Philosophy Blogging, OOO/SR, Nihilism, and God

It is difficult to describe the effects of the blogosphere on consciousness, especially when the information communicated via blogs pretends to be philosophical. The blog, as a medium, has not yet been swallowed as radio by TV, or the printed word by the digital hyperlink, and so gaining perspective on its effects remains difficult. We’re still in it, like a child in her mother’s womb. I think by the graces of, and so cannot yet understand, this electronic medium. I think the obscurity of the blogosphere’s effects are magnified for academic philosophers, since there are no disciplinary boundaries carving it up in order to assure that interlocutors play the same language games (which is what always happens at university conferences). Academic philosophy, as practiced at conferences and published in journals, is usually myopically specialized. Arguments take place within some narrow field of relevance, while the truly important questions of life on earth remain backgrounded. This is, of course, a caricature. But so long as we are caricaturing, let us hear from Alan Watts:

“This is the current movement in philosophy: logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence. It’s a meaningless concept. Therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia. No good philosopher lays awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing. A philosopher today is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at 9 and leaves at 5. He does philosophy during the day—which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning and if so what. He would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it.”

Even where philosophy begins not with pretense, but with the love of wonder and the desire to know the nature of things, it remains subject to the effects on consciousness of the variety of species of media used to communicate it. Modern consciousness, despite its claim to have dropped sophistry for science,  learns to think only given the cognitive augmentation provided by the alphabet.* Postmodern consciousness, similarly, thinks by the graces of the blogosphere, the apogee of the electronic medium. The democratization of information has now become at least technologically feasible, if not politically actual. I don’t think the rise of the blog signals the end of the university (or at least I should hope not), but it does mean that the individual is now shouldering a good deal more of the weight of human knowledge than before.

I am in graduate school myself, though I attend CIIS, an academically marginalized school started by an Indian yogi in the middle of the New Age capital of the world (Watts was once on the faculty). It is impossible for me to escape this context, even though I aim to think individually much in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment…” –Self-Reliance

Thought does not take place in a vacuum, however. Philosophy is not best done alone in the woods. Institutions, with all due respect to the likes of Emerson and Thoreau, are an indispensable part of the evolution of consciousness. The blogosphere is alluring to me because it is both individualizing and institutionalizing. It is a distributed institution of localized individuals, each capable of participating in the co-production of a planetary ecology of ideas, images, and symbols unhindered by the disciplinary boundaries of traditional universities.

This is the ideal, at least. All of this meta-reflection on philosophy blogging is by way of introduction to some final thoughts in response to what is by now old news, namely the discussion surrounding nihilism and theology that took place earlier this month amongst OOOers. Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, Adam RobbertJason Hills, Tom SparrowLeon Niemoczynski, and others all took part.

More recently, Kris Coffield over at Fractured Politics has posted a summary and some suggestions. I wanted to clarify some assumptions he makes regarding my position.

I have argued that, without some divine function (whether of the theist, pantheist, or panentheist variety), ideas and meanings can have no reality in the universe. I make this claim in order to remain metaphysically consistent, not because I think atheism is immoral. Obviously, atheists can still be ethical people, operating in the world with meaning, purpose, and even humanitarian idealism. I would never dispute this. What I have argued is that atheists who are also scientific materialists/naturalists risk falling into blatant contradiction unless they are able to articulate how thinking, feeling, and willing (faculties normally associated with consciousness) remain possible despite their metaphysical commitment to a thoroughly non-teleological, disenchanted cosmology. If it is the case that the universe operates according to efficient causality alone (as most materialists traditionally assert), then how is it that human beings are capable of entertaining ideas and engaging in meaningful projects? The validity of scientific knowledge rests upon the assumption that the thoughts and purposes of scientists are real. The atheistic materialist is left with two options in order to remain consistent with this assumption: either ideas and meanings are uniquely human capacities not present in the rest of the universe, or human consciousness itself is an epiphenomenal illusion that neuroscience will eventually explain in mechanistic terms. I think both of these options are inadequate: emergentist dualism is too anthropocentric, and eliminativist monism is too mechanomorpic. I maintain that the human soul is not ontologically distinct from the rest of the universe because the universe is ensouled. Whitehead’s panentheist conception of God functions in a way similar to the World-Soul as described in Timaeus; only, instead of actively shaping passive matter as Plato’s demiurge, Whitehead’s dipolar God bends the infinitely diversifying flow of Creativity into the finite occasions of a unifying Cosmos (and is bent, in turn, by these same occasions).

Coffield argues that, despite my apparent support of the anthrodecentric tendencies of OOO, I am “ultimately unable to escape” a human-centric ontology. He continues:

“Even if the noosphere is more putatively sophisticated than the nonhuman objectsphere (a debatable point), it does not follow, from an object-orientation, that the relations of the former should be given precedence over the latter. Instead, as Levi Bryant has previously indicated, existence entails perpetual differentiation, such that to be is to differ. Thus, the very concept of a singular noosphere or inanimate objectsphere is conceptually shaky, and any entity inserted to bridge the sides of this infinitely regressive binary—God, game, golden goose, or Gandalf—is rendered, to borrow Morton’s word, irrelevant.”

Much of the philosophizing I do on this blog reflects my struggle to steer clear of all binaries by weaving Wisdom’s wandering story into a differentiated whole. There are many objects, many perspectives, both human-related and not. In calling them all objects, I aim to think the Absolute, or the identity of identity and difference. My philosophizing is a cosmologizing, and in that sense, all my thinking is in the service of anthropogenesis. I aim to cosmologize the human by anthropomorphizing the Cosmos. Perhaps this sounds tautological, but if we think in terms of process or genesis instead of being or ontos, the Anthropic Principle becomes among the most profound of metaphysical insights. Anthropos is already implicit in Cosmos, not because our particular species represents the supreme achievement of the universe, but because thinking has always been a more than human activity rooted in the nature of reality itself.

“The forces which are at work inside my body”, suggests Rudolf Steiner,

“…are the same as those which exist outside. Therefore I am really identical with the objects; not, however, “I” in so far as I am a perception of myself as subject, but “I” in so far as I am a part of the universal world process […] The universal, primordial Being permeating all humanity thus takes hold of us through our thinking. Life within reality, filled with thought content, is at the same time life in God.” –Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path, p. 98 and 236

I do not think that the noösphere should take precedence over the non-human universe, because I do not conceive of the universe as lacking in νοῦς or ψυχή. The noösphere is a cosmic event, something the whole of Gaia is doing in conjunction with the solar system and galaxy within which it is nested. God, or the World-Soul (ψυχή κόσμου), is not irrelevant to philosophy if the philosopher hopes to think the Cosmos. If, as Bryant suggests, “to be is to differ,” then it is nihilism, indeed, that we are left with. Not that I want to homogenize the individualities of reality; I would just rephrase Bryant’s important insight: “to become is to differ.” Process philosophy is then an attempt to identify and re-enact the divine aim of creative differentiation, to participate in its latent holotropic tendencies by uncovering the divine presence in all temporal things. Only then does the Universe become a reality.

Coffield continues:

“If nihilism fears really are concerns over the implications of anthrodecentrism (a clever term coined by Segall) for value judgement, then demonstrating the capacity for deriving value under realist conditions may allay anxiety about affirmations of meaninglessness, making the more radical articulations of object-oriented ontology mare palatable. Crafting a coherent variant of anthrodecentric normativity can be accomplished, in one sense, through an appeal to naturalistic realism…[or] a radically flattened version of natural selection [productive of] moral norms consonant with an instrumental social rationality, wherein moral arrangements that impede group interests animate the potential for unrest, creating feedback that promotes the development of norms aligned with social rationality.”

In order to avoid being misunderstood as advocating subject-centrism over object-centrism, or unity over variety, or hierarchy over ecology, I should further unpack my cosmotheandrism. Attempts to naturalize our moral needs/wants in this way seems to me to be a form of greedy reductionism neglectful of the extent to which the ultimate values of the Universe pre-exist the species level, since it is these values (like Beauty, Goodness, and Truth) that provide the metaphysical condition for the possibility of local accomplishments of normativity. Reducing morality to an accident of social and/or natural selection does not lead to moral realism, but to relativism. If we seek an object-orientation in ethics, then value must be rooted in the world process itself. Our human characteristics are microcosmic inflections of the divine character of the macrocosm.

This microcosm-macrocosm relation is not deterministic or coercive, such that God becomes responsible for every decision made by human beings or any other organism. The World-Soul is not a universal tyrant, but a poet, who, “with tender patience [leads] it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Whitehead goes on:

“God and the World are the contrasted opposites in terms of which Creativity achieves its supreme task of transforming disjoined multiplicity, with its diversities in opposition, into concrescent unity, with its diversities in contrast […] God and the World stand over against each other, expressing the final metaphysical truth that appetitive vision and physical enjoyment have equal claim to priority in creation. But no two actualities can be torn apart: each is all in all. Thus each temporal occasion embodies God, and is embodied in God. In God’s nature, permanence is primordial and flux is derivative from the World: in the World’s nature, flux is primordial and permanence is derivative from God. Also the World’s nature is a primordial datum for God; and God’s nature is a primordial datum for the World. Creation achieves the reconciliation of permanence and flux when it has reached its final term which is everlastingness—the Apotheosis of the World. Opposed elements stand to each other in mutual requirement. In their unity, they inhibit or contrast. God and the World stand to each other in this op-posed requirement. God is the infinite ground of all mentality, the unity of vision seeking physical multiplicity. The World is the multiplicity of finites, actualities seeking a perfected unity. Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty” (ibid., p. 348-349).

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*The alphabet begins with A. A is for aleph, א, which to a mystic’s ear symbolizes to the polar unity (or Trinitarity) of God:

“The letter can been seen as being composed of [1] an upper yud, [2] a lower yud, and [3] a vav leaning on a diagonal. [1]The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffible aspects of God while [2]the lower yud represents God’s revelation and presence in the world. [3]The vav (“hook”) connects the two realms.” –Wikipedia

The Ears, Eyes, and Mind of the Wor(l)d

What is language, and how did it evolve? The flurry of recent posts concerned with media ecology and the way the content of philosophical thinking depends upon the form in which it is expressed has redirected my attention to the significance of the Word. I think grammatically, which is to say that my alphabetic consciousness, whether text or hyper-text based, conforms to a preconscious regime of universally imposed rules of meaning. I cannot think but by assuming the meaningfulness of the public language given to me at birth. I cannot get beyond the givenness of this language in order to inspect its legitimacy. I can only explore it from within. Language has no outside. Truth, then, is a matter of coherence, rather than correspondence. Or at least philosophical thinking cannot begin but by having faith in the meaning-making capacity of its culturally inherited tongue.

Contra Brassier, intelligibility cannot be separated from meaning. Wisdom can be reached with logic, but logic itself originates in the songs of the mouth and the perception/passion of the h/ear/t. Science has telescoped vision and mathematized reason to reach distances divine in time, but it has not found chaos and disorder even at the edge of the universe. There, at the end of time as we know it, the scientific imagination witnesses the creation of space in itself. Mind you, this is not the creation of any thing in particular, but the creation of the very possibility of there being things at all. Scientific consciousness has now known its own conditions of possibility. Brassier believes this entails nihilism. He believes it despite his eliminativist ploy to elevate cognition beyond its contextual emergence out of “folk psychology,” or common sense. The fact is that our having come to see and to understand that our universe has a beginning in space-time is no demotion of the human being. The speculative claims of scientific investigation are still dependent upon the meaning of language (even if mathematical) and the sensuality of the body (even if technologically extended). Scientific cosmology is only disorienting if aesthetic participation in the phenomena it has revealed lags behind their cognitive theorization. Not only has human finitude been thought, it has been seen, and seen through! And what a sublime sight! We can witness the creation of our finite universe and know nonetheless that this universe is unbounded. Space is not inside of or given within a bigger space: it has no outside. Space is self-forming. The world is full of the Word.

Media Ecology and the Blogosphere

Knowledge Ecology blogged earlier today about the difference between blogging and publishing books, which has become an issue of contention within “the speculative realist movement,” so called, since Ray Brassier’s disparaging comment in an interview last year. Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Levi Bryant all chimed in with responses. Below is my response:

In light of McLuhan’s theory of how new media technologies develop by swallowing prior mediums (similar to Hegel’s Aufheben, no?), perhaps we 20-somethings, whose capacity to think and to communicate can hardly be understood in isolation from electronic media like the Internet, have a unique perspective on the matter.

Were we ever, strictly speaking, literate? I don’t think so. My consciousness may still have been forged by text, but not the printed word of prior generations. Electronic texts are hyper-texts that defy the logic of linear, rational consciousness characteristic of 18th and 19th century literacy. The word has been etherealized by the electronic medium of the blog and is no longer bound to the stubborn materiality of books, nor to the ideological conservatism of the publishing industry.

Hyper-text gives the word greater freedom in time and space, linking it to an increasingly planet-wide network of contexts whose informational resources are available for consumption at the speed of light.

It’s important to recognize, however, the way the Internet represents a sort of culmination of capitalism. On a trivial level, without capitalism and the military-industrial complex, the technological infrastructure that provides the material conditions for our ethereal exchanges would not exist; but on a deeper level, the blogosphere has made truth something to be competed for within a free market (at least free to those who can afford Internet access).

Of course, academic publishing may still provide the necessary hierarchy of expertise protecting well-researched truth claims from the laissez-faire democratization that can occur online. Like the blogosphere, however, these hierarchies are still only justified by the strength of their networks and alliances.

In the end, I prefer to feel the weight of the written word in my hand. Books may not be quite as ethereal a mode of expression as blogs, but their imposing permanence sometimes makes the former seem ephemeral.