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.

My presentation on Whitehead & Deleuze for the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition conference at Seattle University

Here’s the audio:

I’m particularly interested in what folks familiar with Deleuze think about the exchange between me and the woman in the audience during the discussion portion. Am I getting Deleuze’s general approach wrong?

Here’s the text of my paper: pact-2019-conference-presentation.pdf

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

Below is the introduction of paper I presented at a conference in L’aquila, Italy in April 2019. The conference aimed to revisit important philosophical issues related to the famous 1922 debate between Einstein and Bergson. HERE is the conference site (it is in Italian, so you’ll need to ask Google to translate it for you).

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy

“What is Time?” Bergson-Einstein Conference in L’Aquila, Italy April 4-6, 2019

By Matthew D. Segall

“What is time?” Reflecting on this ageless question stretches my imagination in several directions: I first consider the time of my own most direct and intimate experience of being alive: I was born, I live and age, and I will die, necessarily in that biological order. Each year, I watch as winter frost melts to make way for spring flowers. My interest in fundamental physics then leads me to ponder the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory: I wonder what, if any, significance my personal biography has given the deterministic mechanism and time-reversibility of Nature’s fundamental laws. I reflect on whether my experience of seasonal rhythms is reducible without remainder to the mechanical effect of a slight tilt in the rotation of our dust mote planet as it revolves in warped space-time around a massive ball of radiating plasma. Finally, my incurable philosophical itch compels me to search for some more general metaphysical scheme or wider interpretive context within which the laws of physics might find a place alongside  lived experience.

It is this quest to understand time that has brought us together for today’s conference. Physicists, theologians, businessmen, philosophers, artists—really all thoughtful human beings—have at one point or another been struck by this question and struggled to answer it in their own terms. Nearly a century ago, time was at the center of Einstein and Bergson’s debate in Paris. Centuries earlier, another influential intellect, Ben Franklin, had tried to settle accounts: “Time is money.” Centuries earlier still, Augustine had to confess that he did not know what time is (though he offered a few conjectures). And Plato, as he stared in wonder at the stars above him while inwardly contemplating the perfections of geometry, offered at least a likely story: time is a moving image of eternity.

The passage of time is both inescapably obvious and profoundly mysterious. Nothing gets to the heart of who and what we are more than time. Stars ignite, burn their atomic fuel, and go supernova, creating the heavier elements needed for conscious lifeforms like us to take shape. We are born, we age, we die. Civilizations rise and fall. None of these processes is intelligible in reverse. And yet, there has been a strong consensus among physicists for at least a century that the time of human experience, let us call it “phenomenal” or “lived time,” is, as Einstein once put, a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Everyday time is not at all what it appears to be. As Augustine admitted, time is plain as day until someone asks us to explain how it works: suddenly, we find ourselves having a hell of a time trying to make any sense of it. A recent New York Times article chronicled the growing controversy (and confusion) about seasonal changes in clock-time, so-called “daylight savings” time.1 Back in the 1920s, changes to local clock-times in US cities like Boston and Detroit led some residents to worry that an extra hour of sunlight in the evening would dry up their gardens and disturb their farm animals. The article quotes Michael Downing, author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving’s Time (Counterpoint, 2005):

“The idea of losing or gaining an hour is itself such a fantastically bad philosophical proposition that nobody knows what they’re talking about…Most people don’t even understand whether moving the clocks forward gives them more sunlight or less sunlight in the morning. They just can’t remember what it does, because it so defies logic.”

As if the time of everyday experience wasn’t strange enough already, in the equations of physics— whether classical, relativistic, or quantum—it doesn’t even matter which direction time flows, if it can even be said to “flow” at all. The one exception, perhaps, is the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to which I return later.

I cannot promise that the paper to follow won’t make an even bigger mess out of time. I can only offer a few potential pathways through the thicket in the hopes of finding some new perspectives on a very old question. I first revisit the crucial bifurcation between natural science and human experience that has informed not only our views of time but so much of modern thought and culture. Alfred North Whitehead will be my principal guide in this endeavor. Along the way I distinguish Whitehead’s process philosophy from Henri Bergson’s understanding of temporality. Though Whitehead affirmed much of Bergson’s critique of scientific materialism, he departs in crucial respects from the Frenchman’s vitalism. Finally, I draw Whitehead into conversation with the work of loop quantum gravity theorist and popular science author Carlo Rovelli. While the convergence is by no means complete, I believe there are some hopeful signs in Rovelli’s professed natural philosophy that align him with Whitehead and thus bring us closer to a philosophical reconciliation between human experience and the Nature known to science.

Schelling’s Philosophy of Freedom

The following was originally written in 2012 as a chapter in a short book titled Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.  It feels relevant given our current political situation, so I’m sharing it again.


The Nature of Human Freedom

By Matthew T. Segall

The Naturphilosoph comes to understand “Nature as subject.”1 This is not the Kantian position that nature necessarily conforms to the transcendental structure of the human mind, but rather the inverse proposition that human consciousness is itself a recapitulation of the uncanny subjectivity of nature. Where Kant says we can’t know nature in itself, and Fichte says nature is my own projection, Schelling turns us back upon the strangeness of our own humanity to ask “do we really know who and what we are, or where we came from?”

Most people turn away from what is concealed within themselves just as they turn away from the depths of the great life and shy away from the glance into the abysses of that past which are still in one just as much as the present.2

In his celebrated 1809 treatise, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, Schelling begins by exploring traditional theological, cosmological, and anthropological answers to the question of human nature. He re- emerges, not with more answers, but with surprising new questions. Schelling discovers that the freedom of human reason, rather than being above or outside nature, bottoms out into the sublime tension inherent to cosmogenesis. Freedom is found to be grounded in the eternal struggle between gravity and light, the polarity originally constitutive of nature itself.

The human freedom to decide to be good or evil, despite being grounded in nature’s primordial scission of forces, nonetheless irrevocably sets us apart from the animal kingdom. Human beings are conscious of their enactment of original sin, making it impossible to explain sin merely as a regression to brute instincts, since this would imply a lack of consciousness and freedom. For Schelling, evil is unmistakably spiritual in origin, meaning it is a possibility only for absolutely free beings. Schelling draws approvingly upon the work of his theosophical collaborator Fr. Baader:

it would be desirable that the corruption in man were only to go so far as his becoming animal; unfortunately, however, man can stand only below or above animals.3

The spiritual freedom of the human being should not be confused with a “capacity” for freedom, e.g., the ability of a consumer to choose Corn Flakes or Cheerios for breakfast, as this characterization entirely conceals the literally decisive importance of the originating act of freedom. Freedom is not a capacity or ability, as this would imply the pre-existence of some more foundational subject who could employ freedom as a means to its own ends. Freedom is the very ground of subjectivity, the abyss from which subjectivity first emerges. As a human spirit, I am essentially nothing more and nothing less than the freedom to decide for good or evil. This de-cision is the essence of my freedom—which in fact is not mine at all. It is more correct to say that I belong to freedom.4 There is no me behind or before the spiritual crisis of this originally free deed. My personality just is the decision between good and evil, a decision made eternally time and time again. Original sin—the natural human propensity to do evil—is a necessary side- effect of our independent free will. The divine freedom of which we partake forces us to live in conflict, caught between the desire to secure the particularity of our own organism and the general will of God toward universal love. For this reason, according to Schelling,

the will reacts necessarily against freedom as that which is above the creaturely and awakes in freedom the appetite for what is creaturely just as he who is seized by dizziness on a high and steep summit seems to be beckoned to plunge downward by a hidden voice.5

Such dizzying spiritual freedom, though unique, is not best understood as a special human difference, some distinct capacity present only in our species. As Jason Wirth puts it:

the kind or species that marks the human marks the place where the discrete nature of natural kinds itself returns to its originary crisis. The human kind is the kind that can complicate the discourse of natural kinds.6

Our uniqueness as humans is that we recapitulate the very essence of nature itself. Further, because nature remains our ground, the reflection of our consciousness upon this ground generates self-consciousness: humanity is nature become conscious of itself as subject. While other organisms remain submerged in the unity of natural becoming, the human, like the divine, is eternally beginning, always deciding anew to re-create itself in an attempt to overcome the irreducible otherness within itself (i.e., evil). Unlike the divine, however, for the human there is no necessary assurance that love will overcome evil, that the otherness will be dynamically re-engaged in the eternal circulation of sacred marriage. Hence the fall into history, the rise of the state, and the suffering and confusion of earthly human life wherein evil is constantly externalized and projected.

Schelling saw no hope in nationalistic politics or state bureaucracies. He believed the state was ultimately an affront to free human beings and would eventually wither away as the human spirit awakened to its true potential. Schelling characterized secular modernity by its tendency to “[push] its philanthropism all the way to the denial of evil,”7 thereby reducing the complex theological significance of sin to the more easily manageable problems of techno- science.8 The present military-industrial techno-capitalist empire can thus be said to be predicated upon the pretense that the total rationalization of human life can eliminate evil.9 After all, evil doers can quickly be destroyed by laser guided missiles launched from remote-controlled drones, depression and anxiety can be cured with mood-enhancing psychiatric chemicals, and climate change can be reversed through a bit of simple geo-engineering.

Joseph Lawrence follows Schelling in calling for a renewed inquiry into the nature of good and evil, an inquiry now even more untimely than it was in Schelling’s day—untimely because such theologically-laden concerns run counter to the self-understanding of the secular Enlightenment, whose founding myth involves the throwing off of traditional religion in favor of the supposedly self- grounding power of instrumental rationality. Lawrence asks how we are to understand modernity’s hubristic elevation of rationality to a secular religion at the same time that it prohibits genuine metaphysical or theological investigation:

If reality were recognized as truly rational, we would encourage the attempt to understand its inner meaning…we would also place our trust in it, instead of relying as heavily as we do on politics and technology to hold the world at bay. Metaphysical irrationalism is thus the deep premise of modern rationality. It alone provides the explanation for why practical and instrumental reason have achieved such dominance over theoretical reason.10

It is modernity’s repressed fear of chaos and meaninglessness, in other words, that leads it to turn away from “the big questions” in favor of the instrumental solutions and superficial palliatives of modern life. Inquiring into the essence of human freedom is especially terrifying for the narcissistic ego used to the pampering of consumer capitalism. The willing soul must learn, according to Schelling,

to stand alone before the infinite: a gigantic step, which Plato likened to death. What Dante saw inscribed on the door to hell must (in a different sense) adorn the entrance to philosophy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Whoever wants truly to philosophize must be stripped of all hope, all desire, all longing. He must want nothing, know nothing, feel his naked impoverishment, and be capable of surrendering everything for the sake of winning its return…one will have to be taken quite simply into the beginning, to be born anew.11

Even the divine has to pass through the purifying fire of the abyss and overcome the fear of existence in order to realize its creative freedom.12 Unlike human beings, who have the ethical community to console them, for God, the primal being, there is no one else to come to its aid: “in its stultifying solitude…[God] must fight its way through chaos for itself, utterly alone.”13 Human beings can take refuge in the social mores of the day, which in the consumer capitalist context offer an untold number of options for temporary escapist diversion from the soul’s inevitable encounter with the purifying fires of eternity. When radical evil does break through the thin veneer of bourgeois social order, it is always neatly localized in a deranged criminal who can be impersonally (and so guiltlessly) executed by the state.14

Unlike Hegel, who deified the state as an end in itself, Schelling understood it as a means made necessary by the fall, nature’s way of maintaining some semblance of social order given the sinfulness of individuals.15 Schelling realized the paradoxical results of any attempt to justify the existence of the state, since if a just state were able to establish the conditions necessary for the genuine moral freedom of its citizens, this would imply that it no longer reserved the right to exercise coercive force to uphold its laws, and to that extent, that it no longer served a social function and so could be dissolved.16 Though an aging Schelling was dismissed as a reactionary apologist for the conservative Christianity of the Prussian state by Engels,17 Lawrence argues for a revolutionary Schelling who consistently sought liberation for humanity through ethical renewal and authentic religiosity, rather than state politics.18 The true but greatly misunderstood task of the modern age, according to Schelling, “is to shrink the state itself…in every form.”19 Even if the state cannot be abolished outright, a redeemed humanity would at least ensure that “the state…progressively [divested] itself of the blind force that governs it, [transfiguring] this force into intelligence.”20 Far from an apologist for state power, while still in Munich Schelling had openly defied the Bavarian government by lecturing on theological issues, and when he was called to Berlin by the Prussian king in 1841, he agreed only on the condition that he be granted complete academic freedom.21

From Schelling’s perspective, true human salvation does not lie in the false gods of the market and the state, which in their attempt to repress and deny the chaotic abyss at the root of nature only further empower it. Evil becomes real precisely when a human being or society denies the evil in itself to wage war against it in others. It is precisely in order to avoid feeding this “dialectic of revenge”22 that Jesus tells his disciples, “resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”23 Love can only exist along side the possibility of evil, since both are grounded in freedom. To eliminate the possibility of evil would be to eliminate freedom and therefore love.

By metaphysically rooting evil in the darkness of divine nature, Schelling transforms the traditional moral obsession with theodicy into the aesthetics of theogonic tragedy.24 Instead of interpreting suffering as the punishment of a vengeful God, as in traditional theodicies, Schelling repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering is inherent to the creative process itself, even for God. It was God who, in an eternally past act of absolute love, provided “the prototype of all suffering innocents.”25 Schelling calls us to live up to the nature of our complicated human kind by reconciling our sense of fallenness with our divine likeness, thereby finding the endurance necessary to pass through the spirit-forging fire of God’s eternal beginning to be born again, now not only of water but also of spirit.26

Devin Zane Shaw critiques what he calls Schelling’s “mythologization of politics” from a Marxist perspective, arguing that he mystifies the material conditions of social relations by emphasizing spiritual cultivation (Bildung) over democratic political engagement.27 Shaw seems to misunderstand Schelling’s call for the mythopoeic revitalization of the public sphere by conflating it with totalitarianism:

the a priori conception of universality as organic totality ignores or disregards the fact that the political space itself is the domain of the struggle over what the definition of universality (and political inclusion) is.28

While it is not misleading to refer to Schelling’s conception of the ideal relationship between individuals and their community as “organic,” this relationship need not be “totalizing” in the sense that Shaw suggests. From his time as a young professor in Jena through to his role as Secretary General of the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (a position he held from 1808 to 1821), Schelling sought the transformation of society by way of philosophical education.29 The highest form of social organization could not be imposed externally by state magistrates pretending to some a priori knowledge of true universality; rather, Schelling saw this form emerging freely from the citizenry itself as a result of their artistic, scientific, and religious cultivation.

This rigor of enculturation, like the rigor of the life in nature, is the kernel out of which the first true grace and divinity poor forth like blood.30

Contrary to Shaw’s claim that Schelling disregards the importance of the democratic struggle for political inclusion, Schelling recognized that genuine democracy is only possible given a citizenry aware of the cosmological, anthropological, and theological grounds of authentic freedom. Without a philosophical culture capable of sustaining inquiry into the cosmic and spiritual depths of human nature, the equality rightly demanded by members of democratic societies can only devolve into the leveling homogenization of consumer capitalism, where freedom is reduced to the ability to identify with the corporate brand of one’s choice. The trivialization and inversion of freedom inherent to techno-capitalism makes human beings forgetful of their divine-cosmic ground, functioning not only to alienate individuals from their communities, but humanity from earth.31

 

Footnotes

1 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 202.

2 Schelling, The Ages of the World, trans. Wirth, 207-208.

3 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 40.

4 Martin Heidegger, Schellings Abhandlung Über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit (1809), trans. Joan Stambaugh, 9.

5 Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 47.

6 Wirth, The Conspiracy of Life, 197.

7 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 7:371.

8 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 169.

9 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 167.

10 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 170.

11 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Lawrence, 9:217-218.

12 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 40; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

13 Schelling, The Ages of the World, ed. Schröter, trans. Lawrence, 43; “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181

14 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

15 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 25.

16 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, 7:461-462; Devin Lane Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 140-141.

17 Alberto Toscano, “Philosophy and the Experience of Construction,” The New Schelling, 106-107.

18 Lawrence, “Philosophical Religion and the Quest for Authenticity,” Schelling Now, 26.

19 Schelling, Grundlegung der Positiven Philosophie: Münchener Vorlesung WS 1832/33 and SS 1833, ed. Horst Fuhrmans, trans. Matthews, 235.

20 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Shaw, 7:464-465.

21 Schelling, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Matthews, 10.

22 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 172.

23 Matthew 5:39.

24 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 174.

25 Lawrence, “Schelling’s Metaphysics of Evil,” The New Schelling, 181.

26 John 3:5.

27 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 116.

28 Shaw, Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, 117.

29 Schelling, On University Studies, 22.

30 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Wirth, I/7, 393.

31 Such freedom is “inverted” because it elevates the periphery (our animal egotism) over the Center (our spiritual potential for love); Schelling, Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, trans. Love and Schmidt, 34-36.

Why German Idealism Matters (The Side View)

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

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

Mind and Nature in German Idealism, a graduate course

mind-and-nature-in-german-idealism-flyer

I’m very excited to teach a 10-week online course at CIIS next semester (Spring 2017, running from Jan – Mar) called Mind and Nature in German Idealism. The course includes readings and lectures on Kant, Fichte, Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling. Note that you do not need to be enrolled in a graduate program at CIIS in order to take the course. You can also apply for “special student” status (if you want the 2 units of credit), or you can audit (if you don’t care about the academic credit). Contact me if you have any questions (msegall@ciis.edu).

Here is the tentative syllabus.

Reflections on Bruno Latour’s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence,” Ch. 4: Learning to Make Room

I’m participating in a reading group with about 40 other scholars focusing on Bruno Latour‘s recently published book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (2013). This week it is my turn to comment on Ch. 4, which is titled “Learning to Make Room.” I’m going to cross-post my comments here, as well as on the blog we’ve set up for the reading group (aimegroup.wordpress.com). If you want to respond to anything I’ve said here, please do so on the AIME group blog so that all the comments will be assembled in the same place.

…………………………….

Introducing the Beings of Reproduction,
Instituting ‘A Whole New Diplomacy’ 

by Matthew David Segall

   In chapter 4 of his inquiry into modes of existence, Latour begins the difficult task of appropriately enunciating how it came to be that the Moderns, despite having conquered the whole world, still lack the room to deploy the values––legal, moral, fictional, political, economical, spiritual, psychological––that they so cherish. Even the values of physical science became impossible to localize and equip after the entire earth and sky were submerged in an abstract space-time filled by the mathematical motion of matter-energy. Where, it must be asked, is the Mind that measures, calculates, and understands the infinite system of the Universe standing? On whose authority was this Mind granted access to the Ideas at work in Nature? Latour’s inquiry into the modes of existence cannot even begin until after the Cartesian Constitution leading us to repeat such poorly posed questions has been torn to shreds.

There is hope for the values of the Moderns, if only they are willing to give up all the bad habits and confused composites that come along with the “institution of matter” (118). Ecologizing Modernity will require instituting “a whole new diplomacy” (103) adequate to a pluriverse in which neither Nature nor the Mind can be said to exist. The alternative non-Naturalist, non-Idealist Constitution that Latour is trying to enunciate has summoned many modes of existence to the negotiating table. In chapter 4, Latour introduces us in particular to the beings of reproduction [REP]. He also attempts to disamalgamate the poorly formed composite causing a confusion of the beings of reproduction with the immutable mobiles of reference [REP ~ REF]. This confusion is the “double category mistake” through which “the notion of ‘matter’ emerges” (110). Poor Descartes gets blamed for more than his fair share of philosophical damage (we might at least admire his genius before we shame him for his mistakes), but Latour cannot avoid dating the emergence of the idea of matter to his (in)famous meditations. After Descartes, the Modern world “[begins] to believe that the thought of matter describes real things, whereas it is only the way the res cogitans–itself dreamed up–is going to start imagining matter” (110).

Imagine instead that the nascent, still scattered people of Gaia are waking up from Descartes’ dream. Imagine that the flood of Materialism has receded, and that all the faux battles waged by “spiritualists” against “reductionists” have grown quiet for lack of interest. Imagine you are an Earthling once again, returned from outer space to re-inhabit the solid ground of common sense experience. The interlacing ecological complexity of our common sense world of earth and sky, of plants, animals, and persons, makes the mathematizable quantum and relativistic realms of science look like “child’s play” in comparison (120). The world of common sense experience is more unfathomable, more mysterious, than the micro- and macroscopic worlds described by physicists, since, as Latour reminds his readers, the former “has been infinitely less explored than the other!” Latour wants to re-introduce Moderns––a people so obsessed with their theories of matter that they’ve entirely neglected the material practices that make these theories possible––to the beings of reproduction [REP] that, for several centuries now, have been so rudely silenced by the bizarre institution of matter. One of these beings, Gaia––no longer content to remain the unacknowledged background of human history––is now intruding to return the favor by rudely ignoring the Modern pretension to a risk free, double-click Science that might grant total control over a 3+1 dimensional world, as if this world were made of pure “knowability” (112, 121). Such a world would leave no room for life. Luckily, Gaia is no homogeneous substance or geometrical form, but a proliferating ecology of expressive, inventive, and active beings, each of whom, like us, is at risk from moment to moment of disappearing forever should they fail to be articulate, original, or insistent enough to subsist as themselves in an environs swarming with differences (99-101). Latour introduces us to the beings of reproduction [REP] so that the “matter” of materialism, “the most idealist of the products of the mind,” can be de-idealized (106).

Even the so-called “inert” entities of the inorganic world forcefully insist and express themselves. The concept of “force” that has proven so irreplaceable to physicists in their study of microscopic particles and far away galaxies is, we should remember, a concept that emerges from and gains its meaning only by continual reference to experience, to our feelings of attraction or repulsion, of being forced, in one way or another, by the insistent presence of an other. As Schelling, speaking to the Newtonian scientist, wrote in his Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1803),

“you can in no way make intelligible what a force might be independent of you. For force as such makes itself known only to your feeling. Yet feeling alone gives you no objective concepts. At the same time you make objective use of those forces. For you explain the movement of celestial bodies–universal gravitation–by forces of attraction and maintain that in this…you have [a physical ground of explanation for] these phenomena” (transl. by Harris and Heath, CUP, 1988, p. 18).

In point of fact, experience can grant us no such physical principles, if by “physical” it is meant that which exists “outside” experience, in the so-called “external world” of mute matter in motion. All our scientific knowledge of distant quasars and black holes hits its mark, not because the Mind has correctly represented the formal essences of Nature, but because our organism (equipped with its world-wide network of geometrical notations, telescopes, satellites, computers, and well-trained peers) has succeeded in translating the lines of force at work outside itself into the feelings of life at work within itself. All our knowledge, no matter how abstract, must make its final appeal in the courtroom of experience, since the court of Reason, having disavowed the the facts of feeling involved in all its acts of knowing, has as a result been cut off from its only means of concrete relation to reality. If everything were submerged in abstract “space-time/matter-energy,” science could never follow the threads of experience, could never arrive at the immanence of a truly de-idealized material (106).

It is not entirely clear at this point if Latour is willing to follow Schelling and Whitehead all the way to a full-blown panexperiential ontology. But what is obvious is that the beings of reproduction [REP], whether physical “lines of force” or biological “lineages,” do not mutely persist like undead zombies: to keep on existing as material existents, they must loudly insist that their values matter. Else they risk extinction. There is no “blind necessity” maintaining the substance of these beings. They can never rest inertly in a simultaneous sameness, nor can they succeed at succession through mere inertial momentum. The beings of reproduction must continually re-produce themselves by passing into and through others, taking little leaps to cross the hiatuses punctuating this world at every twist and turn of its becoming. These tiny transcendences force beings to risk passing through each other in order to remain in existence as themselves: “To obtain being, otherness is required. Sameness is purchased, as it were, at the price of alterations” (110).

When Science forgets the beings of reproduction [REP] by confusing them with its own mode of existence [REF], the formal knowledge produced and employed by it begins to seem as though it dropped into the minds of scientists from heaven. Luckily, the careful practice of scientific abstraction can easily be shown to be a concrete job at every step (110). The material universe referenced [REF] by Modern Science is not made up of objective facts that might speak for themselves and so put an end to every human debate (119). Rather, scientific knowledge “is the labor of a whole chain of proof workers, from those whose hands are black with dirt to those whose hands are white with chalk” (110). Science is a local practice, after all. Its knowledge [REF] is relative to the subsistence [REP] of its networks. Scientists––including their “languages, bodies, ideas, and institutions” (102)––are beings of reproduction [REP] contingently composed and recomposed from moment to moment by the same lineages and lines of force they pretend to study as “matter” whenever it appears “outside” themselves. We need not fear the eternal silence of infinite space, nor the mute mindlessness of inert matter. No, we have never been Modern, we have never lived in a geometrical space, and “this whole matter of matter has to have remained just a simple mind game” (117). We can imagine another, more coherent world: a world that leaves us room not only to think, but to breathe, to live. If we grow sensitive again to the multitude of earthly existents within and around us–to the swarming differences articulating the face of Gaia–maybe we can annunciate an ecological alternative to Modernity before it is too late, before the “grave events” (122) already expected of the coming century ramify so severely that the adventure of civilization has its unacknowledged ground pulled out from beneath its feet. Perhaps Hegel was partially right: after several thousand years of self-negation, human history has reached its end. But it has ended only so the Moderns (or the people who come after them) might reawaken to the multi-billion year geostory they have been sleepwalking through.

So, can we follow Latour’s diagnosis of the “sort of coherent madness” (115) motivating Modernity’s mistaken amalgamations and bifurcations? Are we ready to give up the Mind of Science, with its universal Knowledge and its obedient Nature, in exchange for the far messier pluriversal practices of the well-equipped sciences? Are we willing to welcome the lively beings of reproduction back to the negotiating table, or must we continue to drown out their multiplex voices in a Flood of res extensa-cogitans (112)? Are we ready yet to grasp the modes of existence, not as different representations of the same underlying reality (that discovered and described by Science), but as uniquely enacted realities, each in their own right?

The Cosmic Body by Alan Watts

Let’s spend some time with Alan Watts. I recommend a decent dose of sour diesel just prior to pushing play.

So then, is it true? Is the modern idea of consciousness–the so-called “me,” my “I,” the “ego”–a hallucination, a sort of muscle knot inside our forehead in sorry need of a meditative massage? Is our battle with a mechanical nature just a terrible nightmare, a dream that our true identity will soon awaken from?