The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis

I just sent a draft of this coauthored essay off to the editors. Astrobiologist Bruce Damer and I have been building toward this for a few years. I’m thrilled to have gotten it to this point, and looking forward to peer review! The essay will be featured in a book coming out of this conference to be held in May: “Astrobiology, Exo-Philosophy, and Cosmic Religion: Toward a Constructive Process Cosmotheology.”

“The Cosmological Context of the Origin of Life: Process Philosophy and the Hot Spring Hypothesis” by Segall and Damer:

Goethe and Whitehead: Steps to a Science of Organism

This essay was slated to be published in the Holistic Science Journal, but it looks like it will end up somewhere else later this year. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, though, and wanted to share it here. Feedback welcome.

“Goethe and Whitehead: Steps to a Science of Organism” (2021):

Zombie Evolution (reply to Sean Carroll)

The physicist Sean Carroll was recently on the Mind Chat podcast hosted by the philosophers Keith Frankish and Philip Goff. Watch it here.

I uploaded a brief interpolation of my own on YouTube, which among other things calls out the model-centrism at play in Carroll’s “Core Theory.”

Earlier today, Carroll uploaded a blog post to tie up some loose ends after his discussion with Goff and Frankish: “The Zombie Argument for Physicalism (Contra Panpsychism).

Contrary to the intent of most philosophical zombie arguments, Carroll attempts to “ZAP” the credibility of panpsychist accounts of consciousness by arguing that, ironically, the well-wrought thought experiment only ends up strengthening the case for physicalism.

Philosophical zombies would, of course, insist that they have 1st-person introspective acquaintance with their own inner lives. They would claim to enjoy colors and sounds, and to feel deeply insulted by our opinion of them as mere mindless automatons. But they would be completely mistaken. Their verbal objections to our genuinely conscious judgements about them would amount to nothing more than the causally determined motion of lips, tongue, vocal cords, diaphragm, and neurons. No one would be making the claims, as they would amount to no more than the auditory outputs of a complicated machine.

Carroll correctly claims that the traditional zombie argument, if it challenges the credibility of physicalism at all, leaves panpsychists with a merely epiphenomenal sort of consciousness, a witness with no will, a ghost with no way to actively participate in physical processes. Admitting that consciousness is epiphenomenal leaves the panpsychist with way less explanatory leverage against physicalism, since if consciousness makes no difference to the goings-on of the physical world, then scientifically speaking it’s just not worth bothering about. Carroll admits that dualists could still argue for the irreducibility of epiphenomenal consciousness to physics, but due to the incoherence of the dualist ontology (i.e., two entirely distinct types of substance with no clear way to interact), we can set this position to the side.

If, on the other hand, consciousness does have some strongly emergent, downward causal role to play in how the body behaves, then according to Carroll that would mean that the very well-established Core Theory of physics is wrong. Electrons can’t break the laws of physics just because the mind haunting my brain tells them to.

In the background is Carroll’s claim to possess a complete theory by means of which the behavior of the physical world can be deduced.* The problem with this sort of model-centrism is that it entirely neglects the historicity of our universe, implying some sort of outside “God’s eye view.” Carroll’s emphasis on timeless imposed laws begs the question of their status in an otherwise entirely materialistic cosmos. Like Lee Smolin, and earlier philosophical scientists like C. S. Peirce and A. N. Whitehead, I find it more coherent to recognize the cosmos as an evolving process, with “laws” arising as widespread habits alongside the emergent entities exemplifying them. As the cosmos complexifies, emergent entities like atoms, stars, and galaxies take shape to progressively constrain the future course of evolution. But nothing in the Core Theory, as I understand it, predicts the emergence of life or mind. This is not to say that the Core Theory somehow rules out the possibility, just that it renders these phenomena exceedingly unlikely, even miraculous. For the Core Theory to be considered a truly complete theory of everything, it would need to account for its own conditions of possibility, which is to say it would need to describe a universe wherein creatures capable of developing a Core Theory could evolve. Short of this, the best we cay say about the theory is that it accurately describes the goings-on of its particular domain of relevance. It is an abstract model that describes the physical world as if life and mind did not exist. Bracketing these higher level phenomena for the purposes of developing workable models of simpler phenomena is perfectly fine. Physics has been wildly successful in doing so! But turning around to try to explain away the consciousness doing the explaining as though it were nothing but a “successful way of talking” about physical behavior reeks of model-centrism.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that conscious agency in any way contradicts the account of particles and fields offered by the Core Theory. Electrons, for instance, need not disobey the equations of physics to nonetheless be subject to different probability distributions resulting from the unique, highly evolved physiological environment of the mammalian nervous system. The point is that context matters. Laws are not imposed on nature from some eternal mathematical heaven. They are descriptions of the statistical behavior of entities in various environments and at various levels of organization.

But back to the zombie argument. The point of this thought-experiment, as I understand it, is not to prove that consciousness is necessarily something extra above and beyond physics. Nor am I convinced by Carroll’s ironic reversal, that somehow it cements the strength of the physicalist account. I think it is helpful to cut to the chase by putting the zombie argument in an evolutionary context. If consciousness evolves, then it cannot be epiphenomenal, since in that case it would play no role in an organism’s behavior and thus offer nothing for the evolutionary process to select and enhance. So, if we put dualism and idealism to the side (I know this is not entirely fair to idealists, but that discussion will have to wait for a later post), then consciousness must somehow be causally efficacious, i.e., it must be a real feature of the physical world. But if matter/energy is construed in the abstract terms that model-centrists insist upon, then it is not at all clear how to bridge the gap. Hence Chalmers’ “hard problem.”

The solution, I’ve argued, is to first admit that physics offers a highly predictive but nonetheless abstract account of the isolated behavior of fields and particles. There is nothing in this model that suggests the universe should ever come to life or wake up and start consciously reflecting upon itself. Thus, the model needs to be placed in a broader cosmological context. To resolve the hard problem of consciousness, what we have traditionally meant by “matter” and by “experience” needs to be rethought, such that the two are understood as the “outside” and the “inside” of one and the same unfolding reality. This allows us to make continuous what would otherwise remain a rather glaring ontological chasm.

That simpler forms of self-organization, like electrons, protons, or the atomic elements they symbiotically compose, follow extremely regular and predictable patterns of behavior does not rule out the possibility that these behaviors are the expression of what Whitehead described as “vector-feelings.” What physicists describe in mathematical terms as gravitational fields may be experienced by the particles in question as gravitational feelings.

*For a logical and philosophical critique of Carroll’s “Core Theory,” see pgs. 126-130 of plasma physicist and process philosopher Tim Eastman’s book Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020).


For an article length treatment of these issues, see “The Varieties of Physicalist Ontology: A Study in Whitehead’s Process-Relational Alternative” (2020)

“Another End of the World is Possible” by Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle

“How could we call ‘rational’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving a habitable world to their children?”
—Bruno Latour

“The system is collapsing all around us just at the time when most people have lost the ability to imagine that anything else could exist.” 
—David Graeber

Servigne, Stevens, and Chapelle’s book focuses on the importance of imagining new stories, enacting more earthly spiritualities, and transforming industrial mentality into a more mature—and wiser—form of human consciousness, all in the midst of an accelerating collapse of civilization. The authors quote Roy Scranton, who affirms Socrates’ original statement (see Phaedo 67e) that “philosophy is learning to die,” adding that this means “we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age—for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene,” i.e., to learn to die not only as individuals, but as a civilization (193). Collapsophy is one way of framing and engaging with these literally epochal challenges.

The nature of the still dominant industrial mentality makes these needed re-imaginations especially difficult, since it has fostered both amnesia and anesthesia, that is, it has made us increasingly forgetful of our past and incapable of feeling or emotionally processing the present (201). Modern mechanistic ontology (with its attendant myth of progress, culture of consumerism, and technocratic solutionism) has structured the “invisible architecture” (113) of our social imaginary so as to prevent us from forging much needed mutual aid networks with other members of our own species, and especially with non-humans. Relentless repetition of the old story of human separation is leading many to double-down on attempts to take technological control of the Earth System/Gaia. Transhumanists, for example, forget that their immortality project is “irreversibly dependent on a socio-politico-technical system [that is] addicted to oil and rare earth [minerals]” (116). They know of no other possibilities than such “power-over” approaches, since the idea of “power-with” would not only imply a softening of the human/nature division, it would require a total reorganization of the hierarchical pyramid structure of our societies. 

We are used to sharply distinguishing between fact and fiction, but an increasing number of authors are turning to the sci-fi genre in an urgent attempt to sensitize us to the consequences of our actions in the present, and to the narrowing possibilities of the future. The authors draw upon the work of Starhawk to warn of the risks of allowing the world-making potency of imagination to become depoliticized (116). She calls upon artists to interrupt the zombie-like repetition of the dominant narrative by mobilizing the subversive force of alternative stories. Ursula La Guin is also cited for her emphasis on the way living imaginaries ripe for collective adoption can only emerge from works of deep personal significance: “The further [the artist] goes into himself, the closer he comes to the other” (117).

The authors then turn to the emerging fields of ecopsychology and ecofeminism. They draw upon various scholars, including Carolyn Merchant and Sylvia Federici, to show how the degradation of nature and of women’s status in society has the same origin (133). Patriarchy, they argue, emerged with the Neolithic Revolution as men discovered their potential as farmers and as fathers (168). It was intensified with the Scientific Revolution, which arose contemporaneously with witch hunts across Europe and colonized North America. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 witches were executed. The analogies between the Baconian method of natural science and the violent interrogation of witches is hard to miss. Merchant (The Death of Nature, 1980) is famous for her argument that “Nature” was equated with a public woman that science must subdue and strip naked so as to unveil her secrets (169). Federici expands the links between the social and natural consequences of patriarchy by tracking the connections between colonial expansion and the rise of capitalism. To assert its world domination, capitalism first needed to disenchant nature (which included the extermination of witchcraft and peasant healing traditions), destroy the autonomy of village communities, and privatize the commons via enclosure (170).  

The authors credit ecofeminism with highlighting the political importance of embodiment, aesthetics, emotion, imagination, and magic. They also point out the ways that men, too, suffer under patriarchy. They discuss the role of masculine and feminine archetypal polarities within each of us, calling for us all to cultivate gender identities in a more balanced way, both collectively and within ourselves (171-173). Rituals of reconciliation are recommended to further the healing process (176).

Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” is put forward as an avenue toward world view renewal (125). Macy offers several mythic images of our moment, which is both a “Great Unravelling” and a “Great Turning.” The authors celebrate her efforts to shift our social imaginary from its obsession with short-term economism by sensitizing us to the deep time of cosmogenesis. By transposing the history of life on Earth onto a calendar year, our place in the multibillion year process of evolution is made more apparent: If the planet is said to have formed on January 1st, then life appears in late February; in early April, photosynthesis is invented, which remains the primary process by which energy from the Sun is welcomed into the biosphere; metazoa do not emerge until late September; plants begin to inhabit land in late November; early December witnesses the rise of the reptiles, with mammals following a few weeks later; primates appear on Christmas Day; Homo sapiens do not show up until 1 minute before midnight on New Years Eve, with the Industrial Revolution occurring only within the final second of the cosmic year (154). Re-living our evolutionary journey in this way helps put the “little second of thermo-industrial civilization, this tiny period of disconnection and forgetfulness of who we are” into perspective (155). It also aids in our remembrance of how much gratitude we owe our ancestors, without whose struggles to survive and rituals of celebratory renewal we would not be here. 

The authors lament the way “science, technology, and capitalism have taken the sacred out of everything” (138), but in another sense, modern techno-industrial civilization has given rise to surrogate “pseudo-sacreds”—that is, to various forms of “misenchantment” (link is to a dialogue between myself and Rick Tarnas on this issue). Whether its the latest iPhone update, juicy celebrity gossip, or Super Bowl Sunday, the religion of consumerism provides plenty of faux enchantments to distract us from the psychological, sociological, and ecological catastrophes transpiring just behind our screens. We are in dire need of genuine forms of communion with the sacred, as the authors make clear that it is not possible to approach the end of the world without spirituality (160). But what is the sacred? In addition to the gratitude for our ancestors already mentioned, the authors emphasize the importance of rituals and initiations that afford opportunities for communion with one another, and with that mysterious power which grants us our lives, and which reminds us of the meaning of our deaths. They quote the spiritual teacher Martín Prechtel: “True initiations will be impossible until the modern world surrenders to the grief of its origins” (196). Truly comprehending the sacred, according to Prechtel, requires accepting the darkness along with the light. The authors contrast this point of view to the insistent positivity of New Age spiritualities, which typically refuse to look at the shadow, and thus fall victim to what Buddhist teacher John Welwood has called “spiritual bypassing.”

Collapsophy is the cultivation of the wisdom needed to live with collapse. It is also the wisdom of learning to die. It includes reason and science, which are vital to ongoingness in any form, but also makes ample room for aesthetics, emotions, ethics, and spiritual intuitions. The authors bring their book to a close with the call for an “interspecies diplomacy” that would foster the development of a common language shared by as many as possible of the beings of our living planet (195). 

Towards a Mycological Metaphysics

The mycologist Merlin Sheldrake recently published Entangled Life (2020). The book revels in the power of fungi to “make us question our categories,” thereby “[changing] the way we think and imagine” (14, 214). A few pages in, Merlin defines mycelium as a process, rather than a thing (6). I am inclined to agree. As a process philosopher, I could not help but ally myself with his project. He goes even further later in the book, insisting that all life-forms are relational processes inhabiting a natural world best understood as “an event that never stops” (53). He encourages us to wonder how our scientific image of nature would be transformed by the adoption of mycelial rather than mechanical metaphors. What would it mean to take seriously the many examples of “basal cognition” and “problem-solving behavior” evident in brainless fungi (15)? If even microscopic hyphae are capable of such feats as “decision,” “improvisation,” and “interpretation” (44), then perhaps conscious agency, or something akin to it, is not the exclusive property of human heads. In that case, “culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy, and independence” would need to be revised (18). Perhaps fungi can inspire more humility in big-headed humanity?

Perhaps. A powerful word, especially for philosophers seeking to gain permission to peek beneath the measurable facts into the plenum of possibilities from out of which such facts precipitate. Despite the feelings of embarrassment that years of disciplinary training had instilled in him, Merlin, too, found it necessary to embrace the power of speculative imagination in order to make sense of what fungi were teaching him. 

“Thousands of my samples passed through expensive machines that whisked, irradiated, and blasted the contents of the tubes into strings of numbers. I spent whole months staring into a microscope, immersed in rootscapes filled with winding hyphae frozen in ambiguous acts of intercourse with plant cells. Still, the fungi I could see were dead, embalmed, and rendered in false colors. I felt like a clumsy sleuth. While I crouched for weeks scraping mud into small tubes, toucans croaked, howler monkeys roared, lianas tangled, and anteaters licked. Microbial lives, especially those buried in soil, were not accessible like the bristling charismatic aboveground world of the large. Really, to make my findings vivid, to allow them to build and contribute to a general understanding, imagination was required. There was no way around it” (19).

Most of us think of mushrooms when we hear the word “fungi”—but they are just the surface-dwelling fruiting bodies of much larger underground networks.  The task of the metaphysician, who is compelled to inquire into the hidden underbelly of reality, is not unlike that of the mycologist, since “[mycelial] relationships are conducted out of sight” (138). Given this similarity, Merlin and I are hoping that an “academic symbiosis” (215) will be possible between philosophy and mycology. This sort of transdisciplinary collaboration may help stitch the modern image of nature back together again. 

While reading Merlin’s book, the overlaps with Alfred North Whitehead’s “organic realism” were impossible to miss. Whitehead is best known as a mathematician and collaborator with Bertrand Russell on the Principia Mathematica. Lesser known is his later work in natural philosophy and metaphysical cosmology. His entrance into philosophy took the form of a critique of the modern “bifurcation of nature,” a thought-habit which insists that a strict separation be maintained between the objective causal factors thought to be “in nature” and the subjective feelings and perceptions imagined to be “in the mind.” On the one hand, there’s the conjectured system of molecules and electromagnetic radiation formulated by physicists, and on the other, the warmth and color of a sunrise celebrated by nature poets. Mocking the incoherence of this bifurcated image of nature, Whitehead writes: 

“Thus nature gets credit which should in truth be reserved for ourselves; the rose for its scent: the nightingale for his song: and the sun for his radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves, and should turn them into odes of self-congratulation on the excellency of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless; merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly” (SMW, 56). 

Whitehead would go on to articulate a thoroughly unbifurcated vision of the cosmos as an evolving ecology of organisms. He understood processes of emergent evolution as unfolding at all scales in nature, such that something like Lynn Margulis’ endosymbiosis transpires not just in the biological realm as more complex cells arise by incorporating formerly free-living organisms, but also in the physical domain, as early in cosmic history independent protons, neutrons, and electrons forged enduring associations to bring forth the first hydrogen and helium atoms. This vision is not meant to conflict with natural science, but to support and enrich it: he criticized the classical ontology of inert particles governed by arbitrarily imposed mechanical laws as entirely unsuited to the new findings of relativity and quantum theories. In addition to constructing a new metaphysical background for these early 20th century revolutions in the scientific understanding of space, time, matter, and energy, Whitehead also sought to overcome what philosophers nowadays refer to as “the hard problem of consciousness”: in short, how could mind ever arise out of matter if the latter is defined a priori as purely extended and thus entirely devoid of interiority? This is not just a hard problem. According to a growing cadre of panpsychist philosophers, it is impossible. It cannot be solved as stated. It can only be dissolved by rethinking the materialist premises upon which it is based. Despite scientific anxieties about anthropomorphism, Whitehead urged us to come to see our capacity as knowers to be part of the universe we are trying to know. While some physicists lean on randomness in lieu of explanation by making anti-empirical postulates about an infinite supply of other universes without life or mind, the only universe we actually know about is quite obviously anthropogenetic. After all, here we are. Instead of insisting that mind and life are freak accidents in an otherwise well-behaved mechanical world, perhaps (there’s that word again) the emergence of mind and life reveal something about the nascent potentials of matter that classical physics missed? 

Maybe the real danger to proper scientific understanding is not anthropomorphism, but mechanomorphism. Mechanism implies a mechanic, an outside designer; in contrast, Whitehead’s organic cosmos is understood to be self-organizing. Laws of physics become more like widespread habits that evolve with the organisms composing the cosmos, rather than being imposed upon them from beyond, as deistic early modern scientists supposed. While Whitehead restricts conscious experience to highly complex organisms with nervous systems, he insists that the vast majority of experience comes in the form of non-conscious feeling and emotion. It is here that many skeptics like to throw rocks at Whitehead and other panpsychists: “So you’re saying stones can think?!” No, but contemporary physics tells us that rocks are in fact composed of complex societies of vibrating molecules. In Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, the vibratory frequencies of molecules, and of atoms composing molecules, express forms of aesthetic harmonization with attendant feelings of experiential satisfaction. Particles are no longer conceived of as point-like geometric abstractions, but vector-feelings whose local subsistence depends upon the reiteration of their vibratory patterns. Thus, what appear as wave-lengths and vibrations to infrared spectrometers, for the molecular occasions in question are felt as “pulses of emotion” (PR, 163; see also my Physics of the World-Soul [2021], 76). Some mineral societies vibrate into highly ordered crystals, while others are more haphazard. 

Sober-minded scientists may balk at such speculative renderings of physical processes. Merlin quotes Whitehead’s statement to Russell, which speaks to his scientifically unorthodox interpretation of the facts of nature:  “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather at noon day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first wakes from deep sleep” (112). Whitehead philosophizes at dawn, while dreams still halo consciousness and the separative outlines of objects remain blurred. In contrast, the speculatively-averse Russell preferred the clarity and distinction afforded by shadowless light. 

Mycological metaphors run even deeper into Whitehead’s metaphysics. “Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form,” in Merlin’s words (51). Their networks form “streams of embodiment” (55) that act as “ecological connective tissue” stitching the rest of the living world into relation (46). Do these networks form a single organism, or a plurality? A plurisingularity? According to Merlin,  “a hyphal tip would be the closest one could come to defining the unit of a mycelial swarm” (47). Relating the growth of hyphae to our human experience of becoming, Merlin writes:

“The growing tip is the present moment—your lived experience of now—which gnaws into the future as it advances. The history of your life is the rest of the hypha, the…lines that you’ve left in a tangled trail behind you. A mycelial network is a map of a fungus’s recent history” (53).

The equivalent of hyphal tips in Whitehead’s process-relational ontology are called “actual occasions.” Actual occasions are buds of experience that grow out of their relations to the past, achieve some novel aesthetic value in the subjective immediacy of the present, and perish into objective immortality so as to influence the future, contributing whatever value they’ve garnered to the ongoing creative advance of nature. Occasions tend to organize themselves into “societies”: swarm-like historical routes that sustain and amplify an enduring collective form by faithfully reiterating some shared pattern of potentiality.  

Merlin and I are beginning work on a longer paper to draw out the underground connections between process philosophy and the science of fungi. Our suspicion is that the findings of mycology serve as a special example of the more general categories articulated in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. More to come! 

—————–

*Image credit: Aimee Cornwell (Instagram: @peggyfarmandforage)*

HomeBrewed Christianity podcast with Tripp Fuller

Had a great time discussing Whitehead’s cosmology with Tripp. Check it out here: https://trippfuller.com/2021/09/13/matthew-segall-cosmology-consciousness-and-whiteheads-god/

We discussed topics including:

  • the allure of Whitehead’s vision of mind in nature (knowledge as ‘an adjunct within things known’)
  • the potential of a process engagement with different natural scientific problems, including the origins of life
  • the problems with reductionism
  • what is in the concept of a ‘world-soul’?
  • how does Whitehead help one think of life after physical death?
  • how Whitehead came to affirm God…
  • My own wrestling with Christianity and reflections on the future of the faith (‘a non-denominational non-institutionalized Christian’)
  • what to make of the power and problems that come with a religious tradition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended reading prior to course start date:

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

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

Parsimonious Panpsychism? (response to Julian Walker)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response:

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

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

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

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

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

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