Conversations in Process
Conversations in Process
Matt Segall – Process Insights for Contemporary Political Issues

On this episode of Conversations in Process, Matt Segall returns to continue the discussion of process philosophy, this time with emphasis on how process ideas can help us navigate contemporary political, cultural, and ecological issues. Matt is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco where he teaches graduate level courses on process philosophy and German Idealism. His recent book, Physics of the World-Soul: Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventure in Cosmology, puts Whitehead’s process cosmology into conversation with various contemporary scientific theories, such as general relativity and quantum theory.

Matt begins by sharing a bit about his own political orientation and how he feels politically “homeless” in the current political scene in the United States. He mentions that he was a supporter of Bernie Sanders, and even as he lives in a very progressive region of the country, he puts effort into getting out of that bubble and pursuing dialogue across various political lines. 

Jay points out that despite political differences, people are still able to come together in community and share joy in the right contexts, citing his own experiences performing music at Toad Suck Buck’s restaurant in a deeply conservative area. Matt adds that many of our contemporary conflicts are worsened by fixating on the political level, and specifically looking to the federal government to adjudicate disagreements. Instead, he suggests that re-localizing politics and attempting to work through cultural issues outside of the political arena would be a step in the right direction, though this can often be a blindspot for liberals and progressives. 

On the topic of liberalism, Matt dwells on some of the issues of the anthropology of early liberal thinkers like John Locke, which can give the sense that human beings are blank slates able to be molded into anything. Matt is critical of this view and shares sympathy with conservative thinkers that emphasize we are born into certain traditions and institutions which provide a much needed structure for human society, and that it can be a great risk to not acknowledge the real benefit of these inherited goods. 

Beyond liberalism, nationalism is also an ascendant political ideology of our day, and Matt suggests that process thinking can help offer a measured response to this phenomenon. Here he suggests that the nationalist impulse isn’t fully off-base, as there does need to be some collective substratum on which a society grounds itself, but at the same time this can easily become oppressive and lead to worrying constraints on individual autonomy and the persecution of certain groups considered outside the bounds of how the nation defines itself.

Matt proposes that Whitehead’s thought provides resources for balancing between individuality and collectivism. Through emphasizing the interconnectedness of reality, those seeking a deeper aspect of community find encouragement in Whitehead’s philosophy or organism, while at the same time the self-direction of the actual occasion towards its subjective aim encourages those looking for a justification of their individuality beyond communally-defined roles.

Jay and Matt wrap up this conversation with a discussion of “earthism” and the contemporary climate crisis. Matt thinks that unfortunately the situation is likely to continue worsening before humanity really commits to a holistic and thorough response to ecological issues, but this will require a deep reorganization of the structure of post-industrial societies. However, Matt is confident that the earth community at large is deeply resilient and that out of this crisis creativity is likely to flourish, and perhaps in this wake humanity will be able to establish new modes of living and social organization that are earnestly grounded in ecological realities.