Towards an Aesthetic Ontology: Beauty, Sublimity, and Infinity

“Two things fill the mind with ever-renewing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind is drawn to think of them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” So says Kant in the conclusion to his Critique of Practical Reason. He goes on to explain that neither the sky above him nor the freedom within him should be considered mere conjectures. Neither is beyond the horizon of conscious experience. We sense the celestial lights above through our eyes, and we sense the moral freedom within through our heart, the innermost source of our self-hood. Kant continues: “The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to the conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”

StarryNight_Posterreworked

I started thinking about Kant’s accounts of beauty, sublimity, and morality after reading Levi Bryant’s recent post on beauty as an absolute value. An absolute value, in Bryant’s sense, is a value that we hold for its own sake as an end in itself. He discusses beauty as one example of such a value and wonders what role it might play in resisting the instrumentalizing tendency of neoliberal capitalism, whereby every aspect of life comes to be valued only in terms of its usefulness or profitability. Bryant suggests that the earlier theological understanding of beauty (i.e., beauty as an index of a divine Creator) must be replaced by an immanent, naturalistic account. He writes:

The question then becomes that of why we find the beautiful beautiful, of why we encounter the beautiful at all.  This is not a question– at least at first –of what we find beautiful.  In other words, it is not a question where discussions of harmony, pattern, and proportion would be appropriate answers.  Again, the question here is not what is beautiful, but why such things would be beautiful to us at all.  What is the ground of the ability to have, as Kant put it, “disinterested pleasure” or the ability to find things beautiful?

To phrase the question in Kantian terms opens the door to a sort of transcendental compromise between earlier dogmatic accounts of beauty as the work of a transcendent Creator and later materialist accounts in terms of evolutionary survival value. It is clear enough to me (and of course to Bryant) that a transcendent Creator offers us little in the way of a rational explanation for beauty. It is just as clear that an account of beauty in terms of its survival value won’t do, either, and for precisely the reasons that Bryant articulates: such an explanation must first translate beauty into instrumental terms as a means to the end of survival. Darwinian accounts of sexual selection help us understand part of the reason male peacock feathers are so ornate, but the underlying causal efficacy of an organism’s perception of and response to beauty remains an unexplained explainer. A further problem is that many interpretations of naturalism forbid the idea of organismic agency or purposiveness, making the perception of beauty underlying sexual selection an even bigger mystery.

There are other interpretations of naturalism, of course. From a Whiteheadian point of view, wherein beauty is the very teleology of the universe, the locus and valence of mystery are shifted elsewhere. Mystery is no longer a problem to be explained, but a reality to be experienced (to paraphrase Frank Herbert). Whitehead’s is an aesthetic ontology, which is to say that aesthetic achievement is the very essence of reality. All order is aesthetic order. To “understand” this order means nothing more or less than to experience its beauty.

Returning to Kant’s famous statement about the starry heavens above and the moral law within, I think we can validate the physical feeling he is attempting to express even if we are forced to reject the metaphysical conclusions he draws from it. If human beings have any moral freedom and worth, it must be the freedom and worth we share with animals. For we are animals. Accepting our creatureliness and our dependence on the ecological networks of Earth doesn’t require that we deny our participation in the infinite. It is our intuition of the infinite, both outside and within ourselves, that generates beauty. Instead of, like Kant, sharply dividing animal aesthesis from moral or spiritual noesis, we can recognize the sublime heights of the heavens and the sublime depths of the heart as equally aesthetic in nature.

Beauty, then, is an end in itself precisely because of its infinite sources. We cannot reach beyond or behind its inner and outer appearances. In this sense, this is an immanent account of beauty. When we try to peer beyond the cosmos outside us, or plumb the psyche within us, we find only more appearances, an infinite progression of appearances. When the intellect tries to grasp the infinity of aesthesis, it slips into an infinite regression. It fails to find an original ground or fundamental reason for the ongoing aesthetic genesis of reality. Only the imagination can intuit the meaning of the infinite aesthetic progression of beauty.

I realize I am disrespecting the differences Kant sought to establish in his Critique of Judgment between the beautiful and the sublime. But part of what an aesthetic ontology requires is that the sublime be de-Kantianized. Kant took the aesthetic “too muchness” of encounters with the sublime (like the starry night) and tried to redeploy them as evidence of humanity’s moral superiority over nature. He comes so close to decentering the human in the face of the sublime depths of the cosmos, and then backs away into artificial moralizing. There is so much more that could be said about all this, but for now I can only muster an ellipsis (and a link some thoughts of mine from several years ago about the links between ethics and aesthetics)…

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.

Centropy, Entropy, and Ethics in the Universe

Levi Bryant recently posted about Entropy. He writes:

Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.

I posted a comment which read:

I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?

To which Bryant responded with:

Matthew,

The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.

To which I responded with:

Levi,

I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.

Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.

Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:

In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.

It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices.  Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother.  Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.

Thinking While Naked

Here is an intriguing article in Wired magazine by Jonah Lehrer. He reflects upon the implications of an experiment attempting to gauge the cognitive significance of nakedness. It looked at how our attribution of agency to others is effected by what they wear and how attractive they are. The results: Pictures of the faces of men were more likely than those of women to be thought of by others (male or female) as rational agents, while those pictures which included bodies of attractive men, and especially of attractive women, were usually judged less capable of agency, but more capable of feeling.

Lehrer introduces the concept of the “redistribution of mind,” the leakage of our theory of cognition out of the head and into the feelings of the whole body. This is especially interesting to me. It suggests that mind is not a disembodied rational agency located at some vanishing point behind or before the material world, or pulsing around in a bundle of very special neurons in the pre-frontal cortex somewhere, but rather it is that which emerges between erotically charged bodies in living/experiential spaces and times. Mind is erotic, a relationship, a process of co-determination and mutual transformation of one with another.

Such an embodiment account of mind still makes agency a bit of a mystery in a world of creatures otherwise swimming in and so conditioned by their experience of other creatures and the outside world. We have to reach into the realm of the spiritual if we hope to find a way out of the dilemma of agency.

Lehrer closes the article by referencing Plato:

“the psychologists propose that humans are actually Platonic dualists, following Plato’s belief that there are two distinct types of mind: a mind for thinking and reasoning and a mind for emotions and passions.”

In the Republic, Plato actually offers a trinitarian and not a dualistic anatomy of the soul. There were the rational and the erotic organs, and a spiritual organ to harmonize the two. In other words, there was a rational soul to tell our bodies “no,” making us skeptical of appearances we don’t trust; there was an erotic or appetitive soul to tell our bodies “yes!” to appearances (other sexy bodies); and there was a spiritual soul to judge between the two in any given case. The spiritual soul is the agent, the one who decides, if all goes according to plan, whether to step back and think (rational soul) or step forward and act (appetitive soul).

Rudolf Steiner spoke often of the relationship of thinking, feeling, and willing to the physiology of the body. It is helpful, I think, to read Steiner’s esoteric perspective right alongside the secular materialism of Wired magazine. It makes the shock of disbelief in the one over the other even more intense, though I can’t say for sure which approach makes more sense to you.

Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop

I walked to the top of Grand View Park here in the Sunset district of San Francisco. I wanted to clear my head by ascending to the mountaintop, where place expands into space and time transforms into history. History, as we know it, has a beginning and an end. Civilizations, and the cosmopolitical habitats they enact, are always a temporary affair. Their spatial constructions of time into the civilizing myths of liberation from “nature,” “the gods,” or “barbarism,” however, are falsifications of time (see Jean Gebser‘s Ever-Present Origin). As scientific cosmology has tried to suggest, it turns out that time has no beginning or end. Time is creation itself. Time is Origin, in Gebser’s terms. Time is “a moving image of eternity,” in Plato’s terms.

From up there, thoughts were produced in me that conceptually crystalized the Occupy movement. I believe I can see more clearly now that it is a planetary movement that did not begin a month or two ago in New York City; it has been in the works in an occult form everywhere forever. Occupy camp activism is a form of occult amplification: the silenced, the unheard, and the invisible are being given a voice, made audible and visible. What had been privatized is being made public again.

Some complain that Occupy remains a leaderless and somewhat amorphous movement. I do not think it is so much amorphous as polymorphous; and it is precisely this protean and processual nature that defines its demand. Its demand cannot be listed like legislative proposals, since the movement is apolitical at heart (at least in the sense that contemporary “politics” survives in the market-subsumed polis of the global corporatocracy). Occupy rejects all political solutions as part of the problem, since they are made only within the context of techno-capitalist civilization. The economics of this civilizational system have been just as deficient as its politics, since the accumulation of money has now come to supersede the exchange of actual energy in importance. We have an economy designed for Empire and corporations, unfit for Earth and its creatures.

Occupy is rejecting this late industrial capitalist “system” from the ground up. The message the movement is trying to articulate is bound up with the question it is attempting to formulate. It goes something like this: “The civilization of old has failed; now, how are we to (re)make the cosmos?” Answering this question is the ultimate creative act, and amidst a world in decay, it requires the utmost courage.

I do not know to what extent my own cosmopolitical (even cosmotheanthropic) angle here could be readily extracted from polling a sample of Occupy supporters, but to my mind, it is cosmic change that is being demanded, rather than cosmetic re-legislation within the existing order. I phrase the question above as one of creative remaking because I believe our task to be at least partially religious in nature, in the sense of the Latin religare, “to bind.” Our task is profoundly artistic, but we cannot create ex nihilo and expect to flourish within the long established ethos of the Earth Community (see Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story). The ecological catastrophe brought forth by industrialism has already shown the dangers and limitations of any supposed “second nature” created atop the first. Kant suggested that “to know the world we must manufacture it”, thereby neglecting the extent to which, both culturally and biologically, we are creatures of the past, shaped and nourished by the words and worlds we inherit from our ancestors, human and -non.

The re-interpretation of tradition is just as important as the critique of tradition. Perhaps it is true, we needed a good dose of nihilism to fully realize the severity of our collective wrong turn, our civilizational sin. The military horrors and political failures of the 20th century, and the coming trauma of ecosystem collapse (due to the compound crisis of climate change and mass extinction), all continue to remind us of the persistence of chaos and injustice. But I think what would be more helpful at this point is a healthy dose of theology, though theology in the interests of re-establishing a humane cosmology. We need constructive philosophy (like Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology, Enactivism, and Process-Relationalism), but not just that. We need a renewed aesthethical orientation, a sense of the Good and of the Beautiful that corresponds with and even informs our understanding of the True. Metaphysics must be thoroughly soaked in aesthetics, but also in prophetics (i.e., something like the cosmo-ethical cries of the Jewish prophets).

Occupy is not just the protest of a dying kingship, it is also the prophecy of a living kinship to come. It is time to descend from the mountaintop, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to proclaim that Empire is dead, and that Earth is dying. We are responsible for their demise, but can also resurrect and re-imagine a new Heaven and a new Earth. As Amos prophesied, “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth (9:7)…[because] they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…they…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth (2:7). “But,” he continues, we are learning to “let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

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.

Soul and World: Fragments written upon reading “Thinking with Whitehead” by Isabelle Stengers

Stengers has succeeded in bringing Whitehead back to life.

Whitehead’s speculative cosmology succeeds, if it does, by avoiding bifurcations between disassociated categories. Instead of placing “subjective illusion” and “objective reality” in irremediable conflict with one another; instead of separating “man” and “nature,” “mind” and “matter,” or “God” and “the World” in order to explain one as determined by the other; instead of over- or under-mining the infinite diversity of creation with a form of reductionism, Whitehead seeks out a coherent metaphysical scheme wherein such differences are made to “presuppose each other so that in isolation they are meaningless” (Process and Reality, p. 3).

Ethics and Physics, or Religion and Science, need not be opposed modes of thought, where one battles the other for explanatory ultimacy. Is not the human activity of physics in some sense for the universe? Is not the scientific endeavor an effort of nature itself to rise up to the level of theory?, to explain and control its own creation?, to storm heaven and steal the vision and power of eternity for the betterment of the present?

“Mankind and the animals with analogous abilities are distinguished by their capacity for the introduction of novelty [in contrast to the givenness of the past]. This requires a conceptual power which can imagine, and a practical power which can effect. The role of sense experiences consists in the fact that they are manageable. The animals evolved and emphasized the superficial aspects of their connexity with nature, and thus obtained a manageable grip upon the world. The central organism which is the soul of a man is mainly concerned with the trivialities of human existence. It does not easily meditate upon the activities of fundamental bodily functions. Instead of fixing attention on the bodily digestion of vegetable food, it catches the gleam of the sunlight as it falls on the foliage. It nurtures poetry. Men are the children of the Universe, with foolish enterprises and irrational hopes. A tree sticks to its business of mere survival; and so does an oyster with some minor divergencies. In this way, the life aim at survival is modified into the human aim at survival for diversified worthwhile experience. The pitfall of philosophy is exclusive concentration on these manageable relations, to the neglect of the underlying necessities of nature,” Modes of Thought, p. 30.

Whitehead here suggests that philosophy, to the extent that it focuses narrowly on the logical necessities of thought alone, risks forgetting the physical conditions (“underlying necessities”) of these thoughts. Whitehead would agree with the materialist that the soul is inextricably bound up with nature, and is an inevitable consequence of the causal efficacy of the complex social organism through which it is actualized. But Whitehead would not agree that the soul is therefore explainable in reference to physical activity, in itself. In a complex organism, the physical activity of hydrogen atoms reflects the inherited values of a somatic environment distinguished from “nature” at large. Inside a living animal, atoms no longer behave in a way relevant to physicists, since they have become conditioned by a local ethos within which they play roles distinct from their activity in stars, galaxies, or laboratory experiments.

The ethical responsibilities of the soul and the physical necessities of nature are not in conflict with one another; rather, the soul’s desires exist by virtue of the universe’s lures. Ethics is not a consequence of Physics, if the physical be conceived abstractly as though made up of vacuous actualities devoid of experience and self-enjoyment. But Ethics may be conceived as conditioned and so implied by Physics if the physical is imagined concretely as a creative rush of subjectivities seeking more beautiful, more virtuous intensity of experience. The Good Life, for Whitehead, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

Teilhard de Chardin, who never tired of contemplating the physics of the soul, here expresses his intuitions about the soul’s relation to digestion:

“The highest speculation and the most burning love are 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 a color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration. There is no doubt that material energy and spiritual energy hold together and are prolonged by something. Ultimately, somehow or other there must be only a single energy at play in the world. And the first idea that comes to mind is to see the “soul” as a center of transmutation, where through all the avenues of nature the power of bodies converges in order to become interiorized and sublimated in beauty and truth,” The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30.

I believe Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity, provides the “something,” and the process of concresence the “somehow or other,” that Teilhard leaves unpronounced. Teilhard was a scientist (at least in this book), and left such speculative statements to the metaphysician. Whitehead was compelled to unmask the general character of the energy at play in the world, and at the end of his imaginative leap into speculative cosmology, he discovered not the transcendent ground of some theory of everything, but a more noble and enjoyable way of envisaging actuality.

Why did Whitehead find it so important to avoid the bifurcation of nature in his speculative scheme? Why was he so careful to avoid creating modes of thought that re-inscribe a dissociation between our experience of subject and object, psyche and cosmos? It seems he was simply seeking coherence, since it is only when life is able to “hold together” despite the continual threat of contradiction and extinction that it becomes beautiful and good. Living actuality is not a given, but an achievement won at the cost of alternatives, and maintained at the cost of the robbery of other actualities of their life. In our contemporary context, where an ecological crisis conditions our every move, enacting modes of thought that hold the Living Earth together are becoming of more than just aesthetic or ethical value. The living existence of our species (and many others) depends upon our coming to think the Living Earth in a more durable and resilient way, since in thinking it we live in it, with it, and upon it.

Scientific Materialism and Consumer Capitalism think and produce nature hastily, with little care for its non-human achievements of community (i.e., its ethical activity). These modes of thought exaggerate a basic truth while forgetting an essential exception: they engage nature as valueless and determined, except for the human, who is free to know and control its processes. Such materialist modes must become imaginative enough to conceive of freedom and matter, the human knower and the thing known, in a more coherent way.

Whitehead provides a template for such a new mode of thought, but its actualization requires a miracle. The propositional feelings buried in his written words must be resurrected and brought into novel contrast with the spirit of the present. His logos must be given life.