An Enchanted Materialism reading list
Something I'd promised my audience at Applied Brilliance. Here it is
I found the latest issue of Nature waiting for me when I got home from speaking at this year's Applied Brilliance conference in Jackson Hole. In this issue of Nature (October 2011, Vol. 478) there's a brief article by Jan Helge Solbakk in the News & Views section on "Persons versus Things." To quote:
Since the time of Roman law, legal thinking has operated with a fundamental distinction between person and thing. Even today, the entities subject to regulation are either persons or things, and there is no third option. This conceptual lacuna continues to generate regulatory paradoxes in the health and life sciences, because many of the entities subject to regulation--including bodies, body parts, organs and tissues, and sperm and oocytes--cannot be considered either persons or mere things.
How interesting. This is what I was talking about at Applied Brilliance--although on a more abstract level. More and more people are starting to realize that we need a third option; I talked about some of the lines of evidence from cognitive science that led this way, and mentioned some names, but I'm sure they flew by too quickly for most people in the audience to write them down. Here they are.
In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett reminds us that we've been dancing around this third option for centuries. She introduced me to an old English word, deodand, which I've started adapting for my own use. In old English law, a deodand was an object that had killed someone (an cartwheel that had rolled over somebody, or a bag of grain that had fallen on somebody's head). Deodands were neither objects nor people; they had a strange intermediary status. Like a shirt that we might happily put on, unless we found out that it had once been worn by a murderer during his crime.
Bennett's book deals with the 'new vitalism' strand of current philosophy. It's a part of the New Materialism or Speculative Realist school (there are various names for this new phenomenon in philosophy). This school or movement consists of a number of young thinkers who are determinedly steering away from the Continental philosophy of the last 25 years or so--avoiding Deleuze, abandoning Critique and eschewing postmodernism in favour of a return to a belief in the reality of the physical world. Materialism, but a kind of vital materialism in which the third option--of material as vital and self-powered--is being explored.
I ran out of time during my talk at Applied Brilliance to really describe this stuff; all I was really able to do was present an introduction, using the metaphor of the Copernican Revolution. There've been several such revolutions, I said:
- Newton introduced the idea of motion without a prime mover;
- Darwin presented evidence for design without a designer;
- computers show us thought without a thinker;
- and now, cognitive science is shaking up our fundamental ideas of who and what we are. It is presenting nothing less than a vision of spirit without a soul.
The best summary of this fundamental shift can be found in the works of Thomas Metzinger; The Ego Tunnel is a good place to start, and, for the not-faint-of-heart, the more thorough and daunting Being No One.
Andy Clark, in books such as Being There and Supersizing the Mind, presents the theory of Extended Cognition, which proposes that the human brain off-loads cognitive activities into the environment whenever possible, and that therefore the mind has to be seen as normally extended into the world around us. And in Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins presents the theory of distributed cognition, which suggests that what we think of as thought is often carried out by groups of people (and instruments) rather than occurring in the head of any one member of the group.
Similar changes are echoing through other disciplines. For instance, in Where Mathematics Comes From, George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez claim that cognitive science shows exactly how we think when we do math, and those thought processes don't just operate without recourse to some separate realm of mathematical reality--how we actually do math precludes the possibility that a distinct mathematical reality exists. And, after more than twenty years of study into computers and computation, Dean of Information Sciences at the University of Toronto, Brian Cantwell Smith, concludes, in his essay "God, Approximately,"
We will never have a theory of computing, I claim, because there is nothing there to have a theory of. Computers aren’t sufficiently special. They involve an interplay of meaning and mechanism—period. That’s all there is to say. They’re the whole thing, in other words. A computer is anything we can build that exemplifies that dialectical interplay.
I said during my talk that 'this is the point where some people start to panic.' With this phase of the Copernican revolutions, all agency has been removed from the world. Nothing is left of the spirit that was thought to move material reality, not even our own minds. If there is no special agency (mover, designer, thinker, or spirit) behind the material world, isn't reality left barren and empty? Yet, there is an alternative interpretation to this final step of creative destruction; Jane Bennett's 'enchanted materialism' provides a hint of what that could be.
The new materialists (or speculative realists, or new vitalists) see that what we've done by proving that there is no special agency (mover, designer, thinker, or spirit) behind the material world, is on the contrary to show that material reality itself is its own mover, is its own designer, that thought and thinker are identical, and that material reality is spirit. 'Enchanted materialism' indeed.
I've mentioned Bennett. Other respected scientists and philosophers who are going down this road include:
- Ursula Goodenough, in The Sacred Depths of Nature;
- Timothy Morton, in Ecology without Nature;
- Graham Harman, in books such as The Quadruple Object;
- Stuart A. Kauffman, in Reinventing the Sacred;
- and, most importantly, Quentin Meillassoux, in his groundbreaking new work of speculative realist philosophy, After Finitude. In this (highly technical) book he claims to have solved the problem of knowledge that Kant raised 200 years ago in the Critique of Pure Reason, and if he has, then Meillassoux has breathed new life into the entire project of Western philosophy.
These thinkers all come at the problem from different directions, and their conclusions may seem to be divergent as well. But what they all share is that they are taking the extra step, from the facts of the final Copernican upheaval, to new and positive interpretations of what it means. It's good that their ideas are divergent--this is a creative period. What is important is they all see new vistas of possibility for our self-definition as human beings alive in a vibrant and essentially living universe; and they do this without resorting to mystification, new age formulas, or any turning-away from reality to some soothing metaphysics.
I tried to express all of this in half an hour at Applied Brilliance; I don't think I succeeded. Follow this trail of breadcrumbs, though; you'd be amazed where it leads.