Tim Eastman Unties the Gordian Knot: Complete Seminar (Sessions 1-9)

Above is an embedded playlist featuring all 9 of the Eastman Seminars that I facilitated for the Science Advisory Committee of the Cobb Institute from June 2021 through February 2022. Tim Eastman, a plasma physicist and philosopher, is the author of Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020). These seminars invited other scholars prominently cited in Eastman’s book for dialogue with the author and the interested public. I’ve recently reviewed Eastman’s book HERE. Those interested in the implications of a rigorous process philosophical interpretation of quantum physics for science, the humanities, and spirituality will benefit from Eastman’s book and reviewing these seminars.

Session 1 “Quest” features Mikhail Epstein and Judith Jones.

Session 2 “Relations–Logoi” features Randall Auxier, Michael Epperson, and Elias Zafiris.

Session 3 “Gordian Knot to Logoi Framework” features Ruth Kastner and Epperson.

Session 4 “Causation, Emergence, and Complex Systems” features Alex Gomez-Marin, George Lucas, and Anderson Weekes.

Session 5 “Information and Semiotics” features Epstein and George Strawn.

Session 6 “Complex Whole” features Auxier, Gary Herstein, and Brian Swimme.

Session 7 “Peirce’s Triads and Whitehead’s Process: Fundamental Triads and Schemas” features Edward Kelly and Farzad Mahootian.

Session 8 “Contextuality–From Experience to Meaning” features Thandeka, Dan Dombrowski, and Kelly.

Session 9 is a wrap-up and features Epperson and myself offering concluding remarks.

Tim Eastman Wrap-Up Session: Quantum Physics, Process Philosophy, and the Simulation Hypothesis

We wrapped up our 9-part seminar series on plasma physicist and philosopher Timothy E. Eastman’s book over the weekend. Above is the recording of the final session, which included responses by Michael Epperson and me, followed by a really great dialogue among the other participants. The simulation hypothesis came up and was challenged in light of Eastman and Epperson’s interpretation of quantum reality.

For recordings of the earlier sessions, visit the Cobb Institute Science Advisory Committee webpage and scroll to the bottom.

For my review of Dr. Eastman’s book, click here.

Review of Timothy E. Eastman’s ‘Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context’ [DRAFT]

Below is a draft of a review of Tim Eastman’s new book. I’ll be submitting this to a journal for publication soon, but wanted to share it here for those interested in this important contribution to understanding the nature of reality in light of quantum process.


TIMOTHY E. EASTMAN, Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020: 344 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

It was nearly a century ago, in the midst of the quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics, that Whitehead realized scientific progress had reached a turning point: 

“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.” 

Despite Whitehead’s warning, the 1920s also saw the rise of a positivist prohibition on speculative metaphysics, handicapping progress into the foundations of post-classical science and producing precisely the fragmented medley that he feared. Fortunately, a growing chorus of interdisciplinary scientists is taking up the philosophical work left unfinished by the early twentieth century founders of quantum theory. In Untying the Gordian Knot (UGK), plasma physicist-cum-philosopher Timothy E. Eastman adds his voice to the ensemble, offering the “Logoi framework” as a meta-theory that aims not only to make ontological sense of quantum mechanics, but to integrate it with several other emerging twenty-first century frameworks, including complex systems science, Peircean triadic semiotics, and category theory. This alone would make Eastman’s book worthy of careful study; but he goes even further, sketching the plan for a bridge between science (or “the way of numbers”) and the human ethical and spiritual spheres (“the way of context”). Despite the grand scope of his inquiry, Eastman remains humble and conciliatory: the Logoi framework “is not post-anything but a proto-worldview” (11) that seeks to balance both theory and story, both systematic rigor and open-ended adventure (14). Eastman’s masterful synthesis of dozens of cutting edge researchers across numerous disciplines is impossible to summarize in this short review. Thus, in what follows, I focus on a few of UGK‘s important contributions to the birth of a process-relational science.

Eastman decided to study physics and philosophy not only because he wanted to understand the physical world, but because from a young age he intuited that this “wondrous whole” contained layers of meaning deeper than the merely measurable (1). Natural science has allowed human beings to reach beyond the mundane proportions of their sense organs and species-specific umwelt toward extreme magnitudes of space and time. Telescopes extend our eyesight across vast distances of intergalactic space; microscopes into the nuclei of cells and even atoms; inferences from radioactive decay rates of certain isotopes allow us to infer the age of fossils millions or billions of years into the past. Such techniques have dramatically expanded our understanding of the universe, and our place within it. But in extending our senses to scales they were not evolved to perceive, often while using empirical concepts derived from human-scale perception, we run the risk of succumbing to the sort of model-centric literalism that imagines we possess an outside God’s eye-view of an already finished universe. Eastman seeks to re-embed the scientific perspective within the evolving universe that gave rise to it, such that “the most fundamental notions [of natural science] can be inferred from normal human experience” (5). This follows from Eastman’s commitment to the Whiteheadian ideal that “concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice versa” (as articulated by Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein [2017, 2]).

Eastman carefully deconstructs the conceptual impediments to philosophical integration of post-classical science, such as “actualism,” “nominalism,” and “determinism” (89), arguing that potentials (or potentiae in his terms) have a creative role to play that both upsets notions of (efficient) causal closure and reintroduces formal causes into our accounts of natural processes. While quantum physics has forced the issue, Eastman points out that it is misleading to construe even the formalisms of classical Newtonian physics as though they entail strict determinism, since all such modeling frameworks make assumptions about initial and boundary conditions, relevant scales, and domains for meaningful solution (94). Granting potentiae real participation in the physical world not only allows science to consider the anticipatory capacities and creative agency of biological organisms in a non-reductive way. It also resolves longstanding quantum puzzles, which resulted from trying to force-fit a classical mechanistic ontology to results that should indicate the need for a new, process-relational ontology (54). Building on the Relational Reality model of Epperson and Zafiris (2013), Eastman describes the evolution of quantum events from pure potential to probabilities to actualization when measured (a process involving both logical conditioning and causal re-iteration) (38). Integrating Ruth Kastner‘s Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics (2013), Eastman argues that acts of measurement are not passive observations of already existing facts, but rather themselves establish new facts. There can be no ultimate causal closure, either for finite systems or for the universe as a whole, since the ontological unrest of newly emerging facts break any such closure. The universe thus becomes a cumulative succession of “actual occasions of experience,” wherein potentiae grow together with actualities by linking local causal interactions with global logical constraints in the ongoing process of realization. This process is asymmetric and includes both a standard (Boolean) dyadic logic of actualizations (res extensae) and a triadic logic of potentialities (res potentiae) (23). Eastman argues that “dyadic relations do not, in fact, exist in the real world, [only in] the world of abstract modeling” (27). This is because context is inevitably involved, and because the relationship between potentiality and actuality is inherently asymmetrical, from whence comes the arrow of time.

Eastman’s Logoi framework (again, following Epperson and Zafiris) thus carries forward Whitehead’s crucial distinction in Process & Reality (1978) between the logical order of concrete events (“genetic division”) and the causal order of metrical spacetime (“coordinate division”) (43-44). The former, rooted in fundamental quantum processes, is given primacy, while the latter, rather than being conceived of as a pre-existing continuum serving as a container for processes, is secondarily emergent from such processes (68). In Eastman’s words: 

“Quantum physics exemplifies the fact that physical extensiveness (standard spacetime description) is fundamentally topological rather than metrical, with its proper logico-mathematical framework being category-theoretic (relations of relations) rather than set-theoretic (sets of things)” (71).

Grasping the significance of Eastman’s Logoi framework may be aided by contrasting it with popular actualist accounts. Eastman critiques the physical “theory of everything” articulated by Sean Carroll in his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Carroll takes up the God’s eye perspective by offering a single “core theory,” an equation combining quantum mechanics, spacetime, gravity, matter, the Higgs field, and other forces, which he claims leaves no room for new aspects of the universe that are not already well understood. Eastman points out that, while the components of this core equation represent great achievements, in practice no one has ever succeeded in combining them into a practical model or simulation. Carroll’s core theory thus amounts to no more than a mashup and is not anywhere close to being a working equation (126). On Eastman’s reading, Carroll makes several unstated metaphysical assumptions including actualism, physicalism, and causal closure, leading him to mistake an amalgam of dyadic input-output models as though they could serve as an ultimate explanation for the universe (127). Rather than accepting Carroll’s actualist rendering of the Feynman path-integral formulation of quantum physics (where electrons are assumed to take every path, with the largest probability being given to that path which approaches classical physics), Eastman argues that “physical relations emerge from [the] multiple sampling of potentiae pre-space, which is operationally handled by the principle of least action, reflecting optimization of relations of relations in this pre-space” (138). Rather than prematurely limiting our creative cosmos to the idealized deductivist models of current physics, or suggesting untestable “scientific exotica”(82) like the vast ontological overflow of actualized possible worlds as in the “many-worlds” interpretation, Eastman leaves open the possibility of genuinely novel emergence within the only universe we could ever know anything about. 

Whitehead’s cosmology, along with Peirce’s and contemporary physicist Lee Smolin’s ideas, are often interpreted as implying that physical “law” is more a matter of empirical probability, rather than being metaphysically grounded. Since deism is no longer a live option for scientists (as it was in Descartes’ and Newton’s day), very few have attempted to ground “law” metaphysically (130). The closest thing contemporary physics has to such a metaphysical ground for physical laws are “symmetry principles.” But from Eastman’s perspective, these principles remain groundlessly circular descriptions without an accompanying process-relational ontology. Peirce attempted to reformulate laws as habits, but Eastman worries this may be a category error that, despite Peirce’s realist intentions, falls prey to nominalism. For Eastman, genuine habits can only be said to emerge at the biological level. Without wanting to affirm deductivism, he nonetheless thinks necessity must have some purchase in Nature for many of the findings of modern physics to make any sense. He thus argues that Nature’s laws derive, not from any deductive necessity, but rather from the conditional contingency of trajectory optimizing histories (e.g., the Principle of Least Action) (131).  He compares these trajectories to Leibniz’ “striving possibles” (133).

In addition to its paradigm remaking implications for physics, the Logoi framework’s fundamental distinction between the Boolean domain of actualized measurements and the non-Boolean domain of pre-space potentiae also has important implications for the study of human consciousness. Rather than reducing our concrete experience of mental processing to abstract correlations among measurable brain states, the Logoi framework allows us to take seriously our sense of being conscious agents capable of some degree of decisive influence over the ongoing flux of reality. With the inclusion of the realm of potentiae into physical ontology, human consciousness need no longer be thought of as an anomalous intruder into an otherwise well-behaved mechanical universe. Instead, our conscious experience offers us an intimate window into the function of potentiae in the broader course of Nature, as our everyday mental capacities involving tapping into and expressing “ontologically genuine remainder[s] of real possibility” (84). It follows that popular claims on behalf of artificial intelligence systems said to be on the verge of realizing effectively human levels of consciousness and cognition are rooted in faulty metaphysical presuppositions. AI systems are entailment devices limited to input-output (Boolean) logic alone, and so cannot tap into the realm of potentiae in the way biologically evolved, historically emergent minds can (98). 

Eastman synthesizes important insights from a variety of researchers to contribute much needed clarity to the scientific understanding the role of emergence in Nature. Emergent physical entities are so described because as novel wholes they are not derivable either from the stuff of which they are made nor from the laws of physics (111). Eastman distinguishes emergence as a synchronic hierarchical process that builds on diachronic causation. Many basic causal and emergent processes are rooted in multi-scale quantum field processes (Eastman gives the example of space plasmas, whose emergent processes range from planetary to galactic scales) (112). Emergence is thus not merely a matter of epistemic limits to reductive explanations, but rather a consequence of the influence of quantum process across all physical scales. In the Logoi framework, causation is interpreted more broadly than just the dyadic correlation of facts typical of actualist frameworks. From within an actualist framework, any novelty or emergence can only be regarded as an epiphenomenon arising from random error or chance. Understanding emergent entities and processes requires symbolic bridges, as knowledge presupposes a distinction between knower and known, and thus the need for mediation (113). Eastman proposes Whiteheadian “prehension” as one such symbolic-conceptual bridge. Eastman shares Charles Hartshorne’s sense that prehension is the most powerful metaphysical generalization ever accomplished (159n18), as it allows all sorts of relations (e.g., memory, perception, causality, spatial, temporal, subject-object, God-world, etc.) to be accounted for in terms of one generic type. Further, the metaphysics of prehension imply that all physical relations are fundamentally asymmetrical in structure. Prehension can be variously understood as a philosophical embodiment of field theory; as the ontologization of the mathematical function; and as an account of quantum process (113-114). In light of Whitehead’s prehensional account of causation and emergence and Epperson and Zafiris’ applications (2013), Eastman argues that a strong case can be made for the idea that all macro-systems (including relativistic spacetime) are ontologically emergent from fundamental quantum processes.  

Although Eastman creatively expands upon Whitehead’s process philosophy, he does so without remaining unduly tied to the latter’s categoreal scheme. He emphasizes Leemon McHenry’s (2017) interpretation of Whiteheadian prehensions as “concrete functions” rather than “abstract relations” (40), thus contrasting Whitehead’s “third approach” to his former collaborator Bertrand Russell’s nominalistic logical atomism. Prehension is defined in its physical mode as “the present occasion’s absorption of past actual occasions in its process of self-creation” (McHenry, 325). This leaves out the role of conceptual prehensions in Whitehead’s scheme, that is, the present occasion’s ingression of potentials or eternal objects in its process of self-creation. McHenry (2015) appears to question the need for Whitehead’s eternal objects (at least if they are given a “Platonic emphasis” (47). Eastman claims his account of a diachronic process in terms of pre-space potentiae plays a role similar to that of Whitehead’s “prehensive unification” first introduced in Science and the Modern World (1925). Despite approving of Whitehead’s perspectival account of the relation between universals and particulars (103), Eastman sometimes indicates a desire to distance himself from Whitehead’s eternal objects, thus implying that there may be important differences between his landscapes of potentiae and the realm of eternal objects. This is a fertile area for further philosophical exploration beyond the scope of this brief review. Nonetheless, a few suggestions can be offered. 

One way of beginning such an exploration stems from asking whether the choice of realism over nominalism as regards the status of form in Nature entails Platonism. Eastman thinks not (92), but given that Plato wrote dialogues and not doctrines, it all depends what is meant by “Platonism.” Regardless of the nature of his divergence from Whitehead’s category of eternal objects, they clearly share a rejection of nominalism. Eastman puts forward an argument against nominalist actualism that is rooted in quantum potentiae that integrate local-global interactions without themselves having any specific spacetime location. They are generals, in C. S. Peirce’s sense, serving as logical constraints on physical process. From Eastman’s point of view, admitting potentiae back into Nature is far more parsimonious than the actualist/nominalist interpretations of quantum theory (e.g., the many-worlds and multiverse hypotheses) (94). 

Eastman concludes his book with an attempt to link human and cosmic logoi in search of some sense of the deeper meaning of our existence. Careful to avoid any monological fixations, he builds on George Ellis’ “Kenotic morality” (2020, 13), wherein human values like truth, goodness, and beauty “reflect the forces or intentions that created the universe…as part of the deep structure of the cosmos,” in Ellis’ terms. Eastman also amplifies Robert Neville’s (2013, 53) worry about the “enormous damage to human civilization [resulting from] the loss of value-reference and realistic valuation in modern Western science” (245). With characteristic caution and modesty, Eastman seeks to contrast his own Logoi framework, which aims at “evidence-based methodology,” with the “advocacy-based thinking” that is more appropriate in cultural and political spheres (247). 

In the final pages, Eastman honors the Dakota peoples, upon whose land he first had the spiritual experience that initiated his inquiry into the nature of reality:

“In confronting the psychological challenges of nihilism, denialism, and assorted despairs of contemporary life, in facing up to the physical threats of war, pandemics, human suffering, and in newly realizing the deteriorating of earth’s climate, ecology, and habitability, can we somehow embrace what we have learned through science and philosophy and what we may yet draw on from indigenous and other spiritualities so as to bring into being a world in which we humans can live and flourish over the long term?” (274).

Eastman has succeeded in making a major contribution toward such an integral embrace. 

Works Cited 

Auxier, Randall and Herstein, Gary. (2017). The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism. New York: Routledge.

Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton.

Ellis, George  F. R. (2020). “A Mathematical Cosmologist Reflects on Deep Ethics: Reflections on Values, Ethics, and Morality.” Theology and Science: 1-15. 

Epperson, Michael and Zafiris, Elias. (2013). Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 

Kastner, Ruth. (2013). The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McHenry, Leemon. (2017). “Whitehead and Russell on the Analysis of Matter.” The Review of Metaphysics 71: 321-342. 

Neville, Robert. (2013). Ultimates: Philosophical Theology, Volume One. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 

The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis

I just sent a draft of this coauthored essay off to the editors. Astrobiologist Bruce Damer and I have been building toward this for a few years. I’m thrilled to have gotten it to this point, and looking forward to peer review! The essay will be featured in a book coming out of this conference to be held in May: “Astrobiology, Exo-Philosophy, and Cosmic Religion: Toward a Constructive Process Cosmotheology.”

“The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis” by Segall and Damer:

Zombie Evolution (reply to Sean Carroll)

The physicist Sean Carroll was recently on the Mind Chat podcast hosted by the philosophers Keith Frankish and Philip Goff. Watch it here.

I uploaded a brief interpolation of my own on YouTube, which among other things calls out the model-centrism at play in Carroll’s “Core Theory.”

Earlier today, Carroll uploaded a blog post to tie up some loose ends after his discussion with Goff and Frankish: “The Zombie Argument for Physicalism (Contra Panpsychism).

Contrary to the intent of most philosophical zombie arguments, Carroll attempts to “ZAP” the credibility of panpsychist accounts of consciousness by arguing that, ironically, the well-wrought thought experiment only ends up strengthening the case for physicalism.

Philosophical zombies would, of course, insist that they have 1st-person introspective acquaintance with their own inner lives. They would claim to enjoy colors and sounds, and to feel deeply insulted by our opinion of them as mere mindless automatons. But they would be completely mistaken. Their verbal objections to our genuinely conscious judgements about them would amount to nothing more than the causally determined motion of lips, tongue, vocal cords, diaphragm, and neurons. No one would be making the claims, as they would amount to no more than the auditory outputs of a complicated machine.

Carroll correctly claims that the traditional zombie argument, if it challenges the credibility of physicalism at all, leaves panpsychists with a merely epiphenomenal sort of consciousness, a witness with no will, a ghost with no way to actively participate in physical processes. Admitting that consciousness is epiphenomenal leaves the panpsychist with way less explanatory leverage against physicalism, since if consciousness makes no difference to the goings-on of the physical world, then scientifically speaking it’s just not worth bothering about. Carroll admits that dualists could still argue for the irreducibility of epiphenomenal consciousness to physics, but due to the incoherence of the dualist ontology (i.e., two entirely distinct types of substance with no clear way to interact), we can set this position to the side.

If, on the other hand, consciousness does have some strongly emergent, downward causal role to play in how the body behaves, then according to Carroll that would mean that the very well-established Core Theory of physics is wrong. Electrons can’t break the laws of physics just because the mind haunting my brain tells them to.

In the background is Carroll’s claim to possess a complete theory by means of which the behavior of the physical world can be deduced.* The problem with this sort of model-centrism is that it entirely neglects the historicity of our universe, implying some sort of outside “God’s eye view.” Carroll’s emphasis on timeless imposed laws begs the question of their status in an otherwise entirely materialistic cosmos. Like Lee Smolin, and earlier philosophical scientists like C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead, I find it more coherent to recognize the cosmos as an evolving process, with “laws” arising as widespread habits alongside the emergent entities exemplifying them. As the cosmos complexifies, emergent entities like atoms, stars, and galaxies take shape to progressively constrain the future course of evolution. But nothing in the Core Theory, as I understand it, predicts the emergence of life or mind. This is not to say that the Core Theory somehow rules out the possibility, just that it renders these phenomena exceedingly unlikely, even miraculous. For the Core Theory to be considered a truly complete theory of everything, it would need to account for its own conditions of possibility, which is to say it would need to describe a universe wherein creatures capable of developing a Core Theory could evolve. Short of this, the best we cay say about the theory is that it accurately describes the goings-on of its particular domain of relevance. It is an abstract model that describes the physical world as if life and mind did not exist. Bracketing these higher level phenomena for the purposes of developing workable models of simpler phenomena is perfectly fine. Physics has been wildly successful in doing so! But turning around to try to explain away the consciousness doing the explaining as though it were nothing but a “successful way of talking” about physical behavior reeks of model-centrism.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that conscious agency in any way contradicts the account of particles and fields offered by the Core Theory. Electrons, for instance, need not disobey the equations of physics to nonetheless be subject to different probability distributions resulting from the unique, highly evolved physiological environment of the mammalian nervous system. The point is that context matters. Laws are not imposed on nature from some eternal mathematical heaven. They are descriptions of the statistical behavior of entities in various environments and at various levels of organization.

But back to the zombie argument. The point of this thought-experiment, as I understand it, is not to prove that consciousness is necessarily something extra above and beyond physics. Nor am I convinced by Carroll’s ironic reversal, that somehow it cements the strength of the physicalist account. I think it is helpful to cut to the chase by putting the zombie argument in an evolutionary context. If consciousness evolves, then it cannot be epiphenomenal, since in that case it would play no role in an organism’s behavior and thus offer nothing for the evolutionary process to select and enhance. So, if we put dualism and idealism to the side (I know this is not entirely fair to idealists, but that discussion will have to wait for a later post), then consciousness must somehow be causally efficacious, i.e., it must be a real feature of the physical world. But if matter/energy is construed in the abstract terms that model-centrists insist upon, then it is not at all clear how to bridge the gap. Hence Chalmers’ “hard problem.”

The solution, I’ve argued, is to first admit that physics offers a highly predictive but nonetheless abstract account of the isolated behavior of fields and particles. There is nothing in this model that suggests the universe should ever come to life or wake up and start consciously reflecting upon itself. Thus, the model needs to be placed in a broader cosmological context. To resolve the hard problem of consciousness, what we have traditionally meant by “matter” and by “experience” needs to be rethought, such that the two are understood as the “outside” and the “inside” of one and the same unfolding reality. This allows us to make continuous what would otherwise remain a rather glaring ontological chasm.

That simpler forms of self-organization, like electrons, protons, or the atomic elements they symbiotically compose, follow extremely regular and predictable patterns of behavior does not rule out the possibility that these behaviors are the expression of what Whitehead described as “vector-feelings.” What physicists describe in mathematical terms as gravitational fields may be experienced by the particles in question as gravitational feelings.

*For a logical and philosophical critique of Carroll’s “Core Theory,” see pgs. 126-130 of plasma physicist and process philosopher Tim Eastman’s book Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020).

For an article length treatment of these issues, see “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020)

Towards a Mycological Metaphysics

The mycologist Merlin Sheldrake recently published Entangled Life (2020). The book revels in the power of fungi to “make us question our categories,” thereby “[changing] the way we think and imagine” (14, 214). A few pages in, Merlin defines mycelium as a process, rather than a thing (6). I am inclined to agree. As a process philosopher, I could not help but ally myself with his project. He goes even further later in the book, insisting that all life-forms are relational processes inhabiting a natural world best understood as “an event that never stops” (53). He encourages us to wonder how our scientific image of nature would be transformed by the adoption of mycelial rather than mechanical metaphors. What would it mean to take seriously the many examples of “basal cognition” and “problem-solving behavior” evident in brainless fungi (15)? If even microscopic hyphae are capable of such feats as “decision,” “improvisation,” and “interpretation” (44), then perhaps conscious agency, or something akin to it, is not the exclusive property of human heads. In that case, “culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy, and independence” would need to be revised (18). Perhaps fungi can inspire more humility in big-headed humanity?

Perhaps. A powerful word, especially for philosophers seeking to gain permission to peek beneath the measurable facts into the plenum of possibilities from out of which such facts precipitate. Despite the feelings of embarrassment that years of disciplinary training had instilled in him, Merlin, too, found it necessary to embrace the power of speculative imagination in order to make sense of what fungi were teaching him. 

“Thousands of my samples passed through expensive machines that whisked, irradiated, and blasted the contents of the tubes into strings of numbers. I spent whole months staring into a microscope, immersed in rootscapes filled with winding hyphae frozen in ambiguous acts of intercourse with plant cells. Still, the fungi I could see were dead, embalmed, and rendered in false colors. I felt like a clumsy sleuth. While I crouched for weeks scraping mud into small tubes, toucans croaked, howler monkeys roared, lianas tangled, and anteaters licked. Microbial lives, especially those buried in soil, were not accessible like the bristling charismatic aboveground world of the large. Really, to make my findings vivid, to allow them to build and contribute to a general understanding, imagination was required. There was no way around it” (19).

Most of us think of mushrooms when we hear the word “fungi”—but they are just the surface-dwelling fruiting bodies of much larger underground networks.  The task of the metaphysician, who is compelled to inquire into the hidden underbelly of reality, is not unlike that of the mycologist, since “[mycelial] relationships are conducted out of sight” (138). Given this similarity, Merlin and I are hoping that an “academic symbiosis” (215) will be possible between philosophy and mycology. This sort of transdisciplinary collaboration may help stitch the modern image of nature back together again. 

While reading Merlin’s book, the overlaps with Alfred North Whitehead’s “organic realism” were impossible to miss. Whitehead is best known as a mathematician and collaborator with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. Lesser known is his later work in natural philosophy and metaphysical cosmology. His entrance into philosophy took the form of a critique of the modern “bifurcation of nature,” a thought-habit which insists that a strict separation be maintained between the objective causal factors thought to be “in nature” and the subjective feelings and perceptions imagined to be “in the mind.” On the one hand, there’s the conjectured system of molecules and electromagnetic radiation formulated by physicists, and on the other, the warmth and color of a sunrise celebrated by nature poets. Mocking the incoherence of this bifurcated image of nature, Whitehead writes: 

“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, 56). 

Whitehead would go on to articulate a thoroughly unbifurcated vision of the cosmos as an evolving ecology of organisms. He understood processes of emergent evolution as unfolding at all scales in nature, such that something like Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis transpires not just in the biological realm as more complex cells arise by incorporating formerly free-living organisms, but also in the physical domain, as early in cosmic history independent protons, neutrons, and electrons forged enduring associations to bring forth the first hydrogen and helium atoms. This vision is not meant to conflict with natural science, but to support and enrich it: he criticized the classical ontology of inert particles governed by arbitrarily imposed mechanical laws as entirely unsuited to the new findings of relativity and quantum theories. In addition to constructing a new metaphysical background for these early 20th century revolutions in the scientific understanding of space, time, matter, and energy, Whitehead also sought to overcome what philosophers nowadays refer to as “the hard problem of consciousness”: in short, how could mind ever arise out of matter if the latter is defined a priori as purely extended and thus entirely devoid of interiority? This is not just a hard problem. According to a growing cadre of panpsychist philosophers, it is impossible. It cannot be solved as stated. It can only be dissolved by rethinking the materialist premises upon which it is based. Despite scientific anxieties about anthropomorphism, Whitehead urged us to come to see our capacity as knowers to be part of the universe we are trying to know. While some physicists lean on randomness in lieu of explanation by making anti-empirical postulates about an infinite supply of other universes without life or mind, the only universe we actually know about is quite obviously anthropogenetic. After all, here we are. Instead of insisting that mind and life are freak accidents in an otherwise well-behaved mechanical world, perhaps (there’s that word again) the emergence of mind and life reveal something about the nascent potentials of matter that classical physics missed? 

Maybe the real danger to proper scientific understanding is not anthropomorphism, but mechanomorphism. Mechanism implies a mechanic, an outside designer; in contrast, Whitehead’s organic cosmos is understood to be self-organizing. Laws of physics become more like widespread habits that evolve with the organisms composing the cosmos, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond, as deistic early modern scientists supposed. While Whitehead restricts conscious experience to highly complex organisms with nervous systems, he insists that the vast majority of experience comes in the form of non-conscious feeling and emotion. It is here that many skeptics like to throw rocks at Whitehead and other panpsychists: “So you’re saying stones can think?!” No, but contemporary physics tells us that rocks are in fact composed of complex societies of vibrating molecules. In Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, the vibratory frequencies of molecules, and of atoms composing molecules, express forms of aesthetic harmonization with attendant feelings of experiential satisfaction. Particles are no longer conceived of as point-like geometric abstractions, but vector-feelings whose local subsistence depends upon the reiteration of their vibratory patterns. Thus, what appear as wave-lengths and vibrations to infrared spectrometers, for the molecular occasions in question are felt as “pulses of emotion” (PR, 163; see also my Physics of the World-Soul [2021], 76). Some mineral societies vibrate into highly ordered crystals, while others are more haphazard. 

Sober-minded scientists may balk at such speculative renderings of physical processes. Merlin quotes Whitehead’s statement to Russell, which speaks to his scientifically unorthodox interpretation of the facts of nature:  “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep” (112). Whitehead philosophizes at dawn, while dreams still halo consciousness and the separative outlines of objects remain blurred. In contrast, the speculatively-averse Russell preferred the clarity and distinction afforded by shadowless light. 

Mycological metaphors run even deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysics. “Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form,” in Merlin’s words (51). Their networks form “streams of embodiment” (55) that act as “ecological connective tissue” stitching the rest of the living world into relation (46). Do these networks form a single organism, or a plurality? A plurisingularity? According to Merlin,  “a hyphal tip would be the closest one could come to defining the unit of a mycelial swarm” (47). Relating the growth of hyphae to our human experience of becoming, Merlin writes:

“The growing tip is the present moment—your lived experience of now—which gnaws into the future as it advances. The history of your life is the rest of the hypha, the…lines that you’ve left in a tangled trail behind you. A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history” (53).

The equivalent of hyphal tips in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology are called “actual occasions.” Actual occasions are buds of experience that grow out of their relations to the past, achieve some novel aesthetic value in the subjective immediacy of the present, and perish into objective immortality so as to influence the future, contributing whatever value they’ve garnered to the ongoing creative advance of nature. Occasions tend to organize themselves into “societies”: swarm-like historical routes that sustain and amplify an enduring collective form by faithfully reiterating some shared pattern of potentiality.  

Merlin and I are beginning work on a longer paper to draw out the underground connections between process philosophy and the science of fungi. Our suspicion is that the findings of mycology serve as a special example of the more general categories articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. More to come! 


*Image credit: Aimee Cornwell (Instagram: @peggyfarmandforage)*

“How does matter give rise to consciousness?” (response to Sam Harris)

Harris seems to presuppose the old Cartesian framework, with consciousness being that which is indubitable and which can in no way be reduced to matter. I wonder, though, what concept of matter Harris is working with here? That “matter” is a concept should go without saying, since on his Cartesian view of consciousness, we are locked in a mental prison with no way of perceiving anything outside our own minds. We can have knowledge of matter, but only as a mathematical abstraction (see my review of Latour’s Modes of Existence, where he deconstructs the modern “idea of matter”).

Harris admits that, from within the materialist ontological paradigm, consciousness may always appear to be a miracle, its origins a mystery. Rather than rest content with this sort of quasi-dualist materialist obscurantism, I’d rather follow the heretical panpsychist (broadly construed) stream dating back to Spinoza, Leibniz, and Schelling, later emerging in the organic realism of Whitehead. For a fuller treatment of why an evolutionary panpsychism provides a more coherent account of the place of consciousness in nature, see my article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020).

Thoughts on William James, Pure Experience, and Materialism

Idealism and panpsychism seem to me to make easy friends in the debate against materialism. They both affirm that consciousness or experience or mind in some generic sense are intrinsic to Nature. There are important differences between idealism and panpsychism, of course, and there are a variety of ways one can be an idealist or a panpsychist. More on that another time.

Materialism fails to account for the unity of consciousness (this is also a problem for the “constitutive” variety of panpsychism, the so-called “combination problem” that James is credited with recognizing in the “mind-dust” chapter of Principles of Psychology). This is problematic for materialism because physical science is premised on the unity of Nature: unless Nature forms a system, we can have no scientific knowledge of it, material or otherwise. Where does this unity come from, though? Certainly no material cause can account for it. Even the materialists admit that matter can only scatter; it cannot unify. The matter of the materialists has no purposes or ideals in mind, no holotropic archetypal movements, no emergent evolutions.

The materialist story goes like this: matter just mutely extends, it falls in the void. But at least on this planet, due to a strange swerving in the velocities of the void, or by some accident of natural selection, self-producing and reproducing membranes have arisen (a miracle!), followed by complex brains that learn from experience and, at least in one species, have developed into an immensely powerful symbolic consciousness that now dominates every life-system on the planet (a curse?). 

If matter is all there is, there is no unity to Nature or to consciousness. Eliminative materialists try to retrieve unity/monism by arguing that there is just no such thing as consciousness, there is only the functioning of physical and biological algorithms: we are a language-generated “user-illusion” in Dennett’s terms. But most materialists remain reluctant dualists. They do not deny the reality of their own experiential existence, but they see no intrinsic relation between their inner experience and the material world projected outside them. They say Nature has absolutely nothing in common with human consciousness. Nature is utterly mindless and entirely blind, just a prison of colliding particles for all eternity. Human minds are a freak accident in an otherwise entropic universe, granted our few precious centuries of civilizational activity, we like every material thing are destined for chaos and destruction. 

James is not at all dismissive of the materialist position. Large sections of his Principles of Psychology are devoted to brain anatomy and physiology. He insists that “the brain is the one immediate mental condition of the mental operations,” that “no mental modification ever occurs which is not accompanied by or followed by a bodily change.” 

It would not be unfair, I think, to speculate that James’ well-known struggle with depression resulted from the seriousness with which he considered the materialistic doctrine. For a time, the doctrine robbed him of his will to live, of any sense of freedom or possibility in life. But he came to recognize the irreducibility of the feeling of freedom in himself, and thus of necessity was led to reject the materialist doctrine and to search for an alternative ontology of unity, not as in Nature or Mind exclusively, but in the continuous stream of “pure experience.”

James is not a systematic thinker; he assembles ideas and theories as needed to solve the problems that arise in the course of his thinking. But in each act of assembly he always recognizes the need for metaphysical coherence, that is for continuity of thought. Mind and body, whatever else they are, cannot be coherently conceived of as separate substances. Of this James is absolutely certain. While James acknowledges the diaphaneity of consciousness, unlike the eliminative materialists, he refuses to reduce mind to matter. Further, unlike the absolute idealists, he refuses to reduce matter to mind. He is neither a materialist nor an idealist. What is he left with? A sort of “neutral monism” as it came to be called once Bertrand Russell got a hold of it? I think there is something Russell missed, something untamed and wild in James’ “radical empiricism” that had to wait for Whitehead to give it wings.  James recognized that consciousness is not a thing, it is a relational process. And he understood that all our scientific knowledge of matter in external Nature is itself of an experiential nature, of a kind with our inner sensations and imaginings. The type of experience called “physical” forms the core of our perceptual world, it is the group of experiences that forms our behavioral habits, that obeys Newton’s laws and accrues energetic consequences along its route through spacetime. It is nonetheless of the same experiential kind as that sort of experience that hovers on the fringes of our consciousness, where “laxly connected fancies and mere rhapsodical objects floats like a bank of clouds” (“Consciousness Exist?”, p. 489). Physical experience and mental experience are both modes of experience.

But James may not fully have dissolved the ontological boundary between thought and thing, subject and object, inner and outer… He may need Whitehead’s help here. Whitehead generalizes James’ psychology of “pure experience” into a cosmology of concrescing prehensions.

Panpsychism: a brief reply to Massimo Pigliucci

 The Side View recently published an essay by Massimo Pigliucci titled “The Stoic God is Untenable in Light of Modern Science.” Pigliucci is entering into a critical dialogue with a few other Side View authors, Brittany Polat and Kai Whiting, about how best to inherit from ancient Stoic philosophy.  I don’t have a horse in the contemporary interpretations of Stoicism race, but I have written a lot about the need for a new kind of dialogue between what modern people call science and religion, arguing for their potential compatibility (so long as the twin dogmatisms of scientism and creationism are avoided). Rather than getting into the proper way to understand Stoicism, this post is a brief response to what Pigliucci wrote about panpsychism and organic cosmology.

In his Side View essay, Pigliucci writes:

the notion of the cosmos as a living organism, which held pretty well until roughly the 17th century, is not tenable in the face of everything that modern science—both physics and biology—has discovered so far.

Physics of the World Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology is an extended argument that organic realism is not only tenable in the face of recent discoveries in physics and biology, but that these discoveries are themselves the best evidence we could ask for in support of such a view. There’s plenty that needs updating in ancient cosmology, of course. But there’s also plenty that has turned out to be wrong in the modern mechanistic view of nature.

The mechanistic approach has been far more fertile, scientifically speaking, than the organismal paradigm, and as modern thinkers we should recognize that fact and its implications.

I’d challenge the alleged “fertility” of the mechanistic worldview. Sure, it has generated powerful new technologies and granted human beings the power to literally transform the geology and climate of the planet. But what would it mean to recognize this fact and its implications? Given the ecological catastrophe that continues to unfold under this worldview’s watch, I am inclined to believe that the mechanistic cosmology is the opposite of fertile. It is literally deadly. It reflects a complete failure on the part of moderns to adequately think about or relate to natural processes. We have imposed this faulty model on the Earth for several centuries now. Mass extinction and climate change are the most pronounced results of all our efforts. Mechanistic materialism doesn’t just make us feel bad about ourselves. It is literally killing us and much of the rest of life on Earth.

Despite its instrumental power, Pigliucci goes on to admit that contemporary science no longer has any use for the old mechanistic model of the cosmos. This may be true, but since no new alternative has yet taken root in the scientific imagination, the tendency is always to slip back into using the mechanistic metaphor for natural processes.

Pigliucci then acknowledges the recent panpsychist turn in academic philosophy, only to dismiss it:

Panpsychism comes in a variety of ways, but it is essentially the idea that consciousness is an elemental property of the world, rather than one that evolved by natural selection in a specific group of organisms known as “Animalia” (which, of course, includes us). But panpsychism has been blasted on both philosophical and scientific grounds, so I don’t think it is a tenable view.

In this last excerpt, he links to a post on his own blog, a post on Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog (which I responded to several months ago), and to an article in The Atlantic by philosopher Keith Frankish as examples of the blasting. There were some reactions on Twitter:

I am not sure whether Dr. Sjöstedt-H plans to post a detailed response to Pigliucci’s dismissal of panpsychism. He’s already published a short essay criticizing physicalism for The Side View.

In Pigliucci’s blog post on panpsychism (coincidently, his blog shares its name with mine), he refers to the doctrine as a “bizarre notion,” a “weird throwback to the (not so good) old times of vitalism,” and “an argument from ignorance” (since surely science will soon be able to explain how consciousness emerges from matter in motion). He goes on to offer rebuttals of two common arguments in favor of panpsychism, which are 1) the genetic argument (i.e., if consciousness exists today in some animals, it must have been present in some form before animals emerged) and 2) the intrinsic nature argument (i.e., physical science only studies material processes in terms of their abstract formal structure, and tells us nothing about their intrinsic nature). 

Pigliucci attempts to do away with the genetic argument by way of an ab absurdo rebuttal: if it is true that “from nothing, nothing comes,” then, he says, not only will science never be able to explain the emergence of consciousness, it will never be able to explain the emergence of life, the universe or  the laws which govern it. Only crazy creationists could believe such nonsense, am I right?!

I am not so sure… If by “science” Pigliucci means materialism, then no, there is no way to explain consciousness, life, or an apparently law-abiding cosmos. If by “science” we mean not a metaphysical commitment to materialism but an open-ended rational and empirical inquiry into the processes and relationships shaping the world we experience and inhabit, then I have no doubt science (with help from philosophy) can make progress on these deep questions.

In trying to sort through the place of consciousness in the evolution of living organisms, materialism leaves us with two options: either 1) consciousness is epiphenomenal and plays no causal role in the behavior of organisms, or 2) consciousness is emergent and has some effect on the behavior of the organisms that possess it. It is clear enough to me that we can dismiss option 1, because if consciousness plays no causal role then there is nothing for natural selection to have selected for and thus it simply should not exist. I admit consciousness could be a mere spandrel, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Since Pigliucci affirms determinism, he may still hold to some version of option 1. Even if consciousness is epiphenomenal, or some kind of “user illusion” as Daniel Dennett has argued, we are still left with the same problem as those who choose option 2, since the emergence of even an illusion of consciousness still needs to be explained.

The problem with option 2 is that, so far as I know, neurobiologists have yet to suggest a coherent mechanism or frame a testable hypothesis that might explain how inert matter in motion generates agential mind or emotion. There’s a lot of handwaving about “emergence.” Maybe scientists just need more time to study brain tissue, but I argue the materialist “I.O.U” approach results from an ontological confusion and that no amount of research funding will ever allow us to solve the “mind from matter” problem. This is not just a “hard problem,” as David Chalmers has argued; it is an impossible problem. The solution must be metaphysical, not scientific. Which is to say, we need to unask the question “How does mind emerge from matter?” and instead re-imagine what we thought we meant by “matter” and by “mind.” We need to become critical of what Whitehead called modern science’s bifurcation of nature and go back to the ontological drawing board to construct less abstract categories that better describe and elucidate our experience of ourselves in nature. This is precisely what Whitehead attempts to do in Process & Reality and other texts.

The version of panpsychism I have extracted from Whitehead does not suggest that “consciousness” has been present since the beginning of evolution, if by “consciousness” we mean conscious self-reflection or self-awareness. Perhaps “panexperientialism” is thus a better term than “panpsychism” (as the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin has suggested). Rather than consciousness, some modicum of non-conscious experience, of “feeling” and “aim,” is what has been present in all physical organization from the beginning of cosmogenesis. As the physical organization sheltering these experients grew more complex, the quality of their experience, of their feelings and aims, grew more intense. But there is no ontological gap separating the experiential from the physical aspects of such organization. In Whitehead’s terms, what we call the “physical” aspect of nature is really just an already perished experience, “nature natured”/”Natura naturata,” if you will. And what we call the “experiential” aspect is “nature naturing”/Natura Naturans, that is, nature in the moment of its becoming. In Whitehead’s process-relational ontology, the physical and the mental are two poles of the same creative process. This is not vitalism, since vitalism assumes a dead material stuff but adds on some sort of spiritual vital force that pushes it around. There is no dead matter or spiritual force in Whitehead’s ontology. There is only the becoming and the perishing of actual occasions of experience.

Whitehead was as shocked as anyone when the relativistic and quantum revolutions destroyed the old materialist dogmas. His process-relational organic realism is his attempt to provide contemporary physics and biology with a new, more adequate ontology. This is its primary merit. In his blog post, Pigliucci expresses scorn for those who would choose panpsychism for another reason: because it makes us feel good and helps us take better care of nature:

Yes, we do need to take care of our own puny piece of Nature that we call Earth, for our own sake, if nothing else. But we can do that quite independently of either Cartesian dualism or New Age panpsychism. We can do it as material creatures endowed by evolution with the ability to reflect on what they are doing and decide whether it’s a good idea to do it.

While I think some sort connection exists between one’s ethics and one’s metaphysics, I accept that different ontologies may still inspire similar ethical stances. But pray tell: what does it mean to be “material” once science has rejected the mechanical model as inadequate? Is it anything more than “whatever the most advance science says it is?” Further, how exactly did the motion of unconscious, purposeless particles give rise to the power of conscious self-reflection, deliberate action, and moral reasoning? I’m a committed naturalist when it comes to understanding the place of consciousness in the cosmos. To me, this means our scientific conception of what nature is must leave room for the possibility of us having such knowledge of it. It seems to me that Pigliucci has some kind of unacknowledged God-trick up his sleeve when he deploys phrases like “…endowed by evolution…” in an effort to explain where we came from. Do not mistake my meaning. I do not doubt the fact of evolution. I doubt that evolution makes any sense in a materialist context. In Whitehead’s words:

“In truth, a thoroughgoing evolutionary philosophy is inconsistent with materialism. The aboriginal stuff, or material, from which a materialistic philosophy starts is incapable of evolution. This material is in itself the ultimate substance. Evolution, on the materialistic theory, is reduced to the role of being another word for the description of the changes of the external relations between portions of matter. There is nothing to evolve, because one set of external relations is as good as any other set of external relations. There can merely be change, purposeless and unprogressive. But the whole point of the modern doctrine is the evolution of the complex organisms from antecedent states of less complex organisms. The doctrine thus cries aloud for a conception of organism as fundamental for nature.”

Elsewhere in Science and the Modern World, Whitehead reminds us of modern science’s theological presuppositions. Three hundred and fifty years ago, modern science liberated itself from the Scholastic metaphysics of the Church by employing a new dualistic epistemology and a new mechanistic model of nature. But these early scientists recognized that the power of their new view of nature could not be secured without a God-trick: “Nature is efficient causes all the way down, an exchange of blind forces between particles,” they declared.  “And all of nature has been rationally designed down to the smallest detail by God, our omnipotent and omniscient Creator, and, lucky for us, God is also omnibenevolent and so shaped our souls so as to give us the capacity to know how to measure and calculate every bit of it.”

While most late modern scientists have jettisoned the theological language of their early modern fathers, it is not clear to me that they’ve avoided making the same old God-trick under another name. The point isn’t to get rid of God-talk, but to be as explicit as we can be about the role that “God” inevitably plays in our metaphysical speculations, whether materialist, idealist, dualist, or panpsychist. One way or another every school of thought must make reference to some absolute or ultimate being in terms of which all relative or finite beings are to be understood: “dead matter,” “great spirit,” “substance,” “process,” etc. If you’d prefer not to call it “God,” that’s fine with me. But if you’re going to do metaphysics at all (materialist or otherwise), you’re going to need to call this ultimate being something. If there is a “good” and we are capable of deciding to affirm it, what does this mean about the evolutionary process that created us?

“Electrons Don’t Think” by Sabine Hossenfelder

The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”


Hi Sabine.

I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.

As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.

I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:

1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)

2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)

I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.

I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.

You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”

I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.


Integrating Space-Time: Non-Dual Idealism, or Physics of the World-Soul?

Metaphysics is serious play. Serious because (if done well) it demands a reckoning with death, with limit as such, with finitude and necessity. Play because (if done well) it frees us from our perceived finitude to partake in the process of realization itself.

Materialism and idealism, though mutuality exclusive as metaphysical positions, are nonetheless symbiotically dependent on one another at a psycho-social level: their opposition is a symptom of a deeper dis-ease, an archetypal knot that thousands of years of philosophical inquiry has failed to untangle. The ideological battle between materialism and idealism is a split in the species mind. Materialists define their own courageous adherence to facts in opposition to the inflated fantasies of idealism. Similarly, idealists define their own enlightened God’s eye view in opposition to the naive confusions of materialism. Neither captures the totality on its own. The totality is itself torn asunder by their very opposition, twisted into conflict with itself.

Metaphysics (if done well) calls us toward an integral realization: we are body and spirit. Death is a necessary phase in the process of Life. Life has no meaning without death. We are logos incarnate, not simply minds in bodies or bodies in minds.

Bernardo Kastrup is a rising figure in the online philosophy world. I first encountered his thought back in 2015 when someone shared his blog post “The Threat of Panpsychism: A Warning.” I posted a response, and we were off and running (Bernardo’s response to me, my response to his response). I won’t recount what we discussed back then, but it remains relevant to what I want to discuss below.

In response to a recent post of mine on Whitehead and relativistic cosmology, an adherent of Kastrup’s non-dual idealism (@MishaRogov) engaged me in an interesting exchange. I’ve pasted it below (the link I share in my first reply is to Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology):

Footnotes2Plato on Twitter_ _Plenty of folks have argued at length that Whitehead_s cosmology offers one of the few coherent integrations of quantum and relativity theory. Eg, https___

On @MishaRogov’s suggestion, I read some of Kastrup’s more recent writings on space-time. In “The Linguistic Demon of Space-Time,” Kastrup characterizes the materialistic conception of an objective space-time as a culturally invented “demon.” He writes:

“We are—or so the demon screams—limited beings lost in the vastness of the cosmos, destined to oblivion at the moment of death. We’ve been eaten by the demon and completely lost touch with our own inherent transcendence. It is critical to realize this: it is the demon of objective space-time that robs us of our felt sense of transcendence and creates all suffering.


Kastrup’s view of space-time is a helpful foil for me. It brings my own alternative understanding of the significance of the physical cosmos into greater relief. So much of my philosophical writing is guided by what begin as vague but insistent intuitions. I only gradually work out these intuitions into what (I hope!) are consistent, coherent, adequate, and applicable ideas. Interacting with deep thinkers on the blogosphere has played a crucial role in my own philosophical development and self-understanding. I’ve tried to work out my own version of process-relational panpsychism in conversation with materialists, idealists, realists, theists, skeptics, magicians, and more. I learn something from every encounter. I have been, in a non-exclusive sense, converted to each of these perspectives at some point. I try to hold to a plurality of truths, transmuting contradictions into contrasts wherever possible.

In contrast to Kastrup’s transcendent view of space-time as illusory, my own take on space-time (elaborated in the Chiasmus of my dissertation) is descendental or incarnational. I remain unsatisfied with both the objective materialist view of space-time as a mind-independent “thing” and the subjective idealist view of it as a mental projection. Space-time is real, bot not actual, which is to say its mode of existence is as potentiality, specifically, the potentiality to relate. All the percipient actualities in the universe are internally related. Space-time is the nexus of potentiality housing these relations. Space-time is not an illusion to be dispelled; it is the royal road to the realization of ultimate relationality. We encounter the Real not by attempting to escape space-time, but by diving more deeply into it. Space-time, concretely experienced, is not as finite as it at first appears. The descent into the spatiotemporal underworld may indeed crucify our ego. But dying into the apparent finitude of space-time may open a doorway into the sublime renewal of a more integrated Self.

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.