences, I part ways with Pigliucci on the issue of the place of consciousness in the physical world. A couple of years ago, I penned a defense of panpsychism in response to an article Pigliucci published in The Side View. This divergence is also at play in the present exchange, but it is not front and center. While I have characterized Whitehead’s process-relational ontology as a species of panpsychism (or, better, “panexperientialism,” as David Ray Griffin has suggested), I’ve come to realize that there’s as much distance between his process-relational version of the doctrine and, say, Philip Goff’s substance-quality version, as there is between either and materialism or idealism (see my recent dialogue with Goff). For a recent treatment of the relevance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, see this journal article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020). I won’t be dwelling on this issue here.
In his latest post, I was glad to see Pigliucci engage more deeply with some of Whitehead’s ideas, but his accounts of the motivations and key categories of Whitehead’s scheme are misleading. Whitehead a “dead weight”? I don’t think so. Sure, it is a heavy lift to study and understand his admittedly dense and complex metaphysical scheme, but this will always be true of pathbreaking philosophical work aimed at nothing short of a ground-up reconstruction of the explanatory categories of natural science, and as we’ll see, much else besides.
Pigliucci begins with Heraclitus’ line that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” which could be read as the inaugural statement of the process metaphysical project. But Pigliucci wants to make clear that he rejects the speculative arm-chair approach to metaphysics that he thinks culminated with Descartes’ foundationalist attempt to balance the entire world upon his own thinking. So far so good, as Whitehead also explicitly rejected the idea of metaphysics as a foundationalist project.
Pigliucci goes on to put forward what I think is a pretty good definition of scientism, which is the view that: “natural science [has] replaced metaphysics as the method by which we find out how things are.” Pigliucci does not provide us with an account of exactly what natural science is, which makes sense, as I suspect that would involve doing a bit of metaphysics. Whitehead’s reasons for turning to metaphysics (after a successful career as a mathematician and physicist) provides a revealing contrast to Pigliucci’s triumphalist myth about the replacement of philosophy by science. Whitehead turned to metaphysics precisely because the early 20th century revolutions in physics had revealed the complete inadequacy of the old substantivist, mechanistic ontology that modern science had been presupposing since Descartes. He wrote in 1925:
“The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. …What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.”Science and the Modern World, p. 25.
Whitehead was no mere critic, however. He was a profoundly constructive thinker whose “Philosophy of Organism” inherited the pluralistic, evolutionary, and radically empirical psychology of William James and systematized it with the findings of quantum and relativistic physics as part of an endeavor “to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (Process & Reality, p. 3). This is the meaning of metaphysics, for Whitehead: generality of description. The search for generalities is not a task that could be replaced by the special sciences; rather, it is an effort to bring interpretive coherence to the findings of natural science so that what we learn through its methods hangs together with the rest of the hard-core common sense presuppositions of human coexistence (e.g., that consciousness and volition are not epiphenomenal illusions).
Of course, metaphysics could not adequately engage in its task without the special sciences. Pigliucci goes on to soften his earlier “replacement thesis” by admitting that there is still a role for metaphysics in the clarification of concepts so as to fit all the scientific puzzle pieces together. He thinks process metaphysics is the best candidate for this job, and here I am in complete agreement.
“By far the most promising approach to that aim is process metaphysics, which — as German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher put it — regards ‘reality not [as] a constellation of things at all, but one of processes. The fundamental ‘stuff’ of the world is not material substance, but volatile flux.’ This is distinct from what has been mainstream metaphysics for a long time. Another pre-Socratic, Parmenides, regarded change as entirely illusory. And the most influential metaphysicians of all time, Plato and his student Aristotle, posited that reality is timeless, made of unchanging essences.”-Pigliucci
Plato is perhaps the most caricatured philosopher of all time, which makes sense since he left us with only aporetic dialogues, rather than definitive doctrines. In other words, he speaks to us only through the mouths of his characters, which leaves some doubt as to what his true philosophic views are. With that caveat in mind, I’d argue that his cosmological dialogue the Timaeus was more an attempt to synthesize the Heraclitean and Parmenidean views, but that’s a topic for another post. Pigliucci goes on:
“One very strong reason to adopt process- rather than object-based metaphysics is because that’s the way science has been leaning for a while. James Ladyman and Don Ross make the most compelling empirically based case for process metaphysics in their masterpiece, Every Thing Must Go, though they call the resulting approach ‘naturalized metaphysics.’ The idea is that physicists are increasingly showing that there are no objects (i.e., particles) at the bottom of reality but rather, at best, fields, and at the most speculative not even those (Ladyman and Ross talk — provocatively — about basic reality being characterized by ‘relations without relata,’ that is points in a field where the points are not really ‘made’ of anything).”-Pigliucci
Despite some Whiteheadian quibbles about whether a point-free mereotopology (such as that articulated in Part IV of Process & Reality) would better characterize the relational continuum underlying all apparent “things,” there is a lot of convergence here. Reality is relational all the way down. That said, Whitehead was also an atomist of sorts and did attempt to retain a process-compatible sense of individuality. Unlike Newton’s atoms, which are pushed and pulled around by external relations and transcendently imposed laws, Whitehead’s atoms are intra-dependent (that is, internally related) “drops of experience” or “actual occasions,” whose dipolar becoming can be analyzed in terms of both a physical and a mental pole, and whose sociohistorical coordinations give rise to emergent behavioral habits. Whitehead was only very marginally influenced by that other giant of American philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce, as they seem to have independently arrived at an understanding of physical habit as a less ontotheological rendering of what classical physics defined in terms of “law.” I mention this as it is important to distinguish Whitehead’s experientially-grounded (i.e., radically empirical) process theology from the sort of ontotheology criticized by Kant and Heidegger. In his rejection of eternal “laws” in favor of evolutionarily emergent “habits,” Whitehead’s cosmology is actually a critique of the residual ontotheology of mechanistic physics, which even today unwittingly carries forward the deist assumptions that were intrinsic to Descartes’ and Newton’s conceptions of the order of nature as determined once and for all by the transcendent will of an omnipotent God.
Pigliucci next turns to Whitehead. After a few nods to the value of his “holistic” and scientifically-informed approach to metaphysics, and a dismissive quip about the supposedly anti-scientific basis of panpsychism (which is a total misunderstanding), the criticisms begin. Overall, Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s influence has spoiled process metaphysics.
After introducing Whitehead’s key category—the actual entity or actual occasion—Pigliucci’s first criticism concerns the way Whitehead supposedly divides up nature into artificial levels:
“I don’t think there is any reason to retain this kind of obfuscatory language. … From a scientific perspective, all these levels are part of a continuum, possibly characterized by emergent properties.”-Pigliucci
This punch totally misses its target, as Whitehead’s is clearly a “flat ontology,” in that it aims to describe all levels of emergent complexity in nature in the same general metaphysical terms as the “concrescence” (another key category) of actual occasions (here is a timestamped video link of my latest attempt to explain “concrescence” using a cartoon). I am not sure what Pigliucci may have read to give him his mistaken assumptions here. In his various metaphysical texts, Whitehead offers different rough sketches of emergent levels in nature (just as natural science does when it speaks the special languages of particle physics, astrophysics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, etc.), but always explicitly acknowledges “the aspect of continuity between these different modes,” the way they “shade off into each other” (Modes of Thought, p. 157). Indeed, Whitehead’s critique of what he termed “the bifurcation of nature” makes his holistic cosmological view even more continuous than a still implicitly dualistic scientific materialism (which places our first-person conscious experience distinctly outside and epiphenomenal to an otherwise merely material nature). Whitehead was led to a variety of panexperientialist ontology precisely because he is committed to a continuity between mind and nature:
“Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature. Accordingly it disregards all those mental antecedents which mankind habitually presupposes as effective in guiding cosmological functionings. As a method this procedure is entirely justifiable, provided that we recognize the limitations involved. These limitations are both obvious and undefined. The gradual eliciting of their definition is the hope of philosophy… [This] sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. [Thus,] we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature. … [We] should reject the notion of idle wheels in the process of nature. Every factor which emerges makes a difference, and that difference can only be expressed in terms of the individual character of that factor. … [We] have now the task of defining natural facts, so as to understand how mental occurrences are operative in conditioning the subsequent course of nature.Modes of Thought, p. 156
Note that Whitehead admits the erasure of mental functionings from nature is entirely justifiable as a method. The problem is when this useful methodological short-cut slides into a metaphysical presupposition. Whitehead’s mature metaphysical view as articulated in Process & Reality broadly distinguishes between two types of analysis: 1) genetic analysis of the becoming of actual occasions (a concrete view of the universe from within, as it were), and 2) coordinate analysis of the extensive continuum characterizing the relations among these occasions. The latter mode of analysis considers the universe from the outside, as natura naturata (to use the classical Latin terminology for “nature-as-product”), thus bracketing the mental functionings (the natura naturans, or “nature-as-process”) so as to abstractly characterize the behavior of entities in relativistic spacetime. Coordinate division is what makes scientific measurement possible, but in Whitehead’s view, this is only half the story. The universe is a creative advance into novelty, not the mere re-arrangement of pre-existing particles. Thus, his philosophy includes the elaboration of a genetic account of how actual occasions of experience arise out of their past, enjoy themselves in the present, and perish so as to contribute their experiential perspective to the future. A philosophy of nature that considers only the coordinate division of simply located objects in spacetime commits the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” writ large. Not only does it ignore the role of quantum potentia and discreteness in the becoming of nature, it makes of our human mental functions a monstrous aberration in an otherwise well-behaved cosmos. A fully concrete and metaphysically coherent account of the cosmos must make room for mentality, even if the function of mind in the inorganic realm studied by physics and chemistry is nascent enough to be mostly negligible. I say “mostly” because even in particle and astro-physics there’s already plenty of evidence of the creative realization of potentia (i.e., quantum decisions) and a pronounced tilt toward the self-organization of higher and higher grades of complexity (e.g., emergent evolution of protons out of quarks, of atoms out of protons and electrons, of stars and galaxies out of atoms, etc.). The physical world is not a billiard table engaged in the mere rearrangement of pre-existing parts. It is rather an open-ended process of emergence of wholes nested within wholes at every scale, a process that Whitehead characterizes in terms of “societies” of actual occasions. The most widespread such society in our cosmic epoch Whitehead calls the “electromagnetic society,” and its established habits provide a background of order that shelters all the more complex activity taking place among and within us here on Earth. This brief account obviously does not do justice to the intricacy of Whitehead’s scheme, but I’ve tried to outline the main points so as to make clear what Pigliucci’s characterization has badly muddled. For more on the two types of analysis introduced above, check out my lecture on Part IV of Process & Reality.
Next on Pigliucci’s list of criticisms is, unsurprisingly, Whitehead’s concept of God. I’ll quote Pigliucci below and then respond at length to each sentence:
“Unfortunately, Whitehead makes one gigantic exception to his rule that all actual entities are occasions of experience: god. The deity is understood by Whitehead as being both temporal and atemporal, leading to something called process theology. Setting aside that this raises the possibility of logical contradiction, I just don’t think there is any reason at all — and certainly no empirically, science informed reason — to think that any gods exist, so process metaphysics in the hands of Whitehead here takes a decidedly wrong turn.”-Pigliucci
On the charge of theological exceptionalism, I’ll begin by letting Whitehead speak for himself: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process & Reality, p. 343). As was mentioned earlier, Whitehead’s is a flat ontology, wherein everything is to be describable in the same categoreal terms. It follows that “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process & Reality, p. 18). Clearly, Whitehead’s intention was not to make reference to God as a “gigantic exception,” but rather as the “chief exemplification” of an actual entity. To be fair to Pigliucci, this is a matter of some dispute among process theologians, since there are some significant differences in Whitehead’s characterization of the divine entity—the primordial creature of Creativity—as compared to other experient creatures. God’s concrescence unfolds in reverse order to that of finite creatures: God’s mental pole (logically) precedes God’s physical pole. In the case of finite occasions, which always already find their (co)existence amidst that of others,—emerging out of the perished occasions of their past into the subjective immediacy of their present before launching themselves into objective immortality in the hopes of influencing the occasions of the future,—their origination is in the physical pole while their satisfaction is achieved in the mental pole. God’s concrescence begins with the private satisfaction of the mental pole, as “the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality” (Process & Reality, p. 343). In other words, as the first creature of Creativity (which is the ultimate category in Whitehead’s scheme, roughly equivalent to what contemporary physicists refer to as the quantum vacuum), God’s function is to give some definite value or character to the otherwise indefinite field of unrealized logical possibilities that go into shaping an actual world. God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of pure potentials (or “eternal objects”) does not determine precisely how the world comes to be; rather, God’s primordial values function as an erotic lure within the world, a goad to finite occasions of experience so as to tilt cosmic becoming toward the emergence of complexity. Finite actual occasions must decide how to become for themselves, but God’s “initial aim” is inherited in their physical poles as a mirror disclosing to each occasion its own potential for greatness (Religion in the Making, p. 139). God’s physical pole, then, is the divine reception of how each and every occasion of experience decides to actualize itself, in light of its unique situation. God’s primordial mental pole is thus complemented by a consequent physical pole, whereby God functions in the role of “a fellow-sufferer” (Process & Reality, p. 351).
Whitehead insists that his process God is one God, not two. The distinction between primordial and consequent natures, as too the distinction between the mental and physical poles of any occasion, is an exercise in rational abstraction in an effort to better understand the necessary ingredients of concrete reality. Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s attempt to hold together the eternal and the temporal in one creature “raises the possibility of logical contradiction.” Indeed, it is not just in God that Whitehead tries to turn these apparently contradictory notions into a dynamic complementarity: every occasion of experience is said to participate in both concrete actuality (via what he calls “prehension”) and eternal possibility (via what he calls “ingression”). Here we have to address Whitehead’s process-relational critique of Aristotelian substance-property logic, including the sacrosanct rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Whitehead praises and indeed inherits Aristotle’s “masterly analysis of the notion of ‘generation'” (Process & Reality, p. 209), and admits that “probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian” (ibid., p. 51). But in light of contemporary physics, with its emphasis upon agitations of energy and spatiotemporal events, the old Scholastic logic which sought to attach essential or accidental properties to substances has become entirely inadequate. Physics makes no reference to some passive underlying material substance; rather, all is now accounted for in terms of formal relations of relations (as Ladyman and Ross argue). So far so good (I think Pigliucci is on board thus far). Now, when it comes to the logical laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, it is not that Whitehead simply sought to do away with them. This would contradict, as it were, one of his rational criteria for sound metaphysics (i.e., that such a scheme be logical; he also enumerated empirical criteria of adequacy and applicability to experience). To return to the distinction above between a genetic and a coordinate analysis of the universe, Whitehead was perfectly willing to accept that coordinate analysis of the entities of spatiotemporal nature required adherence to the classical laws of logic (else an entity could be said to exist in two places at once, or to exemplify two contradictory predicates, etc.). However, in analyzing the genetic process of an actual occasion’s concrescence, these laws must be held in suspension. This is because the factors that grow together into a concrete entity begin as indeterminate prehensions or feelings, akin to the way quantum potentia exist in a state of superposition prior to the collapse of the wave-function. In this state of suspended decision in the genetic analysis of an occasion, a multiplicity of contradictory elements may coexist. Only once an occasion has achieved its “satisfaction” do the incompatibilities get worked, such that “the actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe” (Process & Reality, p. 44). In the case of God, the process of concrescence is said to be “everlasting,” such that the indetermination is ongoing. The creative advance of the universe thus unfolds within the eternal process of divine indetermination. Not even God knows where we are going, in other words. Still, God’s everlasting concrescence expresses a yearning for ideal satisfaction, realizing an aesthetic harmony of harmonies, which the universe of finite occasions can only ever incompletely realize.
Pigliucci then regresses to a rather tired scientistic argument against belief in “gods.” I say it is “tired” because it totally fails to address the argument underlying Whitehead’s process theology (or that of most philosophically-informed theologians, for that matter). It is just cheap rhetoric meant to reduce the alternative metaphysical approaches of those not seduced by scientism to supernaturalist superstition. Pigliucci pluralizes “gods” because he is imagining that theologians conceive of God as just another stick of furniture within the world, a thing among things (albeit a very big, important, and powerful thing!). While it may be meaningfully addressed to literalist religious believers who idolatrously imagine God as a thunder-wielding sky-father, his is not a fair characterization of how most theological traditions have sought to approach the divine as, e.g., the infinite ground of being (rather than a being among beings). It is no surprise that experimental tests focused on the behavior of beings would turn up no evidence of Being as such. Being is grounding condition or necessary precondition of beings. Now, needless to say, much of this traditional theological language is construed in substantialist terms that have no place in Whitehead’s process-relational scheme. I quote Whitehead’s opinion of traditional theology at length as I think it conveys the extent to which he and Pigliucci may actually share non-belief in the popular image of deity:
“The notion of God as the ‘unmoved mover’ is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as ’eminently real’ is a favourite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism.
When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”Process & Reality, p. 342
Whitehead had no patience for the traditional image of God as an imperial ruler, by whose dictates the lawful order of the world was established. In relation to this God, Whitehead was a proud atheist.
“There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the [other main strands of theological] thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.”Process & Reality, p. 343
Elsewhere in Process & Reality (p. 207), Whitehead remarks on the urgent importance of secularizing the divine function in the world, by which he meant distinguishing God’s metaphysical import as a cosmological factor from the emotions that characterize human religious life, which have often misled philosophy. The Love exemplified in Jesus is metaphysically repurposed by Whitehead into the divine function’s mode of participation in the world, where it works to persuade (rather than coerce) finite actual occasions toward the most beauty that is possible for them in their temporal situations.
So why does Whitehead find it necessary to make reference to a divine function in his cosmological scheme? It has nothing to do with any religious desire to believe in God. This sort of belief, though it may be of tremendous sociological importance (e.g., as a form of group selection among humans), is not what motivates Whitehead’s theological innovations.
The Whiteheadian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (former collaborator of Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine) argues in her book Thinking With Whitehead that, while God is the keystone of his entire cosmological scheme (i.e., the chief exemplar of his categories), he nonetheless remained unsatisfied with his own thinking concerning the nature of the divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent or finally complete (indeed, he was well aware of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and so approached “system” asymptotically as a form of philosophic “assemblage” [see Modes of Thought, p. 2]). His understanding of divinity was always an open-ended work in progress meant to be picked up and re-worked by inheritors of his thought who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating the divine ground of existence matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God (or his soul’s God-feeling). It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of or lack of evidence for a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy—psychological and societal—of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the intuition of holiness by human hearts (which some call “God,” others “Buddha-nature,” “Allah,” “Brahman,” etc.) implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But as a matter of anthropological fact it must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God (etc.) was not merely a scientific hypothesis meant to explain the causal nexus of worldly events, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially). It is only after the Scientific Revolution and the entrance of “modernity” that religion began to be construed as a distinct domain of human existence, and that God came to be construed as a thing to be believed in, or not.
When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life, the formation of Earth, and the unfolding of the larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness. It means considering the conditions making possible a world wherein something like human thinking, feeling, and willing are possible. For Whitehead, these conditions are cosmological (not simply cognitive, as in Descartes or Kant). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology breaks free from the epistemic chains of most modern philosophy, eschewing foundations and making do instead with conceptual coherence and fallible pragmatic adequacy. His cosmological scheme makes room for both subjects and objects, giving logical nor temporal priority to either. Subject and object are to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. “Objectivity” in the sense of an unbiased scientific appraisal of reality doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether each subject is able to creatively respond to the objectified past, thus participating in the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. In such a Whiteheadian universe, truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.
This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Pigliucci, are led to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to (or worse, a “dead weight” upon) metaphysics. So far as it goes, I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the abstract possibilities of reality abstracted from any concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate category of his scheme, demoting a no longer all-powerful God to the status of its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize—that is, when I seek out participatory understanding of the order and harmony of the actual world that we inhabit.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for scientific consideration. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that our modern consciousness has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the human soul experienced no separation between the world’s Logos (=meaning) and its existence (=facticity), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.
Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature, or mind separable from matter. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.
a talk delivered for the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS.edu on Friday, January 29th, 2021.
‘Who are we’? Always a good question to ask. Ecologically speaking, this might be the most important question humanity can ask: ‘How wide does the we reach?’
Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme point to the stars, but their point is not that scientific abstractions explain human life down here on earth. Their point, as I understand it, is just that the Earth and the entire cosmos is a community of subjects. The ‘we’ extends all the way to the edge of the galactic supercluster and beyond. Spiritual bypassing? Perhaps, especially if ‘the star-reaching we’ or cosmic consciousness forgets to tend to the suffering and impoverishment in the more local here and now. But maybe we are always at risk of spiritual bypassing, whether we are buried underground colliding atomic nuclei or swimming naked in an alpine lake or self-immolating in protest of the American oil economy. Berry wasn’t escapist or avoidant of the need to inhabit a place. He seemed well aware of the ultimate value of particular places (see e.g., his essay in The Great Work “The Meadow Across the Creek”).
Below is a presentation on Whitehead’s contributions to the natural sciences for the Cobb Institute several weeks ago. My talk is followed by some remarks by plasma physicist Timothy Eastman (editor of https://www.sunypress.edu/p-3844-physics-and-whitehead.aspx):
Christopher Satoor and I discussed Schelling, his German Idealist context, and Whitehead’s inheritance of Schellingian ideas about mind and nature.
Thanks to Bruce Alderman at The Integral Stage for moderating.
Bruce Alderman of Integral Stage has been releasing a multipart video series called “The Future Faces of Spirit.” Other participants include John Vervaeke and Bonnitta Roy.
Here is Alderman’s description of the series and my contribution:
“What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity’s ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?
In episode 6 of The Future Faces of Spirit, Matthew Segall draws on the work of Robert N. Bellah and Alfred N. Whitehead to argue for vision of spirituality rooted in play; reintegrated with art, science, and politics; open to transcendence; and inspired by an immanent theology of creaturely divinity.”
Here is my segment:
This Fall at CIIS.edu, I’m teaching an online advanced seminar on Whitehead’s magnum opus, Process & Reality. Here are my reflections on Part I of Process & Reality, “The Speculative Scheme.”
Note that I discuss Richard Rorty’s conference presentation during a symposium on Whitehead at Stanford back in April 2006. Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway were there, too.
Notes on Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality
Part 1: The Speculative Scheme
Chapter 1: Speculative Philosophy
- Whitehead needs to defend his speculative method as productive of important knowledge. He seeks to frame a “coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” His scheme of general ideas must be adequate and applicable to “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed, or thought” (3).
- “coherence” means no entity can be conceived in complete abstraction from the rest of the universe
- “logical” means the system must be self-consistent and not self-contradictory
- “necessary” means that the general ideas or categories must bear within themselves their own warrant of universality throughout all experience (4)
- “There is an essence to the universe which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.” Thus, for Whitehead, a rational interpretation always means a relational interpretation.
- Whitehead admits that deficiencies of language plague metaphysics. Even his technically defined terms “remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.”
- The datum of speculative philosophy is the actual world, including ourselves.
- “The elucidation of immediate experience is the sole justification for any thought.”
- We habitually observe by the method of difference,” meaning we notice only what changes, not what stays the same. This is why metaphysics is so difficult. Metaphysics is the search for that generic texture which remains the same throughout all experience. Whitehead says elsewhere that it takes a very unusual mind to undertake an analysis of the obvious. Such an analysis is precisely what metaphysics is. It is the search for what is so obvious we almost always fail to notice or mention it.
- “We can never catch the world taking a holiday from the sway of metaphysical first principles.”
- Whitehead says that “rigid empiricism” prevents metaphysics from discovering the “larger generalities.” For such discovery depends upon “the play of free imagination, controlled by requirements of coherence and logic” (5).
- Whitehead articulates his aeroplane method of “imaginative rationalization.” This method allows further progress when the method of difference fails because it imaginatively supplies the differences which direct observation lacks. In other words, the metaphysician can observe everyday experience and think “this could have been otherwise,” and by imagining things other possibilities bring more of what is actually there into focus.
- “The negative judgment is the peak of mentality,” which we see on display in thinkers like Hegel, who made an entire idealist method out of the power of negation.
- “A system of philosophy is never refuted, it is only abandoned” for lack of interest.
- Whitehead found it necessary to abandon the “subject-predicate mode of thought” because he does not believe it mirrors the basic structure of reality (this mode of thought is the basis of the substance-quality ontology) (7).
- Philosophy is not deduction! Philosophy is thus misled by the example of mathematics and logic. Philosophy is the search for premises; it’s method is descriptive generalization. “Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (8).
- “The history of thought shows that false interpretations of observed facts enter into the records of the observation. Thus both theory, and received notions of fact, are in doubt.”
- Productive thought is won either via poetic insight or via imaginative elaboration of schemes of thought.
- “Progress is always transcendence of what is obvious.”
- “Rationalism is an experimental adventure…in clarification of thought, progressive and never final, [such that] even partial success has importance” (9). This makes Whitehead’s method unlike Kant’s or Descartes’, for whom rationalism meant beginning with clear and distinct premises and working out what necessarily follows from them.
- Every science makes use of instruments in its investigation. Philosophy’s instrument is language. Just as the physical sciences redesign existing instruments, philosophy often has to redesign language (11).
- “Complete propositions cannot be captured by verbal language”: Whitehead is saying that propositions (we’ll define these in a moment) are ingredients in the becoming of the physical universe long before humans arrived on the scene to consciously reflect upon and attempt to linguistically articulate them.
- What is found in practice must be part of the metaphysical scheme: we cannot ignore what in practice is presupposed.
- Interpretation is an intrinsic part of experience.
- “Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity” (15)
- Philosophy finds its importance by fusing religion and science into one rational scheme of thought.
- Religion is among the data of experience that philosophy must weave into its scheme.
- “Scientific interest is a variant form of religious interest,” which is to say doing science presupposes that we have a faith in the order of nature. Why do scientists believe that the natural world is rational? This belief, according to Whitehead, is derived from religion. Thus, religion and science, far from being enemies, are entirely dependent upon one another.
- “Religion deals with the formation of the experiencing subject, whereas science deals with the objects, which are that data forming the primary phase of this experience” (16)
- “Philosophy destroys its usefulness when it indulges in brilliant feats of explaining away” (17).
- “It is the part of the special sciences to modify common sense. Philosophy is the welding of imagination and common sense into a restraint upon specialists.”
Chapter 2: The Categoreal Scheme
- Whitehead said that the generic notions he has constructed should reveal themselves as “inevitably presupposed in our reflective experience” (18).
- He introduces four novel notions not found in the philosophical tradition: 1) actual entities, 2) prehensions, 3) nexus, and 4) the ontological principle
- actual entities can be divided into some definite quota of prehensions
- prehensions have a vector character, meaning they are referent to an external world; they involve emotion, purpose, valuation, and causality (unlike in mechanistic materialism, where causality is imagined to be a blind exchange of forces between particles, Whitehead re-imagines causality as the passage of feelings between entities via prehension).
- prehensions might have been actual entities if not for their incomplete partiality; they are subordinated by a subjective aim at further integration, which seeks to unify them into a subjective form which is the satisfaction of the completed subject.
- nexūs are particular facts of togetherness or relatedness among actual entities (20)
- Philosophy’s role is not to explain concreteness in terms of abstractness, but rather to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete.
- Facts are more than their forms, though form participates throughout fact. Facts are creatures, and creativity is ultimate behind all forms.
- Whitehead introduces four types of categories: 1) category of the ultimate, 2) categories of existence, 3) categories of explanation, 4) categoreal obligations
- “Creativity, Many, One are the ultimate notions required for and presupposed by the existence of any entity” (21); “one” = singularity; “many” = diversity; “creativity” = many become one
- Concrescence: the production of novel togetherness; “the many become one and are increased by one”
- Eight categories of existence: 1) actual entities/occasions, 2) prehensions, 3) nexūs (public facts), 4) subjective forms (private facts), 5) eternal objects/pure potentials, 6) propositions/impure potentials/theories, 7) multiplicities, 8) contrasts
- Among these existents, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with “extreme finality” (22)
- Among these existents, actual entities and eternal objects stand out with “extreme finality” (22)
- twenty-seven categories of explanation:
- the actual world is a process: the process is the becoming of actual entities.
- in the becoming of an entity, potential unity becomes real unity, a concrescence of many potentials into one novel actuality
- all existents advance into novelty, except eternal objects: “there are no novel eternal objects”
- “principle of relativity”: each being is a potential for every becoming
- no two actual entities originate from the same universe; but eternal objects are the same for all actual entities.
- “real potentiality”: conditioned modality of entities included in other entities; an entity can be integrated in many ways but is in fact implicated in only one way.
- eternal objects are potentials for “ingression”; analysis of eternal objects discloses only other eternal objects.
- an actual entity can be analyzed as a) objectified in the becoming of other entities (i.e., coordinate division) or b) according to its own internal constitution (i.e., genetic division)
- “principle of process”: how an entity becomes constitutes what it is; its being is constituted by its becoming
- an actual entity is a concrescence of prehensions; analysis of prehensions is “division”
- triadic structure of prehension includes: a subject prehending, a datum which is prehended, and a subjective form which is how that subject prehends that datum (23)
- two types of prehensions: positive prehensions (i.e., operative feelings) and negative prehensions (i.e., scars); the latter are inoperative in the progressive concrescence of a subject, but still “felt” in their absence.
- there are many species of subjective forms: emotions, valuations, purposes, adversions, aversions, consciousness, etc.
- a nexus is a constellation of actual entities that mutually prehend or objectify one another
- a proposition is a potential for relatedness of actual entities into a nexus; the entities in question are the logical subjects and the eternal objects defining them are the predicates.
- a multiplicity is a special logical notion
- the complex unity of a datum is felt as a contrast, or a contrast of contrasts: “the synthesis of entities into a contrast produces a new existential type”; a proposition is a contrast.
- “ontological principle”: process conforms to other occasions or to the subject in process of formation (i.e., efficient and final causation, respectively). “Actual entities are the only reasons.” Propositions are “lures for feeling” shaped by the subjective aim of the concrescing entity.
- actual entities and eternal objects are the fundamental entities; all other entities express how these two types are in community with one another.
- to “function” means to contribute to determining actual entities; self-identity of one entity cannot be abstracted from the community of diverse functionings of all entities. “Determination” requires definiteness (i.e., illustration via eternal objects) and position (relative status in a nexus).
- “an entity is actual when it has significance for itself”
- the becoming of an actual entity transforms incoherence into coherence, ceasing with its attainment
- self-functioning is the real internal constitution of an actual entity, called the “subjective immediacy” of an entity
- an actual entity functions in another actual entity by being objectified; an eternal object functions in an actual entity by being ingressed.
- the final phase of concrescence creative of an actual entity is one complex, fully determinate feeling. “Satisfaction” is determinate with regard to its genesis, its objective character for entities in its future, and its prehensions of every item in its universe.
- every element in the genetic process of an actual entity has a single consistent function in the final satisfaction.
- concrescence unfolds in a series of phases whereby new prehensions arise by integrating their antecedents; negative prehensions contribute only their subjective forms, not their data.
- nine categoreal obligations
- “subjective unity”: incompleteness of many feelings in early phase find compatibility when integrated by subject
- “objective identity”: no duplicate elements in satisfaction of an actual entity
- “objective diversity”: diverse elements cannot exercise identical functions
- “conceptual valuation”: conceptual feelings of eternal objects are derived from physical feelings of other entities or of a nexus
- “conceptual reversion”: the subjective aim can determine diverse conceptual feelings in a secondary phase of concrescence; conceptual valuation reproduces physical feelings, whereas conceptual reversion introduces divergence from physical feelings
- “transmutation”: a prehending subject can derive the same conceptual feeling from multiple physical feelings of other actual entities and transmute the datum of this conceptual feeling into a characteristic that defines the nexus containing those prehended entities; transmutation is akin to the attachment of a quality to a substance (Aristotle).
- “subjective harmony”: conceptual feelings are adapted to congruence with subjective aim; akin to “pre-established harmony” (Leibniz); “no prehension can be considered in abstraction from its subject, although it originates in the process creative of its subject”
- “subjective intensity”: a subjective aim aims at intensity of feeling in the immediate subject and in the relevant future; this feeling of the effective relevance of the present for the future is the basis of morality.
- “freedom and determination”: concrescence is internally determined and externally free; final decision of subject-superject is the reaction of the unity of the whole to its own internal determination; reaction can modify emotion, appreciation, purpose.
- You cannot abstract the universe from any entity so as to consider it in isolation: “every entity pervades the whole world” (28).
- “the actual world” is a nexus relative to the concrescence of each actual entity
- becoming is a “principle of unrest” resident in every actuality
- the notion of “vacuous actuality” haunts realistic philosophy; it assumes that an actuality could be devoid of subjective immediacy and still be actual. Whitehead’s organic realism repudiates this notion.
- An actual entity is not an unchanging subject of change; it is subject and superject of its experience.
- “no thinker thinks twice”; time is perpetual perishing whereby actualities lose subjective immediacy and perish into objective immortality (i.e., they attain their final cause, lose their unrest, and become an efficient cause that initiates a new round of concrescence)
- actual entities are definite and complete, while eternal objects, propositions, and some complex contrasts are intrinsically indeterminate and indecisive.
Chapter 3: Some Derivative Notions
- Strange as it may seem (in comparison to the Western philosophical and theological tradition), God is merely a derivative notion in Whitehead’s system!
- God is the primordial created fact, the first creature of creativity, the unconditioned valuation of the entire multiplicity of eternal objects (31)
- derivate actual entities objectify God’s valuation and thereby experience a gradation in the relevance of eternal objects to their own concrescence
- there is an additional ground of relevance for the ingression of eternal objects in derivate actual entities: namely, the eternal objects already ingressed into the past actual world
- apart from God, unrealized eternal objects would be invisible to derivate actual entities: God’s primordial nature provides access to possibilities that transcend realized temporal matter of fact
- there is also the consequent nature of God, discussed in Part V of Process and Reality
- “Creativity” is akin to Aristotle’s prime matter, except it is not passively receptive of form or of external relations
- it is activity conditioned by objective immortality of the actual world
- it is without a character of its own: “highest generality at the base of all actuality”
- “God,” like all actual entities, is a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity; unlike other creatures, God is always in concrescence and never perishes. God’s consequent nature is the reaction God receives from the world.
- Why call this creature “God” when it is so different from orthodox theological notion?: “Because the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that ‘subjective form’ of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim” (32).
- God’s immanence in the world is “an urge toward the future based upon an appetite in the present” (e.g., physical feeling of thirst aims at conceptual feeling of quenching)
- a “society” is an ordered nexus; some societies are ordered so as to appear as an enduring objects
- in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, an enduring object results from a common form of definiteness (a complex eternal object) ingressing into each included actual entity, such that the form is mutually imposed on each member and reproduced by their positive prehensions. There can be “genetic relations” holding members of such societies together.
- a “serial ordering” of the members of a society produces “personal order,” where serial means any member genetically related to others in a linear mode of inheritance.
- “societies are the [enduring] entities which enjoy adventures of change througout time and space” (35); so atoms are societies, as are stars and galaxies, tables and chairs, plants and animals, etc.
- becoming as such does not have a unique serial order: time is plural; the creative advance of nature has no universal time line (a consequence of relativity theory in physics).
- there is no continuity of becoming, despite the extensive continuity of the physical universe; rather, there is a becoming of continuity.
- Whitehead articulates an atomic theory of becoming to explain how continuity is constructed. “Atomism does not exclude complexity and universal relativity” (36)
- Whitehead suggests that his process atomism reconciles the particle/wave duality in quantum physics.
- While he is often described as a panpsychist, Whitehead rejects the orthodox philosophical tradition which claims that the basic elements of experience are to be described in terms of consciousness, thought, and sense-perception. These are “unessential elements” in experience, and if they enter into experience at all it is only in the late, derivative phases of concrescence associated with very high grade actual occasions (e.g., those associated with complex animals).
Below is a recording of my talk (a video first, then audio only that includes the discussion afterwards). I’ve also included an extended draft of some notes I took to prepare my talk. Finally, I’ve included my notes taken while listening to Jason Moore during yesterday’s opening lecture.
Fifth annual conference of the World-Ecology Research Network
“Planetary Utopias, Capitalist Dystopias: Justice, Nature, and the Liberation of Life”
California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA
May 30-June 1, 2019
Matthew T. Segall – “Whitehead and Marx: A Cosmopolitical Approach to Ecological Civilization”
A few words about the words in the title:
“Cosmopolitics” is an effort on the part of thinkers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and Donna Haraway to think beyond the modern human/nature and fact/value divides, or what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.”
“Civilization“?!? This phrase, “ecological civilization,” comes from China’s Communist Party. Achieving ecological civilization is one of their stated goals for the 21st century. In China there are now about 35 graduate programs and research centers devoted to Whitehead’s thought and process studies.
What does it mean, to Whitehead, to be “civilized”? He does not use the term in an exclusivist sense and is even willing to consider that some animals some of the time (e.g., squirrels) may be capable of it (see Modes of Thought). But usually not. It means a conscious recognition of and participation in the creative power of ideas–like freedom or love–to shape history.
“We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality).
Whitehead is not an idealist, however. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat can support their ingression.
Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or scratched onto paper pages by human hands. Whitehead invites us to expand our conception so that we can sense that the idea of the Good generates the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks and butterflies and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.
“The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” -Alfred North Whitehead (Modes of Thought 151).
Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human being participating in society, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.
Whitehead (in a conversation with his wife Evelyn and the journalist Lucien Price in 1944) was asked if the prior half-century or so had any political thinkers as daring as those who inaugurated the new relativistic and quantum physics, he answered “There is Marx, of course; though I cannot speak of him with any confidence.” But he goes on to describe Marx as “the prophet of proletarian revolt” and marks the singular relevance of the fact that the first practical effectuation of his ideas [Soviet Russia under Lenin] occurred in a society dominated by farmers. Here we see Whitehead was ahead of his time in recognizing the importance of food sovereignty. Any serious resistance to capitalism must begin with soil and seeds.
What is value? We can discuss the differences between use v. exchange value, objective v. subjective value, but ultimately Marx says value is a social relation determined by the amount of labor time it requires to produce a commodity. Humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.
Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extrahuman that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos there is no mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by something called Man.
Whitehead: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe” (Modes of Thought 111).
We can link value to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, or Marx, or Hayak, limit agency and thus value-creation to human beings.
According to Latour, the abstract, idealistic materialism of classical Marxism misses the activity/agency of the world.
Latour: “We have never been modern in the very simple sense that while we emancipated ourselves, each day we also more tightly entangled ourselves in the fabric of nature.”
Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination” (We Have Never Been Modern 10). The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was technoscientific: to become masters of nature.
“The fabric of our collectives has had to be radically transformed to absorb the citizen of the 18th century and the worker of the 19th century. We need a similar transformation now to make space for non-humans created by sciences and techniques.” -Latour (We Have Never Been Modern 185-6).
Latour’s Gifford lectures on Gaia invite us to transform our imagination of the earth as modern globe by turning it inside out, such that we come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the earth, we are enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding.
How are we to think human freedom and human-earth relations after modernity? Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic as moderns have imagined. Marx says that what distinguishes the worst human architect from the best honey bee is that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human creativity works? Is this really how bee creativity works? Architect Christopher Alexander discusses how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of order and beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.
Donna Haraway: “in so far as the Capitalocene is told in the idiom of fundamentalist Marxism, with all its trappings of Modernity, Progress, and History, that term is subject to the same or fiercer criticisms. The stories of both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene teeter constantly on the brink of becoming much Too Big. Marx did better than that, as did Darwin. We can inherit their bravery and capacity to tell big-enough stories without determinism, teleology, and plan” (Staying With the Trouble, 50).
What does Haraway propose we do instead? In place of deterministic teleology, she proposes process-relational creativity; and in place of a Big Plan from on high she proposes playful communal kin-making with the ecological beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise communicate with on the daily down here on planet Earth. She credits James Clifford (Return) with the notion of a “big enough” story, a story that remains “ontologically unfinished” and situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue” (Return 85-86).
How do we become sensitive to the values of nonhumans? We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help us become sensitive to the values of nonhumans. Indigenous peoples can help us develop these. I think something like this is going on even in major documentary films like the new Attenborough film “Our Planet” (problematic as its title is, and as Attenborough’s ecological politics are): e.g., the images of a mass suicide of walruses in northeastern Russia.
Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we just justify our presence on Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society?
There are a number of ongoing polemics among anti-capitalist scholars, particularly metabolic rift theorists and world-ecology researchers (e.g., John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore; incidentally, Foster seems to get Latour all wrong), regarding the proper way to understand the relation between human beings and the rest of the natural world. I would want to approach these disputes in a diplomatic manner. I am not here to choose sides, and anyway I don’t even know the whole story. But at this catastrophic moment in geohistory, those of us resisting the mitosis of capital might do well to focus less on widening abstract semantic divisions and more on imagining and materializing the shared future we hope we one day achieve on this Human-Earth.
Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 20 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development.
AP headline on May 6th, 2019 reads “UN report: Humanity accelerating extinction of other species.” The first line reads: “People are putting nature in more trouble now than at any other time in human history, with extinction looming over 1 million species of plants and animals, scientists said Monday.”
NY Magazine headline also on May 6th, 2019 by Eric Levitz: “Humanity is About to Kill 1 Million Species in a Globe-Spanning Murder-Suicide.”
He concludes: “Earth’s ecosystems did not evolve to thrive amid the conditions that a global, advanced capitalist civilization of 7 billion humans has created. And that civilization did not evolve to thrive on a planet without coral reefs, wetlands, or wild bees — and with global temperatures exceeding preindustrial levels by 1.5 degrees. Bringing our civilization’s ambitions and modes of operation into better alignment with the environment’s demands no act of altruism. It merely requires recognizing our own collective long-term self-interest, and changing the way we grow food, produce energy, deal with climate change and dispose of waste, on a global level, through international cooperation.”
Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.
Marx is not unaware of our dependence upon the natural world, writing that: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”
Marx also writes in Capital of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature” (https://isreview.org/issue/109/marx-and-nature).
Marx is dialectical in his understanding of the human-earth relation, but he still treats nature as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness.
With Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this, as I noted above) but a cosmological or ecological power from which our human values, and our human power, derive.
Citations for the above:
Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead by Lucien Price, p. 220.
Thursday, May 30th
Notes on Jason Moore’s opening talk
-The planetary era began in 1492 (“the globe”) not in 1968 with earthrise photo
-the end of the world has already happened, many times.
-Man and Nature as “real abstractions” (non-European people and European women were considered part of nature); we must break down CP Snow’s two cultures, beyond “coupled systems” analysis, to a “flow fo flows” that integrates humans as earthlings
-“civilization” as a dangerous, colonial word? What is this term meant to denote? The opposite of savagery and barbarism?
-climate change as a “capitalogenic process” (what about Soviet and Chinese communist contributions?)
-“Nature is a class struggle” – “Nature” is part of the capitalist project
-we need more Marxist histories of climate change to avoid ceding the ground to neo-Malthusians
-the Earth has always been a historical actor; the present ecological crisis is not novel in this respect (see William Connolly’s “Facing the Planetary” and “The Fragility of Things”)
-climate is not exogenous to civilization and modes of production.
-Marx on labor as metabolic mediation between man and nature (man transforms nature, nature transforms man).
-from geology and history to geohistory
-Capitalism emerged out of late 15th century geographic expansion; credit, conquest, and coerced labor were essential (“capitalism’s triple helix in formation”)
-new world genocide led to regrowth of managed forests and CO2 dip, which led to little ice age; why didn’t this produce a terminal crisis in capitalism? Because of slavery frontier
-why is cotton gin not considered as important as steam engine as impetus for industrial revolution?
-“blue marble” photo of earth as “environmentalism of the rich”
-Marx acknowledged that human labor is itself a force of nature (?)
-alternative to collapse narrative (Jared Diamond)?
Adam Robbert interviewed me over on The Side View Podcast. Check it out HERE.
We discussed speculative philosophy, panpsychism, politics, and more.
A student in my course this semester asked a great question recently: “How is Whitehead’s cosmology related to his pedagogy?” Many commentators find it strange that Whitehead decided to include (and indeed to conclude) his book Aims of Education with a few chapters on relativistic space and time. What on earth does his alternative interpretation of Einstein’s relativity theory have to do with education?
Whitehead’s critique of modern education is that it tends to produce well-informed experts with atrophied feeling, deadened receptivity to beauty, and less capacity for animated and imaginative thought than was present when students first enter school as untutored children. In other words, our schools have been designed to fill the active minds of children with inert ideas, eventually leading to specialized knowledge in some narrow field in which they will eventually seek employment. Narrowness wins out over breadth and depth.
Of course, Whitehead does not argue that educational systems cease teaching important knowledge. He insists that these ideas, whether general or specialized, never be handed over to children in frozen, shrink-wrapped form, but rather in such a way that they can be immediately utilized, tested, and recombined in fresh ways. If the child does not, from the first, experience education as the joy of discovery, then mental dryrot sets in and the future vitality of human culture is endangered. Whitehead: “Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful” (AoE, 1-2).
How is Whitehead’s rather common critique of modern industrial/factory-style education related to cosmology? Whitehead’s critique of Einstein has to do with the way an a priori geometrical scheme, entirely disconnected from experience, is made the foundation of the physical world. Whitehead says that “the most extraordinary fact of human life is that all beings seem to form their judgements of spatial quantity according to the same metrical system” (AoE, 160-161). But, he adds, this is “only true within the limits of accuracy obtained by human observation.” Einstein’s contribution was to make science inescapably aware of the fact that “diverse spatio-temporal systems of measurement are relevant to the behavior of things” (161). But how do these diverse metrical systems hang together as part of a common external world? Einstein approached this problem via a mathematical conception of space and time as a single continuous manifold. But again, how is his “space-time continuum” related to human experience? Nobody lives in such a continuum. Rather, we live “in a set of fragmentary experiences” (AoE, 162). Whitehead articulated what he called the “method of extensive abstraction” so as to reconnect the fragmentary worlds of our experience to a common world of mathematical conceptions.
One of the purposes of education is to allow human beings, from unique backgrounds and with fragmentary perspectives and special talents, to join in the common project of culture-formation. Whitehead’s critique of standard renderings of relativity theory is that these renderings take the unity of a mathematical abstraction as fundamental and given while reducing away as illusory the concrete experiences from which all mathematical abstraction derives. This is akin to treating the conveyance of information as of primary importance in education, rather than the growth of human beings. Whitehead protests against the idea of an objective, pre-given space-time continuum for the same reason he protests again the idea of an objective, pre-given encyclopedia of knowledge. “Students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development” (AoE, v).
The aim of education, like the aim of Whitehead’s critique of Einsteinian relativity, is to find a way to lift “the broken limited experiences” of our individual lives, to inspire us each from where we stand to contribute in our unique ways to the sustenance of “that connected infinite world in which in our thoughts we live” (AoE, 164). Whitehead concludes Aims of Education with the lines “Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world” (165). In other words, whether in theories of space and time or in theories of education, we must guard against the deadly temptation to make idols out of our abstractions. The world is a community of experiences. It has, we hope, a uniform texture, a texture approached by the most advanced thinking activity a culture can produce. Abstractions are not the enemy, they are of vital importance to civilized life! But when we neglect the process by which we arrive at them by building up from concrete particular experiences, we make a terrible mess of the whole human endeavor, and indeed, of the world itself. We arrive at the abstract uniformity of the texture of experience not through violently explaining away the uniqueness of each of our points of view. Rather, we start where we are as living and aspiring organisms and, keeping our feet firmly placed on the ground, reach from there to the stars.
Below is the introduction of paper I presented at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April 2019. The conference aimed to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).
Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy
“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019
By Matthew D. Segall
“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside lived experience.
It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the stars above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.
The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):
“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”
As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I return later.
I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principal guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.