Panpsychism and Eliminativism
In his essay “Panpsychism And/Or Eliminativism” (which I highly recommend everyone read) Steven Shaviro writes:
Beyond this, the real problem with Meillassoux’s and Brassier’s accounts is that they both assume that matter in itself — as it exists outside of the correlation — must simply be passive and inert, without meaning or value. But isn’t this assumption itself a consequence of the bifurcation of nature? It is only an anthropocentric prejudice to assume that things cannot be lively and active and mindful on their own, without us. Why should we suppose that these are qualities that only we possess, and that we merely project them upon the “universe of things” outside us? Eliminativist arguments thus start out by presupposing human exceptionalism, even when their explicit aim is to humble and humiliate this exceptionalism. If you take it for granted that values and meanings are nothing but subjective human impositions, then it isn’t hard to conclude that they are ultimately illusory, for human beings as well as for other entities.
I have never been able to understand why attributing qualities such as “passive” and “inert” – these are still qualities - to nonhuman (and indeed, nonbiological) entities is suppose to be seen as more accurate, more scientific, or more philosophical. Shaviro, in the above quote, notes Whitehead’s “bifurcation of nature,” a phrase Whitehead used to describe the post-Cartesian dualism in thought (between, for example, primary and secondary qualities) which suggests that it is only with the advent of the human that anything like “meaning-making” occurs. The universe, in the bifurcated view, is a hollow, non-experiencing desert of activity, it is the human who, through their need for meaning, projects a series of historically contingent fabrications onto the extant cosmos.
Lets take a little journey – some of which will be rudimentary, but necessary for our aims. If we fast forward a few hundred years, and steep ourselves in a little basic biology and cognitive ethology, then we find that Descartes’ position was greatly mistaken. The evidence quite clearly indicates that the so-called “higher animals” (which to me is more like code for “the ones more like us”) also inhabit their own species-specific experiential domains. Furthermore, there is also evidence to suggest that complex organisms not only have a distinct sense-experience relative to their morphology, but it is also quite likely that individual organisms have their own psychology, and their own unique biographical history that shapes them – just as a human being experiences formative events that shape their psyches throughout their lifetimes. In 2011, I don’t think there is anything controversial about any of these claims.
If we take this trajectory a step further, we also find that unicellular creatures, such as an amoeba, also possess an “experience” of their environment. In cell biology, this has everything to do with the cell membrane – the skin around the cell which acts not only as a barrier, producing a differential between the “internal” world of the organism and the “external” world of the environment, but also acts as a zone of contact and interpretation. Again, any 6th grader who has taken biology already knows this.
The ability to reproduce this differentiation between the “internal” and the “external” is called “autopoiesis.” This zone of contact, which is always in a simultaneous state of production, reproduction, and decay, always interacts indirectly with its environment (we can use the term advisedly provided that we understand that the organism-environment coupling is a slippery and complex retro-activity). Thus, when Francisco Varela or Evan Thompson talk about “structural coupling” they are referring to the manner in which there is always a mediated interval between entities, and between entities and their environments.
Through the process of structural coupling, causality between an autopoietic unity (e.g., a cell) and it’s neighboring cells or environments, is always indirect. Environments cannot “cause” an organism to behave in a certain way, rather, causation is, again, mediated by the specific constitution and activity of the cell or organism which participate creatively in the unfolding causal chain of events. Such structurally coupled interactions cascade across a hierarchy of different levels (e.g., the cells in my body exist as part of the ecology of my body, just as my body exists within the ecology of San Francisco). Driving more to the point, it is the organism’s sensori-motor appartus (it’s somatic structuring) that “enacts” a particular state and set of variables from a more complex field of activity. In other words, at every level of biology, experience is occurring, and, not only is it occurring, but it is physically participating in the enaction of a life-world.
There is still nothing terribly controversial about the above two claims. Further, there is nothing anthropomorphic about either claim. Thus when we take in the evidence brought forth from both cognitive ethology and cell biology (we can choose less exotic versions of biology than enactivism and still come to the same conclusion, mind you) it makes perfect sense that human’s possess a deep experiential nature – its inherent to any biological entity. Humans are simply a different form, existing along a continuum, of experience-bearing organisms.
This is where things start to get murky, but we can, I think, breach the life-matter barrier without resorting to wishful thinking or anthropomorphism, and still see that non-biological matter also possesses a capacity for experience. It may be helpful to add here that, in addition to using the language of enactivism, we can also look to semiotics as a way of understanding the organisms relations to itself, other organisms, and non-biological entities. Biochemist Jesper Hoffmeyer in his work Signs of Meaning in the Universe suggests that “biosemiotics” is a prevalent feature of any living entity. Hoffmeyer, in similar fashion to Varela and Thompson’s enactivism, suggests that organisms not only function through processes of “endosemiotics” – by which he means that the cells in your body are acting semiotically through processes of chemical signification and interpretation – but also that organisms inhabit “semiotic niches” which form an entangled symbol-interpreting mass across the Earth. Thus, in addition to a global ecosphere, there is, according to Hoffmeyer, a global “semiosphere.” (I’m not shy to point out that my phrase “knowledge ecology” has much to do with my reading of both Thompson and Hoffmeyer – a point which also implies that, though I don’t ultimately agree with Brassier and Meillassoux, I find their presence in the semiotic ecosystem valuable – but more on that later).
Lets get back to Whitehead and the problem of matter and experience. Recall that for Whitehead the post-Cartesian landscape is populated by a troublesome species of thought he calls the bifurcation of nature. In the beginning of Process and Reality Whitehead readily labels this position as “incoherent” and subsequently proposes his philosophy of organism. Whitehead’s ontological commitments are different than both Brassier’s and Meillassoux’s (at least I’m confident this is the case for the former, less so with the latter). As the name implies, the philosophy of organism takes the organism as it’s model for the universe, rather than the interness of matter. Whitehead’s organic realism thus views atoms, protons, and electrons as entities that are more like integrally functioning organic unities than the bits, bytes, or blocks of some scientific naturalisms. Here Whitehead, I think, makes the simpler – and more elegant – of two choices. Rather than trying to figure out how a non-feeling, non-experiencing cosmos can emerge as the subjectivity of the human, Whitehead sees feeling (“drops of experience”) as central to existence itself.
Whitehead’s actual occasions are each throbbing centers of experience that, when aggregated together in physical, chemical, and biological processes, produce a greater depth of experience, an increased mode of valuation. Thus, to my mind, the move attempted by the eliminative materialist is akin to a process that Michael Polanyi called “the epicyclic structure of belief.” In his essay “The Stability of Beliefs” Polanyi writes:
To the stabilising power of circularity we may add secondly the capacity of a well developed interpretative framework to supply secondary elaborations to its beliefs which will cover almost any conceivable eventuality, however embarrassing this may appear at first sight. Scientific theories which possess this self-expanding capacity are sometimes described as epicyclical, in allusion to the epicycles that were used in the Ptolomean and Copernican theory to represent planetary motions in terms of uniform circular motions. All major interpretative frameworks have an epicyclical structure which supplies a reserve of subsidiary explanations for difficult situations.
It is in this sense that I believe the eliminativist is performing a kind of Ptolemaic turn towards trying to eliminate experience – despite the gyre this puts subjectivity in – and despite the increasing evidence that it seems we live, however dimly, in a panexperientialist universe. Thus I suggest that meaning is a factor of any set of relations, and is not, contra Brassier, an exclusively human projection. Rather, the universe overflows with meanings-for in every possible direction. I am not troubled by the lack of meaning in the universe, I am troubled by the opposite – the tremendous realization that the cosmos is dripping wet with meaning; a vast, and sensual ecology of feeling and experience . For this reason I find Whitehead’s position more convincing than, definitely Brassier’s, and, probably Meillassoux’s.
Now, as I mentioned, I take an ecological approach to all things philosophical. This means a few things we should keep in mind, and they come standard issue if you are a) a pragmatic pluralist or b) an integral theorist. I am quite comfortable with promoting an ecological diversity of knowledge groups – I truly think this is the way forward. By this I mean that we ought to be encouraging epistemological, ontological, and methodological diversity. The problems to which thought should be responding to today are legion and there is no monopoly on right solutions held by any camp, tribe, association, or movement. Diversity is a healthy sign of an active and robust knowledge ecology.
However, this doesn’t mean, from an ecological point of view, that “everything goes” no, no. Interaction differentiates and individuates and I encourage debate and disagreement – provided that its done for a worthwhile aim. Thus I disagree with folks like Brassier and Meillassoux, even as I have a tremendous respect for two people that are clearly demonstrating an enormous amount of rigor and are, as best they can (and, to be sure, they are much further along than I in terms of articulating their ideas), forwarding a meaningful description of the cosmos (yes, it still bears meaning, even if it is the meaning-of-no-meaning).
All of this is to say that I think Shaviro is on the right track, and that I very much look forward to how these conversations continue to take shape.