Theoretical Archaeology Conference Abstract

Unfortunately, the track I was to participate in was canceled due to conflicts with another conference. But I wanted to share my abstract since I hope to develop some of these themes in the future. This particular theme (teleology in archaeology) came up as I read Hodder’s great book Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationship Between Humans and Things.

Abstract Proposal: XV Nordic TAG 2015

Title: On the Entanglements of Archai and Teloi: Towards a Whiteheadian Philosophy of Archaeology

Author: Matthew David Segall

Panel: Disentangling the Neolithic “Revolution” in Southwest Asia

Abstract: Whitehead defined philosophy as the critique of the abstractions of the special sciences, tasking it with the harmonization of these abstractions with our “more concrete intuitions of the universe” (SMW, 87). As one among the special sciences, archaeology tasks itself with the study of the presence of the past. It examines the traces of the past as they show up in the present. But the past never shows up in concrete experience to make itself available to scientific evaluation except in relation to particular conceptions of the future. In order to harmonize archaeology with our concrete intuitions of the universe, it is necessary to supplement the study of the presence of the past with the study of the absence of the future, i.e., teleology. Teleology is the study of the way the future leads on or lures the present toward its own latent potentialities. It concerns not what is, but what could or even should be. Although usually associated with religious cosmologies, it is clear that modern secular worldviews are no less teleological in orientation. Humans are inescapably future-oriented beings. It follows that archaeologists should take their imagination of the future explicitly into mind while studying the past, since the way humans imagine their future largely determines in advance how they come to interpret their past. My paper draws upon Whitehead’s process-relational “ontology of organism” to argue that ecologizing the philosophical foundations of archaeology requires not simply coming to terms with the agency of nonhuman things, but also situating the study of the past within a universe of things (human and non-) for whom the creative lures of the future are just as influential as the settled facts of the past. My hope is that Whitehead’s heterodox conception of teleology may be of some use to archaeologists.

 

 

No Newton of the Grass Blade: On the impossibility of scientific genius in Kant’s “Critique of Judgment”

In preparation for a lecture on mind and nature in German Idealism, I’m working my way through Kant’s third of three critiques, the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Prior to this sitting, I’ve only ever spent time with small sections of this text. For example, sections 75 and 76 in the second part on teleological judgment were major catalysts driving my earliest attempts to counter mechanistic biology by replacing it with an alternative theory of organism (for example, this essay written between 2008 and 2009). At that point, I had paid almost no attention to the first part on aesthetic judgment. Having read over that part twice now in the past few weeks, I realize that I had not fully understood what was at stake in Kant’s attempt to articulate a critical philosophy of biology, i.e., a transcendental study of life itself. The key take away for me was Kant’s denial of scientific genius. Only artists, and especially poets, can be considered geniuses. A genius is nature appearing in the form of the human being giving the rule to art. A genius is someone who, without following explicit rules and so according to a method mysterious even to themselves, is able to give artistic expression to the formative forces of nature. Without the slightest contrivance, as though they emerged merely from the free play of the imagination, genius is able to produce beautiful works that, for those with cultivated taste at least, are suggestive of supersensible ideas and cosmic intelligences.

But the notion of a scientific genius is a contradiction in terms, since for Kant natural science presupposes the lawful system of categories imposed universally upon our experience of nature by the understanding. Science produces conceptually determinant knowledge about nature, principally in the form of synthetic a priori logical and mathematical constructions (which if they cannot be known a priori are sorted according to the sieve of experiment). If a scientist cannot tell you with precision exactly how she came to know what she knows, then she doesn’t know anything. Knowledge production is always such that anyone with sufficient training should be able to grasp it and to reproduce it. Artistic genius, however, cannot be taught. Its products remain forever beyond the reach of mere skill or education. Artistic geniuses gain aesthetic insight into nature, but fail to provide any scientific knowledge of nature. Scientists, according to Kant, can catch no cognitive sight (i.e., they have no intellectual intuition) of the hidden cause of nature’s self-organizing processes.

“It is quite certain,” writes Kant,

“that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and indeed this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans even to make such an attempt or to hope that there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather, we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings” (section 75).

 

blade-of-grass

When it comes to our power to judge whether the apparently teleological or end-seeking aspects of nature (in its products and as a whole) are real causes or merely illusory intuitions, Kant resolves what would otherwise remain an antinomy for reason by denying natural science any knowledge one way or the other. We simply cannot know scientifically, argues Kant, whether nature is truly mechanical or whether higher ends are shaping its products and processes. Science can neither affirm an intelligent cause behind nature, nor deny that, at least for us as human knowers, such a cause may be necessary to explain the unity of nature. The concept of unity, of course, provides the very condition for the possibility of any natural science at all, and so for Kant, although we cannot know whether nature is objectively purposive, we are justified in our subjective assertions of such a purposiveness because our cognitive powers of imagination, understanding, and reason cannot find internal harmony without operating as though this purposiveness was real.

My own work on etheric imagination is an attempt to push Kant’s transcendental aesthetics a bit further than he was willing into a fully blown ontology of organism. That he was unwilling (per his devotion to the Good) to allow aesthetic feeling (the Beautiful) or scientific knowledge (the True) an equal share in critical philosophy’s transcendental foundation follows from his desire to ground the higher faculties of thinking (the Understanding) and feeling (Taste or Judgment) in that of willing (Reason). The moral law derived from his critique of practical reason was Kant’s trump card. He denied knowledge of nature in order to make room for moral freedom.

In my own work, I hope to show that any search for grounds or foundations always begins and ends in imagination (which contains its own sort of freedom, though not always moral). Once we acknowledge the peripheral centrality of imagination in philosophy (we find ourselves always in the middle of it, especially when we have tried most to escape from it), the search for foundations is transformed from means to end, which is to say philosophy returns to its generative roots in the groundlessness of Creativity. We become philosophers once again: lovers of wisdom instead of sophists claiming to be wise; careful inquirers rather than foolhardy instrumentalizers of nature. Attuned to imagination, we become the spiritual soil for nature’s creative expression. Genius becomes the norm instead of the exception. Supposedly common human beings are returned their birthright. We realize, as Hillman described it, the poetic basis of mind. Genius cannot be taught; it can only be remembered (though exemplars can help provoke our memories). Through genius–through the feeling and expression of nature become conscious in us as beauty–we gain access to goodness and truth.

Stay tuned…

“Picking Holes in the Concept of Natural Selection” by Evan Thompson

The philosopher Evan Thompson (author of Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind) recently reviewed two books on the philosophy of biology: Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s What Darwin Got Wrong and Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. Check it out HERE.

Thompson expresses doubts about these authors’ argumentative strategies and laments their neglect of the latest literature in theoretical biology (much of which points to natural selection being just one in a number of other causal factors in evolution). But he seems to agree with them that an adequate evolutionary theory must include some account of natural or immanent teleology if it hopes to explain the emergence of life and consciousness from physical processes. In other words, Thompson agrees with these thinkers that reductive materialistic accounts of life and consciousness fall short of explanatory adequacy.

Thompson writes:

A number of theorists have argued that certain types of self-organizing systems exhibit a kind of natural teleology in the sense of a directedness arising from being self-producing and self-maintaining (Juarrero 1999, Thompson E 2007, Deacon 2012). This kind of directedness does not involve teleological laws beyond or outside of the laws of physics, unlike the natural teleology that Nagel proposes but does not develop fully. Moreover, such self-producing and self-maintaining systems arguably exhibit protomental characteristics and thereby provide a bridge from the physical order to the orders of life and the mind.

Here is my earlier review of Nagel’s book, in particular his mentions of Schelling and Whitehead.

Reflections on Thomas Nagel’s mentions of Schelling and Whitehead in “Mind and Cosmos”

The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding ofthe entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it, and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.

So begins Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012). I have thus far only read small chunks of Nagel’s book. I also found myself reading several reviews, including this one by biologist H. Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books, this one by conservative journalist and former Bush Sr. speech writer Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, and this one by Grant Maxwell.

Since I’m writing my dissertation on Schelling and Whitehead, I was curious to peek into Nagel’s text to see what he had to say about them. The largely negative response to Nagel’s book (at least among scientific materialists) is regrettable, but not surprising. I largely agree with Nagel’s criticisms, but I think there are more historical resources available for thinking natural teleology and the connection between consciousness and cosmos than he lets on. Much of the necessary philosophical work has already been done. The process tradition, including first and foremost the work of Schelling and Whitehead, represents an extremely well-developed alternative form of science that doesn’t fall prey to the theoretical or practical shortcomings of mechanistic materialism and yet remains fully consistant with all the latest scientific data.

He mentions Schelling on page 17:

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist–not a subjective ide­alist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance–but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

I think it is interesting that he aligns himself with Schelling the Absolute Idealist rather than Schelling the Naturphilosoph. As I am coming to understand Schelling’s philosophy, its major contribution was not to Absolute Idealism (a school which belongs to Hegel), but to the process-philosophical tradition running through Bergson and Whitehead. For at least the late Schelling, as for Whitehead, Reason is not self-grounding, but dependent at every step upon experience. The transcendental structure of the rational mind and the intelligible structure of phenomenal Nature alike emerge from the “unprethinkable” depths of divine yearning. Reason, then, cannot provide the necessary and sufficient ground for Nature. Nature is no longer conceived by these thinkers as simply the sum total of phenomenal objects whose properties can be categorized by the mechanical understanding, nor as the finished whole or unified system that Reason thinks it ought to be. Schelling imagined Nature as productivity (Natura Naturans) as well as product (Natura Naturata), just as Whitehead imagined Nature as a Creative Advance conditioned by finite creatures. Rather than conceiving of Nature as an appearance projected by our own intellectual activity, or as a mere “check” upon our will, Schelling and Whitehead saw the human mind as an evolutionary expression of Nature’s own creative potency. So it is not “rational intelligibility” that is at the root of reality for Schelling, but the infinitely polarized unity of Nature’s original scission of forces, which is nothing other than the triune God’s eternal self-begetting as Nature (see this post on the influence of the theosophist Jakob Böhme on Schelling).

“…give me a nature composed of antithetical activities, of which one reaches out to the infinite while the other tries to intuit itself in this infinitude, and from this I will bring forth intelligence for you”

Certainly, Schelling spills much ink attempting to wrap words around the creative mystery of a self-intuiting infinity. He did not mean for us to conceive of it negatively as irrational or mystical (in the etymological sense of mystery or “mute”), but neutrally as other-than-ratio and so beyond the grasp of reflective thought. Instead, Schelling articulated a “metaphysical empiricism.” The immediately experienced fact of free will within us, which Schelling defined as the decision between good and evil, is a recapitulation at a higher potency of Nature’s original scission between gravity and light. It is out of this scission that all visible Nature continues to unfold. The scission is not approachable through theory, but only through art and action, through the cultivation of one’s aesthetic sensitivity and moral freedom.

As for Whitehead, Nagel mentions him in a footnote:

White­head argued that to identify the abstractions of physics with the whole of reality was to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and that concrete entities, all the way down to the level of electrons, should all be understood as somehow embodying a standpoint on the world.

I agree with the second clause about electrons, but it seems in plain contradiction with the first clause about the abstractions of physics. Whitehead didn’t dismiss the abstractions of physics in an effort to make everyday psychological life the foundation of metaphysics. His goal was to re-interpret the abstractions of quantum and relativistic physics so that physics might become the most general possible description of concrete experience. I describe the result of his attempt to universalize an experiential physics in my essay “Physics of the World-Soul.”

Teleology in Science? Purpose in Nature?

I’ve just read Grant Maxwell’s critique of a HuffPo piece by Matthew Hutson.

I enjoyed his rebuttal of Hutson’s blanket rejection realism regarding teleology. I am also enjoying the discussion Grant is having with Hutson down in the comments. I do not think Hutson has read the work of organic/creative finalists like Bergson or Whitehead. His concept of teleology is very mechanical and industrial, very Anglo-American; it totally lacks the Franco-German flavor of Whitehead and Bergson’s organicism, which has its modern origins in the Naturphilosophie of Goethe, Novalis, and Schelling (and its ancient origins in alchemy and hermeticism). If you’ve read those guys, or their more recent incarnation Teilhard’s “The Human Phenomenon,” its impossible to think of creationism as somehow necessarily opposed to evolutionism. It begins to seem, rather, that they imply and require one another.

I heard a lecture by professor of German literature Fred Amrine tonight on Goethe’s Color Theory. Prof. Amrine quoted Goethe (usually known for his poetry and artistic genuis and not as a pioneering natural scientist) as having asserted towards the end of his life something like “It is for my theory of colors, and its refutation of Newton, that posterity will remember me.” Goethe described his color theory as a “sensory-moral” account of natural phenomena such that the “physical laws” those phenomena “obey” are seen to emerge from out of one’s conscious perceptions themselves, rather than being imposed upon them from outside as in Newton’s mechanistic theories. Goethe’s scientific method “makes phenomena transparent to their own lawfulness,” as Prof. Amrine put it. Instead of the deistic-mechanistic metaphysics and calculative-quantitative methods that came with the Galilean-Newtonian scientific revolution, Goethe developed his own processual and organic approach to nature (an approach whose philosophical implications were first developed by Schelling and later made more explicit by Rudolf Steiner). His organicism was rooted in the qualitative structure-dynamics of experience itself, rather than the calculable motion of “external matter.” “External matter,” I’d argue, is among the most abstract concepts imaginable by the human mind. Goethe instead remained faithful to appearances and to common sense, as Aristotle long ago prescribed. The Faustian magician-priests of the modern techno-scientific revolution, of course, had other plans. External mechanistic matter was as real as it gets, and modern science’s job was to gain control over it. Modern science is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly powerful belief system. We should dream it and use it more wisely than we do.

How could Goethe have been so mistaken about his future influence? He is not remembered as a great scientist, as the creator of an alternative but no less “modern” scientific worldview and methodology. Newton’s Optics is still esteemed as the paragon of scientific treatises by most historians and philosophers of science, while most people have either never heard of Goethe’s color theory, or have summarily dismissed it as some kind of an alchemical throwback.

But maybe this is the wrong question… Is Goethe really mistaken? It could be that he is still ahead of his time scientifically. Could it be that, in another generation, not only Darwin but Goethe too will be celebrated as a discoverer of “evolution”? Actually, Darwin only used the word “evolution” once in the 6th edition of Origin of Species. For good reason (at least from the perspective of the mechanistic metaphysics he inherited from the scientific revolution): the concept of evolution is inherently teleological in that it implies the unfolding of something enfolded, the rolling out of a plan, etc…. ya know, “teleology.” Goethe’s natural science, like Schelling’s and Whitehead’s and Bergson’s and Teilhard’s, does not attempt to explain away meaning, purpose, and value in the universe, but rather aims to simultaneously elucidate and deepen our understanding and experience of human teleology by rooting it in the teleogenic capacity of the cosmos itself. The question is no longer “What must human meaning/purpose/value be if nature is really mechanical/dull/void?”– The question rather becomes “What must nature be such that human teloi are possible?”

Of course, I just disqualified myself in the eyes of the scientifically-minded for admitting to belief in teleology. “Evolution teleological? Clearly you don’t understand science and evolution! Or worse, you’re not even being scientific at all, you’re being religious!”

Only a scientifically illiterate religious nut could believe, for example, that “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.” Hutson uses this example (it originated in a 2009 study by psychologists from Boston University) in one of his comments to Grant in an effort to display the absurdity of teleology. He suggests Grant’s [and my own, in this post] assumption about such nut cases and their beliefs “is not that they have made a common mistake but that in some sense the sun would not have come to be if plants had not evolved three billion years later.” Teleology does seem absurd when framed in such a way. But it need not be framed in such a way. Hutson himself relies upon a teleological argument of a different sort when he mobilizes the idea of transcendentally imposed universal and necessary “physical laws” that contingent and particular natural bodies are required to obey. This is pure deism, regardless of Hutson’s preference for the Spinozist flip that has nominally replaced Deus with Natura sometime between Newton’s and our own day. The telos in modern science’s view of nature is the cosmic machine’s pre-planed “design.” For Newton, this telos was designed by an all-powerful “designer” or “divine engineer.” Hutson, I assume, prefers to speak of random quantum fluctuations giving rise to the laws governing our universe, which is just one of infinitely many more randomly arising universes, most of which have no order at all and certainly do not have intelligent life. This is a strange sort of teleology, whether in its early modern deistic or late modern atheistic phase: it makes the human seem a stranger in nature by transforming our common sense experience of ourselves, the earth, and the cosmos as alive into an epiphenomenal illusion projected upon what is really just mechanical matter in motion. How strange, that rather than looking deeper into nature to understand how our human teleological creativity is possible, modern science has denied such creativity to nature, thereby detaching human egoic consciousness both from its own creativity, as well as from the unconscious (but still experiential!) creativity of nature.

There are yet other ways of framing teleology, like that of the organic evolutionary thinkers I mentioned above. Whitehead and Bergson in particular offer devastating critiques (both philosophical and scientific critiques) of the “spatialized” conception of time guiding modern mechanistic science from Newton to Einstein. Rather than thinking that the future somehow reaches back in time to cause the past (as when the evolution of photosynthesis somehow causes the sun to exist), they came to think of future possibilities as luring the present decisions of every organism, such that plant life is understood to be the further expression of an activity that, 4.5 billion years ago, had only achieved the sun-like phase of its organic development. Plants are quite literally the further flowering of the sun. You could say, then, that plants are part of the sun’s purpose. As Goethe said in a slightly different context (eye-sight instead of plant photosynthesis): “The eye must be something like the sun, otherwise no sunlight could be seen.” This is not to imply that the future can somehow be seen in advance, as though the sun knew life was coming. It is more as if the light of the sun discovered for the first time what it truly is only once it had created life on earth. Life is the dreaming of light, not its “design.” Indeed, this process of the universe’s self-discovery through evolution may only have just begun. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

[Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature

“[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” -Whitehead188

 

Epperson argues that Whitehead’s account of the process of concrescence, the centerpiece of his metaphysical scheme, provides “an extremely precise, phase-by-phase exemplification” of contemporary “decoherence-based interpretations” of quantum mechanics.189 Unlike the instrumentalist interpretations that have spun off Niels Bohr’s account of quantum effects in terms of epistemological “complementarity,” quantum decoherence offers a fully fledged ontological description of quantum reality.190 Further, unlike Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, the decoherence-based approach provides a more ontologically parsimonious, not to mention less empirically question begging, account of the unfolding of the physical universe. And finally, unlike the quantum cosmogonies offered by Hawking and Krauss, which purport to explain the random emergence of the actual universe ex nihilo from the sheer potentiality of the “quantum void,” decoherence-based interpretations avoid the logical incoherence of having to posit a realm of pure potentiality utterly independent of, and somehow responsible for generating, concrete actuality.191 Whitehead, as discussed earlier, also describes something akin to the “quantum void,” or “vacuum,” from which all potency is ceaselessly born: Creativity. But, in order to maintain the coherence of the fundamental categories of his metaphysical scheme (such that all ideas require one another for their meaning), the sheer potentiality of Creativity is said always to be conditioned by at least one actual creature.192 The primordial creature of Creativity is God. Subsequently to God, Creativity also comes to be conditioned by the passage into objective immortality of finite actual occasions.193 Potentiality, in other words, has never been untouched by actuality.

The decoherence interpretation of quantum mechanics, like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, presupposes the givenness of facts, rather than trying to offer some arbitrary ex nihilo explanation of their spontaneous appearance. According to Epperson,

…actuality is necessarily presupposed by…potentiality, such that the latter cannot be abstracted from the former. This is both a logical requirement and a requirement of quantum mechanics, which describes the evolution of actual facts and their associated potentia–not the evolution of vacuous potentia into actuality.194

In other words, quantum mechanical descriptions presuppose actuality, and so cannot explain its emergence by reference only to potentiality. Nonetheless, potentiality does have a significant role to play in both decoherence-based and Whiteheadian accounts of the evolution of the universe. In 1958, probably independently of Whitehead’s earlier re-incorporation, Werner Heisenberg argued that quantum effects demanded that something like Aristotle’s concept of “potentia” be brought back into the philosophy of nature.195 The decoherence interpretation describes the way a quantum event, or wave-function, first arises from the actualized facts of the past, evaluates the potentia relevant to its situation, and finally selects among those potentia to bring about the collapse of its wave-function, thereby realizing some novel actual fact.196 It is a process of “evolutions from actuality to potentiality to actuality.”197 In Whitehead’s terms, the concrescence of an actual occasion passes through several phases: 1) the occasion prehends the initial data provided to it by the multiplicity of objectively immortal occasions making up its past actual world, negatively prehending those elements which are irrelevant to its situation, 2) the occasion, through a process of integration of simpler feelings into more complex feelings, unifies its many prehensions of its actual world into one, objective datum, 3) the objective datum is felt by the subjective form of the occasion, which is the complex qualitative pattern of eternal objects characterizing how this occasion experiences its world, 4) the occasion, having satisfied its subjective form, perishes into objective immortality to become the data prehended by further occasions.198 The end result of this process is the emergence of a novel actuality.

Earlier, in a discussion of the inherent limits to our experience of simultaneity based upon the finite (but invariant) speed of light, I mentioned a further complexity based upon quantum non-locality and the difference between efficient and formal causality. Efficient causes are those influences involving the direct transmission of feeling from one actual occasion or society of occasions to another, as when a flashlight shines in my eyes or a baseball breaks through a window. They are physical causes. Formal causes, from both a Whiteheadian perspective on reality more generally and a decoherence-based perspective on quantum physics more specifically, can involve instantaneous, non-local affection of the potenia of distant actual occasions. These are conceptual causes. To illustrate the difference, Epperson uses the example of an asteroid that has just been knocked by a comet into a collision course with Earth.199 Although in terms of physical influence, we will not know about the incoming astroid until the photons reflecting off its surface reach Earth, in conceptual, or potential, terms, the astroid’s change of course has instantaneously affected the potenia describing Earth’s ongoing evolution. Further clarifying the difference between efficient and formal causality, Epperson writes:

“Causal influence,” in the Whiteheadian scheme, is operative in the physical pole or primary stage (the conformal phase, or phase of causal efficacy), and is bound by the speed of light according to the theory of special relativity; “causal affection” is operative in the mental pole or supplementary stage, and is not limited by special relativity.200

If the local relativisitic relationships of causal influence among actual occasions were not supplemented by the non-local quantum relationships of logically ordered potenia, the reality of an asymmetrical passage of time from closed past to open future would be impossible to account for. On the purely relativistic reading, time is symmetrical: causality works just the same whether you run it forward or backward. But from the perspectives of quantum decoherence, thermodynamics, Whitehead’s process philosophy, and our own direct experience, time is intrinsically irreversible.201

The physical account of the decoherence of a wave-function and the metaphysical account of the concrescence of an actual occasion both imply a panexperientialist ontology of constructive becomings, rather than a materialist ontology of ready-made beings. In a materialist ontology, reality is identified with actuality.202 This implies that nothing new ever really emerges, since all that can be has already been actualized. Change is merely apparent, the re-shuffling of static parts that are externally related. In an ensouled process ontology like Whitehead’s, actuality and potentiality are organically integrated so as to allow for a genuinely creative cosmos where, though the past is settled, the future remains wildly open. New forms of fact are always emerging, though none ever exists in isolation from its environment. “In sharp contrast [to mechanistic materialism],” writes Epperson,

[in] Whitehead’s cosmology as exemplified by the decoherence interpretations of quantum mechanics, the universe is…characterized as a fundamentally complex domain with an inherent aim toward an ideal balance of reproduction and reversion–a balance formative of a nurturing home for a seemingly infinitely large family of complex adaptive systems such as ourselves.203

Epperson explicitly connects Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, along with the decoherence-based account of quantum mechanics, to efforts in the complexity sciences to account for the regularity and diversity achieved by the various examples of emergent order at all scales in nature.204 In Whitehead’s terms, emergence concerns the achievement by actual occasions of novel forms of “structured society,” be they physical (atoms, stars), biological (cells, plants), or psychological (animals, humans).205

For contemporary complexity scientist Terrence Deacon, mentioned earlier, coherent accounts of emergence also depend upon the ontologization of potentiality along side actuality. Deacon coins the term “absential” to refer to those features of nature that, while not physically present, nonetheless have an important role to play in the emergence of the higher order organizational levels of biology and psychology.206 These role of these absential features would suggest that nature is in some sense “incomplete.” The recognition of this incompleteness leads Deacon to flirt with something like Whitehead’s panexperientialist process ontology, where

no object, event, or interaction–down to the most fundamental physical interactions, such as between elementary particles–is complete in itself, [meaning that] all aspects of physical causality implicitly depend on something extrinsic that is not physically present “there.”207

But in the end, Deacon remains unsatisfied with Whitehead’s approach, since it seems to assume what he is setting out to explain, namely, how experience and value emerge later on up the scale of complexity from otherwise numb, purposeless matter. Deacon attempts to avoid what he calls “homuncular” accounts of the emergence of complexity from physical processes, which he says include information theoretic accounts as well as Whitehead’s. Information theory suggests that all physical processes can be interpreted as computation-performing operations.208 As a result, physical processes “can be treated as though [they have] mentalistic properties.”209 Although Deacon admits to being favorably influenced by Whitehead early in his career, especially in respect to his attempt to save realism as against nominalism in natural philosophy, he eventually became dissatisfied by Whitehead’s seeming need to “[sneak] in homunculi at a very, very low level…the level of subatomic quantum events.”210 From Deacon’s scientific perspective, building in anything like purpose or feeling at the basement level of actuality doesn’t explain anything; rather, only “if you can show how [these are] generated [will] you have an explanation for [them].”211

From Whitehead’s philosophical perspective, science cannot explain the emergence of experiential qualities like value, purpose, and feeling out of dumb physical activity. Whitehead’s understanding of what constitutes a proper explanation seems to be the reverse of Deacon’s, in that for Whitehead, natural philosophy cannot explain the emergence of what is concrete (i.e., value and experience), but only of what is abstract. New possibilities are always emerging into actuality (or in Whitehead’s terms, novel eternal objects are always ingressing); actuality itself, on the other hand, must be intrinsically evaluative for explanations of such emergence to remain rational instead of miraculous. The emergence of complex forms of organization like galaxies and stars, for example, already requires an explanation in terms of some aim intrinsic to physical activity. “The element of value,” writes Whitehead,

of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event.212

In other words, no value, no reality. Akin to Deacon’s scientific desire to avoid humuncular explanations is Whitehead’s philosophical desire to avoid employing the dubious concept of “vacuous actuality.” This concept “haunts realistic philosophy,”213 according to Whitehead, which is born out by the example of Deacon’s realism, where experience is purported to emerge from dumb matter. “Apart from the experience of [actual occasions],” writes Whitehead, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”214

This fundamental divergence of metaphysical first principles may at first seem like a matter impossible to settle other than by subjective preference. As mentioned earlier, aside from their metaphysical differences, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biological and psychological forms of organization can be read as adding much needed specificity to Whitehead’s more general account. In this sense, their approaches are complimentary. But there are other criteria from which to judge the overall coherence of each of their approaches.

Deacon claims to prefer a perspective of radical emergence, wherein infinitely many novel forms of organization are possible, while he regards Whitehead’s cosmological scheme as somehow restricting the open-endedness of emergent evolution.215 On the other hand, Deacon admits that there are limits on the evolution of this novelty, offering a rather sophisticated account of these limits based upon the notion of hierarchically nested constraints.216 The question is, what constrains the emergence of novelty at the cosmic, rather than specifically biological or psychological scale? According to Deacon’s scientific account, cosmic constraint is afforded by the interplay between the biased probability of entropic orthograde processes and the emergent contragrade processes supported by thermodynamic work.217 Once constraints at the thermodynamic level are established, higher-order constraints can emerge to secure what Deacon calls “morphodynamic”, and then “teleodynamic,” modes of organization.

Whitehead also offers an account of limitation, but his rests on a far more general, and therefore metaphysical, basis. As discussed in a preceding section, the unfathomable potency of Creativity being the ultimate category of his scheme, Whitehead needed a principle of limitation, or concretion, to account for how anything of definite value could come to exist. Whitehead calls his principle of limitation, or concretion, “God.” Instead of basing limitation on some particular tendency in the physical world, as Deacon does, Whitehead asks what must be the case, metaphysically speaking, for physical “tendencies” to be possible at all: “What is the status of the enduring stability of the order of nature?”218 Whitehead’s answer to this question depends, again, on what is to count as a valid means of explanation. From his perspective, the aim of any genuine philosophical explanation is to produce “self-evidence,” or “sheer disclosure.”219 This aim can never be finally realized due to the fact that “language halts behind intuition.”220 In this sense, “all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness.”221 Nevertheless, although total disclosure cannot finally be achieved, the penetration of our understanding can be increased.222

Many contemporary scientists, Deacon included, would seem to have little patience for traditional theology. Whitehead generally shares their distaste for those philosophers and theologians who, “anxious to establish the religious significance of God,” succumbed to the unfortunate habit of paying him “metaphysical compliments.”223 The God of Western religion has tended to be fashioned in the image of an imperial ruler.224 Rather than making God an exception to the principles holding true of every other actual occasion, Whitehead’s God is “their chief exemplification.”225 Why then does Whitehead risk the scorn of atheistic or agnostic scientists and philosophers by calling his principle of concretion “God”? “Because,” writes Whitehead,

the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that “subjective form” of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.226

God’s primordial act of concretion cannot be rationally explained, since this divine act provides the foundation for rationality.227 That the universe has some definite character, some order, realized along certain limits despite the onrush of Creativity possessing no intrinsic reasons of its own, requires explanation. But in attempting to explain how this definite order could be possible, we come to the very limits of reason. As a panexperientialist, Whitehead’s allegiance is ultimately to empiricism. “The general principle of empiricism,” he writes,

depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.228

It follows from Whitehead’s allegiance to empiricism that the progress of the general science of metaphysics and the special sciences alike depends upon a certain faith, or “ultimate moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action.”229 Whitehead’s approach also has rationalist aspects, but he always checks the impulse for theoretical explanation with the requirement that “there be ‘given’ elements so as to form the material for theorizing.”230 God is such an element, the primordial reason conditioning the creative flux, though not itself rationally explainable.

As discussed earlier, God is that actual entity responsible for grading the relevance of the infinite multiplicity of eternal objects. “Apart from God,” writes Whitehead, “there could be no relevant novelty.”231 In other words, it is God’s primordial role to provide each concrescing actual occasion with possibilities graded as relevant to the givenness of its unique situation. Without this provision, eternal objects yet to be realized in the actual world would be all but non-existent for the occasion in question.232 It follows from Whitehead’s ontological principle that as of yet unactualized possibilities, or eternal objects, cannot float into actuality from nowhere.233 Eternal objects yet to be actualized by any finite actual occasion have already been conceptually prehended by the divine non-temporal actual occasion. God is that non-temporal actual occasion which conceptually prehends, and thereby evaluates, the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby adjusting, or conditioning, creativity so as to allow a definite order to emerge in the ongoing course of cosmogenesis. “The adjustment is the reason for the world,” writes Whitehead; he continues:

It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order in nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. Also since there is a world, we know that there is an order. The ordering entity [God] is a necessary element in the metaphysical situation presented by the actual world.234

In respect to Deacon’s desire both to “save Plato, or to save realism,”235 and to describe a cosmos with open-ended possibilities of emergent order, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without some cosmic principle of concretion to provide the basis for the emergence of forms of order relevant to the actual occasions, or societies of occasions, in question. That biological and psychological forms of order have emerged in the course of time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” Epperson likens this harmonious tendency, or “subjective aim” provided by God “by which nature regulates herself without determining herself,” to the concept of “effective complexity” employed in complexity theory.236 It could be said that this tendency is “built in” to the universe, but this phrase is likely to foster an image of a transcendent divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. In his famous cosmological dialogue Timaeus, Plato uses a similar image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Timaeus also employs other images to account for cosmogenesis, including that of an indwelling World-Soul, and that of a formless mediatrix for form called the Receptacle. Were Plato alive today, he may have emphasized these latter images as the more appropriate rhetorical choices for mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead not only attempts to “save Plato” from the myth of a transcendent demiurge, but also to save modern theology from the jealous tyrant imagined by Job, and modern science from the deistic mechanical engineer imagined by Newton. To do so, he re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present.”237 God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned also by the objective immortality of the past decisions of all the other historical routes of concrescence populating its cosmic community. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged. In the final section, the implications of Whitehead’s reformed Platonism will be explored, with special attention paid to the need to mythologize his metaphysics so as to excite the aesthetic, emotional, and moral appetites in a way that purely rational discourse cannot.

Footnotes

188 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 80.

189 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 129.

190 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 33.

191 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 18; Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, xiv.

192 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 3.

193 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

194 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 7

195 Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 185.

196 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 8-9.

197 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.

198 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 221.

199 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii-xiii.

200 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 228.

201 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 234.

202 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.

203 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 17.

204 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 198.

205 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 100.

206 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 3.

207 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 78.

208 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 75.

209 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 374.

210 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

211 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

212 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.

213 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

214 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 167.

215 “I see emergence as an open-ended process, while [Whitehead] does not,” Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

216 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 423cf.

217 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 230, 247.

218 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.

219 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

220 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

221 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.

222 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 51.

223 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

224 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 342.

225 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

226 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31-32.

227 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

228 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

229 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.

230 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.

231 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

232 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

233 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.

234 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 91.

235 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

236 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 236.

237 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.

Deacon’s Incomplete Nature (con’t.)

A week and a half ago, Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted the first volley of our summer reading group on chapter zero of Terence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). In that chapter, Deacon introduced the key conceptual locus of the book, what he calls the absential features of living and psychic systems: “phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence” (p. 3). The research programs of scientific materialism (neodarwinian biology, evolutionary psychology, neuro-eliminativism, etc.), he says, leave out the absential features of living and psychic systems, and so cannot account for the constitutive purposiveness and/or consciousness of these systems. Deacon is proposing to take the first steps toward a science capable of accounting for the absent elements of natural systems, elements I think it is safe to think of along the lines of Whitehead’s eternal objects (though Deacon doesn’t agree with me–I expand upon this already in conversation with Deacon HERE and in response to Jason HERE).

Since reading the first few chapters of Deacon’s book, I’ve come across several very critical reviews published in prominent places: HERE is Colin McGinn in the NY Review of Books getting Deacon back for ruining his vacation; HERE is Tom Bartlett nearly accusing him of plagiarism; HERE is Evan Thompson‘s slightly less damning review, but even he can’t help but finger-wave at Deacon for failing to even cite texts that clearly influenced him (like Thompson’s own Mind in Life (2007)), and for exaggerating the differences between his and Varela‘s solutions to the same problems. Deacon dismisses Varela’s (and Maturana’s) autopoietic philosophy of biology early on in chapter zero:

“in their effort to make the autonomous observer-self a fundamental element of the natural sciences, the origin of this self-creative dynamic is merely taken for granted, taken as a fundamental axiom” (p. 6).

Deacon cites Maturana and Varela’s work from 1980, and later (p. 311) cites Varela in 1992, which makes me wonder why he didn’t consider Varela’s work during the last 10 years of his life. The last paper he wrote (with Andreas Weber) before his death, “Life After Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuals” (2002), goes a long way toward offering a solution to the same problems Deacon is exploring in his book. I think part of the problem here is that Varela, especially in his later work, is trying to uncover the ontological ground of nature, which is to say he is philosophizing, while Deacon refuses to accept a philosophical answer to the philosophical questions he is asking. He wants to find a way for natural science to answer it, since otherwise, the answer can only be “taken for granted…as a fundamental axiom,” as he puts it. Deacon will dismiss Whitehead’s cosmology for similar reasons by saying Whitehead sneaks mind and ententionality in at the beginning without explaining it. He “takes it for granted.” This strikes me as a refusal on Deacon’s part to think behind Descartes’ bifurcation of nature into thinking and extension. He fails to phenomenologically bracket the natural attitude in the way that Varela, Thompson, and Whitehead in his own way, are able to. They are just better philosophers, to put it bluntly. Natural science alone isn’t enough to think beyond substance dualism; it can’t possibly!, since natural science, as a mode of thought, is in fact founded upon a Cartesian ontology. As far as I can tell so far, Deacon seems to want an explanation in terms of extension alone, such that absential phenomena can be said to emerge out of a nature that remains essentially external. If we’re going to really do philosophy, which is to say, if we’re not going to shy away from the obscurities of ontology and the dark powers of cosmology, then we need to think our way behind the Cartesian construct of dead external “nature” observed by a physically absent intelligence. He claims to want to find a way to bring purpose and consciousness back into the scientific world-picture, but can Deacon really do this precisely by removing them from a now incomplete nature?

It remains to be seen…

As Jason already admitted, it is tough to continue plowing through 400 more pages of Deacon’s book having now plainly seen the problems pointed out by his reviewers. But I’m still willing to keep reading: at page 90, I remain interested to see where Deacon is headed. I’d like to understand the details of his argument regarding the emergence of life. If a few more chapters in it turns out that the writing becomes as torturous as McGinn alleges (“Deacon’s prose style can only be described as abominable”), or if it seems he is only repeating Varela and Thompson, then I might call it quits.

As I’ve agreed to do, let me turn now to a brief summary of chapter 2, titled “Homunculi.” A homunculi, as defined by Deacon, is

“a form of explanation that pretends to be offering a mechanistic account of some living or mental phenomenon, but instead only appeals to another cryptically equivalent process at some lower level” (p. 47).

Deacon goes on to discuss the explanatory use of homunculi in pseudo-scientific theories like preformationism and vitalism; but he also shows how even contemporary neuroscientists purporting to be reductionistic still ultimately rely upon homuncular rhetoric to frame their theories (see p. 52-53). Deacon admits that it is extremely difficult to explain anything living or ensouled without slipping in a “man-analogue,” or homunculus, at some lower level in order to get the ententional work done. Scientists should admit when they do this, says Deacon. Some do, offering explanatory “promissory notes” where particular mechanisms aren’t yet understood.

Deacon then moves into a discussion of final causality, cautioning us not to take the misstep leading to Intelligent Design, where unexplained phenomena (e.g., life and mind) are explained by reference to an absent designer. While it is standard practice for scientists to create homuncular “black boxes” to stand in for not-yet-understood physical mechanisms, these are regarded as I.O.U’s, not permanent solutions. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it posits a designer as “a permanently unopenable black box” (p. 62). Deacon rightly sees such a position as an attack upon “the very logic and ethic of the scientific enterprise” (p. 61). As I recently suggested in a comment to Levi Bryant, I’d say the I.D.ers are wrong in what they (attempt to scientifically) affirm (i.e., “God did it”), but right in what they deny (i.e., that scientific materialism can ever explain life or consciousness).

Deacon then makes some important comments about the popular oversimplifications regarding the biological role of DNA. See, for example, Dawkins’ recent book review, where he continues to argue that organisms are just survival machines for selfish genes (as he has done for almost 40 years, despite major conceptual shifts in mainstream biological science), as though the DNA molecule were the only real level of causal agency in the biosphere (see also Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s review of Dawkins and our exchange in the comments). As Deacon makes clear, homuncular explanation is alive and well in contemporary neodarwinian accounts of life. Neodarwinian fetishizations of DNA ignore the fact that the “information” involved in living organization cannot be simply located in specific molecules, since in metazoan creatures, this information is

“ultimately embodied in the elaborate patterns of interaction among cells and how these affect which genes get expressed. The vast majority of structural information is generated anew in each organism as an emergent consequence of a kind of ecology of developing cells…patterns of gene expression depend on patterns of embryo geometry, and changes of gene expression influence embryo geometry in cycle upon cycle of interactions” (p. 69).

This is not a new critique of genetic reductionism (Thompson offers a nearly identical critique of DNA in Mind in Life, only he argues DNA can’t even play the role of “programmer” in single-celled organisms; Richard Lewontin offers another similar critique in this lecture from 2004). Still, it remains an important criticism worth repeating.

After briefly beating the dead horses, Fodor, Chomsky, and Pinker, for their blatantly homuncular account of cognition in terms of a “language of thought,” Deacon moves on to express his dissatisfaction with the panpsychism that some quantum-information theorists have been lead to. He then all too briefly unpacks Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, a scheme he says is “probably the most sophisticated effort to  make twentieth-century physics compatible with teleological principles” (p. 77). Deacon agrees that something like a process ontology is necessary to solve the problem of ententional phenomena in nature: all physical events must be understood to be in some sense “incomplete” in themselves, and therefore dependent upon absential causes. But he doesn’t think Whitehead finally explains why life and mind seem so different from inanimate matter.

As I’ve attempted to articulate elsewhere, it all depends what we mean by explanation. Whitehead’s philosophizing, if we are willing to follow him, shifts the problem set, such that the universe is understood as always already alive, always already intelligent. The scientific materialist’s questions: from where comes life, from where mind?–become irrelevant. A new set of questions arise, questions Deacon hits on, concerning specific organizational differences between grades of societies of actual occasions. (Dis)solved are old questions arising only from a Cartesian picture of the world. From Whitehead’s point of view, it makes no sense to ask where experience and value come from. Without them, there would simply be nothing, so we may as well ask where matter comes from. It is no less mysterious a question from Whitehead’s point of view. Whitehead’s universe is bound up in a single soul, not bifurcated into intelligent scientists looking out upon extended bodies for the ateleological mechanisms that might explain them. Deacon is asking questions that cannot be answered from the ontological paradigm within which he is asking them. His questions, should they be solved, can only lead him to a cosmological re-orientation along the lines offered by Whitehead.

Earlier in the chapter, Deacon writes that “since the Renaissance, the concept of efficient cause has become the paradigm exemplar for all fully described conceptions of cause in the natural sciences” (p. 59). Perhaps he should have said “since the Scientific Revolution.” More characteristic of the Renaissance are accounts of nature in terms of the anima mundi by alchemical thinkers like Ficino and Paracelsus (James Hillman explores this theme masterfully). If we’re going to preserve formal and final causes in nature, I don’t see any way around recognizing it as ensouled. Either the universe itself thinks and wills (serving as the participatory ground of any organism’s thinking and willing), or, as Jason has been pointing out for a while now, we’re left with a form of nominalistic anthropocentrism, where special human consciousness projects general structures/forms and purpose/finality onto an otherwise dumb, numb nature.