If you live in the UK, or if you are traveling there this summer, I’ll be teaching for one of Schumacher College’s 3-week intensive courses Monday, June 18th through Friday, June 22nd on the topic of evolution and spirituality. The description of my week is below. Also teaching week-long modules in this course are the ecologists Joana Formosinho, Andy Letcher, and Stephen Harding.
In the second week, Matthew T. Segall will introduce several important 19th and 20th century philosophical and theological responses to evolutionary theory—responses that remain as relevant as ever to any 21st century person trying to imagine a new mode of life for humankind on planet Earth. Though other relevant figures will also be discussed, we will focus on two thinkers in particular: 1) the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854), including his organic re-embedding of mind in Nature as well as his proto-Jungian understanding of the revelation of God through the gradual evolution of the mythic consciousness of human beings; and 2) the British mathematical physicist turned philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), whose panpsychist and process-relational cosmology represents one of the few comprehensive attempts to fully integrate the metaphysical implications of evolutionary theory (not to mention relativity, quantum, and complexity theories). The week will close with an exploration of the potential for a scientifically-informed spirituality responsive to the evolutionary adventure from out of which our species, our living planet, and the wider cosmos have emerged. Our human creativity, intelligence, moral insight, and aesthetic sensitivity are all expressions of a multibillion year lineage of cosmic ancestors; acknowledging this has profound ramifications for how we relate to ourselves, to our communities, and indeed, how we mould our very civilization.
Thanks for pointing out the relevance of N. Taleb’s distinction between randomness and an agent’s exposure to randomness for the question of “life.” Much to ponder here…
My friendship with the idea of autopoiesis is about as old as my friendship with you. I’ve felt a deep kinship with the scientific scheme and the phenomenological/philosophical method developed by Maturana, Varela, Thompson, et al., since my first exposure to them in Mason Cash’s Philosophy of Mental Representation course back at UCF in 2006ish. In the decade since, I’ve fallen in love with Schelling and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. I have not fallen out of love with autopoiesis (or enactivism) in all this time, but I have found myself entering into a (friendly!) polemic with Evan Thompson about whether or not autopoietic biology and enactive cogntive science remain ontologically underdetermined. I’ve argued that the Chilean school (and its inheritors) can find an elucidating metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy of organism.
From my perspective, the initial sites of inquiry whenever we ask about the essence of life must be agency and intuition. The only reason physical science needs a special science called “biology” is because when human knowers observe living organisms, they cannot help but intuit an agency in them. This “living” agency is understood by physicists to be absent in “merely” physical (i.e., “non-living”) processes.
Accept for a moment, if you will, my parody of the polemic between a reductive physicist and an emergentist biologist:
The physicist argues that whatever “life” is, and whatever our experienced “intuitions” of it might be, all of its apparently living agency, and all of our apparently “inner” intuitive experiences of it, are really just external mechanical processes that have not yet been fully understood and explained in terms of the equations of physics.
For the emergentist biologist, in contrast, “life” has real effects on physical processes. Life is a cause, even if secondarily (and improbably!) emergent from primary physical causes. Life makes a difference in how things happen. Life is not a passive passenger on planet Earth. The “laws” of physics may provide life’s primary environmental condition, but to say life slavishly “obeys” these laws is to dramatically downplay the extent to which life uses these laws as a stage upon which to innovate. Earth is not a dead rock with a few patches of slime growing in scattered crevices. Earth–better, Gaia–is a living community composed of multifarious organic agents whose eco-semiotic entanglements have made them evolutionary players since day one in the +4 billion year formation of the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Earth is an ecopoietic process (h/t Lovelock). “Not only is life a planetary phenomenon, but the material environment of life on Earth is in part a biological construction” (Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 119).
The biologist thinks of life as something irreducible to physics. Life is something special, perhaps unique in all the universe, present only on our pale blue dot. We should feel lucky to be alive.
The reductive physicist endeavors to resolve what appears to be “life” into something more generic, to explain it away as a local anomaly temporarily afloat amidst a sea of total randomness.
But what if life is more generic than matter, organism more generic than mechanism? If Robert Rosen is right, the biologist and the physicist both have inadequate ideas of life. Whitehead would say this is because both have unquestioningly accepted the modern bifurcation of nature into physical causes and psychical excitations. Why must we bifurcate nature? Is there a good philosophical argument for doing so?
The biologist’s idea of life isn’t radical enough: it doesn’t get to the root of our intuition of the agency of organisms. The physicists idea of life isn’t revolutionary enough: it doesn’t fully embrace Giordano Bruno’s Copernican intuition that the center of the cosmos is everywhere because life pervades the cosmos.
I wonder if we might re-examine your claim that “a hurricane is not alive because there is a missing ingredient”… Are we sure that a hurricane doesn’t feel to us in some way living? We may have learned a scientific rationale for why we should not think of hurricanes as alive. Ignoring this rational norm could be professionally hazardous for an academic! But if we look again at a hurricane through the eyes of a child, without all our smart ideas about it?
Is there really a missing ingredient here? Obviously there is a long chain of auto-catalytic chemistry (etc.) separating a dissipative structure like a hurricane from a human person. But again, what if biological life is a special case of a more generic or cosmic tendency toward organizational complexity? Could it be that we have too deflated a view of the teleodynamics of hurricanes and too inflated a view of human consciousness? Do we know that hurricanes are not sometimes capable of following ocean temperature gradients? Might some sort of “structural coupling” or “concern” emerge in the creative tension between differentially heated water and air? Obviously, plenty of hurricanes don’t follow the temperature gradient and thus unravel into chaos. But some hurricanes, the one’s which grow and thrive, do follow the gradient. They do so with gusto. In the satellite image you can literally see Erma’s heartbeat as she eats evermore heat and grows and thrives. Isn’t this a kind of natural selection at work (even if only at the level of self-production or autopoiesis, without the help of reproduction)? From one perspective, hurricane Erma’s teleodynamic behavior is blind chance. From another perspective, this is a sentient cloud. And anyway, isn’t the human mind a lot more like a cloudy sky than a self-regulating free agent? Aren’t we constantly pulled in circles by love and strife (heat and cold in hurricanese), swayed this way and that by fortune and fury? Conscious reflection and intention are the rolling thunder of the mind. They come loudly, but late, always after organic intuition in a flash brings new worlds into view. Life lives in this flash of intuition prior to reflection upon objects over and against subjects. This is Stu Kauffman’s “poised realm” of adjacent possibilities. This is the capacity to ingress novelty, and it is not specific to biological organisms. Life is the aim toward the future enjoyed in the present. It is essential to the whole of cosmogenesis.
This way to panpsychism.
“…it became possible for scholars to follow with the same instruments that allow us to trace the production of science (search engines, scientometrics and bibliometric tools, maps of the blogospheres), the people, lobbies, credentials, and money flows of those who insisted on making it a controversy. I am thinking here of the work of Naomi Oreskes or of James Hoggan. How interesting to see the connections made between big oil, cigarette manufacturing, antiabortionists, creationists, Republicans and a worldview made of very few humans and very few natural entities. If it is cosmograms against cosmograms, then let’s compare cosmograms with one another. That’s what politics has become. Let’s pit the worlds against one another since it is a war of worlds. I tried to introduce in philosophy the word composition and ‘compositionism’ just for that reason. Not only because it has a nice connection with compost, but also because it describes exactly what sort of politics could follow the path of climate science. The task might not be to “liberate climatology” from the undue weight of political influence (this is what Texas governor Rick Perry claims: scientists are in it for grant money and the opportunity to advance a socialist agenda that even Lenin failed to impose on the courageous Yankees). On the contrary, the task is to follow the threads with which climatologists have built the models needed to bring the whole Earth on stage. With this lesson in hand we begin to imagine how to do the same in our efforts to assemble a political body able to claim its part of responsibility for the Earth’s changing state. After all, this mix up of science and politics is exactly what is embodied in the very notion of anthropocene: why would we go on trying to separate what geologists, earnest people if any, have themselves intermingled? Actually, the spirit of our tongue has said that all along, having already connected humus, humane and humanity. We the Earthlings are born from the soil and from the dust to which we will return, and this is why what we used to call ‘the humanities’ are also, from now on, our sciences.”
“…there is nothing about the Earth as Earth that we don’t know through the disciplines, instruments, mediations, and expansion of scientific networks: its size, its composition, its long history and so on. Even farmers depend on the special knowledge of agronomists, soil scientists and others. And this is even truer of the global climate: the globe by definition is not global but is, quite literally, a scale model that is connected through reliably safe networks to stations where data points are collected and sent back to the modellers. This is not a relativist point that could throw doubt on such science but a relationist tenet that explains the sturdiness of the disciplines that are to establish, multiply and do the upkeep of those connections.”
-Bruno Latour, “Waiting for Gaia”
A lecture from last week’s class Brief History of Western Thought on Romanticism and the crisis of modern science as it played out in the organic nature philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.