Next Week: Physics of the World-Soul at the Open and Relational Theology Conference

Next Saturday, Feb. 19 I’ll be hearing from four respondents who will assess my recent book on Whiteheadian cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (SacraSage, 2021).

Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ortline-tickets-219336089147

Schedule:

9am Eastern
Rory Randall, An Open Theist Renewal Theology: God’s Love, The Spirit’s Power, and Human Freedom
– Panelists: Joshua Reichard, Steve Harper, Chris Baker, Monte Lee Rice

10am Eastern
Sharon Baker Putt, A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostle’s Creed
– Panelists: Brian Felushko, Deanna Young, Travis Keller, Annie DeRolf

11am Eastern
Matthew Korpman, Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully
– Panelists: Eric Seibert, Scott Spencer, Tammy Wiese

Noon Eastern
John Sanders, Embracing Prodigals: Overcoming Authoritative Religion by Embodying Jesus’ Nurturing Grace
– Panelists: Mark Umstot, Ryan Lambros Janna Gonwa, Michael Brennan

1pm Eastern
Andrew Davis, Mind, Value, and Cosmos: On the Relational Nature of Ultimacy 
– Panelists: Andre Rabe, Austin Roberts, Sheri Kling, Fidel Arnecillo

2pm Eastern
Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances
– Panelists: Dhawn Martin, Andrew Schwartz, Elaine Padilla, Jea Sophia Oh

3pm Eastern
Matthew Segall, Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology
– Panelists: John Pohl, Tim Miller, Michael Epperson, Tim Eastman

4pm Eastern
Bruce Epperly, Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism
– Panelists: Clemette Haskins, Steve Watson, Tim Reddish, Clarence White

5pm Eastern
John Cobb, Salvation: Jesus’s Mission and Ours
– Panelists: Tripp Fuller, Thomas Hermans-Webster, Donna Bowman, Shaleen Kendrick, Krista E. Hughes

6pm Eastern
Andrew Williams, Boundless Love: A Companion to Clark H. Pinnock’s Theology
– Panelists: Chris Fisher, Shawn Ryan, Linda Mercadante, Sharon Harvey

The Purpose and Profundity of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (a reply to Massimo Pigliucci)

The following is a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s recent blog post about process metaphysics and Whitehead. I keep a relatively close eye on Pigliucci’s philosophical work, as there is plenty of convergence in our views on several issues, including, as he says in his title, “the promise of process metaphysics.”

Despite some convergences, I part ways with Pigliucci on the issue of the place of consciousness in the physical world. A couple of years ago, I penned a defense of panpsychism in response to an article Pigliucci published in The Side View. This divergence is also at play in the present exchange, but it is not front and center. While I have characterized Whitehead’s process-relational ontology as a species of panpsychism (or, better, “panexperientialism,” as David Ray Griffin has suggested), I’ve come to realize that there’s as much distance between his process-relational version of the doctrine and, say, Philip Goff’s substance-quality version, as there is between either and materialism or idealism (see my recent dialogue with Goff). For a recent treatment of the relevance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, see this journal article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020). I won’t be dwelling on this issue here.

In his latest post, I was glad to see Pigliucci engage more deeply with some of Whitehead’s ideas, but his accounts of the motivations and key categories of Whitehead’s scheme are misleading. Whitehead a “dead weight”? I don’t think so. Sure, it is a heavy lift to study and understand his admittedly dense and complex metaphysical scheme, but this will always be true of pathbreaking philosophical work aimed at nothing short of a ground-up reconstruction of the explanatory categories of natural science, and as we’ll see, much else besides.

Pigliucci begins with Heraclitus’ line that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” which could be read as the inaugural statement of the process metaphysical project. But Pigliucci wants to make clear that he rejects the speculative arm-chair approach to metaphysics that he thinks culminated with Descartes’ foundationalist attempt to balance the entire world upon his own thinking. So far so good, as Whitehead also explicitly rejected the idea of metaphysics as a foundationalist project.

Pigliucci goes on to put forward what I think is a pretty good definition of scientism, which is the view that: “natural science [has] replaced metaphysics as the method by which we find out how things are.” Pigliucci does not provide us with an account of exactly what natural science is, which makes sense, as I suspect that would involve doing a bit of metaphysics. Whitehead’s reasons for turning to metaphysics (after a successful career as a mathematician and physicist) provides a revealing contrast to Pigliucci’s triumphalist myth about the replacement of philosophy by science. Whitehead turned to metaphysics precisely because the early 20th century revolutions in physics had revealed the complete inadequacy of the old substantivist, mechanistic ontology that modern science had been presupposing since Descartes. He wrote in 1925:

“The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. …What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.”

Science and the Modern World, p. 25.

Whitehead was no mere critic, however. He was a profoundly constructive thinker whose “Philosophy of Organism” inherited the pluralistic, evolutionary, and radically empirical psychology of William James and systematized it with the findings of quantum and relativistic physics as part of an endeavor “to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (Process & Reality, p. 3). This is the meaning of metaphysics, for Whitehead: generality of description. The search for generalities is not a task that could be replaced by the special sciences; rather, it is an effort to bring interpretive coherence to the findings of natural science so that what we learn through its methods hangs together with the rest of the hard-core common sense presuppositions of human coexistence (e.g., that consciousness and volition are not epiphenomenal illusions).

Of course, metaphysics could not adequately engage in its task without the special sciences. Pigliucci goes on to soften his earlier “replacement thesis” by admitting that there is still a role for metaphysics in the clarification of concepts so as to fit all the scientific puzzle pieces together. He thinks process metaphysics is the best candidate for this job, and here I am in complete agreement.

“By far the most promising approach to that aim is process metaphysics, which — as German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher put it — regards ‘reality not [as] a constellation of things at all, but one of processes. The fundamental ‘stuff’ of the world is not material substance, but volatile flux.’ This is distinct from what has been mainstream metaphysics for a long time. Another pre-Socratic, Parmenides, regarded change as entirely illusory. And the most influential metaphysicians of all time, Plato and his student Aristotle, posited that reality is timeless, made of unchanging essences.”

-Pigliucci

Plato is perhaps the most caricatured philosopher of all time, which makes sense since he left us with only aporetic dialogues, rather than definitive doctrines. In other words, he speaks to us only through the mouths of his characters, which leaves some doubt as to what his true philosophic views are. With that caveat in mind, I’d argue that his cosmological dialogue the Timaeus was more an attempt to synthesize the Heraclitean and Parmenidean views, but that’s a topic for another post. Pigliucci goes on:

“One very strong reason to adopt process- rather than object-based metaphysics is because that’s the way science has been leaning for a while. James Ladyman and Don Ross make the most compelling empirically based case for process metaphysics in their masterpiece, Every Thing Must Go, though they call the resulting approach ‘naturalized metaphysics.’ The idea is that physicists are increasingly showing that there are no objects (i.e., particles) at the bottom of reality but rather, at best, fields, and at the most speculative not even those (Ladyman and Ross talk — provocatively — about basic reality being characterized by ‘relations without relata,’ that is points in a field where the points are not really ‘made’ of anything).”

-Pigliucci

Despite some Whiteheadian quibbles about whether a point-free mereotopology (such as that articulated in Part IV of Process & Reality) would better characterize the relational continuum underlying all apparent “things,” there is a lot of convergence here. Reality is relational all the way down. That said, Whitehead was also an atomist of sorts and did attempt to retain a process-compatible sense of individuality. Unlike Newton’s atoms, which are pushed and pulled around by external relations and transcendently imposed laws, Whitehead’s atoms are intra-dependent (that is, internally related) “drops of experience” or “actual occasions,” whose dipolar becoming can be analyzed in terms of both a physical and a mental pole, and whose sociohistorical coordinations give rise to emergent behavioral habits. Whitehead was only very marginally influenced by that other giant of American philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce, as they seem to have independently arrived at an understanding of physical habit as a less ontotheological rendering of what classical physics defined in terms of “law.” I mention this as it is important to distinguish Whitehead’s experientially-grounded (i.e., radically empirical) process theology from the sort of ontotheology criticized by Kant and Heidegger. In his rejection of eternal “laws” in favor of evolutionarily emergent “habits,” Whitehead’s cosmology is actually a critique of the residual ontotheology of mechanistic physics, which even today unwittingly carries forward the deist assumptions that were intrinsic to Descartes’ and Newton’s conceptions of the order of nature as determined once and for all by the transcendent will of an omnipotent God.

Pigliucci next turns to Whitehead. After a few nods to the value of his “holistic” and scientifically-informed approach to metaphysics, and a dismissive quip about the supposedly anti-scientific basis of panpsychism (which is a total misunderstanding), the criticisms begin. Overall, Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s influence has spoiled process metaphysics.

After introducing Whitehead’s key category—the actual entity or actual occasion—Pigliucci’s first criticism concerns the way Whitehead supposedly divides up nature into artificial levels:

“I don’t think there is any reason to retain this kind of obfuscatory language. … From a scientific perspective, all these levels are part of a continuum, possibly characterized by emergent properties.”

-Pigliucci

This punch totally misses its target, as Whitehead’s is clearly a “flat ontology,” in that it aims to describe all levels of emergent complexity in nature in the same general metaphysical terms as the “concrescence” (another key category) of actual occasions (here is a timestamped video link of my latest attempt to explain “concrescence” using a cartoon). I am not sure what Pigliucci may have read to give him his mistaken assumptions here. In his various metaphysical texts, Whitehead offers different rough sketches of emergent levels in nature (just as natural science does when it speaks the special languages of particle physics, astrophysics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, etc.), but always explicitly acknowledges “the aspect of continuity between these different modes,” the way they “shade off into each other” (Modes of Thought, p. 157). Indeed, Whitehead’s critique of what he termed “the bifurcation of nature” makes his holistic cosmological view even more continuous than a still implicitly dualistic scientific materialism (which places our first-person conscious experience distinctly outside and epiphenomenal to an otherwise merely material nature). Whitehead was led to a variety of panexperientialist ontology precisely because he is committed to a continuity between mind and nature:

“Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature. Accordingly it disregards all those mental antecedents which mankind habitually presupposes as effective in guiding cosmological functionings. As a method this procedure is entirely justifiable, provided that we recognize the limitations involved. These limitations are both obvious and undefined. The gradual eliciting of their definition is the hope of philosophy… [This] sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. [Thus,] we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature. … [We] should reject the notion of idle wheels in the process of nature. Every factor which emerges makes a difference, and that difference can only be expressed in terms of the individual character of that factor. … [We] have now the task of defining natural facts, so as to understand how mental occurrences are operative in conditioning the subsequent course of nature.

Modes of Thought, p. 156

Note that Whitehead admits the erasure of mental functionings from nature is entirely justifiable as a method. The problem is when this useful methodological short-cut slides into a metaphysical presupposition. Whitehead’s mature metaphysical view as articulated in Process & Reality broadly distinguishes between two types of analysis: 1) genetic analysis of the becoming of actual occasions (a concrete view of the universe from within, as it were), and 2) coordinate analysis of the extensive continuum characterizing the relations among these occasions. The latter mode of analysis considers the universe from the outside, as natura naturata (to use the classical Latin terminology for “nature-as-product”), thus bracketing the mental functionings (the natura naturans, or “nature-as-process”) so as to abstractly characterize the behavior of entities in relativistic spacetime. Coordinate division is what makes scientific measurement possible, but in Whitehead’s view, this is only half the story. The universe is a creative advance into novelty, not the mere re-arrangement of pre-existing particles. Thus, his philosophy includes the elaboration of a genetic account of how actual occasions of experience arise out of their past, enjoy themselves in the present, and perish so as to contribute their experiential perspective to the future. A philosophy of nature that considers only the coordinate division of simply located objects in spacetime commits the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” writ large. Not only does it ignore the role of quantum potentia and discreteness in the becoming of nature, it makes of our human mental functions a monstrous aberration in an otherwise well-behaved cosmos. A fully concrete and metaphysically coherent account of the cosmos must make room for mentality, even if the function of mind in the inorganic realm studied by physics and chemistry is nascent enough to be mostly negligible. I say “mostly” because even in particle and astro-physics there’s already plenty of evidence of the creative realization of potentia (i.e., quantum decisions) and a pronounced tilt toward the self-organization of higher and higher grades of complexity (e.g., emergent evolution of protons out of quarks, of atoms out of protons and electrons, of stars and galaxies out of atoms, etc.). The physical world is not a billiard table engaged in the mere rearrangement of pre-existing parts. It is rather an open-ended process of emergence of wholes nested within wholes at every scale, a process that Whitehead characterizes in terms of “societies” of actual occasions. The most widespread such society in our cosmic epoch Whitehead calls the “electromagnetic society,” and its established habits provide a background of order that shelters all the more complex activity taking place among and within us here on Earth. This brief account obviously does not do justice to the intricacy of Whitehead’s scheme, but I’ve tried to outline the main points so as to make clear what Pigliucci’s characterization has badly muddled. For more on the two types of analysis introduced above, check out my lecture on Part IV of Process & Reality.

Next on Pigliucci’s list of criticisms is, unsurprisingly, Whitehead’s concept of God. I’ll quote Pigliucci below and then respond at length to each sentence:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead makes one gigantic exception to his rule that all actual entities are occasions of experience: god. The deity is understood by Whitehead as being both temporal and atemporal, leading to something called process theology. Setting aside that this raises the possibility of logical contradiction, I just don’t think there is any reason at all — and certainly no empirically, science informed reason — to think that any gods exist,  so process metaphysics in the hands of Whitehead here takes a decidedly wrong turn.” 

-Pigliucci

On the charge of theological exceptionalism, I’ll begin by letting Whitehead speak for himself: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process & Reality, p. 343). As was mentioned earlier, Whitehead’s is a flat ontology, wherein everything is to be describable in the same categoreal terms. It follows that “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process & Reality, p. 18). Clearly, Whitehead’s intention was not to make reference to God as a “gigantic exception,” but rather as the “chief exemplification” of an actual entity. To be fair to Pigliucci, this is a matter of some dispute among process theologians, since there are some significant differences in Whitehead’s characterization of the divine entity—the primordial creature of Creativity—as compared to other experient creatures. God’s concrescence unfolds in reverse order to that of finite creatures: God’s mental pole (logically) precedes God’s physical pole. In the case of finite occasions, which always already find their (co)existence amidst that of others,—emerging out of the perished occasions of their past into the subjective immediacy of their present before launching themselves into objective immortality in the hopes of influencing the occasions of the future,—their origination is in the physical pole while their satisfaction is achieved in the mental pole. God’s concrescence begins with the private satisfaction of the mental pole, as “the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality” (Process & Reality, p. 343). In other words, as the first creature of Creativity (which is the ultimate category in Whitehead’s scheme, roughly equivalent to what contemporary physicists refer to as the quantum vacuum), God’s function is to give some definite value or character to the otherwise indefinite field of unrealized logical possibilities that go into shaping an actual world. God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of pure potentials (or “eternal objects”) does not determine precisely how the world comes to be; rather, God’s primordial values function as an erotic lure within the world, a goad to finite occasions of experience so as to tilt cosmic becoming toward the emergence of complexity. Finite actual occasions must decide how to become for themselves, but God’s “initial aim” is inherited in their physical poles as a mirror disclosing to each occasion its own potential for greatness (Religion in the Making, p. 139). God’s physical pole, then, is the divine reception of how each and every occasion of experience decides to actualize itself, in light of its unique situation. God’s primordial mental pole is thus complemented by a consequent physical pole, whereby God functions in the role of “a fellow-sufferer” (Process & Reality, p. 351).

Whitehead insists that his process God is one God, not two. The distinction between primordial and consequent natures, as too the distinction between the mental and physical poles of any occasion, is an exercise in rational abstraction in an effort to better understand the necessary ingredients of concrete reality. Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s attempt to hold together the eternal and the temporal in one creature “raises the possibility of logical contradiction.” Indeed, it is not just in God that Whitehead tries to turn these apparently contradictory notions into a dynamic complementarity: every occasion of experience is said to participate in both concrete actuality (via what he calls “prehension”) and eternal possibility (via what he calls “ingression”). Here we have to address Whitehead’s process-relational critique of Aristotelian substance-property logic, including the sacrosanct rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Whitehead praises and indeed inherits Aristotle’s “masterly analysis of the notion of ‘generation'” (Process & Reality, p. 209), and admits that “probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian” (ibid., p. 51). But in light of contemporary physics, with its emphasis upon agitations of energy and spatiotemporal events, the old Scholastic logic which sought to attach essential or accidental properties to substances has become entirely inadequate. Physics makes no reference to some passive underlying material substance; rather, all is now accounted for in terms of formal relations of relations (as Ladyman and Ross argue). So far so good (I think Pigliucci is on board thus far). Now, when it comes to the logical laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, it is not that Whitehead simply sought to do away with them. This would contradict, as it were, one of his rational criteria for sound metaphysics (i.e., that such a scheme be logical; he also enumerated empirical criteria of adequacy and applicability to experience). To return to the distinction above between a genetic and a coordinate analysis of the universe, Whitehead was perfectly willing to accept that coordinate analysis of the entities of spatiotemporal nature required adherence to the classical laws of logic (else an entity could be said to exist in two places at once, or to exemplify two contradictory predicates, etc.). However, in analyzing the genetic process of an actual occasion’s concrescence, these laws must be held in suspension. This is because the factors that grow together into a concrete entity begin as indeterminate prehensions or feelings, akin to the way quantum potentia exist in a state of superposition prior to the collapse of the wave-function. In this state of suspended decision in the genetic analysis of an occasion, a multiplicity of contradictory elements may coexist. Only once an occasion has achieved its “satisfaction” do the incompatibilities get worked, such that “the actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe” (Process & Reality, p. 44). In the case of God, the process of concrescence is said to be “everlasting,” such that the indetermination is ongoing. The creative advance of the universe thus unfolds within the eternal process of divine indetermination. Not even God knows where we are going, in other words. Still, God’s everlasting concrescence expresses a yearning for ideal satisfaction, realizing an aesthetic harmony of harmonies, which the universe of finite occasions can only ever incompletely realize.

Pigliucci then regresses to a rather tired scientistic argument against belief in “gods.” I say it is “tired” because it totally fails to address the argument underlying Whitehead’s process theology (or that of most philosophically-informed theologians, for that matter). It is just cheap rhetoric meant to reduce the alternative metaphysical approaches of those not seduced by scientism to supernaturalist superstition. Pigliucci pluralizes “gods” because he is imagining that theologians conceive of God as just another stick of furniture within the world, a thing among things (albeit a very big, important, and powerful thing!). While it may be meaningfully addressed to literalist religious believers who idolatrously imagine God as a thunder-wielding sky-father, his is not a fair characterization of how most theological traditions have sought to approach the divine as, e.g., the infinite ground of being (rather than a being among beings). It is no surprise that experimental tests focused on the behavior of beings would turn up no evidence of Being as such. Being is grounding condition or necessary precondition of beings. Now, needless to say, much of this traditional theological language is construed in substantialist terms that have no place in Whitehead’s process-relational scheme. I quote Whitehead’s opinion of traditional theology at length as I think it conveys the extent to which he and Pigliucci may actually share non-belief in the popular image of deity:

“The notion of God as the ‘unmoved mover’ is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as ’eminently real’ is a favourite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism.

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”

Process & Reality, p. 342

Whitehead had no patience for the traditional image of God as an imperial ruler, by whose dictates the lawful order of the world was established. In relation to this God, Whitehead was a proud atheist.

“There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the [other main strands of theological] thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.”

Process & Reality, p. 343

Elsewhere in Process & Reality (p. 207), Whitehead remarks on the urgent importance of secularizing the divine function in the world, by which he meant distinguishing God’s metaphysical import as a cosmological factor from the emotions that characterize human religious life, which have often misled philosophy. The Love exemplified in Jesus is metaphysically repurposed by Whitehead into the divine function’s mode of participation in the world, where it works to persuade (rather than coerce) finite actual occasions toward the most beauty that is possible for them in their temporal situations.

So why does Whitehead find it necessary to make reference to a divine function in his cosmological scheme? It has nothing to do with any religious desire to believe in God. This sort of belief, though it may be of tremendous sociological importance (e.g., as a form of group selection among humans), is not what motivates Whitehead’s theological innovations.

The Whiteheadian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (former collaborator of Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine) argues in her book Thinking With Whitehead that, while God is the keystone of his entire cosmological scheme (i.e., the chief exemplar of his categories), he nonetheless remained unsatisfied with his own thinking concerning the nature of the divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent or finally complete (indeed, he was well aware of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and so approached “system” asymptotically as a form of philosophic “assemblage” [see Modes of Thought, p. 2]). His understanding of divinity was always an open-ended work in progress meant to be picked up and re-worked by inheritors of his thought who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating the divine ground of existence matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God (or his soul’s God-feeling). It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of or lack of evidence for a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy—psychological and societal—of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the intuition of holiness by human hearts (which some call “God,” others “Buddha-nature,” “Allah,” “Brahman,” etc.) implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But as a matter of anthropological fact it must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God (etc.) was not merely a scientific hypothesis meant to explain the causal nexus of worldly events, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially). It is only after the Scientific Revolution and the entrance of “modernity” that religion began to be construed as a distinct domain of human existence, and that God came to be construed as a thing to be believed in, or not.

When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life, the formation of Earth, and the unfolding of the larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness. It means considering the conditions making possible a world wherein something like human thinking, feeling, and willing are possible. For Whitehead, these conditions are cosmological (not simply cognitive, as in Descartes or Kant). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology breaks free from the epistemic chains of most modern philosophy, eschewing foundations and making do instead with conceptual coherence and fallible pragmatic adequacy. His cosmological scheme makes room for both subjects and objects, giving logical nor temporal priority to either. Subject and object are to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. “Objectivity” in the sense of an unbiased scientific appraisal of reality doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether each subject is able to creatively respond to the objectified past, thus participating in the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. In such a Whiteheadian universe, truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.

This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Pigliucci, are led to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to (or worse, a “dead weight” upon) metaphysics. So far as it goes, I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the abstract possibilities of reality abstracted from any concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate category of his scheme, demoting a no longer all-powerful God to the status of its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize—that is, when I seek out participatory understanding of the order and harmony of the actual world that we inhabit.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for scientific consideration. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that our modern consciousness has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the human soul experienced no separation between the world’s Logos (=meaning) and its existence (=facticity), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.

Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature, or mind separable from matter. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.

A review of Michael Hogue’s “American Immanence: Democracy for an Uncertain World” (2018)

MICHAEL S. HOGUE, American Immanence: Democracy for An Uncertain World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018: 238 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy and Religion Department, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

Michael Hogue has written a timely theopolitical intervention drawing from (and contributing to) the American stream of philosophy in service of democratic and spiritual renewal. By the time American Immanence was published in 2018, humanity’s longest running national experiment in democracy was already embroiled in what Hogue (following Robert Bellah) calls “its fourth major trial” (2). Each of the last four centuries has seen the United States thrown into an epochal crisis of identity and destiny that tests and transforms our bonds as a people. The great trial of the eighteenth century was formative: the Revolutionary War. The nineteenth century crisis, the Civil War, was seeded by the moral contradictions implicit in the first: American colonists won political freedom from the British Crown on the basis of Enlightenment values only to turn around and build a society that not only tolerated native genocide and African enslavement but actively engaged in them as a matter of official state policy. The twentieth century brought the rise of America’s nuclear powered global military empire in the wake of the world wars as well as the civil rights crisis of the 1960s, which finally gave legal and political substance to the nominal freedom won in the prior century. As America stumbles into the third decade of the twenty-first century, its citizens continue struggling to responsibly inherit the unresolved collective traumas of their history. The fourth national trial is also challenging us to develop a new consciousness of our shared future vulnerabilities. All the old moral contradictions are still making the news. But something wickedly novel has emerged that recontextualizes everything.

Hogue’s book takes a step beyond current partisan divides by reminding us of the emergent planetary context of our shared political life. Whether first marked by the appearance of symbolic consciousness, agriculture and cities, colonization, industrialization, nuclear energy, or the microchip, there can be no doubt that we now live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch dominated by human modes of production and their unintended climatic blowback. The wave of reactionary nationalism that carried Trump into office is but the latest symptom of a more all-encompassing spiritual and ecological emergency.

For Hogue, the Anthropocene brings an end to the era of human exceptionalism, as all who had been externalized (poor and marginalized people, as well as the climate, the soil, the rainforests, etc.) are now rushing back to reclaim their agency. Gaia (or the Earth System, if you prefer) is not passive before the industrial projects of global capital. The reasons and desires shaping our political and economic lives are inescapably entangled with and thus limited by the flow of energy around the Earth, such that there are thermodynamic conditions of human freedom. Humans are evolved and evolving mammals who make useful tools that remake us in turn. Our moral ideals and social order did not arise ex nihilo from Zeus’ forehead. The history of human cultural evolution cannot be told in abstraction from its energy extraction regimes (foraging, farming, fossil fuels, etc.) (70). Concomitant with the increased awareness of the material and biotic conditions making human consciousness possible, fissures in the ideological matrix of modern liberal secularism are widening. While some may feel suffocated by the deluge of dire factors weighing upon the human future[i], Hogue seeks to fill the postliberal, postsecular gaps in the social imaginary with new theopolitical possibilities (10).

Drawing upon what he calls the American immanental tradition (particularly William James, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, and their more recent interpreters), Hogue reimagines the social and political role of theology in more pragmatic and world-loyal terms, shifting away from traditionally religious obsessions with the afterlife and more recent “death of God” theologies to focus instead on “natal concern for the complex creativity immanent within the world and emergent through nature” (14). Defining the political as the domain of ongoing, open-ended negotiations of power and value in the context of common life (15), Hogue sets to work in chapter 1 demystifying the “redeemer symbolic” that has functioned throughout American history to legitimize certain theopolitical conceptions of power and value rooted in a dual logic of exception and extraction. This moral logic is typified by the elevation of a savior (human, divine, or both) to a special ontological status exempt from the normal conditions, contingencies, and constraints of creaturely coexistence and authorized to extract value and externalize cost in service of the redemption of a chosen people (29). Hogue traces the destructive effects of this symbolic constellation through its colonial, national, imperial, and neoliberal phases. While historians may prefer thicker descriptions of the events described, Hogue’s sketch suits his insurrectionist purposes. He begins by using the political theory of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to elucidate the anti-democratic decision-making and environmental racism of former Michigan governor Rick Synder, which precipitated a still ongoing humanitarian crisis in the impoverished, mostly Black city of Flint. The tragedy in Flint provides a synecdoche for the longer historical arc of American exceptionalism, from America’s Biblically coded ex nihilo creation story (31) to Trump’s election as the “apotheosis of [neoliberalism],” such that “capitalism has become a sacred crusade, [with] the market as the model of all other social relations” (50). 

Chapter 2 unpacks the wicked entanglements characterizing the Anthropocene, detailing the intimate but until recently unacknowledged bonds between humans and the Earth. Among the most striking entanglements is that European colonization of the Americas may have left a mark on the atmospheric record: after disease ravaged and displaced indigenous populations were no longer able to manage the forests, a precipitous reforestation of the Western hemisphere concentrated enough CO2 to at least contribute to the emergence of a mini-ice age in Europe (57). Hogue favors interpretations of the Anthropocene that identify it as primarily a colonial phenomenon driven by industrial growth capitalism. Hogue amplifies scholars like Eileen Crist (61), Jason W. Moore (62), and Dipesh Chakrabarty (64) who challenge the name chosen by geologists to mark this epochal transformation. Moore’s proposal of “Capitalocene” better captures the historical reality (and is no more infelicitous than the current misnomer) (63). 

Chapters 3 and 4 are the theoretical heart of the book. Hogue brilliantly reconstructs viable concepts of power and value in the context of Dewey’s pragmatic naturalism, James’ radical empiricism, and Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy. These chapters warrant deep engagement from process-oriented thinkers. I only have space to critically address one issue: Hogue’s treatment of God as both concept and symbol. While he champions Whitehead’s aesthetic and “grassroots” (97) approach to metaphysics as “a blueprint for deep social change” (99), Hogue questions whether Whitehead’s process theology obeys its stated embargo on ontological exceptionalism. While Whitehead demotes God to the status of a creature of Creativity like all others, God’s creatureliness retains a special status in the universe as the most ultimate (in its primordial role as valuer of eternal possibilities) and most intimate (in its consequent role as fellow sufferer and tragic poet). For Hogue, Whitehead’s insistence upon a God who is “constantly concrescing, never satisfied, and nonperishing” (111) raises the suspicion that he may be smuggling ontotheological contraband. But rather than offering a sustained rebuttal of the “metaphysical necessity” of Whitehead’s God concept or divine function, Hogue focuses instead on the “pragmatic religious sufficiency” of such a God symbol (112), determining that contemporary political theologians are better off inheriting “Whitehead without God” in service of “a fuller, more vital, religiously world-loyal appreciation for the creative process of reality” (113). 

While pragmatic considerations of the individual and social function of religious symbolism are essential, I do not think we can so neatly divide metaphysics from social praxis. There is some risk in overapplying Deweyan instrumentalism in search of a “useful” image of God that we end up reinstituting the very anthropocentrism Hogue means to overcome. Hogue nowhere mentions the essential role of Whitehead’s divine function in granting relevant novelty to finite occasions of experience, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by the onrush of unfiltered infinite Creativity. It is not clear that Whitehead’s scheme of prehending and concrescing actual entities remains coherent if “the primordial created fact”[ii]has been excised (or misunderstood as a “metaphysical necessity”). While the contingency of cosmic and earthly evolution cannot be denied, it is just as evident that the course of nature’s creative unfurling displays a tendency toward organized complexity. Where does this tendency to self-organization originate? Surely not in human symbol systems, which are rather an expression of it. Hogue suggests the creative advance can be sustained merely by the combinatory effects of finite occasions of experience, without any need for God or eternal objects. He goes on to argue that “the potential for novelty [would then be] ontologically distributed through the cosmos rather than concentrated within God’s primordial aspect” (111); but on my reading, Whitehead’s divine function is already radically distributed in the form of an “initial Eros” providing “the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness.”[iii] It is also not clear how reference can still be made to “potential” (and in particular, relevant potentials) in a universe composed only of actual entities and sealed off from the ingression of eternal objects and divine lures.

Nor am I convinced that Hogue’s pragmatic emphasis on natality in the face of death adequately addresses the practical and existential concerns of the growing masses of people suffering through the current multiform planetary catastrophe. While it is true that some sects of Christianity verge on the status of death cults for their overemphasis on crucifixion, sin, and the need for otherworldly redemption, our religious imaginaries would be equally diminished by an exclusive focus on natality without regard for the moral import of death and the afterlife (or our images of it). Our religions must integrally address the miraculous facts of birth and death in their symbolic formations lest the encompassing divine mystery of human life be obscured. It is not clear to me that, on pragmatic grounds, belief in some kind of afterlife necessarily diminishes world-loyalty. A belief in reincarnation, for instance, can be construed as superlatively loyal. 

In the closing chapter, Hogue turns to Grace Lee Boggs in an effort to inspire a theopolitics of lasting annunciatory revolution in place of more short-lived denunciatory rebellions (153). Hogue’s book makes an important contribution to the task of disrupting and demystifying the dominant symbolic complexes that have shaped our collective emotions and habits for centuries. Whitehead warned almost a century ago that “societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows”[iv] (quoted by Hogue, 98). Hogue has deftly heeded this warning by showing how reverence and revisioning can coexist. 


[i] A team of Israeli scientists recently calculated that the total “anthropogenic mass” (overall material output of human activities) has now reached or exceeded the total living biomass of Earth at approximately 1.1 teratonnes. See Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5

[ii] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

[iii] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 139. 

[iv] Whitehead, Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, 88. 

Whitehead’s Final Interpretation of Reality: God and the World

Whitehead tells us at the start of the final part of Process & Reality (“Final Interpretation”) that the chief danger in philosophy is narrowness in the selection of evidence. For many modern, scientifically inclined philosophers, this narrowness has taken the form of an all too easy rejection of the world’s religious traditions and the religious experience which gave rise to and continues to inform them. Intellectual chauvinism has led many modern scientific materialists to claim that, given the available scientific evidence, atheism is the only rational position. From Whitehead’s point of view, the history of religious experience is part of the data that any adequate cosmological scheme must incorporate. There is something of great philosophical significance in the religious and spiritual intuitions of human beings, even if these intuitions represent “exceptional elements in our conscious experience,” as Whitehead admits (PR 343). He also reminds us that “the present level of average waking human experience was at one time exceptional” among our ancestors (AoI 294). It is the job of philosophy to elucidate the significance of these rare mystical experiences, to find a systematic place for them in the wider scheme such that the average level of our species’ waking consciousness may continue to deepen.

Philosophy has tended to collapse reality into one or the other of the “ideal opposites” explicated by Whitehead: Permanence and Flux. Plato, for example, over-emphasized the “eminent reality” of permanence by raising his Eternal Forms above the physical world of ever-shifting sensory experience. The world of Ideas was considered ultimate, while the world of physical sensations was demoted to “mere appearance,” or worse, “illusion.” On the other end of the philosophical spectrum, David Hume completely disregarded what Whitehead refers to as “the everlasting elements in the passage of fact” (PR 338). For Hume, only sensory impressions are real, while ideas are merely agglomerations of impressions. All is flux; permanence is an illusion.

Whitehead’s more integral goal is to find a way to think these ideal opposites in a complementary way, such that each is understood to require the other for its meaning. For Whitehead, “perfect realization” is not a timeless perfection (as it was for Plato); rather, perfection “implants timelessness on what in its essence is passing” (PR 338). This is another way of expressing the meaning of the ingression of eternal objects into actual occasions. Think of a sunset: its beauty is haunted by eternal values even as the sun continues to sink below the horizon into darkness. Its passing, its perpetual perishing, somehow enhances its eternal beauty, rather than subtracting from it. There is perhaps something tragic in this interplay between eternal value and temporal activity, but from Whitehead’s point of view, tragedy may indeed be the highest form of beauty that our universe is capable of realizing.

Whitehead defines the “religious problem” (i.e., the general existential issue that all religions attempt to address each in their own way) as follows: “whether the process of the temporal world passes into the formation of other actualities, bound together in an order in which novelty does not mean loss” (PR 340). One of the profound dilemmas of human experience is that, while we crave novelty, we are also haunted by the loss of the past. In Whitehead’s process theology, one source of evil arises from the fact that the past fades, that time has the nature of “perpetual perishing.” Thus, one of God’s functions in the world is to preserve the past (this is God’s consequent nature). God is not an “unmoved mover” or an “imperial ruler,” but a “fellow-sufferer who understands” (PR 351). Whitehead says that God does not create the world, he saves it: God’s infinite patience allows for the preservation of all our sufferings, sorrows, failures, and triumphs. Nothing that occurs in the universe is lost; all is taken up into God’s experience to become unified with his consequent nature. This grants all actual occasions a kind of immortality, though it is not the personal sort promised us by traditional interpretations of Christian heaven. Each actual occasion of experience, though it may be trivial in the value it achieves in itself (if it is a puff of smoke in far off empty space, for example), in perishing becomes an immortal contribution to the greater end realized in God’s ever-enriched, ever-deepening consequent nature. God prehends each finite actual occasion not only for what it is (thus, God shares in each occasion’s world view), but for what it can be within God’s perfected nature. The only immortality we enjoy comes from the sense of transcendent value we experience as we perish beyond ourselves and pass into the eternal life of God.

God’s other function in the world (God’s primordial nature) is to provide the “initial Eros” or “eternal urge of desire” that lures each finite actual occasion toward the most beautiful possibilities available to it given its local circumstances. God’s primordial nature conditions the otherwise unlimited potentialities of Creativity, ordering the realm of eternal objects so as to make this otherwise infinite sphere of potential relevant to each actual occasion’s needs. Actual occasions are not determined by the initial aim provided by God: they still have creative independence from God (God, too, is a creature of Creativity). But God assists finite occasions in their decision as to how to concresce by preventing them from being overwhelmed by the entire infinite array of possibilities all at once. The “initial aim” provided by God grades these possibilities so those that are not immediately relevant are largely negatively prehended by the occasion in question. All particular occasions of experience presuppose the conceptual order provided by God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of eternal objects. God presupposes only the general metaphysical character of the creative advance.

In the final chapters of Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead articulates the same ultimate interpretation, but now in terms like Beauty, Adventure, and Peace instead of using theological language. He tells us that the purpose of the universe is the production of beauty. He tells us that beauty is more fundamental than truth, and that truth’s importance arises because of its beauty. This is not to say that truth (or the conformation of appearance with reality) is unimportant; it is rather that truth without beauty is, in a general metaphysical sense, boring. That is, it lacks importance, it fails to increase the intensity of value realized in the universe, and instead just reiterates the obvious. Similarly, beauty without truth is shallow, since it fails to penetrate to the deeper feelings inherent in the cosmic process: “The truth of supreme beauty lies beyond the dictionary meaning of words” (AoI 267). Beauty without truth is merely pleasing appearance. True beauty is what occurs when appearance elucidates and amplifies the finer textures of reality for experience.

Whitehead defines art as the “purposeful adaptation of appearance to reality” (AoI 267). Consciousness, which results from a heightened contrast between actuality and ideality in an occasion of experience, is that factor in the universe that renders art possible. In some sense, consciousness itself is an evolutionary expression of nature’s artistry. In other words, it is via artistic expression that nature has educated itself by growing more conscious. Said otherwise, art is the appropriation by consciousness of the infinite fecundity of nature. Art, Whitehead tells us, is a little oblivious as to morals. It focuses, instead, on adventure. From the perspective of artistic creation, the Day of Judgment is always with us: art is in the business of “[rendering] the Day of Judgment a success, now” (AoI 269).

Whitehead defines Peace as a trust in the efficacy of beauty. We achieve consciousness of Peace when we rest in that “deep feeling of an aim in the Universe, winning such triumph as is possible for it” (AoI 286).  Peace requires of us that we find some balance between our stoic acceptance of the impersonal order of the cosmos and our devotion to loving relationships of a more personal sort.

‘Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine’ by Alan Lightman

[Update 4/19: listen to the interview here]

On Thursday at CIIS, I’ll interview physicist and novelist Alan Lightman, author of the just published Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (2018). As of this writing, Lightman’s book is #1 in Metaphysics on Amazon.com.* 

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Lightman begins his reflections in a cave in Font-de-Gaume, France, famous for its adornment of ochre and charcoal painted animal forms left behind by its long deceased Paleolithic inhabitants. Lightman’s cave visit inspires musings about how these primal people may have imagined the meaning of their existence. It is as though our species has always been inspired by two great mysteries (though each age further refines its understanding of them): by the unconscious depths within our psyches and by the ever-expanding edges of the evolving cosmos. We are lured deep into dark labyrinthine caves to paint Living Forms on fire-lit walls, and we are drawn skyward toward ancestral light in an attempt to calculate the spiraling of stars. Creation and discovery, art and science. Homo sapiens seems caught in a “necessary tension” between the two. With one foot aloft in a spiritual world of eternal Absolutes and the other firmly planted in a perpetually perishing material world, we stumble along through history.

Toward what? 

Lightman doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but his ruminations functioned to heighten my sense of the importance of the questions. Is there any meaning in it all? Or is it just material? Even if it is all just material, isn’t it still beautiful, anyway? Depending on our personal proclivities, the existential tension produced by such questions can either release us into enchantment with mysterious paradox or entrap us in the frustration of irresolvable contradiction. Our nature is not a unified essence. We are tripartite: artists striving to enjoy and express nature’s beauty, scientists trying to explain its necessary truths, and priests longing to embrace and be embraced by its goodness. Expression, explanation, embrace. Beauty, truth, goodness. Art, science, religion. How are these human ideals connected? Must one or the other of them dominate, or is some integral harmonization possible? Can our search for hard scientific truth be made to cohere with our longing for meaning and our love of beauty? 

Lightman moves from curiosity concerning the spirituality of the ancients to recounting his own mystical experience. One night, while he was piloting a small boat on the way to his cabin on Pole Island, he was struck by the desire to turn off the lights and cut the engine of his vessel. He laid down on the deck to gaze up at the stars in silent contemplation. It wasn’t long before the boat, his body, and any sense of separation from nature dissolved. He began to feel like he was “falling into infinity.” A spiritual sensation of cosmic kinship with the stars overtook him. 

Unlike many theists, whose faith in a personal God originates in such experiences of overpowering transcendent unity, Lightman did not draw religious conclusions from his celestial vision. He remains committed to a purely scientific view of the world, a view he has held since his childhood experiments with petri dishes and pendulums. He references Freud’s reductive view of such “oceanic feelings,” accepting that his experience of the infinite may be nothing more than an infantile desire to crawl back into his mother’s womb. Despite this possible interpretation, his personal experience of being swallowed whole by the sky has allowed him to at least understand the power and allure of religious belief.

“The materiality of the world is a fact, but facts don’t explain the experience.”

Lightman admits that even science is founded on a kind of faith, a faith in what he calls “the Central Doctrine of Science,” that all physical events are governed by universal and necessary laws, or mathematical patterns, that hold everywhere in observable time and space. Because of this scientific faith, he can imagine no “miracles,” or seemingly unexplainable supernatural events. Any such event, while perhaps surprising at first, should be treated as nothing more than an opportunity to refine and expand the laws of physics.

He contrasts the theological certainty of Augustine with the geometrical certainty of Euclid. In Lightman’s view, Augustine’s certainty, rather than a product of divine revelation, is nothing more than fervently held personal opinion. Science, on the other hand, is empirically validated and mathematically proven. 

“Theoretical physics is a temple built of mathematics and logic and aesthetics.”

Lightman contrasts the process of scientific discovery with that of artistic creation. Whereas the artist’s creativity, even if rooted in some sort of transcendent experience, remains purely subjective or internal, transcendent moments of discovery in science are both inner and outer, at once subjective and objective. Scientific inspiration has a “vital connection to the physical world,” and thus operates as a kind of “double discovery”: the inner mental world aligns with and thus reveals to consciousness the mathematical truth of the outer material world.

Lightman recounts the history of modern science and the way its discoveries decentered and humbled the human being. After Copernicus, Kepler, Bruno, Galileo, and Newton, it became more difficult for humans to imagine themselves as the uniquely special creation of a personal God. We now know (as Bruno was among the first to speculate) that there are countless other planets that are potentially habitable. Life, even intelligent life, may be pervasive in the universe. We are hardly special.

Lightman views death not as an on/off switch, but as a gradual process of disassembly of the atomic assemblage that, for a time, constitutes who and what we are. Consciousness, he wagers, is just an illusion, a word we use to describe the “mental sensation” of electrochemical flows of neurons in the brain. He claims to be “content with the illusion of life,” with the idea that he is but a “self-referencing machine.” Strangely, however, he is a machine with feelings. Even if illusory, our “mental sensations” remain undeniable. Lightman reframes Descartes’ argument for the reality of the soul: instead of “I think, therefore I am,” it becomes “I feel, therefore I am.” He accepts that, since he cannot escape the feeling of being alive, of life’s joys and sorrows, it hardly matters whether he is actually a soulless machine or not. He may as well find ways to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Despite the illusory nature of consciousness, the neural sham of selfhood, Lightman thinks morality can still be grounded on this simple hedonistic principle.

Lightman ponders the source of our universe’s apparent “fine tuning,” the fact that, were any of the fundamental physical constants even the slightest fraction different from their observed values, life and consciousness could never have emerged. The multiverse theory is offered as one possible explanation, that is, that our universe is just one of infinitely many universes to have randomly emerged from the quantum vacuum, and we just happen to be in one of the rare worlds where the constants aligned just right so as to produce creatures capable of reflecting on this fact. But since it is impossible to test whether or not other universes exist, and because the theory offers a pseudo-explanation rooted in pure chance rather than causal necessity, Lightman is unsure whether it can really be considered scientific. In the end, when physical science reaches the question of the origin of the universe, of why there is something rather than nothing, Lightman admits that philosophy and religion still have a role to play.

While I have some problems with his view of humanity’s place in the universe, I appreciate Lightman’s acknowledgement that philosophy, and even religion, still have a place in human life (at least so long as they avoid making false claims about the physical world). This is far better than some popularizers of science, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Richard Dawkins, who tend to dismiss philosophy and ridicule religion.

I would like to ask Lightman whether he thinks we could ever finally define the meaning of “physical” without doing metaphysics. Physicists can bracket many of philosophy’s more nebulous questions to pursue their precisely defined experimental measurements and build their mathematical models, but at the end of the day, their theoretical definitions inevitably fade off into metaphysics around the edges. I have a few philosophical objections to some of what Lightman seems to take to be incontestably scientific claims. He sometimes wanders into metaphysics without explicitly realizing it, particularly when he discusses consciousness and the mind/body problem. 

Lightman emphasizes the mere materiality of everything we experience: our personal identity is nothing but neurochemistry; the enchanting beauty of an island-enveloping fog is really just minuscule droplets of water adrift in the wind; the magical bioluminescent shimmering of the ocean is just little bugs in the water, etc. “It’s all material.”

He grants that “the human body is the most amazing and baffling phenomenon of the material world,” but still, he reminds us, it is all just molecules and chemicals, just atoms out for a swerve in the void.

Nearly a century ago, just as the relativistic and quantum revolutions in science were beginning to sink in, another mathematical physicist-turned-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead offered an alternative reading of the scientific evidence:

“It is the accepted doctrine in physical science that a living body is to be interpreted according to what is known of other sections of the physical universe. This is a sound axiom; but it is double-edged. For it carries with it the converse deduction that other sections of the universe are to be interpreted in accordance with what we know of the human body” (PR 119).

“We think of ourselves as so intimately entwined in bodily life that a man is a complex unity–body and mind. But the body is part of the external world, continuous with it. In fact, it is just as much part of nature as anything else there–a river, or a mountain, or a cloud. Also, if we are fussily exact, we cannot define where a body begins and where external nature ends” (MT 21).

“The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature…Analogous notions of activity, and forms of transition, apply to human experience and to the human body. Thus bodily activities and forms of experience can be construed in terms of each other. Also the body is part of nature. Thus we finally construe the world in terms of the type of activities disclosed in our intimate experience” (MT 115).

I am in agreement with Lightman that Descartes’ mind/body dualism is unacceptable. Somehow, the mental activities disclosed in our personal experience must be intimately connected with the physiological activities of our body. Like Lightman, I reject vitalistic interpretations of living organisms, where some extra spirit or vital force is thought to inhabit and organize the material body. Physical activity is the same, whether it takes place inside or outside the skin of a living organism. It’s all matter. But “just” matter? “Mere” matter? “Nothing but” matter? Why must we take such a deflationary view of materiality when, as the evidence of our own intimate experience makes clear, matter is capable in some of its forms of nothing less than conscious reflection and intelligent deliberation? What is to prevent us, like Whitehead, of generalizing from our own experience so as to recognize that all matter is to some extent experience-imbued?  

Even if we were to accept Lightman’s deflationary view of matter as just dead stuff, and of our consciousness as a linguistically produced illusion, we are still left having to explain how mere molecules could give rise to the illusion of consciousness. Whether the mind has real causal influence, or is merely an epiphenomenal hallucination, how is it that neurons generate mental sensations at all? Feelings arise as self-evident, with their own phenomenological warrant, regardless of any materialist conjectures regarding their real underlying causes. Even if they were ultimately “illusory,” reducible to some purely material level of reality, we still feel them. The “illusion” at least appears, and is thus real enough to require explanation. But I’ve yet to come across a scientific theory of how extensional lumps of matter could produce even the illusion of emotions and mental intentions. Rather than trying to solve this “hard problem,”  what is to prevent us from accepting Whitehead’s converse deduction, that our bodily experience grants us insight into the intrinsic nature of matter, a nature that the overly abstract Cartesian view of its extrinsic nature totally misses? What if matter is itself somehow intrinsically mindful or sentient, and gradually increases its experiential intensity as more complex organic forms evolve? Such a view would in no way contradict the known scientific evidence. It just offers an alternative metaphysical interpretation of what we already know about the physical world, an interpretation that allows us to avoid the absurdity of having to deny the reality of our own most intimate experience of being alive. Instead of the reductive nihilism of eliminative materialism, why not the re-enchantment of evolutionary panpsychism?

Such an alternative interpretation is strengthened by revisiting the origin story of modern science. The early modern founders of the scientific worldview were not as soberly positivistic as they are often made to seem. Copernicus’ acceptance of the heliocentric theory was motivated not by its improved predictive power (Ptolemy’s model remained more accurate until Kepler’s and Newton’s later adjustments), but by his spiritual commitment to Neo-Platonism.  Similarly, Kepler perceived not just mathematical harmony in the heavenly orbits, but their archetypal music. His astronomical science was practiced right alongside his astrological divination. Galileo, too, was a practicing astrologer. His book Starry Messenger includes a dedication to Cosimo de’ Medici that details the prominent placement of Jupiter in his natal chart.Giordano Bruno was a panpsychist magician (not to mention a political radical). Newton was an alchemist. Sure, we could dismiss their strange mystical proclivities by saying they were all transitional figures, not yet fully modern. But we could also acknowledge that an enchanted cosmology need not preclude scientific investigation. Indeed, in the case of these early founders, it seems to have motivated it!

For these early scientists, the lawful mathematical order of the universe was highly suggestive of its intelligent construction by God. From Whitehead’s perspective, there is a direct line of descent from the medieval theological doctrine of an omniscient and omnipotent God concerned with and in charge of every detail of the created world to the modern scientific faith in the lawful ordering of nature (“faith in the possibility of science is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology” [SMW 13]).

Lightman’s compromise between science and religion has it that the former concerns objective truths about the physical world, while the latter concerns subjective or personal truths about the spiritual world. The truths pursued by each need not compete since they exist in entirely distinct domains. While this position, similar to Stephen J. Gould’s notion of non-overlapping magisteria, is far superior to the aggressive atheism proffered by the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris, I prefer to seek a more integral solution that situates human spirituality within the same evolving cosmos known to science. Rather than two worlds, one physical and the other spiritual, I inherit Schelling’s view:

“Nature is visible Spirit; Spirit is invisible Nature.”

This is not to say that the claims made by religious believers ought to be treated as epistemologically equivalent to the claims of natural scientists, especially when it is a question of experimentally testable hypotheses. If the claims of a religion are in conflict with those of a widely accepted scientific fact or theory, it is religious dogma that must bend. Whitehead again:

“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development” (SMW 234).

That said, modern materialistic cosmology must find a way to make room for human meaning and consciousness. Our meaning-making must of course be informed by modern scientific discoveries, but it cannot be explained away as entirely illusory. [I unpack Whitehead’s attempt to make room in Physics of the World-Soul (2016)].

At least on our planet, cosmic evolution has produced conscious human beings. All the evidence suggests that something similar may be happening on countless other planets. Life and consciousness may be just as pervasive as atoms and stars. To my mind, this fact is not evidence against the existence of a meaningful cosmos or even of a personal God. It could also be interpreted as evidence for an immanent evolutionary aim toward personalization**,  and for a far less provincial, truly infinite divinity.

Even in such an enchanted cosmos, our species may be doomed to go extinct. We may be no more than a passing evolutionary phase, as Lightman suggests, destined to be replaced by “Homo techno” in a few generations. But letting go of our anthropocentrism need not leave us with a sense of purposelessness. Even if our species goes extinct, other intelligences surely populate this universe. And even if death is the end of our individual egos, in a panpsychist cosmos, sentience never fully evaporates.

*Interestingly, #2 is Sarte’s Being & Nothingness and #3 is Robert Lanza’s Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, & the Illusion of Death–two radically different philosophical orientations on ultimate reality. 

**As William James suggested, we can view nature as composed “of personal lives (which may be of any grade of complication, and superhuman or infrahuman as well as human), variously cognitive of each other…, genuinely evolving and changing by effort and trial, and by their interaction and cumulative achievements making up the world” (Collected Essays and Reviews, 443-444).

Philosophy of Mythology and Revelation (h/t Schelling)

I meant to post this back in August when Levi Bryant finally started blogging again, but it somehow got stuck in my drafts (a veritable grave yard of unfinished thoughts and undead ideas). The philosophical spirit Bryant expresses in his writing is rather unique in its capacity to inspire me to resist. I am very grateful to him for this. So many of my posts on Footnotes2Plato have been provoked by the ideas he has shared on Larval Subjects. I’ll add another to that long list.

In his post on the trauma of speculative realism (etc.), Bryant draws on a passage from Foucault’s Archaeology of History to link the essential structure of myth to the synthetic activity of the subject, that is, to the “temporalizing activity of the subject capable of forming a totality for itself in how it links historicity and futurity in the formation of a present” (Bryant’s words). [Speaking of the present, those in the Bay Area should join us at CIIS tonight for a lecture on Foucault’s life and works by Jamie Socci.] He argues that all prior forms of consciousness (i.e., ideologies) were possessed by the drive to mythologize, that is, to long for a lost origin. Speculative realism (etc.), finally, has exorcised humanity (or some posthuman object formerly known as a human subject) of this possession, freeing ‘us’ to contemplate the fact that ‘we’ are already dead. The enlightened speculative realist no longer believes in ghost stories, not even the ghost story called human subjectivity.

There is much I agree with Bryant about. I align myself with the same “minor” tradition in the history of philosophy that he hints at. I also seek to undermine “the self-present mastery of the subject” and take every opportunity I can to remind myself and others that “we live in the orbit–-in the astronomical sense of the word–-of things that exceed us.”

For precisely these reasons, I am drawn to the work of Schelling (no doubt a heterodox thinker not easily categorized by Western philosophical norms). His early Naturphilosophie and later positive philosophy of mythology and revelation were a century ahead of their time as a forerunner of depth psychology.

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“The crisis through which the world of the gods unfolds,” writes Schelling, “is not external to the poets. It takes place in the poets themselves, forms their poems” (Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 18).

Joshua Ramey and Daniel Whistler discuss the implications of Schelling’s philosophy of mythology in their essay “The Physics of Sense: Bruno, Schelling, Deleuze” (2014).

For Schelling, myth is not the way the human subject “reconciles itself with itself” or “achieves self-present mastery,” as Bryant puts it. Myth is precisely the opposite: it is another way of speaking of the subject’s inability to achieve complete self-mastery, of the cision at the generative root of subjectivity. Myth is the human imagination’s way of coming to terms with the soul’s creative becoming (i.e., with its lack of substantial being). Myth is soul-making. Humans do not invent myth; rather, argues Schelling, it is myth that invented (and continues to reinvent) humanity.

For Schelling, rejecting the mythopoiesis at the core of our becoming-soul in favor of some supposedly myth-free enlightened view of a meaningless existence (metaphysically speaking) is the route of infantile escapism. His philosophy of mythology urges us to stay with the eternally unfolding crisis and not to fear the infinite depths of its creative becoming. Myth is not a facade painted atop Nature, but Nature’s way of becoming human (and perhaps humanity’s way of becoming other than human).