[Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

“The general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism.” -Whitehead103


Since its eruption in the 17th century, modern science has instigated profound re-orientations in the outlook and self-conception of European civilization. More recently, in the last century and a half, various discoveries have forced upon science the need for no less fundamental a transformation of its own presupposed materialistic-mechanistic ontology. This transformation, understood in the light of Whitehead’s organic ontology, is the focus of this section. To begin, let us take stock of what has happened: In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, wherein he described, according to the special abstractions proper to biology, a process which would later come to be known more generally as the theory of evolution:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.104

In the early 1880s, while Whitehead was still a student of mathematics at Cambridge, “physics was supposed to be nearly a closed subject,” with just a few minor details left to be explained in terms of Newton’s fundamental principles. “No one sensed what was coming,” according to Whitehead: “By 1900, the Newtonian physics were demolished, done for!”105 The whole notion of fixed laws of nature imposed upon the behavior of ready-made material particles in absolute time and space, which Darwin’s mechanistic biology took for granted as its foundation, had been called into question by relativity and quantum theories. “The appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology,” wrote Whitehead in 1925,

was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of concepts.106

Arguably, almost a century after Whitehead’s remark, physical science still lacks anything approaching such a systematic account of nature. While several candidate theories uniting relativistic and quantum effects have been proposed, due to lack of empirical confirmation or mathematical coherence, none of them has succeeded in garnering the widespread support of the physics community. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is generally understood to have successfully unified quantum mechanics with at least special relativity, but because it leaves out gravitational effects, and because its approach remains largely instrumental, it does little in the way of providing a truly unifying theory of nature.107 According to physicist Leon Lederman,

Gravity is our number one problem as we attempt to combine particle physics with cosmology…Here we are like the ancient Greeks, waiting and watching for something to happen, not able to experiment…Without bringing the gravitational force into the family of quantum forces, we’ll never understand the details of the Big Bang or, in fact, the deep, deep structure of elementary particles.108

Though it remains mechanistic in orientation, unlike 19th century physics QED can longer claim that its mechanical accounts reflect a reality independent of its experimental instruments. What was originally a mechanistic ontology meant to explain nature has become a mechanistic epistemology meant to operationally describe it; as a result, metaphysical realism in science has devolved into nominalism. This allows instrumentalist approaches to quantum mechanics to avoid the philosophical challenge of having to integrate the spooky paradoxes of wave/particle duality and non-locality into their hypothesized materialist ontology. Instead, as Whiteheadian physicist Michael Epperson suggests, instrumentalists can defer their philosophical failings by invoking the fact that “quantum mechanics is simply a tool used to predict the outcomes of measurements under specific conditions.”109 Even if its mechanistic models cannot be unambiguously proven to reflect the reality of nature in itself, “nature” (whatever it is) can be forced, at least under laboratory conditions, to agree with QED’s operational predictions to an extremely high degree of statistical accuracy. According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, this instrumentalist mindset among physicists is a result of a lack of respect for the importance of philosophy in framing the way problems are posed in physics: “It is a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.”110

Supposing a properly physical (if not fully metaphysical) “grand unifying theory” is eventually discovered, there still remains the philosophical problem of unifying physics with biology, psychology, and spirituality. During the later half of the 20th century, a number of explanatory and descriptive strategies began to be developed in an attempt to tackle aspects of this problem, all of which could be said to fall under the general umbrella of complex systems theory. Many of these scientific approaches to theretofore intractable philosophical problems became possible, not because humanity suddenly developed a finer imagination, but rather because we developed finer technological instruments.111 Computer modeling now provides scientists with God-like powers of simulation; however, deep philosophical issues remain regarding how such simulations can be said to relate to reality.

Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that

it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by non-living and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.112

Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos.113 Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux. Despite their differing philosophical presuppositions, it is nevertheless possible to re-interpret Deacon’s scientific contribution as a specific application of Whitehead’s more general cosmological scheme. In other words, despite Deacon’s dissatisfaction with panexperientialism, without something like Whitehead’s radical reconstruction of the metaphysical foundations of scientific materialism, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biotic and psychic phenomena from physics and chemistry remains literally incomplete. Deacon’s and Whitehead’s approaches are compared and contrasted in more detail in a later subsection. The philosophical commitments differentiating their approaches to the emergence of complexity should become clearer if I first unpack Whitehead’s startlingly novel interpretations of 20th century physics and his cosmological generalization of evolutionary theory.


103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.

104 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1859/2004), 384. Darwin added the words “by the Creator” in the second edition.

105 Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Mentor, 1954), 277.

106 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

107 Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 277cf.

108 Lederman, The God Particle, 99.

109 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004), 33.

110 Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956), 100.

111 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 107.

112 Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 549.

113 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

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4 thoughts on “[Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory] The Relevance of Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism to Contemporary Scientific Cosmology

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