The Purpose and Profundity of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (a reply to Massimo Pigliucci)

The following is a response to Massimo Pigliucci’s recent blog post about process metaphysics and Whitehead. I keep a relatively close eye on Pigliucci’s philosophical work, as there is plenty of convergence in our views on several issues, including, as he says in his title, “the promise of process metaphysics.”

Despite some convergences, I part ways with Pigliucci on the issue of the place of consciousness in the physical world. A couple of years ago, I penned a defense of panpsychism in response to an article Pigliucci published in The Side View. This divergence is also at play in the present exchange, but it is not front and center. While I have characterized Whitehead’s process-relational ontology as a species of panpsychism (or, better, “panexperientialism,” as David Ray Griffin has suggested), I’ve come to realize that there’s as much distance between his process-relational version of the doctrine and, say, Philip Goff’s substance-quality version, as there is between either and materialism or idealism (see my recent dialogue with Goff). For a recent treatment of the relevance of Whitehead’s panexperientialism to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, see this journal article: “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020). I won’t be dwelling on this issue here.

In his latest post, I was glad to see Pigliucci engage more deeply with some of Whitehead’s ideas, but his accounts of the motivations and key categories of Whitehead’s scheme are misleading. Whitehead a “dead weight”? I don’t think so. Sure, it is a heavy lift to study and understand his admittedly dense and complex metaphysical scheme, but this will always be true of pathbreaking philosophical work aimed at nothing short of a ground-up reconstruction of the explanatory categories of natural science, and as we’ll see, much else besides.

Pigliucci begins with Heraclitus’ line that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” which could be read as the inaugural statement of the process metaphysical project. But Pigliucci wants to make clear that he rejects the speculative arm-chair approach to metaphysics that he thinks culminated with Descartes’ foundationalist attempt to balance the entire world upon his own thinking. So far so good, as Whitehead also explicitly rejected the idea of metaphysics as a foundationalist project.

Pigliucci goes on to put forward what I think is a pretty good definition of scientism, which is the view that: “natural science [has] replaced metaphysics as the method by which we find out how things are.” Pigliucci does not provide us with an account of exactly what natural science is, which makes sense, as I suspect that would involve doing a bit of metaphysics. Whitehead’s reasons for turning to metaphysics (after a successful career as a mathematician and physicist) provides a revealing contrast to Pigliucci’s triumphalist myth about the replacement of philosophy by science. Whitehead turned to metaphysics precisely because the early 20th century revolutions in physics had revealed the complete inadequacy of the old substantivist, mechanistic ontology that modern science had been presupposing since Descartes. He wrote in 1925:

“The old foundations of scientific thought are becoming unintelligible. …What is the sense of talking about a mechanical explanation when you do not know what you mean by mechanics? If science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and must enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations.”

Science and the Modern World, p. 25.

Whitehead was no mere critic, however. He was a profoundly constructive thinker whose “Philosophy of Organism” inherited the pluralistic, evolutionary, and radically empirical psychology of William James and systematized it with the findings of quantum and relativistic physics as part of an endeavor “to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted” (Process & Reality, p. 3). This is the meaning of metaphysics, for Whitehead: generality of description. The search for generalities is not a task that could be replaced by the special sciences; rather, it is an effort to bring interpretive coherence to the findings of natural science so that what we learn through its methods hangs together with the rest of the hard-core common sense presuppositions of human coexistence (e.g., that consciousness and volition are not epiphenomenal illusions).

Of course, metaphysics could not adequately engage in its task without the special sciences. Pigliucci goes on to soften his earlier “replacement thesis” by admitting that there is still a role for metaphysics in the clarification of concepts so as to fit all the scientific puzzle pieces together. He thinks process metaphysics is the best candidate for this job, and here I am in complete agreement.

“By far the most promising approach to that aim is process metaphysics, which — as German-American philosopher Nicholas Rescher put it — regards ‘reality not [as] a constellation of things at all, but one of processes. The fundamental ‘stuff’ of the world is not material substance, but volatile flux.’ This is distinct from what has been mainstream metaphysics for a long time. Another pre-Socratic, Parmenides, regarded change as entirely illusory. And the most influential metaphysicians of all time, Plato and his student Aristotle, posited that reality is timeless, made of unchanging essences.”

-Pigliucci

Plato is perhaps the most caricatured philosopher of all time, which makes sense since he left us with only aporetic dialogues, rather than definitive doctrines. In other words, he speaks to us only through the mouths of his characters, which leaves some doubt as to what his true philosophic views are. With that caveat in mind, I’d argue that his cosmological dialogue the Timaeus was more an attempt to synthesize the Heraclitean and Parmenidean views, but that’s a topic for another post. Pigliucci goes on:

“One very strong reason to adopt process- rather than object-based metaphysics is because that’s the way science has been leaning for a while. James Ladyman and Don Ross make the most compelling empirically based case for process metaphysics in their masterpiece, Every Thing Must Go, though they call the resulting approach ‘naturalized metaphysics.’ The idea is that physicists are increasingly showing that there are no objects (i.e., particles) at the bottom of reality but rather, at best, fields, and at the most speculative not even those (Ladyman and Ross talk — provocatively — about basic reality being characterized by ‘relations without relata,’ that is points in a field where the points are not really ‘made’ of anything).”

-Pigliucci

Despite some Whiteheadian quibbles about whether a point-free mereotopology (such as that articulated in Part IV of Process & Reality) would better characterize the relational continuum underlying all apparent “things,” there is a lot of convergence here. Reality is relational all the way down. That said, Whitehead was also an atomist of sorts and did attempt to retain a process-compatible sense of individuality. Unlike Newton’s atoms, which are pushed and pulled around by external relations and transcendently imposed laws, Whitehead’s atoms are intra-dependent (that is, internally related) “drops of experience” or “actual occasions,” whose dipolar becoming can be analyzed in terms of both a physical and a mental pole, and whose sociohistorical coordinations give rise to emergent behavioral habits. Whitehead was only very marginally influenced by that other giant of American philosophy, Charles Sanders Peirce, as they seem to have independently arrived at an understanding of physical habit as a less ontotheological rendering of what classical physics defined in terms of “law.” I mention this as it is important to distinguish Whitehead’s experientially-grounded (i.e., radically empirical) process theology from the sort of ontotheology criticized by Kant and Heidegger. In his rejection of eternal “laws” in favor of evolutionarily emergent “habits,” Whitehead’s cosmology is actually a critique of the residual ontotheology of mechanistic physics, which even today unwittingly carries forward the deist assumptions that were intrinsic to Descartes’ and Newton’s conceptions of the order of nature as determined once and for all by the transcendent will of an omnipotent God.

Pigliucci next turns to Whitehead. After a few nods to the value of his “holistic” and scientifically-informed approach to metaphysics, and a dismissive quip about the supposedly anti-scientific basis of panpsychism (which is a total misunderstanding), the criticisms begin. Overall, Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s influence has spoiled process metaphysics.

After introducing Whitehead’s key category—the actual entity or actual occasion—Pigliucci’s first criticism concerns the way Whitehead supposedly divides up nature into artificial levels:

“I don’t think there is any reason to retain this kind of obfuscatory language. … From a scientific perspective, all these levels are part of a continuum, possibly characterized by emergent properties.”

-Pigliucci

This punch totally misses its target, as Whitehead’s is clearly a “flat ontology,” in that it aims to describe all levels of emergent complexity in nature in the same general metaphysical terms as the “concrescence” (another key category) of actual occasions (here is a timestamped video link of my latest attempt to explain “concrescence” using a cartoon). I am not sure what Pigliucci may have read to give him his mistaken assumptions here. In his various metaphysical texts, Whitehead offers different rough sketches of emergent levels in nature (just as natural science does when it speaks the special languages of particle physics, astrophysics, chemistry, biology, and psychology, etc.), but always explicitly acknowledges “the aspect of continuity between these different modes,” the way they “shade off into each other” (Modes of Thought, p. 157). Indeed, Whitehead’s critique of what he termed “the bifurcation of nature” makes his holistic cosmological view even more continuous than a still implicitly dualistic scientific materialism (which places our first-person conscious experience distinctly outside and epiphenomenal to an otherwise merely material nature). Whitehead was led to a variety of panexperientialist ontology precisely because he is committed to a continuity between mind and nature:

“Scientific reasoning is completely dominated by the presupposition that mental functionings are not properly part of nature. Accordingly it disregards all those mental antecedents which mankind habitually presupposes as effective in guiding cosmological functionings. As a method this procedure is entirely justifiable, provided that we recognize the limitations involved. These limitations are both obvious and undefined. The gradual eliciting of their definition is the hope of philosophy… [This] sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. [Thus,] we should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature. … [We] should reject the notion of idle wheels in the process of nature. Every factor which emerges makes a difference, and that difference can only be expressed in terms of the individual character of that factor. … [We] have now the task of defining natural facts, so as to understand how mental occurrences are operative in conditioning the subsequent course of nature.

Modes of Thought, p. 156

Note that Whitehead admits the erasure of mental functionings from nature is entirely justifiable as a method. The problem is when this useful methodological short-cut slides into a metaphysical presupposition. Whitehead’s mature metaphysical view as articulated in Process & Reality broadly distinguishes between two types of analysis: 1) genetic analysis of the becoming of actual occasions (a concrete view of the universe from within, as it were), and 2) coordinate analysis of the extensive continuum characterizing the relations among these occasions. The latter mode of analysis considers the universe from the outside, as natura naturata (to use the classical Latin terminology for “nature-as-product”), thus bracketing the mental functionings (the natura naturans, or “nature-as-process”) so as to abstractly characterize the behavior of entities in relativistic spacetime. Coordinate division is what makes scientific measurement possible, but in Whitehead’s view, this is only half the story. The universe is a creative advance into novelty, not the mere re-arrangement of pre-existing particles. Thus, his philosophy includes the elaboration of a genetic account of how actual occasions of experience arise out of their past, enjoy themselves in the present, and perish so as to contribute their experiential perspective to the future. A philosophy of nature that considers only the coordinate division of simply located objects in spacetime commits the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” writ large. Not only does it ignore the role of quantum potentia and discreteness in the becoming of nature, it makes of our human mental functions a monstrous aberration in an otherwise well-behaved cosmos. A fully concrete and metaphysically coherent account of the cosmos must make room for mentality, even if the function of mind in the inorganic realm studied by physics and chemistry is nascent enough to be mostly negligible. I say “mostly” because even in particle and astro-physics there’s already plenty of evidence of the creative realization of potentia (i.e., quantum decisions) and a pronounced tilt toward the self-organization of higher and higher grades of complexity (e.g., emergent evolution of protons out of quarks, of atoms out of protons and electrons, of stars and galaxies out of atoms, etc.). The physical world is not a billiard table engaged in the mere rearrangement of pre-existing parts. It is rather an open-ended process of emergence of wholes nested within wholes at every scale, a process that Whitehead characterizes in terms of “societies” of actual occasions. The most widespread such society in our cosmic epoch Whitehead calls the “electromagnetic society,” and its established habits provide a background of order that shelters all the more complex activity taking place among and within us here on Earth. This brief account obviously does not do justice to the intricacy of Whitehead’s scheme, but I’ve tried to outline the main points so as to make clear what Pigliucci’s characterization has badly muddled. For more on the two types of analysis introduced above, check out my lecture on Part IV of Process & Reality.

Next on Pigliucci’s list of criticisms is, unsurprisingly, Whitehead’s concept of God. I’ll quote Pigliucci below and then respond at length to each sentence:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead makes one gigantic exception to his rule that all actual entities are occasions of experience: god. The deity is understood by Whitehead as being both temporal and atemporal, leading to something called process theology. Setting aside that this raises the possibility of logical contradiction, I just don’t think there is any reason at all — and certainly no empirically, science informed reason — to think that any gods exist,  so process metaphysics in the hands of Whitehead here takes a decidedly wrong turn.” 

-Pigliucci

On the charge of theological exceptionalism, I’ll begin by letting Whitehead speak for himself: “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse. He is their chief exemplification” (Process & Reality, p. 343). As was mentioned earlier, Whitehead’s is a flat ontology, wherein everything is to be describable in the same categoreal terms. It follows that “God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process & Reality, p. 18). Clearly, Whitehead’s intention was not to make reference to God as a “gigantic exception,” but rather as the “chief exemplification” of an actual entity. To be fair to Pigliucci, this is a matter of some dispute among process theologians, since there are some significant differences in Whitehead’s characterization of the divine entity—the primordial creature of Creativity—as compared to other experient creatures. God’s concrescence unfolds in reverse order to that of finite creatures: God’s mental pole (logically) precedes God’s physical pole. In the case of finite occasions, which always already find their (co)existence amidst that of others,—emerging out of the perished occasions of their past into the subjective immediacy of their present before launching themselves into objective immortality in the hopes of influencing the occasions of the future,—their origination is in the physical pole while their satisfaction is achieved in the mental pole. God’s concrescence begins with the private satisfaction of the mental pole, as “the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality” (Process & Reality, p. 343). In other words, as the first creature of Creativity (which is the ultimate category in Whitehead’s scheme, roughly equivalent to what contemporary physicists refer to as the quantum vacuum), God’s function is to give some definite value or character to the otherwise indefinite field of unrealized logical possibilities that go into shaping an actual world. God’s primordial evaluation of the realm of pure potentials (or “eternal objects”) does not determine precisely how the world comes to be; rather, God’s primordial values function as an erotic lure within the world, a goad to finite occasions of experience so as to tilt cosmic becoming toward the emergence of complexity. Finite actual occasions must decide how to become for themselves, but God’s “initial aim” is inherited in their physical poles as a mirror disclosing to each occasion its own potential for greatness (Religion in the Making, p. 139). God’s physical pole, then, is the divine reception of how each and every occasion of experience decides to actualize itself, in light of its unique situation. God’s primordial mental pole is thus complemented by a consequent physical pole, whereby God functions in the role of “a fellow-sufferer” (Process & Reality, p. 351).

Whitehead insists that his process God is one God, not two. The distinction between primordial and consequent natures, as too the distinction between the mental and physical poles of any occasion, is an exercise in rational abstraction in an effort to better understand the necessary ingredients of concrete reality. Pigliucci worries that Whitehead’s attempt to hold together the eternal and the temporal in one creature “raises the possibility of logical contradiction.” Indeed, it is not just in God that Whitehead tries to turn these apparently contradictory notions into a dynamic complementarity: every occasion of experience is said to participate in both concrete actuality (via what he calls “prehension”) and eternal possibility (via what he calls “ingression”). Here we have to address Whitehead’s process-relational critique of Aristotelian substance-property logic, including the sacrosanct rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle. Whitehead praises and indeed inherits Aristotle’s “masterly analysis of the notion of ‘generation'” (Process & Reality, p. 209), and admits that “probably Aristotle was not an Aristotelian” (ibid., p. 51). But in light of contemporary physics, with its emphasis upon agitations of energy and spatiotemporal events, the old Scholastic logic which sought to attach essential or accidental properties to substances has become entirely inadequate. Physics makes no reference to some passive underlying material substance; rather, all is now accounted for in terms of formal relations of relations (as Ladyman and Ross argue). So far so good (I think Pigliucci is on board thus far). Now, when it comes to the logical laws of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, it is not that Whitehead simply sought to do away with them. This would contradict, as it were, one of his rational criteria for sound metaphysics (i.e., that such a scheme be logical; he also enumerated empirical criteria of adequacy and applicability to experience). To return to the distinction above between a genetic and a coordinate analysis of the universe, Whitehead was perfectly willing to accept that coordinate analysis of the entities of spatiotemporal nature required adherence to the classical laws of logic (else an entity could be said to exist in two places at once, or to exemplify two contradictory predicates, etc.). However, in analyzing the genetic process of an actual occasion’s concrescence, these laws must be held in suspension. This is because the factors that grow together into a concrete entity begin as indeterminate prehensions or feelings, akin to the way quantum potentia exist in a state of superposition prior to the collapse of the wave-function. In this state of suspended decision in the genetic analysis of an occasion, a multiplicity of contradictory elements may coexist. Only once an occasion has achieved its “satisfaction” do the incompatibilities get worked, such that “the actual entity terminates its becoming in one complex feeling involving a completely determinate bond with every item in the universe” (Process & Reality, p. 44). In the case of God, the process of concrescence is said to be “everlasting,” such that the indetermination is ongoing. The creative advance of the universe thus unfolds within the eternal process of divine indetermination. Not even God knows where we are going, in other words. Still, God’s everlasting concrescence expresses a yearning for ideal satisfaction, realizing an aesthetic harmony of harmonies, which the universe of finite occasions can only ever incompletely realize.

Pigliucci then regresses to a rather tired scientistic argument against belief in “gods.” I say it is “tired” because it totally fails to address the argument underlying Whitehead’s process theology (or that of most philosophically-informed theologians, for that matter). It is just cheap rhetoric meant to reduce the alternative metaphysical approaches of those not seduced by scientism to supernaturalist superstition. Pigliucci pluralizes “gods” because he is imagining that theologians conceive of God as just another stick of furniture within the world, a thing among things (albeit a very big, important, and powerful thing!). While it may be meaningfully addressed to literalist religious believers who idolatrously imagine God as a thunder-wielding sky-father, his is not a fair characterization of how most theological traditions have sought to approach the divine as, e.g., the infinite ground of being (rather than a being among beings). It is no surprise that experimental tests focused on the behavior of beings would turn up no evidence of Being as such. Being is grounding condition or necessary precondition of beings. Now, needless to say, much of this traditional theological language is construed in substantialist terms that have no place in Whitehead’s process-relational scheme. I quote Whitehead’s opinion of traditional theology at length as I think it conveys the extent to which he and Pigliucci may actually share non-belief in the popular image of deity:

“The notion of God as the ‘unmoved mover’ is derived from Aristotle, at least so far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as ’eminently real’ is a favourite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism.

When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The code of Justinian and the theology of Justinian are two volumes expressing one movement of the human spirit. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. In the official formulation of the religion it has assumed the trivial form of the mere attribution to the Jews that they cherished a misconception about their Messiah. But the deeper idolatry, of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian, and Roman imperial rulers, was retained. The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.”

Process & Reality, p. 342

Whitehead had no patience for the traditional image of God as an imperial ruler, by whose dictates the lawful order of the world was established. In relation to this God, Whitehead was a proud atheist.

“There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the [other main strands of theological] thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.”

Process & Reality, p. 343

Elsewhere in Process & Reality (p. 207), Whitehead remarks on the urgent importance of secularizing the divine function in the world, by which he meant distinguishing God’s metaphysical import as a cosmological factor from the emotions that characterize human religious life, which have often misled philosophy. The Love exemplified in Jesus is metaphysically repurposed by Whitehead into the divine function’s mode of participation in the world, where it works to persuade (rather than coerce) finite actual occasions toward the most beauty that is possible for them in their temporal situations.

So why does Whitehead find it necessary to make reference to a divine function in his cosmological scheme? It has nothing to do with any religious desire to believe in God. This sort of belief, though it may be of tremendous sociological importance (e.g., as a form of group selection among humans), is not what motivates Whitehead’s theological innovations.

The Whiteheadian philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers (former collaborator of Nobel laureate chemist Ilya Prigogine) argues in her book Thinking With Whitehead that, while God is the keystone of his entire cosmological scheme (i.e., the chief exemplar of his categories), he nonetheless remained unsatisfied with his own thinking concerning the nature of the divine function. When I attempt to “think with Whitehead,” I do not assume his system is fully consistent or finally complete (indeed, he was well aware of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, and so approached “system” asymptotically as a form of philosophic “assemblage” [see Modes of Thought, p. 2]). His understanding of divinity was always an open-ended work in progress meant to be picked up and re-worked by inheritors of his thought who already find theology somehow important, by those who already agree that contemplating the divine ground of existence matters. A philosopher’s God-concept cannot be understood in isolation from his soul’s prehension of God (or his soul’s God-feeling). It is fine and well to argue against the incoherency of or lack of evidence for a particular God-concept, but no one can deny the historical efficacy—psychological and societal—of the spiritual experiences responsible for generating such concepts (and the movements and institutions associated with them). Atheists will deny that the intuition of holiness by human hearts (which some call “God,” others “Buddha-nature,” “Allah,” “Brahman,” etc.) implies that this soul-content has any correlate in the real world. But as a matter of anthropological fact it must acknowledge that, for the vast majority of so-called religious believers throughout the course of human history, God (etc.) was not merely a scientific hypothesis meant to explain the causal nexus of worldly events, but rather a living presence felt within themselves (psychologically) and between themselves and others (socially). It is only after the Scientific Revolution and the entrance of “modernity” that religion began to be construed as a distinct domain of human existence, and that God came to be construed as a thing to be believed in, or not.

When Whitehead sets out to cosmologize, his first task is to correct for the bias produced by his own initial excess of subjectivity. He seeks to situate himself in a more general historical process, one which includes the whole history of human civilization, as well as the evolution of life, the formation of Earth, and the unfolding of the larger universe. Objectivity, for Whitehead, doesn’t simply mean considering the world as it might exist in isolation from human consciousness. It means considering the conditions making possible a world wherein something like human thinking, feeling, and willing are possible. For Whitehead, these conditions are cosmological (not simply cognitive, as in Descartes or Kant). Whitehead’s process-relational ontology breaks free from the epistemic chains of most modern philosophy, eschewing foundations and making do instead with conceptual coherence and fallible pragmatic adequacy. His cosmological scheme makes room for both subjects and objects, giving logical nor temporal priority to either. Subject and object are to be understood as intellectually distinguishable poles in the unifying process of experiential realization. “Objectivity” in the sense of an unbiased scientific appraisal of reality doesn’t mean removing the position of the subject from the picture, but including it. If we are able to do so, what matters is not whether a subject comes to correctly represent the objective world, but whether each subject is able to creatively respond to the objectified past, thus participating in the creative passage of reality from one moment to the next. In such a Whiteheadian universe, truth is enacted, rather than known a priori or represented after the fact. The universe is a dramatic performance, a myth told by Reason to Necessity to persuade her to play by the rules.

This raises the question of why some philosophers, like Pigliucci, are led to dismiss the concept of God as irrelevant to (or worse, a “dead weight” upon) metaphysics. So far as it goes, I actually agree with him: God is not necessarily of interest if we are dealing with the abstract possibilities of reality abstracted from any concrete experience. Even Whitehead designates Creativity as the ultimate category of his scheme, demoting a no longer all-powerful God to the status of its first non-temporal accident. God becomes important only when I begin to cosmologize—that is, when I seek out participatory understanding of the order and harmony of the actual world that we inhabit.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think faith has a crucial role to play in post-Cartesian philosophical speculation. I do not know for certain that the the cosmos (as an ordered harmony) is real, since my soul must first will this truth before it can become a live option for scientific consideration. The only reason metaphysical reflection has become necessary is that our modern consciousness has lost efficacious contact with and so requires intellectual justification for its cosmic existence. Before Homer put pen to parchment and parodied the gods, the human soul experienced no separation between the world’s Logos (=meaning) and its existence (=facticity), and so it had no need of “religious beliefs.” Divinity lived and breathed amidst the creatures of earth and of heaven.

Whitehead’s panentheistic cosmology is meant to correct for the traditional religious view of God as sovereign and all-powerful. His ensouled cosmology is meant to correct the modern philosophical view that Man is separable from Nature, or mind separable from matter. Power, for Whitehead, becomes persuasive because aesthetic, rather than coercive because mechanical. God does not reach in from beyond to design the world at will; nor does human consciousness.

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

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

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

Science and the Soul of the World: Participatory Knowing in Goethe and Whitehead

I’m teaching for Schumacher College again, this time online. This course focuses on two towering exemplars of the organic approach to science, the German poet and naturalist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

The course will run via live video conference on Saturday mornings (PST) for six weeks beginning in late January. Visit the Schumacher College website to register (before Jan 10, 2021). Here’s a short interview I did to introduce the foci of the course:

The course begins in the late eighteenth century by setting out the revolutionary cultural, philosophical, and scientific context within which Goethe developed his participatory understanding of Nature. Goethe is still primarily known as a poet, but students will come to see how the rise of Newton’s clockwork vision of the cosmos and the development of Kant’s nascent theory of living organization led Goethe (with help from the German Idealist Friedrich Schelling) to imagine a more organic and relational way of doing science. The course then turns to explore Goethe’s novel approach to the study of light and colour, geology, plant metamorphosis, and animal morphology.

During the nineteenth century, Goethe’s participatory way of doing natural science was largely forgotten, especially in the English-speaking world. Modern physics and biology followed Descartes and Newton’s lead by becoming increasingly mechanistic, while organic ways of thinking were dismissed as childish pre-modern holdovers. But at the turn of the twentieth century, physics underwent a series of revolutions that upset the mechanistic world-picture. It was the relativistic and quantum paradigm shifts that brought Whitehead out of mathematics and into metaphysics and cosmology. The course examines the reasons for the breakdown of the mechanistic view of Nature and unpacks Whitehead’s organic alternative, placing him alongside Goethe and Schelling as part of a legacy of participatory thinkers.

The course culminates in an exploration of organic science in our own day, looking at the enduring influence of participatory thinking in physics, biology, and spirituality. Students will be invited to reimagine the scientific world view in the context of an ensouled universe.

This course is designed for students of intellectual history who are fascinated by subversive streams of thought that have not yet been given their due. Some background in the history of European philosophy and science will be helpful, but the lecturer will attempt to make the ideas accessible to everyone.

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

1) The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World View By Rudolf Steiner (77 pages, available free online)

2) Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology By Matthew Segall (130 pages, available free online)

Parsimonious Panpsychism? (response to Julian Walker)

This following is copied from a Facebook post Julian Walker made in response to Bruce Alderman’s defense of panpsychism (in the “Integral 2.0” group). I wanted to weigh in (my comments are below): 

“PANPSYCHISM is not more PARSIMONIOUS than EMERGENTISM (Reply to Bruce on his thoughts about the David/Matthew debate)

In a way I hear you very eloquently restating Matthews stance.Which to me reifies the concept of consciousness and then makes it seem like this impossible emergent property.

But if what we mean by “consciousness” is rather a collection of evolved adaptive responses that gradually become not only more complex, but more self reflective? then it is not so unreasonable to see reactions to acid/alkali or light or other stimuli leading to moving one way or another etc eventually leading to more complex sensorimotor dynamics.

Biology is physical, and consciousness emerges as an expression of how physical organisms interact with their environment. It’s embodied, not ethereal.

Those sensorimotor dynamics emerge out of necessity and have survival value; eventually differentiating and complexifying into visual, auditory, sensate, olfactory organs with their own inputs and processing, and their own implications in terms of what they “mean” and how we should behave in response.

There did not have to be a ghost in that machine or some nascent form of “consciousness” already there waiting to perceive and reflect on these stimuli —it all co-emerges.

(Professor VS Ramachnadrans incredible 9 minute answer to the question of Self, Qualia, and Consciousness from the TSN interview with Roger Bingham up on YouTube, is for me the best exploration of this process. https://youtu.be/jTWmTJALe1w )

In a way I think this is why I and others intuit some kind of initial dualist underpinnings in panpsychism, or maybe why idealists and those with religious metaphysical affinities can migrate over to panpsychism.

Likewise I think “interiority” is again being reified as a literal space or dimension, instead of as increasing self reflective awareness, along with a deepening capacity to learn via memory, and plan via imagination etcAwareness doesn’t really happen “inside” in some literal way… it just seems like it because of how the brain evolved.

It is a perhaps as quixotic task to go in search of an ultimate explanation or origin of this interior space or entirely new ontological dimension as it is to try assert that music existed at the Big Bang, or else how could it just arise out of nowhere as this incredible phenomenon with rhythm, tempo, melody and harmony.

Similarly, meaning, emotions, language, and abstraction all ride on these adaptations and become elaborated into what we now see and experience in terms of human consciousness and culture.

On this view postulating something called “consciousness” in places where it has not been evolved via adaptation seems incoherent and unnecessary.

The argument that panpsychism is more parsimonious because otherwise how can we explain the “sudden appearance of interiority “ etc is to me just an argument from incredulity, combined of course with these reification/semantic mistakes.

It’s also a kind of question begging, because you’re left having to explain:

1) why we only see evidence for consciousness in living organisms.

2) why else that consciousness becomes more complex as brains do the same.

3) why brains that are damaged or intoxicated are reduced or distorted in their processes.

4) how exactly consciousness could be present in the early universe, but unexpressed.

Does water have to be present in hydrogen and oxygen prior to the conditions being right for it to emerge? What about all the elements that only became possible as the universe cooled and got larger, were they already there before they emerged? Protons and electrons were not interacting in ways that gave rise to the entirely new chemical reactions elements make possible once they did, and the intuition that therefore those elements were either already there or are part of some intelligent design with an inevitable teleology that implies pre existing sentience can’t help but seem like creationism. We can have an incomplete answer (emergentism) whilst being grounded in what all the evidence, and I do mean all the evidence, we have so far suggests.

My response:

To begin with, the charge that emergentism is more parsimonious assumes that we have a theoretical mechanism for how emergence occurs that is simple/economical. No such theory exists that I am aware of. So how do we know it is more parsimonious? It seems at least as probable to me that interiority and exteriority are equiprimordial, and on this assumption, no theoretical gymnastics are required later on down the evolutionary road to explain how surfaces could become persons. In fact, as William James was among the first to point out, evolution starts to make a lot more sense and require fewer leaps if interiority goes all the way down. So which ontology is really more parsimonious?? Julian might admit the lack of a theoretical mechanism for emergence is an IOU, and claim that lots of smart neuroscientists are working on it as we speak. But to my mind, this is not just another “easy” problem for the scientific method to resolve. If we accept Chalmers’ “hard problem” framing, then the question of whether there can be a theoretical mechanism that explains the emergence of interior wholeness/a psychological point of view out of exterior parts/the point-instants of materialistic physics is in fact an ontological or metaphysical one, rather than a strictly scientific one. Julian probably doesn’t accept Chalmers’ framing, though I’d like to see him argue against the rather elaborate and analytically tight case the Chalmers has published. Of course, the hard problem framing assumes we accept a standard materialist ontology of simply located material particles floating in empty space and directionless time. This ontology is highly suspect, not because woo woo philosophers challenged it, but because reductionistic physicists brought about the quantum and relativistic revolutions in the early 20th century. Physicists no longer hold to the old 19th century form of materialism, but unfortunately many in biology and cognitive science are still presupposing such an ontology. Why? Because 100 years of positivist anti-philosophy have created a situation wherein very few philosophers were willing to risk their reputations doing metaphysics at precisely the time when natural science needed a new metaphysics. Whitehead was among the exceptions. In any event, once we let go of the old materialistic ontology that not even physics still holds, new avenues are opened up for resolving the now softer hard problem of consciousness.

Julian complains that panpsychists “reify the notion of consciousness,” when as many neuroscientists will point out, it is actually a collection of a whole bunch of different capacities. “Consciousness” is certainly a suitcase term that allows those who use it to carry around all sorts of baggage. For the purposes of philosophy of mind, however, we can and must extract the essence of these various capacities: some call it “phenomenal awareness,” others call it “qualitative experience,” and still others “something it is like to be.” The point is that, for the purposes of understanding the ontology of mind, all the various modes of consciousness can be boiled down to some sort of “feeling” that provides their condition of possibility. Of course, we can take a behaviorist approach and try to explain how all the capacities that supposedly imply “consciousness” can actually be explained mechanically as just sophisticated input/output computations. But this amounts to a form of epiphenomenalism where the conscious “something it is like to be” plays no role whatsoever in the behavior of the organism. We are then left having to admit that consciousness is just an illusion and cannot evolve, since in order to be selected for it would have to confer some advantage to the organism in question. We are thus left with a ghost in the machine that should not exist. Julian wants to say consciousness evolved, so clearly the behaviorist approach to explaining it in terms of blind neural computations is not going to work. If consciousness exists, if it is part of the actual world and influences the behavior of our organism, then we will need to pursue other explanations for it than neural computation. Even if such mechanistic approaches were exhaustive in their explanations of organismic behavior (they aren’t, but let’s go with it for a second), that would still leave some sort of illusory consciousness to explain. Saying consciousness is an illusion doesn’t help us, because as Descartes was already well aware, the fact that consciousness “seems to be” is essential to its very nature. Consciousness could be defined as “seemingness.” So the question I’d have for the computational neural reductionist is “why do we seem to be conscious?” I’m left wondering who is really guilty of reification here…

Julian claims panpsychism is dualist. There are forms of panpsychism, particularly those growing in popularity among analytic philosophers of mind at the moment, that are indeed dualistic. These are the approaches that say consciousness or its proto- forms are a kind of “intrinsic property” of matter. These analytic panpsychists claim that physics tells us only about the relational or structural aspects of matter, and that the intrinsic nature of matter is, in fact, some sort of proto-consciousness. This is one way to avoid the hard problem of consciousness, but unfortunately it leads to another problem: the combination problem (also first pointed out by William James, who we should all really be reading more of, as so many of the problems endlessly debated to this day were brilliantly dealt with more than a century ago). James offered a possible solution to this problem, and Whitehead followed through on its development in his process-relational ontology. Whitehead’s process-relational panpsychism is unlike the dualistic substance-property panpsychism of the analytic school (e.g., Philip Goff and Galen Strawson). Whitehead avoids dualism by pointing out the way interiority and exteriority are dialectically entangled. You literally cannot understand what you mean when you posit one as existing without implicitly assuming the reality of the other. As Alan Watts put it, the simple but profound fact of the matter (and the mind!) is that “every outside has an inside, and every inside has an outside.” Whitehead’s metaphysical rendering of “experience” is not simply an account of the “inside,” but an account of how interiority and exteriority oscillate in a wave-like way through phases of potentiality and actuality. Each experient begins by inheriting a public past, then enjoying it in a private present, and finally perishing as a public intention for the future. So experience has an object-to-subject-to-object (or “superject”) pattern to it. It is not simply interior but rather an attempt to account for the ontologically basic dialectical entanglement of interior and exterior.

Julian claims we only see evidence of consciousness in living organisms. What evidence is that, exactly? Certain kinds of behavior we commonly associate with mental capacities? Ok, but this is behavior, not consciousness. Certain kids of neural activity that self-reports suggest is associated with consciousness? Ok, but again, this is all behavior. My point is that if we get stuck in the “only exteriors are really real” paradigm, to be consistent we are forced to say that, actually, there’s no evidence for consciousness ANYWHERE in the physical universe. It simply doesn’t add anything to physical reality to posit its existence. Of course, as human beings, this sounds absurd. But I don’t know how to avoid this theoretical conclusion given the premise that a reified understanding of exterior physical reality is in fact *all* of reality.

Julian’s claim that the emergence of consciousness is just like the emergence of water from H and O atoms is the result of a common confusion of the ontic and the ontological. Interiority is not just a new state of matter like liquidity. If matter is imagined in the Cartesian way as extended bits of stuff in mechanical motion, then experience or interiority is a new domain of Being and not just another being among beings.

In short, the IOU theory of the emergence of consciousness from matter is not so much “incomplete” as it is incoherent.

The Rheomode Series, a YouTube playlist

I’ll be spending more time at the South Yuba River for the remainder of the summer. I’ll be recording more videos thinking with rocks, water, air, and fire. I’ll keep adding them to this playlist below.

“What you thought was dead and inanimate betrays a secret life and silent, inexorable intent. You have got caught up in a hustle and bustle where everything goes its own way with strange gestures, beside you, above you, beneath you, and through you; even the stones speak to you, and magical threads spin from you to things and from things to you. … But if you watch closely, you will see what you have never seen before, namely that things live your life, and that they live off you: the rivers bear your life to the valley, one stone falls upon another with your force, plants and animals also grow through you and they are the cause of your death. A leaf dancing in the wind dances with you; the irrational animal guesses your thought and represents you. The whole earth sucks its life from you and everything reflects you again. Nothing happens in which you are not entangled in a secret manner; for everything has ordered itself around you and plays your innermost. Nothing in you is hidden to things, no matter how remote, how precious, how secret it is. It inheres in things. Your dog robs you of your father, who passed away long ago, and looks at you as he did. The cow in the meadow has intuited your mother, and charms you with total calm and security. The stars whisper your deepest mysteries to you, and the soft valleys of the earth rescue you in a motherly womb. Like a stray child you stand pitifully among the mighty, who hold the threads of your life. You cry for help and attach yourself to the first person that comes your way. Perhaps he can advise you, perhaps he knows the thought that you do not have, and which all things have sucked out of you.”

-C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Secundus 27/28).

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.