Response to Langford’s review of On Not Dying: Mind the Gap

Reviewed Book

Response to Langford’s review of On Not Dying: Mind the Gap

Abou Farman

The New School

I have learned much from Jean Langford’s writings over the years, so I am grateful for the work and thinking she has put into this encounter with my book. As hers is an engagement with a range of broader ideas rather than with the legal issues or histories explored in the book, this response is an attempt to think alongside Langford about mind and the cosmos.

I have tried to make the case that the secular should be taken as its own complex of ideologies, practices, and assumptions, rather than as a Christian, and especially Protestant, cultural form in disguise, or as entirely reliant on the category of religion without which it would not have a raison d’être. I won’t defend that point here; I bring it up only because Langford makes an important intervention starting from a critique of that position: She proposes pantheism–nonpantheism as the axis through which some of the issues around religion and the secular may be parsed. Coupling secular and monotheistic projects (where “divinity resides transcendently outside the world”) in their stance against what she calls pantheism (where divinity is “immanent within” the world) might offer us a way to think about the histories and presents of colonialism and secularism differently.

The other important possibility opened by Langford’s axis is to focus these questions on what I, adapting Owen Flannagan (2002), called “the desouling of the world.” Part of the secular dogma carried by the long arm of the enlightenment was the materialist insistence on eliminating the Christian notion of soul (in this way, for example, the secular was definitively anti-Christian, not merely neutral or nonpantheistic). This went hand in hand with purging doctrines of the afterlife, which depended on the soul’s survival. At the same time, anthropologists and sociologists, in tandem with the missionaries, universalized the Christian notion of the soul by translating a host of ideas from different cosmologies into soul and spirit, which they understood as pre-secular concepts, and hence also mistaken ones about what there is in the world. This complicates Langford’s axis, in that in a modern secular epistemology, the Christian soul and the animist spirit fell on the same side of irrealityand both had to be corrected, even if the political consequences were different.

As importantly, materialism’s purchase on the “real,” contra any kind of soul talk, had some costs. One was that the concept of the soul referred to multiple aspects of human persons including intention, will, experience, thought, desire, awareness, reason, perspective, imagination, and consciousness, which, not coincidentally, are hard to pin down via materialist explanations. With the Christian notion banished, there ensued a “secular scramble for a soul substitute”—the proliferation of attempts to isolate and name these aspects without using the term soul. Mind, along with consciousness, emerged as and remains amongst the leading terms, developing through a process of secularization to rearrange the world: Everything, even humans, emptied of soul, and the mind separated out from the world.

But mind–matter dualism is also a key site of equivocation within the secular, the tensions of its emergence palpable all over Western Enlightenment thinking. This separation of mind and world, I think, is the key split and Langford’s axis of pantheism–nonpantheism tracks it to some extent. However, it’s also critical to note that polytheism and pantheism crosscut monotheism. Take natural theology, which immanentized God. There’s also the problem of “divinity” in pantheism: Whereas Langford seems to incorporate animism as an example of pantheism, there are animist cosmologies that spread intention, will, character and thought across and into other kinds of being without presupposing any notion of the divine (e.g., Amerindian perspectivism). Similarly, not all cosmologies that allow for the separation of mind from body are monotheistic. Langford suggests that the informatic model of personhood espoused by immortalists/futurists, which allows for the possibility of a “person” being uploaded to a non-biological substrate, is “a concept inherited from nonpantheism.” I am not sure that the line of inheritance is so straightforward—Silicon Valley and informatic futurism were infused with imported Eastern and new age ideas (Turner 2006). What’s more, nonmonotheists also propose the possibility of separation of mind without an appeal to transcendence: for example, Shipibo-Conibo healers I have worked with in Peru often talk about leaving their bodies and entering other bodies and realms, thanks to knowledge acquired through plants and the networks of the forest. In other words, not all dualisms are Western constructs.

It’s important to point out here that despite all the work on the brain, little about mind and brain is settled. As things stand, nobody today can point to a cluster of matter and legitimately say, “Look, mind!” The challenge to scientific thought is whether it can conceive of a world in which mind is not just an aspect of a singular brain sequestered within a human skull.

One approach has been to dispense with mind altogether and suggest that consciousness is an illusion or an epiphenomenon. This partly comes out of cybernetics and serves some informatic futurists nicely since they claim that a computer can do what humans do (e.g., talk to other humans) so the question of its consciousness is moot. That kind of functionalism—mainly limited to memory and information processing—has not proven satisfying and the challenge has pushed some perfectly secular thinkers to reconsider the premises of modern secular epistemology suggesting pantheistically that somehow mind must be baked into the cosmos as a fundamental aspect rather than a contingent epiphenomenon (Chalmers 2002; Nagel 2012). This shift is interesting because, more than mind, it questions understandings of matter.

Another approach is culturalist and entails the study of mind and psyche in other cultures. However, these make no metaphysical commitment regarding the presence of mind in places where, according to secular scientific metaphysics, it’s supposed to be absent (e.g., my mind in your body or a mind spinning in a proton). Deep, sometimes dangerous, transformations accompany metaphysical commitments. I think, for example, of Jacqui Alexander’s work (2005: 287–32) in which her metaphysical commitment to the presence of spirits and ancestors comes with self-transformation as well as danger for her career, unlike, say, Bubandt’s (2009) involvement in spirit possession in which questions and theories get raised from a remove (i.e., remaining epistemic).

It seems that the theoretical direction most closely indexed by Langford comes from attempts to circumvent mind–body dualism: Latour’s actants, Barad’s intraactions, Kohn’s evolutionary semiotics. These theories have been generative for many of us, however, they don’t contend with what the term mind denotes. What goes out with the bathwater of dualism is the quirkiness of mind. Just as information processing, contra the claims of technofuturists like Elon Musk, is not the same as consciousness, it’s not sufficient to say that thinking arises in interaction or intraaction, or that bacteria and petridishes in networks are agents. These are not the same as awareness or consciousness—a difference best captured, via Arendt, as that between a mistake and a sin, or even failure. A logic gate (or a cell) can make a mistake, but can it experience a sense of sin or failure? There is something particular and weird about abstractions and concepts, imagining and planning, awareness and the ability to suggest value, make moral judgments, ask a question. How did these arise from a bit of electricity and some atoms banging against each other? The dogmas of physics say everything must be reducible to one thing but, to recast an old philosophical chestnut, if there is something instead of nothing, then why can’t there be many things instead of nothing? Once you make the jump out of nothing, what restrictive ontology suggests that you have to be limited to one thing? Why this secular austerity?

At a certain point in their development, human children understand that what a person thinks about the world and what has happened in the world are not the same thing. In that separation between mind and world, there lies a secular fear not just of a non-secular delusion (the problem of religion and belief), but of solipsism. Western dualism starts with solipsism (Descartes), with the thought that the mind is so separate from the world that there is no translation possible. But that’s the case only if one starts from the notion that a mind is an individualized manifestation (I think, therefore I am). Inspired by my Shipibo colleagues, I understand consciousness as a separate realm, not in the mode of Western dualism, but as a radiation mesh, where mind radiates throughout the universe at various intensities in which many beings variously participate. My intentions, feelings, dreams, awareness, images, concepts, guilt, joy, moods extend beyond me and affect others, including nonhumans and the mesh in between (think of the mood of a room). Being part of the mesh myself, I am affected by the mind-work of others too. As much as there is a material commons, there is also something like a mind commons. Cosmos always meant a shared world—of matter and of mind.

References Cited

Alexander, J. 2005. Pedagogies of Crossing. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bubandt, N. 2009. Spirits as informants and the politics of possession in North Maluku. Ethnography 10: 291–316

Chalmers, D. J. 2002. Consciousness and Its Place in Nature. In Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by D. Chalmers, 247–72. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flanagan, O. 2002. The Problem of the Soul: Two Visions of Mind and How to Reconcile Them. New York: Basic Books.

Nagel, T. 2012. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turner, F. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.