Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,

Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.

-William Blake

Read the engaging and wide-ranging post hereThe Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I’ve written a few posts bringing Whitehead into conversation with Nietzsche that unpack my perspective a bit regarding nihilism as a pathological transitional phase.

converted PNM file

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:

I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

The “innocence of becoming”: Nietzsche, Whitehead, and Nihilism as a Pathological Transitional Stage between Monism and Pluralism

It is remarkable how similar Nietzsche’s musings on perspectivism are to Whitehead’s process-relational ontology. I was reminded of their congruence while re-reading excerpts from Nietzsche’s The Will to Power (published in Mark Taylor’s Deconstruction in Context). Of course, one might read Whitehead’s somewhat Platonic cosmological scheme (which includes reformed conceptions of teleology, god, eternal objects, and so on) as directly opposed to Nietzsche’s purely immanent approach. In this post, I want to suggest that Whitehead’s process-relational cosmology at least indicates one way forward toward a post-nihilistic theory and practice.

Metamorphosis

Nihilism, according to Nietzsche, is a “psychological state” characterized by the feeling of “being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long” with the belief that the event we call “the universe” is about something, that “something is to be achieved through the process–and now one realizes that becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing” (DiC, 192). Nietzsche’s first target in dismissing the supposed aim or telos of cosmic evolution seems to be the notion, long cherished by philosophers and theologians alike, that humanity is at the center of things and/or is the end toward which all things move. His second target is the human desire to achieve a “unity” of knowledge based in some supposed ontological monism: “underneath all becoming there is no grand unity” (DiC, 193). Finally, his third target is the metaphysical belief in a “true world.” Instead of the ancient philosophical dichotomy between the one true reality of Being and the many false appearances of becoming, Nietzsche desires to affirm “the reality of becoming as the only reality.” Unfortunately, despite his desire to affirm such an aimless, pluralistic, processual reality, Nietzsche finds himself stuck in a sort of nihilistic stasis: “one…cannot endure this world though one does not want to deny it.”

“Nihilism represents a pathological transitional stage,” writes Nietzsche. “What is pathological,” he continues, “is the tremendous generalization, the inference that there is no meaning at all” (DiC, 194). In other words, once the three traditional categories of Reason–Aim, Unity, Being–have been shown not to apply to the actual universe, but only to a fictitious universe invented by our psychological need for existential security, there remains the constructive task of re-evaluating the universe according to more adequate categories. “Adequate” not according to the standards of abstract Reason, which serve only to construe reality as though human consciousness was “the meaning and measure of the value of things,” but rather categories adequate to the standard of life itself, namely, the will to power.

“In order for a particular species to maintain itself and increase its power, its conception of reality must comprehend enough of the calculable and constant for it to base a scheme of behavior on it. The utility of preservation–not some abstract-theoretical need not to be deceived–stands as the motive behind the development of the organs of knowledge–they develop in such a way that their observations suffice for our preservation. In other words: the measure of the desire for knowledge depends upon the measure to which the will to power grows in a species: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service” (197-198).

Nietzsche’s interpretation of the human intellect is nearly identical to the evolutionary epistemology articulated by Bergson and James, perhaps Whitehead’s two most important philosophical influences. This view of the intellect as a pragmatic survival mechanism rather than a revealer of objective truth demands a total re-imagination of philosophy’s methods and goals. For Bergson, it meant abandoning intellect (at least for the purposes of philosophy) and developing a new organ of perception: philosophical intuition. For James, it meant construing philosophy “as more a matter of passionate vision than of logic…logic only finding reasons for the vision afterwards” (A Pluralistic Universe, 710). For Whitehead, it meant analogizing philosophy to “imaginative art” (Modes of Thought, 117). Whitehead continues, in a rather Nietzschean vein: “The degeneracy of mankind is distinguished from its uprise by the dominance of chill abstractions, divorced from aesthetic content” (MoT, 123). Philosophy’s role, then, as a critic of abstractions, is to prevent “the abstractive experience” achieved by rational consciousness from “destroying its own massive basis for survival.” In Nietzsche’s terms, a post-nihilist philosophy must continually remind us that the concept “leaf” is but a passing puff of air compared with “the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth,” that is, the encounter with actual leaves, no two of which are ever the same (On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense, excerpted in DiC, 218-219).

For Nietzsche, as for Whitehead, the classical concept of “Substance,” that most abstract and stable of eternal ideas, is to be replaced with the processual concept of Power. “The essence of power,” writes Whitehead,

“is the drive towards aesthetic worth for its own sake…It constitutes the drive of the universe. It is efficient cause, maintaining its power of survival. It is final cause, maintaining in the creature its appetition for creation” (MoT, 119).

But wait… Doesn’t this new concept of power sneak teleology back into our conception of the universe? Isn’t this just a regressive slide back into a pre-nihilistic psychology, rather than its overcoming? Here is where Nietzsche’s perspectivism comes into play. While he denies some overarching Meaning underlying all cosmic existence, Nietzsche does not deny meaning outright. Rather, he pluralizes it: the universe “has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings” (DiC, 198). In other words, Whitehead’s rendering of the concept of power as not simply an efficient, but also a final cause, is not the imposition of a Single Destination toward which all creatures are heading. Rather, each and every individual creature is free to create its own meaning: “…every creature different from us senses different qualities and consequently lives in a different world from that in which we live,” writes Nietzsche (DiC, 207). Do not misinterpret this pluralism of perspectives, this ontology of multiple meaning-makers, as the rather banal thesis that there are many perspectives on some underlying reality, material, ideal, or otherwise. This is not the empty sort of pluralism where a single reality is allowed to appear in many guises. “As if a world would still remain over after one deducted the perspectives!” No, this is full blown ontological pluralism:

“Every center of force adopts a perspective on the entire remainder, i.e., its own particular valuation, mode of action, and mode of resistance…There is no other mode of action whatever; and the ‘world’ is only a word for the totality of these actions. Reality consists precisely in this particular action and reaction of every individual part toward the whole … Appearance is an arranged and simplified world, at which our practical instincts have been at work; it is perfectly true of us; that is to say, we live, we are able to live in it: proof of its truth for us–the world, apart from our condition of living in it, the world that we have not reduced to our being, our logic and psychological prejudices, does not exist as a world ‘in itself’; it is essentially a world of relationships; under certain conditions it has a differing aspect from every point; its being is essentially different from every point; it presses upon every point, every point resists it…” (DiC, 207-208).

Nietzsche could very easily have been describing Whitehead’s ontology here. Of course, there remains the issue of working Whitehead’s conceptions of “God” and “eternal objects” into Nietzsche’s scheme. Can this be coherently accomplished? Whitehead’s God is meant as a secular replacement for the supernaturalist images of the past, a God who suffers with the world rather than a God who creates it from a transcendent beyond. In this sense, I think Whitehead and Nietzsche can in fact be reconciled with one another. I’ll have more to say on this point in subsequent posts… [For part two on Whitehead and Nietzsche’s process pluralisms click here].

Further reading: “Two Perspectives on Metaphysical Perspectivism: Nietzsche and Whitehead” by Donald Crosby. 

Nihilism and Groundlessness: Towards a Gaian Praxecology?

I’ve just gotten around to reading Michael/ArchiveFire‘s post last September regarding a “post-nihilistic praxis.” 

It’s got me reflecting on what the “creaturely” might mean/be after the death of God (the Creator), or what the “facticity of matter” might mean/be after its traditional opposite, the activity of spirit, has been reduced by natural science or deconstructed by post-modern philosophy. What is the “creaturely,” the “material”? Can they have a definite meaning without consideration of the (real) nature of their opposites? Do they have a ground internal to themselves? Or are they groundless? I’d say not only spirit, but matter, too lacks an internal ground. They are both grounded outside themselves, by each other.

Might we say that the need for a post-nihilistic praxis has arisen for (post)modernity precisely due to its encounter with groundlessness (i.e., the “unprethinkable,” the non-reason-able), both the groundlessness of spirit (=freedom) and the groundlessness of matter (=gravity)? The Modern project is driven by the feeling of vertigo associated with the Abgrund, which is to say the entire enterprise of Enlightenment society to manufacture a more hygienic “second nature” to replace the first has been driven by a sort of nihilism, a desire not only to kill an all good God but to kill an entirely feral Gaia, to replace him with our own intelligence (=techno-science) and to replace her with an entirely domesticated techno-oikos. A post-nihilistic praxis, or at least a rhetorical gesture towards one, seems to me to have been well expressed by Latour during his Gifford lectures. I tried my hand at such a praxis in this essay on what I’ve called Gaian praxecology

 

Reflections on nihilism as a belief system

Levi Bryant initiated a string of blog posts on nihilism with his “axioms for a dark ontology.” Attempts at Living followed HERE, and Bill Rose Thorn HERE. Both of them accept Bryant’s ontological purposelessness, but raise the important issue of developing a “post-nihilistic praxis” (see this great post by Michael/Archive Fire from last year on what comes after nihilism, and this more recent post at his new home, SyntheticZero). I do not accept Bryant’s axioms, of course (he and I have argued about this several times over the years). I think religious institutions and spiritual experiences will always be intrinsic to human individual and social reality, even if they are called by other names. Without a sense of cosmological orientation brought forth through the sort of mythospeculation shared by all religious traditions, human civilization simply would not be possible. I think the axiomatic approach Bryant articulates reflects a certain literal-mindedness that makes the religious imaginary inaccessible to him. Certainly, this literal-mindedness infects not only those of a more materialist persuasion, like Bryant, but also those of a religious bent. When religion becomes dogmatic, based upon lists of unassailable axioms and commandments written on stone tablets, the creative life of the human socius is threatened. An education in the power of imagination is the best cure for either form of literalism.

My dismissal of Bryant’s “dark ontology” is not a dismissal of the merits of immanence in philosophy. My recent essay, “Worldly Religion in Deleuze and Whitehead: On the Possibility of a Secular Divinity” (accepted by the 9th International Whitehead Conference later this year–hopefully I can find the funding to get to Poland! for a PDF of the essay, click HERE), is an attempt to articulate a philosophy of religion compatible with modern standards of belief and practice. Religion, like science, is about more than just belief in certain propositions, of course. Both religion and science are complex assemblages which include ritual practices (meditation, prayer, experimentation) and communal experiences (liturgy, peer review). Certainly, the aims of science are different from those of religion (one is largely descriptive, the other largely prescriptive), but from my Jamesian pragmatic perspective, the philosophical test of each is not to ask about the truth or falsity of their propositional claims (can we please be done with the dogmatic representational image of thought already?), but to ask about the effects of their practices on living organisms and their (noetical and physical) habitats.

Nihilism of the sort expressed by Bryant in terms of axioms like “there is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe” is itself already a sort of religious response to human life, a mythopoeic way of coping with the mystery of being, even if it is in this case a scientistic religious response whereby the epistemic limits of the scientific method have been hypostatized into a mechanistic-materialistic ontology. There is no reason to construe the facts of science in the atheistic, anti-teleological way that Bryant does. There are other interpretations of contemporary scientific cosmology, most notably that offered by Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (for a PDF of this essay, click HERE).

{Update: check out the discussion surrounding Bryant’s dark ontology over at the Integral Post-Metaphysics blog.}

Vitalism in Philosophy: “The stars are the fountain veins of God.” -Böhme

Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.

No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism'” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).

As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.

If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

Jonah Dempcy offered a critical response to Bryant’s mechanistic cosmology, building on an excerpt from the cultural historian Richard Tarnas‘ book Cosmos and Psyche (41):

“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas

Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):

Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.

And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:

Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.

I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.

I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree. 

Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):

The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.

*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).

God and the Chaosmos: Thinking with Catherine Keller

Several months ago, a discussion erupted across the SR/OOO blogosphere concerning the implications of various forms of nihilistic and theistic realism. Some of my critiques have since ended up in a Wikipedia article. In one of my responses to Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, I toyed with the idea of Whitehead’s panentheism as a kind of “wilderness theology.” A quick google search reveals that theologians have been playing with this idea for some time. Just recently, I’ve been reading Catherine Keller’s exquisitely written Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003). The book is a meditation on the first few verses of Genesis, specifically the meaning of the phrase “tohu vabohu” in the second verse. Keller disputes long established interpretations by some Church fathers who claimed that these verses depict an omnipotent God’s free creation of the universe from absolutely nothing. Creatio ex nihilo. She argues that there is no biblical basis for the ex nihilo doctrine, that Genesis in fact describes a far messier, polytonal, and co-creative event. Creatio Cooperationis.

The first two verses of Genesis are usually translated as:

1In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Keller cites the 11th century French-Jewish grammarian Rashi, whose translation of bereshit preserves its literal meaning as written without an article (not “in the beginning,” but “in beginning,” implying that God’s “beginning” is not an absolute start, but a “beginning again”). He also preserves the plural noun Elohim, usually translated by nervous monotheists into the singular God. Further, Rashi’s hermeneutical care leads him to suggest that the first verse is not a complete sentence, but a dependent clause, making the second verse a parenthetic clause and the third the independent clause (114). The first three verses, then, should read:

¹When Elohim began to create heaven and earth²–at which time the earth was tohu vabohu, darkness was on the face of the deep and the ruach was moving upon the face of the waters–³then God said, “Let there be light…”

Keller dwells rhapsodically (173-182) upon the meaning of Elohim, which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Indeed, there is a rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics that draw upon angelology to refute the ex nihilo doctrine. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as a persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Elohimic plurisingularity:

Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).

Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase tohu vabohu to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder. The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating.

These exegetic exercises, I hope, help further the cause of a wilderness theology. In my own recent effort to bring forth a creation imaginary in service of wildness (Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy), I argued that some form of theological realism will be necessary in order to counter the nihilistic myth of the market. Theology, though marred by the “light supremacism” of its patriarchal past, must be resuscitated, less the chthonic waters of the unhinged psyche continue bubble up and reap havoc upon the earth. Theology of the traditional sort may be impossible, but theology of some sort remains indispensable. Theology, without denying its scientific aim, must also become poetic. It is crucial for anthropoiesis, for humanity’s ongoing political struggle to compose a cosmos, a collective dissipative structure, between the infinity above and the entropy below. Following Keller (and other feminist theologians like Luce Irigaray), we need not merely dress theology in drag, but rather simply queer its (te)homophobic roots, such that they bring forth blossoms of an earthier hue.

And the sea can shed shimmering scales indefinitely. Her depths peel off into innumerable thin, shinning layers…And with no end in sight. -Irigaray

SR/OOO and Nihilism: a response to Harman and Bryant

I’ve already posted a short response to Harman, but I wanted to re-visit the issues explored in that post concerning the difference between Homo Sapiens, as an object among objects, and the Anthropos, as an ideal toward which every object tends. I will also try to disentangle my own “cosmotheandric” position from the generic anti-nihilism Levi Bryant has rightfully critiqued.

I should preface this by saying that Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology excites me a great deal. I think it puts philosophical heat on many of the right places in contemporary phenomenology and naturalism, where the residue of dualism and anthropocentrism is still too thick for my post-secular taste. When I suggested in an earlier post that SR/OOO needs to unpack its theological and anthropological implications, I did so with the hopeful expectation that, were an object-oriented theology, psychology, or anthropology developed, it might provide a viable alternative to the philosophical exaggerations of Creationism and Nihilism alike.

When I refer to nihilism in the context of SR/OOO, I am thinking in particular of Ray Brassier‘s eliminative materialism. As far as Brassier is concerned, the “manifest image” of the human as an ensouled organism participating in an intrinsically meaningful world should be replaced by the “scientific image” of the human as a biological machine competing for survival in an uncaring material universe. Brassier’s nihilism has several main characteristics: 1) it denies the cognitive role of myth, imagination, and intuition in human consciousness, since 2) it asserts that truth is available to scientific rationality alone, and 3) it asserts the contingency of thought for matter, and matter’s priority to thought.

I’ve written on the relation between Mythos and Logos, or story and science, before. I agree with Donna Haraway, when she writes in Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Science. (1997), that “There is no way to rationality—to actually existing worlds—outside stories, not for our species, anyway” (p. 44). Myth provides the cognitive and imaginal condition necessary for the emergence of logic and empiricism. You cannot think about ideas until after you’ve contemplated the gods; this is true in terms of both the collective history of our species and the development of an individual. Haraway makes the case that, without the Christian mythos as its cultural background, the Scientific Revolution never would have happened. The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser makes a similar case in his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin. Gebser offers an archeology of human consciousness, depicting the emergence of de-mythologized rationality (beginning with Plato, and ending, perhaps, with Hegel) as a necessary, but not sufficient phase in the evolution of consciousness. Somehow, consciousness must find a way to integrate each phase of its own evolution (Gebser distinguishes 4: archaic, magic, mythic, and mental), or face annihilation.

Bryant says he is unable to understand why one might assume SR/OOO has anything to do with nihilism, since an flat ontology doesn’t mean humans can’t still relate ethically and meaningfully with one another.

Despite the fact that humans are on equal ontological footing with other beings, this in no way leads to the disappearance of values and goals for human beings. We still value things. We still set goals for ourselves. We still evaluate things about ourselves, the world around us, society, and other people in terms of these goals, and so on. Why would all of this suddenly disappear?

I don’t think nihilism necessarily follows from a flat ontology, but it all depends on how we do the flattening. Alan Watts wasn’t exactly a systematic philosopher (he usually preferred to refer to himself as a spiritual entertainer), but he did articulate his own flavor of a flat ontology, wherein every object is essentially God in disguise:

God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama… And, so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many, many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming. To use a verse from G. K. Chesterton:

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

 It is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
I think Watts’ sense that everything is God pretending not to be God is similar to what I want to say about the Anthropos, which is not to be simply identified with Homo sapiens, but is rather a cosmic principle at work to shape the becoming of every actual entity. I take the speculative risk of suggesting that the evolution of the Cosmos is influenced by divine lures, the Anthropos being among the most pre-eminent of all such lures, or archetypes, with a taste for actualization. I’ve been influenced  here both by Carl Jung’s modern interpretation of Alchemy and Hermeticism, and Whitehead’s process theology.

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

I think Whitehead was struggling to secularize theology, such that science and religion–the study of nature and the worship of divinity–could mutually enhance one another, rather than being placed in irremediable conflict on either side of a universe bifurcated between Nature and Spirit. Bryant questions whether any good evidence exists for believing in God, but it seems that he is imagining a God who issues decrees and determines the future course of the universe in advance. Whitehead’s God has no such power, but rather is alike in kind to all other actual entities. God is with the world, not above it. God does not guarantee anything but the possibility of relevant and meaningful experience to every actual occasion. It is up to each actual occasion to decide upon its future based on its own subjective ends. There is little scientific evidence for the existence of a transcendent, law imposing God like the one Bryant is critiquing (I say “little” evidence only because of the way some physicists remain rutted in a non-historical paradigm that conceives of physical laws as arbitrarily imposed upon nature from beyond nature); but from Whitehead’s panentheistic perspective, the evidence for God is aesthetic and moral, not just scientific. That there is a Cosmos at all, rather than chaos, is evidence of Beauty’s participation in bringing the cosmic democracy of objects into (a still evolutionary and open-ended!) harmonization. That human beings are capable of struggling for Justice (even if it remains largely an ideal imperfectly realized) is evidence that God’s infinite love for each and every entity is ingredient in our more limited experience of entities. And finally, that human beings are capable of doing metaphysics and philosophy so as to reveal the inner workings of reality is evidence that a deeper Intelligence is involved in bringing forth both the knower and the known.

Last month, Bryant articulated what he calls a “wilderness ontology.” I’m very sympathetic to the idea that humans not be given special status, and would like to extend it into new terrain. I can’t fully unpack its implications at the moment, but what of the possibility of a “wilderness theology,” wherein God is considered as a metaphysical scheme’s chief exemplar, rather than its ultimate explanation or unique exception? Whitehead’s God, immanent and responsive to the creative decisions of each and every other actual entity, is a good starting place for the development of such a wilderness theology. Theology doesn’t necessarily require inserting some vertical scale of values into the universe, such that humans rank higher than animals and animals rank higher than plants in some Great Chain of Being. From the perspective of a panentheism (or cosmotheandrism) like Whitehead’s, values are neither horizontally constructed by human society nor vertically imposed by divine will; his theology is an attempt to upset this neat dichotomy between nihilism and deism so that the Being of God’s mind manifests itself here and now in the twists and turns of the forest path of Becoming.