Figured I should collect these dialogues in one place. They range from the last year or two up through earlier this afternoon.
Timothy Jackson (Biologist and Toxinologist)
John Pohl (Physician and Gastroenterologist)
John Torday (Physician and Cellular Biologist)
Greg Henriques (Psychologist)
Praful Gagrani (Physicist and Origin of Life Scientist)
John Vervaeke (Cognitive Scientist)
Rupert Sheldrake (Biologist)
I was asked earlier today by someone I assume is an anti-natalist what I thought the purpose of the cosmos is. I answered that I mostly just want to encourage people to wonder about it. But I also linked to an essay I wrote 12 years ago as a sort of mythospeculative narrative intending to integrate my first two years of study with the faculty of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program. I make some claims I would probably qualify today. I’d reword some statements I feel now were not well rounded and inclusive enough. But in essence I still believe this captures my basic sense of what it is all about. I read the essay aloud in this video:
That tweet came after I listened to several episodes of the recent NYMag/Psymposia podcast series “Power Trip.” Having now finished the series and shared a mixed review, I wanted to collect further thoughts on the subject. The NYMag/Psymposia series focuses on the dangers of both underground and clinically regulated psychedelic psychotherapy. The basic criticisms being leveled by coproducers Lily Kay Ross and David Nickles at what we could call “the psychedelic movement” are important and worth amplifying. These chemicals put those who ingest them into states of heightened suggestibility and thus increased vulnerability. Given the potentials for extreme transference and projection, and the probable incompatibility of the traditional indigenous shamanic social role with (post)modern western culture, psychedelic guides/therapists have a special responsibility to empower those they work with by upholding clear agreements, sexual boundaries, and ethical standards. Knowing many people who work in this field, both above and below ground, I think it is fair to say that the majority of practitioners are working with tremendous integrity to make these healing experiences available to ailing people. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of evidence of loose boundaries and less than virtuous behavior. Despite my criticisms of the way it was all packaged and delivered (see this twitter thread), Ross and Nickles’ plea to slow down and listen to the stories of those who have been trampled in the rush to mainstream psychedelics is worth your attention.
Bracketing Buddha’s First Noble Truth, I’m privileged enough to have gotten to this point in my life without debilitating trauma or mental health struggles. As a result, my interest in psychedelics has been primarily political, philosophical, and spiritual, rather than psychotherapeutic. “Political” because since I was 18 and began to seriously research the Drug War and the psychedelic counterculture, it was immediately apparent to me that a society intent on repressing such powerful consciousness technologies must be profoundly unwell. As I discussed in this recent Psychedelics Today podcast, I worry about the corporate capture of these medicines. Consumer capitalism has swallowed everything it’s touched, including much of the counterculture. I used to think psychedelics were impervious to commodification, but now I am not so sure. On their own, these chemicals are simply “non-specific amplifiers,” as Stanislav Grof puts it. Our intentions shape their effects. We should not be so naive as to think they could not be used to further the aims of the military-industrial complex or for broader cultural control.
I appreciate the work the non-profit organization MAPS has been doing to advance psychedelic medicine. This despite the fact MAPS founder Rick Doblin has been criticized for taking money from Peter Thiel and Rebecca Mercer. I don’t like their politics, either, but I tend to agree with Doblin that those trying to undue the repression of these sacred substances should be willing to build bridges across political divides. I also think those of us critical of the capitalist world-order need to spend less time preaching to the choir about how evil corporations are and more time designing and building alternatives (e.g., social threefolding).
While I think medicalization may be one of the paths forward, I am skeptical of an allopathic medical model that treats isolated brains as though the human psyche could be understood or healed in a way decontextualized from its social and cosmological contexts. I do wonder if the religious or cognitive freedom approach might not bear more nourishing fruit (e.g., see this talk on the psychedelic eucharist and this paper on psychedelics and religious studies). These issues came up in my conversation with Earth and Fire, the founders of Erowid.org back in 2017.
When it comes to the metaphysical implications of psychedelic experience, I’m grateful to have a chapter in an upcoming anthology put out by Bloomsbury titled Philosophy and Psychedelics: Frameworks for Exceptional Experience (forthcoming 2022). Here’s the original draft that had to be shortened substantially for inclusion in the anthology: “Alchemical Consciousness After Descartes: Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism as Psychedelic Realism“
Abstract: The study of consciousness is today’s most exciting philosophical frontier. Such an inquiry provides an obvious example of the relevance of psychedelic experience: what better way could there be for coming to terms with the intimate mystery our own consciousness than through the ingestion of psychedelic—literally, “mind-manifesting”—chemicals? In the chapter to follow, I offer a creative reading of Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, reinterpreting his famous Gedankenerfahrung (“thought-experiment”) as a sort of psychedelic trip through hell and heaven and back again. I next turn to Whitehead’s process-relational reimagining of modern Cartesian philosophy, detailing how his approach more adequately incorporates the psychedelic ground of consciousness. I argue that Whitehead’s philosophy of organism opens up the possibility of a psychedelic realism that would allow us to take the ontologically revelatory nature of these experiences seriously. My hope is that this comparative reading of Descartes and Whitehead opens up a road not taken by modern natural science and philosophy, one leading away from the self-alienation and cosmic disenchantment that have so plagued contemporary science and society. Self-integration and world re-enchantment are possible. Ingested responsibly and in service of philosophical inquiry, psychedelics may act as alchemical catalysts providing an especially powerful medicinal aid in service of this Great Work.
Above is an embedded playlist featuring all 9 of the Eastman Seminars that I facilitated for the Science Advisory Committee of the Cobb Institute from June 2021 through February 2022. Tim Eastman, a plasma physicist and philosopher, is the author of Untying the Gordian Knot: Process, Reality, and Context (2020). These seminars invited other scholars prominently cited in Eastman’s book for dialogue with the author and the interested public. I’ve recently reviewed Eastman’s book HERE. Those interested in the implications of a rigorous process philosophical interpretation of quantum physics for science, the humanities, and spirituality will benefit from Eastman’s book and reviewing these seminars.
Session 3 “Gordian Knot to Logoi Framework” features Ruth Kastner and Epperson.
Session 5 “Information and Semiotics” features Epstein and George Strawn.
Session 9 is a wrap-up and features Epperson and myself offering concluding remarks.
We wrapped up our 9-part seminar series on plasma physicist and philosopher Timothy E. Eastman’s book over the weekend. Above is the recording of the final session, which included responses by Michael Epperson and me, followed by a really great dialogue among the other participants. The simulation hypothesis came up and was challenged in light of Eastman and Epperson’s interpretation of quantum reality.
For recordings of the earlier sessions, visit the Cobb Institute Science Advisory Committee webpage and scroll to the bottom.
For my review of Dr. Eastman’s book, click here.
Next Saturday, Feb. 19 I’ll be hearing from four respondents who will assess my recent book on Whiteheadian cosmology Physics of the World-Soul (SacraSage, 2021).
Tickets are available here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ortline-tickets-219336089147
Rory Randall, An Open Theist Renewal Theology: God’s Love, The Spirit’s Power, and Human Freedom
– Panelists: Joshua Reichard, Steve Harper, Chris Baker, Monte Lee Rice
Sharon Baker Putt, A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostle’s Creed
– Panelists: Brian Felushko, Deanna Young, Travis Keller, Annie DeRolf
Matthew Korpman, Saying No to God: A Radical Approach to Reading the Bible Faithfully
– Panelists: Eric Seibert, Scott Spencer, Tammy Wiese
John Sanders, Embracing Prodigals: Overcoming Authoritative Religion by Embodying Jesus’ Nurturing Grace
– Panelists: Mark Umstot, Ryan Lambros Janna Gonwa, Michael Brennan
Andrew Davis, Mind, Value, and Cosmos: On the Relational Nature of Ultimacy
– Panelists: Andre Rabe, Austin Roberts, Sheri Kling, Fidel Arnecillo
Catherine Keller, Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy, and Other Last Chances
– Panelists: Dhawn Martin, Andrew Schwartz, Elaine Padilla, Jea Sophia Oh
Matthew Segall, Physics of the World-Soul: Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology
– Panelists: John Pohl, Tim Miller, Michael Epperson, Tim Eastman
Bruce Epperly, Walking with Francis of Assisi: From Privilege to Activism
– Panelists: Clemette Haskins, Steve Watson, Tim Reddish, Clarence White
John Cobb, Salvation: Jesus’s Mission and Ours
– Panelists: Tripp Fuller, Thomas Hermans-Webster, Donna Bowman, Shaleen Kendrick, Krista E. Hughes
Andrew Williams, Boundless Love: A Companion to Clark H. Pinnock’s Theology
– Panelists: Chris Fisher, Shawn Ryan, Linda Mercadante, Sharon Harvey
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.
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. <email@example.com>.]
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.
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.
It was great to chat with Will again on his podcast Cassette Tapes. Check it out here: https://www.cassettespodcast.com/episodes/30-matt-segall
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:
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):
The physicist Sean Carroll was recently on the Mind Chat podcast hosted by the philosophers Keith Frankish and Philip Goff. Watch it here.
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)
“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?”
“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.”
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).
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 , 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)*