Review of Timothy E. Eastman’s ‘Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context’ [DRAFT]

Below is a draft of a review of Tim Eastman’s new book. I’ll be submitting this to a journal for publication soon, but wanted to share it here for those interested in this important contribution to understanding the nature of reality in light of quantum process.

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TIMOTHY E. EASTMAN, Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2020: 344 pages. [Reviewed by: MATTHEW D. SEGALL, Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program, California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, California, 94103, USA. <msegall@ciis.edu>.] 

It was nearly a century ago, in the midst of the quantum and relativistic revolutions in physics, that Whitehead realized scientific progress had reached a turning point: 

“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.” 

Despite Whitehead’s warning, the 1920s also saw the rise of a positivist prohibition on speculative metaphysics, handicapping progress into the foundations of post-classical science and producing precisely the fragmented medley that he feared. Fortunately, a growing chorus of interdisciplinary scientists is taking up the philosophical work left unfinished by the early twentieth century founders of quantum theory. In Untying the Gordian Knot (UGK), plasma physicist-cum-philosopher Timothy E. Eastman adds his voice to the ensemble, offering the “Logoi framework” as a meta-theory that aims not only to make ontological sense of quantum mechanics, but to integrate it with several other emerging twenty-first century frameworks, including complex systems science, Peircean triadic semiotics, and category theory. This alone would make Eastman’s book worthy of careful study; but he goes even further, sketching the plan for a bridge between science (or “the way of numbers”) and the human ethical and spiritual spheres (“the way of context”). Despite the grand scope of his inquiry, Eastman remains humble and conciliatory: the Logoi framework “is not post-anything but a proto-worldview” (11) that seeks to balance both theory and story, both systematic rigor and open-ended adventure (14). Eastman’s masterful synthesis of dozens of cutting edge researchers across numerous disciplines is impossible to summarize in this short review. Thus, in what follows, I focus on a few of UGK‘s important contributions to the birth of a process-relational science.

Eastman decided to study physics and philosophy not only because he wanted to understand the physical world, but because from a young age he intuited that this “wondrous whole” contained layers of meaning deeper than the merely measurable (1). Natural science has allowed human beings to reach beyond the mundane proportions of their sense organs and species-specific umwelt toward extreme magnitudes of space and time. Telescopes extend our eyesight across vast distances of intergalactic space; microscopes into the nuclei of cells and even atoms; inferences from radioactive decay rates of certain isotopes allow us to infer the age of fossils millions or billions of years into the past. Such techniques have dramatically expanded our understanding of the universe, and our place within it. But in extending our senses to scales they were not evolved to perceive, often while using empirical concepts derived from human-scale perception, we run the risk of succumbing to the sort of model-centric literalism that imagines we possess an outside God’s eye-view of an already finished universe. Eastman seeks to re-embed the scientific perspective within the evolving universe that gave rise to it, such that “the most fundamental notions [of natural science] can be inferred from normal human experience” (5). This follows from Eastman’s commitment to the Whiteheadian ideal that “concrete existence explains the abstract aspects of experience and not vice versa” (as articulated by Randall Auxier and Gary Herstein [2017, 2]).

Eastman carefully deconstructs the conceptual impediments to philosophical integration of post-classical science, such as “actualism,” “nominalism,” and “determinism” (89), arguing that potentials (or potentiae in his terms) have a creative role to play that both upsets notions of (efficient) causal closure and reintroduces formal causes into our accounts of natural processes. While quantum physics has forced the issue, Eastman points out that it is misleading to construe even the formalisms of classical Newtonian physics as though they entail strict determinism, since all such modeling frameworks make assumptions about initial and boundary conditions, relevant scales, and domains for meaningful solution (94). Granting potentiae real participation in the physical world not only allows science to consider the anticipatory capacities and creative agency of biological organisms in a non-reductive way. It also resolves longstanding quantum puzzles, which resulted from trying to force-fit a classical mechanistic ontology to results that should indicate the need for a new, process-relational ontology (54). Building on the Relational Reality model of Epperson and Zafiris (2013), Eastman describes the evolution of quantum events from pure potential to probabilities to actualization when measured (a process involving both logical conditioning and causal re-iteration) (38). Integrating Ruth Kastner‘s Transactional Interpretation of quantum mechanics (2013), Eastman argues that acts of measurement are not passive observations of already existing facts, but rather themselves establish new facts. There can be no ultimate causal closure, either for finite systems or for the universe as a whole, since the ontological unrest of newly emerging facts break any such closure. The universe thus becomes a cumulative succession of “actual occasions of experience,” wherein potentiae grow together with actualities by linking local causal interactions with global logical constraints in the ongoing process of realization. This process is asymmetric and includes both a standard (Boolean) dyadic logic of actualizations (res extensae) and a triadic logic of potentialities (res potentiae) (23). Eastman argues that “dyadic relations do not, in fact, exist in the real world, [only in] the world of abstract modeling” (27). This is because context is inevitably involved, and because the relationship between potentiality and actuality is inherently asymmetrical, from whence comes the arrow of time.

Eastman’s Logoi framework (again, following Epperson and Zafiris) thus carries forward Whitehead’s crucial distinction in Process & Reality (1978) between the logical order of concrete events (“genetic division”) and the causal order of metrical spacetime (“coordinate division”) (43-44). The former, rooted in fundamental quantum processes, is given primacy, while the latter, rather than being conceived of as a pre-existing continuum serving as a container for processes, is secondarily emergent from such processes (68). In Eastman’s words: 

“Quantum physics exemplifies the fact that physical extensiveness (standard spacetime description) is fundamentally topological rather than metrical, with its proper logico-mathematical framework being category-theoretic (relations of relations) rather than set-theoretic (sets of things)” (71).

Grasping the significance of Eastman’s Logoi framework may be aided by contrasting it with popular actualist accounts. Eastman critiques the physical “theory of everything” articulated by Sean Carroll in his book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (2016). Carroll takes up the God’s eye perspective by offering a single “core theory,” an equation combining quantum mechanics, spacetime, gravity, matter, the Higgs field, and other forces, which he claims leaves no room for new aspects of the universe that are not already well understood. Eastman points out that, while the components of this core equation represent great achievements, in practice no one has ever succeeded in combining them into a practical model or simulation. Carroll’s core theory thus amounts to no more than a mashup and is not anywhere close to being a working equation (126). On Eastman’s reading, Carroll makes several unstated metaphysical assumptions including actualism, physicalism, and causal closure, leading him to mistake an amalgam of dyadic input-output models as though they could serve as an ultimate explanation for the universe (127). Rather than accepting Carroll’s actualist rendering of the Feynman path-integral formulation of quantum physics (where electrons are assumed to take every path, with the largest probability being given to that path which approaches classical physics), Eastman argues that “physical relations emerge from [the] multiple sampling of potentiae pre-space, which is operationally handled by the principle of least action, reflecting optimization of relations of relations in this pre-space” (138). Rather than prematurely limiting our creative cosmos to the idealized deductivist models of current physics, or suggesting untestable “scientific exotica”(82) like the vast ontological overflow of actualized possible worlds as in the “many-worlds” interpretation, Eastman leaves open the possibility of genuinely novel emergence within the only universe we could ever know anything about. 

Whitehead’s cosmology, along with Peirce’s and contemporary physicist Lee Smolin’s ideas, are often interpreted as implying that physical “law” is more a matter of empirical probability, rather than being metaphysically grounded. Since deism is no longer a live option for scientists (as it was in Descartes’ and Newton’s day), very few have attempted to ground “law” metaphysically (130). The closest thing contemporary physics has to such a metaphysical ground for physical laws are “symmetry principles.” But from Eastman’s perspective, these principles remain groundlessly circular descriptions without an accompanying process-relational ontology. Peirce attempted to reformulate laws as habits, but Eastman worries this may be a category error that, despite Peirce’s realist intentions, falls prey to nominalism. For Eastman, genuine habits can only be said to emerge at the biological level. Without wanting to affirm deductivism, he nonetheless thinks necessity must have some purchase in Nature for many of the findings of modern physics to make any sense. He thus argues that Nature’s laws derive, not from any deductive necessity, but rather from the conditional contingency of trajectory optimizing histories (e.g., the Principle of Least Action) (131).  He compares these trajectories to Leibniz’ “striving possibles” (133).

In addition to its paradigm remaking implications for physics, the Logoi framework’s fundamental distinction between the Boolean domain of actualized measurements and the non-Boolean domain of pre-space potentiae also has important implications for the study of human consciousness. Rather than reducing our concrete experience of mental processing to abstract correlations among measurable brain states, the Logoi framework allows us to take seriously our sense of being conscious agents capable of some degree of decisive influence over the ongoing flux of reality. With the inclusion of the realm of potentiae into physical ontology, human consciousness need no longer be thought of as an anomalous intruder into an otherwise well-behaved mechanical universe. Instead, our conscious experience offers us an intimate window into the function of potentiae in the broader course of Nature, as our everyday mental capacities involving tapping into and expressing “ontologically genuine remainder[s] of real possibility” (84). It follows that popular claims on behalf of artificial intelligence systems said to be on the verge of realizing effectively human levels of consciousness and cognition are rooted in faulty metaphysical presuppositions. AI systems are entailment devices limited to input-output (Boolean) logic alone, and so cannot tap into the realm of potentiae in the way biologically evolved, historically emergent minds can (98). 

Eastman synthesizes important insights from a variety of researchers to contribute much needed clarity to the scientific understanding the role of emergence in Nature. Emergent physical entities are so described because as novel wholes they are not derivable either from the stuff of which they are made nor from the laws of physics (111). Eastman distinguishes emergence as a synchronic hierarchical process that builds on diachronic causation. Many basic causal and emergent processes are rooted in multi-scale quantum field processes (Eastman gives the example of space plasmas, whose emergent processes range from planetary to galactic scales) (112). Emergence is thus not merely a matter of epistemic limits to reductive explanations, but rather a consequence of the influence of quantum process across all physical scales. In the Logoi framework, causation is interpreted more broadly than just the dyadic correlation of facts typical of actualist frameworks. From within an actualist framework, any novelty or emergence can only be regarded as an epiphenomenon arising from random error or chance. Understanding emergent entities and processes requires symbolic bridges, as knowledge presupposes a distinction between knower and known, and thus the need for mediation (113). Eastman proposes Whiteheadian “prehension” as one such symbolic-conceptual bridge. Eastman shares Charles Hartshorne’s sense that prehension is the most powerful metaphysical generalization ever accomplished (159n18), as it allows all sorts of relations (e.g., memory, perception, causality, spatial, temporal, subject-object, God-world, etc.) to be accounted for in terms of one generic type. Further, the metaphysics of prehension imply that all physical relations are fundamentally asymmetrical in structure. Prehension can be variously understood as a philosophical embodiment of field theory; as the ontologization of the mathematical function; and as an account of quantum process (113-114). In light of Whitehead’s prehensional account of causation and emergence and Epperson and Zafiris’ applications (2013), Eastman argues that a strong case can be made for the idea that all macro-systems (including relativistic spacetime) are ontologically emergent from fundamental quantum processes.  

Although Eastman creatively expands upon Whitehead’s process philosophy, he does so without remaining unduly tied to the latter’s categoreal scheme. He emphasizes Leemon McHenry’s (2017) interpretation of Whiteheadian prehensions as “concrete functions” rather than “abstract relations” (40), thus contrasting Whitehead’s “third approach” to his former collaborator Bertrand Russell’s nominalistic logical atomism. Prehension is defined in its physical mode as “the present occasion’s absorption of past actual occasions in its process of self-creation” (McHenry, 325). This leaves out the role of conceptual prehensions in Whitehead’s scheme, that is, the present occasion’s ingression of potentials or eternal objects in its process of self-creation. McHenry (2015) appears to question the need for Whitehead’s eternal objects (at least if they are given a “Platonic emphasis” (47). Eastman claims his account of a diachronic process in terms of pre-space potentiae plays a role similar to that of Whitehead’s “prehensive unification” first introduced in Science and the Modern World (1925). Despite approving of Whitehead’s perspectival account of the relation between universals and particulars (103), Eastman sometimes indicates a desire to distance himself from Whitehead’s eternal objects, thus implying that there may be important differences between his landscapes of potentiae and the realm of eternal objects. This is a fertile area for further philosophical exploration beyond the scope of this brief review. Nonetheless, a few suggestions can be offered. 

One way of beginning such an exploration stems from asking whether the choice of realism over nominalism as regards the status of form in Nature entails Platonism. Eastman thinks not (92), but given that Plato wrote dialogues and not doctrines, it all depends what is meant by “Platonism.” Regardless of the nature of his divergence from Whitehead’s category of eternal objects, they clearly share a rejection of nominalism. Eastman puts forward an argument against nominalist actualism that is rooted in quantum potentiae that integrate local-global interactions without themselves having any specific spacetime location. They are generals, in C. S. Peirce’s sense, serving as logical constraints on physical process. From Eastman’s point of view, admitting potentiae back into Nature is far more parsimonious than the actualist/nominalist interpretations of quantum theory (e.g., the many-worlds and multiverse hypotheses) (94). 

Eastman concludes his book with an attempt to link human and cosmic logoi in search of some sense of the deeper meaning of our existence. Careful to avoid any monological fixations, he builds on George Ellis’ “Kenotic morality” (2020, 13), wherein human values like truth, goodness, and beauty “reflect the forces or intentions that created the universe…as part of the deep structure of the cosmos,” in Ellis’ terms. Eastman also amplifies Robert Neville’s (2013, 53) worry about the “enormous damage to human civilization [resulting from] the loss of value-reference and realistic valuation in modern Western science” (245). With characteristic caution and modesty, Eastman seeks to contrast his own Logoi framework, which aims at “evidence-based methodology,” with the “advocacy-based thinking” that is more appropriate in cultural and political spheres (247). 

In the final pages, Eastman honors the Dakota peoples, upon whose land he first had the spiritual experience that initiated his inquiry into the nature of reality:

“In confronting the psychological challenges of nihilism, denialism, and assorted despairs of contemporary life, in facing up to the physical threats of war, pandemics, human suffering, and in newly realizing the deteriorating of earth’s climate, ecology, and habitability, can we somehow embrace what we have learned through science and philosophy and what we may yet draw on from indigenous and other spiritualities so as to bring into being a world in which we humans can live and flourish over the long term?” (274).

Eastman has succeeded in making a major contribution toward such an integral embrace. 

Works Cited 

Auxier, Randall and Herstein, Gary. (2017). The Quantum of Explanation: Whitehead’s Radical Empiricism. New York: Routledge.

Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton.

Ellis, George  F. R. (2020). “A Mathematical Cosmologist Reflects on Deep Ethics: Reflections on Values, Ethics, and Morality.” Theology and Science: 1-15. 

Epperson, Michael and Zafiris, Elias. (2013). Foundations of Relational Realism: A Topological Approach to Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Nature. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 

Kastner, Ruth. (2013). The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McHenry, Leemon. (2017). “Whitehead and Russell on the Analysis of Matter.” The Review of Metaphysics 71: 321-342. 

Neville, Robert. (2013). Ultimates: Philosophical Theology, Volume One. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 

A Drunk History of Time: The Einstein, Bergson, Whitehead Debates

Is the flow of time a “stubbornly persistent illusion,” a mere psychological mirage, as Albert Einstein held? Or is it the very essence of all psychical life and material things alike, as Henri Bergson argued? Might there be an equally scientific rendering of relativity that does not force us to deny our lived experience, as Alfred North Whitehead preferred? Whose time is it? Join us for this drunk history lesson about the epochal clash between these three geniuses to find out.

*Errata: At 30:29, I misspoke: Einstein’s train thought experiment is, of course, in reference to the special, not the general theory of relativity. But Einstein first articulates it in a text meant for the general public that summarizes both theories. At 34:08, I misspoke again: Of course, since 2014, Russia has claimed Crimea as its own.

Thinking with Carlo Rovelli: The Physics of Consciousness

Last summer, I traveled to the Gran Sasso Institute in L’Aquila, Italy to participate in a conference bringing physicists and philosophers together to rehash the famous debate in 1922 between Einstein and Bergson. My paper (which should be published soon) brought quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli and Whitehead into the mix.

Yesterday I came across this recent lecture by Rovelli offering some thoughts about the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness (a framing Rovelli dismisses).

I shared some initial thoughts in response on Twitter:

Then shared more in a series of YouTube videos:

In short, I applaud Rovelli’s brilliant analysis of the ways in which biological and psychological phenomena are perfectly compatible with physical processes. But there is some ambiguity in his account, as it is unclear whether he believes he is offering some sort of causal explanation of consciousness in physical terms, or just a correlation between, e.g., conscious information-processing or decision-making and free energy/negentropy in the brain. When he speaks as a physicist, he seems to think he is explaining consciousness in physical/efficient causal terms. But when he praises Spinoza the pantheist philosopher, he would seem to be acknowledging a mere correlation or parallelism between material and mental phenomena.

Physics and Freedom

“Scientists, animated by the purpose of proving they are purposeless, constitute an interesting subject for study.”

-Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason

I’m a frequent reader of the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder‘s blog Backreaction. She has helped me better understand many difficult concepts in contemporary theoretical physics. I’ve benefited in particular from the times she has weighed in on intra-disciplinary feuds with other physicists about, for example, the proper role of mathematical speculation in the formation of physical theory.

Every so often, she swerves out of the physics lane and into philosophy. Her recent post “How to live without free will” is a good example. I wanted to share a few critical reflections in response.

My usual response to these sorts of arguments from scientific materialists is to remind them that their denials of freedom are blatant performative self-contradictions. I am not finally a Kantian transcendentalist, but nonetheless, I find that Kant’s critical epistemology is the best place to begin a reply to naive materialism. In short, physics is in the business of building and testing mathematical models of natural processes. Currently there are two very successful models in physics, relativity theory and quantum theory. Unfortunately, these models describe two very different universes. Many physicists are working on a grand unifying theory that would bring these models together, but so far, we only have some interesting but untestable conjectures. The relevant point here is that these models always presuppose a mind capable of empirically observing data and theoretically reflecting upon possible explanations of that data. In other words, by dismissing free will and by proxy consciousness, Hossenfelder is forgetting about the transcendental conditions that make physical science and knowledge of nature possible in the first place.

That’s my short critical response. Now I’ll reply more fully to specific points raised in her blog post. She writes:

“Physics deals with the most fundamental laws of nature, those from which everything else derives.”

There’s certainly nothing out of the ordinary about a physicist claiming all of nature can be derived from the fundamental laws of physics. This is standard reductionism. Unfortunately, there is nothing in these laws that entails the emergence of biology, much less psychology or the conscious self-reflection necessary for something like physical science to be possible. So at best the claim that everything else derives from the laws of physics as currently understood is an IOU. At worst, it is an example of scientistic hubris dramatically overstepping the bounds of actual scientific knowledge. The theoretical biologist Robert Rosen argues rather convincingly that the non-entailment of biology by the laws of physics is a very strong indication that current physics is woefully incomplete. In his terms, mechanistic physics is too specific to account for the more generic processes of self-organization intrinsic to the biological world (I’ve written more about Rosen’s perspective here).

I agree with Hossenfelder that quantum indeterminacy is not evidence for conscious free will. The only evidence we would ever have for conscious free will would come from our consciousness of it. For most scientific materialists, this “self-evidence” of free will is easily dismissed as a subjective illusion. Objective physical laws just don’t leave any room for it. From a Kantian transcendental point of view, however, this puts the cart before the horse. Kant asks: What are the epistemological pre-conditions of something like “objective physical laws”? His answer: a rational mind capable of organizing experience in terms of categories like causation and forms of intuition like space and time. Physicists know nature in rational, mathematical, and empirical terms. Rationality, including mathematical reasoning, pre-supposes that a mind exists to do the reasoning. Or is Hossenfelder suggesting that mathematical reasoning just happens in a mechanical way, that physicists play no conscious role in devising and testing their favored theories? Now, I’m perfectly well aware that 20th century discoveries like Einstein’s theory of relativity have forced us to reconsider some of Kant’s a priori framework, but even so, the transcendental challenge to naive materialism remains just as strong as ever.

I don’t know of any philosophers who argue that human beings have total freedom. Even in our thoughts we are restricted by factors beyond our control (unconscious influences, environmental distractions, exhaustion, mind-altering chemicals, etc.). All “free will” means is that we are among a class of intelligent and creative organisms capable of exercising our desires in an effort to help shape the unfolding of future events in some limited way. Denying this plainly evident fact leads us into all sorts of performative self-contradictions.

The most common form of denial that I encounter is to insist that reductionism must be wrong. But we have countless experiments that document humans are made of particles, and that these particles obey our equations. This means that also humans, as collections of those particles, obey these equations. If you try to make room for free will by claiming humans obey other equations (or maybe no equation at all), you are implicitly claiming that particle physics is wrong. And in this case, sorry, I cannot take you seriously.

I’ve written a lot about Alfred North Whitehead on this blog. Anyone familiar with his process-relational ontology will know that it is possible to accept the standard model of particle physics and the obvious facts of human life at the same time. The trick is to free ourselves of the muddled thinking inherited from classical physics (especially the fallacy of simple location and the idea of nature-at-an-instant). Yes, humans are collections of particles (or societies of actual occasions, in Whitehead’s terms). But neither particles nor humans “obey” equations, as though abstract mathematical objects are like chariot drivers whipping us to conform to their eternal will. Natural processes display certain regular mathematical patterns. For Whiteheadians like me, these patterns are more like habits than laws. Some are more regular than others. For example, physics can predict with a very high degree of accuracy how physical particles will behave under certain controlled conditions (even here, there are always anomalies, but in general the laws hold). But physicists cannot predict even in principle how a paramecium will navigate through its environment (there are some regularities, e.g., it will swim toward food and away from toxins or predators, but exact movements cannot be mapped out in advance). This is because as we move up the scale of nature’s complexity, physical processes self-organize so as to be capable of ingressing a greater degree (and a richer quality) of novelty. Contrary to reductionist dogma, biological processes are not reducible to physical processes. Biology remains fully compatible with physics, but nothing in physics suggests anything like biology (or like consciousness!) should be possible.

After marshaling a number of arguments against free will, Hossenfelder draws her post to a close by saying we still make decisions and we should be smart about them:

You are here to gather information, process it, and come to decisions that may, or may not result in actions. Your actions, and the information you share, will then affect the decisions and actions of others. These decisions are determined by the structure of your brain and the information you obtain. Rather than despairing over the impossibility of changing either, decide to be more careful which information you seek out, analyze, and pass on. Instead of thinking about influencing the future, ask yourself what you have learned, eg, from reading this. You may not have free will, but you still make decisions. You cannot not make decisions. You may as well be smart about it.

Am I just confused or are there not numerous performative self-contradictions on display here? We are asked not to despair over the fact that we are determined, as if we had any choice in whether to despair or not. We are told to be “smart” about our paradoxically non-free decisions. Huh? At least she ends her post by admitting that consciousness remains a mystery to natural science. Given this admission, I am left wondering why she felt so confident in her dismissals of freedom.

This is the sort of muddle-headedness that scientific materialism gets us into. Whitehead called these attempts “heroic feats of explaining away.” The implied moral stance of the scientific materialist is that they are mature adults who are strong enough to accept the bleak truth of our purposelessness, while the rest of us are stuck in the past clutching at childish illusions that make us feel safe. I would counter by pointing out that the true nature of our human freedom is far from safe. We do not have freedom, freedom has us. Freedom is far more of an ego-crucifying burden than modern secular liberal political theory would have us believe.

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy [draft]

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

Time and Experience in Physics and Philosophy

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

By Matthew D. Segall

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Electrons Don’t Think” by Sabine Hossenfelder

The following is a comment I posted on the physicist and blogger Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog Backreaction to a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.”

https://backreaction.blogspot.com/2019/01/electrons-dont-think.html


Hi Sabine.

I discovered your blog last night after Googling “Carlo Rovelli and Alfred North Whitehead.” It brought me to Tam Hunt’s interview with Rovelli. I have been studying Rovelli’s popular works lately (I just finished The Order of Time) because I’d heard his loop quantum gravity might be a natural fit with Whitehead’s panexperiential process-relational ontology. I am a philosopher, not a physicist or a mathematician, so I struggle with many technical papers in physics journals (it is helpful when the author is kind enough to lay out the conceptual structure of the math). Luckily, I’ve noticed that popular books are the best place to look for a physicist’s natural philosophy and the best way to understand the metaphysical background of a physicist’s theories. I am looking forward to reading your book Lost in Math. It strikes me as another example of a larger trend in theoretical physics (also exemplified by Lee Smolin) that’s challenging the ascendency of mathematical speculation over experimental evidence and empiricism.

As for your post “Electrons Don’t Think”, I don’t know what panpsychist philosophy you read, but either it was badly written or you misunderstood it. There are, of course, many varieties of panpsychism, just as there are many varieties of materialism and idealism, etc. Perhaps the variety you read has misled you. The panpsychism of, for example, the mathematician, physicist, and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead was constructed precisely in order to provide a new metaphysical interpretation of the latest scientific evidence (including relativity, quantum, evolutionary, and complexity theories), since the old mechanistic materialism could no longer do the job in a coherent way. Panpsychism is metaphysics, not physics. A metaphysical scheme should aid in our philosophical interpretation of the physical evidence, not contradict it. Any philosopher whose metaphysics contradict the physical evidence is doing bad philosophy.

I like to distinguish between two main species of panpsychism:

1) substance-property panpsychism (Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, and contemporary philosophers Philip Goff, Galen Strawson, and David Chalmers seem to me to fall into this category)

2) process-relational panpsychism (Friedrich Schelling, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, A. N. Whitehead)

I count myself among the later category, and following the Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin, I prefer the term “panexperientialism” to panpsychism, since the idea is not that electrons have the full capacities of human psyches (reflective thinking, deliberate willing, artistic imagining, etc.) but that all self-organizing systems are possessed of at least some modicum of feeling, even if this feeling is faint and largely unconscious in the vast majority of systems. Human consciousness is an extremely rare and complex integration of the more primordial feelings of these self-organizing systems.

I unpack the differences between these species of panpsychism/panexperientialism at more length in this blog post. In short, the substance-property species of panpsychism has it that mind is an intrinsic property of all substance. This at least has the advantage over materialism that it avoids the hard problem of consciousness and provides a way out of the incoherence of dualism. But I think substance-property panpsychism is working with an overly abstract concept of consciousness. Consciousness is a relational process, not a quality inhering in a substance. Consciousness emerges between us, not in you or in me.

You write: panpsychism is “the idea that all matter – animate or inanimate – is conscious, we just happen to be somewhat more conscious than carrots. Panpsychism is the modern elan vital.”

I would say that panpsychism is the idea that all matter is animate. What is “matter,” anyway, other than activity, energy vectors, vibrations? Is there really such a thing as “inanimate” matter, that is, stuff that just sits there and doesn’t do anything? As for the “elan vital,” I suppose you are trying to compare panpsychism to vitalism? Vitalism is the idea that some spiritual agency exists separately from a merely mechanistic material and drives it around; it’s the idea that, for example, angels are pushing the planets around in their orbits. The panexperientialist cosmology I articulate in my book Physics of the World-Soul explicitly denies this sort of dualism between spirit and matter. Panexperientialism is the idea that spirit and matter are not two, that mechanism is merely an appearance, a part mistaken for a self-existing whole, and that ultimately Nature is organic and animate from top to bottom.

 

The Place of Life in the Cosmos (draft of 11th International Whitehead Conference paper)

Below is the draft of a paper I’ll present at next week’s International Whitehead Conference in the Azores. Feedback appreciated!


2017 International Whitehead Conference  

Matthew T. Segall

 

The Place of Life in the Cosmos: Feeling the Origin of Organism

 

“A philosophic outlook is the very foundation of thought and of life. The sort of ideas we attend to, and the sort of ideas which we push into the negligible background, govern our hopes, our fears, our control of behavior. As we think, we live. This is why the assemblage of philosophic ideas is more than a specialist study.  It moulds our type of civilization” —Whitehead (Modes of Thought, 87).

“The doctrine I am maintaining is that neither physical nature nor life can be understood unless we fuse them together as essential factors in the composition of ‘really real’ things whose interconnections and individual characters constitute the universe.”—Whitehead (Modes of Thought, )

“We must conceive the Divine Eros as the active entertainment of all ideals, with the urge to their finite realization, each in its due season. Thus a process must be inherent in God’s nature, whereby [God’s] infinity is acquiring realization.” —Whitehead (Adventures of Ideas, 277)

“To dismiss love as the biologic basis of social life, as also the ethical implications of love, would be to turn our back on a history as living beings that is more than 3.5 billion years old. We may resist the notion of love in a scientific reflection because we fear for the objectivity of our rational approach. Yet…such fear is unfounded. Love is a biological dynamic with deep roots. It is an emotion that defines in the organism as a dynamic structural pattern, a stepping stone to interactions that may lead to the operational coherences of social life.” —Maturana and Varela (The Tree of Knowledge, 248)

 

This paper has been prepared for the “Whitehead and biology” track, but I will argue that a proper understanding of biology requires situating it, not only in relation to physics, but also in relation to psychology, anthropology, and indeed, theology. The universe, Whitehead recognized, does not come neatly packaged into the disciplinary silos of the modern research university. In addition to the cosmological scope of his organic realism, Whitehead also recognized the need for what today we might refer to as a participatory approach[1] to studying the universe. The other thinkers I draw into conversation with Whitehead in this essay, including Friedrich Schelling, Hans Jonas, Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Robert Rosen, are similarly participatory or enactive in orientation, as they recognize that, as Aaran Gare put it, “scientists must see themselves as part of the world they are striving to understand.”[2] We are participants within the creative cosmos we are studying, participants who are actively contributing to or retarding the ongoing evolutionary adventure of cosmogenesis. What there is to be known is reciprocally bound up with the way that we attempt to know it. According to Varela and Maturana, ignoring this intimate connection isolates the human knower from the living world he or she is trying to know, as though “knowledge” existed in some transcendental realm beyond or before our concrete experience of embodied action in Nature: “to disregard the identity between cognition and action, not to see that knowing is doing…is not to see human beings as living entities.”[3] It is not only in biology, psychology, and anthropology that researchers must become attuned to the interactive effects their own methods and attitudes have on the subjects of their study. The same attunement is required in physics and in theology. I will argue that a proper understanding of the place of life in the cosmos requires a way of studying Nature and even God that places ourselves within what we are trying to study (i.e., an endophysics and an endotheology). Whitehead allows us to see that even God lacks a “God’s eye view.” “There is an essence to the universe,” Whitehead tells us, “which forbids relationships beyond itself, as a violation of its rationality.”[4] To rationally study the cosmos, then, is not to study it “objectively,” as if “from outside,” but rather to study it relationally, as we embodied minds find ourselves always in media res “in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures.”[5] There is, in Maturana and Varela’s words, an “unbroken coincidence of our being, our doing, and our knowing,” such that “every act of knowing brings forth a world” and “everything we do is a structural dance in the choreography of coexistence…We have only the world that we bring forth with others, and only love helps us bring it forth[6]

 

Life: Special Anomaly or Generic Principle?

With the founding of the modern, secular research university, biologists have for the most part come to approach life as an object of neutral scientific investigation.[7] But now that the existential threat of planetary ecological collapse has dawned on our species, the study of life can no longer remain a merely theoretical affair. It must also become an ethical and spiritual concern of central importance to everything we do. Modern humans have technologically transformed the planet at every scale we are capable of measuring, forever altering the complex feedback loops that integrate geological, chemical, meteorological, and biological processes into a self-regulating Gaian superorganism. Our species now finds itself in a rather paradoxically tragic situation: humans, originally creatures of Earth, have created a second Nature, an artificial Earth that we thought made first Nature passive before our economic projects. Moderns assumed first Nature would patiently endure modern, industrial progress, but alas, we are witnessing “Gaia’s revenge” (Lovelock): our presumed status as creators is being rudely revoked as we realize we are just as vulnerable to extinction as any other of Earth’s creatures.

A properly cosmological and participatory study of organisms has now become a matter of life and death, something that of course still requires plenty of theorization, but which can no longer be approached in a disinterested or objective way (if it ever truly could be). The question, “What is life?,” is itself a rather recent invention in the history of humanity’s inquiries into the nature of things. Jonas argued that the inverse question, “What is death?” preceded it by many millennia. Primal people perceived the blooming, buzzing world around them as incontrovertibly animated, ensouled. They felt embedded within a generative cycle, wherein death surely existed, but as an interval between life and rebirth, rather than as life’s complete and utter annihilation. Jonas thus suggested that “panpsychism,” or the view that the world is alive, “is really the most natural view.”[8] “To the extent that life is accepted as the primary state of things, death looms as the disturbing mystery. Hence the problem of death is probably the first to deserve this name in the history of thought.”[9] All culture—all religion, art, science, and technology, and indeed our very humanness—may be a result of our becoming conscious of and responding to the problem of death. Our sense of who we are as human organisms and the driving force of all our meaning-making endeavors may be rooted in a desire to overcome the contradiction of death by somehow integrating it into the more primary process of life. Every human society, primal or modern, to the extent that it remains viable finds some cultural means of integrating death back into the life process.

Archaeological anthropologists know for sure they are dealing with human remains when they find them buried in graves. Burying the dead, preparing them for an afterlife of some kind, appears to be an essential feature of our species. Jonas describes the paradox by which the anomaly of death stood out for the primal, panpsychist imagination: “This is the paradox: precisely the importance of the tombs in the beginnings of mankind, the power of the death motif in the beginnings of human thought, testify to the greater power of the universal life motif as their sustaining ground.”[10] It was only after the Copernican revolution, according to Jonas, that the “proportional place of life in the scheme of things” began to be questioned. Prior to this cosmological displacement of the living Earth from the center of things, it had never occurred to human beings “that life might be a side issue in the universe,” rather than “its pervading rule.”[11] Galileo, Descartes, and Newton wielded the weapons of mathematical analysis to vanquish the central intuition of pre-modern cosmology—an indwelling World-Soul—thus ushering in a new world view, that of the clock-work universe designed by a transcendent demiurge. To the modern question, “What is life?,” came the modern answer: life is a mechanical corpse.[12]

Five hundred years later, the emergence of the Anthropocene—a perspective on our planet that is perhaps even more consequential than Copernicus’ revolution[13]—invites us to consider Jonas’ problem anew. It is no coincidence that just as we find ourselves entering the 6th great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, one which may claim our own species as one of its victims, philosophers are once again beginning to take seriously the prospect of panpsychism. Jonas was himself familiar enough with the Whiteheadian variety of panpsychism to remind his readers that taking the idea seriously does not mean setting aside centuries of scientific discovery by returning to Aristotelean physics.[14] Whitehead was led to articulate his philosophy of organism in the early 20th century because physics itself had begun to outgrow the old mechanical world-picture (e.g., no more “simple location” in absolute space, no more “nature at an instant” in durationless time, no more “laws” of physics imposed from eternity, etc.). Unfortunately, many biologists continue to conceive of the object of their study as a rare anomaly within the physical universe, a universe otherwise empty of value, devoid of purpose, and governed by randomly imposed laws. Organisms, while exceedingly complicated, are thus thought to be ultimately reducible to their simpler component parts. They appear to be animate agencies, but really organisms are just another lucky combination of atoms falling in the void (or genes falling through the fitness gradient), the orphaned children of randomness and law, of Monod’s chance and necessity. Biologists are wary of letting go of the mechanical metaphor, as to do so puts them at risk of being dismissed as unscientific Romantics by their colleagues.[15] Whitehead admitted that “the appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena”; “But,” he continues (writing in 1925), “at present there is no such system of concepts.”[16] Even Albert Einstein, in a letter written to nuclear physicist-turned-biologist Leo Szilard, admitted that it was in dealing with living things that he most felt the primitiveness of contemporary physics.[17] Robert Rosen refers to Einstein’s feeling about physics to amplify the feelings of another physicist-turned-biologist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger’s hunch, elaborated in his famous essay What is Life?, was that the study of organisms would teach us a new physics.[18] In Rosen’s terms, the old physics, that of mechanistic reductionism, was not generic enough to account for living organisms:

organisms, far from being a special case, an embodiment of more general principles or laws we believe we already know, are indications that these laws themselves are profoundly incomplete. The universe described by these laws is an extremely impoverished, nongeneric one, and one in which life cannot exist. In short, far from being a special case of these laws, and reducible to them, biology provides the most spectacular examples of their inadequacy. The alternative is not vitalism, but rather a more generic view of the scientific world itself, in which it is the mechanistic laws that are the special cases.[19]

Rosen’s theoretical biology, when allied with Whitehead’s process philosophy, re-establishes a place for the organism not only in biological science, which has contented itself too long with reductionistic methods, but in physics, too. Rosen’s theory of life’s place in the cosmos hearkens back to the intuition of another kindred thinker, Friedrich Schelling:

the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.[20]

 

Toward an Organic Ontology

Schelling, who Gare has pegged as a process philosopher rather than an idealist,[21] developed his organic Naturphilosophie in the wake of Kant’s transcendental critique of metaphysics. Organism, for thinkers like Schelling, Whitehead, and Rosen, must be understood not as a special kind of entity contingently emergent from an inorganic Nature, but rather as a universal speculative principle characterizing Nature at both micro- and macrocosmic scales.[22] Organism functions as a mediating concept integrating the modern dualisms of such seeming opposites as process v. substance, identity v. relationality, and body v. mind. In Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the dualism between Nature and freedom running throughout his system approached but did not finally achieve resolution in the idea of organism. Unlike merely mechanical Nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living Nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without the application of formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts (in this, organisms are analogous to Reason itself). Kant famously argued that mechanistic physics could never in principle explain the internal possibility of organic, that is, self-organizing, beings:

So certain is this that we may boldly state that it is absurd…to hope that perhaps some day another Newton might arise who would explain to us, in terms of natural laws…how even a mere blade of grass is produced (the ‘Newton of the leaf’).[23]

Kant was in the end unable to overcome the epistemological dualism between conceptually determined phenomena and unknowable noumena that shaped his transcendental method. He thus applied organism merely as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to posit it as constitutive of Nature itself. He thought applying the concept in a constitutive way would require genius of a scientific sort, which he regarded as impossible. Only artists could attain the status of genius, according to Kant. Artists create art through intuitively participating in the creativity of organic Nature, expressing form by intuitively leaping to its wholeness without having to assemble it out of separate parts. In contrast, the reflective and objectifying mind of the scientist, transcendentally cut off from the living organization of the natural world, can only study and conceptually describe organisms piecemeal as dead mechanisms.

Schelling followed the spiritual potential if not the dead letter of Kant’s third critique by articulating an intuitive science capable of knowing organism as constitutive of Nature. According to Schelling, “the less merely reflective [that is, objectifying] thought we give Nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”[24] Schelling re-imagined Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a new inauguration of the transcendental method, releasing philosophy from the dualistic determinations and duties of pure and practical reason by rooting it instead in the aesthetic feelings of living organization. Philosophy, for Schelling, became “nature itself philosophizing/autophusis philosophia.”[25] Rather than the categories of transcendental logic, Schelling saw living Nature as a priori. His question was no longer “What must mind be such that knowledge of phenomenal Nature is possible?,” but “What must real Nature be for a knowing mind to have emerged from it?” Toward the end of his life, despite his own best efforts, Schelling had to admit that feeling, “the so-called inner sense of the emotions and the changes that take place within ourselves…still very much needs a critique.”[26] Whitehead’s philosophy of organism took up Schelling’s task: “to construct a critique of pure feeling, in the philosophical position in which Kant put his Critique of Pure Reason.”[27] The few pages Kant devotes to this in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” are, according to Whitehead, “a distorted fragment of what should have been his main topic.”

There is an intimate connection between such a critique of feeling and the construction of an organic or panpsychist cosmology. Though the essence of life cannot be known in a logically determinate way (i.e., what Rosen refers to as a Turing-machine simulable way[28]), it can be felt intuitively in our own experience of being alive, of being a living being among other living beings. In his earliest writings on the philosophy of Nature (~1797), Schelling wrote:

So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living Nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from Nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.[29]

The modern, mechanistic world-picture, which physics itself has outgrown, nonetheless continues to shape the imagination of many biologists. Biological organisms are understood to be reducible to their mechanical parts, as though living things are not really alive, but rather amount to little more than highly improbable chemical reactions. From Rosen’s perspective, the collapse of mechanistic cosmology means we must dispense with the idea that

the gradient from simplicity to complexity is only a matter of accretion of simple, context-independent parts, and the analysis of more complex systems is merely a matter of inverting the accretions that produced them.[30]

Instead, in Whitehead  terms, we must “reverse the process” typical of reductionistic explanation by construing the evolutionarily earlier forms of physical organization by analogy to the later, biological forms.[31] There is now a new “physics of irreversible, non-equilibrium processes,”[32] as Ilya Prigogine described it, allowing biologists to re-imagine organisms, not as dead machines, nor as machines imbued with an immaterial “vital force,” but completely natural, thermodynamically open, historically emergent, and irreducibly complex[33] energetic events. It turns out that such self-organizing energetic events pervade the physical universe (e.g., atoms, stars, galaxies, etc.). This is what I take Rosen to mean when he says complex self-organization is generic and not specific. Following Whitehead’s analogical reversal of the typical form of evolutionary explanation, if biological organisms are alive, then ontological coherence requires that physical and chemical events also be understood as already somehow lively:

Science is taking on a new aspect which is neither purely physical, nor purely biological. It is becoming the study of organisms. Biology is the study of the larger organisms; whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.[34]

Organisms at every scale, whether particle, astrophysical, or biological, are precariously poised on thermodynamic gradients, surfing inner depths of feeling and lured by erotic potencies toward ever-more intense modes of existence. We might then say that ecology—the study of organisms and their co-evolutionary dynamics—should replace physics as the most generic science.

 

Whither Panpsychism?

Whitehead’s organic realism is not without its critics, even among those who sympathize with major aspects of his project. Jonas, despite stating that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism

is the only rational alternative open to naturalism after the loss of the transcendental counterpole provided by dualistic metaphysics, in whose shelter alone an unadulterated ‘materialism’ in physics was rationally possible,

nonetheless remained concerned that Whitehead’s panpsychism leaves no room for the reality of death because it denies “the deep anxiety of biological existence” by telling “a story of intrinsically secured success.”[35] Contrary to Jonas, I do not believe Whitehead’s metaphysics is just another elaborate denial of death. Whitehead’s panpsychism, on his own account, “is entirely neutral on the question of immortality,” understood in its traditional Christian sense as a personal afterlife.[36] His account of biological organisms fully acknowledges that such complex forms of organization are fragile and dependent upon the “patience” of their environment for their enduring stability.[37] Whitehead doesn’t simply establish life as the foundation of existence; rather, his dipolar account of process in terms of subjective immediacy and superjective immortality could be described as affirming the life-death-rebirth cycle itself as the central cosmic mystery.[38] Jonas’ fascination with Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is not misplaced: Dasein’s being-toward-death is indeed constitutive of our being human. Death opens us to the heart of Being. Whitehead’s unapologetic return to metaphysics is not necessarily in conflict with Heidegger’s turn toward Existenz, since he engages in philosophical speculation not in order to master or cover over death, as ontotheology does, but instead to seek some reconciliation between life and death via a coherent account of their integration in and as creative process, or what he termed Concrescence. Whitehead described an actual occasion’s concrescence in terms of three cumulative phases of feeling: first, the creative intensity of many objectively given past actualities initiates a new actual occasion or throb of experience; second, this occasion seeks its own form of aesthetic satisfaction in an immediately enjoyed presentation of the objective manifold by unifying this manifold into its own unique subjective perspective on the universe; finally, the occasion, having achieved satisfaction of its subjective aim toward unity, perishes into superjective immortality, becoming another objective expression to be prehended in the concrescence of subsequent throbs of experience. This process, whereby “the many become one, and are increased by one,”[39] is iterated endlessly “to the crack of doom.”[40] It marks for Whitehead the primary miracle of creation, whereby the dry bones of the past are clothed again in the flesh of renewed purpose and zest for life.[41] It is the miracle whereby actual occasions perpetually perish “and yet live for evermore.”[42] Note that while Whitehead’s ontological account of concrescence does include a kind of “immortality,” this should not be confused with the distinct, cosmological question of the status of the ontogeny of individual biological organisms after death. As mentioned above, Whitehead philosophy of organism is decidedly neutral on the question of ontogenetic or personal immortality.[43]

But it cannot be denied that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism stands in stark contrast to the nihilism of some modern and much postmodern philosophy. For Whitehead, beauty is the teleology of the universe. The concrescence of each actual occasion is goaded toward beauty by an indwelling Divine Eros. This Eros, also called the “primordial nature of God,” is inherited by the initial feelings of each occasion. But because actual occasions are still self-creative, the Divine Eros cannot determine the direction of Nature’s creative advance. Rather, by contributing to the initial phase of each concrescent occasion a graded envisagement of Creativity’s infinite value-potential as relevant to its finite situation, the Divine Eros lures occasions toward more intense actualizations of value-experience or beauty. Such actualizations are never assured, and any achievement of order is accomplished amidst a background of chaos that is forever threatening to shipwreck the endeavor. Whitehead rejects as fallacious the narrow religious conception of the universe as determined by some final order imposed by a transcendent, omnipotent God.[44]

Despite its reformed, evolutionary character, Jonas, Varela, and Thompson do not go as far as affirming the cosmic teleology of Whitehead’s panpsychism. They restrict the scope of teleology to biological phenomena, arguing for a kind of immanent purposiveness at work at least in the self-production and sense-making of individual living organisms down to the level of single cells. Self-production or autopoiesis is said to differentiate an organism from an “indifferent physicochemical” environment, while sense-making turns this environment into a world of “biological significance.”[45] They allow teleology entrance into nature only through the emergent centers of “concern” and need whereby biological organisms “affirm and reaffirm [themselves] in the face of not-being.”[46]

Jonas, Varela, and Thompson here oppose the “otherwise neutral events” of external physics and chemistry governed by deterministic laws to the “internal norms” of biological organisms.[47] Biological organisms, as sense-making, self-producing beings, are not posited as by any means exempt from the laws by which science understands the physical world, but nonetheless they are thought to add something not found in or entailed by these laws. From Thompson’s perspective, the new sciences of complexity, unavailable in Kant’s day, allow contemporary theoretical biologists to grasp this extra something in a more rational, scientific way.[48] Jonas, Varela, and Thompson thus go further than Kant in affirming immanent teleology as constitutive of at least biological organisms.

Thompson (a former student of Varela’s and the only living member of this triad) has followed one line of the post-Kantian tradition’s development through Husserl to its culmination in Merleau-Ponty’s embodied phenomenology. He also draws on Jonas’ discussion of biological space and time, which is in effect an evolutionary extension of Kant’s transcendental aesthetic beyond the human to the subjectivity of biological organisms. Whitehead, on the other hand, tried to go back to Kant and invert his founding principles. As I’ve shown, Whitehead’s process-relational ontology is an attempt to construct a critique of pure feeling in place of Kant’s critique of pure Reason. Something very similar ended up happening within the Kantian tradition itself, not just via Schelling, but via Merleau-Ponty, whose late ontology of the flesh could be described as a transition from Kantian disembodied reason as epistemically foundational (with ontology bracketed) to embodied feeling as the ground of knowledge and existence. Perhaps Schelling, Whitehead, and the embodied phenomenologists end up converging in the end.[49] Nonetheless, Thompson remains suspicious of claims that the relations between even the most microscopic physical events are somehow experiential. He worries that this sort of speculative claim overshoots the transcendental limitations Kant placed on human knowing.[50] I am compelled to follow Whitehead, however, in seeing Kant as having prematurely limited our intuitive capacity to participate in Nature’s inner life.[51] Whitehead, perhaps with Kant or some of his transcendentalist inheritors in mind, rejected “the philosophic tradition” which has it that “there are set limitations for human experience, to be discovered in a blue-print preserved in some Institute of Technology.” He grants the usual limitations set by the social habits that happen to be dominant in each epoch, and by the difficulty of verbally expressing, and thus recalling or communicating, unusual experiences; but in principle he cannot “discern any reason, apart from dogmatic assumption, why any factor in the universe should not be manifest in some flash of human consciousness.”[52] After all, though the task be difficult, the main task of philosophy is precisely that of translating into language what such flashes of insight reveal about the nature of the penumbral background encompassing our normal consciousness. In this way, philosophy strives to increase the generality of our metaphysical categories beyond their applicability to the tables and tea cups of our everyday experience. Hidden in ordinary experience, continues Whitehead,

there is always the dim background from which we derive and to which we return. We are not enjoying a limited dolls’ house of clear and distinct things, secluded from all ambiguity. In the darkness beyond there ever looms the vague mass which is the universe begetting us.[53]

The normally dim background of our embodied experience, that which our sensitive membranes are supposed to put us in touch with, is evidently not a mere neutral “not-being.” Whitehead beseeches us not to be too quick to artificially limit our capacity to experience the deeper causal vectors animating the cosmic life from which we derive and to which we return.

Despite its tendency to impose such limits, there remains much that is of value in the transcendental orientation, particularly when it has been transformed into embodied phenomenology. Thompson’s approach invites reductionists to become more reflexive about how their objective way of knowing brings forth a specific, limited domain of significance, a domain wherein only the mechanical aspects of living phenomena are detectable, and wherein all value, meaning, and purpose evaporates from view. By epistemically ruling out a “feeling for the organism”[54] as unscientific, mechanistic biologists become numb to the physical purposes at work within the living processes of Nature. If, as Thompson puts it, “empathy is a precondition of our comprehension of the vital order,” where empathy means the “spontaneous and involuntary resonance of two living bodies with each other,”[55] then knowing the living interiority of Nature requires coming to aesthetically resonate with it, to sense it, or sense with it, from the inside out. Whitehead, like Schelling, arrived at his organic realism by inverting Kant’s transcendental idealism so that intuitive feeling and aesthesis came to ground conceptual reflection and Reason.[56] “The reaction of our own nature to the general aspect of life in the universe”[57] is thus the primary experiential datum of and epistemological justification for Whitehead’s metaphysics.

Thompson agrees that a more generic view of nature than the mechanical one is possible. In his more recent work, he has pursued a post-physicalist, non-dualist perspective, arguing that “physical being and experiential being imply each other [and] derive from something that is neutral between them.”[58] He explicitly leaves the door open to panpsychism and neutral monism and suggests they may have advantages over neurophysicalist reductionism.[59] Neutral monism is a position that William James fleshed out more than a century ago and that had an important influence on Whitehead’s philosophical development. James’ notion of a “pure experience” from out of which subject and object, mind and matter, emerge and constellate themselves into more or less stable patterns of perceptual habit is very close to Whitehead’s panexperientialism. But how can something “neutral” give birth to a creative cosmos of living organisms? It is this problem that led Whitehead to generalize the insights of James’ radically empirical psychology (which has much in common with embodied phenomenology) into a panpsychist cosmology. If experience goes all the way down, the challenge is to find some description general enough to avoid anthropomorphism but vectored and telic enough to still count as experiential. Whitehead threads the needle with his concept of prehension. Physical prehensionality, where memory and anticipation are present already in germ, thus becomes the precursor of biological intentionality (which itself is the precursor of conscious reflection).[60] There is thus no neutral reality: for Whitehead, to be real is already to be the realization of some modicum of value, as “aesthetic attainment is interwoven in the texture of realization.”[61]

 

Placing Life Back in the Cosmos

There are clear parallels between Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and the new paradigms of theoretical biology put forward by thinkers like Jonas, Rosen, Varela, and Thompson. There are also important differences regarding physical ontology, panpsychism, and the proper scope of teleology. My main motivation for bringing these thinkers into conversation with Whitehead is to lure those already critical of the idea that mechanistic reductionism offers an adequate account of life into the more constructive project of imagining a viable metaphysical alternative. If living organization is taken seriously and given its proper place in the cosmos as ontologically generic, then our scientific conception of the universe requires a thorough re-imagining. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image or cosmic metaphor guiding natural scientific investigation. Epistemologically, feeling (in the expanded, Whiteheadian sense) must be granted an enhanced status as our primary mode of relation to the life of the cosmos, such that a rational cosmology comes to mean the same thing as a relational one.

 

Endnotes

[1] See Jorge Ferrer’s Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (2001) or Participation and the Mystery (2017). See also Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, eds., The Participatory Turn (2008)

[2] Arran Gare, “Approaches to the Question ‘What is Life?’: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology” (2008), Cosmos and History Vol 4, No 1-2.

[3] The Tree of Knowledge, 248

[4] Process and Reality, 4

[5] Process and Reality, 50.

[6] The Tree of Life: The Biological Roots of Human Cognition by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (Shambala, 1998), 25-26.

[7] Under the political and economic conditions of late capitalism, theoretical understanding has itself largely taken a backseat to instrumental manipulation with an eye toward military applications or corporate profits.

[8] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas (Northwestern University Press, 2001), 7.

[9] The Phenomenon of Life, 8.

[10] The Phenomenon of Life, 9.

[11] The Phenomenon of Life, 8-9.

[12] The mechanistic world-picture is rooted in a Faustian bargain, that where religious worship of God had apparently failed to defeat death, technological mastery of Nature might succeed. Ernest Becker famously argued that all human culture is ultimately in service to an elaborate “immortality project.” While pre-modern societies had religious means of achieving a sort of symbolic immortality, modern societies have replaced appeals to God with science and technology, which are, we are told by Ray Kurzweil and the Transhumanists, on the verge of providing us with real immortality. For Becker, both theologically and technologically oriented societies are driven by the same denial of death. Pre-moderns sought the shelter of the Church and the grace of the Mass to grant them some taste of transcendence, while moderns dream of terraforming Mars or, less grandiosely, surf Amazon and Facebook and through the miracle of transubstantiation turn data into a consumable goods. The “thoughtless Prometheanism” of modern techno-capitalism is for Becker only a turbocharged version of the premodern “immortality project.” It is rooted in the same “rage against our impotence, a defiance of our animal condition, our pathetic creaturely limitations” (The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1975, 85).

[13] In Clive Hamilton’s terms, the Anthropocene marks the discovery of a new phenomenon hitherto unknown to science: “the appearance of this new object, the Earth System, has ontological meaning. It invites us to think about the Earth in a new way, an Earth in which it is possible for humankind to participate directly in its evolution by influencing the constantly changing processes that constitute it. It therefore brings out the conception of a joint human-earth story” (Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, 21).

[14] The Phenomenon of Life, 2. Though of course there is plenty to be gained through a careful study of many of The Philosopher’s ideas, Whitehead decisively rejects Aristotle’s substance-quality ontology in favor of a process-relational one.

[15] I would ask my scientific colleagues, perhaps already tempted to dismiss the panpsychist cosmology I am peddling, to provide me with even a single example of a scientific theory that does explanatory work without invoking metaphor. Quantum and relativistic phenomena are notoriously difficult to explain in common language, since they appear at first to do violence to our habitual ways of perceiving and conceiving of visible nature. Many modern physicalists therefore prefer to treat them as purely mathematical theories. I ask my scientific colleagues again, what is the meaning of a mathematical equation without that most powerful of metaphorical symbols, “=”?  See Logos of the Living Earth: Toward a Gaian Praxecology for more on the place of metaphor in science: https://footnotes2plato.com/2009/11/21/logos-of-a-living-earth-towards-a-gaian-praxecology/

[16] Science and the Modern World, 97.

[17] Quoted in Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 7.

[18] Essays on Life Itself by Rosen, 9.

[19] p. 33-34, Essays on Life itself, 2000

[20] On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.

[21] “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics” by Aaran Gare, Cosmos and History, Vol 7, no. 2, 2011.

[22] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 128-129, 215.

[23] Quoted by Rosen, Essays on Life Itself, 35.

[24] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988), 35.

[25] Quoted in Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 188.

[26] Grounding of Positive Philosophy, Schelling, 168.

[27] Process and Reality, 113.

[28] Essays on Life Itself by Robert Rosen, 268.

[29] Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, 36.

[30] Essays on Life Itself, 36.

[31] The Function of Reason by Alfred North Whitehead, 15.

[32] The End of Certainty (1996) by Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, 3.

[33] To be complex is not just to be “complicated,” but, in Rosen’s terms, to be noncomputable or nonsimulable (Essays on Life Itself, 17, 37).

[34] Science and the Modern World, 150.

[35] The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas, 96.

[36] Religion in the Making, 107.

[37] Science and the Modern World, 119.

[38] This mystery is affirmed in most primal world views, as well as in Vedic and Buddhist traditions. The Judeo-Christian tradition is rather unique in its denial of any form of rebirth, though there are exceptions (e.g., Origen, Rudolf Steiner). Thompson made the following comparison of panpsychist conceptions of creaturely death to Buddhist conceptions of death: “Panpsychism implies that, as an entirely natural matter of fact, aspects or elements of consciousness—not creature consciousness but more primitive or basal, constituent forms of consciousness—remain present after biological death. Indeed, the idea that creature consciousness at death undergoes a kind of phenomenal dissolution into constituent phenomenal elements—an idea central to Indian and Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of the dying process—may make more sense from a panpsychist perspective than from a neurophysicalist one” (“Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf).

[39] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.

[40] Process and Reality, 228.

[41] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 85.

[42] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.

[43] One form of immortality an individual can possess is achieved through its participation in and contribution to the larger cosmic personality or the divine milieux which shelters its experience. In the end, Whitehead and Jonas converge rather intimately on the question of the possibility and nature of immortality. Indeed, Jonas was deeply influenced by Whitehead’s processual account of God’s relationship to the world (see The Life and Thought of Hans Jonas by Christian Wiese, p. 126). Interested readers should compare the final pages of The Phenomenon of Life in the chapter “Immortality and the Modern Temper” to Whitehead’s late essay “Immortality.”

[44] Process and Reality, 111.

[45] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[46] Thompson, Mind in Life, 153.

[47] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 152-153.

[48] Mind in Life, 129.

[49] Hamrick and Van der Veken’s Nature and Logos argues as much

[50] Blog exchange on July 16, 2013: https://footnotes2plato.com/2013/07/16/phenomenology-and-ontology-merleau-ponty-whitehead-and-the-flesh-of-the-world/

[51] Even Kant, in his last writings before death (published as the Opus Postumum), acknowledged that we do have intuitive access to the interiority of nature, since we ourselves, as natural beings, have immediate access to our own interiority. Kant’s late re-consideration of the limitations his earlier critiques had placed on knowledge may have been a result of Schelling’s influence.

[52] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 134-135.

[53] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Analysis of Meaning,” 132.

[54] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, referring to Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of biologist Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism (1984).

[55] Mind in Life by Evan Thompson, 165.

[56] I referred to this Schellingian-Whiteheadian reversal as “descendental” philosophy in my dissertation, Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead.

[57] Essays in Science and Philosophy, “Immortality,” 102.

[58] Waking, Dreaming, Being, 105.

[59] Thompson, “Response to Commentators on Waking, Dreaming, Being,” Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 3, July 2016, 989. http://enlight.lib.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/phil567546.pdf

[60] For  more on the difference between prehensionality and intentionality, see my dissertation Cosmotheanthropic Imagination in the Post-Kantian Process Philosophy of Schelling and Whitehead, 143.

[61] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 94.

 

Towards a “Thermopolitics” (question for Levi Bryant)

Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.

Bryant writes:

This is not a metaphor.  At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels.  This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants.  All living and social being is solar in its origin.

I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?

Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,

must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).

Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.

Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:

For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.

[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.

I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.

John Caputo on Speculative Realism

Thanks to Adam/Knowledge-Ecology for pointing me to this one.

I really dig what he says about physics and science…

These posts are relevant to some of what Caputo has to say about correlationism, the philosophy of religion, and physical reality:

https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/03/02/owen-barfield-and-quentin-meillassoux/

https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/10/04/speculative-philosophy-and-incarnationalism-in-whitehead-and-meillassoux/

https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/01/18/tilting-at-windmill-materialism-towards-an-ontology-of-organism-ooo/

https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/05/05/towards-a-christological-realism-thinking-the-correlation-with-teilhard-and-barfield/