Post-Secular Spirituality

Michael over at Archive Fire recently linked to a published essay by a friend and former colleague at CIISAnnick Hedlund-de Witt. Annick researches the way changing world-views in America and Europe stand to influence–whether positively, negatively, or not at all–the push for a more sustainable approach to development around the world. She focuses specifically on spiritual imaginaries (my term) that have been dubbed “New Age” in an attempt to understand, from a sociological and developmental perspective, what impact they may have in our burgeoning planetary civilization’s attempt to respond to the various social and ecological (or perhaps socioecological and cosmopolitical) crises of our time. Her essay, linked above and here, is very thorough. I’m unabashedly sympathetic and supportive of her work.

I have argued extensively (here and here) that adequately responding to the socioecological crises of our time is not possible without spiritual transformation. When it comes to “spiritual matters,” I tend to think most easily along the lines articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story (1994). Brian, a cosmologist, has called for the “re-invention of the human,” while his mentor, Berry, a religious scholar and geologian, invoked the alchemical mystery of metamorphosis by referring to our civilization’s present challenge as the Great Work.

But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean?  I tend to distance myself from the so-called New Age movement, since its popular manifestations seem to suggest that all the world needs now is “positive energy.” Usually this energy is touted as a deeply mystical “secret,” but nonetheless comes conveniently package and sold in DVD-sized boxes, each one inspected by Oprah (there is a pink “O” sticker on the cover to prove it). I think this sort of “spirituality” fits too easily into the same old capitalist mold all good “Young Hegelian” thinkers want to break free of.

Slavoj Žižek, who contrasts Young (to which he could be said to belong) with Old, or conservative Hegelians (think Ken Wilber) in his recent book Living in the End Times (2010), also has a number of interesting things to say about New Age eco-apocalypticism. On the one hand, he points out that Daniel Pinchbeck’s vision of a coming “deep spiritual shift”  (as recorded in his book on 2012) is structurally identical to a kind of communism, at least if “we scratch away its spiritualist coating” (Žižek, p. 350).

If we are graduating from nation-states to a noospheric state, we may find ourselves exploring the kind of nonhierarchical social organization–a ‘synchronic order’ based on trust and telepathy–that the Hopi and other aboriginal groups have used for millennia. If a global civilization can self-organize from our current chaos, it will be founded on cooperation rather than winner-takes-all competition, sufficiency rather than surfeit, communal solidarity rather than individual elitism, reasserting the sacred nature of all earthly life (Pinchbeck, p. 213).

On the other hand, Žižek also notes that the New Age imaginary is an all-to-easy, feel-good temptation that, especially in the context of the ecological crisis, neglects “the basic lesson of Darwinism: the utter contingency of nature” (p. 350). Earth is not a pristine and perfectly balanced harmony of organisms and environments (as imaginaries like Deep Ecology often suggest); it is a dynamically evolving, far-from-equilibrium system of complex relationships that scientific research is only beginning to unravel. When trying to comprehend the nature of our relationship to the natural world, Žižek suggests that we “[bear] in mind that ‘nature’ is a contingent multi-faceted mechanism in which catastrophes can lead to unexpectedly positive results” (p. 351). The oxygen crisis comes to mind as perhaps the best example, with the astroid collision that helped end the dinosaurs’ reign close behind.

Returning to the potential upside of New Age spirituality, Žižek goes on to question whether the typical “anemic-skeptical liberal stance” as regards spiritual matters is enough to “revitalize our post-political desiccation of democracy” (p. 352). Could it be that some sort of “return of the religious” is necessary to inject passion back into Leftist politics?

Žižek, right on cue, dialecticizes the dichotomy between secularism and religiosity :

…as Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such counter-posing of formal Enlightenment values to fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, amounting to an untenable ideologico-existential position. What we should do, by contrast, is fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments–which is precisely what an apocalyptic ‘Christian materialism’ does do, in bringing together both the rejection of a divine Otherness and the element of unconditional commitment (p. 353).

What exactly Žižek means by a “Christian materialism” is not clear to me as of yet, but I think my work toward developing a “logic of incarnation” could also be described in this way.

What might it mean to call the human a “spiritual animal”? In light of some of my recent blogs on death, perhaps the human is spiritual because, unlike most other organisms, it is not simply “living”; rather, due to its knowledge of death, it also participates consciously in Life itself. We are spiritual precisely because, at least in the non-ordinary circumstances when we are made to pay attention to it, our sense of being alive–of livingseems to hover somewhere between life and death. Our present consciousness at first appears limited by the horizon of the sensory world; but just as we cognize this limit, we come immediately to recognize our spiritual participation in bringing it forth. As soon as we grasp our own bodily mortality, consciousness instinctually protests by either repressing the full trauma of the fact or transforming itself through a religious act (i.e., faith) into something spiritually immortal.

Schelling and the Transcendental Abyss of Nature

“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

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…

Schelling’s Naturephilosophy and Hegel’s Exclusion of Geology

Will commented on “Schelling’s Geocentric Realism” to defend the position of Nature in Hegel’s Logic from its realist inversion. I wanted to make Iain Hamilton Grant‘s position on the matter available (from “Schellingianism & Postmodernity: Towards a Materialist Naturphilosophie“):

As a shorthand for his synthetic programme, as opposed to the Hegelian system as to mechanical reduction, Schelling offers, in his Philosophical Inquiries “potentiated”, “intensified” or “vitalised Spinozism”, from which, he goes on, “there developed a Philosophy of Nature” (1989: 22-3). Schelling “intensifies” Spinozist nature by dynamizing it, introducing dark, unconscious forces into its production that extend even to mind’s self-production as a natural product. Just as Spinoza’s Deus sive natura, ‘God and/or nature’, consitutes an inclusive disjunctive synthesis, so the intensified Spinozism of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is “merely one of [philosophy’s] parts”, a part which must be conjoined with the “philosophy of the idea” as laid out in the System of Transcendental Idealism. The crucial difference between this conjunction and Hegel’s global misconstrual of Kantian local synthesis is that Hegel will view the philosophy of nature as a teleological step towards the absolution of mere objecthood in mind’s self-recognition, whereas Schelling’s local and dynamic synthesis deploys the conjunction at the point of the loss of the idea’s conscious production as mind. In other words, if for Hegel, the identity of production and product is mind, for Schelling, the recognition of nature as product entails the isolation of the production of conscious mind, appearing to mind as the cessation of its own production. In Kantian terms, we might say that the recognition of the final form of the categorical imperative in the power of desire to manufacture the world confronts in nature the limitations of reason’s industrial jurisdiction. At the same time, however, natural production remains continuous and unconscious, so that the antinomy is one for consciouness alone. This break with phenomenological adequation, coterminous with the noumenal positing of nature as unconscious production (extending, it should be said, from the point of view of the philosophy of nature, even to the production of mind itself, so that in producing itself as mind, the mind is unconscious of itself as production; from these two senses of, we may derive the Freudian distinction between the dynamic and the descriptive, as the appendices to The Ego and the Id [Standard Edition XIX] call them), amounts simultaneously to the materialisation of this unconscious production as the dynamics of nature. Named by turns das Regellose (the unruly), evil, the basis, the primal chaos or ataxia of forces, this “irreducible remainder that cannot be resolved into reason” (1989: 34), this point marks the synthesis between mind and nature as antinomy (to be resolved, in concert with Kant, through the practical effort of will) and rulelessness, respectively. To take the materialist route cannot therefore be a metaphysical error, but can only be a practical one, an error which Schelling calls the “exalt[ation] of the basis over the cause” (1989: 41). But the price of maintaining what, for ease of exposition if too swiftly to be remotely accurate, we may call the Idealist route, is the perpetuation of the unresolvably antimonic chiasmus between nature and mind in unconsciousness. Schellingian idealism, then, does not entail the annihilation of materialism (on which the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason insists), but the regionalisation of mind with respect to matter, and the simultaneous explanation of the former in terms of the latter. For Schelling, mind does not represent nature, it confronts it as a product that antinomically cuts mind off from its own production.

Mind cannot comprehend Nature as an object, because Nature is not just a product or thing, but is the same productivity that makes possible our own consciousness of it as such. Nature is not mere externality; it is full of dynamic intention. Nature is creative, just as creative as the productive imagination underlying our conscious perception of an ordered, rational world. In fact, for Grant, productive Nature is the ground of human Nature, the source of our experience of produced nature (be it subjective/psychic or objective/somatic). Does this mean that the philosophical Absolute—rather than identification with object or subject, externality or internality, Nature or Spirit—is identification with productivity in general (be it human or natural)?

Grant points to Hegel’s “stupefying judgment” in S 339 of the Encyclopedia that geology has no philosophical relevance (p. 41, The Speculative Turn, 2011). Schelling’s generative naturephilosophy reveals Nature to be more than a present appearance, but a developmental process whose anterior layers of materialization, though hidden, condition subsequent layers. “If the actual involves genesis, then at no point do presently actual objects exhaust the universe” (ibid., p. 43). By arguing that Eternity excludes the past and the future, but is fully present now, Hegel turns the anteriority of the earth into into an abstract idea, rather than the condition of our present consciousness of it:

“Geology isn’t simply philosophically irrelevant to Hegel, but fatal to the eternity of the world, precisely because it necessarily posits an anteriority even to the becoming of the planetary object” (ibid., p. 44).

In other words, “no planet, no geology.” The geogenesis of the earth has provided the conditions making consciousness possible (Grant lists several of these conditions: “meteorological metastasis, chemical complexification, speciation, neurogony, informed inquiry…” [ibid., p. 45]).

Schelling’s Geocentric Realism

I’ve been reading Iain Hamilton Grant‘s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. He laments that most commentators treat Schelling as either a biocentric vitalist or a logocentric idealist. These characterizations ignore the extent to which his naturephilosophy corrects the eliminative idealism of Fichte’s and Hegel’s systems (which made nature’s externality entirely determined by intelligence) by grounding thought in nature itself.

Grant marks the antinomy of teleological judgment articulated in Kant’s third Critique (i.e., the mutual exteriority of nature and freedom) as the “axis” around which all subsequent philosophy has been organized (p. 17). Kant could not account for organic matter in mechanistic terms, so instead retreated into a transcendental account of the appearance of self-organization rather than a physical account of its ground. Schelling does not follow Kant’s aborted attempt to uncover some third mediating principle uniting life and mechanism; more radically, he locates their mutual source in the dynamic, unconditioned ground of nature itself.

“We require to know,” writes Schelling,

“how and why it [nature] originally and necessarily grounds everything that our species has ever thought about nature” (quoted in Grant, p. 1).

Accordingly, naturephilosophy is not representational, pointing to a physical world outside philosophy’s own grounding in the Absolute in an attempt to objectively describe it, but generative, in that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature” (ibid.). This is not as it may first sound, a physics wherein nature becomes a construction of the mind; rather, Schelling’s dynamic or genetic account of nature differentiates between “nature naturing” (natura naturans) and “nature natured” (natura naturata), or nature as process and as product, identifying philosophizing with a participation in the former.

For Schelling, the laws of the mind cannot be understood as accidental products of nature, or as transcendental forms stamped upon phenomenal nature by the understanding. Instead, these laws are discovered to be necessary expressions of nature itself. Kant is prevented from making such a move because of his Aristotelian definition of nature as the sum total of appearing things, or sensible bodies. Kant’s “corporealism” collapses the invisible activity of productive nature into the givenness of its sensible products, whereas Schelling founds his philosophy of nature in the unconditioned productive dynamism of a materiality prior to corporealization, a dynamism which gives rise to the conditioned things of the observable world. This is not, as it may again seem, a sort of two-world metaphysics attempting to account for the matter of physics in its own formal terms. Following Plato, Schelling defines matter as the invisible “mother of all things” capable of participating in the forms of the understanding, such that the transcendental becomes the dynamism of nature itself. In other words, all things think because nature is subject (p. 29).

Schelling challenges philosophy to conceive of its own natural ground, to find in the emergence of physical order the conditions of its own intelligence. In this sense, his naturephilosophy is geocentric, since it is the geogenesis of the earth itself which provides the a priori conditions (physical and physiological) for the later representation of it in consciousness (p. 48).

Grant’s characterization of Schelling presents an interesting case study along the way to a speculative realism, since his naturephilosophy overcomes Kant’s idealism by returning to the strange realism of Plato’s Timaeus. Plato’s realism, or physics, is “strange” because he is normally considered the paradigm case of a two-world metaphysician (p. 20). But it is Plato’s account of the coming into being or genesis of the universe that reveals his commitment to an account of the Idea as a synthetic cause binding together being and becoming (p. 40). The invisible Idea does not contain the static blueprint of a visible thing, but “the dynamics according to which what moves itself and what is moved are combined” (p. 54). In other words, productive nature approximates the eternal realiztion of the Idea–it is the cause of the mixture between being and becoming underlying the genesis of the universe (p. 43). Since “becoming” is not an idea for Plato (all ideas are real beings), he posits a universal soul that works as a “homeostatic pilot” to dynamically balance the combined opposites.

“The emergence of the generated world,” writes Grant,

“challenges the senses to exceed their own genesis, [entailing] a ‘gaze fixed on what always is,’ on the Idea in nature, despite the Idea itself being necessarily non-sensible. It is precisely the excess of physical becoming over the phenomenologically accessible [i.e., while all sensible things are becoming, not all becoming is sensible] that prompts [Schelling’s] Timaeus essay’s epigraph: ‘to discover the producer and father of the universe is a great undertaking, and impossible to declare to all” (p. 44).

Aristotle refers to Plato’s secret teaching several times in the Metaphysics, hinting that it has something to do with the way intelligence participates in matter. Perhaps the viability of a speculative realism lies in a more explicit articulation of this secret.

…the meaning of disaster…

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


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.

Questions about Objects: “I” Myself and the Earth

I’ve just finished Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics, and I’m thoroughly confused by what he had to say about time and space in the final pages. The following is an initial attempt to sort through a small bit of the chaos he has made of the cosmos I am yearning to inhabit.


An object is anything that stands apart from the sum total of its relations. It is an entity defined by its unique difference from every other entity. Yet what exactly this difference is cannot be finally defined, since the object-in-itself recedes infinitely from any attempt to gain access to its essence. But the style of the object in question can still be more or less adequately described, since it leaves hints, omens, and signs in its wake.

Let us pick two objects in particular to examine: “I” myself and the Earth. The first object seems the most nebulous, or even numinous. Am “I” myself an object like every other, or does the self-consciousness represented and enacted by the use of the word “I” make me a singular difference? If “I” am not ontologically distinct, but simply another example of objects in general, then is there something like “I”-ness at the core of every object?

When beginning to examine the second object, Earth, I immediately realize that this object was only very recently translated by spacecrafts with cameras into the blue and green spheroidal shape that I am imagining in my armchair, my body still planted firmly on Earth’s apparently flat surface. I remind myself that a seemingly irreversible rush of technological translation and transformation has entirely shifted our perception of this strange Earth-object in a very short period of time. It makes me wonder if philosophy can return to objectivity without ontologizing the evolutionary process that seems to underly this shift. Can philosophy avoid respecting the way that “time is invention or it is nothing at all,” as Bergson put it? Maybe it is only our perception of the Earth that has changed so radically, but then again, had an alien stopped by to check on this planet’s progress just 20,000 years ago, could it have predicted atom bombs and astronauts? Perhaps these inventions are just newly discovered notes of the same Earth-object’s song, somehow in tune with the essence of this rock since it first cooled down and hid its molten core beneath the surface.

I am uncertain, but intrigued by what the strangeness of this Earth-object might mean for the status of “I” myself in any regime of objects. Must I decenter myself to such an extent that this “I” no longer belongs exclusively to me, but instead to the the inner space of every object? Close up, the Earth-object is evidently flat. From far away, it is round. What is the real object, in this case? Does the Earth know? Can it? Can I?


Correspondence on Earth and Economy

The following is a series of emails exchanged between Mat Wilson and I over the course of the last several months (my messages will be in bold, Mr. Wilson’s not):



First, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that just yesterday I watched a video where an objectivist read something Rand said about the encounter between European colonists and the many indigenous populations who originally inhabited North America. Basically, she tried to justify the genocide by saying the natives had no concept of individuality, rights, or property, and so it was somehow moral for the colonists to just take the land and kill them all in the process. I find this absolutely appalling, both because of how she seems to ethnocentrically apply the idea of non-aggression, but also because of how she conceives of the earth as something to be “owned” and only valuable when produced and sold by humans. This kind of anthropocentric attitude has lead to the largest extinction event in 65 million years (approx. 20,000 species are going extinct every year; the background rate is about 1 a year) and caused a forthcoming change in climate that could very well spell the end of civilization as we know it. So even though I am rather unsettled about her perspective, I will try to approach Rand’s philosophy “objectively”, as they say.

I just read Rand’s epistemology on Wikipedia. I know, not the best source, but its good enough for an introduction, eh? I have a few issues:

1) While I reject the extreme relativism of post-modernism, I think there are some very important insights it has provided that any serious philosophy today needs to take into consideration.

a) there is the issue of logic. There are many kinds of logic aside from the Aristotelian. There is no one absolute and correct Logic, as philosophers once thought. Logic is normative, in other words. So long as all involved agree on the kind of logic to be employed, it is ‘objectively’ true. In a similar sense, there is no longer one kind of geometry. Euclid’s geometry is now only one possible form of geometry, next to Riemannian, projective, etc. geometries. This is important considering how Rand dismisses the necessary/contingent distinction. We can say that there are many possible space-time manifolds because we know there are many possible geometries. So our particular space-time manifold is not necessary, it could have been otherwise.

b) there is the issue of multicultural sensitivity, which obviously Rand does not understand, as her opinion on the colonization of NA shows. Her “rationality” is not Absolute. It arose out of a particular cultural and historical context and is not necessarily objective for all people. There are many ways of knowing, each valid in its own sphere. Again, I’m not a relativist, but nor am I an absolutist or objectivist. I think there is truth, but we must always be careful to remember that truth can be approached from a whole variety of perspectives.

2) I think Rand’s epistemology neglects the importance of emotion for cognition. fMRI scans of the brain in action show the limbic system (associated with emotion) and the prefrontal cortex (associated with rational thought) are always active together, mutually dependent one on the other. This is true even when subjects are evaluating the truth of statements such as 2+2=4. This is true for us not only because it is logically correct, but because it is somehow pleasurable for us emotionally.

I could go on but I’ll stop now and wait for your response. Thanks for your interest in engaging me in all this, by the way!

take care,



Dear Matt,

I’m so sorry I completely forgot about this. Take a moment to review what you wrote as I rightfully reply now:

The only race we should care about are each other.. human beings. What value does nature hold apart from man? There is none. Animals and insects (among countless other organisms including plants) do not have rights. They do not have rights because since time immemorial they never formed rules or laws or demonstrate that they could be reasoned with and understand and have empathy.

Only until recently were females and non-whites recognized as human-beings.. finally. We should not worry about extinction of all these species.. extinction has been going on for a long, long time without humans.

Isn’t it kind of arbitrary to say that everything and every organism is “sacred”? Just because it exists we must become slaves to ensure its protection and make sure it continues to reproduce?

Besides.. if you really like a certain species.. you will go out and study engineering and biology and eventually re-invent that animal or organism.

The natives that originally inhabited America may or may not have been reasonable. Likely they were unconscious brutes operating on the god-level of consciousness in an immutable state of hypnosis taking commands from the tribal consciousness or the gods directly. Who knows? I do not know the conditions back then.

Yes, it was absolutely immoral if the natives made no threat and came in peace and were negotiable. They could even say, “Please leave us.. this land is ours.” and that would be fine too. Again, I don’t know what happened and more and more I’m finding quite-a-many bad things about many of the founding fathers themselves.. One instance: what a hypocrite Jefferson was to have slaves?? And then I heard he not only impregnated the one.. but made his children become slaves too!?

Today we have much more knowledge. If we came across land and found a primitive colony.. we could likely form empathy with them through communication skills and demonstrating authority. We could systematically learn there language and show them the world and even possibly trade or just learn with them.

There is no excuse now for the same acts of what you described several hundred years ago.. except for imminent danger of a native putting a spear to one’s throat.

Onwards elsewhere:


a) I must go forth and learn about these other geometries as I only ever formally learned Euclidean. I have read a couple hundred pages of Aristotle through his various books.. but it was scattered and I did not systematically study any of it.. only soak it in for pleasure and to ponder it on a walk. I must go and take a look at his logic v.s. others. I’ll make that an assignment this weekend at the library.

b) But we should have no sensitivity for the psychos in Iran and North Korea. We must show them no mercy. Our ideals are better than there’s because we love life. They, on the other-hand, hate the now and will do anything by means of force to destroy us.

c) Nope. Ayn Rand actually believed that emotions are powerful forces that give one instant results like a computer about how their beliefs, actions, and mode of living are sustaining there life. Even in the Fountainhead, Katie Halsey (Peter Keating’s original darling), for example, starts to take Uncle Ellsworth’s every word and accepts faith and service to others to the point where her emotions are so overwhelmingly negative and clearly telling her that this isn’t right.. she starts to fight them and continue doing what she was taught..

I don’t remember exactly what happens to her after that but usually a person eventually becomes so numb, after while.. they just can no longer feel.

Also, Atlas Shrugged has many instances where especially Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart have strong epiphanies and ‘revelations’ and great insights that triumph or even heed them of imminent danger.

But, still.. regardless of how anyone feels.. 2+2=4. A is always A. Given that a is defined as a particular thing and immutable.

It is true once one gets good at math, you can perform all sorts of operations and you know you made a mistake because “something doesn’t feel right”.. but that is exactly true (what you said).. as humans logic and emotion often does practically work concurrently during cognition and actual information assimilation and comprehension. But, when righting rules and laws of logic.. they must be formulated and based off principle alone and a proof must not consist of, “2+2=4 because I had a profound and exaltant revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ”

No.. 2+2=4 because 2 is defined as two of something.. like ** (2 asterisks) and the operation of ‘adding’ means to join those group of things so ** + ** = ****.

In reality, 2+2=4.. but indeed, what the hell does it matter if we are dead or never existed?? Logic is supposed to serve our Ego. 😉

(but of course, we must come to realize that we cannot manipulate reality through wish alone.. otherwise we will live short and horrendous lives!)

Ok, I promise I will respond much sooner! (like within 1-3 days from now on)

If I feel I would like to respond later, I will let you know and approx. what time or we can move onto another topic. Again, sorry about this!

– Mat

(P.s. I’m sure there are some spelling, grammar, and semantic errors in all this.. I don’t care to proof-read though… this is just conversation for the most part! So if you are confused on anything, let me know.)



Thanks for the response, even though delayed (as is my response to your response!). I’ve not got much time (writing term papers), but I want to recommend a book to you about industrial capitalist economics. It is my feeling and understanding that human beings are not the only makers or possessors of value and meaning on this planet. We are one species in a vast community of life, but our dominant economic ideology obscures this (along with many other things). I’m familiar with Rand’s economic philosophy mostly because her (or a nearly equivalent version) “free market” ideology is taught in American schools as the only natural way. I’m wondering if you’ve read any of Marx’s work? The book I want to recommend takes a Marxist perspective, but expands it in light of ecological concerns and the 2nd law of thermodynamics. I promise it will make you see the world from a different perspective, at least if you give the arguments an open-minded chance. The book is called “The Power of the Machine: Global Inequities of Economy, Technology, and Environment” by Alf Hornborg.





I will definitely check it out for the weekend. It’s funny you messaged me today as I was driving this morning on my way to McDonald’s I had a flashback, after seeing a golden retriever dog, of when I was very young (maybe 4 or 5) I questioned the nature of animal consciousness.. I was told they had no soul and had limited memory.

I tried to imagine what that would be like.. unable to have words or concepts or thinking in terms of prepositions (on, off, through, against, et. al. .. all in relation to space.. as if there was some sort of “space” “in” the mind… whereas the mind is not physical and is not the brain.. it is just a process)

I don’t know how accurate that is though that all animals are only instinctual and largely unconscious.

In regards to government though, it would be incompatible to our existence (since we are the ‘rational animal’) to try and provide protection of rights to animals and other species.. as you cannot negotiate with them. We have incompatible interfaces beyond voluntary adoption to take them as our ‘pets’ or to the zoo.

Last night, too, I thought as I fell asleep on how the fact is that I perceive the entire world as me and other people… ignoring all other forms of life and the source of it.

I suppose it’s easy to unconsciously fall into that belief as we have intertwined so tightly into our transference of communal thought.. just because the rest of the world isn’t thinking (i.e. other life-forms), doesn’t mean they are (i.e. exist)…

It’s easy to think that man is the center of the universe.. just as they thought the earth was the center a long time ago.

This is largely a good thing though.. as it gives us Identity. It can also be a bad thing, too, when we have the wrong identity and self-destroy.

Do not confuse “capitalism” with “free market” and economics. Capitalism is often defined as when resources, values, money, energy, etc.. is privately operated.

That definition is only a surface definition.. a result of the actual moral principle. Capitalism, in the sense of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is a political treaty across all individuals (conceptual beings only.. that can understand and abide within a written set of laws and think and act for themselves) that each individual is an end-in-himself and has a right to their life and property (as naturally claimed from the environment (read John Locke)).

It is very anthropocentric or man-centered. But if we are to blindly start extolling the sacredness and divinity of the environment AND that it must be left untouched and protected at all costs to not be disturbed from its ‘pristine’ and intrinsic state of nature.. that consequently turns us into a self-sacrificial animal as reality has already dictated that we need to exploit the environment in order to survive. We have physical bodies and they need energy like any sort of machine in order to produce our very existence.

Just because we live comfortably now in industrialized nations and not always in a constant, direct threat of our survival.. doesn’t mean that we must redirect that energy back into the very ground in order to ‘save’ nature and all the species.

We are at no fault that reality made us to eat and exploit other beings and forms of life. We cannot control that. We have governments only because our most dangerous enemy is each other.. not other species as they aren’t so sly, clever, and conceptual.

I will take a look at this book though! I read almost all of Communist Manifesto..

“It is my feeling and understanding that human beings are not the only makers or possessors of value and meaning on this planet.”

Yes, qua other beings can consciously appoint value and meaning.. we don’t have the same ‘interfaces’ in order to share those values. They are irrelevant in large part. I would need to give specific examples:

E.g. A basic organism gives immediate value to acquiring energy or food. If a human had ONLY this process.. she could not survive if an alternate condition came by and she needed to protect itself to avoid death.

Now, exponentiate the countless possible situations that can arise from a simple goal such as acquiring something of value… such as food. No other organism was ever to come up with the idea of a ‘constitution’ or even a ‘farm’ in order to preserve their life beyond the immediate moment.

We have different interfaces and are incompatible with sharing and/or respecting other beings’ values.. qua they can attribute values. (which I believe some animals can.. but most species.. like a ladybug… I don’t know…)



The philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead has helped me conceive of how animals are thinking and conceptualizing beings despite the fact that they do not speak. Whitehead writes (in “Process and Reality”) that propositional thought does not require language. Dogs, for example, DO think spatially about object relations. Otherwise they would not be able to catch a frisbee. The pervasive Cartesianism that separates mind from body in our modern culture prevents us from understanding how bodily motility (human or not) is already a form of cognitive articulation. Language is simply a further development of the silent propositional logic of the body; it allows us to reflect upon our own meanings, to reframe situations and so define more appropriate and complex behaviors in a way not accessible to non-speaking animals. Obviously, as you go backwards down the chain of complexity, organisms become less conscious and more instinctual. But there is no sharp line separating humans from animals. Dogs are conscious, in my opinion. Insects are not, though certainly they are still experientially-aware in some limited sense (not blind machines or mere automatons).

We like to think of ourselves as the rational animal, but I think this is largely a future aspiration and not a current reality. Our current global socio-economic situation is about as inefficient and irrational, not to mention morally egregious, as I could imagine. Inefficient because it (industrialism) is thermodynamically unsustainable, morally egregious because it (capitalism) is feeding off the poor periphery (global South) to accumulate wealth and resources at the industrialized, “developed” centers/cities (in the West). One of the things Hornborg discusses at length in his book is how money/wealth is never “created,” but is rather part of a zero-sum game in which any gain for one party comes at the loss of another. Capitalism is inherently exploitative and based in unjust social relations. Money is fetishized (as Marx recognized) and obscures inequitable personal relations by raising a veil of abstract exchange value between us. We think some invisible hand, or intrinsic goodness of “the market” maintains fairness, but this is just ideological medicine for a deeply rooted psychological sickness alienating us from one another and the earth which birthed and sustains us. Human beings and their economy do not produce anything but new symbolic/cultural relations–the only true producer is the Sun, or perhaps plant life, which converts light into food and air for the rest of the biosphere to eat and breath. Until we recognize that ecological relations trump any contrived “economic law,” we will continue to pillage the planet and exploit the labor and resources of “undeveloped” people. The logic of capitalism requires that there be a class of poor people and cheap resources to be exploited by a class of rich owners. We will never live in a just and equitable world until we totally re-think our economic relations.

Another thing that needs critiquing (in my humble opinion) is the Anglo-American (since at least Locke) tendency to abstract the “individual” from the society/culture in which they are embedded. Individuality does not come before society. Everything you as an individual know and do is provided for you by a cultural matrix of relations. Your “individual rights” arise from and are protected by “collective responsibilities.” Your identity is at least partially constructed by those you interact with on a day to day basis, as well as by the language you happened to be born into. Don’t get me wrong, individuality is a wonderful thing. But it is not an end-in-itself. We cherish individuality because of the expression it affords us, and expression is a communal value. We individualize because we want to share our authentic selves with everyone else. Autonomy is always in communion.


Great point on the dog.. how could it calculate the proper steps to catch a frisbee? I was actually thinking of the dog when writing that there is evidence that it does have a ‘ghost’ in its ‘shell’.

“We like to think of ourselves as the rational animal, but I think this is largely a future aspiration and not a current reality.”

Yes, the unique part of of being rational does imply volition. And each person must choose out of their own volition to operate through reason (i.e. concept formulating and hypothesizing and testing). It seems the average person, though, lives in ignorance and happily lives passively never pondering on philosophy and just hoping good luck or fate will continue to provide them of their wants and needs. They don’t care about history, or what makes things works.

“Inefficient because it (industrialism) is thermodynamically unsustainable”

What is your definition of, “industrialism”? And I hope it’s not something to do with factories or cars.. that is technology. (including the waste it may produce. All organisms produce waste of some sort. Humans just happen to have ugly smoke come out of their cars. But cows fart grass and deteriorate the ozone.. or so I’ve heard!)

“morally egregious because it (capitalism) is feeding off the poor periphery (global South) to accumulate wealth and resources at the industrialized, “developed” centers/cities (in the West).”

Capitalism doesn’t do anything. Capitalism doesn’t even exist. It is only a word to describe the interpersonal interactions among people as traders (not just monetary trade either.. but any sort of relationship where each party has the intent to make a mutual-benefit that will further enhance and/or sustain his life.. including love, conversation, etc…).

So, if we break it down: I take what you’re saying as, ‘It is morally egregious to use one’s mind and live as a human being through free, rational thought and trade amongst one’s self and others.’

You must be more specific. Who is committing a crime against whom? In a politics that recognizes and upholds the individual.. it is only the individual that is prosecuted and not his neighbor that had no part in it.

“Money is fetishized (as Marx recognized) and obscures inequitable personal relations by raising a veil of abstract exchange value between us.”

Money is a unit of credit remunerated to a person for his contribution to a society’s economy and livlihood. We cannot eliminate money and say, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scracth yours.”

If we relied on that bromide.. it may be that simple in certain cases but it’s just like arithmetic v.s. algebra. We can deal with simple, direct addition and multiplication of known, simple numbers but when several other ‘factors’ (pun intended.. think polynomials 😉 comes into play and exponents and unknown exponents, etc…. No one can control what is beyond their mind’s direct, perceptual capacity so we must resort to “abstract exchange value between us” because properly-formed concepts are valid pointers of what exists in actual reality. It all has to do with ‘unit-economy’ or what Ayn Rand called, “crow epistemology”.

“We think some invisible hand, or intrinsic goodness of “the market” maintains fairness, but this is just ideological medicine for a deeply rooted psychological sickness alienating us from one another and the earth which birthed and sustains us.”

That “invisible hand” is your mind’s [volitional] power of abstract reasoning and ability to form concepts. You cannot know everything.. no one can know ‘everything’ (at least directly/perceptually ;). The market does maintain fairness as long as a gun (or any form of force or fraud) is NOT involved to acquire value. We are far from that though and politicians are currently trying to take over the medical industry in America.

The Earth, as a planet, is an unconscious piece of rock (if I may be so crude ;). The sun has no consciousness either. It is true that they have given us our existence, but they are not dieties and did not volitionally intend to create us. We cannot ‘thank’ them.

“Human beings and their economy do not produce anything but new symbolic/cultural relations–the only true producer is the Sun, or perhaps plant life, which converts light into food and air for the rest of the biosphere to eat and breath.”

Yes, but aren’t those “symbolic/cultural” (and material formations, too! 😉 wonderful and grand!? And like I said, the Sun has no volition and is not some kind of diety. It is not a producer.. it’s just a great resource that happened to be put in the right spot. ;P

(Some people like to get nice tans, too, with it. Others think about how they’ll make a solar panel out of it to power their entire city. But we don’t give it thanks or money.. it demands none.)

“Until we recognize that ecological relations trump any contrived “economic law,” we will continue to pillage the planet and exploit the labor and resources of “undeveloped” people.”

These “underdeveloped people” are humans, right?? Or are you referring to plants and bugs? There are no “underdeveloped” humans (unless the person has down-syndrome or similar.. then you’re missing a chromosome or whatever and really missing out on major qualities of life). There is really only irrational cultures that have psycho dictators or politicians leading them.(actually.. ‘forcing’ would be a better word)

“The logic of capitalism requires that there be a class of poor people and cheap resources to be exploited by a class of rich owners.”

I hear that argument all the time. It always lacks the context of volition and current reality. The latter, reality, argument: The poorest people in America today, are farrrr richer than some of the richest kings and tribesmen in history… Those bossy monarchs sure as hell didn’t have internet, tv, heating and air, running water, grocery stores, sugary goods, microwave and fast foods, etc. etc. etc.. even a couple hundred years ago!)

And volition: Success is not an accident. Anyone that is willing and determined to, can become rich beyond what they dreamed possible. It doesn’t mean everyone will make several hundred million dollars.. but pretty much anyone willing to refine their studies, work, and discoveries and maintain it.. will do something tremendous (or even small!) that will reward them justly.

But when politicians start pointing the guns for pursuing one’s own interests.. that’s when jobs and poverty start pouring down.

“We will never live in a just and equitable world until we totally re-think our economic relations. ”

I absolutely agree! (just not in the same way you do 😉

Alright, this will probably be my last letter for the night. Write me a short reply on whether or not you still disagree and if I cleared up anything or confused you…

I still have yet to respond to your last paragraph. I will do so tomorrow but I do agree that identity and autonomy is largely inherited and “is provided for you by a cultural matrix of relations.”

I think that statement is written eloquently! (namely, “cultural matrix of relations”)

Btw, I think we could get away with some animal rights. I think it’s absolutely horrific when these weirdos scrape fur off of *living* animals and leave them in pure agony… I also don’t like when people allow their dogs to get in dog fights and bet on the dogs….


Well, I wouldn’t want to say the dog “calculates” the proper steps to catch the frisbee, as if it projected a Cartesian grid onto the world in order to decipher its coordinates and direction. Rather, the dog’s knowledge of the frisbee’s spatio-temporal arc is implicit and embodied: a “know-how” rather than a “know-what.” It is much the same for you and I when we, say, encounter a flight of stairs. We don’t need to logically analyze each movement of our legs in advance in order to walk up the steps; instead, our legs do the “thinking” for us in real time.

I should point out that even this formulation (“our legs do our thinking for us”) seems to suggest a dualism between “you” and “your” legs, as if there were some metaphysical chasm separating one from the other. It is more ontologically honest to say “I am a body” than “I have a body,” for who is this “I” apart from the body-as-lived? You are the active attunement of your body to others and the world. Your volition is a function of your biological constitution: animation-from-within, will, purpose, etc. are not exclusively human possessions. Rather, they are part and parcel of being alive. Every organism is in this sense ensouled. Even the biosphere as a whole constitutes a living system with its own intrinsic telos. In fact, human purposes are best described as derivative of the primary directionality of the cosmos at large (which are diverse, ranging from creativity to cataclysm). The human being is quite unique, I wouldn’t want to deny that. We are the leading edge of a 13.7 billion year cosmogenesis, leading because we are the first species, not only to know (to be self-conscious) in the general sense, but specifically to know transcendent love. Ironically, self-consciousness is only possible if we have internalized otherness. Internalizing otherness is synonymous with loving another selflessly, giving oneself to an other for the sake of something greater than either of you as individuals.

All this is directly precisely against the Randian ethos of enlightened selfishness. To my mind (as they say), such a doctrine ignores the discoveries of modern depth psychology (Nietzsche, Freud, Adler, Jung, Lacan, Hillman, Tarnas, Rozak…) concerning the various reasons and ways in which the ego is not the master of its house (the psyche). The notion of acting out of rational self-interest is a tautological platitude. It’s meaning is always self-referentially defined, and so the ego can perpetually convince itself that it is in control, even if in actual fact its life remains largely unpredictable and mysterious. The philosophical or reflective life is not the norm, not by any stretch of the imagination. It involves what I mentioned above, an incorporation of what initially appears foreign or other (in the case of philosophy, this is Wisdom/Sophia) by way of loving cognition. Philosophy is quite literally the love of wisdom.

Industrialism is the use of machines (both technological and social) to transfer extropy (negentropy) from the global periphery to “developed” centers of capital accumulation. In the process of thus transferring highly ordered energy and materials (i.e., extropy) from resource rich localities to technologically sophisticated cities, industrial machines produce tremendous amounts of entropy (waste, pollution, etc.). The net gain in “productivity” and “profit” for those at the center is at the expense of the ecosystems, peoples, and cultures surrounding them (for example, the US imports Ecuadorian oil in exchange for the exported weapons their government needs to secure the resource from rebellious peasants). Economics is a zero-sum game. There is no growth in one sector without the destruction of another. This is the main lesson we learn by applying thermodynamics to the global marketplace.

All organisms produce waste, it is true. But unlike global industrial capitalism (GIC), nature reproduces itself differentially, in myriads of forms and niches. This provides for long-term stability (evolutionary stability, no doubt… stability is here defined not as static conservation, but as the continuous movement toward diversity and mutuality). GIC reproduces homogenously, turning the whole planet into English speaking, McDonalds eating consumers because it is built atop a logic of general-purpose money whose value is so abstract that it can substitute for almost any cultural meaning. Hence the rapid commodification of EVERYTHING, from food to friendship, so typical of the waning years of the industrial system. Marx was right about at least one thing: capitalism is invincible to outside ideologies, but inevitably tends toward its own self-destruction (because of ecological inefficiency leading to biospheric crisis and moral egregiousness leading to class revolt).

I have nothing against mutually-enhancing relationships between people. In fact, I think they are our only hope! I’m arguing that GIC requires a general-purpose monetary system, and that such a system necessarily trends toward the commodification of all facets of life. If you define capitalism differently, that’s fine. But as I (and the economists I have read) use the word, it means a specific social arrangement predicated upon the use of abstract, general-purpose money not tied to any concrete social or material reality other than what neoclassical economists call “use value.” The result is alienation from oneself and one another, as the only valid way of relating to the world becomes instrumentalism (i.e., how am I to best use other people and nature to get what I want?).

We do have perceptual capacities limiting our interaction with others and the world, but such limits are also possible gateways. Relating to others (and even ourselves) via abstract use-value closes the door to the many other ways of being-towards-others and being-in-the-world. We should be careful not to naturalize the ideology implicit in GIC, that which turns the human subject into a disembedded consumer.

The earth is best seen as a dynamic whole, but for the purposes of analytical understanding we can divide it into a core with several spheres. The core is (to the best of our scientific knowledge) liquid iron. It is spinning rather quickly and produces an electromagnetic field that protects the earth from solar radiation. Without the electromagnetic membrane produce by the activity of the core, life would not be possible on the surface. The lithosphere could be described as rock, but it is not of a single piece but 12 major plates. I don’t need to bore you with a lesson on plate tectonics, I’m sure you’re familiar. It suffices to say that the movement of these plates represents a sort of self-healing wound. The lithosphere is constantly remaking itself, keeping its surface fresh. The process occurs at speeds so slow relative to human life that it is no wonder we have trouble recognizing it for what it is. The biosphere is the thin film of organic life surviving between lithosphere and atmosphere, an atmosphere whose composition the biosphere created and maintains. The noosphere is hard to describe exactly (because it provides the very possibility of description), but most certainly includes the conceptual meaning you and I are exchanging here as language-speaking humans. All of these spheres of activity unite to birth a single living earth. The sun, of course, is the source of it all. We are basically inside the sun, surrounded on all sides by its heliosphere. Its multi-billion year process of dying supplies earth with the energy it needs to live. Perhaps you do not feel a sense of awe and reverence for these heavenly bodies. I can’t help it. Even if I understand rationally/scientifically how it all works, the mystery as to why it should be at all leaves me spellbound and mystified. The only authentic reaction I can muster is of a spiritual sort.

Sorry I have written so much, but I wonder if you’d mind if I posted our conversation on my blog? It is too interesting and poignant not to share!




Actually, I was planning on publishing this elsewhere later on and asking you that… (why rewrite the same stuff over and over.. and why have to re-await another opportunity to express and consolidate ideas??) But not as soon you probably will.

I give you explicit permission to post whatever and ALL of what I e-mail you unless I explicitly note otherwise.

I will definitely say you did get very close to the source of your beliefs. I.e. I now understand much more your underlying cognitions and beliefs.

I will respond more tomorrow or this weekend. (including that last paragraph of your last e-mail)

For now, I want to make one comment: If the entire world was ‘Americanized’.. i.e. industrialized and materialized and everyone was motivated to find work, keep moving, and motivated to have material wealth.. we would not have such poverty and exploitation that exists all elsewhere in the world. And there would not be soo much of a gap of ‘socio-economic classes’. For instance, 15%-18% of the world’s wealth (possibly a bit more.. I can show you how I figured this out if you are interested.. just a quick calculation) are from people that are millionaires and above!

The global GDP per capita is $8,100 (directly from Wikipedia 😉 ). While $8,100 per person is pretty damn good…. I’m sure hundreds of million make only a few hundred a year at most. Is this because they are so worthless? I think not. It’s because their oppressive nation that they have no choice but to stand around idly wondering what to do with themselves. Also they were not born into a culture like you or I where there are so many ideas and fields to explore. Many have no concept of individual liberty like the wackos in North Korea… Many of them love their leader despite what a bastard and psycho he is!

And you totally refuted me (which I was prepared for as hinted in last letter) that the Earth is far more than a ‘rock’! I would have to agree. Also, it is quite bizarre that how old and BIG this universe is most of us still seem to think we are the center.

And how many thousands of galaxies exist without any evidence of sentience or consciousness beyond Earth.

More later.

– Mat


Look forward to your longer response. I’ll just say, in response to: “If the entire world was ‘Americanized’…” that most estimates suggest we would need 5 earths to provide the resources necessary for everyone (all 7 billion) to have an American lifestyle. Regardless, I think the very logic of industrial capitalism is such that a majority of earth and humanity must be exploited in order to sustain the continual enrichment of a few. There simply would not and could not be “development” and material prosperity in the Western nations without systematic destruction of land and people elsewhere (South America, Africa, Asia). Again, economics is a zero-sum game, no matter the ideologically-driven rhetoric about economic “growth.” No energy can be created or destroyed, and all dissipative structures (whether organic or techno-industrial) survive by importing extropy and exporting entropy. The difference between natural organisms and the techno-industrial machine is like that between healthy cells and cancer. Organisms generally do not destroy their own habitats/biomes. The techno-industrial machine, on the other hand, is the most efficient destroyer of ecosystems ever to grace the presence of our planet.

BTW, from Wikipedia: “A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000, and that the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total. The bottom half of the world adult population owned barely 1% of global wealth.”

Wealth redistribution from the poor to the super-rich is the primary symptom of global industrial capitalism.

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation

Unearthing the Earth: A Phenomenological Excavation of our Being-on-the-Earth

By Matthew Segall

“Eco-phenomenology offers a methodological bridge between the natural world and our own, or rather the rediscovery of the bridge that we are and have always been but—thanks to our collective amnesia—have forgotten, almost irretrievably. It is not enough to disguise our forgetting; there is also a matter of remembering—remembering the earth.”

-Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine (“Eco-phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself,” p. xx).

Phenomenology was laid down by Edmund Husserl as a path for thinking deeper than the superficial thought of objective natural science. It could be said that thought opens the world to human consciousness; thought, when spoken, builds the home I dwell in. Naturalism, on the other hand, prevents the blossoming of thought as the flower of the mouth by alienating consciousness from the body, from the earth, from the sky, and from the divine.

Heidegger says, “Being-on-the-earth…remains for man’s everyday experience that which is from the outset habitual…we inhabit it…” (MHBW, p. 349). It is, in other words, as easy to forget one’s earthly situation as it is to forget one is breathing. Earth is often taken for granted, becoming the unthought background of daily life. Commonsense is therefore naturalistic, paying attention only to the surface while forgetting the hidden face that lies beyond the horizon. As technological “advancement” swallows more and more of the lifeworld, consciousness finds itself falling deeper into exile from Being. Naturalism is a framework that conceives of the world, including the human body, as “consisting entirely of extensional properties related to each other within a causal matrix,” (EP, p. 3). There is nowhere for me—for consciousness— in the nature of naturalism.

The early Husserl was as of yet unaware of his embodiment and being-on-the-earth and so concerned himself not so much with saving nature as such from naturalism, but with saving human consciousness from its nihilistic implications. As Brown and Toadvine put it, for many, Husserl’s phenomenology “is a reduction of the world to meaning, and of meaning to [human] subjectivity,” (ibid, p. xiv). While Husserl’s early work may be a noble attempt to preserve human freedom and values from the onslaught of scientism, it offers only a point of departure when it comes to bridging the gap between humanity and nature that lies at the root of the ecological crisis (perhaps his later work, explored below, goes further). It is clear that if a true eco-phenomenology is desired, it must reject naturalism not only to recover the meaning of human existence, but to recover the meaning of humanity’s being-on-the-earth.

I will attempt in this essay to uncover the roots of human consciousness in the earth—to recontextualize the human being as a being-on-the-earth. This excavation will require both a conceptual examination of the four most general categories of nature as conceived of by naturalism (space, time, matter, and energy), and an experiential exploration of how these abstractions are originally revealed to us as embodied earthlings. Before I actually begin, however, I must establish the possibility of the unearthing of experience by way of the phenomenological method by responding to an important criticism.

Phenomenology may be described, after Heidegger, as a mode of speech (logos) that lets things (phenomena) show themselves. Any return to the things themselves is thus always already in relation to language. Gregory Nixon (after Derrida) has argued, that “outside of language there is nothing to which we can directly refer, since all language is indicative only of itself,” (VFW, p. 258). If Nixon is correct, it would seem that all attempts to bridge the nature/culture gap in the service of alleviating the alienation of consciousness from earth must fail, as “knowledge outside of language [or culture] is literally unthinkable,” (ibid). Nixon’s view is that human conscious experience is the result of linguistic reflection, that “the consciousness we experience is possible only because we have culturally invented language and subsequently evolved to accommodate it,” (ibid, p. 257). He admits to the possibility of pre-linguistic, pre-cultural experience, but maintains that bringing it to consciousness has already changed it: to consciously experience anything, I must already have “drawn it into the inescapable web of the hermeneutic enclosure of language,” (ibid, p. 258).

Such a grim picture of language as “enclosed,” I believe, neglects its poetic potential to let things show themselves by opening us to an originary experience of our being-on-the-earth. Language need not be a sticky, solipsistic web of self-referential signs, but can, by re-establishing its relation to the body and what Eugene Gendlin calls the “felt sense” of embodied meaning, become a bridge that carries us back to the earth itself. Gendlin argues that “bodily experience cannot be reduced to language and culture…[because] our bodily sense of situations is a concretely sensed interactional process that always exceeds culture, history, and language,” (UE). Experience is always more intricate than language, and while language can never contain the whole of our experience, it can aid in, as Gendlin puts it, “carrying forward” our meaning. Nixon’s sharp distinction between conscious human experience and unconscious pre-linguistic experience neglects the possibility of a liminal space in between, where a bodily feeling of what Gendlin calls the “responsive otherness” of implied meaning gives rise to the sentences we speak (NPCF). The implied meaning is never fully transformed into the words, but the words nonetheless carry it forward, thereby allowing meaning to develop and expand as new words come. In Gendlin’s view, “Words mean the change they make when they are said… The change happens implicitly in the situation,” (ibid.). Instead of reducing the meaning of a word to the other linguistic signifiers it points to, Gendlin’s way into language reveals that meaning arises out of the “implicit intricacy” of the bodily and inter-bodily situations in which words are spoken. Our knowledge of any given situation comes not from the words we use to describe it, but from the meanings these words imply for our sentient, situated bodies.

In the words of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the words most charged with philosophy are not necessarily those that contain what they say, but rather those that most energetically open upon being, because they more closely convey the life of the whole and make our habitual evidences vibrate until they disjoin,” (VI, p. 102). Philosophy must, if it hopes to remain alive in our dark age of amnesia, forego the habit of representing experience abstractly with arbitrary signs and instead rediscover a way of speaking poetically from experience, such that what is said sheds light on the subtleties of existence heretofore covered over by the sedimentary layers of language long dead.

Having thus established that language, despite the fact that its inauthentic and naturalistic use can and has obscured the life-world, nevertheless possesses the potential to become what Heidegger, after Hölderlin, called “the flower of the mouth” (thereby re-connecting human experience with the soil out of which it was born and will return), I can now proceed to uncover the earthly roots of consciousness by phenomenologically grounding the naturalistic abstractions of space, time, matter and energy in bodily (and earthly) experience. If I succeed, consciousness will no longer seem a transcendental ego precariously, if at all, related to an objective, external nature, but will have become a unique flower blossoming out of a living planet.


Rilke, speaking of those in poverty—of the homeless—writes:

“Has the earth, then, no room for them?

They need only, as a tree does,

a little space in which to grow.”

(RBH, p. 229).

If we follow a Cartesian (or early Husserlian) path of thought, pure consciousness “in here” comes to be directed toward extended objects “out there.” Consciousness is always of or about objects. The shortcoming of this way of thinking is that it covers over an original experience of the spatiality of our being-on-the-earth. As a Cartesian ego, extended space seems to be an object “out there.” Yet, as Kant realized, space cannot be conceived of objectively, but functions for the ego as a form of intuition pre-structuring all experienced objects. It might be said that Kant took the first steps toward a phenomenological account of space by showing how extension is not simply given to an entirely aloof subject; rather, the subject actively provides space as a form of intuition. But Kant’s account remains an abstract conception too tied up in the tired language of tradition to let space show itself originally in experience. While he reveals the necessity of space for experience, he fails to adequately account for the relationship between space, the body, and the earth.

Returning to immediate experience, space appears as the possibility for bodily movement. I do not at first encounter space, but rather sense the possibility of moving from here to there. Any such movement of my body from one place to another, before it is travel through empty space, is walking across stable ground. This ground is the earth. As David Abram says, paraphrasing the later Husserl, “the earth itself is not in space, since it is the earth that, from the first, provides space,” (SS, p. 42). So much is implicit in this most radical of statements that it would pay to dwell upon it, dwell in the double sense of think it deeply and live within it. How is our experience of space transformed by remembering the constitutive role played by the ground beneath our feet?

Before exploring the answer, it should be made clear just how radical Husserl’s claim is in comparison to the naturalistic attitude of science, which sees earth as one among many planetary objects suspended in the void. Since the Copernican Revolution, the centrality of earth has come into question and the lifeworld has given way to a concept of nature as independent of experience. No other scientific finding is more responsible than the heliocentric theory for creating the apparent disagreement between perception and reality. Descartes would, a century after Copernicus, reify this disagreement into an ontological chasm separating subject from object, rational intellect from experiencing body (SS, p. 43).

Returning again to the question posed above, it appears that the scientific conception of space as a container is groundless, the product of uprooted reflection. Space is not that which provides the possibility of extended matter; rather, the earth provides the “un-get-around-able” materiality that makes space a possibility (EP, p. 157). Space is not simply given, but is born out of the earth and our experience as earthlings dwelling on its spherical surface.

Husserl writes that, “the original ark, earth, does not move,” (SS, p. 42). By this, he seems to imply that earth, as the source of both space and life, provides the basis out of which later scientific abstractions are derived. The earth provides the unmoving mark (unmoving only because its movement carries us) that allows the body to perceive motion relative to itself. Though it is undoubtedly true that the earth orbits the sun, the ability to understand such a truth rests in a more primordial experience of being-on-the-earth. As our bodies are of the earth, so too is space of the body. As Heidegger says, “I am never here only, as this encapsulated body; rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it,” (MHBW, p. 359). Distance depends on where we stand in relation to one another, and is not a function holding true of any “space” independent of our relation. The earth is not in space with the other planets and the sun, but participates with them in providing space for one another.

As an example of the relativistic space articulated here, it should be pointed out that the appearance of the sun and the other planets from the surface of the earth remains the same regardless of our conception of how they are actually related to earth. There is, therefore, no conflict between perception and reality so long as it is acknowledged that any explanation of experience arises out of that experience. The discovery of earth’s position in the solar system does not contradict our experience as earthlings; it merely deepens our experience of the dimensional possibilities of space as provided by earth. We say the sun rises as we say the eye sees, and neither is wrong even while both are incomplete. It must be added that the earth shows itself to the sun and that the eye is seen.


“You are the future,

the red sky before sunrise

over the fields of time.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes

that rise from the stuff of our days—

You are the deep innerness of all things,

the last word that can never be spoken.”

-Rilke (RBH, p. 177)

Before moving on from space to time, it should be noted that each of the categories under examination are only separable in the abstract. Space and time form a single continuum in lived experience, and though space alone was considered in the prior section, time was implicated in every step.

Time is perhaps the most elemental of experiential elements, not easily covered over by the forgetfulness of the naturalistic attitude. The physical conception of time as a linear series of causally symmetrical instants entirely neglects what, after David Wood, may be called the “plexity,” or complex relationality, of our embodied experience (EP, p. 213). Time-as-lived is asymmetrical, meaning it flows irreversibly from past to future, unlike the equations of physics.

Lived time, when situated on the earth, becomes not only an irreversible unfolding, but an unfolding coordinated by a variety of interwoven planetary rhythms, such as the day/night cycle and seasonal shifts. The rhythms give time a certain experiential texture, such that it becomes tied up in the very substance of existence, rather than being an arbitrary measure of homogenous change.

Clocks measure, but it is not time that they catch—for the clock itself is aging, too embedded in the stuff of time to provide a fixed point of reference. Time knows no fixed points, as experience endures: the body moves not from one discrete moment to the next, but carries with it the events of the past into a present always opening to the possibilities of the future. The present is not a bare “now,” an instantaneous “here,” nor is it a rudderless raft pushed along by the current of the past. The present is endlessly pregnant with the past, perpetually giving birth to the future. What is born becomes again the seed for further unfolding.

Space and time reunite in our being-on-the-earth not through a spatialization of time, but a temporalization of space. Space finds its origin in place, and place in the temporality of an event. I am here, breathing with/as the rhythms of time, in what is always a place becoming, a happening. Never does my being here cease to become in time, as my situation is temporal before it is spatial. I arrive at a café as I have the same way on many a day, but because the past I carry with me today differs, so too does my experience of the café. Similarly, the earth as spherical place provides spatial depth only thanks to the tempo of time. The earth was once a cloud of dust, and only after time allowed it to take shape could it provide a place for space to surround.


Rilke writes, again of the homeless:

“Is there by the banks

of the pond’s deep dreaming

no where they can see their faces reflected?”

(RBH, p. 229).

The aforementioned formative influence of time in the shaping of the earth should not be taken to mean that the substance of the earth, matter, is merely a passive recipient of spherizing form. This conception of matter as raw stuff shaped by immaterial ideas has a long history in Western thought. The ordinary naturalistic attitude conceives of matter as inert and objective, something that exists extended in space. But as we saw above, matter is not “in” space, but when given time and present in sufficient mass (relative to sensate beings arising from its body), provides space. The formative influence of time should be understood as being of the same substance as the materiality of the earth itself. The spherical shape of the earth is an echo of the primordial “un-get-around-able” essence of materiality.

Materiality conceived naturalistically appears as the flat, extended surface of earth (at least until recently when a view of earth was revealed “from” space) and the closed surfaces of all the bodies upon it. The interior of surfaces (i.e., the sentience of bodies) is neglected by such a forgetful way of thinking (and dwelling in) the world.

Perceived via the self-sentience of the body, materiality is the weight of our own inner existence—that which embeds us in what would otherwise remain a world of mere surfaces but for the fold that is our face and the clearing it opens for us to behold and be held by the earth. The human body is not the whole of our mass, or even wholly our own, but a temporary gift from the mass of the mother earth to which we belong. The reason matter and mind, or the body and human consciousness, have been so opposed to one another for much of the history of philosophy may be uncovered in the precarious relationship between our identity (our face) and materiality conceived naturalistically (surfaces as such).

Jacques Lacan described the human ego as the human being’s internalized image of itself as reflected in a mirror. The ego is, in other words, my idea of what I look like from the outside, as a surface. But if it is true that matter is the “un-get-around-able,” then this egoic identity always remains a fantasy. I cannot fully identify with my skin-bounded body, because there is always a topological gap that prevents my internalizing it as a complete body. Materiality cannot be fully thought precisely because we are ourselves material.

Though Lacan’s mirror stage may be necessary for further development, our perspective on ourselves may become more authentic if the locus of identity widens from our individual body to the earth-body. Only recently have photographs of the earth from space given humanity the opportunity to inhabit it as our own body, just as the infant is given the opportunity to identify with its body after being placed before a mirror. The difference is that identification with the sphericality of the earth requires embracing the “un-get-around-able” materiality of our existence, unlike identification with a planar image reflected upon a mirror. The mirror image gives a false impression of wholeness, as its flat surface shows only as much as can be shown to it. The earth, on the other hand, provides a genuine face (not a surface) that more authentically grounds identification in a sense of wholeness not found in flattened images. In this way, my bodily identity can come primarily from the face of the earth, and only secondarily from my image of myself as an earthling living on its surface.

Questioning who I am is first a question of Being itself, and as such has an undisclosed origin that can never be fully articulated because it is always already assumed (the “is” in the question “what is Being?” must already be understood). But we are forgetful of this implicit understanding, and so we are lead, in answering the question, to settle on identifying with our own inverted image (an outside, made superficially because incompletely, inside). Objectifying nature alienates consciousness from its own naturalness, hampering its ability to fully be. But the very same naturalistic attitude that covered over our relationship to Being and lead to the false identification with the ego also ignited the rockets that took us beyond the senses to the stars, turning our eyes back upon the body of the earth for the first time so that we might rediscover the meaning of being home.

Being-on-the-earth is also being of the earth, identifying with its living materiality. Earth becomes Gaia when we become again as children, regaining our primordial attunement to the life of things, though now an attunement that is expressed through speech like flowers reaching from the soil to the sky. In this way, language becomes a bridge built to carry we mortals back to the earth, and from earth, with creative inspiration, to the divine. As Rilke says to the earth, “There is no image I could invent that your presence would not eclipse,” (RBH, p. 121).


“And weapons against all that breathes,

In an incessant pride, the human being carries;

In torment he consumes himself

And the flower of his peace,

The tender one, does not bloom long.”

– Hölderlin (from “Das Mench”)

Energy has become a concept of central importance for the current ecological crisis. Cries abound for sustainable sources of energy, for technologies that extract energy for human consumption without destroying nature. But technology can never extract energy from the earth in a sustainable way, because to think in terms of the naturalistic conception of energy already enframes nature, such that it becomes a mere standing-reserve awaiting human use, a means to our ends.

Nature conceived of as a source of energy enframes nature in that it “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such,” (MHBW, p. 320). Technology seems to be the means to this end. However, Heidegger argues that the essence of technology is not its instrumentality, but its mode of revealing by enframing. To reveal by enframing is to challenge-forth “energy” in the abstract, as something separable from the life of the earth. Heidegger contrasts this mode of revealing with that of poïesis, which brings-forth of itself. The best example of such bringing-forth is physis, “the irruption belonging to bringing-forth, e.g., the bursting of a blossom into bloom, in itself,” (ibid, p. 317). Physis reveals the way in which energy and nature are originally united as the self-generating capacity of the living earth. A conception of “energy” independent of earth, extractable from earth, is the result of an enframed way of thinking only interested in quantifying what can be challenged-forth from nature. The danger in relating to earth in such a way (as a “calculable coherence of forces,” ibid, p. 326) is that, eventually (if not already), even the human being becomes the standing-reserve of industry, which “[drives] on to the maximum yield at the minimum expense,” (ibid, p. 321).

Energy becomes, for the naturalistic attitude, the most neutral of names for the essence of nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. The earth does not originally show itself as a resource, as a standing-reserve, but becomes so only because of the technological way of being that forcibly reveals it as such. That technology nonetheless reveals is what makes it so dangerous, as all revealing (aletheia) is truthful. Energy does show itself as a quantifiable substance, but only after the earth is inhabited instrumentally. Both the revealing that is poïesis (or physis) and the revealing that is enframing provide a kind of truth; but enframing goes on for the most part unconsciously, because everyone assumes that the essence of technology is merely instrumental, that it is neutral but for how the human being puts it to use.

We do not realize that our technological presence on the earth has the potential, not only to forever forestall self-generating capacity of nature, but to forever alter human nature, as well. We risk losing touch with our own poetic roots in the soil and with the inspiration that lifts our language to new heights. Ours is a crisis not only of the ecosystem, but of the humanity dwelling within it. If the essence of technology remains hidden, and nature continues to be used up as mere energy, the human being will become a mere battery for the machines that replace us, homeless upon a dead earth.


“This is what the things can teach us:

to fall,

patiently to trust our heaviness.

Even a bird has to do that

before he can fly.

-Rilke (RBH, p. 173).

Heidegger warns not only of the dangers of technology, but after Hölderlin (“…where danger is, grows/the saving power also…” MHBW, p. 340), heralds also its potential to re-establish our being-on-the-earth, though in sublated form. This saving power is realized only if the essence of technology is understood. For Heidegger (as well as Husserl), scientific naturalism owes its existence to the technological method of enframing. This reverses the commonsense idea that science brought-forth technology. The great success of the scientific/naturalistic approaches is not the result of the metaphysical truth of their objectivism, but rather of the practical value of their methods. This method, made possible by the enframing of the earth as mere energy for instrumental use, has depleted its body of the life-giving qualities that created and provide for our human existence. It is the shock of this near suicide, however, that has given us the opportunity to truly stand watch over this earth as the only home we’ll ever have.

The mythical fall from grace and eviction from the garden of Eden can only be overcome by taking to an extreme the alienating way of inhabiting the earth that caused the fall to begin with. We cannot turn back—we cannot put humpty dumpty back together again. Our destiny had to be lived out—our process of maturation could not be prematurely reversed. But in a typical enantiodromic twist, our rush to remake the planet technologically has lead to an opening that, if seen, will allow us to remember our original identity as earthlings, now capable of either destroying or saving the earth. For the first time, we can truly become aware of and responsible for the ground beneath our feet.

As Heidegger says, being-on-the-earth already means being beneath the sky (MHBW, p. 351). And to be beneath the sky means to behold the stars, whose divine energies remain forever out of reach of we mere mortals. But instead of energy, we may find “something waiting inside [the things themselves], like an unplayed melody in a flute,” (RBH, 167). Only a way of thinking/dwelling upon the earth that grants such melodies their say, and that safeguards their becoming, can save us from the total annihilation of ourselves and the rest of the community of life upon this planet.


SS -Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Vintage. 1997.

EP – Brown, Charles S. and Toadvine, Ted (Ed.). Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself. SUNY Press: Albany. 2003.

NPCF – Gendlin, E.T. (2004). The new phenomenology of carrying forward. Continental Philosophy Review, 37(1), 127-151. From

MHBW – Krell, David Farrel (Ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Harper: San Francisco. 1977.

RBH – Macy, Joanna and Barrows, Anita. Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Penguin Group: New York. 1996.

VI – Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press: Chicago. 1969.

UE – Roger Frie (Ed.). Understanding Experience: Psychotherapy and Postmodernism, pp.100-115, Routledge. 2003

VFW – Varela, Francisco and Shear, Johnathan (Ed.). The View From Within: First-Person Approaches to the Study of Consciousness. Imprint Academic: Bowling Green. 1999.


I wonder what it is that turns the world round,
That hides the far side of the Moon from the Earth,
That sees with my eyes but cannot be seen.
Why is it that I have a perspective?
How is it that I exist as an individual,
As a piece of space wrapped up in time?
When did this capsule
Of skin, bones, and blood arise
If its growth itself is what pulled time from the void?
Where is the blue of the sky
Without me here to paint it?

However I wound up here,
Sense does no justice to the place.
I cannot see
That which begs to be seen.
What can be sensed,
What can be stood under,
What can be named…
None of this is what I wonder.
I wonder what it is that is.
Who is being human?

Whether I am chained,
Or I can fly free.
Whether the stars pull my strings,
Or the stage is mine to sing.
What I really wonder
What’s behind the scenes?
The seen is self-evident.
It is the seer that mystifies.
My eyes can reach to the end of space,
But still I am not satisfied.
Even if I could come to terms with time
(Beyond the categories
Of Past, Present, and Future),
What remains hidden:
The eternal,
The boundless,
The before beginning
And after ending;
That is what I chase.

And in so doing,

There is no gap,
No room for contradiction.
The known and the unknown
Have the same home.
It is me,
Each of me,
That binds the inside and the out.
It is me,
All of me,
That lights time
And blows it out.