Intensity of Satisfaction and Lowest Free Energy States (Thinking Abiogenesis with Bruce Damer)

See this link for context on Bruce Damer and David Deamer et al.’s abiogenesis hypothesis.

In Process and Reality, Whitehead articulates two methods for describing the universe. The first, and ontologically primary, method is what he calls “genetic analysis.” This mode of analysis looks at what transpires within each concrescing actual occasion of experience, abstractly dividing occasions into their component “prehensions” (or feelings of perished occasions from the past). The second method he calls the “coordinate” or “morphological” analysis, which has to do with the topological relations among the perished occasions of the contemporary world. This latter mode of analysis focuses on the extensive relations in time and space of objectified (because perished) occasions of experience, backgrounding their subjective feelings and aims. This is the domain of measurement of what has already become via what Whitehead calls “geometric strains,” whereas the genetic mode of analysis examines the concrete growth and becoming of reality, an attempt to catch Nature in the act, as it were. 

Whitehead uses the phrase “intensity of satisfaction” to describe the feeling of concrescence, which is the creative process whereby “the many become one and are increased by one,” or the process whereby the perished past is valued, remembered, and allowed to progress into the future with renewed evaluation. The past can pass into the future only through the present: experience is always a function of what William James called the “specious present,” which is not a solipsistic frozen slice cut off from its origins and destiny, but the tension between an inherited past and an anticipated future. For Whitehead, our perception of space emerges in the present. He calls it “presentational immediacy”: it’s Descartes’ res extensa. Time perception is a function of what Whitehead calls “causal efficacy,” which is the feeling of transition from moment to moment. Concrete reality is a complex relation of these two modes of perception, so we can only distinguish them for the purposes of intellectual analysis. Now, in Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the “extensive continuum,” the realm of extension or extensity, is only half the picture. And in fact, even to call it “half the picture” is already the privilege the domain of extensity over the other domain, that of intensity: to say it’s only half, as if 50% was external and 50% was internal, is already to privilege the quantifiable nature of extension. The quantitative dimension, the “extensive continuum,” is the mathematizable, computable, binary domain; it is what Tim Eastman calls the Boolean domain that can be measured in bits, rendered exhaustively in 1s and 0s. Only in this domain does it make sense to talk about 50% or half, or ratios of this kind. In the realm of intensity, the old rationality with its logical rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle doesn’t work anymore. The intensity of concrescence is a domain that cannot be measured, cannot be digitized. It is reality-in-process, something I’ve referred to as “creality” to prevent us from imagining it at some “thing” or “state.” It is the process whereby pure potentiality moves through probability to achieve final satisfaction in a complete occasion of experience or “actual entity.” Before a completed entity is achieved, an occasion is composed of many prehensions of its past, some initially in contradiction with one another. The process of concrescence resolves contradictory prehensions into complex contrasts, transforming clashes into some modicum of aesthetic harmony (these conflicts are why the principle of non-contradiction cannot be applied in the genetic analysis of concrescence, since a definite actuality has not yet been achieved; only once a concrescing subject has achieved its aesthetic aim and perished into objecthood can standard logic and measurements in spacetime be applied).  

When Whitehead discusses the satisfaction of an actual occasion of experience, the intensity of satisfaction in a concrescence, he is talking about feeling, he’s talking about something subjective and aesthetic, something which cannot be spread out in a coordinate grid because it is not yet part of extended spacetime. The realm of intensity or of prehension is not in extended space and time; rather, measurable spacetime relations are a secondary expression of or emergence from networks of occasions (Whitehead also uses the term “nexus” or “society” of occasions). Spacetime thus emerges out of the collective decisions of actual occasions of experience, a result of what these occasions of experience find satisfying, rather than a pre-existent container of some kind to which occasions are passively subjected and forced to conform. The extent of conformity to a measurable and predictable spacetime manifold is a function of the stubborn habits of past occasions being inherited in the present. The habits of what Whitehead calls “the electromagnetic society,” as well as the society of occasions associated with gravity (gravitonic society?) set the base notes for further cosmic evolution, though we cannot be sure that in the distant future our universe will not continue unfolding in more dimensions than what relativity has so far suggested.  

So, in other words, the very gravitational gradient of spacetime, and the energetic dynamics of light, are functions of feeling, functions of feelings of enjoyment, such that the the measurable shapes that the cosmos takes in the extensive domain are a result of or a precipitate of the achievements of the prehensive activities that are underway inwardly and so do not appear in the measurable domain. The concrescent activity of occasions of experience does not appear outwardly because it is what does the peering, it is the subject side of the equation governing cosmogenesis. When Whitehead refers to “intensity of satisfaction,” what he means to say is that there is an aesthetic achievement whereby the perished objects of the past are brought together under contrast with one another, “prehended.” The many objects of the perished past grow together into a new unity, a new whole of some kind, which has an associated experiential vector that launches it through the present into the future. It is telic, an aim, a purposeful unfolding that feels its way forward, or in thermodynamic terms, “falls forward” into the local minima free energy state (e.g., spherical liposomes). The achievement of stable thermodynamic morphologies, and the creative advance into more and more improbable morphologies at whatever scale of physical organization can be described in such experiential terms using Whitehead’s scheme. It is an account of the “why,” not the “how” (the latter is a matter of detailed scientific investigation of the extensive domain). 

Talk of energy in the extensive domain can, in Whitehead’s terms, be translated into the intensive domain in terms of experience or emotion—not conscious deliberation or imagination, or any of the high grade consciousness that we human beings experience—but a lower more basic form of feeling, a “vector feeling,” in Whitehead’s terms. At the most primitive level of physical process, these vector feelings are just gravitational gradients, or the inheritance of the vibratory frequency of a helium atom from moment to moment of its life-history, the repetition and enjoyment of the feeling of that particular frequency. What starts as extremely simply and relatively habitual feeling vectors amplify themselves as they cycle, as they become recursive, and especially as they develop means of reliable molecular memory and replication. When the geological and astrophysical conditions are right for an “ur-able”* planet to ripen into life, when various reliable rhythms in the environment afford the emergence of “improbability sinks” sheltered from a background of relative chaos by environmental conditions, then the emergence of chemical combinatorial selection becomes possible, eventually bootstrapping cellular evolution. The gradual emergence of living cells occurs in the cycling of these fragile progenitor communities. Not a single, heroic cell, but a heroic community gave birth to life. The progenitor hypothesis that Bruce is developing suggests it was a network of polymers at the edges of warm little ponds that would be drying out and refilling, drying out and refilling, with a crucial “gel-like” phase in between where complex cities of lipid sheaths allowed for the first sharing economy on Earth to emerge. Along the edges of these ponds, dehydration would catalyze the formation of longer polymers, of nucleic acids and peptides, complex chains or molecular worms that begin to manifest the first biological “functions” on planet earth, and perhaps in the universe. 

Bruce Damer likes to say that the universe before life—the atomic, astrophysical, galactic environments—gets a D for creativity, in the sense that at these scales relatively few stable forms of organization were found, and for billions of years they have been fixed in place and are basically just running down or wasting away now. No further evolution can transpire. The abiotic cosmis is thus ergodic. It wasn’t until the biological realm invented template copying and self-repairing complex adaptive cellular organization that the creativity of the cosmos ratcheted up again to find new, more complex energy states to “fall” into. Now, I agree with Bruce that the universe before life gets a D in creativity, but the important point here is that it is not an F. It is enough. A D is just enough creativity to keep the evolutionary process falling forward. Yes, it unfolds at a much slower rate than life is able to evolve with its more potent novelty producing engines, but at least some degree of aim and effective satisfaction was present from the beginning, otherwise atoms, stars, and galaxies could never have emerged (these are tremendous organizational achievements in their own right, considering the chaos from out of which they came!). 

To sum up, there is a lure toward deeper intensity operative at every scale of the universe, but which becomes qualitatively richer as evolution complexifies and new means of sheltering probability, affording interconnection, and storing memories are developed. With Whitehead’s help, we can correlate these experiential or aesthetic lures with the movement toward greater improbability: the lure toward intensity of satisfaction is a a lure towards improbability, toward the lowest free energy state relative to its environment. Whitehead offers us an answer as to “why” organized matter from the “least action principle” of the photon on up the scale of organizational complexity tends to adopt the lowest free energy state: because it feels good, because as Blake said “energy is eternal delight.”  This tendency is an aim toward order that is driven or goaded by the lure of enjoyment and satisfaction. It is the great cosmic “counter-agency” to entropy that Whitehead discusses in his book The Function of Reason. He is attempting to give physics animacy again. This language is not meant to discount the details of physics in the realm of extensity. It’s just an attempt at reintegrating the for too long neglected domain of intensity back into our modern understanding of the universe. Whitehead does prioritize the realm of intensity as the concrete reality, with the realm of extension being its secondary expression. But it is not like you could have one without the other, an inside without an outside. Both are required for the cosmic engine of evolution to creatively advance. Whitehead’s protest against the sort of scientific materialism that tries to explain away the inside by reduction to the outside is rooted in his claim that we cannot understand shapes taken in space without giving intensity its due. Intensity is Natura naturans (Nature naturing), and without this ingredient of creative process sprung from intensity of satisfaction, the Natura naturata (Nature natured) would make no sense. Explaining Nature’s external shapes requires making reference to such inward satisfactions. That, at least, is Whitehead’s wager. 

*”Ur-ability” is a new concept Bruce is developing with David Deamer to refer to the thermodynamic and chemical conditions necessary for life to emerge on a planet. We are used to thinking of the “habitability” planets, but “ur-ability” has to do with establishing not just habitability for existing life but the conditions for the origin (ur-) of life.

Towards a “Thermopolitics” (question for Levi Bryant)

Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.

Bryant writes:

This is not a metaphor.  At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels.  This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants.  All living and social being is solar in its origin.

I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?

Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,

must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).

Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.

Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:

For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.

[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.

I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.

The Ethics and Esotericism of Eating

Bourdain says the analogy between animal and human flesh (PETA: “you eat cow, eh? so would you eat human meat, too?”) is the last irrational wail of the animal rights activist. His response: “If I were two weeks out on the life boat, hell yeah I would!” Gill then makes an especially poignant response about how we are all already eating other people (their labor, their emotional well-being, their air and water, etc.). He then says, if he is honest, he really doesn’t give a fuck about animal suffering.

I am left wondering if these popular chefs/food critics are not consciously parodying themselves. I can only hope that they are at least aware of the way that their big media personas reflect the decadence and ethical decay of consumer capitalist society, with its autistic ‘relationship’ with the rest of the community of life on earth.

I ate a turkey sandwich for dinner. I can’t justify it ethically. Not only my eating the turkey flesh, but my eating a “product” (a living creature) produced in an unsustainable industrial factory. Plants receive their energy directly from the Sun, and when we eat them, we are eating the light of our local star at only one remove. Animals receive their energy from plants and other animals, two or three levels removed from the Sun’s physical energy. In an esoteric sense (which for me has a lot to do with Rudolf Steiner), the situation might be construed this way: Eating other animals, as some humans and non-humans do, is eating a being who was ensouled. This behavior seems to me to represent the confusion of a spiritual with a physical reality. Christians might call this the Fall. In some ways, however, I think “the Fall” was evolutionarily inevitable, at least if you take a Teilhardian perspective on evolution. Life has always been hell bent on complexification, a process wherein matter continually transcends itself by adding new organismic rungs to its thermodynamic ladder to heaven. Bacteria began by eating the solar-and earth-heated chemicals around them, then quickly graduated to eating other bacteria, which then hitched a ride in the guts of larger protists who ate them, who in turn supported larger and more neurologically complex creatures who ate them, and so on… Matter “cried out and raised itself to spirit” (as Hegel put it, echoing Luke 19:40) by learning to more effectively (i.e., symbiotically) eat itself.

Nonetheless, the industrial diet cannot be justified. It has taken the necessary carnage of the evolutionary process and exploited it to produce an unsustainable amount of surplus gustatory pleasure. It misses the mark that evolution is aiming at (i.e., it is sinful). Unlike plants, which do not have an astral body (as Steiner calls the soul) and feed only on the locally supplied light of our planet’s star, animals feed (spiritually) also on the light of distant (in space and time) extraterrestrial stars. When we eat animals, we are killing not only the work of our local parents (the Sun and the Earth), but also the work of our great, great grandparents, our eternal ancestors in heaven. The non-chalant eating of animals (raised and killed industrially) is not only physically unsustainable and biologically unethical, but also spiritually blasphemous.

Ecology of Mind, Economy of Play, Energy of Delight

Meaning is infinite because language is indefinitely recursive, because “world” is a word, such that “word” has no world to refer to. Words refer only to themselves, except Yours, your Name, who is the Word but mustn’t know it. “Reality” is a word referring to a set of alphanumeric-audiovisual symbols inherited from an ancient alchemical cult. Sense is infinite because even as we reach out and touch the world, it continues to recede away from us, to withdraw from our ears and eyes into darkness behind a veil beyond the silence of all horizons. The sensory world is sublime, infinite. “Nature” is our differentiated hyperbody, our shared space of bioeconomic (re)production and cosmopolitical (re)action.

9macrina9:

From Means to Ends, From Work to Play, From Number to Pneuma

When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the standard of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased $2.5 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector (the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world)? When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth economy. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, the technoindustrial machine within which our daily lives take place must seek out ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) extracted from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.) in order to sustain its constant growth. The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth economy.

Perhaps it does not matter when money became an idol. It may be more important to recognize how it is that such a fetish is able to take root and sustain itself in the collective psyche. To do this, let us examine the categories through which we perceive the world we live in. Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society mediated by monetary instruments. This mediation takes place primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Among the first questions asked in polite conversation among newly aquatinted strangers is “what do you do?,” as in “what do you do for work?” Work is what earns us money, and money is what makes the world go round. Or so it seems.

Even in physics, the very stuff, or process, out of which everything is “made”–that is, energy–is defined in socioeconomic terms as the ability to do work. Wouldn’t it make more sense–and in fact, wouldn’t it have world-shaking effects–to redefine energy as the ability to play and to creatively reproduce?

Why would it make more sense to say this? Because energy, as Blake put it poetically, is eternal delight; which is to say that energy is not merely the mechanical transfer of force, but the spiritual and emotional conveyance of value.

How would an economy of play work? This has always been the question, if energy is truly disporting in its own light. The human economy has never truly separated from the earth, though it may have made the pretense of such a separation the basis of an imperial fantasy. How can money continue to breath life into the human adventure if its value is detached from the cosmos, from something alive and real? How can merely working for a living motivate us to wake up and bring forth civilization each morning? The ends of all work should always be to secure more time to play. Money is not an end in itself, unless it has become an idol. Working for money is worshiping a false idol. No amount of money or number of notes will ever buy us the pneumatic gnosis we seek.

Physical and Spiritual Energy

Energy. The science of thermodynamics defines it as the ability of a physical system to do work. But in the case of a human being, how does this work relate to the conscious experience of the person performing it? That is, what is the relationship between physical and spiritual energy?

We might start trying to answer this question by comparing gravity and love. Gravity is the physical equivalent of love, giving matter an attraction to itself. Love is often said to be fallen into, much like apples fall from trees. But what is it about the love shared by humans that makes it discriminatory, whereas matter always falls at first sight? Why do people love selectively?

It may seem that this added element of choice and freedom is what distinguishes physical from spiritual energy…

But is love really a choice? Aren’t we, when transfixed by the eyes of another, drawn toward them out of necessity?

Love, like gravity, is the Law.

No one can transgress it without great harm, but such harm is also the engine of involution. Gravity has a counter-balancing force: call it flight. In spiritual terms, flight is the desire to form a face of one’s own, to rise above the melded masses of our ground and home to become a figure, free and known.

Love brings us together, while fear chases us apart. But faces formed by fear are known only when loved. Your own face is invisible until faced with another, when it glows with the warmth of recognition.

Physical energy is the fear that spiritual energy focuses into love, turning round its run away from home.