I have a new short article out, “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.” This appears as part of a special section on “Protocols for a New Nature” in the Yearbook of Comparative Literature, volume 58 (2012). Despite the official year of the publication, it is just out now.
The whole issue looks interesting: you can find the contents at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/yearbookofcomparativeandgeneral_literature/toc/cgl.58.html .
But it is firewalled, and you can only access it if your university subscribes. If you are not in a university, or if your university doesn’t carry it (as is the case with mine) then you are SOL.
So obviously I haven’t been able to read anyone else’s contribution. (I am supposed to get a hardcopy eventually, but I don’t know when; and in any case, that doesn’t substitute for online access).
So I decided that the least I could do would be to post the text of my own contribution here.
TWENTY-TWO THESES ON NATURE
- We can no longer think of Nature as one side of a binary opposition. In an age of anthropogenic global warming and genetically modified organisms, not to mention Big Data and world-encompassing computing and communications networks, it makes no sense to oppose nature to culture, or a “state of nature” to human society, or the natural to the artificial. Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else.
- We must think Nature without any residual anthropocentrism: that is to say, without exempting ourselves from it, and also without remaking it in our own image. Human beings are part of Nature, but Nature is not human, and is not centered upon human beings or upon anything human.
- Above all, we must avoid thinking that Nature is simply “given,” and therefore always the same — as opposed to a social realm that would be historical and constructed. Rather, we must recognize that Nature itself is always in movement, in process, and under construction. We need to revive the great 19th century discipline of natural history, practiced by Darwin, Wallace, and many others. Evolution (phylogeny) and development (ontogeny) are both historical processes; they cannot be reduced to the study of genomes as synchronic structures.
- Nature is all-encompassing, but it is not a Whole. It is radically open. However far we go in space, we will never find an edge or a boundary. There is no way of adding everything up, and coming up with Nature as a fixed sum. There is also no way of subordinating Nature to some Theory of Everything.
- Nature is radically open in terms of time, as well as space. The future is always contingent and unpredictable. It cannot be reduced to any calculus of probabilities. As Keynes and Meillassoux have both shown us, the future is intrinsically unknowable. It exceeds any closed list of possibilities. The radical unknowability of Nature is not an epistemological constraint; it is a basic, and positive, ontological feature of Nature itself.
- In the 19th century, thinkers as different as Schelling (with his Naturphilosophie) and Engels (with his Dialectics of Nature) tried to define an overall “logic” of Nature that included — but that was not reducible to — human developments and concerns. In the 20th century, such projects were abandoned. Instead, humanity was either given a special, transcendental status (phenomenology); or else reduced to its non-organic presuppositions (scientism). Today, in the 21st century, both of these alternatives are bankrupt. We need to return to a project of thinking Nature directly — even if we reject the particular, antiquated terms that thinkers like Schelling and Engels used for their own attempts.
- Schelling and Engels both tried to conceive Nature in ways that were grounded in, but not reducible to, the best natural science of their own times. Our task today is, similarly, to conceive Nature in ways that are grounded in, but not reducible to, the best contemporary science.
- Nature is neither a plenum nor a void. Rather, conditions or states of affairs within Nature may tend either towards plenitude or towards vacancy. Usually, though, neither of these tendential extremes is reached. Things generally fluctuate in an intermediate range, between fullness and emptiness.
- However, we are still on safer ground if we consider that Nature comprises something rather than nothing. We know from modern physics that quantum fluctuations happen even in a vacuum. In this sense, Nature is better understood in terms of more rather than less, or surplus rather than deficiency. Nature will never be finished, never be shaped and structured once and for all; but it has also never been “without form and void.”
- Nature is not formless, and not simply homogeneous, It is rather metastable, in the sense defined by Gilbert Simondon. All-encompassing Nature is traversed by potentials and powers, or by energy gradients and inherent tendencies. At any moment, these may be activated and actualized. The most minute imbalance, or the most fleeting encounter, can be enough to set things into motion. And there is generally more to the effect than there is to the cause. The consequences of these imbalances and encounters tend to be orders of magnitude larger than the incidents that set them into motion.
- The result of any disruption of Nature’s metastability is what Simondon calls individuation: the emergence and structuration of an individual, together with those of its associated milieu. Examples of this process include the precipitation of a crystal out of a solution, and the emergence and growth of distinct tissues, organs, and parts from an initially undifferentiated embryo.
- Nature thus comprises multiple processes of individuation. These must all be understood in two distinct ways: in terms of energetics, and in terms of informatics.
- Nature involves continual flows of energy. Energy (or, more precisely mass-energy) can never be created or destroyed, but only transformed from one state to another (the First Law of Thermodynamics). And yet this also means that energy is continually being expended or dissipated, as gradients are reduced, and entropy is maximized (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). As Eric Schneider argues, complex organized systems (from hurricanes to organisms) tend to form, because they can dissipate energy more efficiently, and on a vaster scale, than would otherwise be possible. Such “dissipative systems” are internally negentropic; but this is precisely what allows them to discharge so much energy into their environments, thus increasing entropy and reducing energy gradients overall.
- Today, thanks to our computing technologies, we tend to think more commonly in informational terms than in energetic ones. Physicists propose that the universe is ultimately composed of information; cognitive scientists tend to see biological organisms as information processing systems. I fear that our excessive concern with informatics has gotten in the way of a proper understanding of the importance of energetics.
- Information, unlike energy, has no “in itself”; for information only exists insofar as it is for some entity (someone or something) that parses it in some way. This might make it seem as if information were inessential. But nothing is altogether devoid of information; for nothing exists altogether on its own, outside of all-encompassing Nature, entirely self-subsistent and without ever being affected by anything else. The transmission and parsing of information, no less than the transfer and dissipation of energy, is an essential process of Nature.
- We might link information to perception, on the one hand, and to action on the other. Perception is how we obtain bits of information; and the parsing or processing of information issues forth in the possibility of action. A living organism gathers information by perceiving its environment; and it uses this information in order to respond flexibly and appropriately to whatever conditions it encounters. This is not just the case for animals, or entities with brains. A tree discerns water in the soil, which it draws in with its roots; it discovers insects feeding on its leaves, and releases a noxious chemical to repel them. Information processing thus mediates between perception and action.
- Information processing involves — and indeed requires — at least a minimal degree of sentience. But we should not confuse sentience with consciousness; for the former is a far broader category than the latter. Organisms like trees, bacteria, and slime molds are probably not conscious; but they are demonstrably sentient, as they process information and respond to it in ways that are not stereotypically determined in advance. Even when it comes to ourselves, most of the information processing in our brains goes on unconsciously, and without any possibility of ever becoming conscious. Most likely, consciousness is only sparsely present in Nature. But sentience is far more widely distributed.
- Perception is only a particular sort of causality. When I perceive something, this means that the thing in question has affected me in some way, whether through light, sound, touch, or some other medium. But if I am affected by something, then that something has had an effect upon me. It has altered me (however minimally) in some manner or other. And this process cannot be confined just to perception. I am often affected by things without overtly perceiving them. I feel the symptoms of a cold, but I do not sense the virus that actually causes me to fall ill. I feel an impulse to buy something, because my mind has been subliminally primed in some way. I lose my balance and fall from a height, pulled by the Earth’s gravitational field even before becoming aware of it. I turn over in my sleep, responding to some change in the ambient temperature. In all these cases, something has caused a change in me; it has given rise to an effect. Information has been processed in some manner, by my body if not my mind.
- Nature involves a continual web of causes producing effects, which in turn become the causes of further effects, ad infinitum. This need not imply linearity or monocausality: there are many causes for every effect, and many effects arising from every cause; and potential causes may interfere with and block one another. But just as energy is continually being transformed, so information is continually being processed — even on what we might consider a purely physical level. This is why information, no less than energy, is a basic category of Nature.
- Within all-encompassing Nature, the difference between the “physical” and the “mental” is only a matter of degree, and not of kind. A thermostat is, to a modest extent, an information processor; and therefore we should agree that it is, at least minimally sentient — if not, as David Chalmers suggests, actually conscious. That is to say, the thermostat feels — although it does not know anything, and it is not capable of self-reflection. We can make a similar claim for a stone which falls off a cliff, or even for one which lies motionless on the ground. Gravity pulls the stone to the Earth, and the information associated with this process is what the stone feels.
- Nature is not itself a particular thing or a particular process; although it is the never-completed sum, as well as the framework, of all the multitudinous things and processes — transformations of energy and accumulations of information — that take place within it. How, finally, can we characterize it? All-encompassing Nature stands apart from every particular instance. And yet it is not anything like a Kantian transcendental condition of possibility for all these instances, since it stands on the same level, within the same immanent plane, as they. Nature is neither outside history, nor the totality of history, nor a particular datum of natural or social history. It is rather what all these particular instances, all these transformations and accumulations, have in common; it is what places them all in a common world.
- I will conclude by taking a hint from Alfred North Whitehead, who articulates this commonness more rigorously than I can. Whitehead translates the ancient Greek physis not just as Nature (as is customary), but also as Process. And he equates this physis with the narrower technical term (from Plato’s Timaeus) hypodoche, the Receptacle. Nature, or the Receptacle, Whitehead says, “imposes a common relationship on all that happens, but does not impose what that relationship shall be…. [It] may be conceived as the necessary community within which the course of history is set, in abstraction from all the particular historical facts.”