Monthly Archives: March 2013

Refining the Teleological Vision: A Response to Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”

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I’ve just finished reading Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, published in 2012, which is one of the best new books by an unfamiliar thinker I’ve read in a long time. It’s not often that I come across a text that I feel belongs in my own private canon, but Nagel’s book seems to me of sufficient quality for such consideration (despite the hysterically negative reaction from some scientists, philosophers, and reviewers). In fact, it fits snugly in a subcategory of that canon, which also includes William JamesPragmatism and Thomas Khun‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all very short books that clearly, compellingly, and compactly argue for a startlingly novel concept. In the case of James, this concept is that the premises we bring to bear on our interpretation of reality condition the kind of meaning that we can elicit from the felt reality of immediate experience. Furthermore, James shows that the premises we choose to hold are affectively driven. Finally, he submits that truth is not something waiting to be found ready-made, but a process that creates its own verification. In the case of Kuhn, the concept is that scientific revolutions (and possibly revolutions in other cultural domains) are relatively sudden reorganizations of the conceptual system impelled by an anomaly or set of anomalies that force the scientific community to reevaluate their fundamental premises. And like James, Kuhn suggests that these reorganizations of the system’s rules are caused by affective impulses that themselves exceed the capability of scientific explanation.

To my mind, Nagel has convincingly demonstrated that pure materialist reductionism cannot provide a satisfying explanation for the totality of phenomena, including both material interactions and agential consciousness, so we must admit teleology in some form if we hope fully to understand the nature of our world (a point which James also suggests). However, Nagel argues that materialist reductionism cannot explain these phenomena without recourse to teleology, and while his argument is subtle and convincing, I would like to suggest that this may even still be too radical a hypothesis, or perhaps not radical enough. What if the mind can be explained by the mere combination of material factors, but this is not the only valid and productive way to explain the existence of consciousness? In this possibility, for which I suggested the figure of the “teleological incline” in an earlier post, materialism and teleology do not require one another for internal coherence—both scientific materialism and teleological modes of thought would be perfectly coherent world views—but they may require one another for explanatory completeness. The evolutionary process would then be seen as susceptible to both modes of interpretation, both yielding real, though partial truths about the cosmos. They would each be complementary modes of thought valid within their domains of significance, which have very little, if any overlap, though I do think that holding these two hypotheses in tension together can produce a third, emergent, integral mode of thought in which both materialist reductionism and teleology are tools, inherently partial but highly useful human inventions appropriate for specific purposes.

In this hypothesis, materialist modes perhaps provide a sufficient explanation for the structure of process, while teleological modes can provide an explanation for the purposeful, meaningful, and directional flow of temporality in which we are undeniably immersed as conscious beings. This may sound like Cartesian dualism, but I would argue that it’s really a monism with dual points of access, different parts of the elephant, as it were, because these conceptual systems are each describing one aspect of a much larger whole. This is very close to what Nagel suggests in Mind and Cosmos, though the slight difference is that he does not think it likely that life, consciousness, and reason were able to evolve purely by the process of random natural selection, a belief which suggests that teleology must have guided this emergent process in some way. As he writes:

Natural teleology would require . . . that the nonteleological and timeless laws of physics—those governing the ultimate elements of the physical universe, whatever they are—are not fully deterministic. Given the physical state of the universe at any moment, the laws of physics would have to leave open a range of alternative successor states, presumably with a probability distribution over them. (92)

While I’m deeply sympathetic to Nagel’s view, and I believe he very well may be correct, my suggestion here is only very slightly different, which is that all we can say is that this processual emergence is susceptible to both modes of explanation, the materialist and the teleological, and that they both have pragmatic value and also limitations of explanatory scope. We may never know for certain if a purely materialist reductionism could have produced us because we would have to calculate the trajectory of every particle for the whole history of the universe to be sure, which seems an impossible task. But there is no evidence directly to contravene this belief except our intuition that there is “something more,” as James puts it. However, the sword cuts both ways, and so there is also no way empirically to contravene the belief that teleology has informed the evolution of process, which, belief in purely materialist reductionism notwithstanding, seems self-evidently to be the case. Thus, reductive materialism and finalism are both valid but incomplete explanations.

Furthermore, I would suggest that the third, emergent mode described above is one that is not committed to any particular view of reality other than that reality is multivalent and that these often seemingly incommensurable modes can be integrated by pushing through the paradoxical line dividing these modes from one another to birth an emergent conceptual entity. Unlike the deconstructive forms of postmodernism, which generally posit that no mode can be privileged while implicitly and unconsciously privileging its own deconstructive mode, the “integral” mode of thought acknowledges that it privileges the mode which integrates the others. Thus, “integration” is precisely the positive inverse of negative “deconstruction”; integration is deconstruction turned on its head (to appropriate what Marx said about Hegel—actually, he said “I have stood Marx on his feet,” which makes more sense because Marx sees himself as correcting Hegel, but this phrase simply doesn’t sound as good as the one so often misquoted). The integral mode fundamentally employs the same insight as postmodernism, that the world is radically multivalent, but the deconstructive forms of postmodernism generally interpret this to mean that the world is devoid of real meaning, while integral thought takes this multivalence to be evidence that the world is filled with meaning, an instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.”

In a fractal reiteration of this operation, while postmodern modes of thought generally reject the idea that certain individuals can exemplify and embody the larger movements of culture as a fallacious “great man” approach to understanding the evolution of consciousness, this emergent integral mode posits that individuals do in fact embody the collective, but only at the will of the collective. Through a process of negotiation along constantly shifting discursive networks, certain individuals are elevated to cultural prominence because they perfectly express the collective needs of that moment. Thus, Bob Dylan or Barack Obama, or Thomas Nagel for that matter, can validly be seen as emergent beings, in some sense specially elected by the many (literally in Obama’s case) to perform and catalyze the integration of disparate processual streams within themselves. Even if they ultimately fail in the full realization of the ideal, and they almost always do, they leave us with a “more perfect union.” And this is the way cultural process evolves, by lifting individuals to speak for the whole in our constant drive towards novelty through integration of apparently incommensurable entities.

One more thing about Nagel: He seems possibly to be influenced by Richard Tarnas, the most influential contemporary philosopher on my own work, not only in that his book is named Mind and Cosmos while Tarnas’ 2006 book is called Cosmos and Psyche, but in that Nagel writes that “each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself” (85), while Tarnas writes in 1991’s The Passion of the Western Mind that “the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own self-revelation” (434). These coincidences, while not conclusive evidence of Tarnas’ influence on Nagel, at least show a strong sympathy between the two thinkers, and may be suggestive of a direct connection between them.

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The Teleological Incline: Reconciling Materialist Reductionism and Final Causation

My dialogue with Matthew Hutson, the author of The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, over the last few days has been stimulating and thought provoking. As I’ve been thinking about our conversation, I’ve been refining my rejoinder to his purely materialist, reductionist perspective. Here’s one way to summarize my view:

Even assuming that all particle interactions are random and that evolution is the product of this chance natural selection (about which I remain agnostic), the mechanistic materialist perspective is not necessarily incompatible with teleology, as there seems to be an implicit asymmetry in the nature of being that causes those chance interactions to add up to a larger process which tends towards increasing novelty, order, and consciousness. It’s as if we have lived all our lives on a slight slope, but we assume that slope to be completely flat because we have never known any other inclination. Our whole physics, our whole science is designed assuming that we are working on a flat plane when the truth seems to be that the deep cosmic structure is tilted ever so slightly in the temporal dimension towards the emergence of consciousness. Therefore, we may never be able empirically to show that there is this tendency until we have adjusted our whole mode of thought to take this deeply concealed factor into account. We need not necessarily change our physics because they work within their domain of applicability, like Newtonian physics works between the very large and the very small, though this metaphysical shift might open up new areas of physical research. But we must also consider the possibility that our physics are perfectly constructed to hide a miniscule slant in the nature of reality (this is, of course, only a metaphor for a higher order phenomenon that exceeds the scope of spatiality), which over very long periods of time produces directionality in the entire process. Even our most advanced physics, quantum theory and relativity, do not take into account that time is apparently a fractal dimension (as Jean Gebser and Terence McKenna suggest in different inflections—more about this another time), which we are moving through like a ball rolling down a barely discernible incline. If we could perceive the fullness of the temporal fourth dimension mathematically described by relativity as we see the three spatial dimensions, perhaps we would understand that time has a qualitative topology, but one that tends towards novelty just as gravity tends to draw massive objects together.

Thus, the choice is not between materialist reductionism and theistic intelligent design. In fact, the choice is not even between purely materialist reductionism and a subtle teleology almost imperceptibly guiding the evolutionary process. Rather, it seems to me that there is no choice because both perspectives are true within their domains of validity. Looked at atomistically, I would argue that evolution is most likely a purely random physical process. But looked at as an emergent whole, it is an undeniably teleological process. Thus, the paradox can be resolved, as is so often the case, by pushing through to a deeper level of meaning where the seemingly incommensurable perspectives can be reconciled. The material facts require the teleological narrative to give them meaning and direction, while the teleological narrative requires the material facts to give it the medium of concrete actuality in which the final cause must be expressed.

I’ve employed this quote from John Stuart Mill’s Coleridge essay in several conversations I’ve had here lately, but it bears repeating:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

If everyone who asserted one view in opposition to another (science vs. religion, reductionism vs. teleology, etc.) could recognize that all modes of thought have partial validity (though perhaps not equal validity), we could get on with discussing the really interesting questions, like what would it mean to experience the fourth, temporal dimension as fully as we experience the three spatial dimensions, and is such a thing even possible? Why do we have complete freedom of movement in the three spatial dimensions, but we are seemingly locked into a linear movement through time, which is mathematically describable as a fourth spatial dimension? In my opinion, we have the three spatial dimensions pretty well sussed out, so the frontier of human understanding ripe for discovery is time, and specifically approaches that interpret temporality as qualitative rather than quantitative, from Jungian synchronicity and Bergsonian duration to Tarnasian archetypal cosmology. But that’s a subject for another day.

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Huffington Post Writer Appears to Engage in Blatant Confirmation Bias and Scientism

Matthew Hutson wrote a blog post for the Huffington Post a few days ago called “Even Top Scientists Believe Everything Was Created By Magic,” that seems unintentionally to deconstruct its own premise, practicing blatant scientism and confirmation bias against teleology in relation to a new psychological study “currently in press at the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General” whose findings, contrary to the interpretation of the psychologists, seems to suggest that teleological thinking is intrinsic to the human mind, thus apparently confirming that final causation is valid in some sense.

By way of a disclaimer, although Hutson’s book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, apparently argues that teleological thought is comforting and even beneficial for the living of life (a supposition with which I generally agree), his blog post, to which I’m primarily responding here, seems to assume that final causation can’t possibly be true in any real sense. Without reading his book, it’s unclear if the piece is being ironic and deliberately provocative, but I’ll take him at his word and respond to what he seems to argue in the blog post, which leaves us with the pleasant thought that “one cold fact is unavoidable, particularly in science: Sometimes shit just happens. So watch your step.”

The post suggests that “many countries have done a better job than we have at quashing creationism and intelligent design,” two rather different concepts that Hutson conflates in order to dismiss them, seeming to argue that fundamentalist creationism is the only option if we are to believe in teleology, a vast oversimplification of the issue. In fact there’s no scientific way for anyone to know if “something more” (to use William James’ phrase) than pure materiality exists or not; it’s not empirically provable one way or the other, so Hutson’s unsubtle query, “why are those nonscientific beliefs so persistent?” assumes that scientific knowledge is the only valid knowledge as an article of faith, which merely exchanges one credo for another. Hutson goes on to state that “new research suggests even top scientists are not immune to such magical intuitions,” a seemingly condescending and trivializing way of stating the result of the study, which basically found that even scientists have a hard time avoiding interpreting teleological statements as valid. In the comments to the blog, some have raised the question of if this is merely a problem with the study’s methodology, in which case it wouldn’t say anything at all about teleology but merely about the imprecision of language. However, for the sake of argument, I’ll assume that this is not the case and that the study does in fact offer data genuinely reflective of teleological intuitions. If we employ Occam’s razor that the simplest explanation is usually the best one, rather than suggesting that teleology is an unaccountably persistent superstition, these “tenacious teleological tendencies” (as the study puts it) perhaps suggest that the world is susceptible to interpretations in terms of final causation just as it is susceptible to scientific interpretations based on material and efficient causation. And certainly, that Hutson facilely equates “magic” with “teleology” and “intelligent design” betrays a lack of nuanced understanding concerning the many sophisticated volumes of philosophical discourse exploring the interrelations of these subjects in their various inflections. For one instance of many, Henri Bergson writes in Creative Evolution:

Finalism is not, like mechanism, a doctrine with fixed rigid outlines. It admits of as many inflections as we like. The mechanistic philosophy is to be taken or left; it must be left if the least grain of dust, by straying from the path foreseen by mechanics should show the slightest trace of spontaneity. The doctrine of final causes, on the contrary, will never be definitively refuted. If one form of it be put aside, it will take another. Its principle, which is essentially psychological, is very flexible. It is so extensible, and thereby so comprehensive, that one accepts something of it as soon as one rejects pure mechanism (33).

Hutson seems to assume a priori that teleology is false in any real sense. (note: the subject of his book reveals this apparent assumption possibly to be the product of egregious miscommunication on Hutson’s part in the post, though it’s impossible to tell, which I would contend is a fault of the writer, not the reader.) Although there is no empirical way to prove the supposition that teleology is a silly superstition, both he and the scientists he cites interpret the data according to their implicit and ultimately extra-scientific beliefs. It seems to me that a more straightforward interpretation of the data is that the mind is inherently geared towards teleological thinking because the world is in some sense teleological. Wouldn’t a real empiricist, a “radical empiricist” (as James puts it), examine the evidence without any presuppositions as to the nature of the phenomena and conclude that if final causation can’t be conditioned out of “even the most skeptical and well-educated of us” (which are not, as Hutson seems to suggest, identical qualities), perhaps there’s something to final causation after all? As numerous widely respected philosophers demonstrate in different valences, including James, Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead, the human mind is evolved from and embedded in the cosmos, so it must share something of the underlying cosmic structure. As Richard Tarnas puts it in The Passion of the Western Mind: “The human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” How could it be any other way? We are made of the stuff of the universe, and we have the capacity to know ourselves to varying degrees, so it logically follows that we are the universe coming to know itself. To my mind, although this supposition has often been anathema to the scientistic culture of modernity, the burden of proof should lie with those who seek to deny this seemingly obvious and irrefutable fact.

Ultimately it seems to me that the only insight Hutson has to offer, at least in his post, is that it’s easy to knock down a straw man because he can’t fight back, a phenomenon that we’ve also seen recently in TED’s censorship of talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, which I discuss in an earlier post. As I said before, these kinds of hysterical, knee-jerk reactions to anything that contradicts materialist, scientistic dogmas (as Sheldrake puts it) appear to indicate that the old paradigm, like the church fathers who condemned Copernicus and Galileo and insisted the world was flat, is on its last legs, is backed into a corner, and that a new world view that integrates scientific knowledge, partially true within its domain of validity, with other forms of knowledge based on formal and final causation is in the process of emergence. Even if Hutson believes that teleology, though “irrational” and plain wrong, can act as a beneficial placebo effect (though this is far from clear based on his blog post alone), he’s still apparently recycling the same old scientistic platitudes that keep so many of us from engaging in a real dialogue about the nature of reality just as surely as the dogmas of the medieval church.

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Cutting Out the Inessential: How I Got My Appendix Out Twice in One Week and Started a Blog

About a month ago, I decided to cut a thirty-page theoretical appendix out of my forthcoming book (tentatively titled How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll). It’s adapted from my doctoral dissertation in English, which I’m defending in April, so the book has already been through quite a few revisions. When I started getting serious about my dissertation in 2009, I initially wanted to write a purely theoretical work, as my interests had shifted markedly away from literature and towards the hermeneutic modes employed to interpret narrative. My then advisor quickly disabused me of that notion, patiently explaining that although the boundaries between disciplines have become fairly permeable in recent years, English is not Philosophy. Although I went through a period of intense discipline envy, even auditing a class on Hegel, I soon realized that the kind of philosophy I’m interested in is not generally taught in philosophy departments, which tend more towards analytic philosophy. English is one of the primary academic havens for continental philosophy and, of particular interest to me, the streams of thought constellated around William James, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead: pragmatism, vitalism, and process philosophy.

At the same time that I was engaging with these issues, I was also the singer, songwriter, and guitar player in a roots rock band called The Morning Pages, which managed to play on some pretty prestigious stages in New York, from the Mercury Lounge and Pianos to Bob Dylan and Tom Petty tribute nights at the Bowery Ballroom (where I sang alongside members of the Strokes and the Black Keys, Sean Lennon, Nora Jones, and many others). Having determined that writing a purely theoretical dissertation in English, even at the rather progressive Graduate Center was stretching the disciplinary boundaries beyond all recognition, I sought out advice from my advisor. When she suggested that I write on music (knowing I was a musician), I was initially resistant as I had always assiduously avoided music criticism, not wanting to mix my art with my intellectual pursuits. However, after a few days ruminating over her suggestion, it became obvious that she was right. My two primary interests have always been philosophy and rock and roll, so if I was going to spend years writing a dissertation (other than the purely philosophical work I still intend to write), the intersection of these two subjects is the only topic I could viably have chosen.

And I’m glad I did. Although the process of writing and revising has at times been incredibly difficult, it has also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Spending day after day sitting in front of my computer, articulating my thoughts about music in prose, and dealing with sometimes harsh criticisms from my advisors has forged me into a far stronger writer and thinker than I ever could have been otherwise. I won’t claim that I’ve never fantasized about throwing in the towel and getting a “real job,” learning to build houses or going to law school, but these were never genuine possibilities for me. I knew that in order to become the kind of thinker and writer I felt myself being teleologically drawn towards, I would have to undergo this long, sometimes arduous initiation into academia, which I have come to understand as something very like the secular priesthood of modernity.

About a year ago, I had reached an impasse with my former advisor. It had simply become clear that, although we shared a similar theoretical perspective, she simply didn’t care enough about rock and roll to direct a dissertation on the subject. But the upshot is that just as it became obvious that we could no longer work together, my current advisor, Marc Dolan, who I had only known as a cultural critic of film and television, unexpectedly announced that he was publishing a book called Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It struck me as a rather unlikely coincidence that the perfect advisor would emerge just at the moment I needed him. Under Marc’s supervision, I’ve forged my dissertation into a coherent whole, a scholarly work with popular potential.

About three weeks ago, I was going about my business, revising my book eight or nine hours a day, training for a half-marathon, picking my three-year-old son up from school, spending time with my family and a few close friends, and playing with my band once a week, when I got a horrible stomach ache. I had just eaten a lunch of extremely spicy tuna salad (made with Siracha) and avocado, so I assumed I had gotten food poisoning. I lay down and put on a sci-fi movie to distract myself, waiting for the pain to pass. It didn’t pass, but actually kept getting worse, the worst I’d ever felt. I’d never called an ambulance before, but I figured there’s a first time for everything. My wife ended up driving me to the hospital, where my doctor friend happened to be working in the emergency department, so they got me right in a room and gave me intravenous pain medication, which initially made me shiver convulsively (because it was cold, like ice in my veins, as they say) and then impelled me to hold forth expansively for several hours on a wide range of philosophical subjects as my wife patiently listened. At two that morning, the young surgeon removed my appendix by cutting three small holes in my belly and seeing his way around with a tiny camera fed onto a large HD screen, a procedure they call a laparoscopic appendectomy. (Incidentally, there seems to be some consensus now that the appendix does in fact play a useful role, basically boosting the immune system, though not an essential one).

The next few days were extremely unpleasant, and I won’t bore you with the details, but while I was recovering, I decided to read Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. I’d been meaning to read Latour for a few years, but I’d been so deeply immersed in reading music criticism and biographies for my dissertation that I hadn’t had much time for contemporary philosophy, though I always made time for James and Whitehead. As I read Latour’s book on my phone from a prone position, I texted extensive notes to myself detailing my reactions to his ideas in relation to Richard TarnasThe Passion of the Western Mind, which also deals with intellectual history, and which was also published in 1991. Perhaps I needed something difficult and controversial to take my mind off my infirmity, but I seem to have rather effortlessly written a short essay critiquing Latour’s book, which I found both fascinating and infuriating. Initially, I intended to post the piece to a listserve to which I subscribe, but as the piece grew, I decided it was simply too long for that forum. Next, I considered submitting it to an academic journal, but then I decided that I would have to do a lot more research on the dialogue around Latour that would take me away from the primary work of my book.

I had long resisted blogs. Even though I use Facebook and Instagram regularly, I had been harboring a barely conscious disdain for blogs as avenues of communication for people with no “real” outlet to talk narcissistically about themselves (as if Facebook isn’t susceptible to a similar criticism). While this is true in some cases, as I thought about it, I realized that I often read excellent blog posts linked from various news sites or shared by friends on Facebook, but I hadn’t really stopped to think about what differentiates an article in an established publication from a blog, and, for that matter, what differentiates a good blog from a bad one. I knew of a few friends I respected who blogged, so I decided to give it a try. Certainly the fact that I had written a piece with no easily definable outlet led me in this direction, though I had written those kinds of pieces before, many of them still lingering in the obscurity of my laptop’s hard drive. But, ultimately, I think the factor that made me decide to start a blog (and to join Twitter, which I had similarly resisted: @GrantMaxwell if you care to follow) was my operation.

The transformative encounter with mortality is an old trope, perhaps even a cliché, but one that it is not possible to comprehend the full force of until one has undergone it. As with marriage, having children, or earning a degree, having the experience of my body temporarily ceasing to function optimally as it had for more than three decades produced in me what Whitehead calls “that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference” (if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll notice this is one of my favorite quotes). Until I went through that completely out-of-the-blue “smack-down” from life, as it seemed to me, I had perhaps overly idealistically believed that if I wrote a really good book, it would be recognized without having to stoop to what I felt to be the drudgery in which successful writers usually engage. Now, however, while I still feel that writing books is the most important thing for a writer of books to focus on, I have come to understand that it is also important to “establish an online presence,” as they say, not cynically to hawk one’s wares on the side of the “internet superhighway” as we used to call it in the good old days, but to establish an intellectual community that is simply broader and more heterogeneous than it is possible to build by more conventional means in grad school and at conferences. Just in the last two weeks or so that I’ve been writing blog posts, I’ve reconnected with old colleagues and established some new and interesting lines of dialogue and debate.

If you’re at all familiar with the work of C.G. Jung, James Hillman, or Richard Tarnas, you’ll know that these three thinkers (and many others) see a great deal of value in the concept of formal causation, the idea that there are underlying formal or archetypal potentialities for meaning that can manifest in materially unconnected ways. Jung called this “acausal connecting principle” “synchronicity,” though as I argue in an article on Jung and Whitehead published by Archai: the Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, synchronicity is only “acausal” if we limit causality to the material and efficient varieties, which is what we generally think of when we speak of causation in the modern world. Furthermore, as these thinkers all argue, time is qualitative so that each moment has a particular constellation of archetypes that deeply inform and color what takes place in that moment. Bergson calls this qualitative aspect of temporality “duration.” Whereas science generally works on the assumption that time is linear, static, and quantitative, which is a necessary approach if experimental repeatability is to be considered a valid source of scientific proof, the other modes of thought based on formal and final causation understand that the world looks and feels very different to us at different moments, and that events seem to cluster temporally around certain archetypal nodes of potential meaning, which is the basis for the discipline of archetypal cosmology, largely initiated with the publication of Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche in 2006.

For me, the fact that I decided to cut the theoretical appendix from my book less than a week before my biological appendix was cut from my body is a strikingly meaningful coincidence that indicates that I am cutting out the inessential on several levels of significance. I was deeply attached to my theoretical appendix, which had started out as an introduction, because it was the summation of some primary insights I had gleaned from some of my favorite theorists, and I was resistant to cutting it down at all. But as a number of my mentors suggested in different valences, the transition from being a student, a doctoral candidate, to being a doctor of philosophy, is largely constituted in the shift from relying primarily on the work of others in the production of one’s work to feeling secure enough in one’s own intellectual authority to employ quotes and concepts from one’s influences at strategic points without allowing this explicit bricolage to overwhelm one’s own voice.

Just as with the threshold performed by my encounter with mortality, which can be understood intellectually in advance, but must be gone through to produce an affective transformation in one’s body, crossing the threshold from candidate to doctor seems to constitute a similar sort of shift that cannot be truly understood until one has undergone it. It appears to me that academic committees understand, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they cannot allow a candidate to cross this most important of academic thresholds until the candidate knows on a visceral level that he or she is an expert in his or her field, which is not something that can be feigned. It is not enough to be intellectually gifted or verbally articulate or performatively skilled, though these are all essential qualities. What the doctoral process does, more than anything else, is grant one the confidence justifiably to believe that one knows as much or more about one’s specific subject than almost anyone else in the world, which seems to me a worthy thing. I have many problems with academia, but I have come to feel, perhaps because I must having given a decade to this endeavor, that the process of doctoral study forges one as a writer and a thinker in a way that nothing else can.

It is almost exactly one month until my dissertation defense, and it feels like my entire being over the last decade has been increasingly concentrated and focused on that impending moment. I don’t expect receiving the “terminal degree” radically to transform me or my life, as the transformation has already largely taken place over these last years, but I do expect it to mediate a slight but highly significant affective shift which will mark the beginning of my next temporal phase. I’ll let you know how it looks from the other side.

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TED’s Censorship of Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock

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It’s unbelievable that TED, which claims a “radical openness” to novel ideas, has censored Rupert Sheldrake‘s and Graham Hancock’s fascinating and popular talks by removing them from its Youtube account, relegating them instead to an apparently unsearchable blog. TED’s claim that the two talks contain “serious factual errors that undermine TED’s commitment to good science” is simply not supportable if one takes the time to watch the talks (which are eighteen minutes each). I don’t know much about Hancock, but I enjoyed his presentation and I applaud his “call for . . . a new right to be recognized . . . the right of adult sovereignty over consciousness.” And Sheldrake’s ideas, while certainly unconventional, are far from unscientific unless we take science as fixed dogma, which is precisely what Sheldrake argues against. In fact, I’m struck by how careful both Sheldrake and Hancock are to frame their ideas as hypothetical, as speculative possibility about which more empirical inquiry should be done, and how blatantly TED ignores these rhetorical nuances.

According to Hancock, Sheldrake “is presently in India and hard to reach,” but Hancock has given a detailed and eloquent defense of his talk in the comments to the TED blog (while Kent Bye has traced a detailed history of how this censorship came about, also in the blog’s comments), so I won’t go into specifics here. What I will say is that this act of blatant censorship and then the “sleight-of-hand” denial of that censorship looks to me very much like one of many last desperate acts of a disenchanted (or “misenchanted” to use Matt Segall’s neologism) world view as the vast house of cards of rationality privileging scientific materialism begins to fall around us. Censorship doesn’t occur unless the ideas censored pose a real threat to the predominant belief system, so in a roundabout way, this incident seems to be an indication that discourse is heading in the right direction, that we’re perhaps even undergoing a collective “identity crisis” that may mediate a transition between world views. As Whitehead writes: “New epochs emerge with comparative suddenness” (Science and the Modern World, 1).

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An Unpleasant Introduction to Speculative Realism

I’ve just started looking into the relatively new philosophical movement of speculative realism after having immersed myself in older philosophy and music criticism for the last few years as I completed my dissertation. To this end, I thought I’d check out the blog of Levi Bryant, an editor of The Speculative Turn (along with Graham Harman), and apparently one of the movement’s leading theorists, in the hope that I’d learn something new and interesting. However, I was unpleasantly surprised to find his latest post, “There’s Only Bricolage,” which seems to me callously alienating and deeply contradictory.

There are a number of comments from others on Bryant’s post, and I’m surprised that no one has remarked on what seems to me a glaring inconsistency, though perhaps Bryant only approves positive comments. Put simply, I find it deeply ironic that Bryant so harshly condemns those who believe “that thought somehow follows deductively from a single premise or set of premises” and then turns around a few paragraphs later and calls anyone who doesn’t agree with his “single premise” that “there’s only bricolage” “assholes” and “ridiculously ignorant.” I think bricolage is a useful concept, and I certainly don’t believe that thought only follows from premises, but I also think that the premises we hold make a real difference in our relation to the world. William James and Alfred North Whitehead certainly believed that, and I don’t think they would appreciate being called “assholes.” As James particularly understood, the rejection of premises is itself still a premise, just as disbelief is still a kind of belief. James writes in The Will to Believe:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, “Do not decide, but leave the question open,” is itself a passional decision,—just like deciding yes or no,—and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth (2010, 13).

If I understand Bryant correctly, he describes “bricolage” as an activity with the potential to produce novelty partially through avoiding defining itself by adherence to one theorist’s supposedly complete and self-sufficient system, which appears closely related to the “passional decision” to “leave the question open” that James articulates. Of course no philosopher’s system is final and complete, but setting this debate up as a dualistic, either/or decision between dogmatism based on fixed premises on the one hand and a hodgepodge assemblage of entities on the other hand is absurdly simplistic. Isn’t it obvious that genuine novelty is produced by the negotiation between different, seemingly incompatible premises? Yes, we cannot escape holding premises as soon as we speak, and yes, we are all bricoleurs attempting to birth new entities through the Frankensteinian, “aleatory multiplicity” of our influences, both conceptual and affective.

However, having argued with Bryant’s ideas, my primary issue remains with his rhetoric. Shouldn’t philosophical discourse be oriented towards persuading others of our views rather than alienating anyone who disagrees with us? In my opinion, it’s best to avoid calling people names, especially if their only sin is thinking differently than us about a relatively esoteric philosophical concept. Bryant closes his vitriolic assertion that “there’s only bricolage” by implying that we should be “generous” in our philosophical endeavors. It seems to me that he would benefit greatly from taking his own advice.

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Discursive Networks and the Epistemological Gap in Latour and Tarnas

Tarnas

Matt Segall has written another insightful and eloquent post continuing our conversation about Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, academic discourse, networks, technology, science, politics, archetypes, affect, translation, anxiety, nature, religion, Gaia, climate change, and more.

I know Matt admires Tarnas’ work as much as I do, so I’m glad he clarified the vertical, hierarchical metaphor for Latour’s and Tarnas’ respective audiences as “misleading.” Continuing our discussion of horizontal networks, I’d suggest that perhaps a more accurate way to describe Latour, as an academic specialist speaking to other academics, would be as writing from the center out, while Tarnas, as a specialist academic speaking to the educated public and other academics, could be characterized as writing from the middle in, or perhaps from a different center out. I’d heard that Latour was apparently the tenth most cited academic in 2007, which is certainly impressive, but I wasn’t aware of Francois Cusset’s book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, which looks fascinating. I love the passage from Cusset’s book that Matt reproduces about a meeting of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, which is directly up my alley. I would give a lot to have witnessed that awkward sounding summit, particularly as I argue in my forthcoming book that, although Dylan is not an academic philosopher by any means, he is consistently and profoundly philosophical in his interviews, lyrics, and writing in a way that, I suggest, is deeply sympathetic with the philosophies of William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Richard Tarnas.

I’m not sure I follow Deleuze and Guattari’s rationale for claiming that “rhizomes have their own, even more rigid, despotism and hierarchy,” as from my (admittedly limited) knowledge of these theorists, it seems that rhizomes push directly against a vertical, “aborescent” model of knowledge, rather finding their exemplification in something like the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer. Perhaps Matt could illuminate this issue further. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the passage Matt quotes from Latour’s Science in Action, which suggests that “the word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places–the knots and nodes,” seems somewhat to contradict Latour’s statement four years later in We Have Never Been Modern that “the defence of marginality presupposes the existence of a totalitarian centre. But if the centre and its totality are illusions, acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous” (124). I acknowledge that a possible avenue of escape from this seeming contradiction could be to argue that the “knots and nodes” of networks are not “totalitarian,” but fluid multiplicities of human and nonhuman (institutional, conceptual, technological) agencies (a supposition I push against below). But Latour still seems to suggest, if we can judge from the specific language of this translation, that the “centre” is an “illusion” connected but still distinguishable from its supposed “totality.”

However, behind all of this theorizing, as far as I can tell, is Latour’s ingenious defense of the central nodes of discursive power as not really central, which seems to me a rather subtle justification for Latour’s own location in that center. Matt writes that Latour’s “goal has never been to relativize the natural or cultural power of certain concentrations of scientific or academic knowledge,” but this is precisely what Latour seems to do in his erasure of “a totalitarian centre” and his suggestion that “acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous.” To my mind, Latour is arguing, as we all do, from his affective “way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos,” as William James puts it in Pragmatism (1). Latour clearly feels comfortable in the main streams of academic discourse; his proclivities make him an ideal candidate to perform as a central node within the larger node of academia, so of course he prefers the center; it’s the site of his admirable success. And of course he wants to erase the postmodern privileging of the margin at least partially because it serves him to do so. He likes the center and he seems implicitly to want to maintain that center by pretending that it is not a center. To my mind, this is like claiming that Manhattan or San Francisco are not totalitarian centers of multi-leveled networks. To follow this thread, while it is true that the metropolis is interlaced with marginal immigrant deli workers, dish washers, and people without homes, the fact is that to live comfortably in that central cultural node requires a lot more money (and thus influence) than less compact areas of the geographical network. In this analogy, Latour is like a man born into intellectual wealth who claims that he’s just a regular guy, that any of those immigrant workers or homeless people could have what he has if they just tried harder. This seems to me a case of unconscious academic privilege. I honestly don’t begrudge Latour that privilege—someone will always be at the center while others are on the margins—but to suggest that the center and, thus, the margins are “illusions” seems a clever, perhaps unconscious way to reify intellectual class distinctions: “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

In contrast, the archetypal cosmological perspective championed by Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche is without doubt marginal as far as the main streams of academia are concerned, which is fine for now as long as we can all agree that there is in fact a discursive margin that is systematically and unquestioningly excluded and, worse, trivialized by those at the centers of intellectual authority (though Tarnas is central to his own countercultural academic node, albeit a much smaller one than mainstream academia). As Tarnas often notes, the archetypal cosmological perspective is “the gold-standard of superstition” for our culture even as many educated and intelligent people outside the main streams of academia find great value in it. It seems to me that Latour’s denial of a totalitarian center (if we can define intellectual totality as the absolute exclusion of certain modes of thought) is the most subtle and clever way yet devised implicitly to reify the dominance of the characteristic postmodern “view from nowhere,” as Sean Kelly puts it (in a comment on Matt’s last post, derived from Thomas Nagel, I assume), even as Latour explicitly seeks to call this view into question.

Wikipedia has a nice summary of this “view from nowhere”: “analysis that misinforms the audience by creating the impression that opposing parties to an issue have equal correctness and validity, even when the truth of their claims is mutually exclusive” (under entry for “Lie”). I actually think this operation, taken in a more positive light, is the essence of the integral perspective, synthesizing seemingly incommensurable modes (which is why I suggested “view from everywhere” in a comment on Matt’s last post). But Latour seems to argue this view in its negative sense, suggesting that the centers and margins of intellectual discourse are merely different concentrations of continuously networked relations, when in fact there is an impassable epistemological gap (which perhaps fractally reiterates the epistemological gap between mind and world) fortifying the main streams of academia, based at bottom only on material and efficient causation and excluding modes of thought that accept the validity of formal and final causation in addition to material-efficient causation. This gap exists less in the individuals who form these networks than in the agency of the academic institutions themselves, which are intellectually conservative by nature, even as they tend toward political progressivism. Like corporations (formally recognized as “people” by the Supreme Court in “Citizen’s United”), universities are not necessarily benevolent agents.

I know many mainstream academics (I’m ostensibly one, despite the fact that I do my best to straddle the epistemological gap) who are open to modes of thought in their personal lives (religious, mystical, archetypal, teleological) that they would never admit to in their professional capacities, because the university seems to act as something like a multifocal Foucauldian “panopticon”; academics enforce the epistemological gap on one another because they (rightly) fear the judgment of their colleagues, who, in a closed, vicious circle, in turn enforce this judgment based on their own fear of being judged. No individual is the totalitarian emperor of this “misenchanted” epistemology, but the institutional structure of review committees as “guardians of the threshold” for attaining a doctoral degree or tenure effectively creates an intellectually totalitarian climate of extreme discursive caution not far removed from that of the Catholic Church (which perhaps makes sense given Latour’s Catholicism). This seems to be why Freud is canonical in the humanities and social sciences, while Jung, whom Freud initially designated his “crown prince” and “heir” (in The Freud-Jung Letters, if I remember correctly), is generally considered passé and overly credulous in “postmodern” circles. Forget Joseph Campbell, who had the audacity to speak about archetypes on television in a way that a popular audience could understand, thereby undermining academia’s primary tool for reasserting its authority: rhetorical difficulty. In my discipline, English, formal and final causation (which can manifest as archetypes, synchronicity, and teleology) are accepted, even celebrated in fictional narrative or as ironic rhetorical device, but are implicitly and categorically suppressed when brought to bear on “the real world” outside fictional and rhetorical fancy. The correlation of two materially unconnected entities (for instance, something in nature and something in human experience, the scarab-like beetle knocking at the window as the analysand describes her dream of a scarab) can be meaningful, even central in a novel, a form in which the primary literary trope of the “symbol” often performs this very function. However, locating this sort of connection in extra-textual experience (as does synchronicity) is anathema. In fact, I see literature and literary studies as keeping the flame of premodern epistemological modes alive in a “misenchanted” modernity, even as most of its practitioners are unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge this secret at the heart of our discipline.

However, having defined this stark distinction between academic center and margin, between Freud and Jung, between Latour and Tarnas, Matt and I appear to agree that Latour’s evocation of nonhuman agency pushes academic discourse towards the Jungian-Tarnasian archetypal hypothesis, which seems to me a paradigmatic articulation for modernity (along with Hegel, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and others) of agency that exceeds human consciousness. Perhaps the way to produce an integration of these two modes is not, as Latour does, to erase or deny their incommensurability, but to delve deeply into the genuine differences, to push those differences to the point of paradox, and then push through the paradox until it opens into a deeper kind of coherence and commensurability.

I deeply appreciate Latour’s style, and I agree with Matt when he writes: “I don’t think in this case aesthetics is just the icing on the conceptual cake.” Style and substance are indeed deeply imbricated; as with Whitehead, the ideas themselves are inseparable from the language in which they are expressed. My question to Matt (or anyone else who cares to comment) is this: How can we produce a reconciliation of the modes of thought, both conceptual and rhetorical, exemplified by Latour (and Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, et al.) with the modes of thought articulated by Tarnas (and Sean Kelly, Stan Grof, Keiron Le Grice, Jorge Ferrer, et al.)?

Also, very briefly on the technology issue, I agree with most of what Matt says.  When I called technology “neutral,” I didn’t mean that it’s without agency (an understandable misreading); I meant that it’s morally neutral, or that these “extensions of man” (to employ McLuhan’s rather antiquated phrase) are morally ambiguous just like the human individuals and cultures from which they emerge. I think Matt’s right that we’re inseparable from our technology, and I actually think that Gebser would agree with this sentiment. For instance, perspective in visual art can be seen as a technological innovation that has become a part of us, endemic to the way we see the world. Human sentience itself, which I suspect probably arose coextensively with language, can be considered a kind of technology. It seems to me that technologies start outside of us and then quickly become so pervasive that they disappear from our sight. Like psychedelics, we take technologies into ourselves and they actively transform and mediate our engagement with experience, whether of the transcendent heights or the darkest depths. For instance, consider the radically different affective attitudes that are produced by the different structural arrangements of blogs, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These four types of “social media” enforce different aspects of our identities. But that’s a conversation for another day.

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