Open-Endedness of Matter According To Organicism

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Contextual Quote


"Instead of treating mind and matter as two separate substances each having a singular and mutually exclusive essences (thinking and extension respectively), we could opt to theorize them not as mutually exclusive substances, but as complementary hylomorphic elements of a more basic, creative substrate we call “Life.”


"Organicism in the maximally broad sense, entails a commitment to the thesis that there is a metaphysical continuity between the natural world, life, and (human) mindedness.14 We are metaphysically continuous with the rest of the cosmos."

- Otto Paans [1]


Otto Paans:

"Recent frameworks of philosophical thought like Object-Oriented Ontology, Actor-Network-Theory, or recent forms of panpsychism, do take the thought that all matter has inherent metaphysical continuity with organismic life and/or the mental seriously. This orientation, then, allows us to rethink all matter as inherently dynamic, by virtue of its being processual, purposive, and spontaneously creative, and then when such processes reach a degree of complexity such that they achieve an operational distinction between their inner/endogenous states and the outer/exogenous states of affairs surrounding them, thereby becoming irritable and responding to their environment, then they are organisms (Bennett 2010). This position, which harks back to Schopenhauer, Bergson, Lloyd Morgan, and Whitehead (Schopenhauer, 1844/1969: vol. 1, §28, vol. 2, ch. XXVI; Bergson, 1907/1944; Lloyd Morgan, 1923; Whitehead, 1929/1978) is a radical and serious alternative to the scientistic mechanistic and materialist/physicalist assumptions that plague contemporary science and philosophy.


The sea does not exhaust the hidden depths of the hailstones that fall in it; and neither do the ants exhaust all the possibilities of the fruit they eat. They touch only partially, and never totally.

If we project this profound thought on the notion of matter as such, and not just on some discrete objects like tables, post-boxes, automobiles, or anthills, we can then envision matter as something that possesses a limitless depth. The very notion of an Object-Oriented Ontology must be driven to its most radical conclusion by taking this step. Instead of asserting that the universe consists of objects on the same ontological footing, we can equally truly say that the basic building blocks of the universe possess all those properties that make the limitless depth of larger, compound objects possible.6

The question then remains: how and why is this so?

How and why is it that matter has this depth, or this open-endedness?

For a possible answer, we must of necessity turn to the notion of organicism.

This doctrine holds that there is a basic metaphysical continuity between the fundamental properties of matter and mind, and also between non-organismic and organismic dynamic processes.

Consequently, what we call “matter” is the result of non-equilibrium energy flows, culminating in both non-organismic and organismic dynamic processes in different complex configurations, including minded animals. Organismic processes, including minded animals, are not reducible to non-organismic processes, although the latter necessarily play a partially constitutive role in the emergence and unfolding of the former. But to assume or assert that biological properties or mental properties are either reducible to or naturally/nomologically supervenient on purely mathematical and/or inherently mechanical physical properties, is an Ur-error, a philosophical Original Sin, according to the organicist thinker.


In fact, all of the eight commitments can be traced back directly or indirectly to this Ur-mistake, and every paradox in the eight commitments is a direct or indirect consequence of this mechanistic and reductionive or non-reductive materialist/physicalist line of thought, whereby the entities, properties, relations, and laws of every “higher” level are held to to be fully explicable in terms of the entities, properties, relations, and laws and properties of a “lower” level, and ultimately the “lowest” or fundamental level. But with every upward or downward translation from one level to the other, crucial contents are lost and/or mysteriously transformed.


If we combine the assumption that matter is open-ended with the core thesis of organicism, that postulates a direct continuity between energy flows going back to the Big Bang singularity, and biological and/or minded animal processes, we end up with a picture of matter that is decidedly radical: all of a sudden, matter is literally filled with limitless potentiality, in a way that is roughly equivalent to Aristotle’s notion of matter or hyle as dunamis. The postulate that matter is open-ended entails that it can become and do anything that is natural—and for all we know, we have seen only the tip of the iceberg here. There can be powers in matter that we as yet cannot fathom or unlock, just as no one realized how explosive and deadly nuclear fission could be. It took until the early 20th century before we possessed the theory and the instruments to unlock a hidden set of potentials that lay dormant within physical particles.

Because there is a direct and necessary metaphysical continuity and connection between non-equilibrium energy flows going back to the Big Bang singularity, and minded animal life, entails that the varieties of kinds of energy flows could lead to many forms of minded animal life. Ours is just one evolutionary tree that developed up to Homo sapiens, but there is no inherent necessity in this developmental direction. Viewed from inside the standpoint of our evolution on Earth, obviously, no natural laws were violated. But seen from outside that standpoint, the spontaneous creativity of nature could have gone another way at any given moment, and we might just as well have ended up with the mushroom people from Ambergris, instead of minded human animals, Homo sapiens. Again, all this—from the destructive power of nuclear fission to the emergence of minded primates—is traceable to the inherent spontanous creativity built into matter.


A radical change in paradigm and “root metaphor” is now in order and long overdue, because the very cognitive and conceptual representational schemes that we have developed in the naïve or sophisticated mechanistic way of thinking have conspired to structure our mainstream, orthodox, standard modes of thought precisely around the disastrously narrowly restricted range of possibilities they offer. If it were not already difficult enough to step outside the perceptual-conceptual prison that Schopenhauer calls the principium individuationis, the cognitive and conceptual representational schemes we have developed within the “high modernist” (Scott, 1998: p. 4) mechanistic worldview that has ideologically dominated since the turn of the 20th century, only reinforce our unargued and uncritical belief in their efficacy and their irreplaceability, as if they really and truly were the “only game in town” (Wilson, 1999). But the high modernist mechanistic worldview has not been distilled from naively observing and then reflecting on the world and then justifiedly believing its self-evident empirical material properties and non-empirical formal properties to be the only ones that actually do or ever possibly could exist; no: the very cognitive and conceptual representational schemes developed on this basis since 1900 have instead taken the mechanistic worldview as a brute and indubitable given, thereby implicitly or explicitly excluding or rejecting all other significantly alternative models of our thinking and the world."


"Life" vs life

Otto Paans:

"As Thomas Nagel has pointed out (Nagel, 2012), the root of the problem is that mechanistic materialism/physicalism must “seek a place” for mind in the physical order of nature, that mind inherently cannot fit, like a round peg in a square hole. Mind is treated as an essentially alien element that is a nuisance to fit in an otherwise flawlessly operating square-pegs-into-square-holes system.

As discussed in section II (v), the mind-body problem can be traced back to the artificial split that broadly Cartesian/Laplacian/Newtonian natural mechanism introduced in our thinking about embodiment. As Descartes framed it: since we can consistently conceive of the mind apart from the body, it must be something irreducibly and qualitatively different. Nevertheless, just because we can consistently think something (conceptual or analytic possibility), does not thereby make it really possible (non-conceptual or synthetic possibility): something more is needed in order to yield real possibility. However, when the Cartesian assumption is used as a basis for further philosophical reasoning, the single, initial mistake is infinitely amplified and magnified, leading to irresolvable paradoxes. Descartes’s conceptual and ontological split between mind and matter has had momentous consequences.

Because he held that mind and matter are essentially different and mutually exclusive substances and also that no single substance can have two distinct essences—thereby completely overlooking the possibility of a monism with two distinct yet also inherently complementary essences, for example, Aristotelian hylomorphism—he set off an entire train of thought that leads directly into the trilemma: either dualism or materialist/physicalist monism or idealistic/mentalistic monism, and no fourth alternative.

Yet organicism offers just such a fourth alternative: instead of treating mind and matter as two separate substances each having a singular and mutually exclusiveessences (thinking and extension respectively), we could opt to theorize them not as mutually exclusive substances, but as complementary hylomorphic elements of a more basic, creative substrate we call “Life.” Again, Thomas Nagel has pointed out that one of the tasks for a future philosophy is to think about how matter, consciousness, cognition and moral value could emerge in the first place (Nagel, 2012). On the Cartesian account of the cosmos, there remains an insurmountable gap between res extensa and res cogitans. On the organicist account, mind and matter emerge from an processual, purposive, self-organizing creative cosmic continuum I will refer to as “Life.” According to Michel Henry, Life is known only in and through the process of living itself, which is what Henry calls “praxis.” There is no way to know it “from the outside” or through objective procedures. It must be known from the inside outwards, from a position of “radical immanence.” In turn, living itself gives us knowledge-by-acquaintance about Life. But the process whereby we achieve this knowledge-byacquaintance about Life is not conceptual, not descriptive, not logical, not scientific, not procedure-based, and certainly not instrumental.


There is one more point to be made about the gap between life and Life. With the exclusion of the senses from philosophy, the living body itself was mistrusted and relegated to the periphery of cognition. However, it is this very living body that is the contact point with the world, and it is essentially embodied sensibility that allows us to interact with the world. Simultaneously, we experience the body with an intensity and from an interior point of view that eludes shallow intellectualization, let alone easy representation. As Schopenhauer puts it, the body is the first object we experience (Schopenhauer, 1844/1969: pp. 5 and 19; Schopenhauer, 2015: pp. 81–82). And precisely this is why it was so easy for scientistic, mechanistic, materialist/physicalist philosophy and science to claim that the body actually is nothing but an object: a mechanical contraption. But what Schopenhauer meant was that we posit the body as an object, that is, we posit it as an egocentrically demarcated, individuated entity in time and space. In doing so, we confirm the fact that we reason from an irreducibly subjective viewpoint. At the same time that we posit the body as an object, we also experience it intensely “from the inside,” hence as an essentially embodied subject.

We can call this intense, immediate experience “auto-affectivity” or “Life.” And it is precisely because of this auto-affective connection that there is an actual bridge between life (in the biological sense) and Life (in the existential-phenomenological sense). Scientistic, mechanistic, materialist/physicalist philosophy and science sever this link, claiming that the subjective pole holds no explanatory value whatsoever. Only objective, mathematized knowledge is regarded as the pinnacle of human achievement, relentlessly deployed by means of instrumental reason, and thus by worldly and technological prowess. But the core problem for any version of scientistic, mechanistic, materialist/physicalist philosophy or science — for example, Vienna Circle logical empiricism or positivism—is that the interiority of human existence cannot be exhausted by concepts and descriptions: there always remains an essentially non-conceptual surplus. Non-conceptualism is a huge threat to the conceptualist and intellectualist view of the human mind. All of a sudden, significant parts of the world elude our grasp and become uncontrollable. This is why Derrida, in his fine analysis of Bataille’s take on the philosophical structure of the Hegelian dialectic, emphasizes how it was Bataille who first noticed a basic blind spot in Hegel’s thought: for Hegel, despite all his organicist tendencies, nothing could escape the formalizing and idealizing structure of his hard-won, yet lamentably conceptualist dialectic.


Modes of human cognition that are of immense human value beneath and beyond those practiced in the formal and natural sciences and its associated, instrumental modes of thinking, are brushed off as useless mental debris; and so, the link between life and Life is severed. Consequently, not only is biological life is treated in purely scientistic, mechanistic, and materialist/physicalist terms, but also, increasingly, Life is treated as such.

This problem is the central problem for any New Wave Organicism (Hanna and Paans, 2020).

If Life is treated in scientistic, mechanistic, and materialist/physicalist terms, it is presupposed the Life will ultimately fit into that framework: the round peg will sooner or later be jammed into the square hole. And this is the ultimate mistake of scientistic, mechanistic, materialist/physicalist thinking: what it represents is merely the mirror image of its own presuppositions, projected on Life as such. What new wave organicism is, then, is a full-out and fundamental resistance to the type of thinking by which Life is subjected to regimes of instrumentalization and modes of stratification that turn it into a mere object, a move that Michel Henry and Kitaro Nishida both describe with the term “object logic” (Henry, 1973; Nishida, 1993). The worldview that treats Life as nothing but a conglomerate of objects is a fundamental mistake, yet it is this fragmenting approach to investigating our lifeworld that is responsible for the most devatatingly pervasive thought-shapers in human civilization since 1900 and especially since 1945 (Hanna and Paans, 2020). And in the 21st century, biological life itself is under threat, as the ecosystems that produced it are under severe pressure by the life-forms they helped to evolve. Yet, the professional academy, in its unholy alliance with the military-industrual-university-digital complex, has little or nithing to say that ventures outside the well-circumscribed frame of “environmental ethics,” a catch-all term for the type of consequentialist ethics that could just as be applied as easily to medical or business decisions. The conceptual frameworks that scientistic, mechanistic, materialist/physicalist philosophy and science have produced do less than nothing to address the genuine concerns and problems of contemporary humankind and its world. No wonder, then, that professional academic philosophy has been accused of being careerist, conformist, esoteric, Scholastic in the pejorative sense, and more generally irrelevant to the these genuine concerns and problems. Relaredly, what Henry calls “barbarism” is the culmination of a process of abstraction that removes itself from life and Life in favor of a classical “view from nowhere,” even though, in doing so, it increasingly ends up becoming a “road to nowhere,” insofars as the modes of thought on which it rests cannot be used to understand life or Life. It can merely bring forth a distorted and impoverished image of them: like Mephisto in Liszt’s 1857 Faust symphony, the devil can only distort, but cannot create."


More information