New Materialism, Ecology, and Philosophy of Mind Readings
by Adam Robbert
I’m assigning myself a reading list to work through over the summer. There are no doubt other books of interest that will cross my path between now and next fall, but these books (listed below) are either already on my shelf waiting to be read or are on the way from Amazon as we speak. I’ll be reading these books within the context of my ongoing three ecologies project (for which this blog gets its subtitle) in the hopes that I can continue to carve away at some of the details and hopefully put them into print.
I’m at different stages of learning with each of these texts. For example, I’ve never read any of Karen Barad’s work, but it is my second or third time reading Thompson’s book Mind in Life, a text I want to re-read it in the context of some of the other books on the list. (Matt Segall has recently provided a helpful overview to a chapter in Terrence Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature that seems to indicate a strong overlap with the Thompson book, an overlap strong enough to call into question why Thompson’s book is not cited in Deacon’s, despite the shared territory.)
Having spent most of the past year reading material that is — under a strict definition — philosophy, it will be nice to dig into Evolution in Four Dimensions which has been sitting neglected on my shelf for almost a year now, and to see how it connects with or intervenes on my philosophical investigations. The ways in which biology, mathematics, and ontology continue to converge are of great interest to me, and I am hoping this book will add some helpful commentary in this regard.
I’ve almost finished Kauffman’s book Reinventing the Sacred already, which will provide good source material to dialogue with Thompson and Deacon’s work, and will also provide an interesting platform, from a mathematical perspective, to engage my interests in object-oriented philosophy (indeed, Kauffman’s focus on the importance of ontological emergence allows a solid opening to consider him a quasi-object-oriented scientist).
I’m also on the look out for more texts in this vein (which complements previous research I’ve done on Richard Lewontin’s genetics, Susan Oyama’s developmental systems theory, and the enactivist paradigm more generally). If readers are aware of good sources in these areas feel free to suggest them in the comments area or email me. I would be particularly interested to know if there are works in the eliminativist branch of biology and cognitive science that dialogue with any of these texts directly.
Here is my short list:
Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life
Authors: Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb
Ideas about heredity and evolution are undergoing a revolutionary change. New findings in molecular biology challenge the gene-centered version of Darwinian theory according to which adaptation occurs only through natural selection of chance DNA variations. In Evolution in Four Dimensions, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb argue that there is more to heredity than genes. They trace four “dimensions” in evolution — four inheritance systems that play a role in evolution: genetic, epigenetic (or non-DNA cellular transmission of traits), behavioral, and symbolic (transmission through language and other forms of symbolic communication). These systems, they argue, can all provide variations on which natural selection can act. Evolution in Four Dimensions offers a richer, more complex view of evolution than the gene-based, one-dimensional view held by many today. The new synthesis advanced by Jablonka and Lamb makes clear that induced and acquired changes also play a role in evolution.After discussing each of the four inheritance systems in detail, Jablonka and Lamb “put Humpty Dumpty together again” by showing how all of these systems interact. They consider how each may have originated and guided evolutionary history and they discuss the social and philosophical implications of the four-dimensional view of evolution. Each chapter ends with a dialogue in which the authors engage the contrarieties of the fictional (and skeptical) “I.M.,” or Ifcha Mistabra — Aramaic for “the opposite conjecture” — refining their arguments against I.M.’s vigorous counterarguments. The lucid and accessible text is accompanied by artist-physician Anna Zeligowski’s lively drawings, which humorously and effectively illustrate the authors’ points.
Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind
Author: Evan Thompson
How is life related to the mind? The question has long confounded philosophers and scientists, and it is this so-called explanatory gap between biological life and consciousness that Evan Thompson explores in Mind in Life.
Thompson draws upon sources as diverse as molecular biology, evolutionary theory, artificial life, complex systems theory, neuroscience, psychology, Continental Phenomenology, and analytic philosophy to argue that mind and life are more continuous than has previously been accepted, and that current explanations do not adequately address the myriad facets of the biology and phenomenology of mind. Where there is life, Thompson argues, there is mind: life and mind share common principles of self-organization, and the self-organizing features of mind are an enriched version of the self-organizing features of life. Rather than trying to close the explanatory gap, Thompson marshals philosophical and scientific analyses to bring unprecedented insight to the nature of life and consciousness. This synthesis of phenomenology and biology helps make Mind in Life a vital and long-awaited addition to his landmark volume The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (coauthored with Eleanor Rosch and Francisco Varela).
Endlessly interesting and accessible, Mind in Life is a groundbreaking addition to the fields of the theory of the mind, life science, and phenomenology.
Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter
Author: Terrence Deacon
As physicists work toward completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The “Theory of Everything” that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness, and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what we are. These most immediate and incontrovertible phenomena are left unexplained by the natural sciences because they lack the physical properties—such as mass, momentum, charge, and location—that are assumed to be necessary for something to have physical consequences in the world. This is an unacceptable omission. We need a “theory of everything” that does not leave it absurd that we exist.
Incomplete Nature begins by accepting what other theories try to deny: that, although mental contents do indeed lack these material-energetic properties, they are still entirely products of physical processes and have an unprecedented kind of causal power that is unlike anything that physics and chemistry alone have so far explained. Paradoxically, it is the intrinsic incompleteness of these semiotic and teleological phenomena that is the source of their unique form of physical influence in the world. Incomplete Nature meticulously traces the emergence of this special causal capacity from simple thermodynamics to self-organizing dynamics to living and mental dynamics, and it demonstrates how specific absences (or constraints) play the critical causal role in the organization of physical processes that generate these properties.
The book’s radically challenging conclusion is that we are made of these specific absenses—such stuff as dreams are made on—and that what is not immediately present can be as physically potent as that which is. It offers a figure/background shift that shows how even meanings and values can be understood as legitimate components of the physical world. 12 black-and-white illustrations
Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning
Author: Karen Barad
Meeting the Universe Halfway is an ambitious book with far-reaching implications for numerous fields in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In this volume, Karen Barad, theoretical physicist and feminist theorist, elaborates her theory of agential realism. Offering an account of the world as a whole rather than as composed of separate natural and social realms, agential realism is at once a new epistemology, ontology, and ethics. The starting point for Barad’s analysis is the philosophical framework of quantum physicist Niels Bohr. Barad extends and partially revises Bohr’s philosophical views in light of current scholarship in physics, science studies, and the philosophy of science as well as feminist, poststructuralist, and other critical social theories. In the process, she significantly reworks understandings of space, time, matter, causality, agency, subjectivity, and objectivity.
In an agential realist account, the world is made of entanglements of “social” and “natural” agencies, where the distinction between the two emerges out of specific intra-actions. Intra-activity is an inexhaustible dynamism that configures and reconfigures relations of space-time-matter. In explaining intra-activity, Barad reveals questions about how nature and culture interact and change over time to be fundamentally misguided. And she reframes understanding of the nature of scientific and political practices and their “interrelationship.” Thus she pays particular attention to the responsible practice of science, and she emphasizes changes in the understanding of political practices, critically reworking Judith Butler’s influential theory of performativity. Finally, Barad uses agential realism to produce a new interpretation of quantum physics, demonstrating that agential realism is more than a means of reflecting on science; it can be used to actually do science.
Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion
Author: Stuart Kauffman
Consider the complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize that it evolved with no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own in the changing biosphere?
In this bold and fresh look at science and religion, complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman argues that the qualities of divinity that we revere—creativity, meaning, purposeful action—are properties of the universe that can be investigated methodically. He offers stunning evidence for this idea in an abundance of fields, from cell biology to the philosophy of mind, and uses it to find common ground between belief systems often at odds with one another.
A daring and ambitious argument for a new understanding of natural divinity, Reinventing the Sacred challenges readers both scientifically and philosophically.