Theories of the Real

Here are some brief notes and links to concepts. These are all beginning points for debate and discussion. Having a theory of reality is a key component of this class an our approach to making. The equation is simple: theory of reality = type of making, acting, doing, thinking. One changes and the others need to shift. It is important to note that I am not suggesting that ideas come first.

1. Idealism

2. Resilience

3. Complexity/Emergence: a comic strip

4. Post-Evolutionary Logics

5. This is a useful quote from Steven Shaviro on how objects sense:

The most crucial way in which Whitehead revises the panpsychist argument is that, for him, mentality — or what William James calls “experience” — is not equated (as it is in the work of most panpsychists) with consciousness. Photons and quarks, and stones and thermostats, all have “experiences,” which means that they do possess some sort of incipient mentality; but for Whitehead, they are probably not conscious. Even in human beings, Whitehead says, most mental processes occur unconsciously, or below the threshold of consciousness. What makes them “mental,” then? Whitehead’s notion of unconscius thought is related to, but also quite different from, both the psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, and from cognitive science’s recognition that most cognitive processes are unacompanied by, and often irreducible to, consciousness. Like psychoanalysis, Whitehead sees unconscious experience as having to do with “feelings” and “appetitions”, processes of action and reaction that are not merely automatic responses to stimuli; but in contrast to psychoanalysis, for Whitehead these feelings and appetitions do not necessarily involve any sort of representational activity.

For Whitehead, mentality is characterised by what he calls “conceptual feelings,” or “valuations.” These are processes in which potentialities are in some sense contrasted or weighed against one another. There is not just the perception (and perhaps the recognition) of what is. For Whitehead, such a perception and recognition is exactly identical to physical causality; to say that B physically perceives or prehends A is exactly the same thing as to say that A physically affects B, or that A is the cause of which B is the effect, e.g. in the way that one billiard ball transmits energy and motion to another billiard ball by hitting it, and causing it to move in turn. In addition to all this, Whitehead says, B also has a mental or conceptual experience of A: the experience, let’s say, of being-caused-to-move. I doubt that the billard ball is in any sense conscious; but the event of energy-transfer is a mental experience for Whitehead, because it involves the activation of a potential (precisely of a potential for movement). Mentality consists in the comparison of moving and not-moving; this comparison is the “mental pole” of the “occasion” in which billiard ball B is hit by billiard ball A and propelled into motion.

Now, the role of mentality, or experience, in the case of the billiard ball is vanishingly small, or (as Whitehead tends to put it) negligeable. Nonetheless, it exists — it is at least present structurally, you might say. Experience is present potentially, but almost not at all actually. But if this is so, it is because experience is in itself the impress of potentiality. The energetic shock of being hit by another billiard ball is precisely a prehension, or an apprehension, of possiblity. Possibilities, or conceptual prehensions according to Whitehead, are always perceptions of what he calls “eternal objects,” or “pure potentials” — and these, in turn, are equivalent to what other philosophers call “qualia.” The apprehension of qualia — of the red glow of the sunset, for instance — is intrinsic and irreducible, because it is felt, pleasantly or unpleasantly as the case may be, and because, insofar as it is thus felt, it implies potential and contrast. Redness-as-a-potentiality is in excess of merely being a quality or an aspect of this particular moment, this particular sunset. My sense of redness implies that this scene could perhaps change, so as not to be red after all; and also that something else could be imbued by redness as well. And my affective response to the sunset has to do with my liking or disliking of this redness, a reaction that extends into the prospect of other things being red, or of this redness itself disappearing (as it does, once the sun has entirely set).

Experience, or conceptual feeling, thus always involves a certain process of “valuation,” or evaluation. Whitehead agrees with the cognitivists in seeing that these evaluative processes are most of the time non-conscious. But he does not see evaluation as itself a “cognitive” process — it has much more to do with “appetition,” which “includ[es] in itself a principle of unrest, involving realization of what is not, and may be… All physical experience is accompanied by an appetite for, or against, its continuance.” In this way, mentality (or experience) is not just the calculation and representation of what is, but also involves a striving towards some potential novelty. As a result of this, experience always issues in some sort of decision; and for Whitehead, such decision “constitutes the very meaning of actuality.”

Experience is, as Whitehead says, irreducibly private; which means that I cannot observe anyone else’s experience aside from my own. (There may very well even be a limit as to the extent of my ability to observe my own experience — as Harman also suggests from another angle). The privacy of experience has fueled the skepticism found throughout modern Western philosophy, from Descartes to Hume, and beyond into the twentieth century. (I include, under this head, the answers to skepticism, or dissolution of its paradoxes, given by thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Cavell). But for Whitehead, thedecision in which private experience culminates is also what makes it public and potentially conscious. Decision is not grounded in consciousness or cognition; rather, decision is what makes consciousness, cognition, and public relationality possible in the first place. “Feelings,” or movements of “appetition,” are the basic elements of mentality (or “inwardness,” or “qualitative experience”). Cognition, consciousness, and responsibility are consequences of this basic mentality, rather than preconditions for it. An aesthetic of decision precedes and grounds cognition and consciousness — rather than either of these being the grounds or preconditions for any process of decision. I say an “aesthetics” of decision, because it is a non-cognitive, and non-generalizable process; the problem of how decision leads from privacy to publicity, in Whitehead’s account, is a transformation of Kant’s problematic of how a singular, non-cognitive, non-conceptual aesthetic judgment can nonetheless lay claim to universality, through the process (precisely) of being made public.

I will stop here; instead of explicating this in more detail (which certainly needs to be done) I will conclude by simply juxtaposing Whitehead’s notion of experience-as-decision with some recent speculation in the physical and biological sciences. This is a continuation and expansion of some of the speculation that is already in my book.

The biologist Martin Heisenberg, in a recent article called “Is Free Will An Illusion?” makes a similar point about the “decisions” made by biological organisms. Arguing from experiments on bacteria, fruit flies, and other organisms, Heisenberg states that such organisms exhibit “behavioral output” that is independent of “sensory input”; that is to say, these organisms “actively initiate behavior” that is “self-determined,” rather than being “determined by something or someone else.” Studies of plants and slime molds, as well as bacteria and fruit flies, have isolated instances of “decision” that are not causally determined by the circumstances in which they occur, or the conditions to which they are a response.

Recognizing decision in all living organisms might seem to point to a kind of vitalism. But it would be considerably different from traditional vitalism, because it would not claim that some sort of intrinsic vital force would make living beings radically distinct from non-living things. Rather, as Whitehead says, the line between life and non-life of fuzzy, and the mentality or decisionality of life is something that is essential to life, but not exclusive to life: it extends all the way down.

Along these lines, the physicists John H. Conway and Simon Kochen propose what they call the Strong Free Will Theorem. According to Conway and Kochen, under certain conditions that arise as a result of quantum entanglement, subatomic particles respond “freely,” that is to say, non-deterministically, unconstrained by any prior physical events. If experimenters may be said to be acting “freely” when they collapse a quantum-indeterminate state by choosing which of several possible parameters they will measure, then to the same extent the particle thus measured is acting “freely” when it “chooses” which value to give this parameter. If this is correct, then even photons may be said to have a certain sort of inner “experience,” and to make a kind of “decision.”


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