Thinking With Whitehead: Science, Sunsets, and the Bifurcation of Nature

Thinking with Whitehead:

The Scientific Revolution and the Bifurcation of Nature


The scientific revolution, beginning perhaps with Copernicus’ rediscovery of the heliocentric model of the solar system early in the 16th century, and culminating perhaps with Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and universal gravitation towards the end of the 17th century, fundamentally transformed humanity’s sense of its relationship to the universe. “In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”1 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”2 Earth was thrown into motion, now a planet like any other, a material body wandering through the void of space around the sun. After a mere two centuries of furious intellectual upheaval, the entire theological basis of European civilization, built up over the course of the prior two millennia, was thrashed to pieces. A new civilization, and a new cosmos, was dawning.

Three hundred years later, we find ourselves at or nearing the noon hour of modern industrial civilization. At the highest point of the arc of the modern project, we can see clearly the historical morning behind us, full of even more war and empire than the prior millennia of supposedly un-Enlightened races; and we can see clearly enough before us the inevitable future course leading to our demise: nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, political tyranny. Among academics, the optimistic certainty of our fathers’ deistic-mechanistic image of the world has been succeeded by the cynical irony of postmodern relativism.3 Though the deistic-mechanistic mythos of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton was persuasive to a few educated elites, and though its technological utility would be responsible for unleashing an energy-transformation event unlike any the earth had seen before, it has not provided a meaning-producing, value-imbued cosmological story capable of infecting the social imaginary at a deep enough level to replace that provided to medieval European civilization by Aquinas and Dante.

Despite the evidences of modern physical science, a normal 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” says Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”4 The warmth and hue of a sunset, according to Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”5 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names consciousness.

Following Copernicus’ and Galileo’s astronomical and physical discoveries, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern science. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical truth of the heliocentric model made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanical “how?” of extended things (res extensa), a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion; religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the substance of the soul, providing answers to the moral “why?” questions that trouble thinking things (res cogitans). Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal sources of reality.6

In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. But even today, at the height of humanity’s technoscientific7 mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology has not yet arisen to guide the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium. Our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing, with its bifurcation of subjects and objects, facts and values, meaning and matter, is killing humanity and earth alike. As late as 1882, Nietzsche was still one of only a handful with the spiritual courage to confront the cosmic disorientation characteristic of the modern age and to cry out on behalf of life:

…how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?8

Whitehead came to philosophy in the first quarter of the 20th century with questions very similar to Nietzsche’s. He interrogated modern science and the Enlightenment, not to dismiss them, but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to his interpreter, Isabelle Stengers, this question is not an attempt to find some final explanation for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather

a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.9

Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of science and philosophy (natural philosophy) is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science as that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature differently: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”10 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”11 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”12 it implies, waiting eagerly to see how it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to actual life. The materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability13 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain produce consciousness?”, “what sort of stuff is space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology requires the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the importance of both mathematical patterns and sensual perceptions in nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to explain away mental quality by reduction to mathematical quantity.

Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into silence. How does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that

the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.14

Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the problem of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”15 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the philosophical wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead is trying to discover. Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s reformulated point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”16 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.

Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.17

If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of explanation cannot itself be explained. This is not to say that science might not find out a great deal about the mind by studying the brain; its just that it makes no sense to seek a cranial explanation of the mind when it is before the mind itself that science would have to defend its explanation. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-artistic) qualities. Whitehead’s refusal to drag the scientific concept of nature unknowingly into the metaphysical disputes of philosophy (as materialists do) prevents him from reducing the creative advance of natura naturans to the deterministic mechanisms of natura naturata. Instead of turning science against common sense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”18 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.19 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,

that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.20

The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The “photon” is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his perception of light as a result of certain replicable scientific practices, laboratory situations, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The “photon,” as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the passage of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.21 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.22 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to offer such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.23 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged economically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature (usually for private profit), rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature (for the common good).

Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and common sense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.24 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a new, participatory mode of attending to nature, a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally attended to as in the alienated technoscientific mode of knowing; instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms are beings characterized by more than mass, extension, and velocity; they are beings with presence, prehension, and purpose. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are each and all alive.

Eventually, Whitehead gave up on the problems that framed his inquiry into science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. Riskier because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”25 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” Even the aesthetic enjoyment of the poet and the theoretical reflection of the physicist must be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Whitehead would venture upon the great work of every true and genuine philosopher-poet: the creation of a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.



1 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925/1960), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13.

2 ibid.

3 We have only the insufficiently cosmological depth of the great archetypal psychologists to lead us through the maddening maze of “posts” populating the contemporary academic scene (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Hillman).

4 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (1623), translation by Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (1957), New York: Doubleday, 274.

5 ibid.

6 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious purpose, functioning as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm. See also Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20. Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (ibid., 45).

7 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 11).

8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), sec. 125, translation by Walter Kaufmann, in The Nietzsche Reader (2006), Malden: Blackwell, 224.

9 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.

10 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920/1964), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 28.

11 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.

12 Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929/1978), New York: The Free Press, 4.

13 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”

14 ibid.

15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.

16 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.

17 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.

18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.

19 Or, in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.

20 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.

21 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.

22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.

23 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.

24 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.

25 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.


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3 thoughts on “Thinking With Whitehead: Science, Sunsets, and the Bifurcation of Nature

  1. Advice for future growth. Have you ever read Husserl’s The Crisis of the European Sciences…? I find his explication of the bifurcation via Galileo and the mathematization of nature to be the most powerful and wide-ranging articulation of the problem of bifurcation. I note that the concept bloomed in Peirce and spread to James, Dewey, Whitehead, Husserl (who cites James), etc.

    It gives you a new way to think through how it is that the modern scientist, scientistic thinking, and scientific naturalism have in fact replaced nature with an idea of nature, while seemingly unaware of having done so and of the implications.

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