Whiteheadian thoughts on the thingliness of ideas (responses to Archive Fire and Knowledge Ecology)

Michael/Archive Fire and Adam/Knowledge Ecology are at it again, working to sort through the material, semiotic, and ideational strands of the cosmic mesh to figure out what is real and what isn’t. In both positions, I detect a desire for ecological realism, the sort of realism where Santa Claus, mountain pine beetles, global capitalism, black holes, and strawberries are each considered to be real causal actors, each in its own unique way. But only Michael explicitly argues that a certain set of these actors–ideas–should ultimately be understood as secondary effects of causes operating at a more basic level–that is, (vibrant, dynamic) physicality. I agree with Michael that ideas are embodied and enacted, that they cannot play a causal role in the creative advance of nature without being ingredient in some definite occasion of socially organized experience. But I do not think it follows that this obvious co-relationality between ideas and living bodies implies that ideas, or indeed minds (in some non-Cartesian/post-Whiteheadian sense of the word mind) are epiphenomenal to technologically mediated physiological activity. As Whitehead says, the things which are temporal arise by their participation in the things which are eternal, just as the things which are eternal arise by their participation in the things which are temporal. There is a relation of co-emergence, of dependent origination, between timeless potentials and actual occasions. … Ideas and Minds do not operate independently of material signs and living bodies. They do not exist without leaving symbolic traces and a heat signature. But it does not follow that they are not real things. If anything is a “thing,” ideas are things. I need to take a detour into Whitehead’s account of perception before returning to the thingliness of ideas… (a thing here would be an object in Harman’s lingo). In Whitehead’s lingo, we would say that a given thing (actual entity) withdraws from its prehensions by other things precisely because if it were not in some way withdrawn from these prehensions, there would not be anything definite to distinguish it from other entities to make it “just this entity here-now.” Ideas, in Whitehead’s lingo, are conceptual prehensions. We could also call them abstract feelings of future possibilities. For most occasions of experience, physical feelings of past actualities predominate over conceptual feelings of future possibilities. Still, all occasions include a mix of physical with conceptual feelings: nowhere in the universe are there events unfolding in a purely repetitive way, without any appetitive adjustment. Granted, in the inorganic societies studied by physicists, novelty is negligible enough to ignore in equations describing the behavior of the universe is timespans relevant to human existence. In longer timescales (i.e., more than 13.7 billion years ago), it seems the “laws” of physics can no longer account for visible nature without making room for the possibility of radical novelty/extreme negentropy “before” the “beginning” of time. Even at the level of quantum events, the appetition for novelty is present. If it were not, the universe never would have transformed from superheated plasma into living protoplasm or human minds. The formation of the first atoms, and certainly the first stars, already provides evidence of the universe’s desire to out run the past by incarnating ever new forms of organization. Human consciousness is only a more extreme expression of this same desire. Implanting experience and ideality into the most fundamental features of reality is an attempt to account, in one general metaphysical scheme, for the evolution of the organizational complexity of nature from plasma to person. It is an attempt to avoid the traditional metaphysical bifurcation between appearance and reality that has plagued Western philosophy the formalization of Aristotle’s substance-predicate logic. Bifurcated metaphysics either reduce the person to the plasma (materialism), or the plasma to the person (idealism); either way, half of nature has been lost. For those more complex social canalizations of experiential occasions associated with we thoroughly mediated human souls and our technological societies, prehension is predominantly conceptual, with physical prehension fading into irrelevance. The great danger of unchecked intelligence is that it forgets its bodily roots in the rhythms of the brain, heart, and lungs and its cosmic source in the rhythms of the Milky Way galaxy, the Sun, and the Moon. By forgetting its source in the soil between earth and sky, intelligence dismembers itself and the ecology to which it belongs. Becoming deaf and blind to the material-semiotic flows tenuously tying it to the network of others living within and amongst it, it loses contact with the erotic and aesthetic lifeblood its life depends on. Intelligence is driving our species into extinction, and taking a lot of others with us. I think I can understand why Michael has such a distaste for the notion that ideas are just as real as bodies. He writes:

Giving up on ‘ideas’ as objects helps us understand what Wittgenstein and Derrida and Rorty (and the Buddha and Lao Tsu among others) wanted to teach us, in the sense that conceptuality – and by extension all knowledge – is intrinsically undecidable, unstable and ephemeral. And this insight has some very serious political, existential and philosophical implications.

I agree completely that conceptuality is often undecidable. Reality usually always out runs our everyday descriptions. But on some rare occasions, like those concocted in the laboratory by experimental physicists, the conceptual structure of reality becomes decidable to an uncanny degree of accuracy as formal mathematical descriptions are found to correlate with natural processes. These descriptions remain approximations, of course, since they are never purely conceptual. It needs to be said, to balance Michael’s denial of conceptuality, that sensuality is no less unstable and ephemeral. Prehension, since it always carries a mix of physical and conceptual factors, is necessarily abstraction. If it were not abstraction, each actual entity would contain every other actual entity within itself in such a direct way that there would be no way to tell any two actual occasions apart. Without eternal objects/ideas to mediate between the mutual prehensions of particular actual occasions, their particularity would become meaningless: all time and space would collapse into an instantaneous null-point. Pure conceptual knowledge is as undecidable as pure sensation. It is only when creatively contrasted that something actual can emerge.

Natural Science and Spiritual Science

My recent comments on Pharyngula

Excerpts from my comments:

I should have written “all-loving” instead of “all-powerful” twice. Just a typo, nothing esoteric. The “etc.” was a placeholder for all the other typical attributes (infinite, eternal…).

I wouldn’t say these attributions are necessarily incorrect, they are just inadequate descriptors. Cataphatic theology must be balanced by apophatic theology, where God is defined negatively (Not this, not this…). Language ultimately fails to fully describe even trivial matters, like our day to day emotional states. Trying to describe God is even more difficult, because (at least in some traditions) God is the “Word” or “Logos” itself, that which makes all the meaning and order of our language (and the universe itself) possible in the first place. So trying to describe God with language is like looking for the glasses you’re already wearing. God is that which makes meaning possible.

The intellect can approach God, but there is a threshold that seems to be reached, at which point rationality and empiricism are no longer useful, or even relevant. Luckily, we have other psychological functions besides the intellect (Carl Jung came up with 4: thinking/intellect, feeling, intuition, sensation). God and religion generally seem to have more to do with intuition and feeling than sensing and thinking. Not to say that the latter two are necessarily inept when it comes to approaching God… just look at thinkers like Hegel or artists (masters of sensation) like Raphael.

God is a unified transrational reality, and so is the cosmos (I don’t think creator and created are separate, though I’m more a panentheist than a pantheist–perhaps this difference can be explained in another post, or by a visit to wikipedia).

I offer it reluctantly, but if you want my cataphatic theology, my analysis of the nature of divinity, then I would leave out all-powerful, and keep only three others: all-knowing, all-loving, and all-present. This is a drastic over-simplification. But in trying to approach the nature of God intellectually, it seems the dynamism of this Trinity gets us closest. These three omnis are the thinking, feeling, and willing of God, respectively. Humans are the likeness of God (so the story goes), and also think, feel, and will. But our will is not all-present. It is present only “here” in my body and my soul (i.e., my motor activity and mental imagery). God’s will is present here, there, and everywhere. There is nothing that God doesn’t do. When it comes to thinking and feeling (or knowing and loving), humans are made in the image of God (…just play along), and so are capable of participating directly in the thoughts and the feelings of God. It is within our human potential to see and hear with the eyes and ears of God and to feel with the heart of God. “The eye with which God sees me is the same eye through which I see God.” -Meister Eckhart

This is all nonsense, of course. I have no idea how I know it. The origin and cause of my thinking and my feeling is unknown to me, unconscious. Some would say it is the brain floating in my skull that produces the “psyche” (i.e., the scientific object studied by psychologists and, if materialism is true, neurologists) but as a psyche, a thinking, feeling, willing “I” that is not sure where his thoughts come from or how they get there, I cannot be at all certain of the scientist’s theory of their origins. It is too abstract, too removed from human reality. Is it “true” nonetheless? Who is to say? We are all human. We are all uncertain of our own origins. At least in a nominal sense, unless we (not believe in but) perceive God in our heart-mind. Empirical science is discovering some amazing things about how the soul is embodied, but none of it proves the soul is bounded by the body. Paradigms in cognitive science like Enactivism (Varela, Thompson) and Ecological Psychology (J.J. Gibson) suggest that consciousnes/soul/psyche is just as extended as it is “internal.”

All of this is an attempt to get closer to answering “why”–if as you say “we don’t know that God’s there to even invest time trying”– I persist nonetheless taking theology seriously as a form of study, or better, play. Can one live truly, in accordance with goodness and beauty, without talk of God? Sure, but even atheists seem to spend a lot of time talking about God. I think for better or worse, whether we call it anthropology or theology, humans will be trying to think and talk about God.