I want to think about immanence through two unlikely accounts that are not part of the lineage of immanentist thinking but that nevertheless present what would amount to an immanentist view. I will present these as a way of thinking about a less considered matter in the tradition of immanence: endings and anxieties.
The first account comes from the inventor, futurist, and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near. He presents the evolution of the universe in terms of six epochs in which a few simple bits of information turn, fourteen billion years later, into massively complex and dynamic forms: from the appearance of physics and chemistry on Earth (information in atomic structures), to the development of biology (information in DNA), to the rise of the brain (information in neural patterns), to the creation of technology (information in design), to the merger of technology and human intelligence (the Singularity), to the final epoch—called “The Universe Wakes Up” or “The Intelligent Destiny of the Cosmos,” when the universe’s matter is saturated with intelligence (purpose-driven information).
Despite Kurzweil’s rising credibility in engineering and scientific circles (he was hired by Google), his ideas and the movement formed around them are often lampooned as a quasi-religious project better characterized as the rapture of the nerds. Yet, this view of the evolution of the cosmos is not a scenario limited to singularitarian or transhumanist circles. It is commonly found amongst well-known scientists of various stripes. The physicist Marcelo Gleiser describes it in four ages, from the Big Bang to intelligent life, whilst the famed physicist Freeman Dyson writes of “a universe growing without limit in richness and complexity.” Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, designer of the world’s first feasible quantum computer, contends that “The history of the universe is . . . a huge and ongoing quantum computation.” James Gardner, author of The Intelligent Universe, writes: “our cosmos may be a kind of giant natural computer running on what I call the Software of Everything. . . . [which] consists of what the late physicist Heinz Pagels called the cosmic code . . . .”
Within a decade of the publication of Claude Shannon’s original engineering definition of information, the theory was being applied to all sorts of other domains from biology to psychology, robotics, physics. Soon everything was seen as a yes-no machine, an information processing and transmitting unit. John Archibald Wheeler, physicist, collaborator of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein reflected that, “What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions. All things physical are information-theoretic in origin. . . .” If cosmologists talk about the universe being an information processing entity, molecular biologists will talk about biological matter and form as gene expressions read from the information in the DNA or RNA and output as proteins, thus simultaneously explaining development and heredity (genes copying their information) without needing to take recourse in vitalistic or transcendent concepts. Neuroscientists talk about information as the basis of mind, and consciousness is being redefined as a product of computation. Information is as much a property of a cell as of a human mind, a human-made machine, and all the very basic furniture of the universe.
If for some, like Susan Oyama, information is the contemporary version of “form,” a preexisting guiding principle that leads to the specific shaping of matter, to me it appears rather as a cosmology or the stuff cosmologies are made of. Cosmologies in the anthropological, not astronomical, sense tend to be categorized as a matter of religion. But that categorization itself, I would contend, is an effect of the secular, rather than a proper description of a thing that is religious. In brief, since science and secular knowledge, at least since Immanuel Kant, abdicated on certain areas of knowledge—in this case, the meaning, telos, and purpose of the universe, of existence—then anything answering to those domains at any level is quickly off-loaded to religion. Cosmology in the astronomical sense only describes what is out there and how it came to be, leaving alone, for the most part, what that might mean for us, for culture, for the strange existence of mind in the middle of it all. Yet, there is nothing intrinsically religious about theories that spell out our relationship to the cosmos. I will only add that it is in this sense, of trying to posit a relationship to the cosmos—and surely, as we are in it, there must be one—that I refer to cosmology and an informatic cosmology.
Most recent immanence theorists—including new materialists and even some new animists—will impute agency to all sorts of things but do not want to get too close to making matter conscious. Yet, without positing a relationship between mind and the cosmos, to steal the title of Thomas Nagel’s book on the subject, there can be no true immanentist account. For informatic cosmologists, we are formations of information, and are imagined to be part of a cosmic continuum, “from inner space to outer space.” So there is a hidden version of panpsychism in the informatic view that is mostly not pushed far enough in other immanentist views. For example, the Acceleration Studies Foundation, tasked with forecasting, predicting, and advocating for technological singularity, sees the development of computing as an evolutionary acceleration that is “racing towards inner space,” into our thoughts and feelings, connecting them to the material complexity of the universe itself. This leads to Matrix-type anxieties where information as code can control or deterritorialize (while not necessarily dematerializing) reality into simulation, an increasingly prevalent cultural anxiety, especially in Silicon Valley hot tubs.
But the most striking feature of these informatic cosmologies is not that human minds are pushed out of their splendid isolation, nor that the cosmos, like culture, is digital. What is more striking is that in the informatic cosmos, order and complexity increase. The great trick of information was to counter the anxiety of entropy. And entropy, as Warren Weaver, like Isabelle Stengers and Ilya Prigogine, knew, was the future-ghost that haunted immanentist views; for with entropy, at some point, all the becomings would grind to a halt in heat death (a view that has since been more or less dispelled for very large systems). So you either had to overcome entropy or imagine inevitable future collapses that made the present absurd.
That brings me to the second account, anthropologist Alfred Gell’s text1 about Polynesian cosmologies (Central Eastern Polynesia, to be precise, but not based on his own fieldwork). He called these cosmologies immanent because they did not posit a transcendent god nor an act of creation ex nihilo. The universe existed as an undifferentiated, unified plenum. Polynesian cosmogenesis begins with a process of differentiation, between night and day, sky and earth, which then could allow for the emergence of differences that included the bundle of difference called human.
However, if we accept Gell’s interpretation, this also leads to “ontological anxieties” because Polynesians are constantly aware of the possibility of the cosmos dissolving back into the originary plane of immanence, that is of becoming de-differentiated, losing singularities, and sinking back into the non-differentiated primordial matter of the universe. To protect the singularity known as the self, a series of “defensive” structures were put into place, often through aesthetic means, and most notably in the form of expansive tattoos that contained and mapped the whole body to prevent de-differentiation. But in the end de-differentiation would happen—it is called death. And at that point, it was said, the dissolution would have to be acknowledged and facilitated, all the defenses had to be deconstructed, specifically, the full skin with tattoos would have to be peeled off the corpse, all in order ensure a proper fusion, or refusion, of the former person with the “unmediated sacredness” that precedes all singularity. This then is not survival or immortality in the individualistic sense, as a survival of identity subsequent to death. One of the biggest fears of any secular ontology, including immanentism, is to fall back into soul talk and survival after death. But Polynesian dissolution is different; it is a kind of return to an “antecedent” state, “as if the living individual had never been at all.” Gell described it as “birth undone.”
Though “the anxiety of immanence” underlies both, dissolution and entropy are somewhat different sorts of endings; and “birth undone” and the evolution of complexity are different sorts of responses. But the questions they raise here are similar: What is the relationship between immanence and endings? Between theories of immanence and cosmological or ontological anxieties? And between immanence and endless or non-entropic generation?
We are living in an era where the most prevalent view of the future is collapse; even transhumanists worry as much about catastrophic endings as they celebrate a star-burst future. The appropriate ethical and political responses to the vision of cosmological collapse is the question of the moment and it may hinge on thinking about possible cosmologies. The projection of order out of chaos may be one path. But I wonder whether “birth undone” can provide an ethics of immanence for the present? How do we flay the tattooed skin of our destructive contemporary existence?
Alfred Gell, “Closure and Multiplication: An Essay on Polynesian Cosmology and Ritual,” in Cosmos and Society in Oceania, eds. Daniel de Coppet and Andre Iteanu (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1995).↩