Abstract II: Seizing an Alternative: 10th International Whitehead Conference

April 7, 2015 § 13 Comments

tumblr_md92r6MwUf1qzngato1_1280[Image: Kohei Nawa]

Below is the second of my two abstract for this year’s Whitehead conference in Claremont.

Track: Journey of the Universe and Inclusive History as A Context of Meaning

Title: Appearance in Time: Whitehead and von Uexküll on Aisthēsis in Evolutionary Process

Author: Adam Robbert

Abstract: What is the significance of aisthēsis in the context of evolutionary process? The central claim of my talk is that an ecological understanding of aisthēsis—that is, of the plural modes by which species perceive and engage their surroundings—is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. In other words, my argument is that we have to understand that which appears as meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. To support this claim, I draw on the works of Alfred North Whitehead and Jakob von Uexküll to offer a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of ecological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of values, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down. Further, beyond suggesting the importance of aisthēsis for all species, I conclude by noting, following Whitehead, that aisthēsis connects each organism with a field of action, a semantic topography that ingresses upon the evolution of species in the mode of inherited forms. This ingression demonstrates that, while the real cannot be reduced to appearance, it is nevertheless shaped in part by the exchange of appearances coalesced in evolutionary process.

Time and Events

March 24, 2015 § 6 Comments

[Image: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji]

I just came across Massimo Pigliucci’s interesting review of Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin’s book The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. There are more than a few Whiteheadian themes explored throughout the review, including Unger and Smolin’s (U&S) view that time should be read as an abstraction from events and that the “laws” of the universe are better conceptualized as habits or contingent causal connections secured by the ongoingness of those events rather than as eternal, abstract formalisms. (This entangling of laws with phenomena, of events with time, is one of the ways we can think towards an ecological metaphysics.)

But what I am particularly interested in is the short discussion on Platonism and mathematical realism. I sometimes think of mathematical realism as the view that numbers, and thus the abstract formalisms they create, are real, mind-independent entities, and that, given this view, mathematical equations are discovered (i.e., they actually exist in the world) rather than created (i.e., humans made them up to fill this or that pragmatic need). The review makes it clear, though, that this definition doesn’t push things far enough for the mathematical realist. Instead, the mathematical realist argues for not just the mind-independent existence of numbers but also their nature-independence—math as independent not just of all knowers but of all natural phenomena, past, present, or future.

U&S present an alternative to mathematical realisms of this variety that I find compelling and more consistent with the view that laws are habits and that time is an abstraction from events. Here’s the reviewer’s take on U&S’s argument (the review starts with a quote from U&S and then unpacks it a bit):

“The third idea is the selective realism of mathematics. (We use realism here in the sense of relation to the one real natural world, in opposition to what is often described as mathematical Platonism: a belief in the real existence, apart from nature, of mathematical entities.) Now dominant conceptions of what the most basic natural science is and can become have been formed in the context of beliefs about mathematics and of its relation to both science and nature. The laws of nature, the discerning of which has been the supreme object of science, are supposed to be written in the language of mathematics.” (p. xii)

But they are not, because there are no “laws” and because mathematics is a human (very useful) invention, not a mysterious sixth sense capable of probing a deeper reality beyond the empirical. This needs some unpacking, of course. Let me start with mathematics, then move to the issue of natural laws.

I was myself, until recently, intrigued by mathematical Platonism [8]. It is a compelling idea, which makes sense of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” as Eugene Wigner famously put it [9]. It is a position shared by a good number of mathematicians and philosophers of mathematics. It is based on the strong gut feeling that mathematicians have that they don’t invent mathematical formalisms, they “discover” them, in a way analogous to what empirical scientists do with features of the outside world. It is also supported by an argument analogous to the defense of realism about scientific theories and advanced by Hilary Putnam: it would be nothing short of miraculous, it is suggested, if mathematics were the arbitrary creation of the human mind, and yet time and again it turns out to be spectacularly helpful to scientists [10].

But there are, of course, equally (more?) powerful counterarguments, which are in part discussed by Unger in the first part of the book. To begin with, the whole thing smells a bit too uncomfortably of mysticism: where, exactly, is this realm of mathematical objects? What is its ontological status? Moreover, and relatedly, how is it that human beings have somehow developed the uncanny ability to access such realm? We know how we can access, however imperfectly and indirectly, the physical world: we evolved a battery of sensorial capabilities to navigate that world in order to survive and reproduce, and science has been a continuous quest for expanding the power of our senses by way of more and more sophisticated instrumentation, to gain access to more and more (and increasingly less relevant to our biological fitness!) aspects of the world.

Indeed, it is precisely this analogy with science that powerfully hints to an alternative, naturalistic interpretation of the (un)reasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Math too started out as a way to do useful things in the world, mostly to count (arithmetics) and to measure up the world and divide it into manageable chunks (geometry). Mathematicians then developed their own (conceptual, as opposed to empirical) tools to understand more and more sophisticated and less immediate aspects of the world, in the process eventually abstracting entirely from such a world in pursuit of internally generated questions (what we today call “pure” mathematics).

U&S do not by any means deny the power and effectiveness of mathematics. But they also remind us that precisely what makes it so useful and general — its abstraction from the particularities of the world, and specifically its inability to deal with temporal asymmetries (mathematical equations in fundamental physics are time-symmetric, and asymmetries have to be imported as externally imposed background conditions) — also makes it subordinate to empirical science when it comes to understanding the one real world.

This empiricist reading of mathematics offers a refreshing respite to the resurgence of a certain Idealism in some continental circles (perhaps most interestingly spearheaded by Quentin Meillassoux). I’ve heard mention a few times now that the various factions squaring off within continental philosophy’s avant garde can be roughly approximated as a renewed encounter between Kantian finitude and Hegelian absolutism. It’s probably a bit too stark of a binary, but there’s a sense in which the stakes of these arguments really do center on the ontological status of mathematics in the natural world. It’s not a direct focus of my own research interests, really, but it’s a fascinating set of questions nonetheless.

Ecological Metaphysics

October 7, 2014 § 25 Comments


[Image: Neil Krug]

[Update: Leon responds to some of my questions here.]

Leon Niemoczynski writes an interesting post on ecological metaphysics here. While we have our differences concerning the contemporary philosophical landscape, Leon and I agree quite strongly that ecology represents something like the future basis for philosophy. However, while he lists quite a few resources for thinking philosophy through ecology, and ecology through philosophy, we don’t get much in the way of articulating what, exactly, makes a philosophy or a metaphysics ecological. Leon writes:

The key ideas for [American and Continental] traditions, I think, when it comes to developing an environmental philosophy that is inspired by recent positions of speculative philosophy in realist and materialist orientation, is that these metaphysical positions are developed so that they are thoroughly ecological.  Thus, “speculative naturalism” is an ecological metaphysics as much as it is a realist and materialist metaphysics.

Okay, but what does “ecological” in this context mean? To be sure, there are some references to the process tradition, to naturalism, to actor-networks, to materialism et al., but we don’t get an account of what specifically differentiates an ecological metaphysics from any other kind realist, materialist, or naturalist metaphysics. This raises an important question: What are the precise criteria for identifying philosophical ecologies?

For Leon, is philosophical ecology just naturalism updated?* Does a philosophy concerned with creatures and relationships necessarily constitute it as ecological? I don’t think so. Lest we simply render ecological metaphysics as Nature 2.0., I’ve suggested a preliminary definition of an ecological metaphysics where ecology is the breakdown between structure and content. This is the most general definition of ecology I have been able to formulate. In the biological sense, the breakdown between structure and content applies to organisms and environments, to genetics and epigenetics, to genotypes and phenotypes, to nature and nurture, to cultural history and biological history. In a more philosophical key, this formulation references the breakdown between the transcendental and the empirical, between the ontological and the epistemological, and between appearance and reality. (I have a recent paper on this breakdown here and a shorter synopsis here, both of which place aesthetics as an important category for philosophical ecology, a move I think Leon would affirm.)

Whitehead of course is a key influence for me here, but so is Isabelle Stengers, if not more so. Not enough has been written on the entanglement of the physics of laws (read “structure”) and the physics of phenomena (read “content”) she details in Cosmopolitics. Readers of Whitehead will notice that Stengers’s entanglement of laws and phenomena mirrors very closely Whitehead’s ontological principle, and it also comes close to the physicist Lee Smolin’s reading of cosmic evolution and the emergence of physical laws. In the case of Whitehead, Stengers, and Smolin, it’s not enough that we think of physical laws as atemporal and necessary. Instead, we must understand that the laws themselves emerged at a point in cosmic history and that they are in an important sense immanent to and entangled with all phenomena. Ecology is an entanglement of laws and phenomena; the real is ecological, evolving, recursive; the cosmos is an ecological event.

Here there’s a breakdown of structure and content at a very basic cosmological level, which leads us to a related point about ecological metaphysics: the cosmos is historical all the way up and all the way down, all the way backwards and all the way forwards. Leon quotes the popular Whiteheadian aphorism “Other cosmic epochs are possible” to get at the same point, but when he writes, “The adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is far from over [emphasis mine]” I have to disagree. And I also have to point out that Leon is contradicting himself. (Earlier in the post Leon writes, “There is no super-order or container of “Nature.”  There is, on the other hand, agencies and networks, or better, creatures and relationships.”) Thus if ecology is a general condition that describes the breakdown of structure and content, and if there really are cosmic dimensions to this statement, then the adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is precisely what’s over.

This ongoing breakdown is, I think, where we need to start with philosophy and ecology.

*If naturalism is the route we choose to take, I think whatever “naturalism” means these days must come to grips with Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.”

A Philosophical Ecology

September 20, 2014 § 20 Comments


In my last two talks, I began to lay the groundwork for a philosophical ecology. Such a philosophy engages traditional philosophical categories—e.g, appearance and reality, ontology and epistemology, and the empirical and the transcendental—in a new light informed by an evolutionary and ecological framework. Below I summarize the ways in which each of these categories are transformed by the ecological insights of Alva Noë, Jacob von Uexküll, and Alfred North Whitehead. There’s much more work to be done in this area, but this at least gives us a sketch for how ecology will continue to transform philosophy in the coming years. « Read the rest of this entry »

Whitehead, Kant, and Sloterdijk: A Renewed Geocentrism

March 2, 2014 § 8 Comments

Face[Image: Morgan Herrin]

Yesterday, as I was listening to Melanie Sehgal’s lecture on Whitehead’s metaphysics as situated metaphysics, I was reminded of two passages in Whitehead’s work that have stuck out to me ever since reading them. The first is the oft-quoted airplane analogy Whitehead gives in Process and Reality to describe his mode of speculative thinking. Through this analogy, Whitehead suggests speculative thinking always takes flight from a given location — a context, a historical epoch, a field of concerns, etc. — and then, from this atmospheric perspective, the speculative philosopher attempts to give, in Whitehead’s own words, “a coherent, logical, and necessary system of general ideas” that are also “applicable” and “adequate” to every element of our experience. In other words, for Whitehead, speculative philosophy’s method is a practice of thought wherein one starts with experience, ascends as though in an airplane to the height of generality — away from the structure of particular experience to the structure of experience in general — and then lands once again back into the particularity of experience. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Rubicon Has Been Crossed

June 21, 2012 § 8 Comments


[Image: Magdalena Jetelová]

There is a curious moment in Modes of Thought (1968) where Whitehead writes, “The distinction between men and animals is in one sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of the degree makes all of the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed” (p. 27). The question that always strikes me when reading this passage concerns exactly what worlds the “Rubicon” is connecting. Where — or amidst what — were beings situated before the Rubicon was crossed? What kind of ecology are humans situated amidst after having crossed the Rubicon? What is the Rubicon itself made from — what kind of structure does it have? Where did it come from?

« Read the rest of this entry »

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