Subject, Object, Person

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“Personalism” is the philosophical position that the first principle in any approach to the world must be that of “person.” Given the habits we have inherited over the years from our scientific (scientistic?) approaches to reality, this might seem like a hopelessly subjective approach to things. But such an attitude is wrong on at least two accounts: first, personalism is NOT the same as “subjectivism” – not by a long shot! The second major flaw is that there is nothing at all “hopeless” about it; indeed, there is a case to be made for its logical necessity. This last point is open to dispute to a degree that the first is not, and I’ll be focusing on this point a bit. Toward the end of this post, and in fulfillment of my priority to keep things Whiteheadian on this blog, I’ll gloss a few areas where Whiteheadians and personalists disagree, and the major point where they overlap. (Spoiler: Whitehead was not a personalist.)

Bluesy

I’ve no idea what picture to use for this post, so here is a picture of my cat, “Bluesy,” who is neither subject nor object, but rather person.

A point of terminology: if, along the way, I have cause to use the term “objectivism,” it should be clearly understood that I am not in any way, shape, or form, referring fatuous pretensions to philosophy. I am merely using the word as a modified form of “objective,” to discuss such forms of emphasis that focus upon the “outer as outer;” a similar caveat holds with respect to the terms “subjective” and “subjectivism.” Continue reading

Nature versus Naturalism

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Nature is that which is studied by physical science. Saying as much does not answer many questions; most particularly, it tells us neither what nature nor science happen to be, only that they are connected as inquiry and thing inquired into. That being said, one can also notice that it is necessary to have some notion or concept of what it is that one is inquiring into, in order for that inquiry to have any sort of systematic or methodologically sound structure. Absent such a concept, inquiry loses any possibility of systematicity, and instead becomes nothing more than random shifting around and arbitrary clutching at straws. Such shifting and clutching will, ideally, eventuate in a more systematic concept of the topic being inquired into, at which point inquiry “moves into a new gear,” and begins to become genuinely organized. Physical science has long since moved past such a phase of randomly poking things with a stick; it has long been operating with a detailed and thoroughly developed concept of nature. But while the sciences have A concept of nature, does that mean they have the best concept of nature? There are reasons to believe that the answer to this question is “no.”Nature

This brings us to the philosophical question of naturalism. Some forms of naturalism take the position that “nature is all there is,” which might seem like a fairly strong metaphysical commitment until one realizes that saying, “nature is all there is,” tells us nothing about what all nature is. So in order to have any cognitive content, any and all forms of naturalism – regardless of whether or not they admit the possibility of anything beyond nature – must, primarily, be a thesis about what nature is. So a form of naturalism will be the source of a concomitant concept of nature. I will state without argument that the two stand in a one-to-one relationship: if “a” form of naturalism resulted in a “family” of concepts of nature, then in reality what we would have is a family of forms of naturalism as well – one member of this latter family for each concept in the former. Continue reading

Time, Emergence, and Ideality

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In an earlier post I suggested that, “ideals can emerge as possibilities, change, and make different actualities concretely present.” I wish to pursue this notion further here, still staying within the explicitly philosophical perspective of Whiteheadian metaphysics. I will be discussing this in the generic context of moral/ethical ideals, though other sorts of ideals are also possible and real. First, there are some points of terminology to settle right up front: some folks make a distinction between the terms “moral” and “ethical,” and in the context of their particular discussions such a distinction will often be legitimate. Such a context, however, is not what I’ll be working with, and I will use the terms interchangeably, largely depending on my feeling for which term is being overused in the preceding text. Another terminological distinction I’ll be employing – and here, I’ll be hewing closely to Whitehead’s own technical usage of these terms – is that of “actual” and “real.” The actual will always mean a collection of concretely realized potentialities; but those potentialities would still be real, even if they weren’t concretely actual. Thus, the hand-blown, cobalt blue glass that I purchased some years ago at the Bristol Renaissance Faire (yes, I was in garb) has various whorls of white down at the base, and a very slight flaw in the glass at one point about 1 ¼ inches from the lip. These are all concretely actual facts; what is notable about them, in this context, is that they could – potentially – have been different: the white whorls could have taken a slightly different form, the little flaw in the glass might have been somewhere else or missing altogether.Melting Clocks

And then there is the little flutter between “potentiality” and “possibility.” Here is a bit of seriously technical philosophy which, like other terms, one need not accept. But if you don’t like the terms, it is upon you to find better ones, because the distinction I am marking with these words (following Whitehead) is a real difference; it is just not a difference that can be quantified. It is “possible” that the sun will explode 37 seconds from my typing of these words … wup, too late! That possibility – absurdly remote as it was – has now passed into the realm of the purely abstract “might-have-been.” That absurd remoteness is what distinguishes a mere possibility from a potentiality. A potential is a possibility as well, but it is one that is decidedly “closer” to becoming actual than other mere possibilities. But this idea of “closeness” does not come with a “metric” – you cannot measure it with a yardstick or a stopwatch. This is a topological notion, a form of relational reasoning whose details I will not try to explain here. My best analogy, though is to appeal to sound, or perhaps smell. Imagine being in a darkened room, you are sitting in a chair with no idea how far away the walls might be, and you’re not permitted to do anything metrical like reach out to those walls or test the distance with your feet. But there are scents and there are sounds that can seem near or far. And this sense of near or far has nothing to do with how strong or loud those sensations might be. A scent or a sound can be strong but diffuse, thus still convey a notion of distance; by the same token, they can be subtle but intense (for example, a soft whisper, yet the words are clear and articulate), and thus convey a notion of nearness. Without going into the mathematics of topological neighborhoods, potencies are “near” in this latter manner. Ethical, political ideals can emerge into this kind of topological nearness, becoming so near (in fact) that the slightest change can cause them to burst into actuality. One other note here: potentialities are always embedded in time, whereas mere possibilities might be so remote from actuality as to have no meaningful temporal character. Continue reading

Argumentum ad Baculum

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According to the American Association of University Professors (as reported by CNN), “In the last year, more than 100 incidents of targeted harassment against professors have been reported on college campuses.” These reactions have reached the level of actual death threats, so that some professors have been banned from campuses, so as not to expose the rest of the community to potential violence. This is not the kind of situation that would be rendered more secure by everyone carrying guns, since that would erase the distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” a distinction that would NOT become clearer once someone started shooting, since no one would know who started shooting first, or if it was a “bad guy” or “good guy” that started it. This is why, happy as I would be for permanent employment, I would never accept employment at a college or university that permitted any form of civilian “carry” on campus: a wild-eyed pack of posturing, untrained rubes with deadly weapons at the ready makes no one safer; it takes a special kind of stupid to imagine otherwise.

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But here we find ourselves in a situation where professors are receiving enormous volumes of vicious, if not always credible, threats upon their very lives for the kinds of things they have said in public. How did all these poor little, anonymous (because the cowards are always anonymous), tragically butthurt babies come to decide that the legitimate response to the public expression of a reasoned conclusion (I avoid the vacuous notion of “opinion”) is a threat of violence or even death? Certainly the election of the “crypto”-fascist Trump has energized many white supremacist and neo-nazi groups and sympathizers, and silencing by way of the threat (or act) of violence has long been a favored technique of such people. Which brings us to the title of this post, which is the fallacy of the argumentum ad baculum, the “argument from the stick”: using threats of violence and other forms of intimidation to compel others to accept your position. Continue reading

The Place Where Higher Ed Comes To Die

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My desire to draw these blog posts back to a more process philosophy, “Whiteheadian” orientation keeps getting hijacked by current events. But in this particular instance, the Whitehead connection is not entirely lost. That is because Alfred North Whitehead was not only a beloved educator and professor, but a highly respected administrator at London University, where he finished his career as a specifically British academician. Many of Whitehead’s most important essays on education are collected in the volume The Aims of Education. But one of the things not discussed in great detail in that collection is the administration of higher education.                                            Closed

In Whitehead’s case, this is most likely due to the fact that when and where he came up through university, when and where he taught, did his research, and performed his administrative tasks, it was in a university system with roots that stretched back to the early medieval times, and that was present at the birth of the modern university in the late 18th C. Facing forced retirement from the English university system, Whitehead (who was not ready to retire) came to the U.S., where he was confronted by a very different system of administration. Over a century ago (and years before Whitehead arrived) Thorstein Veblen was condemning the well-established forces that were trying to mutilate the comparatively nascent American system of higher-education into a profit-stream oriented business. So Whitehead’s educational writings never had much chance to address the trends, as the very thought of them was completely alien to his thinking, and his thinking was oriented toward the most significant development in speculative philosophy of the last 2300 years. Continue reading

Process Philosophy and Process Theology

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Talk about “God” makes numerous appearances in Whitehead’s metaphysical magnum opus, Process and Reality (PR hereafter), which is a source of histrionic consternation for some and febrile enthusiasm for others. I’ll not name names, but anyone familiar with the secondary literature will likely have some notion of persons fitting each description. I think it is a fair assessment to say that, within the United States, the Whitehead scholarly community is dominated by the theologians. (Very cursory and unscientific impressions of the European and Asian communities suggests the situation is quite otherwise in those regions.) This unbalanced view of things tends, I suspect, to narrow the range of application of process thought, and unduly limit its potential and legitimate influence. Also, being a process philosopher, it just kind of pisses me off. It’s like going to your favorite bar or club, and even though there are over 800 songs in the jukebox, only 12 of them are ever allowed to be played. Never mind that they might be 12 really good songs. If the only album I was ever allowed to listen to – ever again – was Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, I’d give up listening to music in pretty short order; after a while, you just want to hear something else.Fractal Nautilus

Please make no mistake here: I am in no way disdaining either theology or, specifically, process theology. But philosophy is different from theology, and even when philosophers use “The G Word” they are using it differently from theologians. And Whitehead’s usage was strictly philosophical in nature. So the theological developments of Whitehead’s thoughts on the subject are just that: developments. And there is absolutely no reason why such developments should be eschewed. But neither should those developments be taken for that primary matter, either. I am not going to revisit the discussion of the G-word here, that I covered in the post hyperlinked above. But there are some specific issues relating to contemporary Whitehead scholarship in America that might, in their discussion, suggest ways in which process philosophy is relevant to a broader audience.

To begin with, while Whitehead uses the word “God” with some frequency in PR, there is almost nothing in that book that could support a religious or theological sense of the term. For Whitehead, “God” is the term that designates the rational order of the universe coupled with the font of creativity and origination. There is nothing even remotely personal about it in this usage. It is only on the basis of how people choose to interpret a few sentences in the last section of the last (and quite short) chapter of the entire book, that Whitehead’s work gets stretched into a theological thesis. And even here, there is scarcely any foundation for viewing this “God” as a person. Some of this extravagance comes from Whitehead’s previous usages of words like “experience” and “feeling” to characterize the most primitive forms of relatedness possible (more on Whitehead’s choice of terms in a moment). An electron interacting with a magnetic field “feels” that field; but there is nothing cognitive or conscious in that “feeling.” It simply indicates how the electron is embedded in the universe as an “electronic occasion.” Similar care needs to be exercised with Whitehead’s use of the word “God,” especially if one’s intention is to stay true to Whitehead’s ideas, rather than engaging in novel developments. There is nothing wrong (again!) with such novelty; one just needs to be clear about what it is one is doing.

Many people have been turned off by Whitehead’s use of the word “God.” Various scholars have argued that the entire concept can be eliminated from his metaphysics (along with his “eternal objects”) without any loss or problem. I have been personally asked why Whitehead simply didn’t use another word to cover the above mentioned issues. The Greek word “arché” (“αρχή”) could easily cover the ideas of rational order and creative advance. But here’s the thing: rumors to the contrary notwithstanding (and they are plentiful), Whitehead never used neologisms, and never used non-English words to convey his thoughts. So what other word than “God” was he supposed to use in these various metaphysical contexts?

(“Eternal objects” are essential as well to his system: this is the term Whitehead uses for pure relational structures of possibility and potentiality. They are “eternal” in the sense that temporal considerations do not enter into their consideration. You cannot do away with rational structure and possibility without doing away the the pretense of thought, never mind Whitehead’s philosophy.)

The ideas are difficult, and the terminology often obscure, but philosophy isn’t supposed to be easy. However, with the dominating influence of process theology in this country, getting people past their “atheist owies” around the G-word becomes much more difficult. And lets make no mistake here, people like Richard Dawkins and others have not improved matters by their self-righteous presumption to know all there is to know about religion (while knowing nothing at all about theology, much less philosophy) because they once watched five minutes of Jerry Falwell on the television. But understanding the abuses people have endured at the hands of religion is a responsibility as well. So making Whitehead’s philosophical concept of God accessible to everyone is a responsibility that all Whitehead scholars share – perhaps, especially, the process theologians who’ve only bothered to advance discussion of the theological ideas they have freely constructed on Whitehead’s philosophical concepts. (“Idea” stands to “concept” as “genera” to “species.” Whitehead’s discussion was much more specific than those wide-ranging generalizations that process theologians have since developed.)

So how about some of those specifically philosophical meanings?

Let’s go back to that biggie, the stuff covered by the dreaded G-word. People have occasionally tried to argue against the reality of the rational structure of the universe. They are pretty funny, twisting themselves into pretzels like that, since in order to argue for anything, one must first presuppose that rational structure. So the folks who try to make such an argument (various flavors of existentialists (not all) and certain religious fideists, for example) must take for granted that which they claim cannot possibly exist. Not the ideal strategy for making your case. That said, the hyperventilating hysterics attendant upon the philosophical usage of the G-word will continue to make it a problem that constantly needs to be re-explained.

Perhaps the most important thing that process philosophy brings to the party is a more coherent, more defensible theory of Nature. I capitalize the word deliberately, because Nature in the process sense includes robust theories of possibility and time, something that current science and naturalism thoroughly lack. Particularly at the cosmology end of physics, time is treated essentially (though arguably not identically) as a spatial dimension, in which all of time is already there. Brian Greene characterizes time as a “frozen river” in various writings. This is what is known as a Parmenidean block universe. In process philosophy, time is genuinely real and, for Whitehead, more basic than space. Temporality itself is (again, for Whitehead) not a primitive; time is a natural fact, not a metaphysical given. (Details can be found HERE.) But that natural fact is a genuinely evolving one, not a static reality that only the limits of our observational capacities prevents us from “seeing” in its “totality.”

On ethical matters, it is a little trickier to tease out a purely Whiteheadian response (though Hall has taken notable steps in this direction). Still, a few points are worth highlighting within a process philosophical perspective. First, ideals can be “real” (as in, genuine relational possibilities), without being fixed, existent “things.” Second, developing from the first, ideals can emerge as possibilities, change, and make different actualities concretely present. Thus, it arguably makes no sense to talk about a “right to privacy” or a “right to healthcare” prior to the 19th C., since the possibilities for invading the first or providing the second, in any large scale or meaningful form, simply did not exist. This last will be a topic for a later post.

Reading Between The Texts

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A review of The Harvard Lectures of Alfred North Whitehead, 1924–1925: Philosophical Presuppositions of Science, Edited by Paul A. Bogaard and Jason Bell. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

One of the single greatest regrets of Whitehead scholars everywhere was Whitehead’s desire that all of his papers be burned after his death. His wife Evelyn dutifully fulfilled that wish, leaving the scholarly community with an enormous gap in its grasp of Whitehead’s thought, and the nature of its development over the years. Whitehead, for his part, wished for no such scholarly interpretations to be imposed upon his thought; his books, Whitehead believed, should be read and interpreted as they stood, with no “extraneous” materials being used to interpolate further ideas, “between the texts,” as it were, that were not already explicitly stated in those texts.Harvard Lectures 1

In one respect, Whitehead’s wish was not all that unreasonable: authors in general want their works to stand and be judged on their own, and not second guessed by readers using materials the author has specifically left out. There are, however, at least two problems with this desire. The first is that as soon as the work exceeds the complexity of a “Dick and Jane” story, the difficulties of interpretation amplify significantly. The second problem is that, regardless of the complexity of the work, the author’s wishes are always going to be ignored by scholars. And when the two problems are operating together, that scholarly interpolation will, unless it is anchored by some substantial body of secondary materials (such as that which Whitehead had burned), often enough run riot in untethered speculation. Continue reading

Evidence

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In one of the more spectacularly fatuous recent displays of why formal public debates are a complete waste of time, Ken Ham (creationist promoter of Kentucky’s financial albatross “Noah’s Arc” theme park) and Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) “debated” the question of evolution versus creationism. Now, for there to be a debate, there first has to be something TO debate and, in this instance of course, there was not. While there are many scientific issues of deep perplexity still to be found in the theory of evolution, there is no reasoned question as to the FACT of evolution. Creationism, on the other hand, lacks even the abstract possibility of scientific – or even logical – content; not even amounting to a fabulous “just so story,” creationism is nothing but childish hand-waving, and it is incapable of being anything other than such hand-waving. (Detailed scientific texts on evolution can be downloaded for free from the National Academies Press HERE.)Ham-Nye-debate-in-a-nutshell

Still, one of the stand-out moments of this exercise in wasted time, which thoroughly demonstrates why the entire exercise was a waste of time, came at the end, when Ken Ham and Bill Nye were both asked what would suffice to lead them to change their mind regarding their position. Ham’s reply was an immediate and unqualified, “Nothing.” Nye, on the other hand, responded almost as instantly, saying, “Evidence.” Ham perfectly exemplifies the pointlessness of “debating” with people such as himself; there is no discussion to be had with the willfully impenetrable. Nevertheless, current events have me thinking once again about the role of evidence and denial in our society today. So this seems like a good opportunity to return to the subject, albeit in contexts other than that of creationism. Continue reading

Stoicism for Every Day

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A very nice “Intro to Stoicism” was brought to my attention the other day that I wanted to share with folks here. NJLifehacks “10 Stoic Core Principles” is an interesting and handy read on the subject. One of the most interesting aspects of stoicism (besides the fact that it is widely misunderstood) is that it is NOT an academic pursuit, but a method of achieving what the Greeks called “eudaimonia.” For reasons that have long mystified me, this term is generally translated as “happiness,” but a vastly superior translation would be “living well.”MarcusAurelius

The “eu” in “eudaimonia” is the Greek particle meaning “well,” but it also translates as “healthy”. Thus, if you’re a dog owner, you’re probably aware of the dog food Eukanuba. Since “kanuba” comes from the Greek root meaning “dog,” the brand name literally translates as “healthy dog.” The “daimonia” in eudaimonia means something like “spirit,” though in a different sense from the Greek word “pneuma.” So eudaimonia means something like “healthy spiritedness” or, as already noted, living well. That is a little like happiness, as long as we don’t confuse happiness with pleasure. Being a stoic does not mean a life of giggles, kittens, and carnival rides. Continue reading

You’re So Vain

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(Respects to Carly Simon. Minor amounts of “adult” language in the following.)

So, the story is making the rounds that Trump’s “spiritual advisor” (who knew that was a cabinet position?) is saying that Trump, “whether people like it or not, has been raised up by God.” She says this in the context of how the Bible says God “raises up kings,” apparently indifferent to, and unaware of, the pitifully uneducated irony of classifying Trump as a “king” (regardless of how much the fascist Trump would like that to be true.) She (and yes, it is a female televangelist) goes on to say that,

God says that he raises up and places all people in places of authority. It is God who raises up a king. It is God that sets one down. When you fight against the plan of God, you are fighting against the hand of God.

This has been making the news rounds quite a bit of late; you can find one example (from which the previous quotes are taken) HERE.Me

It is easy enough to mock the infantile stupidity of this blathering numskull; indeed, such mockery is well deserved and as likely to have any positive effect as any effort at reasoned discussion. But the number of people who swallow – and then, in turn, spew – such fatuous twaddle is not so small as can be safely dismissed out of hand. I suspect some, possibly many, of my own family members fall into this category. So I want to point out a fact about these people’s own belief system, a fact that is based exclusively ON their belief system, and the sacred text known as “the” Bible. Because you see, the woman above, and so many others like her, are, by their own supposedly fervently held beliefs, doing is committing a sin: these people are so pathetically self-absorbed, they believe God is their string puppet to command; in so doing they are taking God’s name in vain. Continue reading