Panpsychist Physicalism

[Written partially as a response to some discussion over in The Skeptical Zone]:

Physicalism is the idea that the universe is fundamentally composed of entirely blind, deaf, dumb–DEAD–particles in purposeless motion through empty space. For some reason, these dumb particles follow the orders of a system of eternal mathematical laws that, for some reason, the human mind, itself made of nothing more than dumb particles, is capable of comprehending.

If you accept this definition of physicalism and this rendering of the project of natural science, and if you avoid the question of the transcendental conditions of physics, then a coherent non-dualistic physicalist ontology requires that what we call “life” and “consciousness” both be explained away as mere appearances reducible to the mechanical collisions of particles. On this definition of physicalism, “life” and “consciousness” are just words we have for epiphenomenal illusions with no causal influence on what happens. “Life” is a genetic algorithm and “consciousness” is a meme machine, in Dawkins’ and Dennett’s terms. We are undead zombies, not living persons, on this reading of physicalism.

On the other hand, if you see consciousness and life as realities that are impossible to deny and that are in need of explanation *on their own terms*, either as emergent holistic processes with downward causative influence or as intrinsic capacities of phusis itself (my view), then clearly modern physicalism (or what Whitehead calls “scientific materialism”) must be mistaken.

If consciousness and life are not mere illusions with no hand in what happens but active participants shaping the evolutionary journey of the universe, then “physical stuff” like molecules and atoms, stars and galaxies, is not at all what the modern mind has been imagining for several centuries. Matter is not a heap of extensional lumps floating in homogeneous reversible time. That idea of dead matter has always been an idealistic abstraction. Concrete actually existing matter is infinite energy caught in a creative process of spatiotemporal evolution. This energetic expression is experiential through and through, and our special human form of conscious experience is just one of the universe’s many forms of spatiotemporal affection.



What is Life? (Response to Joe Norman)

Sharing my reply below to a brilliant series of thoughts concerning the essence of life at Joseph W. Norman’s blog (CLICK HERE TO READ IT).


Thanks for pointing out the relevance of N. Taleb’s distinction between randomness and an agent’s exposure to randomness for the question of “life.” Much to ponder here…

My friendship with the idea of autopoiesis is about as old as my friendship with you. I’ve felt a deep kinship with the scientific scheme and the phenomenological/philosophical method developed by Maturana, Varela, Thompson, et al., since my first exposure to them in Mason Cash’s Philosophy of Mental Representation course back at UCF in 2006ish. In the decade since, I’ve fallen in love with Schelling and Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. I have not fallen out of love with autopoiesis (or enactivism) in all this time, but I have found myself entering into a (friendly!) polemic with Evan Thompson about whether or not autopoietic biology and enactive cogntive science remain ontologically underdetermined. I’ve argued that the Chilean school (and its inheritors) can find an elucidating metaphysical foundation in Whitehead’s process-relational philosophy of organism.

From my perspective, the initial sites of inquiry whenever we ask about the essence of life must be agency and intuition. The only reason physical science needs a special science called “biology” is because when human knowers observe living organisms, they cannot help but intuit an agency in them. This “living” agency is understood by physicists to be absent in “merely” physical (i.e., “non-living”) processes.

Accept for a moment, if you will, my parody of the polemic between a reductive physicist and an emergentist biologist:

The physicist argues that whatever “life” is, and whatever our experienced “intuitions” of it might be, all of its apparently living agency, and all of our apparently “inner” intuitive experiences of it, are really just external mechanical processes that have not yet been fully understood and explained in terms of the equations of physics.

For the emergentist biologist, in contrast, “life” has real effects on physical processes. Life is a cause, even if secondarily (and improbably!) emergent from primary physical causes. Life makes a difference in how things happen. Life is not a passive passenger on planet Earth. The “laws” of physics may provide life’s primary environmental condition, but to say life slavishly “obeys” these laws is to dramatically downplay the extent to which life uses these laws as a stage upon which to innovate. Earth is not a dead rock with a few patches of slime growing in scattered crevices. Earth–better, Gaia–is a living community composed of multifarious organic agents whose eco-semiotic entanglements have made them evolutionary players since day one in the +4 billion year formation of the geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. Earth is an ecopoietic process (h/t Lovelock). “Not only is life a planetary phenomenon, but the material environment of life on Earth is in part a biological construction” (Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 119).

The biologist thinks of life as something irreducible to physics. Life is something special, perhaps unique in all the universe, present only on our pale blue dot. We should feel lucky to be alive.

The reductive physicist endeavors to resolve what appears to be “life” into something more generic, to explain it away as a local anomaly temporarily afloat amidst a sea of total randomness.

But what if life is more generic than matter, organism more generic than mechanism? If Robert Rosen is right, the biologist and the physicist both have inadequate ideas of life. Whitehead would say this is because both have unquestioningly accepted the modern bifurcation of nature into physical causes and psychical excitations. Why must we bifurcate nature? Is there a good philosophical argument for doing so?

The biologist’s idea of life isn’t radical enough: it doesn’t get to the root of our intuition of the agency of organisms. The physicists idea of life isn’t revolutionary enough: it doesn’t fully embrace Giordano Bruno’s Copernican intuition that the center of the cosmos is everywhere because life pervades the cosmos.

I wonder if we might re-examine your claim that “a hurricane is not alive because there is a missing ingredient”… Are we sure that a hurricane doesn’t feel to us in some way living? We may have learned a scientific rationale for why we should not think of hurricanes as alive. Ignoring this rational norm could be professionally hazardous for an academic! But if we look again at a hurricane through the eyes of a child, without all our smart ideas about it?

Is there really a missing ingredient here? Obviously there is a long chain of auto-catalytic chemistry (etc.) separating a dissipative structure like a hurricane from a human person. But again, what if biological life is a special case of a more generic or cosmic tendency toward organizational complexity? Could it be that we have too deflated a view of the teleodynamics of hurricanes and too inflated a view of human consciousness? Do we know that hurricanes are not sometimes capable of following ocean temperature gradients? Might some sort of “structural coupling” or “concern” emerge in the creative tension between differentially heated water and air? Obviously, plenty of hurricanes don’t follow the temperature gradient and thus unravel into chaos. But some hurricanes, the one’s which grow and thrive, do follow the gradient. They do so with gusto. In the satellite image you can literally see Erma’s heartbeat as she eats evermore heat and grows and thrives. Isn’t this a kind of natural selection at work (even if only at the level of self-production or autopoiesis, without the help of reproduction)? From one perspective, hurricane Erma’s teleodynamic behavior is blind chance. From another perspective, this is a sentient cloud. And anyway, isn’t the human mind a lot more like a cloudy sky than a self-regulating free agent? Aren’t we constantly pulled in circles by love and strife (heat and cold in hurricanese), swayed this way and that by fortune and fury? Conscious reflection and intention are the rolling thunder of the mind. They come loudly, but late, always after organic intuition in a flash brings new worlds into view. Life lives in this flash of intuition prior to reflection upon objects over and against subjects. This is Stu Kauffman’s “poised realm” of adjacent possibilities. This is the capacity to ingress novelty, and it is not specific to biological organisms. Life is the aim toward the future enjoyed in the present. It is essential to the whole of cosmogenesis.

This way to panpsychism.


Panpsychism and Emergentism: a discussion with ProfessorAnton

I posted Neil Theise’s video “Complexity Theory & Panpsychism” on FaceBook last week, and Corey Anton posted a response criticizing panpsychism and defending his own emergentist perspective. Their videos are below. Corey and I have gone back and forth on this issue a number of times over the years. I posted a set of responses to Corey, also below. Much of what I discuss is further unpacked in my monograph Physics of the World-Soul.

Robert Rosen and Friedrich Schelling on Mechanism and Organism

I’ve been reading some of the theoretical biologist Robert Rosen‘s essays on the relationship between biology and physics and can’t help but compare him to Friedrich Schelling.

Rosen writes:

[Contemporary physics embodies] a mechanistic approach to biological phenomena, whose only alternative seems to be a discredited, mystical, unscientific vitalism. [It] supposes biology to be a specialization of something inherently more general than biology itself, and the phenomena of life to be nothing but very special embodiments of more universal laws, which in themselves have nothing to do with life and are already independently known. In this view, whatever problems set biology apart from the rest of science arise precisely because organisms are so special.

One prevailing manifestation of such ideas is the naive reductionism that passes today as the prevailing philosophy underlying empirical approaches to organisms. The very word connotes that living things are special cases of something else, and that we learn everything there is to know about them by reducing them, treating them as mere corollaries of what is more general and more universal.

However, organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.

-(p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000).

Schelling, considering nature’s fundamental organization, writes:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.

-(p. 70, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI).

Thinking with rocks.

These rocks, stacked by human hands along a canyon creek near Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, are not simply aggregates or piles. Neither are they simply the freely created artwork of humans. The left-hand stack of eleven rocks (if you count earth) towers toward the sky, together with its local and cosmic ecologies achieving the status of a self-organizing, living being. Locally, human hands have conceptually lured the rocks into a vertical line, while cosmically, the chemistry of electricity and the magnetism of gravity have pushed and pulled them into place. The life of this self-organizing entity has a definite beginning–a birth, and will have a definite ending–a death.

In tactilely experimenting with these rocks, I quickly discovered that removing the top rock, even with great care so as to minimally disturb its underlying neighbor due to friction, almost always destabilizes the entire stack. The stack’s center of mass is complexly distributed among its contributors. Because the stack depends on the maintenance of this center for its survival, the whole stack can be said to be contained in each of the rocks which compose it. In this sense, the parts are greater than the whole.

In another sense, however, the whole is greater than the parts. In attempting to re-stack a fallen pile, I found that achieving the collective stability of the rocks demanded more than simple addition. There was an emergent factor not present in each of the rocks until the last rock had been placed and the whole had cohered.

Once shaped in skyward form, their masses mutually measured in perfect harmony, the many become one and were increased by one. When not only created but encountered as sacred by human beings, I believe the pile can become a person.* It can incarnate a soul, eleven rocks becoming so many organs of a single bodily life. To see the stone stacks this way, they must be allowed to transcend their status as human art. They must be seen for what they are: creatures of living nature.


*Whitehead defined organisms as personally ordered societies of actual occasions.

Response to Knowledge-Ecology about Dawkins, Evolution, and Creationism

Knowledge-Ecology recently posted his lament about the scientific ignorance of GOP presidential candidate Gov. Perry, who denies both evolution and climate change. Adam also mentioned his support for Richard Dawkins’ rebuttal.

I might also count Dawkins as a political ally, but not as a cosmological ally. And since I, like Adam, struggle to avoid separating cosmos and polis, in the end I have to critique Dawkins as quickly as I do Perry. Jung said he was glad he was not a Jungian; I think Darwin would say something similar were he alive today. Dawkins represents a minority position in the ecology of ideas circulating in the rather large academic aquarium of the contemporary life sciences. His assertion that “natural selection” explains life, the universe, and everything seems no less fundamentalist to me than creationism. Darwin assumed much about the nature of reality in order to offer an account of the origin the variety of species. His assumptions were empirically justified, I’d agree, but not theoretically explained. His conception of life-itself is quite Romantic (yes, in the capital “R” sense; see Robert Richards’ work on the influence of Schelling and Goethe on Darwin). Darwin’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection assumes self-producing/autopoietic organisms capable of reproduction (E. Thompson makes this case convincingly in “Mind in Life”). Natural selection, in the neo-Darwinist genocentric context that Dawkins employs it, offers no explanation whatsoever even for how genes can produce individual living cells, much less animals or a potentially freely creative, self-reflective species like us. Creationists may not know how to rationally articulate their intuition that scientific materialism is inadequate, nor even how to rationally construct an alternative account of cosmogenesis; but nonetheless, their intuition is correct. Civilization cannot survive without a more adequate answer to the Biggest Question.