Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Episode 6 of The Future Faces of Spirit

Bruce Alderman of Integral Stage has been releasing a multipart video series called “The Future Faces of Spirit.” Other participants include John Vervaeke and Bonnitta Roy.

Here is Alderman’s description of the series and my contribution:

“What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity’s ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

In episode 6 of The Future Faces of Spirit, Matthew Segall draws on the work of Robert N. Bellah and Alfred N. Whitehead to argue for vision of spirituality rooted in play; reintegrated with art, science, and politics; open to transcendence; and inspired by an immanent theology of creaturely divinity.”

Here is my segment:

The Birth of Life & the Future of Consciousness

UPDATE. Here’s a video of our dialogue:


Next Tuesday, October 22nd at 7pm, I’ll be in dialogue with astrobiologist Bruce Damer about his hot spring hypothesis of the origins of life. For Bay Area locals, the event will take place at the Mission Street campus of California Institute of Integral Studies and is free and open to the public. For those who can’t make it in person, here is a link to the livestream on Zoom. After the event I will post a recording here.

My contribution will be to explore from a speculative philosophical perspective what Dr. Damer’s biogenesis hypothesis might mean for contemporary cosmology. Can physicalism/scientific materialism adequately explain the emergence of life and consciousness? My answer is no, it cannot, and that some form of naturalistic panpsychism or panexperientialism does a better job. I will ask what “emergence” might mean for materialist accounts of life and consciousness and critique the idea that conscious living agents could ever “emerge” from inert matter. My sense is that even prior to biological life, physical and chemical processes were already in the business of selecting and remembering improbable possibilities on the way to enhanced complexity and more intense modes of experience and agency. The arrival of progenotes and then living cells certainly ramps up this enterprise, which Damer describes so compellingly in terms of the “PIM” (probability-interconnection-memory) cycle (see his essay on the extended evolutionary synthesis webpage); but I think really making sense of biogenesis will require a new physical ontology that finally leaves dualism and the Cartesian idea of matter behind.EGN1NtyUYAABNUp

Here are some related reflections after attending a lecture Damer recently gave for the Consciousness Hacking Collective in San Francisco:

Theology of Nature Templeton research proposal, shelved : (

Several weeks ago, I submitted a proposal for a Templeton Foundation research fellowship called “God and the Book of Nature: Science-engaged Theology of Nature.”

I just heard back from the review committee that my proposal was not selected.

: (

Oh well. I thought I’d share my cover letter and shelved (for now) research proposal. I do still hope to collaborate with Dr. Bruce Damer (we already have an event scheduled at CIIS this October, about which I’ll share more details soon).


May 28th, 2019

Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion

California Institute of Integral Studies

1453 Mission Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

To the Research Fellowship Review Committee:

Enclosed please find my application for the “God and the Book of Nature” research fellowship. I aim to build a science-engaged theology of nature by applying the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead to newly emerging research into the origins of life. Along with my mentor XXX, I will be collaborating with the origin of life biogeochemist and computer scientist Dr. Bruce Damer. In collaboration with his colleague at the University of Santa Cruz Prof. David Deamer, Dr. Damer has developed the “hot spring hypothesis” of biogenesis that has now become the chief rival to the deep-sea hydrothermal vent hypothesis. In August 2017, Damer and colleagues’ work was the cover story for Scientific American. Empirical research to further test their hypothesis is being undertaken by university teams worldwide. The work is also being presented and discussed at numerous meetings as it may herald a revolution in evolutionary theory, but also carries implications for philosophy and spiritual inquiry. Specifically, the hypothesis suggests that the common ancestor of all of life was not an autonomous individual cell emerging through competition but instead was a common community of collaborating proto-cells. My research proposal involves deepening my understanding of the theoretical and empirical details of Damer’s work and contributing to the articulation of the philosophical and theological implications of this exciting new approach to biogenesis.

I have studied Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism” for more than a decade and have long believed that his critique of the mechanistic abstractions of a by now outdated scientific materialism and his novel understanding of mind’s (and God’s) relationship to nature have much to contribute to contemporary scientific theory and practice. He shows that another kind of naturalism is possible, one that, while remaining fully consistent with the scientific picture, still leaves room for divine action (and passion) and, crucially, makes sense of the possibility of something like scientific consciousness/knowledge emerging in the course of cosmic evolution (whereas most standard naturalisms are forced to conceive of consciousness and scientific knowledge, not to mention religious consciousness, as some kind of improbable anomaly).

In addition to contributing to the academic study of the relationship between science and theology, I would like to shape part of my scholarly output so as to reach a public audience and to influence the wider culture. Our increasingly imperiled civilization desperately needs new sources of meaning if it hopes to survive the fast approaching evolutionary bottleneck caused by modern techno-scientific industrialism. We cannot simply return to traditional religious outlooks, but nor can we jettison these traditions in favor of the new religions of scientism or technologism. Through this research project, I would like to contribute in some small way to the imagination of a new story that integrates spiritual wisdom and scientific knowledge, such that humanity can come to see itself as a participant in a grand evolutionary adventure whose final chapters have not yet been written.

Thank you for considering my application.

Sincerely,
Matthew T. Segall

God and the Book of Nature: Building a Science-Engaged Theology of Nature

Research Fellowship Application

Applicant: Matthew T. Segall, PhD

Scientific collaborator: Bruce Damer, PhD

Proposal Background:

Since his death in 1947 and until quite recently, the impact of Alfred North Whitehead’s self-titled “Philosophy of Organism”1 has been felt predominantly in American theology departments. John Cobb, Jr., David Ray Griffin and their Center for Process Studies in Claremont, California have played a particularly important role in carrying forward the legacy of Whitehead’s thought in the form of process theology. Whitehead’s innovative approach to theological questions has plenty of merits of its own (e.g., its religious pluralism and inclusivity, its intimate panentheistic vision of divine participation in cosmogenesis, Earth evolution, and human life, and its resolution of the problem of evil, etc.), but many students of his thought have long lamented a lack of serious engagement on the part of natural scientists. Whitehead, after all, began his career as a mathematician with a strong interest in physical applications and was right at the center of the relativistic and quantum revolutions of the early 20th century. In the aftermath of these and other paradigm-breaking discoveries across multiple disciplines (in addition to relativity and quantum theory, there was also evolutionary theory and the early phases of what came to be called complexity theory), Whitehead realized the deistic mechanistic materialism science had inherited from the 17th century had become completely inadequate. Science needed a new metaphysical foundation. Whitehead thus threw himself into natural philosophy in search of an alternative ontology more attuned to the universe being described by the latest scientific research. He emerged with a cosmological vision that rejected tired dualisms (e.g., between God and nature, mind and matter, and creation and evolution) and instead affirmed panentheism, panexperientialism, and the creative advance of nature. Re-imagining God’s relationship to nature turned out to be a necessary part of his metaphysical efforts, but Whitehead’s aim was first and foremost to influence the theory and practice of natural science.

In more recent years there has been a surge of interest in Whitehead’s “process-relational ontology” among physicists, biologists, and philosophers of science.2 The most recent application of the process perspective to natural science is John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson’s edited volume Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (2018). Unfortunately, after acknowledging their debt to Whitehead’s process philosophy, they are quick to distance their project from the larger scope of his cosmological vision. They characterize Whitehead as a “liability” due to the “panpsychist foundations” and “theological character” of his work, which they believe are difficult to reconcile with scientific naturalism.3 It is in response to such concerns that the present research proposal gains its relevance.

Research Proposal’s Theoretical Aims:

This proposed research project will focus on the application of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, as well as process-oriented historical precursors like Friedrich Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, to emerging research in theoretical biology. Our aim is twofold: 1) to counter charges like Dupré and Nicholson’s that Whitehead-inspired panpsychism and theology are a liability to serious research in the life sciences by making the case that a naturalistic account of the existence of biological organisms in fact requires a re-imagination of nature in process-relational, panentheist, and panexperiential terms; 2) by collaboratively engaging with biochemist and computer engineer Bruce Damer to demonstrate the relevance of Whitehead’s scheme to Damer’s research (with David Deamer) into the origins of life in the wet-dry cycling of geyser-fed thermal pools.4 Not only does the geochemical cycling process described by Damer et al. provide a specific exemplification of Whitehead’s general metaphysical description of the process of concrescence, Damer’s first person accounts of the visionary experiences and thought experiments that underlie his scientific discoveries are suggestive of a new understanding of divine-creaturely interaction, communication, and participation in a panpsychist cosmos. 

Research Sub-theme:

Our research will be situated primarily within the “Mind and Nature” sub-theme looking at relevance of Whitehead’s process-relational, panpsychist ontology to scientific research on biogenesis. The argument is that closing the gap between physics/chemistry and properly living organization requires coming to see some modicum of mind, experience, and aim as fundamental ingredients in the evolutionary creativity of the universe from the beginning.5 In addition to our already secured collaboration with Bruce Damer, we will seek further collaboration with complexity scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, especially Stuart Kauffman (whose work on autocatalytic chemical systems and evolutionary exaptation dovetails nicely with our Whiteheadian approach).

Given the transdisciplinary scope of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme it will be impossible not to touch on all three of the project sub-themes. Regarding the God and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s panpsychism entails a novel interpretation of divine action in terms of an “initial aim” immanent in the moment to moment experience of creatures at every scale of cosmic and biotic organization (from protons and neutrons, to stars and galaxies, to cells and animals); his approach re-opens the possibility of a new kind of immanent and open-ended teleology in nature that is unlike the deistic design paradigm rightly rejected by evolutionary biology. Regarding the Naturalism(s) and Nature sub-theme, Whitehead’s cosmology obviously requires a complete re-imagination of the metaphysical underpinnings of science. We will be explicit about this and spell out the changes that are necessary to naturalism as it is typically conceived within the materialistic and atheistic mainstream of contemporary science.

Our research will philosophically contextualize both Damer’s novel method of discovery and his theory of biogenesis by critically examining and subverting the generally Kantian strictures of the philosophy of science and much natural theology by drawing on Schelling and Whitehead (both of whom called for a “critique of feeling” to replace Kant’s critique of pure reason). Schelling and Whitehead articulate what Segall has called a descendental aesthetic ontology.6 Whereas Kant imagined mind as the transcendental condition of a merely apparent nature, a descendental aesthetic ontology replants mind, and thus scientific knowledge, within the living processes it attempts to know. Rather than bracketing ontology (and thus accepting critical idealism in place of realism about nature) and resting satisfied with a transcendental epistemology that exempts mind from the laws governing the rest of nature, Whitehead and Schelling’s approach makes clear that many of the epistemological problems plaguing modern philosophy are in fact just disguised ontological issues stemming from the incoherent dualism originating with Descartes. One way of overcoming this dualism entails going back to Kant’s Critique of Judgment and imagining what becomes possible if his analogy between aesthetic judgments of art and teleological judgments of organisms holds constitutively for the objects of scientific cognition. What if artistic geniuses tap into and express the same creative power responsible for organizing the nonhuman natural world? This is of course exactly the move that Schelling makes, but the methodological and epistemological justifications for such a move have not been adequately spelled out, which has allowed it to be dismissed as merely Romantic excess. Whitehead’s detailed systematic treatment of experience, perception, propositional feelings, judgment, etc., makes such dismissals far more difficult. The philosophical groundwork for our Whiteheadian interpretation of Damer’s discovery of a new theory of biogenesis includes articulating a justification of what might be called an “aesthetic turn” in ontology. This framing is another way of getting at what Whiteheadians mean by panexperientialism. Such an ontology would open up novel approaches to both theology and natural science, and perhaps even a cultural renewal of natural theology in our increasingly post-secular age. The evolving, self-organizing cosmos revealed by contemporary natural science is exactly what we would expect from a God who is more like the “poet of the world” (Whitehead) than its transcendent designer. Damer et al.’s approach to biogenesis implies a process of creative evolution that does not involve the implementation of divine plans designed in advance but rather a gradual creaturely groping toward more intense modes of experience goaded by an immanent divine Eros.

Research output:

  1. A two-day public conference in October 2019 at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA featuring Bruce Damer, cosmologist Brian Swimme, Matt Segall and others focused on establishing initial points of contact between Damer’s biogenesis theory and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism.
  2. The submission of a co-authored journal article to a leading journal in philosophy of biology or a more popular outlet that articulates the philosophical and/or cultural implications of Damer’s biogenesis theory in Whiteheadian terms.
  3. A book on Whitehead’s relevance to scientific research on the question of life’s place in the universe.

Research plan/budget:

Funding will be requested (~10,000 Euros) to support: 1) travel between mentor home institute in Madrid and Segall and Damer’s institutions in Northern California, 2) collaborations with Bruce Damer, including research seminars and tutorial sessions to convey the geochemical details and computer modeling grounding his theory, lab time at his home institution UC Santa Cruz, travel expenses for on-site field studies related to ongoing empirical research, and 3) scientific conference-related expenses.

Footnotes

1 See Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929).

See for example these recently published works linking aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy to contemporary physics and biology:

Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology, ed. by John Dupré and Daniel Nicholson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Physics and Whitehead: Quantum, Process, and Experience, ed. Timothy Eastman and Hank Keeton (New York: State University of New York, 2003).

-Michael Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004) and Foundations of Relational Realism (with Elias Zafiris) (New York: Lexington Books, 2013).

-Life and Process: Towards a New Biophilosophy, ed. Spyridon Koutroufinis (Boston: De Gruyter, 2014).

-Shimon Malin, Nature Loves to Hide: Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality, a Western Perspective (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2012).

“Introduction” to Everything Flows by Dupré and Nicholson, 7.

See the cover story of the August 2017 issue of Scientific American, “The New Origins of Life: did volcanic hot springs harbor the first living organisms?” See also a collection of scientific papers at https://www.researchgate.net/project/Origin-of-Life-6

For more a more detailed account of the trajectory of this argument, which includes engagements with the philosophical biology of Hans Jonas, Robert Rosen, Francisco Varela, and Evan Thompson, see Matthew T. Segall’s “On the Place of Life in the Cosmos: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and Contemporary Theoretical Biology” in Intuiting Life: Process Ontology for Biophilosophy (New Castle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, forthcoming 2019); https://matthewsegall.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/on-the-place-of-life-in-the-cosmos-mts-revision-march-18-2019.pdf

See Segall’s dissertation “Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead” (2016); https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1803306347.html?FMT=ABS

Genes v. Organisms in Biological Explanation (responding to the Dawkins v. Weinstein debate)

Here’s the recent debate between Richard Dawkins and Bret Weinstein on the relationship between cultural and biological evolution:

Here are two response videos from me arguing for the relevance of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson et al.’s theory of autopoiesis and Alfred North Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism:

 

Some relevant essays that expand on the ideas I shared in the video:

“Logos of a Living Earth: Toward a New Marriage of Science and Myth for Our Planetary Future”

“The Origin of Organism: The Place of Life in the Cosmos”

“Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision”

Why German Idealism Matters (The Side View)

My friend and colleague Adam Robbert has just launched The Side View. There is a ton of content on the site already, including articles and podcasts. Listen to Adam’s short description of the site’s aim here.

Here’s a link to my contribution, “Why German Idealism Matters,” wherein I briefly lay out the transformative contributions of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.