Tuesday 26 February 2013

Vitalism and the Homeliness of Nature

Levi Bryant on the recent resurrection, if you will, of 'vitalism':
Vitalism, even though it allegedly moves in a posthuman direction, still seems a little too close to human narcissism.  It still seems a little too close to the idea that all of this somehow has a meaning, that it can somehow be redeemed, that there’s still somehow a purpose behind things. ... Perhaps the more we come to understand just how indifferent the universe is, perhaps the more we come to understand just how contingent life is, perhaps the more we understand that we’re not at the center of creation, the more we will have regard for each other and this biosphere.
I tend to agree.  'Vitalism,' as usually understood, implies something added to matter that matter on its own lacks.  Redefining the term to pertain instead to something intrinsic to matter itself doesn't help because that over-generalises what is really quite a specific state of matter, i.e. life.  Matter shouldn't be said to 'lack' life-like qualities because that would mean that it needed something else, something other to animate it -- vitality of some kind.  But, equally, life-like qualities are not evident everywhere and not every form of dynamic self-organisation is equivalent or even analogous to life.

This is something that a realist, materialist or naturalist philosophy has to grasp.  It places us in a bit of a bind, actually; a duality of demands.

On the one hand, yes, we are made out of the same stuff as the rest of existence.  Our bodies are made from atoms that were once part of stars, we share ancestors with all life on earth, etc. etc.  So, there is this sense of kinship with the rest of existence that comes from realising that we are not made in god's image but are wholly natural.  If we do not have immortal souls and do not, thereby, transcend the rest of merely natural, material existence then we are connected to the rest of existence in quite a profound way.  Matter is not Other to life, life emerges from matter -- realising this (and it's not just the techno-scientific culture of the present that has realised this) reveals a deep relationship with the rest of material existence that is of paramount philosophical importance.

And yet, on the other hand, god is dead; if we are not made in his image, we also have to reconcile ourselves with being's profound indifference with respect to human existence.  If (or, rather, when) we annihilate ourselves as a species life, matter, energy, entropy -- all these things will carry on regardless.  Whatever life we haven't extinguished along with our own will thrive in our absence.  What's more, the vast majority of the known universe that is apparently completely lifeless will continue to evolve along its own self-organising trajectories, blissfully indifferent to the remarkable, peculiar particularities of that form of self-organisation we call 'life.'  On the scale of natural time, human existence will appear and disappear in the blink of a pulsar.

We anthropomorphise and vitalise the world in order to articulate it in terms we can understand but that doesn't mean that our metaphors are really germane to the inner workings of matter -- in fact they are not, which is why there are so very many ways of articulating the basic facts of existence, in so many languages, in so many manners of speaking.

So, philosophy, I think, has to do justice to two seemingly incompatible intuitions: we are, at once, at home in nature and, at the same time, largely inconsequential to it.

Vitalism is a dead end because it makes the universe seem too homely.