I posted the following as a comment to Bryant’s short response. Adam Robbert has a nice comment there, too.

There is no necessary relationship between OOO (or ontology generally) and theology or morality, but certainly every ontology has theological and moral implications. To the extent that OOO has something in common with Whitehead’s process ontology, the possible role of a panentheist God should remain an open question. In Whitehead’s system, according to Stengers, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (Thinking With Whitehead, p. 424). Perhaps OOO differs sufficiently from the Whiteheadian scheme to avoid this requirement. But I don’t think it is fair to dismiss “God” in ontological discussions just because many believers have a philosophically immature picture of God (and I do agree with your criticisms of such pictures, Levi). Whitehead’s God is first a construction meant to solve a philosophical problem, and only secondarily an object of religious feeling.

“The concept of God is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the Universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

God’s function in the Universe may have very little to do with the way the majority of humanity has felt or believed that God relates to the Universe. The desire for personal immortality and for an all-powerful deity who insures that the good and the evil are properly sorted at the end of time is an example of our initial excess of subjectivity demanding something unreasonable. The function of Whitehead’s God is not to actively intervene in the course of natural events, but to gently influence the free decisions of actual occasions as an element in their prehension of the actual world. God allows actual entities to experience the relevance of eternal objects for their situation as temporal subjects. Without God, Reason would remain a floating abstraction, an ideal without reality; Whitehead argues that actual entities are the only reasons, and so God is that actual entity embodying Reason.

Also, keep in mind that God is not ultimate in Whitehead’s system. God is a creature of creativity like every other creature, though unique in that the poles of God’s concrescence are reversed (finite actual occasions move from a physical to a mental pole, while God begins with a conceptual envisagement of the definite possibilities for actuality before moving on to physically feel and integrate the resulting decisions made by actual occasions).

So in short, there are philosophical reasons to think God and there are sociological/psychological reasons to believe in God. There are plenty of bad ideas about God, and as you point out, Levi, plenty of bad beliefs about God that lead to unethical behaviors. But I remain convinced that religious feelings, in one form or another, are here to stay. Humanity, it seems to me, will always be a spiritual animal. The question then becomes how we are to bring religious feelings into harmony with the demands of rigorous philosophical reflection and with scientific facts. I think Whitehead comes very close to doing both.

In the past year or so, the blueprint of my dissertation topic has gone through multiple iterations. Last year, while applying for my PhD studies at CIIS, I wrote a goal statement that still reflects the general theme I am envisioning. Now that I’m entering the last term of course work, I wanted to take the opportunity to further articulate the aim of my research.

When I composed my goal statement, I was as yet unaware of the Speculative Realist movement. It turns out that two of the philosophers I’d planned to bring into conversation with one another, namely Whitehead and Schelling, are right at the center of this still emerging school of thought. Despite the resurgence of interest in process thought and metaphysics more generally that this movement represents, there seems to be a gap in scholarship bringing process ontology and naturphilosophy into constructive cross-fertilization with what I’ll for now refer to as Western Esotericism. This may be a good place to focus my dissertation.

I’ve written somewhat extensively on the esoteric cosmology of Rudolf Steiner, specifically his understanding of the Imagination. For Steiner, the Imagination is an organ of perception, a window into the world of otherwise supersensible realities. As a graduate student, Steiner edited Goethe’s scientific writings. He argued that Goethe’s was a more adequate form of empiricism than that of his mechanistic contemporaries, since it granted the Imagination is proper role in the perception of the deeper archetypal patterns, or ur-forms, at work beneath natural phenomena. Perhaps Steiner’s ablest English-speaking interpreter, Owen Barfield, conducted a similar case-study of imaginative cognition on the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose thought is closely linked with Schelling’s, to the point of verging on plagiarism!–a charge examined by Barfield in What Colerdige Thought).

More recently, I’ve begun reading some of Henry Corbin’s work on Active Imagination and the mundus imaginalis. Like Barfield and Steiner, Corbin argues that modern philosophy has all but forgotten the important role of the intermediate imaginal plane between matter/sensation and mind/intellection. The result is a superficial fissure within philosophy itself, wherein idealists battle with realists, and rationalists with empiricists, over whose ultimately one-sided conception of the universe is valid.

Articulating an ontology of the Imagination seems to me to be a prerequisite for any truly coherent speculation on the nature of the Universe. Whitehead characterized his adventure in cosmology as an “imaginative leap,” and Schelling often drew connections between the work of the artist and that of the philosopher, suggesting that philosophy is a generative, rather than demonstrative activity. I think this makes a study of their respective approaches to cosmology fertile ground for an explication of the role of Imagination in speculative philosophy.

Redeeming Imagination as an organ of cognitive import, thereby correcting the bias of much modern positivistic thought that it produces only fantasy and illusion, will allow for the development of a more textured ontology that does not simply reduce reality to the domain/s of the material-sensible and/or the mental-intelligible. Jonael Schickler, whose life was cut short in 2005, argued in his dissertation that Steiner’s four-fold ontology of material, ethereal, astral, and spiritual planes clarifies many outstanding aporias in contemporary philosophy, including the relationship of life and consciousness to matter.

The major hurtle, as Schickler saw it, standing in the way of the widespread acceptance of this more complex picture of reality are the epistemological limits placed on human thought by the critical philosophy of Kant. Kant did not believe that human consciousness could develop beyond its normal capacities of sensory intuition and categoreal understanding. For him, the human soul was forever denied access to its own conditions of possibility, whether they be ultimately spiritual or material. Schickler, following Steiner, believed that the contemporary human being is still in the process of awakening to its higher spiritual capacities. The human is more an idea struggling to be realized than a being fixed in its current form. How far into Steiner’s account of this evolution of consciousness I will delve into in my dissertation remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that I will have to find a way beyond Kant’s epistemic skepticism. Schelling and Whithead will be of great service in this respect. And luckily, there is in Kant already the germ of an understanding of the mysterious role of Imagination in cognition.

If anyone has any suggestions or sources that might be of assistance, I’d greatly appreciate it!

In preparation for a larger speculative project, I’ve been reading a translation by Judith Norman of the 2nd draft of Schelling’s unfinished manuscript entitled Ages of the World (1813). I’ve been intrigued by Schelling’s philosophies of nature and freedom for several years, but never had the time to do a closer study. Iain Hamilton Grant‘s well-researched text Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2008), on which I presented a few months back in a panel discussion on speculative realism, reminded me just how compelling his ideas and methods are. My own philosophical approach remains thoroughly Whiteheadian, though I continue to aspire to deepen Whitehead’s more naturalistic tendencies by bringing him into conversation with the hermetic occultism of Rudolf Steiner. I think Schelling may offer a bridge between the two, since his system has both a processual materialist aspect and an evolutionary spiritualist aspect. Schelling’s direct influence on Whitehead is minimal, if there is any at all; Steiner, on the other hand, clearly felt an affinity with him.

I am drawn to the thoughts of these three men because they offer a picture of the universe, and humanity’s place within it, that preserves the best of ancient philosophy alongside that of modern science. In our now postmodern context, there is no doubt a need to update and amend some of their ideas. Meeting the challenges of the ecological and social crises of our time demands an unprecedented transformation of human consciousness, and with it our philosophy and science. Anthropocentrism, whether that of the religious or technoscientific sort, is perhaps the most difficult conceptual obstacle standing in the way of an adequate form of thinking the cosmos. The universe is far stranger and more alien than we could ever have imagined. Matter, for centuries science’s most dependable and fundamental explanatory category, has become as “dark” and mysterious as spirit.

This darkness, and the need to break free of anthropocentrism, is, in part, the motivation underlying the emergence of object-oriented philosophies like that of Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Levi Bryant. I am not as familiar with the latter two’s approaches, though I believe Bryant is more amenable to a process ontology like Schelling’s or Whitehead’s than is Harman. For Harman, objects are substantial and not processual. “Time,” he writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), “is the strife between an object and its accidents” (p. 250); time is not “an absolute constant force that wheels onward regardless of the deployment of specific objects” (p. 249). Whitehead would agree that time is not independent of objects, but rather, as Harman suggests, unfurls within objects. In this sense, every object has its own time. As I’ve outlined, albeit briefly, in another post, Whitehead does not entirely reduce the substance of an object to its relations as he is often accused of doing by Bryant and Harman alike. Time, nonetheless, does seem to play a more fundamental role in the production of objects in Whitehead and Schelling.

In Ages of the World, Schelling unpacks his understanding of material products in the context of a philosophy of time:

Even the smallest grain of sand must contain determinations within itself that we cannot exhaust until we have laid out the entire course of creative nature leading up to it. Everything is only the work of time, and it is only through time that everything receives its particular character and meaning.

Nature, for Schelling, exists in contradiction, and so becomes in time. It is both creative process and created product, influenced both by the powers of forward striving and backward inhibition (novelty and habit). Without the retarding force of habit, time would not exist, “because development would occur in an uninterrupted flash rather than successively…” Nor could time exist without the driving force of novelty, since without it “there would be absolute rest, death, standstill…”

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition.

“Thus,” he concludes, “the principles we perceive in time [and nature] are the authentic inner principles of all life, and contradiction is not only possible but in fact necessary.” I don’t think Schelling’s approach here is opposed to that of Harman. Their respective positions may be complementary, if different in emphasis. I am not sure of the German word used above for “withdrawn,” but I found these lines especially significant in this context. Withdrawal is perhaps at the very center of Harman’s conceptual scheme, and indeed it plays an important role for Schelling, as well. But in Schelling’s ontology, withdrawal is only one moment in a polarized process. Beings love to hide, but also to show themselves. This contradiction is what puts existence into motion.

In the context of a process ontology, withdrawal can remain a central concept without becoming ultimate. Objects need not be dissolved into relations, but can be understood to hide from one another precisely because they exist in contradiction and so are always becoming in time. An object, then, withdrawals from itself and from other objects because it is never simply at rest as itself. Heraclitus wrote that “you cannot step twice into the same stream,” but in Schelling’s sense, perhaps we could say that it is impossible to step even once into the same stream.

I’m pasting a dialogue that I’m having on Facebook with Steven Goodheart here so others can chime in if they so please!


Steven remarked that my comment about the paradox of science’s ancestral statements reminded him of Roger Penrose‘s somewhat Platonist take on the matter.

I responded by saying:


I think my statement about a witness being present at the big bang is really just to say that appealing to contemporary physical cosmology to debunk non-materialist accounts of consciousness actually raises more philosophical quandaries than is often assumed. “Science” can’t take a side in this issue. Maybe observation and mathematical inference will eventually allow us to figure out where the “laws” of physics were for the first few seconds of creation, but even if this is understood, basic philosophical questions about the relation between subject and object remain as perplexing as ever.

To which Steven responded:

I think that’s true, and may always be true, because if (and I don’t know if this is finally and only true) IF the stuff that philosophy is perplexed about exists as some sort of emergent aspect of “intelligent matter,” if the qualia of thought are in fact just that and nothing more, with no real referent to some “real” or “deeper reality’ (and again, I don’t know if this is so) then whatever neuroscience and physics can say about the *emergent* philosophical perplexities of this kind of mind and consciousness is, ipso facto, limited and provisional. More simply, the Schrodinger Equations have nothing to say about a Bach cantata, and never will. And the way neural nets fire and how they are organized will never tell us anything definitive about why “Starry Night” is so beautiful.

If there’s some deep, as yet unknown connection between the realm of values and meaning, and the realm of quarks and black holes and Big Bangs, I don’t think that’s obvious. Maybe there is; I’m open to the idea. But in the meantime, I think we do less violence to truth and avoid error if we don’t try to blend the two realms in terms of a “metaphysics” but rather keeping do the hard work of investigation and see what appears as we continue to learn about the nature of mind, consciousness, and matter.

My view is that the two domains–the domain of the qualia, the mental realm where things like meaning, values, truth, beauty, and “the good”—and the realm of brain chemistry and neural nets—are interdependent, are profoundly interrelated, but their subject matter is utterly different and, I believe, disjunctive in some basic way. I think there’s interplay between the two, and increasingly science has had a huge impact on philosophy since the age of science, apparently “solving” or making meaningless some of the old “problems” that reflected the biases of a non-scientific age. But, ironically, now, at the very limits and limitations of physics, are finding that the minds that do the science find that their “philosophy,” their view of “the beautiful, good and true,” seems to be utterly bound up in what mathematical vision of the universe is “right!” Does this mean, that, finally, it’s all been metaphysical and philosophical all along? I don’t think so.

The math of a Wheeler or a Penrose is no less beautiful (and self-consistent) than that of a Susskind or Hawkings (I *don’t* say this as one who can follow it, either, but I can get some of it) but some physicists find Penrose’s mathematical universe compelling, but more, probably, feel an affinity for that of Susskind and Hawkings. But the theory that finally “wins” is the one that proves most predictive, the one that’s verifiable, the one that can be test, and then, whether the theory is “beautiful” or “compelling” finally won’t matter. What’s matters is does the theory explain matter in a way that we can test and prove.

It seems to me that philosophical or metaphysical theories of mind and consciousness that want to, so to speak, step out of the realm of the qualia and their emergent value systems and say something about the physics of matter, space, time, energy, have to meet the same “test” criteria as Penrose’s math or Hawking’s math. And this is exactly where such theories fail again and again, however convincing, self-consistent, (and even true!) the theory may be in the realm of qualia and values.

My response:


I don’t think avoiding “error” is necessarily the best way to further Truth. Let me explain: The most disturbing thing about the scientific era for traditional philosophy and metaphysics is evolution. I mean evolution in its cosmic, not just its biological sense. Evolution is the idea that the cosmos is really a cosmogenesis, that it is a process of becoming and not a finished product. It has an origin, and everything that there is emerged from this origin. We can’t yet say if the universe has an end, or if this end is somehow “on purpose,” but we can say that there is something more than the playing out of random collisions between particles. Chaos may be the basis of order, but still, there is order. However, this order is always developing, always evolving. What is “Truth” in the context of an ontology of process and becoming? It cannot be other than “error”; somehow, Truth is produced at the edge of chaos and order, the result of the wanderings and mistakes of the evolutionary process in its human form. It is not quite discovered and not quite created. Truth, because it is not waiting out there for us to find or represent, cannot be understood in isolation from Beauty and Goodness. We know Truth as Truth only when we feel its Beauty and will its Goodness. Truth needs to be appreciated and protected. It never simply is. It is always contested, even at an ontological level. Science discovered evolution empirically, as fact, and philosophers have thought out its implications for our knowledge of Truth (fact is not Truth until the particular instance is unpacked to reveal the universal principle underlying it). Now we need to find a way to apply it to our civilization’s ethical, aesthetic, and theological assumptions, which continue to fragment society and destroy the biosphere. I see natural science as a subset of philosophy. Science is one of humanity’s organs, perhaps the eyes; philosophy is the mind of the whole organism.


The Sokal Affair has also been mentioned in my discussion with Steven and Julian. Here are some of my thoughts on that:

About the Sokal affair… one of Sokal’s main foes is the sociologist of science Bruno Latour. He has published extensively about the way that science “constructs” its facts. He really just goes behind the scenes to reveal how messy the process of scientific research is, how bound up in politics and economics it is; in short, he reveals that science is a cultural activity like any other, as much an art as a “science.” Is it really accurate to say, for example, that LHC particle collider is ‘discovering’ something about nature in its undisturbed state? Clearly, we are learning something about nature, but not nature as it would be independent of the artifice of technology that has been constructed to contort and torture matter so as to get it to reveal its “secrets.” In a radically evolutionary context, where even atoms are the products of irreversible processes, how do we know that what is going on in the tunnels of this accelerator isn’t actually changing nature, causing it to wander from its “normal” course? Science and art cannot be so easily separated.

Once it has begun to swallow the overwhelmingly wondrous fact of existence–that there is anything at all!–philosophy can perhaps catch its breath and ask the most fundamental question: what is there? From this comes the only slightly more specific questions: What is a thing? What is an idea? Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway spoke on Thursday night at Claremont Graduate University on behalf of certain risky abstractions pertaining to the reality of things and ideas, and of how they merge and diverge in the natures-cultures that constitute human sociopolitical life.

For Stengers, there are basically two approaches open to the questioning post-Kantian philosopher. The first is to ask, “What do I know?”, the second, “What can I know?” The former is speculative thinking, leaping across the gap in the circuit of perception between matter and mind by seeing into the web of relationships within which one is embedded. The latter, the critical approach, separates the knower from its object, directing attention almost exclusively to one’s own subjective activities. When the philosopher asks, “What can I know?”, she means to turn attention to the enduring conditions of subjective experience which shape and make possible any perception or understanding of the ongoing phenomena corresponding to the extra-subjective world. What the world is in itself, the realist’s question, begins to seem like a grandiose search for God’s view of the cosmos. Hubris, says Hume. Impossible, says Kant. Whitehead says not just that we can ask the first question, but that we must! Life is innately risky, because it is primarily a speculative affair.  As human creatures endowed with symbolic intelligence, we become with the spatiotemporal world of physical events and participate in the realm of eternal ideas. Like the plant-clothed entangled banks described in the final pages of Darwin’s Origin, the networks constituting the ecology of classrooms, books, images, and ideas (the philosopher’s habitat) are discernible, intelligible even, but these are definitely not actually separable one from the other, or explainable one in terms of the other. There is no dualism between mind and matter, or between discourse and nature, such that one might reduce to the other. For Whitehead, as for Stengers, propositions infect experience at all levels, from the electronic and protonic subjective forms of subatomic particles to the visual and auditory subjective forms of intelligent animals. Nature thinks about itself, whether it be the thought of hydrogen expressing the self-love that is gravity to give birth to stars or the thought of Einstein riding upon a beam of light, giving the power of the sun to earthly hands.

Abstractions, for Whitehead and Stengers, are lures for feeling. Each form of abstract description allows a different world to take shape before our imagination. We have no choice but to have speculative trust in our descriptions and the images they suggest, because we have no other basis for continuing the adventure of rationality. Contradictions and antinomies, which are oft met along the road of rational discourse, must be transformed into constructive contrasts. This transformation is the work of common sense, that most spontaneous and marvelous judge of truth, beauty, and goodness, and the light of our humanity. Not theory, but common sense, ought to be the final arbiter of our judgments. This is the Jamesian pragmatism and precursive trust that Whitehead and Stengers are committed to.

The Golden Rule of Whiteheadian philosophy of organism, according to Stengers, is that one ought never to offer abstractions that erase situatedness. Perhaps it is this very situatedness, the sense of being embedded in ecologies of meaningful matter, that generates the philosopher’s original sense of astonishment at the fact of being. Philosophy need not outgrow wonder in order to reveal the deeper nature of things. Its revelation in fact preserves wonder, opening our common sense to the adventure of a world in the making.


A response from 9macrina9:

my rough transcription of some of what Blair and Hitchens had to say (not necessarily in order):

Tony Blair: “Fanaticism is not confined to the sphere of religious life… My belief in Jesus Christ is not about oppression and servitude, but about finding the best way to express the human spirit… Faith is not about certainty, it is in part a reflection of my awareness of my own ignorance. Though life’s processes can be explained by science, the meaning and purpose of life cannot be. In that space lies not certainty in the scientific sense, but a belief that is clear and insistent and I’d even say rational, that there is a higher power than human power, and that higher power causes us to lead better lives, lives in accordance with a will higher than our own, not as if we were imprisoned by that higher will, but on the contrary so we can discipline and use our own will so as to represent the best of our humanity.”

Christopher Hitchens: “Religion is a real danger to the survival civilization… I come before you as a materialist. If we give up religion, we  discover what we already know whether we are religious or not: we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of a solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very large, exploding cosmic phenomenon… The sense that there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, is a very important matter. What you could call the numinous, transcendent, or ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I mean…

Are you willing, for the sake of certain elements of the numinous, to say that you give your allegiance to a divine supernatural supervisor? Are you willing to admit that human beings can be the interpreter of this divine figure?”

I am not willing to give allegiance to, or even to believe in the existence of, a supernatural power capable of interrupting the causal course of the universe at a whim. I do think there is a God, but this God does not exist apart from the universe and so cannot reach in and alter its behavior from without. God works from within by persuasion, not from without by force. God is a living creature, just like human beings, though we are a microcosm. As for human beings being the interpreters of God, I think God exists in our heart and our breath, and so we are not so much God’s interpreters as God’s voices. God has no voice but ours.