Who or what is a subject of experience, and what does it matter?
A. N. Whitehead’s panexperientialist metaphysics, and many of those philosophies that are in resonance with it, claim that experience characterizes all real things, or at least the interiority of all real things.
Everything real emerges as a mutual arising of subjectivity and objectivity, of subjectivation and objectivation. The first of these, the becoming-subject, is internal to experience, characterized by and expressed as experience. The second, objectivation or becoming-object, is how that interiority, once it has arisen and “become” (or, in Whitehead’s words, “concresced”), offers itself as datum for other arising subjects. And the relation between the two — the prehensive dynamic between subjects and objects — is the vector by which reality is produced, moment to moment.
What does it mean to say this? What exactly does it apply to, and what relevance does it have for our actions?
Does it make a difference whether something — another human, a dog or elephant, a fetus, a virus (organic or electronic), an electron or neutrino, a blood cell, a telephone cable or global network of such cables, a corporation or football team, an unfolding storm, a galaxy — is a center of experience or not? More to the point, does it make a difference whether or not we think of that something as a center of experience, a thing that has experience at its very core?
This is the same kind of question as has been raised in response to the more individualistic forms of biocentric ethics, such as Paul Taylor’s “biocentric egalitarianism.” According to the latter, all living creatures are “teleological centers of life” with goods of their own which are deserving of equal respect, in principle, as those of any other creatures.
In contrast to Taylor’s biocentrism, both process-relational and object-oriented ethics extend moral valuation beyond the category of “life” to all real entities.
What qualifies as a real entity, however, isn’t always self-evident. Process-relational philosophy (at least in its pre-G form) postulates that every real entity consists of minute doses of processual relating, of subjectivating-objectivating, which, by definition, involve some measure of creativity at their core. They involve an active prehension of objects they encounter, attend and respond to, and thus an active subjectivation in relation to those objects.
(Recall that a human bodymind emerges out of a complex set of relational systems, whose basic constituents, at the most microscopic level, are the sort of thing that Whitehead calls an “actual occasion.” A human bodymind is a “society” of such actual occasions, a kind of coordinated mega-occasion — and occasioning continuity — in which a certain guiding unity is felt or experienced.)
In principle, process-relational philosophies concur that all real entity-events are morally considerable, though their considerability may vary with their accessibility to us. (The planet Pluto, in this sense, holds a lesser moral claim on me, in this moment, than the beings directly affected by my choice of what to eat for lunch.) But because we cannot really experience the experience of another entity “from the inside,” we can never be sure what is a center of experience and what only appears that way to us, or what the nature of another’s experiencing is in comparison to ours. So we are left to rely on our intuitions and deductions to make our best guesses about these things. And our own experience is (as Whitehead argued) the best foothold for entities like us to begin to grasp what experience is for anything (or anyone) at all.
Our intuitions tell us that the things that are most like ourselves — other humans, animals, and sentient organisms, for instance — probably share at least some of the qualities of experience with us. But they don’t tell us much about the mineral world, the subatomic world, the astrophysical world, and other worlds farther out of our experiential reach. Nor do they tell us what any differences mean: for instance, whether a rock’s difference from us makes it less significant than us, or more, or neither.
We tend, naturally, in our moral imaginations, to start with ourselves and those most like us, and extend beyond that in proportion to our capacity to do that and to the stakes involved. There is, in this sense, always some measure of “centrism” — ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and so on — in our capacity to identify with others.
But that centrism can and should be seen as something to overcome, or at least to contend with critically. A process-relational ethic is one that values the effort to relate creatively: to see opportunities for new relations as opportunities for new ethical and political engagements. It builds on foundations it has learned to trust — for instance, that those most like me feel similar to how I would (in similar circumstances) when they are hurt or oppressed; that they, like me, would feel gratified and extended when someone comes to their aid; and so on. But it stretches those foundations in situations where it is capable of doing that.
This “where it is capable” is a useful reminder of our limitations. In threatening conditions, humans (or entities like us) tend to constrict in our ethical and political capacities. Many Americans did just that in response to the events of 11 September 2001 (or, in different ways, to the economic crash of 2008) — which made it easy for predatory politicians to encourage and amplify their socially constricting responses. In more secure conditions, we are more capable of extending our ethical response to others than in less secure conditions.
This tendency toward moral constriction, however, should not be an excuse for moral constriction. A process-relational universe is by definition an open, emergent, and exploratory universe. Its primary moral value is in enhancing the possibilities for what might be called sustainable exploration. It follows an ethic of flourishing, but one that isn’t restricted to the flourishing of possibilities known and/or seeded at the outset. It courts danger for the sake of its own exploratory capacities. It seeks novelty for its own sake.
(I realize that saying that the universe “follows an ethic of flourishing” begs all kinds of questions: Is the universe itself a unified entity that acts in a singular manner? What does it mean to say that it follows an ethic, any ethic? Am I not confusing what is with what ought to be? And how could we possibly know any such things anyway? We can’t. We postulate and see where those postulates get us. We try things out. We try them out by taking them on as habits, cultivating them, and noting the results. We admit we may be wrong: for instance, that the universe may be entirely devoid of meaning, and any apparent meaning may be a delusion. We cultivate whatever faith we’re prepared to act on knowing that it is all work in progress.)
In times when the world itself gets out of whack, when things begin to appear threatening all around — as they will, for instance, if and when scientists’ climate change scenarios begin to really get rolling — the trick will be to encourage a sense of ontological security within a changing and challenging universe. Otherwise we risk reversing the possibilities for moral expansion.
By providing an account of change as normal, healthy, empowering, and beautiful; of every moment as a moment of creative response to given conditions; and of relationality as ever more extendable and enriching, process-relational philosophies can help provide such a sense of ontological security within change. They do this, in part, by helping us appreciate the beauty within movement, flux, flow, swerve, quest, rhythmic sway, tidal drift, tectonic shift, unresolved cadence, improvised counterpoint, the pursuit of the new and the utterly unrecognizable.
And they do this by their ceaseless reminders that engagement is everything. We, all of us, are engaged at every step in the clasp of the unknown, always losing ourselves as we seek to find ourselves anew. This is risky, scary, painful, beautiful. There is no place to retreat to, no shell of objectivity to climb back into. (Here, I think, is a clear point of disagreement with the object-oriented philosophers.)
We are subjects always in the making and never quite made, destined to disappear like a footstep in the sand, but reaching into the next step in bold moves toward the other that we together might become.
Those steps send off oscillations in all directions; they affect others. A process-relational ethic encourages us to seek satisfaction in action (not in the object or end of that action), and to be sensitive to the reverberations of that action in the world. That world consists of those like us and those unlike us; it consists in a rhythmic engagement between like and unlike, familiar and foreign, whose particulars show no end of variation.
Our steps should therefore be graceful, honoring the dignity of those we step with, on, against, and beside. They, like us, are open, porous, torn. We share in the solidarity of those whose solidity is painfully elusive.
We all move, together and apart, without foundation and without guarantee, toward a subjectivity that only arrives when we have released it to others.