Everybody still with us? Good. Everybody remembering to wash their hands and not to act like a c***? Even better.
Welcome back to the second part of the third instalment of my highfalutin cosmological speculations. Any readers who may have wafted past this blog before will probably recognise the general drift and even the particular language being used here. Any readers who have hitherto failed to waft in our direction – what in God’s name are you doing with your life? It cannot possibly be as interesting or important as the philosophical musings which regularly occur herein.
Come now, get your act together, stop whatever you’re doing and start paying attention to what we’re doing here. That’s better.
Here, then are the aforementioned cosmological musings; and here, as the heading says, is:
2. The Story So Far
2.1 Physics and Metaphysics:
It starts with a scientific revolution: when the likes of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger changed forever our understanding of the physical universe. Abandoning the mechanistic models of classical physics, that ‘great Newtonian fiction’ as Farrer called it, they supplied instead a new, dynamic conception, one in which even the warp and weft of space-time is vitalised, plays a full part in the mutually conditioning patterns of physical process that we now know is the cosmos.
Of course, a new physics – as Conti never tires of reminding me – demands a new metaphysics. And that is what it got. Farrer and Whitehead refashioned reality in Einstein’s image. Whitehead’s process organicism found existence to be a matrix, a dynamic correlation of concrete conjunctions. Likewise, Farrer was ready to identify ‘[e]nergy, rather than stuff’ as the basic expression of existence. The universe we know isn’t made of ‘solid and stupid lumps of physical matter’ banging and crashing about; it’s made of relatively stable patterns of energy or activity, ‘infinitely complicated, minute rhythms of active process.’
Real “being”, then, is no solid-state entity; it is full-blooded being-in-action. And being active, it is also fully interactive, a thing of co-constitutive, better still, inter-constitutive connections, mutual interplay. In Farrer’s Latin phrase, esse est operari.
‘Real “being”,’ here means ‘all real “being”.’ There are, as Conti says, ‘[n]o actualities without full and proper integration with other actualities, themselves in the process of becoming’.
Not even the enquiring agent, as the current trend in so-called ‘scientific determinism’ unconsciously presupposes.
From this, it follows that all our activities, our explorations and explanations, are themselves elements in that matrix of mutuality.
And not accidental ones either.
The universe is the universe it is, because it is constituted by the connections that do, as a matter of fact, constitute it, our acts are as integral to its existence as any and, in truth, every other.
So much Cassirer and Langer tell us: our myths and metaphors, stories and symbol systems, are themselves threads in the warp and weft of interpenetrating forces which is the universe. With a clear eye for the interpenetrative implications of this, Huxley described the universe as the ‘indispensable partner in [all our] mental and spiritual achievements.’
2.2 Analogies and Mythologies – and this is where the story really starts
The next part of the story concerns the analogies from which we construct our narratives about the universe.
Throughout human history, our attempts to navigate and ultimately gain control over the interacting forces of the cosmos have been tied up with our use of symbols to capture and conceptualise them. Our ancestors, Cassirer reminds us, populated the world with spirits and small gods. The branches of Frazer’s Golden Bough hang heavy with the ethnographic evidence, deities who had a hand in every department of human activity; the Romans’ Lares and Penates, for example, who saw that butter churned and bread rose in the oven. As it was for the Romans, so it is for the modern speculative cosmologist. Process, force, the whole nexus of space-time relations, all these are analogies. Of course, the astrophysicists’ analogies are not as explicitly personal as the Roman cook’s; but they are drawn from the same source. Where else, indeed, could they be drawn from? Our own capacity to act, to interfere with processes which are not our own, that is our standing example of causal agency. It is, as even Hume might grudgingly acknowledge, the only instance of causal agency to which we have direct, unmediated access. As such, it is also, necessarily, the model we use to conceive all others.
To repeat, the astrophysicists’ analogies are not full-bodied personal projects. Where our ancestors saw a multitude of personal agencies at work in the world, we have learned to pay what Farrer called ‘an indefinable discount’ on our analogical extensions. From the analogy of action we have vigorously stripped all the “higher” functions of consciousness and personal agency. Washed in the waters of scientific life, we cleanse our analogue of all but it’s most basic and primal components: energy, process, force.
2.3 Philosophical Psychology – this is where the story really starts
Here’s the next step: the philosophical psychology underpinning all this.
Farrer has given us the key already. Esse est operari: real being is interactive; in our case, consciousness, personal identity, is actualised in what we do. What other reliable criterion of knowledge or reality could there be? After all, without action we couldn’t distinguish ourselves or anyone else from a bunch of shop manikins.
Crucially, the roots of personal identity, of all the activities in which that is embodied, lie in the acts of those who cradled us and cared for us and showed us how to be conscious, active agents in the first place. We’re made to be cared for, as John Macmurray rightly says. The psychological evidence is undeniable. Personality does not spontaneously burst forth, it is invested in us.
It’s not just that we’re taught how to act.
Of course, we are; but also, and more fundamentally, we are taught to act. First, to control the body that is, for the infant, barely under control; then our desires and wishes: we learn to wait our turn, and be polite, and share, and wash occasionally; all the other things that make us bearable to be around.
And we are taught to think, or more precisely we are taught to speak. Talked into talking, we learn, as Farrer put it, to ‘talk silently to the images of the absent, or… pretend to be our own twin, and talk to ourself.’ In other words, we learn to think. For ‘[t]hought is the interiorisation of dialogue’.
So the image of the other stakes its claim to the structure of those transactions, is internalised, instilling the “self” with what Feuerbach called ‘the inner life of man’. In so doing, the developing self, its needs, activities, and perspectives, are passed through the image of the other. Being “filtered”, the “self” evaluates and re-evaluates itself, constructing and re-constructing itself, in relation to the other. In other words, I learn to double myself, play the part of another within me. I become a “self” by learning to put myself in the place of the other, by re-enacting that place, that otherness. Being Thou unto others, the “self” is, in a favourite Feuerbachian phrase, essentially ‘species being’.
Come back in approximately another week, dear reader, and, zombie apocalypse permitting, you may well find the final chapter in this little adventure. In the meantime, let’s keep that species being thing going, by which I mean, wash your hands, keep a safe distance, and remember that other people are intrinsic elements of your selfhood. So try not to be a c***.