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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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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Defining My Musical Aesthetic

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My Last few posts have been on the heavier theoretical side, so I thought I’d lighten things up a bit and describe my musical aesthetic. I’ve just recently started singing, writing, and playing guitar with a band again after a two-year hiatus to finish my dissertation, and it’s great to be back in action. These last two years have allowed me a lot of time to reflect on the previous fifteen years I spent consistently playing with bands, rehearsing weekly, and playing hundreds of shows in a way that wasn’t possible while I was in the midst of constantly negotiating band dynamics, dealing with booking agents, lugging my equipment around, harassing my friends to come out to shows, and psyching myself up to sing in front of dozens, sometimes even hundreds of people. I’ve particularly had a lot of time to think about what it means to be a rock and roll musician as I’ve spent these last couple of years writing about music. My book, which I’m almost finished adapting from my dissertation, is tentatively titled How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll. I read the early careers of these three genre-defining artists from a theoretical perspective based on the work of William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and others.

I wrote my first song, “One-Sided Love,” when I was ten, and I think the song has actually held up pretty well.  I believe I wrote my next song when I was fifteen, and I started to think of myself as a songwriter when I was sixteen or seventeen. I’ve played with three major bands: The Arthurs from Austin, Texas (Sixties British and Elephant 6 inspired psychedelic pop, opened for My Morning Jacket, the Shins, and Of Montreal), The Pages from Brooklyn, NY (a weird amalgam of Beatlesque pop, country music, jam band, avant garde jazz, and hard rock that we referred to as “skiffle funk,” as if that explained anything), and The Morning Pages, also from NYC (a roots rock band that got within spitting distance of the big time). These three musical collectives have all influenced the development of my musical sensibility in profound ways. Although I’ve dabbled in a lot of styles over the years, my tastes seem to have settled on what can basically be described as roots music, though I see my aesthetic as less defined by genre and more by a set of qualities that cut across some pretty disparate styles of music.

Some of the musicians that exemplify my aesthetic include Waylon Jennings, Bob Marley, Tinariwen, JJ Cale, Jonathan Fire*Eater, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Willie Nelson, The Grateful Dead (particularly in the early seventies), Neil Young (particularly with Crazy Horse), and Bob Dylan (particularly with the Band and the Rolling Thunder Review). This may seem like a slightly strange list, ranging from country and indie rock to North African music and reggae, but what they all share is a devotion to depth: of groove, of lyric, and of musical nuance. This is far from the only kind of music I like or listen to, but these are the artists that trace the contours of my ideal sound.

The musical element that Waylon and Marley and Tinariwen and JF*E all share is a highly distinctive rhythmic feel, though these rhythms are all very different from one another, with relatively few chord changes. This propulsive simplicity allows the musicians and audience to enter a kind of ecstatic, trance-like state that music with more active, vertical chord progressions and melodies vigorously disrupts. I’ve been in bands with plenty of musicians who prefer that mode—I even used to prefer it myself when I was younger—but over the years I’ve gravitated towards the horizontal mode. I think of the vertical mode as naïvely innocent and the horizontal mode as maturely road-worn, but that might just be a result of my own personal trajectory. I want music that impels me to move my body in reserved and complex ways. Think Richard Manuel or Levon Helm of the Band, shoulders pumping at slanted angles to their pelvis in a sinuous roll, literally a “hip” form of motivity equally removed from the angry head-banging of metal, the graceful swaying of country ballads, and the puppet-like jerk of eighties synth-pop, all of which have their center of gravity in the shoulders and chest. By contrast, the kind of music I generally prefer has its center of gravity in the pelvis. It’s basically rock and roll, though the original meaning of that term defined the “hip” feel, while later permutations took other elements of the genre in different rhythmic directions. Thus, I would argue that the artists mentioned above, though all from explicitly different genres, are the true inheritors of rock and roll, perhaps even more than Nirvana or Radiohead, both of whom I also love, but which I would classify more as “rock” than the syncopated, body-wiggling feel of those other artists. As far as I’m concerned, the Black Keys are the first widely successful “rock” band that’s emerged in a long time that actually possesses something of original rock and roll’s feel.

Just to be clear, I’m not against genre distinctions; they’re useful and they evolve through a complex process of public consensus and record company and radio-station marketing strategies. But, ultimately, I’d like to be able to discover new music based on this criterion of “feel” rather than of genre.

The other two elements that constitute my aesthetic can be described as depth of content, both lyrical and musical. In the case of the singers, to which, as a singer myself, I’m particularly attuned, these two qualities of words and phrasing go hand in hand. And like the feel described above, I prefer lyrics that are evocative without being too specific, philosophical without being pretentious, emotive without being dramatic. Think Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Waylon’s “This Time,” or Marley’s “Bad Card,” though most of the songs by these three artists have a similar lyrical quality. I like songs that can be sung by many different singers, songs that contain universal truths or paint familiar situations, but without pandering like most new country, for instance. My favorite kind of songs are extremely simple and pure, the kind of songs that sound like they could be sung around a campfire a hundred years from now, as my old guitar player once said. This simplicity of composition combined with subtle rhythmic sophistication creates a palette for the singers and players to express the full force of their personalities by paradoxically putting their egoic consciousness aside and letting the song and the groove manifest through them. I like singers who completely own the words, who know the song is great enough that they can relax and experiment with the melody, draw out phrases and play around the beat. Willie Nelson, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan are all masters of this style of singing.

Let me know if you have suggestions for music that fits these criteria. I’d love to add more artists to my small musical pantheon.

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