Thursday, September 19, 2019

Beyond Humanism

marginalia.

Over the summer I read a book that aggravated and perplexed me like no book has since I graduated from school and left compulsory reading assignments behind. Today I would like to share some of that aggravation and perplexity with you. You're welcome.

I picked up Charles Hartshorne's Beyond Humanism: Essays in the New Philosophy of Nature (1937) on a whim at a used bookstore in a quaint little village ensconced behind Western Massachusetts' so-called Tofu Curtain. I'd never heard of the book before, and Charles Hartshorne wasn't a name I recognized. But if this isn't your first visit here, and if you've read at least one of my lolloping screeds against anthropocentrism, you might guess why a volume with BEYOND HUMANISM printed on its spine in bold gold letters might be an object of an impulse buy of mine.

"Humanism" may convey any number of context-dependent meanings. To someone studying the Renaissance, the word might conjure the image of an itinerant scholar-poet with a fetish for ancient Greek and Roman literature. An American history buff might think of the Thomases Paine and Jefferson. For most of us in the twenty-first century, I think the word most likely brings to mind somebody likely to mention their atheism in their Twitter bio, and who retweets Seth MacFarlane and Richard Dawkins. This is the humanist Hartshorne has in mind: a scientific/philosophical materialist who places his utmost faith in human reason and empiricism, and who rejects theistic dogma wholesale.

Humanism does not equate to anthropocentrism straightaway, though a strong correlation may be safely assumed. The humanist rejects the notion of a benevolent, intelligent, transcendent "higher power" as the outmoded vestige of primitive superstition, and contemns religious institutions as peddlers of a world- and cosmic history that have been discredited long ago. All well and good: we're probably better off not living in fear of an angry, invisible man in the clouds who intends to send us to burn forever in a dark, fiery pit should we fail to observe the rules of conduct devised by a Semitic tribe some three millennia ago. And if we're going to live here, we ought to  know with as much possible certainty where "here" is. We can do without an Earth science whose methods depend on the consultation of biblical and vedic chronologies, or doctrines that persist in placing the Earth at the center of the universe by virtue of the literature regarding divine covenants, humanity's creation in the likeness of the deity, and the presentation of a purportedly infallible and exhaustive cosmic narrative that disregards every location but the third planet from an unremarkable yellow dwarf star in a typical spiral galaxy.

Humanism, however, implicitly reinstates human beings at the center of all things. If there's no deity, no providential destiny that we and the cosmos are working together to enact, and no ghosts speaking to us from the interstices and depths of the universal mechanism, then our attention must invariably fall on those things which immediately sympathize with and interest us: human beings, their actions, their creations. The other entities sharing this spacefaring terrarium with us are regarded as significant only insofar as they are useful to us, dangerous to us, or objects of fleeting appeal that we can take pictures of in hopes of getting Instagram likes. Cosmic bodies arouse our fascination as possible sites of human activity in a spacefaring future, and as subjects of scientifically meticulous gore stories about how horribly they'd kill a person who came too close.

Hartshrone and I are pretty much in accordance here. That last paragraph is something I could have typed well before picking up Beyond Humanism, and I can't even be sure of where Hartshorne's influence might have seeped in. Let's look for a moment at Hartshorne's formulation of the issue in his own words, taken from Beyond Humanism's introduction and conclusion:
In the best sense, "humanism" is simply the expression of an interest in man; in the worst sense it is this interest become a monomania, excluding interest in anything else.
Humanist exclusiveness has two aspects: one, a narrowness of interest; the other, a doctrine which rationalizes, more or less unconsciously encourages, this narrowness. In effect, the doctrine is always a theory that the non-human portions of nature, and nature as a whole, need not interest us because they are not intrinsically interesting——however useful they may be as a means to our ends. They are interesting as a bank check is, for consequences which human behavior can cause to flow from them.
In general, humanists hold that, so far as we know, man is the highest type of individual in existence, and that therefore if there is any proper object of religious devotion, any real "God," it can only be humanity considered in its noblest aspirations and capacities, together with nature so far as expressed in and serviceable to humanity....
Humanism seems to be a mode of thought incident to a certain stage in the development of science. It arises after the downfall of primitive animism, which is the mythological form of man's fellowship with nature. The early Greek philosophers still possessed this fellowship and sought to render it intelligible. But the rise of critical logic (Socrates, and the skeptic, Epicurean, and empiricist schools), together with the decay of classical civilization, brought disillusionment. Nature became problematic rather than companionable, tragic and even ugly rather than an inspiration and the source of all joys. Man was driven back upon himself, his own hopes and fears, with no means of escaping his solitariness and despair except through the hypostatization of abstractions, through mystical communion with a One beyond all evil and change and uncertainty (Plotinus and Augustine). Mythical animistic communion with nature had been fanciful; but it did give some heed to the concrete phenomena of nature. But in scholastic theology the lingering sparks of animistic natural fellowship found in Plato (the world-soul as the mind whose body is nature) and Aristotle (the souls of the heavenly bodies) were extinguished and the foundations laid for the modern view of the world as a vast lifeless machine, quite distinct from its mechanic-Creator, and in its general traits essentially alien to man (except as its law-abiding character made it congenial to his intelligence). The final step was to drop the conceptions of creation and divine governance as superfluous, leaving man and the higher animals as the only creators of values and the only proper objects of imaginative sympathy. This was practically pure humanism, for the animals were seldom taken seriously into account. Man was left with what Robinson Jeffers calls an "incestuous" love for his own kind, and, for the rest, with a sense of the unintelligibility of existence...
When critical science and philosophy came, they destroyed the primitive view much more rapidly than they were able to elaborate a substitute.
The substitute Hartshorne proposes, as we will shortly see, is transparently theistic. However, he is a something of a religious reformist. Like Andrew Dickson White (author of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, an old favorite of mine), Hartshorne insists that if the facts revealed by empirical science conflict with elements of religious tradition (as when the heliocentric model of the Solar System advocated by Galileo challenged the church-approved Ptolemaic scheme), the onus is on religion to correct itself. At best, Hartshorne esteems religious fundamentalism as "a callowness of culture which should be kindly assisted to cure itself," and "an unloving and therefore unchristian dogmatism which is to be greeted...with indignation and ridicule" at worst. He even has kind words for the author of Der Antichrist: "Nietzsche's doctrine is a valuable tonic in a world that tends to sentimentalize its religion."

Hartshorne's project, then, is to find a viable third alternative to the apparently binary problem Alfred North Whitehead outlines in Science and the Modern World. (Hartshorne, as a matter of fact, was something of a Whitehead fanboy.) The rise and preeminence of post-Newtonian materialism enlarged humanity's understanding of what things are made of, how they work, and what general principles they obey, but at the cost of diminishing their value. Hartshrone embarks to construct a philosophy that fully embraces the facts of reality as divulged by science while including as immanent variables which materialism either disregards or treats as phantasms of human perception: freedom, purpose, meaning, etc. If these things don't exist without human activity to instantiate them, then they cannot really be said to exist at all—and Hartshorne does not accept this.

Paul Klee, landschaftlich-physiognomisch (1923)

If the anti-anthropocentrist demands that those entities on the periphery of human affairs be acknowledged as significant and valuable in and of themselves, he must be prepared argue his case without resorting to utilitarianism or sentimentality. For an illustration, we can look to the ecological crisis in Brazil. Obviously the slashing and burning of Amazonia typifies an anthropocentric attitude—and we should emphasize that anthropocentrism is far less often expressed as doctrine than as a set of unstated assumptions. But what about the people outraged and appalled by the situation? We've all seen the tweets and columns warning us that the loss of the planet's "lungs" will accelerate climate change and increase the probability of a civilization-upending catastrophe. I'm sure we've also scrolled past Facebook posts featuring photographs of exotic animals, magnificent and rare flora, and gorgeous forestscapes submitted with the intent of raising awareness of what's at risk of being lost.

What are the messages here? "We must be concerned about the rainforest because it is important to the stability of human affairs." Or: "we must be concerned about the rainforest because of its irreplaceable aesthetic value." The speech of progressive-minded theists (the Quakers, for instance) who hold environmental stewardship as a god-given responsibility would more likely meet with Hartshorne's approval. Regardless of our possible reservations about the "god-given" qualifier, we must acknowledge that this formulation of the matter postulates that the value of the biosphere's non-human constituents exists independently of human appraisal, as ends-in-themselves.

Hartshorne does not provide a syncopated overview of the metaphysical scheme he's advancing as an alternative to anthropocentrism-enabling materialism and retrograde religious literalism. He rather trusts his readers to piece it together for themselves from certain points he repeatedly harps on throughout essays on such diverse topics as the Russian socialist experiment, logical positivism, psychoanalysis, Bertrand Russell, indeterminism, etc. And while I think I've arrived at a decent understanding of what he's driving at, I'm probably still incapable of submitting a pithy synopsis for a Wikipedia subarticle. All I have the time and patience to do (and here I'm reminded of Kant's exhortation to not confound an idea's difficulty with its importance) is offer a few bullets touching on Hartshorne's consistent themes:

• God exists—but not as the indifferent, removed architect of reality or a temperamental, favorites-playing patrician who lives in the sky. God is "nature herself, taken not distributively, but as an integrated individual." In a clumsy and perhaps overeager fashion, Harsthorne's panentheism prefigures the Gaia Hypothesis in analogizing the universe and its integrants with animal bodies and their cells:
The cosmic animal has plenty to do by way of organized activity without external action, for it has the most complex of all internal environments to maintain in ever changing adjustment...to keep its member-parts, its "cells" of all types, in a predominately...healthy and mutually helpful state.
He calls the cosmos a/the "maximal being" emerging from the union of its interrelated parts, all of which retain their individual identities as they and their relations scale up towards the composition of higher entities. (I have to wonder if Madeleine L'Engle ever read any of Hartshorne's books; the pataphysics of her novel A Wind in the Door show a striking resemblance to Beyond Humanism's cosmology.)

• Beyond its presence as "the hidden but always more or less dimly felt life of nature," Hartshorne's god (and he almost always lowercases the "g") exists as the "absolute ideal," a/the "maximal entity." Principal among the perfections actualized in him is that of "cosmic love." When Hartshorne specifies love as "the foundation of all other relations," he's not referring only to sociological matters, but to all phenomena. According to him, the relationship between an electron and its nucleus (for instance) involves a degree of "sympathy."

• Hartshorne is an outspoken (and not infrequently pompous) panpsychist: he insists that "mind" or "consciousness" isn't an ancillary phenomenon of an animal's nervous system activity, but an inherent attribute of matter itself. It's a pat, if not facile, solution to the old problem of mind/body duality, and to the ontological conundrum of consciousness. If every bit of matter carries a little bit of mind, then there's no real mystery as to why an organized aggregate of matter can produce a self-aware and reasoning entity through the unitary gestalt of its integration. Even something so minuscule and simple as an electron, Hartshorne avers, possesses "sensation" and "memory," though of a vastly inferior sort than what is enacted through the human intellectual and recollective faculties. The thoughts and feelings of mere mortals and those of god differ on a similar scale.

Hartshorne's panpsychism is as foundational to his philosophy as Aristotle's teleology. Incidentally, Hartshorne's worldview also includes final causes:
The end of all existence is enjoyment, intensified by contrast, harmonized by similarity, and enriched by the realization of meanings...This is not a hazardous speculation but an analysis of what we mean by "good." No one calls anything bad unless he finds it to produce pain and suffering, or to lack contrast, or to lack unity, or to lack meaning. The analysis can be refined upon, but roughly it is ultimate. Now the patterns of behavior of quantum mechanics are much richer in their synthesis of unity and contrast than the Newtonian patterns. The old motions were monotonously rectilinear; the new are wavilinear...[H]ow bored an electron would become if it could move only in one orbit, or if it had to alter its orbit gradually. Instead it alters its position in jumps, and thus gets vivid contrast.
Where Hartshorne mentions "Providence," he subtly denotes a principle which arranges the world such that its existents are able to fulfill their potential, enrich the cosmos through their novelty and diversity, and be "remembered" by the superhuman mind of the maximal entity (the cosmos or god). Atheists like Carl Sagan have expressed similar sentiments by way of parable and metaphor, but Hartshorne speaks literally here.

With an absolutely straight face, Hartshorne contends we should universalize psychology. In other words, psychological attributes are to be considered as cosmic variables present in all things at varying degrees of magnitude, including human subjects. Hartshorne acknowledges that this may seem to some readers like anthropomorphization performed in reverse, but rejects the charge in advance with a rhetorical flick of the wrist. This is typical of Hartshorne's writing. He also likes to state that some outlandish idea or other is "demonstrable" and then press on without further elaboration, and frequently offers the apparent non-impossibility of a proposition as a substitute for its proof. In some chapters, every other page seems to have a passage that runs like: "Electrons move around unpredictably, just like how living things behave, so they must possess some kind of rudimentary faculty of volition. Can you prove that electrons and other simple bodies aren't endowed with anticipation and the capacity for sympathy? Have you even spoken to one? So how would you know? Now that we're in agreement about electrons having thoughts and feelings..."

I'd rather not dedicate too much of my time to arguing with a dead man about his worldview, but I feel I must spend a few minutes carping about Hartshorne's sloppy reasoning regarding his "higher" entities:
It is to be observed that physiology can as yet furnish no reason for denying feeling even to so complex an object as the world-whole, for we understand too little how feeling is possible to an animal organism to be able to infer that it is impossible that a different type of whole, even one so vast as the world, should feel. Of course world-feelings would be vastly different from ours, and probably at least as much more complex as is the world than the human body...Nothing can be denied feelings on the grounds of its complexity.
We needn't focus on comparisons of the Earth's scale or complexity with those of a typical "higher" organism. To pop Hartshorne's bubble, we must only look at the variance in the integration of their parts.

An animal body may be divided into the organ systems which perform the operations necessary to the preservation of that entity's dynamic equilibrium: the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the nervous system, and so on. Earth science splits up the planet into layers or shells: the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, etc. One readily observes that the organism's physiology is positioned with regard to functionality (the result of inscrutable, aeons-long processes of mutation, natural selection, and evolution), while the Earth's structure is mostly arranged by density (the result of gravity). The deep integration between the parts of an animal body is plainly apparent. If you eat a meal when you're famished, the fact doesn't only matter to your stomach and intestines. The nervous and endocrine systems respond to a fractured ankle. A smoking habit influences digestive functions, the skin, and wound healing in addition to the heart and lungs. No bodily event is isolated to any one part of the body. Conversely, the activities (complex, to be sure) characterizing each of Planet Earth's layers do affect the others—but for the most part, the mantle doesn't really care about what's going on in the mesosphere, and the hydrosphere can't do much toward contributing to the regulation of the ionosphere. The only zones of intensive integration occur where the layers physically overlap: and not coincidentally, this is precisely where the biosphere is situated.

Hartshorne indirectly dings his "Earth as Organism" thesis by stating how unimpressed he is with plant life. "Plants, indeed, may be so regarded [as not possessing feeling]," he writes, "but a plant is also much less of a unit than an animal. The plant cells have more unity than the whole." He's incorrect about this, but let's set that aside. If we take "unity" to mean "integratedness," we could absolutely say the same about the planet and its biological inhabitants. We could perhaps reasonably speak of a unitary Earth-body if the planet was woven throughout with vascular conduits connecting every part to every other part, serving to continuously mediate their changing states and maintain a fixed overall composition, without which the Earth-entity would perish and disintegrate. Purely on the basis of evolutionary biology we could reason that the planet doesn't possess the apparatuses necessary for feeling because it doesn't need to feel.

Moreover, in ranking plants below their cells, Hartshorne inadvertently indulges in the anthropocentrism from which he's trying to wrest us all free. Insinuating that a plant, as a whole entity, is more "dead," less "sentient" than an electron because it doesn't move around or perceptibly receive and convey information to other plants is some medievalist chain-of-being nonsense: the criteria for being a "unitary" entity are conveniently those that animals (a set which includes humans) happen to exhibit.

There's even less of a case to be made for consideration of the Milky Way as an integrated entity (which Hartshrone implies we should): its component parts pretty much only "relate" to each other through gravitational interactions. And to speak of a singular cosmic being whose organic unity is achieved over such stupefying vast distances as galaxy filaments entail is pure fantasy. Not that we should presume to know for certain what's really out there, and what we're really a part of, but to proclaim what we're actually glimpsing in our telescopes is something that can be fairly cleanly analogized to an animal with orbs of incandescent hydrogen separated by billions of kilometers for its "cells," and is capable of exercising reason and sympathizing with human beings? That's one hell of a leap, and it requires the presupposition of something like panenthesim or panpsychism.

Hartshorne might well respond to accusations of implausibility with a reminder that men of science once thought it implausible that light beams travel at a finite and measurable speed. He's just that kind of guy.

Rene Magritte, Le Faux Miroir (1928)

So we seem to arrive at an impasse. The materialist is obligated to maintain that mineral crystals and star systems, though beautiful and astonishing (and perhaps even ineffable), cannot plausibly called "organic" or "conscious" as we understand those terms, even when we avail ourselves of their most flexible definitions. Hartshorne would reply with a stern "nuh-uh" and rattle off something like:
The truth seems to be that the idea of time is unintelligible unless panpsychism is true. For the only way in which we can conceive of the unity of the different aspects of time—past, present, and future—is the way illustrated by our experiences of memory and anticipation. Without memory and anticipation "past" and "future" would be meaningless words; if nature does not remember and does not anticipate, we are forthwith at a loss to grasp how she has a past and a future.
Or:
It is plain enough that atomic feelings must be vastly different from dog feelings, since the measure of this difference must be the gulf between atom structure and dog structure, between atomic activity and canine activity. If our imaginations were fully able to compass this gulf we should be as God, to whom all hearts, human or otherwise, are open. But difficulty of imagining is not in the least evidence of non-existence, so long as there is no definite contradiction in the meanings in question. Now since one man feels otherwise than another, and dogs feel otherwise than men, and since, as we shall see later, there is in the idea of feeling no definite reason for supposing that only animals with nervous systems feel, there can be no contradiction in the idea of feelings other than those of animals (unless this term has the very general sense of "organism," in which case the question at issue is merely whether or not molecules are animals).
When Thomas Hobbes quipped that no man is more prone to absurdity than he who professes philosophy, he probably had somebody like Hartshorne in mind.

At this point I could fold my hands and say that Hartshorne critiques far more competently than he constructs, and then get on with my life without allotting any more bandwidth to Beyond Humanism. But the notes (and childish insults) I've left in his book's margins speak to the fact that while I'm convinced of Hartshorne's failure to solve the problem he delineates at the onset, I'm at a loss to propose anything better. Remember, I picked up Beyond Humanism because I was hoping to be sold a panacea for anthropocentrism. I'm seeking a system of ideas and ethics that doesn't place humans in a transparent plexiglass container and everything else in a black box under lock and key.

In passages where he finds fault with scientific materialism, Hartshorne often recurs to the word "unintelligible." When venturing to suggest an alternative in his panpsychic "natural theism," he emphasizes its "intelligibility" as a primary benefit:
In view of the fact that [Bertrand] Russell's determination to arrive at a materialism (or neutralism——no matter, so it be a non-religious view) results in failure to find an intelligible doctrine of time, law, quality, one may recall a saying of [Charles] Pierce: "Materialism is that mode of philosophizing which can be counted on to leave the world as unintelligible as it finds it." Which is more important, to understand the world or to avoid panpsychism?
The confident science fan might protest that we do understand the world. There is space and there is stuff in that space. Stuff is made of matter. Matter has mass and volume. Matter is made of atoms and atoms are made of quarks and leptons. Elementary bosons carry forces. So on and so forth.

But this world-picture is unintelligible insofar as it presents a version of reality alien to everyday human experience. A thoughtful person is constrained to compartmentalize her understanding of the situation into "scientific truth" and "human truth:" she cannot gainsay what empirical science tells her about the structure and makeup of reality, but most of the facts therein are incompatible with her life. She does not or cannot operate under the belief that the people she loves are just golems aggregated from insensate stuff trundling through spacetime in the enactment of some billion-line algorithm. If she pauses to seriously consider that all the meaning she ascribes to her work and her relations, her emotions and passions, and her existence as a member of any number of communities (social group, humanity, terrestrial life) is simply a fluke of perception, she cannot remain there for long: behaving as a functional human being requires giving rein to the illusion. (Or, rather: behaving as a functional being installs the illusion.)

An unthoughtful person—and I regret to posit that these constitute the majority of humanity—attend only to a truncated digest of whatever conception of the world prevails in his environment. (In his defense, he's probably awfully busy.) If his acquired operational wisdom to being-in-the-world sum up the facts regarding the substratum and the cosmic background of human existence as "we are made of empty stuff in an indifferent, meaningless universe," anthropocentric tendencies are likely to ensue for the reasons outlined at the onset. The thoughtful person may ultimately follow him, but perhaps for different reasons. She will probably find it far easier to ponder and act upon social concerns (or indulge in the recondite but frivolous analysis of culture-industry products) than evidently insoluble metaphysical ones.

I'm inclined to believe that instating humanity as the only worthwhile object of sympathy and attention encourages a morbid preoccupation with gewgaws, comforts, and amusements (i.e., the society of consumer capitalism) and exacerbates the ecological degradation that's probably going to put an end to the raucous house party called civilization within a few centuries. I must also tentatively concur with Hartshorne's proposition that from this worst variety of "humanism" follows tribalism and fascism: a humanity habituated to extrospection may be more apt to see itself as one people.

But if we cannot efface our knowledge of the facts, what are we to do with it?

Beyond Humanism's failure troubles me. If Hartshorne's grand solution to the problem of anthropocentrism is anthropomorphization, he's basically taking us around in a circle. What if that's just how it has to be? If we accept the credibility of the scientific narrative—the cosmos is of unknowable origin and devoid of purpose, indifferent to us, capable of being quantified but impossible to comprehend—we must either improvise a tenuous ethical scaffolding to keep us from falling into nihilism, or approach the situation with a willful pareidolia in order to make the universe (and the Earth) appear more personable, to help ourselves feel more at home, and dispose us to conduct our affairs on this planet with greater care. If our "instinct" as animals (and social[ized] ones, at that) biases us toward the stimuli our species characteristically emits, we can only be compelled to treat with concern those things which can't communicate with us, show interest in us, or be used as instruments to our ends by anthropomorphizing them. That would mean we as a species are congenitally incapable of getting over (or indeed, beyond) ourselves. And of course it leaves the "value" problem as a dependent variable to be defined by the behavior of the masses.

Regarding this point final point, I find little comfort in the ramifications of a remark from Hartshorne's precursor, Alfred North Whitehead:
It does not matter what men say in words, so long as their activities are controlled by settled instincts. The words may ultimately destroy those instincts. But until this has happened, words do not count.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say that although I have nothing particularly intelligent to add to this topic, I am reading and enjoying.

    Question: Have you ever read the Pilgrim's Regress by CS Lewis? While I don't expect you to agree with many of his conclusions, I expect that you'd be entertained or at least amusedly baffled by the journey.

    ReplyDelete