This Thursday (5/3/18) I participated in a panel with my peers Emily Wright and William Dowling. The panel arose out of the course we’re currently in, titled Religious Metaphysics After Modernity, instructed by Professor Jake Sherman, and was part of the PCC roundtable series that Aaron Weiss and Adam Robbert have been organizing—a series I plan to absorb into the PCC Forum once its up and going next fall!
We covered a wide gamut—discussing topics ranging from recent work in neuroscience (e.g. microphenomenology) to storytelling and performative cosmology. I hope those of you reading find our musing and discussion stimulating. I’ve included a transcript of my talk below the video in case anyone is interested in reading it. It’s been challenging, but a joy to participate in speaking events like the last two without much preparation. I plan to continue that, to ease my way into a more spontaneous form of poetic-philosophizing.
“Why Bother with Metaphysics?”
Disclaimer: The “we” I speak with is an invitational one. If you feel as though my remarks don’t apply to you, then they don’t—my intention is not to swallow you up.
So, Why bother with metaphysics?
Before I answer, let me first situate myself: I write to you now from the Robert Heyns Reading Room at University of California, Berkeley. If look up from where I type, I see gilded ceiling—a long expanse of bronze ornament stretches out, deepening my thoughts. Roving-my-head-round, I see a series of nametags emblazoned at the meeting place between wall and roof. The first I compute,
then there’s Kant across the way,
and Goethe… among other Giants of the Western Story.
Why bother with metaphysics?
Things just are the way they are. All the work has been done, just look up! The nametags—as large as I am—say it all! Let’s be gracious to our forebears—their Discoveries—some more than others, have built the foundation of the house through which we window-gaze upon the World.
I for one am not an undutiful Son!
Thank you, dear Forebears.
So why metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?
True, I do feel a bit drafty. I don’t know that I can ignore the cracks in the floorboard much longer. And yes, the word Discoveries I used earlier was sort of triggering. Decisions sounds a bit more apt. What if things could be otherwise…?
It compels me to admit something…
I’ve lied to you all. I’m not actually writing this from Robert Heyns Reading Room. I’m really in the historic North Reading Room, across the hall. On my way to the bathroom I passed Robert’s Room and was spellbound by its ceiling, more elaborate than in the North. Then I noticed Descartes’ nametag and a lightbulb went off:
A way to begin this talk!
But I didn’t want to sit in Robert’s room, the light wasn’t bright enough.
No need, I thought to myself, they’ll never know the difference!
And then, another lightbulb went off:
Why bother with metaphysics? Well, what if things could be otherwise?
So far I’ve got two stories running. I’m either writing to you from Robert Heyns Reading Room, or I’m writing to you from North Reading Room. Which one is more real? Does it matter? I think it does, and I promise you the latter is the Real one—though you won’t ever know for sure. So just go with it for now!
Two stories so far—stirring two different sets of associations, shaping and reshaping each individual future of you who listen, even—perhaps—for those of you tuning me out—the vibrations of my voice still acting upon your eardrums. Maybe the futural differences are negligible, but who really knows?
What does this have to do with metaphysics, though?
In a very simple way, the differences matter, because the difference could mean a different future, a different story. So far, my storytelling has been concerned with choice and behavior at the level of conscious awareness. Though, no doubt, stories always reach deeper. The deeper we go, the thicker the entrenchment of story. What we know before we know we know—those overarching narratives stubbornly looping on and on.
It is at this level—the deep unconscious, keeper of Cosmologies—that Story derives its force,
The Rootbed of the “Why bother:”
I am possessed by certain assumptions about myself and the World:
I am a subject set against the World as Object. I am a Princess locked forever in a Tower. I am lonely, and my loneliness leads me to question this Story. I rebel against my forebears, yet eventually I realize that only because of them have I been led to ask such questions:
Thank you, dear forebears.
Perhaps there’s no bridging Kant’s transcendental divide—that gap between my experience and things-in-themselves—perhaps we are bound to Quentin Meillassoux’s correlationism, the life-sentence of only being able to speculate from our unique perspectives. But maybe, following Timothy Morton, we ought to consider how unique to human beings that gap truly is. Have we rushed to copyright something that is and always was part of the commons? Or are we porous, pervious, perforated bags of water like Morton has it? It has been three hundred and eighty-one years since Descartes published his “Discourse on Method.” Though it pre-existed US copyright laws, I imagine the gap has long since entered the Public Domain. So can we ease up on our skepticism about experience and the experience of other beings?
Meanwhile, Our World is heating up, unraveling and revealing the taken for granted connections of our stable Holocene—that quaint period of periodicity, reified into cyclical cosmology and calendar, coming to an end. Incomes the Anthropocene, a concept which signals the time whereof the thumbprint of human activity stamps itself boldly across and deeply into the planet. We have become a geologic force. Yet, paradoxically, “the Anthropocene,” Timothy Morton tells us, is at the same time
one of the first truly anti-anthropocentric concepts because via thinking the Anthropocene, we get to see the concept of “species” as it really is—species as a subscendent hyperobject, brittle and inconsistent…The Anthropocene is the moment at which species become thinkable in a non-metaphysical way, such that humankind cannot rigidly exclude nonhumans. The human becomes smaller than the sum of its (human, bacterial microbiome, prosthetic) parts. Humankind is, as I said before, intrinsically disabled without hope of a “healthy” (explosive) wholeness.
Subscendence is Morton’s favorite form of holism, what he calls implosive holism. In contrast to explosive holism, the perspective which hoists the transcendent Whole over the less than parts, implosive holism has it the other way around—the parts are many and they make up the fragile whole. Both are equally real, but the latter is wholly dependent upon its parts, or partial connections, for existence. Morton is in league with other thinkers like Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour who claim that taking the ecological crisis means challenging metaphysical assumptions, assumptions like explosive holism which undercut the significant role connections play in constituting the whole. James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is often misattributed this kind of scheme, wherein Gaia is thought to be a soul-like self-organizing system maintaining planetary disequilibrium, our benevolent Earth-Mother keeping house. As Latour explains, a closer reading of Lovelock reveals that what Gaia refers to “is only the name proposed for all the intermingled and unpredictable consequences of the agents, each of which is pursuing its own interest by manipulating its own environment.” Morton won’t even touch the term Gaia, and instead refers to the relying-on of the biosphere as the “symbiotic real” “in which entities are related in a non-total ragged way.” “Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something,” Donna Haraway tells us. She’ll call this, among other names, Ongoingness, that tangling mess of sympoeisis, or becoming-with, that makes up Earth systems.
Each of these tricksters defies the ontic separation between mind and world because the ecological crisis makes it a political matter. Together they wait on the other side of the gap, taunting us to make the leap. And with their own neologisms, each trickster urges us to consciously practice re-linking with our creaturely fellows—each of us, partial connections, participating in the constitution of the biosphere. For Haraway it is about cultivating response-ability; Morton calls it attunement, and Latour wants us reflexively looping and re-looping forever, treating the Whole we seek as Sisyphus does his boulder. We are to aesthetisize ourselves; to realize a Cosmopoetics of ecological belonging. The story of a transcendent Whole, taken for granted, is stale and outworn. Metaphysical systems tell stories, and vice versa. Because of this, Haraway admonishes us to realize that “it matters which stories tell stories as a practice of caring and thinking.” Given that human life and the capacity to spin stories derives in the first place from ecological being, it’s not a far stretch to say that—though we can tell many—some stories are better told than others. Some hit closer to home.
The problem of transcendence is one of the reasons metaphysics has been rejected. Like my disclaimer at the beginning suggested, employing Wholes like the term “we” has historically swallowed important differences, sacrificed to the totalizing project of what William Desmond calls determinative curiosity.
Determinative curiosity though, is an orphan,
lost and very insecure.
It has forgotten its home and throws tantrums for absolute certainty,
It believes that to be is to be intelligible.
But curiosity is not born in a vacuum—rather, in a totally opposite manner—curiosity first derives from what Desmond calls original astonishment.
Its home is in wonder and to wonder it will always return.
Astonishment – when we are overcome, possessed by Excess. Patience with wonder.
Perplexity – “troubled mindfulness…” What could this indefiniteness mean?
Curiosity – the movement to overcome the trouble through intelligibility and definition.
“Why is it important to distinguish these three?” Desmond asks “Because in the main we have tended to think of the process of mindfulness, whether philosophical or scientific, in terms of the third possibility,” reducing the astonishment and perplexity as merely hurdles in the process of determinative curiosity.
Brought home to itself, curiosity, what we might also call Reason, realizes that not everything may be intelligible. This is important for our metaphysical struggle to think the Whole. Implosive holism may be a helpful critique for providential laziness. We keep living business as usual as if Gaia or Mother Nature will clean up our mess.
But I think there is something about the call of our trickster to re-sensitize ourselves to what we might still call Nature (or Gaia, or the Symbiotic Real, or Ongoingness) that still whispers of a more majestic Whole, a holy kind of Whole.
Morton is not down with transcendence, but his neologism “hyperobject” – an entity massively distributed in time and space like the Symbiotic Real or Global warming – is something we might call transcendent if we rethink how its conventionally understood.
What if we thought transcendence, as Jake puts it, “as the superlative mode of immanence?”
Transcendence understood this way is something we actually experience, what generates our experience of astonishment. Desmond links it with the hyperbolic or overdeterminate nature of Being itself – the sheer excess that catches us up in wonder.
Awe then becomes a way back to a Whole, a route for us to tread as we re-sensitize ourselves to our ecological becoming-with other creatures. Rooted back, curiosity realizes that not everything can be circumscribed by concepts. “The Whole,” Raimon Pannikar tells us, “is not the sum total of substantial selves, is not an object, and thus is impervious to any episteme that aims at objective knowledge. Furthermore, it is not the proper field of any exclusive ontology, that is, of any approach to Being exclusively by means of logos. Our attempt requires also the pneuma, the spirit, love, not as a second fiddle playing to the echoes of reason, but as a loving knowledge…” (17)
The call to aesthetisize ourselves to our involvement with the partial connections that make up our biosphere is a call to re-member the Whole in a more playful way. It is a call back to metaphysics, revived and fleshy.
The language we use to tell the story matters – and some words won’t do. Totalizing concepts of the Whole must give way to more playful, symbolic expressions – images that approach the whole, yet are humbly understood as our best sketches of the inexpressible.
Cosmopoetics can then be understood as the effort to take philosophical language playfully serious, an effort to create aesthetic rituals of thought resonant enough to make doing metaphysics tantamount to passing through a conceptual birth canal.
Why bother with metaphysics?
Because some stories are better told than others. The Princess agrees,
Let me out of this Tower!
 Timothy Moton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London, Verso, 2017), 113.
 Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime (Medford, Polity, 2017), 142.
 Morton, Humankind, 1.
 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, (Durham, Duke University, 2017), 31.
 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 37.
 Desmond, “Being, Determination, and Dialectic: On the Sources of Metaphysical Thinking,” 738.
 Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being: The Unbroken Trinity, (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2013), 17.
(Header image titled “Song of Songs V” by Marc Chagall)